Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

About the time the sun rises each day, Jim Winkeler has settled into his regular chair in the sun room of his home to pray the Rosary and soak in the daily readings. From one angle, he can view the sunrise as he prays, and from over his shoulder he can catch a glimpse of a statue of the Blessed Mother in his backyard. A framed picture of his wife, Nancy, who died in 2012, keeps watch from the small table next to him.

The daily routine is a quiet time for Winkeler, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Cottleville, to build his relationship with Jesus Christ. But what he didn't realize was that for months, he was being watched -- in a good way, that is.

Last summer, Winkeler welcomed longtime family friends Rob and Cricky Cirillo and their three children, Kaitlyn, Justin and Brandon, into his Cottleville home to stay temporarily while the Cirillos sold their home and built a new one.

At the same time, the Cirillos also were going through another life change -- after much prayer and discernment for the past couple of years, all five of them decided to enter the Catholic Church.

The timing was perfect. As the family moved into Winkeler's home, Winkeler and his daughter, Marybeth Risley, 34, and her husband, Chris, 33, agreed to sponsor the Cirillos through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). Two other friends of the Cirillos, Steven Bender and Jean Wootten, also stepped in to serve as sponsors.

Of the thousands of people in the United States expected to become members of the Church at Easter this year, it's somewhat unusual to see an entire family -- especially with children in their teens and 20s -- to come into the Church at the same time. But Winkeler said the faith journey of these two families has always been part of God's divine plan.

"I was a little bit surprised. The fact that all five of them are going to join is spectacular," he said. "But I think about it as being God's plan. It's been as good for me as it has been for them."

From loss to new life

Two years ago, Cricky Cirillo lost her grandfather. A year later, she lost her grandmother.

"It just hit real hard," she said. "It was like something was missing."

Cricky, 43, sought solace in the Catholic Church, where she was baptized as an infant and received her First Communion, but had fallen away as she got older. It was the same story for Rob, 44.

For a few years, Cricky had tried attending other churches, but kept coming back to the Catholic Church. She and some of her children started attending Assumption Parish in O'Fallon. During a family meal with Marybeth and Chris Risley, Cricky mentioned she was interested in coming back to the Church.

Chris Risley invited her to the 12:15 p.m. Life Teen Mass at St. Joseph in Cottleville, where he helps with music ministry.

"Sunday after Sunday, the Cirillos were showing up in the pew behind us," recalled Marybeth Risley. "It was very much appreciated, because I have two little ones who are very busy," she added with a laugh.

As Rob and Cricky Cirillo were considering the idea of attending RCIA, they knew they wanted to do this with their children. But with their children in their teens and 20s -- Kaitlyn is 15, Brandon is 19, and Justin is 23 -- and never been baptized or raised in a faith tradition, they knew that might present a challenge.

"I said 'with everything I do for you guys, I'm asking for one thing in return,'" Cricky Cirillo explained to them. "I said, 'I would really like it if you guys would do this with me -- and just keep an open mind. If you continue with it, great; if not, they (tried) it for me.'"

The three agreed. They've all said the material presented in RCIA has been a lot to absorb, but they know it's a process that will take time to understand.

"It's a lot to take in, but I like doing this together as a family," said Brandon Cirillo.

Kaitlyn Cirillo admitted the learning experience has been a "little overwhelming," but she's starting to pick up on what's being taught.

And for Justin Cirillo? "I'm a mama's boy -- I'm not going to lie," he joked, explaining why he said "yes" to his mother's request. "I'm trying my best to learn the specifics, trying to absorb as much as I can. It's tough, but it's fun."

The hot potato of families

Jim Winkeler said he'd like to think that the Cirillos' faith journey began in 1979, when the Winkelers lived next door to Rob Cirillo and his parents in Chesterfield.

"My job took us to Huntsville, Alabama, and we were gone for almost 13 years," said Winkeler. "But whenever we came back to St. Louis, we would visit with the Cirillo family." Rob Cirillo's parents also took in Marybeth and Chris Risley years later, when they sold their house in another state and moved back to St. Louis.

"Our families have been so intertwined in helping each other out," said Marybeth Risley.

"That's just the theme of these families," said Chris Risley. "It's like a hot potato, just helping each other out. So it's been an honor to walk this walk with them."

For Marybeth Risley, "I think it's learning more about the faith and why we do the things that we do. The other thing for me, too, was when my mom died. I got really angry ... and I withdrew myself a little." Then as the Cirillos started expressing their desire to come into the Church, it got Marybeth Risley thinking about how her mom entered the Church later in life.

"I said, 'OK mom, I'll go through RCIA with an open mind. I will listen, and be attentive and pray about it.' And it's really helped me come back to the Church as an active participant. The first night that I came (to RCIA) somebody's phone rang, and it was my mom's ring tone. I said, 'OK it's a sign from God.'

"I wonder that if mom hadn't died, that none of this might have happened," Marybeth Risley said as tears filled her eyes.

"I just feel personally challenged as a Catholic," Chris Risley said of the experience. "It's not just one person, but our family that is making this walk. I have been challenged to take it deeper, and I find that the further you dig, the more you learn. My Lent has been more of a challenge. They have been just as much a witness to us as we have been to them."

Catechumen, candidate or convert?

The archdiocesan Office of Sacred Worship reported that there were 720 people who participated this year in the annual Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

This year, there were 199 adult catechumens and 25 children for a total of 224 catechumens. There also were 463 adult candidates and 33 children for a total of 496 candidates. These numbers do not reflect all of the new members to join the Catholic Church here this Easter; there may have been some who were unable to attend but still plan on joining the Church at Easter.

Catechumen: Catechumens are those who have been preparing for the sacraments of initiation — baptism, Eucharist and confirmation — at the Easter Vigil. A catechumen is an unbaptized individual over age 7. The Church's ministry of formation and preparation of catechumens is called the catechumenate. The catechumenate ordinarily is several months to one year in length. Each parish develops its own catechumenate ministry, but all incorporate Church teaching, Scripture study, prayer, liturgy and participation in parish life. The catechumenate is a time of apprenticeship in the Christian life, under the guidance of sponsors, catechists and the faith community.

Candidate: These are individuals who already have been baptized and now wish to profess their faith as members of the Catholic Church. These Christians are called to ongoing conversion, and they prepare to complete their sacramental initiation.

Convert: This term should generally be avoided, but may be used for those who are coming into the Catholic faith from no faith background. 

New Catholics on the rise

The number of people who have been received into the Church at Easter has been on the rise in the last several years, according to John Schwob, director of the archdiocesan Office of Pastoral Planning. He attributed the increase to the positive impact of new evangelization efforts in the archdiocese.

"More pastors and parish leaders are understanding their role in the Church as being evangelizers, marketing the faith rather than just waiting for people to show up at the front door," he said. "More parishes are understanding their mission to go out in the community and share the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Schwob noted that about two years ago, about 60 parishes began training to do door-to-door evangelization, and the archdiocesan Office of Laity and Family Life has assisted parishes in developing other evangelization efforts, all of which he said he believes is starting to bear fruit. There are also other efforts to engage young people in the faith, including Theology on Tap, Crossroads and Spirit and Truth.

The following numbers take into account three major areas: individuals ages 18 and over who are being baptized in the Catholic Church; previously baptized adults who are being received into the full communion of the Church; and young people ages 7-18 who are baptized in the Church. These numbers reflect a population of individuals who might not have gone through the traditional Rite of Christian Initiation process, which includes the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion, Schwob said.

2009: 1097

2010: 1134

2011: 1085

2012: 1119

2013: 1153 

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