Easter initiates Catholic converts Baltimore woman says church feels like home

April 07, 1996|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,SUN STAFF

Sharonne Jackson-Little, a 37-year-old wife and mother of two, spends most of her time taking care of other people. After working a midnight-to-8 a.m. shift at Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, she rushes home to Baltimore to take her children to school and tend her bedridden mother-in-law.

For Easter, however, she's doing something for herself. She's becoming a Catholic. At a candlelight Easter Vigil ceremony last night, she was baptized. Today, she will receive her first Communion.

While Easter is among the most sacred of holidays for Christians, marking the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, it is especially significant for the Roman Catholic Church because the church initiates hundreds of thousands of new followers around the world.

Each new Catholic has very personal issues that have led him or her to the faith. But many say that in church, they have found spiritual and practical support they need to endure life's stresses.

"It strengthens me," said Mrs. Jackson-Little, a woman with round cheeks and deep brown eyes. "At church I always learn a lesson that I need to help me get through the week. If my mother-in-law is cranky and decides she does not want to take her medicine, I am able to deal with her with more patience.

"And I have learned to appreciate the little things my children and my husband do for me."

Across Maryland, more than 2,500 people are becoming Catholics this weekend. (Nationally, more than 160,000 converts will be admitted to the church.) The Baltimore Archdiocese -- which includes the city and nine surrounding counties -- expects this year's group of converts to be the largest of the past five years. Part of the increase, according to Cardinal William H. Keeler, is attributable to the visit of Pope John Paul II to Baltimore last fall.

"Many people have come to us and said they were really struck by that visit and they wanted to know more," Cardinal Keeler said.

For the past seven months, the prospective Catholics have prepared for baptism in weekly classes at their respective parishes. They've learned about Roman Catholic practices such as the rite of reconciliation (also known as confession) and the symbolic meanings of each part of the Mass. And they've heard how the church views lifestyle issues such as marriage, divorce, premarital sex, and parenthood.

The church's process for initiating converts dates to the first and second centuries, before Christianity was legalized by the Roman Empire. During those years, Christians met secretly to avoid repression by Romans and Jews. New members first were asked to demonstrate their commitment to Christianity over several months of intensive prayer and study.

"During that time, there was so much repression against Christians that the community would watch new members closely to make sure that they were not traitors," explained Jim DeBoy, director of religious education for the Baltimore Archdiocese. He added that after Christianity was legalized in the year 313, so many people turned to the church that the initiation system was overwhelmed and collapsed.

Restored in late 1960s

It was restored after Vatican II in the late 1960s when the church started the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in parishes around the world.

Despite her hectic schedule, Mrs. Jackson-Little did not miss any of her religious study sessions at St. Ann's, around the corner from her house in the Barclay neighborhood of Baltimore. She looked forward to the classes as a time when she could reflect on her life and learn ways, big and small, to cope with her struggles.

For example, a lesson given about a month ago seemed prepared with Mrs. Jackson-Little in mind. The theme was caring for the sick.

The Rev. Michael Sergi said that long ago, the church only offered a sacrament of Extreme Unction for people in the final moments of life. Now, he said, there is a blessing of the sick that can be offered to the seriously ill. The church does not promise that the blessing has healing power. But Father Sergi said it has performed miracles in mending the spirit.

"Nine times out of 10 the person will not be physically healed by this," Father Sergi said. "But they can get emotional and spiritual relief."

During that same class, Father Sergi told Mrs. Jackson-Little and the two other students that they must always be generous and kind to the sick, doing whatever they can to brighten their lives. But, he warned, they must also take time to take care of themselves.

After class, Mrs. Jackson-Little rushed over to Father Sergi. She asked if he would come to her house and give a blessing to her mother-in-law. "She doesn't go out much, and I think it would mean a lot to her to get the blessing," she told him. "I think it might give her a sense of peace."

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