by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — It started with a personal invitation.
Well, to be more precise, Michele Leonard’s journey to the Catholic Church started with a visit to a shrine in Hubertus, Wisconsin, nearly 20 years ago. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Leonard was one of many catechumens and candidates to participate in the Rite of Election at St. Matthew Church in southeast Topeka on Feb. 21. Usually celebrated around the First and Second Sundays of Lent, the rite is one in which those wishing to be received into the Catholic faith — both those who have been baptized into other Christian traditions (candidates) and those who have not yet been baptized (catechumens) — stand in the presence of their sponsors, the archdiocesan faith community and the archbishop to express their desire to enter into the full sacramental life of the church.
Two other celebrations were held previously on Feb. 14 and 16 at Holy Angels Church in Basehor and Holy Trinity Church in Lenexa, respectively. This year, Michael Podrebarac, director of the archdiocesan office for liturgy and sacramental life, said, 195 catechumens and about twice that number of candidates will be received into the Catholic faith throughout the archdiocese during the Easter Vigil. Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann served as the main celebrant at each of the celebrations.
During his homily, the archbishop discussed the role other people play in a person’s faith journey, as well as the courage it takes to answer the call of Jesus and the singular importance of a relationship with Christ.
“There’s only one thing that endures, and that is our relationship with God,” said Archbishop Naumann as he thanked the many pastors, catechists, family members and friends who helped the catechumens and candidates somewhere along their path to the Catholic faith.
For Leonard, it was a friend who came along at just the right time.
In 1996, she was living in Wisconsin where she’d grown up. As a child and young adult, she had attended other Christian churches, including a Methodist church, the Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ.
Yet none of them seemed to satisfy her spiritually.
“I needed more,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was getting the instruction I needed.”
One day, she visited Holy Hill National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, in Hubertus, a shrine known as the site of many miraculous healings. That visit forever changed her life.
“I felt the presence of God there,” she said. Spending time in prayer at the chapel there only added to her awareness of God’s physical presence.
“I never forgot it,” she said.
Because the shrine was so close to her home, Leonard starting making regular visits there and was always touched by the tangible signs of hundreds of canes, crutches and walkers left behind by those healed — and by the eucharistic presence of Jesus.
“I realized I wanted to be a Catholic,” Leonard said. But she didn’t know she could ever become one.
“I thought you had to be born Catholic,” she said.
As her attraction to the faith grew, and especially as she made more visits to the shrine, Leonard often expressed her desire to become Catholic to friends, some of whom were Catholic. But no one ever told her how to become Catholic.
“I guess I didn’t have the courage to ask a priest,” she said, “and no one took that next step with me.”
That is, until Leonard met Cynthia Camacho, a co-worker who happened to be a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Topeka. The two work together as occupational therapists and, over time, they became friends. When Leonard talked about her heart’s desire, Camacho did what came naturally to her. She invited Leonard to the Rite of Christian Initiation program at the parish.
“She sets an excellent example,” Leonard said of Camacho, who is now serving as her sponsor, emphasizing that God sent her the best friend and sponsor she could have ever asked for. Whereas previously no one had extended a personal invitation to become Catholic, Camacho reached out her hand and is walking with her every step of the way.
For Leonard, the actual Rite of Election itself meant the world to her, and she looks forward to the day when she will finally be baptized, confirmed and make her first Communion.
“This is where I want to be,” she said, “where I am supposed to be and where I need to be.
“My heart’s desire is to follow Christ.”