Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted baptizes Eva Marie Aguilar “Valentine” during Easter Vigil Mass at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral April 15. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)

Kumiko Manahane has a lot to be excited for this Easter season. She can now fully participate in Mass any time she wants.

The 61-year-old has spent roughly 25 years going to church somewhat regularly but only because her husband was Catholic. They raised three children in the faith too. It wasn’t until Manahane lost both parents several years ago that her longing for spiritual parents increased.

“Out of nowhere I just went to the office and signed up,” the Holy Cross parishioner said.

She recalled staff members at the Mesa parish already knowing her by name. They’d seen her for years.

“Maybe nobody knew I wasn’t Catholic,” Manahane said.

Manahane was among thousands throughout the country to come into the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, and among 19 adults and children from 10 families at Holy Cross who received their sacraments at the Holy Saturday Easter Vigil this year.

The baptismal water at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral to be used at the Easter Vigil April 15. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)

Catechumens — those who have never been baptized — received baptism, confirmation and first Communion at the vigil. Candidates — those who have already been baptized in another Christian tradition whose baptism is recognized by the Catholic Church — entered the Church through a profession of faith and reception of confirmation and the Eucharist.

Manahane’s husband welcomed his wife’s presence at Mass over the years, but never forced her to become Catholic. He happily sponsored his wife at her April 15 confirmation, however.

Not everyone who goes through the RCIA each year is ready to move forward with the sacraments. Those who are radiate pure joy. Most are children and teenagers, but regardless of age, Cindy Benzing cherishes watching their growth in realizing how much God is a part of their lives.

Dcn. Chris Giannola baptizes Tasia Harper during the Easter Vigil at San Francisco de Asís Church in Flagstaff on April 15. (Photo courtesy of San Francisco de Asís Parish.)

“Sometimes they’re worried about getting all the facts right or being able to explain the faith,” Benzing said. She reminds them that Catholics are continuously growing in their knowledge of the faith.

It can be enough to know God in your heart, explains Benzing, who serves as Coordinator of Religious Education and Evangelization at Holy Cross. The mysteries of the Church run deep, especially the Trinity and the Eucharist.

“When they hear someone talk about the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ or God the Father, it’s hard for them to grasp that it’s just one God and it’s our God,” Benzing said. “To watch their growth and yearning for Jesus Christ, it enriches the gift that we already have the privilege of having. Sometimes we take it for granted. You see it in their eyes.”

SummerGrace Zuniga’s journey toward becoming a Catholic began when she saw her best friend receive First Holy Communion. “I was interested in the Church from that day on,” Zuniga said.

The 18-year-old Grand Canyon University freshman, who grew up in Litchfield Park, said that her own family “grew up Catholic for the most part and after bad experiences fell away.” They did, however, allow her to attend Mass with her friend’s family. Her conversion began, she said, when her friend’s mom took her to the adoration chapel at St. Henry Church in Buckeye.

Grand Canyon University freshman SummerGrace Zuniga is confirmed by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted during the Easter Vigil Mass, April 15 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral. Zuniga was one of several students from the GCU Newman Center brought into the Church at the cathedral. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)

“The Eucharist was exposed and I sat in a pew staring at It, not knowing who It was, and I thought It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” Zuniga said. After being told that the Host was Jesus in the flesh, she said she started to weep uncontrollably. “I realized that the only Church I would be a part of needed to have the Eucharist so I knew from then on, the Catholic Church was the only Church for me.”

The more she learned of the sacraments and traditions of the Catholic Church, the more she grew to love them. The Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit serve the GCU Newman Center and offered an RCIA program. Their encouragement and instruction helped her decide to join the Church, even though her family would not support the decision.

Catechumen Tim “Peter” Miller holds his baptismal candle at the Easter Vigil Mass at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral April 15. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)

“Choosing to become Catholic against what my family felt was really difficult for me,” Zuniga said. “I wanted to be a good daughter and I felt disobedient but I needed to be closer to the Lord and through the Church that was possible.”

In her quest to become a Catholic, Zuniga said she needed to grow in understanding the intercessory role of the Virgin Mary. These days, she co-leads the GCU Catholics Rosary Night along with Fr. Ignatius Mazanowski, FHS.

“Being a part of the Church the Lord actually started that has such an incredible heritage and lineage is really exciting,” Zuniga said. “I always feel at home when I am in a Catholic church or adoration chapel and I have been waiting to be fully initiated into the Church for almost 10 years now.”

It’s that personal connection that Luis Salinas, coordinator of religious education, said draws waves of people into the RCIA program at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Phoenix each year. Friends or family members who have gone through it before personally invite them to enroll. They know they received a special gift and want to share it.

Fr. Patrick Mowrer confirms Marissa as her brother, Leandro looks on during the Easter Vigil at San Francisco de Asís Church in Flagstaff. (Photo courtesy of San Francisco de Asís Parish)

The RCIA class jumped to 54 this year. The average class size at St. Vincent de Paul is typically in the low 30s. One was baptized Mormon. Another said he didn’t believe in God, but now feels ready.

“I know that God has a mission for me even in my wheelchair,” the man told Salinas.

Others grew up going to church, but hadn’t completed their sacraments.

“Sometimes it’s more tradition than faith itself,” Salinas explained. RCIA marries the two.

As for Manahane, she’s overjoyed to be able to fully participate in Mass. She calls every Sunday her fresh start. That’s quite a departure from viewing weekly attendance as insignificant. After all, she thought, she could pray to God anywhere. She looks forward to becoming more involved in parish life, possibly with the “small church communities” the parish offers.

“I found out why it’s important to be in church every Sunday. Every time I go to church and start praying and singing, I feel the whole body — some kind of warmness, excitement — I don’t get that any other place,” Manahane said.

RCIA numbers nationally

Contributing to this article was SUN correspondent Joyce Coronel.