Adult Baptisms Mark a New Beginning

By Cara Mia DiMassa
Los Angeles Times
April 20, 2003,1,4078108.story

For Alicia Alfaro, the night before Easter Sunday now represents a life-changing milestone much like a wedding or, perhaps more fitting, a birthday.

On Saturday evening, Alfaro was to be baptized a Catholic, the culmination of a 1 1/2-year spiritual journey at Holy Angels Church in Arcadia.

"I feel like this is a rebirth, a beginning for me," said Alfaro, 49, who has been married for 27 years and is the mother of four grown children.

Although other Christian denominations perform baptisms at Easter Vigil services, no other does it on the scale of the Catholic Church, or makes it mandatory that adults be confirmed on that day.

More than 10,000 people were expected to be received into the church nationally on Saturday, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as part of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

In the Catholic Church, the Easter Vigil ritual, in which adults are initiated into the Catholic Church, is often called "the mother of all Masses," said Dawn Ponnet, director of initiation for Holy Family Church in South Pasadena.

At her church's Easter Vigil service, initiates enter the church in darkness, listen to seven Bible readings and then are baptized in a wading-pool-sized font on the church's altar. The font is filled with water that participants have brought to the service, Ponnet said, and often includes water collected from rain, oceans, religious shrines and kitchen sinks.

For the last year, Ponnet has guided 31 adults through weekly two-hour religious education classes. At a half-day retreat on Saturday in preparation for the ritual, participants shared stories of how they had come to find religion in an age when faith is continually tested. They also told why they had chosen Catholicism at a time when the church is under intense scrutiny because of the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

As they passed a candle around a tightly formed circle, some spoke of finding something missing in their lives, looking to religion to fill that void. Others hoped to fulfill a long-ago promise to join a spouse's faith.

Elena Milberg said she spent the last year and a half plagued with health problems, ultimately emerging victorious. Later, the 32-year-old writer said she always had been drawn to Catholicism.

"After experiencing a lot of miracles in my life, it was time to get on with it," she said.

Jean Zee, 29, another of the initiates, had a comparable gung-ho attitude about the process. She had been raised a Baptist, but came to Holy Family with her fiance, Carlos Gomez, who had been raised in the Catholic Church.

Originally, Zee said, she began classes with the intent of preparing for her June wedding and a promise to raise her children as Catholics.

The marketing manager for Mattel Inc.'s Barbie division said she realized as she was going through the initiation process that "you find a part of yourself that you didn't know existed."

Ram Basu voiced similar feelings. His Methodist mother and Hindu father raised him with a mixture of religion and mysticism. He joined the Catholic Church in part because his wife is Catholic, he said.

But the decision to be baptized was a deeply personal one, Basu said, unencumbered by world politics or the clergy sex abuse scandal that has in some places created a deep schism within the church. He said he was moved by the ritual and community he found at Holy Family Church.

"It's been a wonderful experience," said Basu, 41, who works in Caltech's public events department.

Alfaro, the Holy Angels initiate, said a friendship with a Catholic co-worker slowly led her to explore converting. Her decision to be baptized came at a time of turmoil in the church.

"I was really angered at the hierarchy and to some degree disheartened," she said of the scandal. "People who know me were asking, 'Are you crazy? You are going to get into this faith?' "

Alfaro said she struggled with the issue, but "I came to realize that faith isn't about people. It's not about individuals.... It's about my personal relationship with God."

At the Holy Family retreat, team leader Kathy Holtsnider looked around at the group of initiates and marveled at the relationships they had forged with the church and with each other.

"We are certainly experiencing the Holy Spirit in our lives," she said. Then, before sending them off to Mass, she left them with one last thought: "The journey continues in our community and our family. We've much to look forward to."

Times staff writer Stephanie Chavez contributed to this report.


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