The moving experience of converts
Marcia Easterling was born and raised a Southern Baptist. She grew up and married a good Baptist man in the sanctuary of a Baptist church. So the first time her husband suggested they go to Mass at a Catholic church, she says, “I had enough Southern Baptist in me. I said, ‘No, no, not a Catholic church.’”
Although she and her husband were dissatisfied with the church they were attending, there was no way she could march straight into the land of incense and rosaries and beer at the fish fries. So the Easterlings became Episcopalian. “That’s almost Catholic,” she says. “That’s Catholic without being Catholic. It’s Catholic but still Protestant.”
Fast-forward. In August 2005 Easterling and her husband, Rick, along with their two children, were received into the Catholic Church in Richmond, Virginia. Before she ever spoke to a priest, Easterling had read a shelf-full of books on Catholicism. She was transfixed by the coverage of Pope John Paul II’s funeral and of the conclave to pick his successor.
“What fascinated me was [that] everybody said the same thing. Everybody was on the same page,” Easterling recalls. “Yes, it’s a big umbrella. There are differences. But fundamentally everybody was on the same page.”
That Sunday Easterling and her husband went to Mass for the first time. They haven’t missed a week since.
In some ways, the Easterlings are the exception to the rule: Most adult converts come to the Catholic Church through marriage or family connections. Brad Young, for example, started attending Mass with his Catholic girlfriend when both were students at Penn State University. They later married and moved to New Jersey. And on Christmas Eve 2004—that blessed night when Brad and his wife, Kate, brought their newborn daughter, Lily, home from the hospital—a nun from their parish brought Communion to Kate. Brad knew then he wanted to become part of the church, too.
As a child he had been baptized Catholic, but it pretty much stopped there. “I wasn’t encouraged to go to church,” Young says, “and I didn’t.”
But now the Mass had meaning for him. He didn’t want his daughter to ask someday, “Why aren’t you going up for Communion when Mommy does?” So Young began the process of preparation. In June 2006 he received First Communion and Confirmation on the same day.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of myself than I was on that day,” Young says. “I realized I knew what I believed in, and this was a confirmation, literally, of those beliefs. It was something I needed to do to be the person I knew I wanted to be.”
Honey, I’m home
This is in some ways both an exciting and challenging time for the Catholic Church, faced with a new pope and a scandal over sexual abuse that has broken the hearts of many believers. Yet people still choose Catholicism—some with an excitement over orthodox teachings, some with questions but a willingness to step forward in faith.
The stories of how people end up becoming Catholic can often be surprising. Many converts feel a pull toward Catholicism they can’t quite put into words. When they join the church, they feel they have finally come to the place God wants them to be.
“We found our home,” Easterling says. “It’s been the best thing we ever did.”
This is usually not a totally private journey. In most parishes people become Catholic through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA—a combination of prayer, study, faith sharing, and liturgy involving the whole congregation.
Last year, according to the Official Catholic Directory, more than 150,000 adults were initiated into the Catholic Church in the United States, 80,817 through adult baptism, and 73,684 who were received into full communion, meaning they had already been baptized (either as Catholics or in another Christian tradition) but had not received the sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation.
Some of the converted
• Dorothy Day, social activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker
• Father Thomas Merton, Trappist monk
• St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, founder of Sisters of Charity in the United States and first person born in the U.S. to be canonized
• St. Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), Carmelite nun and Holocaust victim
• John Ellis (Jeb) Bush, governor of Florida and brother of President George W. Bush
• G.K. Chesterton, British poet
• Graham Greene, British novelist
• Walker Percy, American writer
• Gustav Mahler, Austrian composer
• Gary Cooper and Faye Dunaway, actors
• Knute Rockne, Notre Dame football coach
• Kim Dae-Jung, Nobel laureate and former president of South Korea
• J.R.R. Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh, British writers
• Peggy Noonan, journalist and author
• Robert Novak, conservative syndicated columnist
• Arlo Guthrie, folk singer and social activist
• Cardinal John Henry Newman, British theologian
• Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., theologian
• Scott Hahn, former Presbyterian minister and author, with his wife, Kimberly, of Rome, Sweet Home (Ignatius Press)
• Father Richard John Neuhaus, founding editor of the conservative Catholic journal First Things
“They are the best thing to come out of Vatican II,” says Maureen Grisanti Larison, consultant for adult formation and initiation for the Archdiocese of Louisville. “Their spiritual renewal has renewed the rest of us. They don’t have a set of expectations that we should or shouldn’t do this. They appreciate that this is a catholic church. There is room at the table for everybody, and we’re not all alike.”
The stories of conversion to Catholicism are personal—often an interweaving of the rational and the longings of the heart. Larison met one woman in her late 60s who had always wanted to become Catholic but whose mother, a fundamentalist Protestant, “thought Catholics were Satan himself.” When the woman’s mother died, both she and her sister became Catholic.
Some have endured tremendous losses. One man who had nursed his wife through a serious illness said of his wife, “She had something I just want,” recounts Barbara Klocke, who helps run the RCIA program for St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville, New York. “She had such peace at the end of her life. It had something to do with her faith.”
Antony Hanson of Minneapolis grew up a fundamentalist Protestant in a church with a strong anti-Catholic streak. In time he became an evangelical minister. During the Easter Vigil in 2006 he became a Catholic—the result of gradual theological changes over many years in how he viewed the Eucharist and an immersion in the Benedictine tradition.
After leaving ministry and being influenced by Kathleen Norris’ book The Cloister Walk (Riverhead Trade), Hanson—who now works as a coffee-roaster—began visiting St. John’s Abbey and “hanging out with Benedictine monks.” Their approach to simple living and prayer without ceasing has permeated his life, and he now views conversion as a continual, unending process.
Hanson does not agree with all that the Catholic Church teaches. But he eventually came to believe that Catholicism “was the church of Jesus Christ....The historical continuity going all the way back to Peter was powerful. That was important to me, and I couldn’t deny it. Even though I may feel like there are things I really think are wrong with the Catholic Church, I have to be Catholic,” he says.
A child shall lead them
For many, marriage and family become the door into the Catholic Church, especially as couples with children decide they want the whole family sitting in the same pew.
David Yamane, an assistant professor of sociology at Wake Forest University, is the co-author of Real Stories of Christian Initiation (Liturgical Press), based on a study of the RCIA programs at six parishes in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. Yamane says few of the people from his study “were just people off the street who had an interest in Catholicism.”
Many had married Catholics and had children, and the tipping point often came when the children were baptized, ready to start Catholic school, or preparing for First Communion. A 2000 study on the RCIA from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops found that 83 percent of married RCIA participants had a Catholic spouse.
“I think that resonates with most everyone’s experience in parishes—that marriage has become the frontline of evangelization,” says Father Paul Turner, pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron, Missouri, who has written about the RCIA.
People now become Catholic through marriage because they choose to, Turner says. A few decades back the rules were different. Non-Catholics had to promise to raise the children Catholic if they wanted to be married in the church, so some felt pressured to convert.
“If you couldn’t get married without joining the church, that would have been pretty strong coercion,” Turner says. “You would have to wonder about the sincerity of the conversion.”
The whole package
Some might expect that the clergy sexual abuse scandal would push people away from Catholicism. And for some both the church’s official teachings and the sexual abuse cases have proved an impediment. But RCIA directors also say that many people are willing to consider the sexual abuse scandal in a broader context, looking at the strengths of the church as well as its weaknesses.
The RCIA process also can be a time for people to lay on the table what they really think about the Catholic Church. They come with questions: What’s with all the statues in the church? What do Catholics think about Mary? What’s an annulment anyway?
“We also tell them there aren’t that many things in the Catholic Church that you really must believe,” Klocke says. “There are a lot of things that we believed or practiced at one time that we no longer do, like [eating] fish on Friday. Right from the get-go we say that no question is unimportant, so please don’t hesitate.”
For some converts, the road to Catholicism begins with the liturgy. They are drawn by the beauty and mystery of the Mass, by the sacramental richness of Catholic worship.
“The liturgy is a huge evangelization tool,” Jim Schellman, executive director of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, says. “It speaks deeply to people’s hearts.”
Others are introduced to the faith through the example set by Catholics they know at work or in their communities. “We see a lot of people come because of neighbors, friends, co-workers,” Larison says. “Someone will say, ‘I work with a lady and she is so positive.’”
Schellman hopes that insight will get folks thinking about the evangelistic possibilities of everyday life. For many Catholics, “when you say evangelization, I think they hear evangelism” and feel uncomfortable, he says.
“It turns a lot of us off because it sounds like you’re kind of pushing people around, telling them what they need and inviting them to convert to Jesus Christ. I think if we as a Catholic people are going to learn the vision and vocation of evangelization, we’re going to have to learn that it’s at least 50 percent listening for what God is already doing in people’s lives.”
All are welcome
For some, such as Brad Young, the RCIA process proves such a significant faith experience they later become RCIA volunteers.
The media often portray the Catholic Church as “unaccepting, rigid, structured—they’re not going to let you in,” Young says. But in his parish, St. Michael’s in Cranford, New Jersey, “I’ve found such an accepting, open-armed” community.
That doesn’t always happen. There are plenty of stories, for example, of people who are told to wait for months until the next RCIA class starts or who’ve been divorced and feel put off by the Catholic annulment process.
Strictly speaking, parishes should not be treating all RCIA candidates alike. There should be different approaches, for example, for someone who’s never been baptized and or gone to church, and someone who’s been a Baptist Sunday school teacher for years. One involves brand-new faith in Jesus Christ, the other a deepening faith formation.
But often parishes don’t have the resources, the expertise, or the creativity to make such distinctions. In many places RCIA classes begin in September and everyone is initiated into the church during Easter Vigil, even though the reality is that not everyone interested in Catholicism shows up at the church at the same time of the year.
“That is a problem,” Schellman says. “The rite is very clear that the only baptized people who belong in the catechumenate process are those who lack serious formation” in the Christian faith. For practicing Christians from another tradition, “you are to provide them just what they need, and no further obstacles should be put in the way.”
The church also struggles with cultural differences and finding ways to make new Catholics feel truly welcome regardless of race or ethnicity. “They need to feel the full embrace of the church of their whole person, and that includes their ethnic and cultural background,” Schellman says.
A Hispanic from an evangelical Protestant background or an African American accustomed to black gospel music “can’t be asked to be something they’re not” in order to become Catholic, he says.
For long-time Catholics, the liturgy that initiates people into the church also can be like shining a light into the depths of the familiar.
Larison recalls one Mass during the Rite of Acceptance, when the priest used the full liturgy available for making a public declaration of faith. The person making the declaration is asked to accept the gospel and to follow Jesus, then is marked head-to-toe with the sign of the cross.
A 12-year-old boy watched as his adult sponsor knelt to make the sign of the cross on the boy’s feet. The boy said later—tears welling in his eyes—that no adult had ever knelt to pronounce God’s blessing on him, not even his parents.
One young woman who joined the church had never been baptized. She was terrified of water, Larison says, but was joining the church in a parish that celebrates Baptism by immersion. For months the woman said, “I want to do this, but I don’t know if I can get in the water.”
Then Easter Vigil came. The woman approached the font. She took her pastor’s hand, and “it was incredible,” Larison says. When she emerged from the font, her face was radiant, completely calm.
Leslie Scanlon is a writer and former newspaper columnist from Kentucky. This article appeared in the December 2006 (Volume 71, Number 12; pages 12-17) issue of U.S. Catholic.