Heidi Sierras won't be hiding colored eggs on Easter for her four children this year. Instead, the 29-year-old Ceres woman will be in Rome to be baptized by Pope Benedict XVI.
"It's hard to put into words. It's almost like I'm going to be baptized by Jesus himself," she said. "It's an incredible feeling."
Each year, the pope chooses seven people representing the world's continents for the baptism service that takes place in St. Peter's Basilica on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday.
Sierras, who worships at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Modesto, will represent North America. About 40 people, including the Rev. Joseph Illo and Stacy Phillips, Sierras' instructor in the Catholic faith, will travel to Rome to share in her baptism and to receive Holy Communion from the pope.
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"It will be fabulous," Illo said. "I've lived in Rome for two years as a seminarian, so I've been at a lot of papal Masses and served at papal Masses, but this is quite different. This is like an affirmation of my work as a priest to have one of the people that I've helped come to her faith being baptized by the one we believe is the vicar of Christ on Earth."
In the Catholic tradition, an adult who wants to become a Catholic goes through a class called Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. It usually lasts about a year but can run for two years, depending on the parish and individual. At the end of the class, during the Easter vigil on the evening before Easter, RCIA "graduates" receive three sacraments -- baptism, first communion and confirmation.
The rules are a little different for those raised Catholic but who missed confirmation or baptism, as well as those who were baptized in a Protestant church.
Sierras said she didn't go to church as a child. Her husband, Dan, grew up Catholic but after marriage didn't attend services regularly.
"We'd at least go on Christmas and Easter with the family," Sierras said.
About three years ago, he began going more often and she went with him. When she began asking questions about the faith, he encouraged her to sign up for RCIA to learn the answers. She did and was scheduled to be baptized at St. Joseph's last Easter.
But a Filipino woman in the church, who sometimes spends a month in Rome, knew a Filipino nun there, who knew an Italian nun, who knows the pope. Through that connection, the word filtered back to St. Joseph's that a North American spot was open for baptism by the pope in 2009. The participant would have to stay in RCIA for an additional year and be sure that he or she wanted to become Catholic.
Phillips approached Sierras to find out if she was interested. She was. Letters went to and from Rome. After an initial acceptance last spring, more letters and documents were exchanged. The choice was confirmed.
Sierras watched the Easter vigil service on the Eternal Word Television Network last year.
"It's incredible," she said. "I feel like, 'Why me?' I felt undeserving. But how could I say no to that? It's an incredible opportunity."
Besides meeting the pope, there's also the matter of flying to Italy. Sierras said she's flown twice in her life -- once to Ohio and once from Los Angeles to Modesto.
"I think I'm more nervous about that than about anything," she said.
The Sierrases have four children -- Ethan, 11; Kayla, 8; Logan, 3; and Eleanor, 1 month. The couple will take the older two children with them and leave the younger two with relatives.
"My husband is beside himself (with anticipation)," Sierras said. "My daughter was supposed to receive her first communion with the rest of her class in May. But they've arranged for her to receive her first communion this weekend so she can receive communion from the pope when we go."
Dan Sierras, who attended a Catholic church in Tracy as a youngster and teenager, said he is thrilled about the honor.
"To say I'm excited would be an understatement," he said. "It's unbelievable that she's going to be baptized by the pope, considering there are only seven people selected in the world. I'm extremely happy because it's a true blessing, what she's going to experience.
"It is exciting to think that I'll (also) be receiving communion from the pope, but to be honest, I'm really more excited for Heidi and the sacraments that she'll be receiving."
The Bee will report on Sierras' baptism in its Easter edition. The service will be broadcast on EWTN, the Catholic cable TV network.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or email@example.com.