In Your Midst

Come to the Water

March 2005

How do you become Catholic? If you answer with words like RCIA, classes, sacramental preparation, rites of initiation, the Church can sound a bit formal and academic. But the process of becoming a Catholic is less about education than about conversion. It’s not a series of “hoops” to be jumped through, but a transformative, unforgettable experience, in which every corner of one’s life is re-examined in the light of the Gospel.

In commissioning a new documentary on the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) gave New Group Media of South Bend, Indiana a huge challenge: to explain the Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults without getting bogged down in detail, and to tell the stories of individual inquirers without losing sight of the universal Church. With this challenge in mind, in the spring of 2003, Christopher Salvador and Sister Judy Zielinski began scouting the nation for parishes to profile. Their search led them across the country, from small-town, blue collar parishes to big inner-city churches, and finally to St. James Cathedral.

The crew at New Group Media makes preparations for Father Ryan's interview.  They conducted dozens of interviews with the RCIA team, with candidates and catechumens, sponsors and catechists, and carefully combined them to tell the story of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.

Sister Judy remembers: “As we went to various parishes, we were looking for interesting stories, people starting from different places but converging on the way to baptism.” Little things impacted their final decision… a pastor in Phoenix didn’t show up to meet them, for instance! Another parish had a wonderful RCIA program, but would not have any catechumens preparing for Baptism in the coming year. Then again, there were parishes where the candidates or catechumens were unable to articulate what the experience meant to them on a deeper level.

When Christopher called St. James in Seattle and got Helen Oesterle’s voicemail, he thought she sounded bright and upbeat. That positive first impression of the Cathedral was reinforced when Christopher came to Seattle. At the Wednesday evening RCIA meeting he attended, he counted 78 people, an absolutely extraordinary number, especially compared to the other parishes he’d visited. He was equally impressed with Helen, her team, and the catechumens preparing for baptism. He returned to South Bend full of enthusiasm about the possibilities. Sister Judy says: “Chris brought publications back from St. James. He came back very excited about some of the candidates!”

They knew they wanted to feature St. James but the project still lacked focus. The USCCB had wanted them to feature two parishes, one that had ‘mixed rites’—that is, a parish that celebrated all the rites of initiation—for the unbaptized as well as those baptized in other Christian churches—in one Mass at Easter. How would this work in terms of editing? Would it feel strange to jump back and forth from a rural, small-town parish to the inner-city bustle (and architectural grandeur) of St. James? And how would they coordinate having two teams working simultaneously in two different parishes on the holy night of Easter? When the USCCB said it wouldn’t be necessary to show two parishes, that the team could focus on St. James alone, everything began to fall into place. And the team came to realize that St. James was itself so diverse it would be possible to show many different stories within this one parish.

The crew made many trips out to St. James Cathedral, filming not only liturgies in the Cathedral, but interviewing Seattle Archbishop Alexander Brunett, Cathedral pastor Father Michael G. Ryan, Helen Oesterle and her team, as well as the candidates and catechumens themselves, many of whom welcomed the crew into their homes and spoke frankly about their faith journeys. But the collection of the footage was only the beginning! Back in Indiana the creative work began. Some twenty hours of collected footage were carefully transcribed, word by word, and slowly pieced together to tell the story. Intense research follows, and Sister Judy (the writer) created a script. For documentaries, the ratio of footage shot to finished footage is 20:1. From a liturgy an hour long 10 seconds or less might appear in the finished film. Narrative voice-over was added, as well as a musical score and artwork to give the documentary a particular feel. Editor Larry Bilinski spent nearly two hundred hours editing the program together.

New Group Media began as Golden Dome Productions at the University of Notre Dame. In 2001, when Notre Dame dissolved its production company, four partners—Larry Bilinski, Christopher Salvador, Douglas Thomas and James Salvador—joined together to form New Group Media.
New Group focuses on faith-based programming. They have created documentaries on refugees in Bosnia; they’ve produced on location in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America as well throughout the entire United States.

“New Group Media values its faith-based clients—churches, dioceses, religious orders, not-for-profit organizations, educational institutions and national religious ministries, helping each one articulate its particular message. Our familiarity with and sensitivity to issues of faith allows us to work with a variety of believers,” says Sister Judy. New Group Media also has a successful commercial division.

Come to the Water: The Adult Journey to Baptism traces the journey of several St. James candidates and catechumens on their conversion to the Catholic Church. Among them are former atheists, Buddhists, individuals from Jewish backgrounds and others from Protestant traditions. They speak frankly and movingly about their faith, their doubts, their discovery of Jesus Christ, their experience of the RCIA process. While the film is intended primarily as a teaching tool to clarify the meaning of the different Rites of Initiation, it has a universal appeal as well. In a profoundly moving way, the documentary shows how the Church gathers people from every walk of life into one family of faith in Jesus Christ.

Come to the Water will appear on ABC-TV affiliates throughout the United States during the Easter season.  KOMO-4 will broadcast the documentary on Sunday, April 3 at 4:00pm.  Save the date!  View a 5-minute preview of the documentary HERE.  Visit the USCCB site HERE.

Maria Laughlin is the Office Manager at St. James Cathedral.

Other articles in the March 2005 issue:

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