Melanie San Angelo was moved to tears as she stood with fellow catechumens at Saint Patrick parish on Sunday, March 1, to begin the last leg of her path to full communion with the Catholic Church. At the Rite of Sending in the east Anchorage parish, her hands shook slightly as she promised to faithfully continue her preparation through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). The rite culminates in receiving the Sacraments of Initiation—Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist—at the upcoming Easter Vigil on April 11. Her husband, Michael, seated just a few feet away, was moved at witnessing this highlight on this particular road of a months-long journey of education, soul-searching, and conversion.
That journey, however, began long ago. Born to parents of Swiss/German heritage, San Angelo was raised in a household where the practice of faith was primarily a “hands-off” approach. Her Lutheran mother and Jewish father did not push a faith expression on their daughter. Raised in mostly Protestant Alabama, San Angelo recalled attending Young Life programs and Sunday school. “I grew up learning both Jewish and Lutheran traditions,” she recalled. The ultimate question, she said, was, “Is Jesus the Messiah?”
Like many young adults, living life and building a career was her focus for many years. In middle age, she felt she was missing something, but couldn’t identify what that was. “It seemed to be nagging at me,” she said. With the death of her parents, San Angelo recalled, “I was a lost lamb, struggling with who I am and what I am all about.”
Recently, San Angelo said, she began to dial into Catholicism. Saint Patrick parishioner and friend, Kim Hays—who is also her sponsor—encouraged her inquiry. “No one forced me,” San Angelo was quick to note.
A month-long trip to Italy immersed her in Catholic culture, she said. “You can’t help but be surrounded by Catholicism, especially in Rome,” she added. “Faith is so prevalent in their society.” Serious reflection helped her decide Catholicism was “the real deal,” she said. The Italian people’s devoutness was so enlightening—young people, old people, “it really struck a chord with me,” San Angelo added.
It wasn’t just the devotion of the Italian people that so impressed San Angelo, but being surrounded by cathedrals, religious art and the various relics on display in churches and museums, she said. It was experiencing the Shroud of Turin, however, that was “pivotal, opening, and brought a sense of peace.”
As she left the church where the Shroud was displayed, San Angelo remembered stumbling on the cobblestone sidewalk. Embarrassed and humiliated, but otherwise uninjured, she was struck by the emotional impact of what she had just experienced in viewing the purported burial shroud of Jesus. “It was extraordinary. It lifted a kind of veil. It was more than an epiphany and it still has stuck with me,” she recalled.
Returning from her trip in 2019, San Angelo’s friend, Hays, mentioned the RCIA program, which was to begin in the fall.
At her first meeting, San Angelo found the program to be a very welcoming and a relatable way of teaching Catholicism. “It was a feeling of family in a place that spoke to me,” she said. As she immersed herself into reading about the faith, she also found it relevant to her Jewish heritage. “This was a natural progression,” she said, and added, “I don’t feel I have abandoned those beliefs, but am building upon them. It makes sense for me. Going through this process has put all those pieces together for me,” San Angelo said. “It was a natural stepping stone.”
The next step for San Angelo and her fellow catechumens and candidates was the Rite of Election, also celebrated on March 1 with Bishop Andrew Bellisario, C.M. at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral.
On a snowy Sunday afternoon, 15 adult catechumens, 21 candidates for continuing conversion, and seven unbaptized children from eight archdiocesan parishes were presented to the bishop by their catechists. They were joined by their sponsors, godparents, family and friends.
In an atmosphere both joyous and welcoming, Bishop Bellisario highlighted in his homily the importance of fellow travelers on not just the journeys of faith these folks had undertaken, but in life as well. For Melanie San Angelo, her husband, Michael, has been just that. She described him as a “cradle Catholic,” who, since her inquiry into the Catholic faith has begun, “has come back full throttle.”
“Mike was elated I was going to go through this journey. He has been totally supportive of me,” she said. “He wanted me to come to this of my own volition,” she added. “After RCIA sessions,” she said, “we talk about our experiences.”
As San Angelo looks to the future and her life as a brand new Catholic, she is looking for ways to involve herself in parish life, during the time which the Church calls “metanoia”—a change in one’s life resulting from penitence or spiritual conversion. As a master gardener, she is hoping to help in some way with the flowers and plants in Saint Patrick’s cloister. “As I get more involved and integrated, I will find my niche,” she said.
San Angelo also looks forward to re-prioritizing what is important in life. As she studies Church teachings, she feels inspired to live and abide by them. “They have had a profound effect on me, on a soulful and spiritual level,” she said.
The next few weeks will bring more opportunities for the catechumens—now known as the Elect—to ponder and advance in their faith. The upcoming Scrutinies, which will take place at Mass in parishes throughout the archdiocese on the middle three Sundays in Lent, encourage the community to pray for the Elect and candidates. They, in turn, are instructed to reflect on their own lives, their need for repentance and healing, and to grow in their knowledge of Jesus Christ and His Church.
As the last few weeks of RCIA are completed, San Angelo eagerly anticipates the Easter Vigil, her baptism, and full communion with the Church. “I’m really excited about that,” she said. With a new journey of faith about to begin, San Angelo said of her many steps toward that long-anticipated day, “It’s all good.”
She has answered, as well, that childhood question of the nature of Jesus Christ. “I have come to the acceptance of Jesus as Messiah.”