Surge in converts to Catholicism

A police officer assigned to watch over a church nursery during Mass overhears the homily and becomes intrigued. A retail manager struggling with the loss of hours at work is inspired by the faith of his fiancee. A married mother of two looks for answers after two siblings are stricken with cancer.

All have found their way to the Roman Catholic Church as members of the largest class of converts the Archdiocese of Baltimore has seen this decade. Nine hundred and eighty-four local adults are preparing to become Catholics during Holy Week this year, a third more than joined the church locally in 2008.

The surge has caught archdiocesan officials by surprise - and left them at something of a loss for explanations.

"It's really hard to say," Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien said, before suggesting a variety of possible factors: uncertain economic times, the Washington visit last year of Pope Benedict XVI, the vibrancy of individual parishes.

"We've talked about evangelization an awful lot the last couple of years," O'Brien said. "How are we presenting our parish to our neighbors? Are we friendly? Is there an outreach? Are we sensitive to their questions and to their needs?

"And I think the more active that parish is, the more people are going to want to look inside the door and say, 'What are they offering here that gives so much life and energy?'"

The uptick comes as organized religion in the United States continues its long decline. A national survey released last month found that the proportion of Americans identifying themselves as Christians fell from 86.2 percent in 1990 to 76 percent in 2008. The fastest-growing group in the American Religious Identification Survey were those who said they had no religion. They now form the second-largest segment of the U.S. population, after Catholics.

Locally, the number of converts to the church has fluctuated widely this decade, from a low of 685 in 2002 to a previous high of 887 in 2003. The national count has varied similarly and was about 136,000 last year; a figure for this year was not available.

Deborah Frazee was less concerned with religious trends than with the disease that was stalking her family. A brother and a sister both were diagnosed with cancer. Married to a Catholic at Sacred Heart Parish in Glyndon, Frazee turned to Sister Jude Cianfrogna for support.

"She told me about the classes that were on Monday nights, and she said, 'Why don't you come, just sit in a pew, no obligation,'" Frazee said. Her two sons were already enrolled in the church's religious education program, and she saw an opportunity to "take that journey" with them.

She is one of the more than 30 adults who have been attending weekly classes at Sacred Heart since September to learn about the beliefs and traditions of the church. On Saturday - the Easter Vigil, the traditional date of entry for converts - she will be confirmed into the church and be eligible to take Communion.

"The faith has helped me," said Frazee, who lost her brother in November. "Understanding the faith and believing that there is a better place once you pass. It's been nothing but positive."

This year's converts at the Church of the Nativity in Timonium illustrate the variety of ways that newcomers may approach the faith. There is the police officer who joined the class after overhearing homilies, according to parish officials. Two other members-to-be joined at the encouragement of a parishioner who has made it her mission to invite non-Catholics to church, where she sits with them and explains the Mass.

Sharon Bogusz, the archdiocesan coordinator for adult faith formation, says there are as many reasons for conversion as there are converts.

"No two stories are the same," Bogusz said. "Each person comes with a different story of how God has moved them and how their heart has changed and why they're embracing faith."

Faith was the difficult part for Phillip LaBelle, who never belonged to a church growing up. The Owings Mills man so admired the way that his fiancee, a lifelong Catholic, lived that he began attending the classes at Sacred Heart. But as much as he enjoyed the sense of community he was feeling there, he was having difficulty believing in the divinity of Jesus - a fundamental tenet of the church.

"It's the faith to believe in an invisible man," said LaBelle, 35. "You know, I'm a very rational person. I like to think I'm a logical thinker."

He went to Cianfrogna. She said only God could help him and advised prayer.

"I know how to pray. I've seen it on TV at the very least," LaBelle said. "And I just sat and prayed for 30 minutes just for the belief, because I needed something to change in me.

"The next day, I awoke, refreshed, and that wasn't even one of my problems anymore. It wasn't, 'OK, where's my leap of faith?' It's, 'OK, I have this, I believe this. And I'm going to move forward.'"

A retail manager at the Target store in Pikesville, LaBelle says his new belief has helped his fiancee and him through financial hardship - he has lost hours at work, and his fiancee has missed weeks recovering from surgery. He speaks of the welcome he has felt at Sacred Heart and is talking about forming a group there for young couples.

"I think that what's missing in our modern day and age is a sense of belonging," he said. "You know, right now, I live in a condo with 20 other people in it, and I've only met two of my neighbors. And that's my fault for not introducing myself. But we're not really set up in this day and age to actually start knocking on doors and bringing over cake, you know? So just having that place to go where you have people like you that believe in the same thing so you know you're starting at the same basic foundation."

He says his fiancee didn't push him to become a Catholic. But she calls the change she has seen in him "wonderful."

"He's excited about his new faith, and I'm feeling like we can kind of go through this together and learn together," said Laura Shipp. "I mean, we're praying as a couple together. I've always wanted that for us."