Talk about going against the flow: Thousands of Americans choose to join the Catholic Church each year.
These are men and women figuratively swimming against a very powerful tide. Overall, the church has lost more than three million congregants in the past 10 years. Every time the church adds a member, six leave.
The reasons are obvious. The sexual abuse crisis in American Catholicism is over 20 years old, and continues to spew forth horrible revelations long after one would have expected the church to clean house. Many Catholics have come to doubt the good will of Pope Francis, who seemed to be a breath of fresh air when he assumed the papacy in 2013.
Yet even now, some Americans are converting to Roman Catholicism.
Why? If you are a Christian, there is one obvious reason: Because it’s the church founded by Jesus Christ. My denomination, the Anglican or Episcopal church, traces its roots to King Henry VIII’s antipapal pique in the 16th century. Martin Luther founded the Lutheran church, Joseph Smith begat the Mormons, and so on.
But there is only one church founded by the guy whose name is on the door. Jesus’ words are right there on the dome of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome: “Upon this rock I will build my church.” The rock refers to the apostle Peter (“Petrus,” or rock), the first pope of the Roman Catholic church.
In 2018, women and men come to Catholicism for reasons both profound and mundane. Former schoolteacher and lifelong Presbyterian Priscilla Holleran became a Catholic a few months ago, “because my husband is Catholic, and I got tired of going to two churches. I knew he wasn’t going to become a Presbyterian.”
She told me she likes her new religion, and generally hears two reactions to her new faith: “Oh, that’s wonderful!” or “Why would you do that?”
Wolfe Young was born in South Berwick, Maine, the son of a Church of the Nazarene minister. He was baptized an Episcopalian at age 19 and “really threw myself into it,” he said. “The liturgy was an aesthetic representation on the outside of what I felt worship was like on the outside.”
After a spiritual awakening, Young said, “I started praying the rosary, which isn’t really an Episcopalian thing,” and he recently began the process of becoming a Catholic.
“Catholicism has a delineated history back to 100 A.D.,” Young said, “and it’s 2018 and it’s still the Catholic church. I feel its historical authority helps to keep it on the right path.”
How, I asked, can you become a Catholic now, given the tumult in the church? “Of course the question arises, ‘Why stay?’ ” Holmes said. “But if the answer is, ‘Leave,’ then a person’s faith must not have been in Christ, but in a misplaced clericalism. I’m not joining the Catholic church because I think the clergy is above reproach.”
“The problems facing the Catholic church are problems that face any institution run by human beings,” Young said. “I can separate the human from the divine. It is still human beings who are prone to make mistakes, who commit unbelievable acts of evil and madness.”
Amen to that.