Becoming Catholic in the age of scandal

On the night before Easter, a group of soon-to-be Catholics stood in flowing white robes holding candles, waiting to be summoned by the cardinal. One by one, under the cathedral’s soaring ceiling and stained glass windows, he dabbed oil onto their foreheads, praying, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

The Roman Catholic Church is an institution roiled by scandal. Its handling of an epidemic of child sex abuse has brought scrutiny from law enforcement and undermined the moral authority of bishops, who have struggled to assuage followers whose confidence in the church, and in them, has eroded.

But those lined up weren’t thinking about that.

“Welcome to fullness in the church,” Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, told the 15 people converting to Catholicism — known as catechumens — after they had been baptized, confirmed and received communion, the sacraments that solidified their entry into the Catholic Church. “You’ll always have a home here with us.”

The Easter vigil service is when the church welcomes newcomers.

There were thousands of people in the New York area going through the same rites of initiation as the group gathered that night in the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark.

The Archdiocese of Newark alone saw more than 1,000 people receiving the sacraments this Easter, roughly the same number of people as have been welcomed fully into the church each year over the past decade.

When she and her ex-husband married, she promised to raise their children in the church.

She continued to attend Mass because it was easier than dropping the girls off and coming back to pick them up.

The Diocese of Brooklyn, where just over 1,000 people received sacraments for the first time this Easter, also said its numbers were on par with prior years.

Many catechumens this Easter were part of groups that were well over a dozen people, huddled together in large churches. But there was also a service with just one woman, surrounded by family and friends, alone in her neighborhood parish.

Why convert, and why now?

It is not a capricious choice. Converting required months of preparation, diving into the abundance of rituals and traditions of Catholicism and the theology that underpins it all.

For each catechumen, there was a different path.

Finding God, gradually

Many of the other worshipers at St. Rose of Lima in Short Hills, N.J., had assumed that Joanna Huang (pictured) was already a Catholic.

She had been in Mass nearly every Sunday for a decade, and she brought her daughters, now teenagers, to religious education classes.

In truth, her daughters were Catholic because it was the religion of her ex-husband.

When they married, she had promised to raise their children in the church.

She continued to attend Mass because it was easier than dropping the girls off and coming back to pick them up.

She had not been especially spiritual before, but she found herself looking forward to the readings and to having a set-aside time to reflect. At some point, she said, a belief in God took hold.

“I don’t know if it was five years into it, or three years,” Ms. Huang, 49, said. “It was a gradual process.”

Ms. Huang, who works in marketing and strategy for a technology company, said the shadow of scandal has not crept into her relationship with the church, as she has gotten to know priests and sisters through her initiation.

She appreciated the sense of community at her parish and the way she saw faith shaping her daughters. Her younger daughter, a competitive skater, says a short prayer before stepping onto the ice. It also helped them weather the divorce.

“It helped to have that faith,” she said, “to know that God has a plan for them.”

Her daughters had pushed her to be baptized, telling her, “You’re more Catholic than a lot of Catholics we see.” Yet when she casually inquired about the conversion process roughly a year ago, she did not expect that she would be standing at the front of St. Rose of Lima as this year’s only catechumen, her daughters serving as her godmothers as she was baptized.

She figured it must be part of a plan. Continue reading

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