Easter is exciting in the Catholic Church as parishes across the United States welcome tens of thousands into their ranks through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. Some are not quite newcomers, since they really have been inactive Catholics, sometimes called lapsed Catholics. Many fell away from the practice of the faith or cut short their sacramental life at baptism or First Communion. Others entering the church join Catholicism as already baptized persons from other Christian traditions, such as the Episcopal, Lutheran or Baptist churches. Still others have been atheists with no religious background or have come from a non-Christian tradition, such as Judaism or Islam.
What makes this both exciting and intriguing is that each one has a story of conversion, a mysterious enough touching of a heart, mind and soul to prompt a radical change in a life.
What makes a convert?
Sometimes it is an experience that might make another turn from God. Take the Georgia woman, a native of Cameroon. Her nine-year-old son drowned last summer at a day camp. A Catholic community reached out with comfort. One member even paid for the child's funeral. Identifying with the immense sorrow at the death of a child, men and women extended themselves to another, not of their religion nor even their country, and they sparked a seed of faith. They didn't set out to convert another or be examples of good Christians, but their human reaction drew an inconsolable woman to the consolation of the Catholic faith and she learned a lesson of Easter, that in death, life is not ended but changed. Her child's life was changed and so too was her own.
Sometimes conversion occurs over coffee. That's what happened in St. Paul, Minnesota, when a 43-year-old former Marine crossed paths with a 79-year-old retired three-star Army general and heart surgeon. Their bonds as military men led to questioning what made each other tick. The younger, a man of science who described himself as an atheist, had lots of questions, and the general had answers that drew his friend into the church.
Some stories have a modern twist. A Maryland man who was a strong Pentecostal found Catholicism through Facebook, and chats online eventually led him to the Catholic Church. He said he found himself looking for a more disciplined structure in a spiritual community. He finished his RCIA program with a priest in Indonesia while working as a volunteer at a Catholic school there.
In Texas a Planned Parenthood clinic director changed when she held the ultrasound probe during an abortion procedure and watched on a monitor as the baby tried to get away. The experience led her to become one with a pro-life coalition group that prayed outside the clinic and had offices down the street. Abandoned by her pro-choice associates she found support with the coalition, who helped her navigate a search for a new job, broken friendships and legal problems with Planned Parenthood. She and her family are set to join the Church this Easter.
Some are drawn by what lies at the heart of Catholicism, the Eucharist. That's what attracted a worker at Washington's Georgetown University, who went to Mass at the college with friends. Another Washingtonian, a molecular biologist with a degree in Biblical languages, found the seeds of his belief in teachings on the Eucharist in the New Testament.
Some stories are dramatic; others as commonplace as a conversion can be. Some convert because of a love interest and want to share the same faith. Others have watched their spouse and children head to Mass and now want more oneness with them. Some simply have been thinking about it for a long time.
It's long been known that faith is caught more than taught. Certainly many people preach the faith without intending to do so, just by the quality of their own lives, as they live human lives in very human ways.
The mystery of Easter that celebrates Jesus rising from the dead is heralded in churches by flowers that come from bulbs and seeds that once looked lifeless. It has a mystical aura about it. So do men and women committing their whole lives to an unseen God, whose presence is so real. That's exciting. Some mysteries you can never grow tired of.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh is Director of Media Relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.