Central Valley

Ceres woman baptized by pope now 'complete'

Heidi Sierras has been preparing for it for more than a year, and Saturday evening it happened: The 29-year- old Ceres woman was baptized by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome's St. Peter's Basilica, followed by confirmation and her first Eucharist as a new member of the Catholic Church.

"I feel complete now," she said via e-mail after the service. "I felt empty before, but now I am complete."

The three-hour Easter Vigil service, the most holy Mass of the year, was said in Latin and Italian, with five Scripture readings in Spanish, German, French, English and Italian. It ended shortly after midnight in Rome and was carried live in the Modesto area on EWTN, the Catholic cable TV network.

Wearing a stylish black suit with her hair curling around her shoulders, Sierras was one of five adults who were baptized and received Holy Communion from the hand of the pope. The others -- a woman and two men from Italy and a woman from China -- also received the rare honor.

In the congregation were about 40 of Sierras' family and friends from St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Modesto, including the pastor, the Rev. Joseph Illo, and Sierras' sponsor, Wilma Cabacungan, who also participated in the service.

The pope baptizes as many as seven people a year, representing the seven continents of the world. Sierras represented North and South America.

Sierras and her husband, Daniel, and their two oldest children, Ethan, 10, and Kayla, 9, flew to Rome on April 2. The two younger children, Logan, 4, and Eleanor, 3 months, stayed at home with relatives.

Illo, who phoned from Rome about 1:30 a.m. his time, said Kayla Sierras looked at her mother after the service and "said with an impish smile, 'You do look different, Mom!' "

Adults who want to convert to the Catholic faith must take a one- or two-year education program. All are then baptized during their parish's Easter Vigil service before they are confirmed by their priest and take their first Holy Communion. Had Sierras not been invited to Rome, she would have been baptized last year at St. Joseph's.

Bishop Stephen Blaire, the head of the Stockton Diocese, stepped in to lead the Easter Vigil at the Modesto church Saturday evening because of Illo's trip to Rome.

Resurrection of Christ

The service in Rome began after sunset. The pope lit the single Paschal Candle and proceeded into the silent, dark basilica to proclaim the resurrection of Christ. Then, similar to candlelight services at Christmas, priests and the congregation began lighting their candles from the one candle until the white and gold of the church's walls and columns became visible.

Sierras and the other congregants received a lighted candle and a white garment -- a lacy mantilla for the women and a plain shoulder covering for the men -- later in the service.

Pope Benedict's homily before the baptism focused on seeing the resurrection theme in light, water and a new song, or hallelujah. "The resurrection of Jesus is the eruption of light ... the light of the world," he said. The image, he said, "is especially for those baptized, for whom this light enters deeply in their hearts."

Baptism, he said, "is not only a cleansing, but a new birth. ... Without water, there is no life."

After his homily came the sacrament of baptism. Each of the chosen five moved forward to a fount of water, where the Holy Father poured two handfuls of water over their heads. He later called them forward to his papal chair, where he confirmed them individually with an anointing of sacred oil and a blessing.

After the confirmation, the five brought the Communion elements to the pope, where they were blessed, and then received Communion from his hand as priests served other congregants.

"For all 11 years of my marriage, my husband, and then my children, could receive Jesus in Holy Communion, but I could not," Sierras said before the service. "Now I will be able to receive (Jesus) tonight."

Illo, who participated with hundreds of other priests in the service, said, "Having one of our own church members baptized at St. Peter's has brought 20 centuries ... of the Catholic Church home to all of us from Modesto. It has been a thoroughly enjoyable, and enlightening, experience."

Touring holy sites

Earlier in the week, Sierras participated in a tour and Mass in the catacombs, where early Christians hid from the oppressive Roman Empire officials and also were buried; toured the excavations beneath St. Peter's Basilica and the tomb of the Apostle Peter; and visited St. Paul's tomb, along with other sites where saints were martyred.

"Walking among the tombs of the martyrs and saints of the early church really puts a physical aspect on what I've learned about Christianity over the last two years," Sierras said. "We are walking in the footsteps that Christians took before us."

Today, the family will attend Mass in St. Peter's Square before they return home.

By special arrangement, EWTN will post a link to Sierras' baptism online at www.ewtn.com/whatsnew.asp for Bee readers. Look for it late Monday or early Tuesday. EWTN will leave it there for a week, a spokeswoman said.

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or snowicki@modbee.com.

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