HARRISBURG, Pa. (CNS) — Tears of longing fill Jessica Bassili’s eyes as she sits in a pew during Mass at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Lebanon.
The parishioners around her are lined up to receive holy Communion, and Jessica can only sit and pray. And wait until she can join them.
Jessica, a sophomore, is one of four students from Lebanon Catholic School who will receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and holy Eucharist when they enter the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil.
“It’s so hard to describe how much I long for the Eucharist,” Jessica told The Catholic Witness, newspaper of the Harrisburg Diocese. “It’s like sitting at the kids’ table while the adults enjoy the great feast.”
She is not alone in her longing.
On the first Sunday of Lent, Feb. 22, Jessica and her schoolmates — Troy Buckley and Madelynn and Olivia Reilly — joined nearly 100 fellow catechumens for the Rite of Election celebrated by Bishop Ronald W. Gainer at St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg.
The annual rite celebrates a milestone in the process of Christian initiation, inscribing the names of catechumens into the Book of Elect. Catechumens are presented to the bishop, and sponsors place a hand on the shoulder of the elect as a sign of their continuing care and example.
Jessica’s sponsor is her religion teacher at Lebanon Catholic, Julie Shuyler.
Three years ago, Jessica would have dismissed the idea of ever standing before a bishop with her religion class teacher. When she was enrolled at Lebanon Catholic in seventh grade after moving to area to live with her grandmother, she wasn’t attracted to the church.
“There were just some things about it that I didn’t agree with,” she said.
Her first year at Lebanon Catholic, she said, “was rough, because I was resisting, especially in religion class, because I didn’t want to hear about the church.”
Eventually, Shuyler approached Jessica to ask her what she didn’t like or understand.
“Mrs. Shuyler took an interest, she heard me out, and then she explained church teaching to me. Soon, I began to understand and appreciate it,” Jessica said. “I credit her a lot for caring, and for bringing me to the faith.”
The Lebanon Catholic community has accompanied Jessica, Troy, Madelynn and Olivia throughout this leg of their faith journey, beginning with the ceremonial rite of initiation during a school-wide Mass this past November.
The rite included the signing of the senses, whereby the sponsors made the sign of the cross over the catechumens’ mouths, shoulders and ears.
Father Michael Rothan, school chaplain and pastor of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish, and Deacon Richard Wentzel from the parish, saw the rite of initiation as a teaching moment for the school community, and as a way for faculty and students to show their support for Jessica, Troy, Madelynn and Olivia. The four students began the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process at the parish with Father Rothan last fall.
School-wide support has been an uplifting aspect for sisters Madelynn and Olivia Reilly.
“The teachers have been helping me a lot, especially with religion and the parts of the Mass,” said Olivia, a fourth grader.
She expressed her gratitude for her teacher, Mary Hummel, who often works with her one-on-one, and to Father Rothan, who, in addition to his work at the parish, regularly visits Lebanon Catholic.
“He has been the most supportive in teaching us about the faith, and making it fun and interesting to learn,” Olivia said.
Olivia and Madelynn chose their grandmother, Diane Reilly, as their sponsor because of her positive influence as a Catholic.
“Our grandmother is one of the most influential people in our lives,” said Madelynn, an eighth grader. “She talks to me and my sister about the Bible, the life of Christ, and prayer.”
They were eagerly awaiting the Easter Vigil, when they would receive the Eucharist and fully participate in the community that has so readily embraced them.
“At St. Mary’s, you’re sitting there in the pew and people are walking past you for Communion. They smile as they pass by, because they know we’ll soon be walking up for Communion with them,” Madelynn said.
Tugging at a cross hanging outside his school uniform vest, senior Troy Buckley pondered where he would be today if he hadn’t enrolled at Lebanon Catholic and started the RCIA process last fall.
He had been living in the Philadelphia area, attending a nondenominational church and studying in a public school, but was “having some troubles on the home front,” he said, and wanted to make a change in his life.
Troy contacted his cousin, Amy Buckley, a senior at Lebanon Catholic, and soon relocated to Lebanon and enrolled in the school.
“I sought L.C. because I wanted to better my education,” Troy remarked.
In the process, he realized that he wanted to join the church, a desire spurred on by the community he found at the school — even though that caring environment stunned him at first.
“I came from a big public school. When you’re in a class of more than 300 people, it’s social survival,” Troy explained. “So the close community at L.C. was a shock to me. I wasn’t used to having real friends and a caring staff. They look at you as part of their family. If you pain, they pain. If you rejoice, they rejoice.
“My journey toward the Catholic Church would be absolutely different if I had not come to this school,” he said.
Throughout the past several months, Troy, Jessica, Madelynn and Olivia have forged a special bond as they’ve journeyed together through the RCIA process and taken steps to enter the Catholic Church this Easter.
All of them have experienced challenge and difficulty in their young lives, and have found hope and strength in the Catholic Church, in their parish and in their school.
They feel the church calling them and challenging them to deepen their relationship with Christ, to forge a life of prayer, to work for social justice, to forgive those who have hurt them in the past.
Reed is managing editor of The Catholic Witness, newspaper of the Diocese of Harrisburg.