Capturing Catholic conversions

convert2 After that big Pew study came out, Catholic leaders wondered why their members are leaving the faith. Inside Catholic devoted a whole forum to the issue, while Catholic intellectuals such as Thomas Reese, S.J. commented about it.

Catholic leaders often think that the media gives their faith short shrift, so it was refreshing to see The Dallas Morning News run a local version of this national story. Special correspondent Jean Nash Johnson found, intriguingly, that the Dallas archdiocese is welcoming an abundance, not a dearth, of Catholic converts.

The first few paragraphs of Johnson’s story were first rate. She led with the story of Matthew Parks, a convert whose life story sounds like it should be made into a TV movie on EWTN or would have been featured on Bishop Sheen’s show 50 years ago:

“I don’t want to put too much expectation on the event, but next to becoming sober, it will probably be the most exponential event of my life,” Mr. Parks said. “It’s really going to be an awesome experience. It’s overwhelming to think about, to finally consume the Body of Christ.”

Mr. Parks moved to Dallas a year ago after what he described as a “long problem with drug abuse,” and began study of the Catholic faith after joining initiates at St. Mark. The initiation period is nine months to a year and culminates at Easter.

Parks’ story had many of the elements of a Catholic morality tale: the lost sheep who through his dissolution comes to Christ and yearns to partake of the Body and the Blood. Parks is the real deal. To her credit, Johnson featured him.

(My lone quibble, and readers have criticized me for this, is that I wanted to know more details about Parks’ story. What drugs was he he abusing? What brought him to the Catholic Church? What turned his life around?)

Johnson’s story had more than a strong narrative. It also put the Dallas archdiocese’s situation in a national context:

The Dallas convert count does appear to be significant. The Archdiocese of Detroit, for example, lists 589 catechumens and 497 from other Christian faiths receiving Communion; an additional 289 baptized Catholics are receiving sacraments.

The rise in conversions brings good news to the Dallas diocese after a recent study of religion in America showing that Catholicism has had the largest drop attributed to change of religion. Nearly one in three Americans were brought up Catholic; fewer than one in four now list Catholic as their religious affiliation, the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey showed.

The Pew report has valid points. It does not apply to the experience in Dallas,” said the Rev. Kevin Joseph Farrell, bishop of the Diocese of Dallas. “When I was in the Northeast, parishes were closing. The South, Southwest and West have the fastest-growing [Catholic] populations. Not just because of immigrants coming from the south who are already Catholic. Many are people who are returning to the church and folks moving here from the Northeast. We have a wave of immigrants and a wave of migrants.”

The three paragraphs were impressive: full of local and national statistics as well as regional analysis. Bishop Farrell’s quotes were particularly informative. Rare is the time that sources provide regional breakdowns of trends. Again, to her credit, Johnson got this illuminating quote.

At this point in the story, readers were hooked. Alas, Johnson let them down a bit.

She failed to pin point why the Dallas archdiocese has gotten so many converts. Yes, Bishop Farrell’s quotes suggest that the archdiocese is simply the recipient of favorable trends. Is that true? Careful readers, and certainly Catholic leaders, will wonder if the archdiocese is finding ways to reach potential converts. In other words, the archdiocese might be pro active rather than passive or a combination of the two.

The flaw isn’t a big deal. Johnson’s story overall was interesting and well executed.

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  • Eric W

    Here’s an Easter Catholic conversion story for you!

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080322/ap_on_re_eu/pope_muslim_convert

    Pope baptizes prominent Italian Muslim

    By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press Writer
    VATICAN CITY – Italy’s most prominent Muslim, an iconoclastic writer who condemned Islamic extremism and defended Israel, converted to Catholicism Saturday in a baptism by the pope at a Vatican Easter service.

    An Egyptian-born, non-practicing Muslim who is married to a Catholic, Magdi Allam infuriated some Muslims with his books and columns in the newspaper Corriere della Sera newspaper, where he is a deputy editor. He titled one book “Long Live Israel.” (click on link for the whole article)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    It is possible, of course, to have many, many converts — while there is another trend to have many more people leaving. This was the case in the Episcopal church throughout the 1980s.

    So there are other numbers we would need to know in the Dallas case to get the whole picture. Right?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Our Catholic parish is in the midst of a convert “boom.” Among those who entered the Catholic Church through our parish is an ordained woman Protestant minister (this drives the nun priest wannabes absolutely nuts).
    The minster told me that her church had no business ordaining her. She said she came to that conclusion after years of reading the Bible as a diligent Bible-believing Protestant. She also studied the arguments made by scholars and historians on both sides of the issue. Her biggest mistake in seeking to become a Catholic was approaching a Catholic parish where the conversion program (RCIA) was run by a Modernist nun who told her to get lost. Thus she wound up on our doorstep (the nearest Catholic parish to where she was born).
    Someday I would like to see a MSM article on converts to the Catholic Church like her. But they are too busy interviewing Catholic malcontents who have swallowed the liberal religious agenda and want to make the Catholic Church into the Roman Episcopal Church with atheists and practicing gays approved as bishops.

  • Laura

    I know this isn’t exactly specific to the subject, but as a revert to the faith, going on 6 years now, I’ve just gotta say to all those entering the Church at the Easter vidgle, Welcome Home!

  • http://speakingleft.blogspot.com Bob R.

    For about two years, I’ve been thinking about converting to Catholicism (currently, a non-practicing evangelical). But I keep running into two walls:

    1) I’m not sure where to start. Just call up the local Catholic church and say “Hey, I’m thinking about going Catholic?” I’ve looked at my local church’s website, and see that their “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults” requires two hours a week (in addition to Mass, etc.) for seven months. Sadly, this is not the sort of thing that works for a graduate student, whose days are planned down to the last minute. Is this the norm?

    2) I am repulsed by the vitriol in statements like these: “they are too busy interviewing Catholic malcontents who have swallowed the liberal religious agenda and want to make the Catholic Church into the Roman Episcopal Church with atheists and practicing gays approved as bishops.” This is the same sort of overblown rhetoric of fear, hatred, and false persecution that drove me away from my other church. I want to be part of a church where the members can be rational and faithful, but it’s statements like Bresnahan’s that make me wonder whether I’ll find that in the Catholic church.

  • FW Ken

    Bob R – yes, RCIA is a commitment to several months of classes, plus, of course Mass. It sounds to me like you really want to an Episcopalian. While there is certainly an Episcopalian wing of the Catholic Church in the U.S., I’m afraid you would find them as outspoken as any of us. I think you will find Episcopalians much nicer people, and they have better liturgy to boot. Best wishes.

    Down to the article, though: the other statistical issue in the DMN article is linear context. For example, the article says Fort Worth has 900 people this year. What it doesn’t say is that last year we had 1100. And remember, that’s folks newly baptized, some baptized folks coming into the Church, and (this is the most of them) folks baptized Catholic who never received Confirmation and/or First Communion. My parish was down from a total of 64 last year to 40 this, with 3 adult baptisms (2 conditional), 16 or so older children being baptized, 1 adult being received (down from 4), and the rest completing their Sacraments. Our First Communion class is down from 260 to about 200 this year.

    The other bit of context that would be helpful is that the Dallas diocese has grown over time. If you scroll down to the bottom of this chart, you’ll see that the Catholic Church in Dallas has grown by half again since 2000, increasing from 20% of the population to 27.6%. So this isn’t just a one year event.

    Finally, I think a better comparison to have used would be Dallas to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. There are a lot of the same dynamics in both regions.

  • Brian V

    Bob R.

    Thank you for saying what had to be said. Just as the two hardest things about monastic life are onself and other monks, the hardest things about Catholicism, if that’s truly where one is called, are onself and other Catholics. We had one catecheumen and three candidates last night at our vigil; only one was baptized Catholic and completing his intitiation. After the nearly three hour liturgy, I told one of the newly received the line I started using some years ago in such situations, “Welcome home. Sorry we left the house in such a mess.”

    Catholics make up a huge, messy global family, and I honestly don’t know any families without internal squabbles and clung-to grievances. You should know that entering this Church can put you in the middle of some very ugly arguments. Triumphalism of any sort — no matter is if styles itself traditional, progessive or centrist — seems more invested in being right than in participating in the life of Christ.

    To be honest, Catholics don’t have a monopoly on smugness and triumphalism. I can’t recall having a conversation with the local Episcopal priest — a good man of faith, mind you — that didn’t include some pointed and usually ill-informed jab at “you backward Catholics.” Similarly, I’m in love with much of Orthodoxy and, when I can, bask in the beauty of Divine Liturgy, even if I cannot receive communion as a non-Orthodox. I find most cradle-Orthodox and foreign born Orthodox delightful — I even had a lovely conversation in broken English with a Romanian Orthodox bishop who asked me,”What do you like about being Orthodox?” Realizing my attempt to explain I was a Latin had failed, I simply said,” All my Orthodox friends are very happy.” It wasn’t completely true, though. Sadly, I have found far too many North American converts to Orthodoxy priggishly obsessed with being right and pointing out where others are wrong. My friend, the poet Scott Cairns, is a wonderful exception to that pattern, but notes a harsh, inhospitable edge to some new American Orthodox in his recent memoir, Short Trip to the Edge.

    It’s all too bad, but Christ is not lessened by the sinful people he gathers into the Church. The Church is a hospital for a world that doesn’t understand it’s sick, while many of the inpatients seem to think checking in is the cure itself. There’s much hard work to come, the months of preparation and liturgy being only the threshold of a lifetime — and more — of conversion. If this is where you are truly called, you’ll find the place and time.

    I don’t know if there’s a news story in any of that. On this (western) Easter Sunday, I’m not sure I care.

    Christos Anesti! Alethos Anesti!

  • Sharon D.

    Bob R.,

    Since you’re a student, I strongly suggest finding out where Catholic grad students at your university attend Mass, and go there. All three universities I attended had campus parishes, and I’ll think you’ll find a breadth of POV combined with a depth of intellectual curiosity. I went through RCIA at a campus parish, run by the Paulists, and the parish’s grad student discussion group (they allowed me to participate as an “honorary grad student”), plus much reading of John Newman, was even more useful than the RCIA classes. Anyway, a campus (or at least student-heavy) parish will appreciate the time crunch you have, and you will undoubtedly find greater flexibility.

    Joy of Easter!

  • Dave

    Bob R wrote:

    I am repulsed by the vitriol in statements like these: “they are too busy interviewing Catholic malcontents who have swallowed the liberal religious agenda and want to make the Catholic Church into the Roman Episcopal Church with atheists and practicing gays approved as bishops.” This is the same sort of overblown rhetoric of fear, hatred, and false persecution that drove me away from my other church.

    I say, rock on Deacon John. The fact that he can talk like that, and his church still lets him be a deacon, tells you all you need to know about that church.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The key is to not join a church if you do not actually believe its doctrines. If one wants to be an Episcopalian, that’s great. Join the Episcopal Church of your choice. Don’t join the Catholic church. Or the Orthodox, for that matter.

  • Ben

    Tmatt – I’d bet you’d actually be sad if you got your wish. Religions would be narrow, soulless clubs if the only people applying were those who agreed on everything. I love Brian V’s metaphor of a messy family — it speaks to membership from the heart, maybe even kinship, not the head alone. It’d be interesting to know in these newspaper stories of conversions if it was doctrine that really drew people, or something relational, and whether a good number found some reason to join *despite* some misalignments on doctrines. I thought Catholics/Orthodox used to bemoan the divisions of the Church, not celebrate the million+1 breakaways as a way to sift out the ideologically impure. If we feel we cannot join a church without 100 percent alignment on doctrine, we’ll end up each with his own church — or is that what the growing segment of the nonaffiliated represents?

  • http://blidiot.blogspot.com/ Raider51

    And yet, consider these words from Father Raniero Cantalamessa, in his Good Friday sermon:

    From this we see that today there are two possible ecumenisms: an ecumenism of faith and an ecumenism of incredulity; one that unites all those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that Christ died to save all humankind, and an ecumenism that unites all those who, in deference to the Nicene Creed, continue to proclaim these formulas but empty them of their content. It is an ecumenism in which, in its extreme form, everyone believes the same things because no one any longer believes anything, in the sense that “believing” has in the New Testament.

    “Who is it that overcomes the world,” John writes in his first letter, “if not those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:5). Sticking with this criterion, the fundamental distinction among Christians is not between Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, but between those who believe that Christ is the Son of God and those who do not believe this.

    The truth is I, an Anglican convert from Rome, am much closer to my brothers and sisters in the Church of Rome who are faithfully committed to the doctrines of their Church – because we share the fundamental belief in Jesus crucified and risen – than I am to those in the Episcopal Church who’s primary belief is that we shouldn’t be eating hamburgers.

  • http://blidiot.blogspot.com/ Raider51

    I would like to add a hearty amen to Deacon Bresnahan, above. I’d love to know the conversion story of the wife of Adm. John Poindexter (of Iran contra fame). Linda Poindexter was an Episcopal priest for 13 years, but left the clergy when she converted to Roman Catholicism. To me, that kind of submission is breathtaking in this day and age.

    Even though I believe and support the ordination of women to the priesthood, I find that this level of faith and commitment humbling and would like to know more about these stories.

  • Eric W

    # Raider51 says:
    March 23, 2008, at 7:33 pm

    I would like to add a hearty amen to Deacon Bresnahan, above. I’d love to know the conversion story of the wife of Adm. John Poindexter (of Iran contra fame). Linda Poindexter was an Episcopal priest for 13 years, but left the clergy when she converted to Roman Catholicism. To me, that kind of submission is breathtaking in this day and age.

    Even though I believe and support the ordination of women to the priesthood, I find that this level of faith and commitment humbling and would like to know more about these stories.

    There is Alice C. Linsley – From: http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2007/04/about-alice-c-linsley.html: On February 18, 2007, I entered the Antiochian Orthodox Church, taking the spiritual name “Jandy”, which is the Arabic name for Photini, the Samaritan Woman who spoke face to face with Jesus at Jacob’s well. Jandy is also the name of a little known Orthodox hermitess who lived in the Judean desert in the late 1800s. My spiritual journey has taken me from a mostly Baptist upbringing to the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, to the Episcopal priesthood. I renounced my ordination vows in March 2006, when it became evident to me that The Episcopal Church had ceased to be a Christian church.

    A 3-part interview with her here: http://www.orthodox.ipromise.be/Shows.htm

  • http://www.catholicradiointernational.com/ Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    OK, folks, bringing us back to the topic at hand, a quibble with Mark’s posting — it is the Diocese of Dallas, not the Archdiocese of Dallas. The two archdioceses in Texas are San Antonio and the more recently elevated Galveston-Houston. This is, I’m sorry to say, a basic error I would expect from the MSM, not GetReligion.

    As to Bob R., the RCIA is the norm for entering the Church. However, there are still priests who will instruct individuals in the faith. If you can’t find a priest who can either, 1) instruct you personally based on your schedule or 2) assign a knowledgeable deacon or lay person to do the same, then please contact me privately through the link above and I will see if I can locate someone in your area to help you.

    This is the same sort of overblown rhetoric of fear, hatred, and false persecution that drove me away from my other church. I want to be part of a church where the members can be rational and faithful, but it’s statements like Bresnahan’s that make me wonder whether I’ll find that in the Catholic church.

    Yes, you will find rationality and fidelity in the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI is the very model of that and his efforts to address the human problem in a rational manner should be evidence of that. That does not mean, however, that you won’t find people who are irrational and/or faithless. In fact, they make up the entirety of the Church. We are all faithless and irrational to one degree or another, which is why we have the Sacrament of Confession and every single one of us is encouraged to use it – frequently.

  • http://blidiot.blogspot.com/ Raider51

    Thank you Eric W.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Readers interested in the issue of conversion should be aware of a great book written by two women Lutheran ministers–Jennifer Ferrara and Patricia Sodano Ireland–both former Lutheran ministers now Catholic. The book is titled “The Catholic Mystique” and is published by Our Sunday Visitor.
    And I had no intention of being “vitriolic” toward the
    Episcopal Church in my earlier comment, but merely wished to state truths about some of the causes of the disintegration of that once influential and sincere church. An even stronger truth about that church was stated by one of its former woman ministers Alice C. Linsley who is now Orthodox. I thank Eric W.’s comment for reminding me that she had written that “the Episcopal Church had ceased to be a Christian church.”
    And, although the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose strong words are all over the news these days and who seems to have overdone it in some respects, is a preachers I can sympathize with for his willingness to use strong prophetic language that can shake people out of their complacency. If only a few more Christian preachers in 1930′s Germany had been willing to say “G-d D. Hitler and the Nazis” then maybe all world history would be different today.
    In otherwords what is sometimes brushed off as “vitriol” is simply truth people refuse to hear.

  • http://www.boomerinthepew.com David Porter

    I found it interesting that the Catholic Church is running commercials in the Phoenix market called Catholics Come Home.

    http://www.catholicscomehome.org/index.phtml

  • http://speakingleft.blogspot.com Bob R.

    Just a quick–and much belated–note of thanks to everyone who responded to my comment, especially Brian V., Sharon D. Ben, and Thomas Szyszkiewicz for their suggestions (which I’ll follow!). Thanks.


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