Catholic Converts Not Shaken by Scandal

Some 150,000 Americans will officially become Catholics this Holy Saturday, celebrating a time, in the Christian world, of repentance and renewal. The large number of those converting to Roman Catholicism comes despite the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the church over the past few years.

Catholic clergy and scholars say those who come into the church have various reasons for doing so. Some are inspired by family members who are Catholic, while others find the church as they explore faith groups until they feel at home.

And still more are those who were baptized but never really practiced until adulthood.

"People come to church on their own terms," said David Gibson, author of The Coming Catholic Church. "They find something beyond the priest or bishop or even the pope that they find attractive about Catholicism."

Gibson attributes the numbers of those joining the church to the idea that in uncertain times, Americans find a "real anchor" in the Catholic faith.

Conversion Tradition

Each year on Holy Saturday — the day before Easter, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus — the Catholic Church receives many men and women wishing to convert. New members are welcomed through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, in which non-baptized men and women are officially recognized as a members of the church.

They must complete a process of conversion as they study the Gospel, profess faith in Jesus Christ and receive the sacraments of baptism, Holy Eucharist, and confirmation. For some, the entire process may take several years.

Jessica Olivas, 21, is one of the thousands becoming a Catholic today. She began her journey three years ago as an Army private in South Korea, where she started attending Mass.

"It was such a welcoming," she said, "I knew that was it for me and I really wanted to be a full-fledged Catholic from then and there."

Now living near Tacoma, Wash., Olivas says she spent a tremendous amount of time learning everything there was to know about the religion. Although she was not baptized early in life, Olivas comes from a family with Catholic roots.

Her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were all Catholic, but her father was Pentecostal and very against the Catholic Church.

Church Plagued by Scandal

The past two years have damaged the Catholic Church. The sexual abuse scandal involving hundreds of priests led many to question the institution, and cost the church members. Church officials worried potential converts would shy away.

Olivas says scandal never deterred her.

"There is no perfect religion," she said. "We are all humans. Religions are created by humans."

And, she added, "Not every single priest is bad."

Many of these new converts are seeking tradition. They do not want to change the church, or modernize it. They endorse the traditional teachings of the Vatican.

In St. Paul, Minn., Cheryl and Tom Belden are converting this weekend, too. They have no history in the Catholic faith, but instead they say their conversion is because of their 32-year-old son, Cory, who was ordained as a priest in 2002.

As one church official put it, the large number of conversions is "good news in challenging times."

Gibson agrees.

"The new immigrants, as I call them, are changing the church," he said, "but not necessarily changing it into some sort of revolutionary or reformist direction. The trending up and the steadiness of these numbers, despite the terrible years the church has had, I think, really reflects on the desire of many Americans to find a faith as an adult on their own terms."

And, Gibson said, "The fact that other Catholics, who have lived with this scandal and crisis for so long, are seeing these tens of thousands of new Catholics come into the church can't help but be a source of hope and renewal for the future of the Catholic Church."