An Albanian couple, a banker, nine Hmong children and a meteorologist are among the thousands of new Catholics joining the U.S. Church at Easter.
All have participated in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), a process of conversion and study in the Catholic faith for catechumens and candidates coming into full Communion with the Church. Catechumens, who have never been baptized, will receive baptism, confirmation and First Eucharist at the Holy Saturday Easter Vigil. Candidates, who are already baptized in another Christian tradition whose baptism is recognized by the Catholic Church, will enter the Church through a profession of faith and reception of Confirmation and Eucharist.
Lule Prebibaj and her husband Ndoke are two of the 1,470 candidates and catechumens in the Archdiocese of New York. Their story differs from most. As youth baptized in Albania when the country was under Communist rule, their baptisms were literally life-threatening. After coming to America the couple raised their children in the faith, even though they themselves were never confirmed or received First Communion. That’s all about to change.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to openly say who we are, and it’s absolutely wonderful to be able to receive these sacraments. Better late than never, right?” said Prebibaj.
Another New Yorker, Tony Luu, was raised an atheist. As a child he often passed Transfiguration Church in Chinatown, but it wasn’t until he met his fiancée and her family that he realized the power of religion and what the Church had to offer.
“Catholicism has changed my life in providing a different view and perspective on my everyday living,” he says. “I feel that the religion has calmed me down … and that is a lot for someone who is from New York.”
For some families it’s “the more the merrier.” This is true in St. Agnes Parish in St. Paul, Minnesota, where a family of nine Hmong children will be baptized on Holy Saturday. Livia, Cesea, Vancelee and Teedo Vang approached their school’s pastor with a simple request, “Father, we would like to be baptized.” They came to know him after the death of their mother, when the siblings were sent to live with their uncle, who wanted to ensure their solid upbringing and enrolled them in the parish school. The children spoke of the kindness of the St. Agnes community, their engaging religion classes and powerful experiences at Mass as reasons for wanting baptism. They and five other siblings will be baptized at the Easter Vigil.
For one catechumen at San Rafael Parish in San Diego, the driving force behind conversion was life experience. Married to a cradle Catholic, Andrea O’Hara never felt the need to convert. However, with age and experience, she realized that the challenges and accomplishments she’s faced in life weren’t by chance, but were presented to her by God.
“Being a mother and a wife gives me a greater purpose to lead a life filled with kindness, patience, honesty, responsibility and love,” said O’Hara. “These character traits are hard to maintain by oneself, so I now look to my God and to my parish to help me lead the life that I was born to live.”
O’Hara is among 1,278 new Catholics in the San Diego diocese.
As a meteorologist, Houston resident Randall Willson has earned a living predicting things. One thing he never saw coming: his conversion to Catholicism. Born and raised a Baptist, Willson first experienced Mass while on a date and found himself called back for more. To understand the faith better, he read books on Catholicism and found himself drawn to its deep traditions.
“The richness and fullness of the Catholic Church isn’t found anywhere else. Looking back, I see how much was missing. I’m not even 100 percent Catholic yet, but I can’t imagine my life without the holy Sacraments, without praying the holy rosary, without confessions and without the holy Eucharist,” said Willson.
Felichia Laws, a 30-year-old new mother and fellow Lone Star State resident, grew up knowing about God, but it wasn’t until her daughter’s baptism shortly after she began the RCIA process that she discovered her own personal thirst for Christ.
“During my daughter’s baptism, my body was overcome by so much joy and fulfillment that it is very hard to put into words,” said Laws. “I realized then that though I had started the process for her, I also wanted the same baptism for me. The different rites of the RCIA helped me realize that I was really meant to be part of the RCIA process and become one with God and the Catholic community.”
This Easter Randall, Felichia and 2,391 others from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston will join the Church.
Galveston-Houston isn’t only Texas diocese to welcome an impressive number of converts this year. The Archdiocese of San Antonio has 1,165 new Catholics, and the Diocese of Fort Worth has 1,121 new members.
With 1,166 new members, the Archdiocese of Washington is welcoming its second largest number of converts in a decade. For the past nine years more than 1,000 people in the archdiocese have become full members of the Church at Easter. Other large dioceses boast similarly high numbers: St. Petersburg, Florida (963), St. Louis, Missouri (846), Portland, Oregon (783), and Rockville Centre, New York (689).
Smaller dioceses also showcase the vitality of the Catholic Church with significant numbers: Rockford, Illinois (685), Palm Beach, Florida (607), Salt Lake City, Utah (487), Grand Rapids, Michigan (475), Savannah, Georgia (444), Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (443), Reno, Nevada (319), Providence, Rhode Island (250), Buffalo, New York (237), Dubuque, Iowa (231), Knoxville, Tennessee (229), Metuchen, New Jersey (228) and Lafayette, Louisiana (213).
These numbers are based on participation in the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion, the final phase of the RCIA process celebrated at the beginning of Lent. Infant baptisms, which according to the 2011 Official Catholic Directory (OCD) totaled 830,673, are not included. The 2011 OCD also reported that there were 43,335 adult baptisms and 72,859 people received into full communion.
Oswaldo Paya, a peaceful dissident and global director of the Christian Liberation Movement, said Cubans have “opened our hearts to hope” after attending the Mass Pope Benedict XVI celebrated in Havana.
In a statement posted on his website on March 28, Paya said that despite harassment and widespread surveillance by government agents, he was able to attend the Mass in Havana, “where the People of God heard the words of the Holy Father.”
Paya also denounced the recent arrests made by the Castro government to prevent dissidents from participating in Pope Benedict XVI’s historic March 26-28 visit to the country.
“Our first words are for hundreds of our fellow dissidents who were not able to be here because of the wave of fear. There was a great absence of precisely those of us who defend human rights,” he said, according to a Catholic News Agency report.
“I speak of them and in the name of those who have no voice and have only suffered scorn and repression, and we must remember.”
“But we prayed with the Holy Father, we opened our hearts to hope,” Paya emphasized. “As John Paul II said: we have to be the protagonists of our history.”
“Liberation is a task for the Cuban people — now with greater hope because we are definitely on the verge, on the threshold of truth and liberation. That is our hope,” he said.
Although CNA has interviewed Paya on multiple occasions, the agency was unable to contact Paya via phone this week as the local operator claimed the number was incorrect.
Carlos Paya, who represents the Christian Liberation Movement from Spain, said Oswaldo Paya’s number in Cuba “is being blocked” and that he does not have access to internet.
Carlos Paya said information about the CLM has to be published out of Spain because of the restrictions that exist in Cuba.
For the people of Cuba, the recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI is both a sign of hope and a call to spiritual renewal.
On March 28, the pope encouraged the nation to “look again to the faith of your elders” as a source of “strength to build a better future.”
After facing numerous challenges in recent years, the Catholic Church in Cuba is continuing to overcome obstacles as it proceeds on its journey of faith.
Both its turbulent past and hope for the future are illustrated by the new San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary, which sits on archdiocesan land on the outskirts of Havana.
When the seminary facility was inaugurated in Nov. 2010, it became the most prominent new religious building in the country in over half a decade since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
The new location provides more space and a quiet, more peaceful atmosphere than the historical seminary, which was built by Jesuits in the mid-18th century and is located in the tourist center of Old Havana.
Both the Knights of Columbus and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops helped to fund the construction of the new facility, which includes classrooms, dormitories, offices and a chapel, as well as a dining room, a library and recreation space.
At almost 6,000 square meters in area, the building can house up to 100 seminarians, according to a Catholic News Agency report.
However, it is currently home to just over 50, illustrating the shortage in vocations that the country is currently experiencing.
Cuba is home to about 6.7 million Catholics, making up just over 60 percent of the country’s population of 11 million.
However, the nation has only about 350 priests and 650 religious to serve the people.
While recent years have seen low levels of new vocations in many countries, the church in Cuba has faced particular challenges, including repression under an atheist state.
The church is now in a period of recovery in the twenty years since the state ceased its official support of atheism.
When Pope John Paul II visited the island country in 1998, he blessed the cornerstone of the seminary, emphasizing its importance for the future of the local church.
The former pope’s historic visit also helped to promote better relations between the church and state in Cuba. The Catholic Church played a significant role in working to obtain the freedom of 52 Cuban political prisoners in 2010.
Now, the country is turning to the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, who visited the island country on March 26-28.
At a welcoming ceremony shortly after he descended from the papal plane, Pope Benedict acknowledged the impact of his predecessor’s 1998 visit to Cuba.
He said that Pope John Paul II brought “a gentle breath of fresh air” that strengthened the country and “left an indelible mark on the soul of all Cubans.”
Continuing the message of the previous pope, the Holy Father encouraged the people of Cuba to return to the rich faith that shaped the nation’s history in order to achieve a “rebirth of society.”
In doing so, he emphasized the need to embrace and live out the “spiritual and moral values which fashioned the nation’s true identity.”
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that the desire to strengthen the relationship between the Church and Cuba prompted Pope Benedict’s 30-minute meeting with Fidel Castro.
“The pope has to take into account the request of the authorities who are his guests and made the visit possible,” Father Lombardi told the press on March 28 during the final briefing before the pope’s departure to Rome.
“In this case, he accepted the request made by the Cuban authorities, who highlighted Fidel Castro’s strong desire to meet with the Holy Father” during the pope’s March 26-28 visit to the country.
The Vatican spokesman noted that “Fidel Castro also had an important meeting with John Paul II” during the late pontiff’s 1998 trip to Cuba, which made a significantly improved relationship “between the church and Cuba possible.”
Vatican and local leaders within the church have been key in negotiating with release of prisoners of conscience after what’s known as the “Black Spring” arrests of 75 dissidents in 2003.
Even “the steps, small or great” which were made in the field of human rights after the Pope John Paul II’s visit “were a consequence of that meeting,” Father Lombardi pointed out.
“With respect to a possible meeting with dissidents,” Father Lombardi said that “a number of the messages (from dissidents) made it to the Holy See before the trip and were quite diverse.”
The pope, therefore, “has been conscious to have their concerns and those of the entire Cuban people present in his discourses.”
The March 28 meeting occurred after Pope Benedict celebrated Mass in the Revolution Plaza of Havana, which was attended by Raúl Castro, civil authorities, Cuban bishops and other bishops from Latin America.
After the dialogue, Castro and his companions — among whom was his oldest son who helped him stand up — said farewell to the pope who was accompanied by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and the Apostolic Nuncio of Cuba, Msgr. Bruno Musaró.
The pope also met with current of Cuba President, Raúl Castro, yesterday whom he asked to declare Good Friday a national holiday. At the meeting, the pope also interceded for Cuban dissidents.
Pope Benedict XVI’s meditations for the upcoming Good Friday Stations of the Cross ceremony have been written by an Italian couple that has been married for nearly 50 years.
“In all of the moments of the Stations of the Cross, there were special moments within us for the family,” Anna Maria Zanzucchi told Catholic News Agency in a recent interview.
“They were taken on by Jesus to redeem the family, and this was the strongest thing that we confronted, and the path that we have always followed illumined us, we were illuminated by the grace concentrated in the stations,” Anna Maria explained.
The traditional Catholic practice of praying the Stations of the Cross is done each Friday of Lent. The liturgy involves remembering and reflecting on 14 different moments in the passion and death of Jesus.
Traditionally, the Pope leads a procession of pilgrims in praying the stations on the evening of Good Friday at Rome’s Colosseum. At each station, the Pope recalls the particular moment of Christ’s passion and reads a reflection. This year, the meditations will come from the Zanzucchis.
The Vatican asked 83-year-old Anna Maria and her 92-year-old husband Danilo to write this year’s stations. The Zanzucchi’s explained that they compiled the prayers with the help of the Holy Spirit and their own experience of family life.
The couple has known each other since 1952, when Danilo proposed within a day of meeting Anna Maria. She said “yes” and they were married the following spring. They went on to have five children.
In 1967 they were asked by the founder of the Focolare Movement, Chiara Lubich, to help establish a new families’ movement. It aims to help families to “live the spirituality of unity and to spread throughout the world family values that promote universal brotherhood.”
“It is God who helps the family and society to rebuild themselves, to live as true men,” said Danilo.
He explained that if families “have this disposition of being ready to love others as oneself, for the love of God,” then “they put into practice the words of Jesus that wherever two or are gathered in my name, I am with them.”
This, he said, is a “formidable resource to heal and aid people, without judging anyone because we are all poor people.”
“The family needs to be renewed, to be reinforced, to be united,” added Anna Maria.
“Unity is that love that unites, it is the impetus that forms families, but then humanity is such that – and we all know what can happen – we have arguments, misunderstandings, little things can become big.”
She explained that these obstacles can be overcome by love, which is used in turn to “renew the love that we all carry within.”
“It is like Danilo said, it is about renewing ourselves and then we can look to help others.”
The words of hope delivered by Pope Benedict XVI to the people of Cuba at a March 28 Mass are inspiring Latin Americans from countries across the region.
Nadia Martínez de Pimentel told Catholic News Agency that the Mass was an “overwhelming experience.”
Originally from the Dominican Republic, she said that she was deeply touched to see the “resilience of the people of Cuba” and the faith they have exhibited despite numerous challenges.
“I think that just to be part of it is a very humbling experience,” she said.
Officials predicted a turnout of more than half a million people at the Papal Mass in Revolutionary Square in Havana, Cuba on March 28, which came on the final day of the pope’s visit to the country.
During his homily, Pope Benedict applauded steps that have been taken in Cuba “to enable the church to carry out her essential mission of expressing her faith openly and publicly.”
He urged the nation to “continue forwards” and encouraged the government to “strengthen what has already been achieved.”
The pope told the people of Cuba that the “path to a true social transformation” requires the formation of “virtuous men and women” who can help to “forge a worthy and free nation.”
“Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity,” he explained.
The pope’s message made an impression not only on Cubans, but on members of other Latin American nations as well.
Pilgrims from countries including Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Dominican Republic flocked to Cuba to participate in the papal events that took place March 26-28.
Diana, age 20, said that she came to Havana from Mexico because she wanted to “hear the message of faith” that the pontiff was bringing to Cuba.
Although the pope just concluded a visit to her home country of Mexico, she followed him to Cuba in order to immerse herself even further in his words to Latin America.
Diana called it “amazing” that she was able to see and listen to the “representative of God on earth.”
“You get to know another country through this experience,” she observed, adding that she believes her participation in the papal events “will bring me closer to Christ.”
For pilgrim Ramon Tallaj, the pope’s message “is clear.”
Tallaj, a Latino who lives in the United States, explained that “the Holy Father came to tell the people about hope.”
Even in the most oppressing circumstances, people need not lose hope if they can turn to their faith, he said, because ultimately “that is what matters.”
Tallaj believes that apart from politics, faith and religion are “important for the human being.” Although religion can be a force for social change, he added, any movement must begin with a profound renewal of faith.
Ultimately, Tallaj thinks pope’s visit will have a long-lasting effect in bringing about true change for the people of Cuba. “Now it is confirmed,” he said. “This truly is a revolution square.”
As he concluded his historic trip to Cuba, Pope Benedict XVI encouraged the people of the island nation to “look again to the faith of your elders” and to “draw from that faith the strength to build a better future.”
By allowing the “most noble values” of the Cuban soul to blossom, the country can create “the basis for building a society of broad vision, renewed and reconciled,” he said as he prepared to leave for Rome.
During a March 28 farewell ceremony at José Martí International Airport, the pope urged the nation to “trust in the Lord’s promises” and be open to the Gospel “so as to authentically renew your personal and social life.”
Looking to the future, the Holy Father noted the need to “reject immovable positions and unilateral viewpoints which tend to make understanding more difficult and efforts at cooperation ineffective.”
In a reference to the political situation in Cuba, the pope said respect for basic freedoms is “essential in order to respond adequately to the fundamental demands” of human dignity and to “build up a society in which all are indispensable actors in the future of their life, their family and their country.”
He also alluded to the continued embargo against Cuba, saying that “restrictive economic measures, imposed from outside the country, unfairly burden its people” and worsen problems of material need.
The pope’s farewell comments echoed themes that he highlighted during much of his March 26-28 trip to Cuba.
Throughout his visit, he repeatedly emphasized the need for a renewal of faith, in order to bring about peaceful change in society.
He also stressed the importance of freedom — particularly religious freedom — in allowing the church to help build up society.
In a March 27 meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro, the pope presented humanitarian requests and discussed the continued plight of Cuban dissidents, especially those in prison.
He also asked Castro to declare Good Friday a national holiday due to its importance in the Catholic calendar.
As his pilgrimage came to an end, the Holy Father promised to “continue praying fervently” that Cuba may progress in its journey of “authentic development” in Christ.
According to a Catholic News Agency report, he urged the nation to hold tight to Christ, explaining that “wherever he is present, discouragement yields to hope, goodness dispels uncertainties and a powerful force opens up the horizon to beneficial and unexpected possibilities.”
Pope Benedict finished his farewell by entrusting the Cuban people to Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, asking her to continue to “sustain them in the midst of their trials and to obtain from Almighty God the grace that they most desire.”
Cuba has made progress towards full religious freedom and the government should continue these advances to strengthen society and to allow the Catholic Church to pursue her mission, Pope Benedict XVI said at a huge public Mass in Havana, Cuba.
“It must be said with joy that in Cuba steps have been taken to enable the church to carry out her essential mission of expressing her faith openly and publicly,” the pope said in his homily on March 28.
“Nonetheless, this must continue forwards, and I wish to encourage the country’s government authorities to strengthen what has already been achieved and advance along this path of genuine service to the true good of Cuban society as a whole.”
Religious freedom shows “the unity of the human person, who is at once a citizen and a believer,” he explained. This freedom legitimizes believers’ contributions to building up society.
“Strengthening religious freedom consolidates social bonds, nourishes the hope of a better world, creates favorable conditions for peace and harmonious development, while at the same time establishing solid foundations for securing the rights of future generations.”
An estimated 700,000 people attended the Mass at Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, where large black silhouettes of the Cuban revolutionary leaders Fidel Castro and Che Guevara decorate the buildings.
“I feel great joy in being here with you today to celebrate Holy Mass during this Jubilee Year devoted to Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre,” the pope said, referring to Cuba’s patron saint.
The pope’s March 28 homily came on the third and final day of his visit to Cuba, where tensions between the Catholic Church and the communist government have eased in recent decades.
He emphasized that the church’s support for religious freedom is not a claim of any special privilege. Rather, it is an act of faithfulness to Jesus.
“The church lives to make others sharers in the one thing she possesses, which is none other than Christ, our hope of glory,” he said. Where Christ is present, mankind “becomes more human” and finds consistency.
Pope Benedict expressed hope that the church in Cuba can resume work in education, following the example of 19th-century educator and Servant of God Father Félix Varela.
“Father Varela offers us a path to a true social transformation: to form virtuous men and women in order to forge a worthy and free nation,” he said. “Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity.”
According to Catholic News Agency, the pope also reflected on the nature of faith and freedom, using the Scripture readings at Mass.
“Dear friends, do not hesitate to follow Jesus Christ,” he exhorted. “In him we find the truth about God and about mankind. He helps us to overcome our selfishness, to rise above our ambitions and to conquer all that oppresses us. The one who does evil, who sins, becomes a slave of sin and will never attain freedom.”
The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s persecution of three young believers in God, recounted in the Book of Daniel, showed that they experienced the strength to glorify and praise God “in the conviction that the Lord of the universe and of history would not abandon them to death and annihilation.”
“Truly, God never abandons his children, he never forgets them. He is above us and is able to save us by his power. At the same time, he is near to his people, and through his son Jesus Christ he has wished to make his dwelling place among us in,” the pope said.
Jesus’ own revelation of himself as the son of God the Father and the Savior provokes “resistance and disquiet.” Though he accuses his hearers of seeking to kill him, he exhorts them to believe in order to know “the truth which redeems and dignifies.”
Pope Benedict criticized both the skepticism and relativism of Pontius Pilate and the “irrationality and fanaticism” of those who wrongly interpret the search for truth and become closed up and try to impose truth on others.
The first attitude changes hearts and makes them “cold, wavering, distant from others.” Those who have this attitude, like Pilate, “wash their hands and let the water of history drain away without taking a stand.”
As for fanaticism, he noted, “anyone who acts irrationally cannot become a disciple of Jesus.”
“Faith and reason are necessary and complementary in the pursuit of truth,” he declared, saying that the Christian faith promotes “not irrationality but rather the yearning for truth.”
Pope Benedict closed his homily by invoking the blessing of the Virgin Mary.
“Let us walk in the light of Christ who alone can destroy the darkness of error,” he said. “And let us beg him that, with the courage and strength of the saints, we may be able, without fear or rancor but freely, generously and consistently, to respond to God.”
After beginning his day on Tuesday with a private Mass in Santiago de Cuba, Pope Benedict XVI met a religious sister from India who has been his “spiritual godmother” for 20 years.
The pope celebrated the private Mass during his historic March 26-28 visit to the country before departing for the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre. The service was attended by 10 religious sisters from the contemplative branch of the Missionaries of Charity, which was founded by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
According to Catholic News Agency, when the Mass ended, Cuban Archbishop Dionisio García presented Sister Teresa Kereketa to the Pope. Following the practice of her order, 20 years ago she received the task of praying daily for a specific priest, thus becoming his “spiritual Godmother.” The priest whom she was assigned was Cardinal Josef Ratzinger.
During the emotional encounter, and following an Indian tradition, the sister presented a crown of flowers to Pope Benedict.
“The pope was quite moved meeting her,” said Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, during a press conference.
During a personal meeting that lasted over 40 minutes, Pope Benedict XVI asked Cuban President Raúl Castro to recognize Good Friday as a holiday in the country over its importance in the Catholic calendar.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi reported on the conversation and noted that a similar request was made by Blessed John Paul II to Fidel Castro about Christmas when the late pontiff visited Cuba in 1998.
As a consequence of that request, the Cuban government re-established Dec. 25 as a national holiday. Christmas had previously been suspended from the calendar with the success of the local Communist revolution in the late 1950s.
“Of course, this is a matter for the Cuban authorities, and we hope for a response in the not too distant future,” Father Lombardi told members of the press, including Catholic News Agency.
He added that during the meeting, Raul Castro gave the pope “a beautiful wooden sculpture of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre.”
Pope Benedict returned to favor, giving the president a “facsimile copy of an ancient volume from the Vatican library, the Latin translation of Ptolemy’s Geography,” the spokesman said.
“It includes a map from 1400 and the latest update includes a world map from 1530 in which the American continent appears, and which points out the location of Cuba.”
The pope continues his historic March 26-28 visit to the country on Wednesday by traveling to the capital city of Havana, where he will preside at Mass in José Martí Revolution Square.