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CATECHUMENS ON BRINK OF NEW BEGINNING

Catholic churches will be dark Saturday night as worshipers file in for the Holy Saturday Easter Vigil.

Then candles will be lit and priests across the world will bless their glow, which represents the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the "light of the world."Junior Chapman, Cristen Kleven, Kristi Dudleston and Melinda Carpenter will be somewhere in the Salt Lake congregations,

their hearts pounding a little, their palms perhaps a bit sweaty.

They are about to complete one phase of their personal religious journeys and begin another. A year ago they expressed interest in learning more about Catholicism; in September they became catechumens, which means "learners." On the first Sunday of Lent, they joined area catechumens to stand before the bishop and have their names entered in the "book of the elect." With his blessing, they became the "elect," accepted by the Catholic Church as candidates for confirmation.

On Saturday night, they will be Catholics. Each will be baptized and confirmed. For the first time, they will take Communion from the Eucharistic cup, before the rest of the congregation celebrates Communion.

"Easter is a time of new life, with the Resurrection of Christ," said Monsignor Sullivan of St. Ann's Church. "So they receive the new life of the Resurrection of Christ."

Junior Chapman laughs as he admits that as recently as 10 days ago, he wasn't sure he could do it.

"I was apprehensive - more tentative than anything - until we had a retreat last weekend," he said. "That retreat brought it all together for me."

Chapman started attending the Rite to Christian Initiation for Adults classes out of curiosity; he was tired of going to Mass with his wife and kids and not understanding what was going on. First it was interesting; soon he was hooked, he said.

"It means a new beginning. I felt there was something out there I was missing - a part of my life - and this is going to fill that void.

"But if you'd told me a year ago I was going to be baptized - I don't think so. It just wasn't me. It just manifested itself."

Carpenter's story is similar. She married a Catholic and went to church with him off and on. She enjoyed it enough that she wanted to learn more. About halfway through the classes, "I believed everything they were teaching me."

Like Chapman, she was apprehensive until the retreat. Now she says the process has let her take a look at herself and really grow. Somewhere in her religious quest, she said, peace and calm became part of her life.

"I grew up with no religious background. Church was not part of it. It meant going to see friends to me. I had no real idea who Jesus Christ was."

Kleven said she's stepping into new territory - and she's savoring each step of the journey.

"It means I get to be a full member of the family of Christ. It's nothing I've experienced in the past. I'd been doing this from reading the Bible and searching for truth. I can't wait, but I want to really cherish the time I spend during Holy Week."

And what will her Eucharistic cup symbolize? "I'm committing my life to serving God and the church. He's fulfilled his promise of being able to save my soul, depending on how well I obey."

Kristi Dudleston was raised in a predominantly Catholic area, but her family didn't belong to that church. And they didn't attend their own church much, either.

But even as a little girl, "there was something about Catholicism. I loved the saints and their stories. I learned a lot about Catholicism through (studying) art history. And the church has a history, but it faces it. I like that. Most of all, it's not a judgmental religion.

"One thing we humans tend to do is judge others. I want to get away from that. I see (that trait) in myself, and I feel disappointed.

"When I take that cup, it will take me away from where I'm standing. Where I am won't matter, what I am doing is all that will matter. I can't wait for my first Mass . . . and I'm looking down the road to all the Masses where I can take Communion and be a total part of it."

And what of the priests, the keepers and blessers of the flames? Father Erik Richtsteig of St. Patrick's Church, 1072 W. 400 South, will tell you the ancient rites of the Catechumen protect people from making hasty, emotional religious choices. They come to the church with knowledge of its history, its beliefs and its requirements.

"The classes let people get a chance for the teaching to sink in, to make sure it's what they want to do," he said.

Each church runs its own classes in its own way, said Deacon Owen Cummings, deacon at the Cathedral of the Madeleine. Some have only a handful of students, some have as many as 50. At the cathedral, classes tend to be quite structured; they're more relaxed at St. Ann's parish.

But all the classes share one thing: "The emotional sense of high commitment," Cummings said. "They want this and now it's actually happening and they're on a high. I have seen so many people weep on this occasion. And seen some very ordinary things happen to people on this occasion, as well.

"Regardless, the taking of Holy Communion is a moment of great intimacy."