PHOTO BY CRAIG SMITH
SPRING—a time for new beginnings. Twenty-three
people with whom I have had the privilege of
walking on their journey of faith have prepared
for the night that will change their lives—the
Easter Vigil. They have spent time in a process of
prayer and classes to discern for themselves
whether the Catholic religion will be the way in which
they will express and live their life of faith.
It is dusk—8:00 on the night before Easter. At the front
doors of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Clovis, California,
parishioners have gathered around a large copper tray
in which a fire is crackling. As the flames produce sparks and
popping sounds, Father Robert Borges, our parish administrator,
blesses the Easter fire and lights the three-foot-tall
paschal candle. Our newly ordained permanent deacon,
Gary Stevens, holds the candle high and begins the ancient
acclamation, “Christ, our Light. Thanks be to God.”
Following him in procession, everyone walks into the
dark church. As the acclamation is sung three times, the
flame of the paschal candle is used to light the small candles
that are being held by each person in the church. In a
matter of moments, the completely dark church is bathed
in soft candlelight.
The Exultet is sung a capella by Father Robert as everyone
stands during this Easter proclamation while holding their
candles—everyone, except for 16 nervously excited people.
These are the catechumens—the elect who are going to be
baptized Catholic tonight. They are standing, but in a small
area of darkness, for they have not yet received the Light of
Christ. They listen as the mysteries of God are sung in wonder
The Exultet is finished, and the candles are extinguished
and collected. The people settle in their pews and darkness
envelops them once again. It is time to hear seven specially
selected Scripture readings from the Old Testament.
Beginning with the story of creation, salvation history is
retold again tonight as it has been on this night for many
centuries. Psalms are interspersed with the proclamation of
the Scripture readings. They are sung in much the same way
as our ancestors sang before us—“As the deer longs for
streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God” (Psalm
42:1). They evoke wonder.
From Calvary to Easter
And then, it is time for joy! As the jubilant sound of the Gloria
is sung by the choir, with the organ thundering mightily,
the lights of the church come on and people blink their
eyes in surprise.
The sanctuary, barren during the preceding six weeks of
Lent, has now been filled with beautiful bouquets of flowers.
Easter lilies, colorful azaleas and blue hydrangeas are
everywhere, blending their scents with the incense of the
Mass. The altar linens are resplendent in gold and white. The
bells are being rung during the entire Gloria.
Father Robert’s face, alive with the joy of Easter, shows no
signs of the sadness of Good Friday. He too sings out the words, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people
The Easter Gospel story is retold as it has been for almost
2,000 years. “Jesus, who was crucified, is risen from the
dead! Let us be glad and rejoice!”
Father Robert, who had walked the road to Calvary with
us through all of our Holy Week liturgies, shares this exciting
message with all and gives particular attention to the 23
people who now know that their life-changing moments are
almost here. They squirm in their pews in anticipation and
finally the 16 catechumens are invited to follow Father
Robert to the baptismal font.
The Journey Begins
On their way, the Litany of Saints is sung. The names of those
great followers of Christ who have gone before us in faith
provide a rich heritage of which these catechumens will now
become a part. At the font, the water is blessed and baptismal
promises are made. Godparents stand close.
“Patti Lynn, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and
of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Alleluia!”
Fifteen more times holy water is poured over the heads of
the catechumens as the assembly watches and prays. Happy
family members take pictures and wipe tears from their
eyes. Each newly baptized “neophyte” receives a white robe
and a very large candle, lit from the paschal candle.
“Receive the light of Christ.”
As the 16 neophytes stand in front of the assembly,
applause breaks out to welcome these newest members of our
faith. Then they are seated as the seven candidates for full
profession of Catholic faith process forward.
These seven are already baptized Christian, so no Baptism
will take place. Instead, the candidates make a solemn statement
of faith as they stand in front of everyone clothed in their white garments. The neophytes smile in joy as they
share in this moment with their fellow journeyers.
Applause breaks out again and the 23 new Catholics
come forward to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.
“Thomas, be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peace
be with you.”
The sacred chrism is perfumed and the confirmandi smell
the scented oil on their foreheads as they wait for the others
to be anointed. Another round of applause erupts and the
newly confirmed gratefully return to their pews to begin to
absorb all that has happened in such a short time.
But there is more joy for the neophytes to experience,
because they are now welcome to receive the sacred Body
and Blood of Christ. For so long they have waited in anticipation
of this precious gift. They have watched as family
members and friends have received this food for the soul and
waited for the time when they, too, would be able to enjoy
the eucharistic banquet. Finally, the moment arrives.
“The Body of Christ.” “Amen.” “The Blood of Christ.”
Three hours have passed. It is now after 11:00. Father Robert
concludes the Mass with the special Easter blessing and the
choir begins the sending-forth song. The 23 clothed in
white walk joyfully in procession out of the church.
Around the bell tower they wait for family and friends to
rejoin them. Soon the flashes of cameras in the dark night
light up the jubilant faces of loved ones. Plans are made
among themselves to continue the celebration.
And then, it begins to be understood—the Mass never
ends. We may go forth for a while, but we will return to celebrate
together, again and again, at the table of the Lord.
The Lord is risen! Alleluia!
Karen Mentlewski is the director of religious education for Our Lady of Perpetual
Help in Clovis, California.