Easter Conversion ‘Boom’

Some U.S. Dioceses Report Large Numbers of New Catholics

Editor's note: This has been updated since the print version went to press.


WASHINGTON — Speaking of the prospect of becoming a Catholic at this year’s Easter vigil, Sheila Bidzinski, a 36-year-old mother of two little boys, excitedly admits, "I hope I won’t pass out, but I have told my husband he has to get behind me in case he has to catch me."

When Bidzinski, who has been studying the Catholic faith with a group at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Derwood, Md., comes into the Church, she will be participating in what one commentator has dubbed "a boom."

The Archdiocese of Washington, where Bidzinski’s parish is located, will welcome the largest number of candidates and catechumens ever recorded for the archdiocese this Easter. The archdiocese will baptize or confirm 1,311 adults, children and teenagers this Easter.

"What we have seen for the past three years is a steady, incremental increase [in the number of people coming into the Church at Easter]," said Sara Blauvelt, director for catechesis of the Archdiocese of Washington. Blauvelt said that she finds it "particularly exciting" that there has been "a significant increase in the number of catechumens."

Catechumens are people who have never been baptized into any Christian church, while candidates are those who have been baptized and are seeking full communion with the Catholic Church.

More than half the people coming into the Church in Washington this Easter will be catechumens.

"To be baptized as an adult is a remarkable thing, and it shows that something has changed in this person’s life," Blauvelt said.

Although no national figures on the number of people coming into the Church this Easter are available, several dioceses are reporting a larger-than-usual number this Easter. Evidence suggests that a number of other dioceses have slight increases or are holding steady.


St. Petersburg and Boston

Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., for example — where around 1,100 new Catholics will be welcomed at the Easter vigil — blogged on the diocesan website that this is the largest number in his 18 years as bishop there.

"The place was packed with people standing at both services," Bishop Lynch commented about the Rite of Election, held the first Sunday in Lent, at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle.

The Rite of Election is a ceremony that calls for the bishop or his delegate to welcome catechumens, who inscribe their names in a book. Catechumens are properly called "the elect" after this rite, which takes place in the context of the Mass. There is a similar ceremony called the Rite of Calling the Candidates to Continuing Conversion for baptized candidates.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Boston Archdiocese welcomed a larger-than-usual crowd to the Rite of Election at his Cathedral of the Holy Cross. The number of catechumens and candidates — about 650 — necessitated two separate ceremonies.

After the two ceremonies, a pleased Cardinal O’Malley blogged, "It was the largest group that we have had in recent memory and about 100 more than last year. Perhaps it is the ‘Francis Effect.’ I do not know!"

Father Jonathan Gaspar, a secretary to Cardinal O’Malley, said that this was the largest number in a decade, though before the sexual scandals involving priests broke, it was not unusual for the archdiocese to welcome nearly 1,000 new Catholics at Easter.

Father Gaspar attributed the upswing to evangelization programs put into place by Cardinal O’Malley and to the appeal of Pope Francis, who was elected to the papacy a little more than a year ago.

"Obviously, the Holy Father has awakened in people’s minds and hearts a new appreciation for the Church," said Father Gaspar.

"I think we will see a ‘Francis Effect’ in the future," said Blauvelt of the Washington Archdiocese, but she cautioned that "the decision to come into the Church is not a quick decision," adding that this year’s catechumens and candidates had probably begun thinking about becoming Catholic before Pope Francis was elected.

"People look for something deep and transcendent to become an anchor in their lives," Blauvelt said when asked what reasons people give for entering the Church. "[The large number of people coming into the Church this year] is the work of the Holy Spirit," she said. "People are finding life challenging and seeking some solid grounding."


Touched by Truth

As might be expected for a diocese in the South, the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky. — which is welcoming 448 new Catholics at Easter, a number consistent with other years — often has candidates who grew up Southern Baptist.

Brian Phillips, 39, who lives in Louisville, is one of these. Phillips married a Catholic and was attracted to the Church, but "had some hurdles to overcome," he said. He added, "They were mostly because of misunderstandings."

For someone brought up in a Protestant tradition, finding the roots of Catholic doctrine in the Bible can be particularly helpful, Phillips said. Phillips said he was fascinated to learn that the nature of the Eucharist, apostolic succession and other aspects of Catholic teaching that were initially strange to him are in the Bible. "I am discovering a lot of truth in my journey," Phillips said, "but I am just starting that journey."

Like Phillips, Taylor Sanford — another man who grew up in a Baptist family and is coming into the Church in the Louisville Archdiocese — wanted to get to the heart of Church teaching.

"The history behind [Catholic doctrine] is pretty neat," said Sanford, 21. He also likes the sense of community.

"Whenever you exchange the peace, you are so enlightened and moved," he said.

Robbie Goldman, 35, of greater Boston, attributes his initial interest in the Catholic Church to "some really tough times when I didn’t know if I would make it, but started talking to God. I wasn’t sure at first that the Catholic Church was for me. People have misconceptions about religion, particularly the Catholic Church."

Something else also happened. Realtors twice offered Goldman and his wife a house near St. Theresa Church. The first time, they didn’t move into the house, but the second time they did.

"Looking back, maybe there was some reason I was supposed to be here," said Goldman, who began attending Mass and ultimately the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at St. Theresa. Goldman and his wife, who was brought up Catholic, had a "Vegas wedding," but Goldman explained, "We had our marriage regularized in the Church, and that was really a good experience. I’d love for more people to know that RCIA is out there and available."

Elsewhere, Father Rob Walsh, chaplain of the Catholic Student Center at the University of Maryland in the Washington Archdiocese, is excited that 20 students are coming into the Church at the Easter vigil.

What’s the secret? Father Walsh thinks it’s quite simple: evangelization. It is essential to invite people to come into the Church.

"I know there is a lot of talk about Pope Francis, and I am a big fan of the Holy Father," said Father Walsh, "but I’m not sure kids are latching onto that. But we do push evangelization here. I tell the kids, ‘Eat all the chocolate you want during Lent. What I want you to do is go to Mass. Go to confession. If it’s been six months, it’s time to go to confession." It is important, said Father Walsh, for young people on campus to encounter people who are practicing their faith.


Pope Francis’ Example

In Cleveland, there are 100 more catechumens and candidates than last year, totaling 511.

Jeanne Marie Miles, director of the Office of Worship for the Cleveland Diocese, attributes the increase to Pope Francis.

"Pope Francis’ history of simple living, combined with his rejection of some of the more worldly trappings of the papacy, has, for many, made conforming oneself to Christ and living as a Catholic relevant to the unchurched; indeed, to cradle Catholics as well. Like his namesake, Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis is leading by example, and many are following."

Others are noticing the increasing numbers, too.

"If I thought it something to joke about," said Robert Royal of the Faith and Reason Institute, "I might argue that [all these converts] are fleeing the wrath to come. But there does seem to be some sense abroad that the Church is a real haven from much that is cresting just now. I hear it from American evangelicals. There’s the case of that pastor (and his wife) — in Sweden, of all places — who gave up his position at a megachurch with 3,000 souls to become a Catholic. And, of course, Francis is a kind of global magnet, though in ways difficult to pin down. In any event, it encourages us all to stay at the work."

Meanwhile, people are preparing to take that momentous step into the Church at the Easter vigil. One in the Archdiocese of Washington is a young man confined to a wheelchair who knew every word of every hymn sung during the Rite of Election and belted them out joyfully.

An RCIA director said that Sara Blauvelt, who had been helping the young man to his place, watched the robust singing and leaned over to the RCIA instructor to say, "You know, usually, I like my job. But today I love my job."

Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.