Catholic Church still getting new faces

Scandals not deterring converts, officials say
The Tennessean, Dec. 10, 2002

Attorney Diane House is months away from joining a religion that she once viewed as rigid and unquestioning.

She is becoming a Catholic, in part because she was encouraged by the response of ordinary Catholics to priest sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the church this year.

”Hearing people talk about the institution of the church as something that can change and that people cared enough to try to change made me more comfortable being a part of it,” said House, one of seven adults on the path to becoming a Catholic at Holy Name Catholic Church in east Nashville.

House, a public defender whose fiance is Catholic, is among the tens of thousands of people nationally who are studying and reflecting on church doctrine as part of a process called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.

They are making this commitment at a time when some Catholics are questioning their devotion to the church in wake of scandals and deceit.

Last week, the Archdiocese of Boston revealed that it is considering declaring bankruptcy because of hundreds of lawsuits accusing priests of abuse.

Nashville has been affected, too. In 1989, two local priests were removed from ministry because of allegations of abuse.

Nationally and locally a group called the Voice of the Faithful was formed recently in response to the sex abuse scandal to help victims and give Catholics a forum to discuss problems and propose solutions.

For the prospective Catholics at Holy Name, the attraction of the church’s deep spirituality, its tradition of serving the poor, its universality and its 2,000-year history have overcome any misgivings from the scandal.

Priests and others who work with those considering joining the Catholic Church said that they have not seen any decline in interest this year and that few people have left the program because of the scandal, according to Rick Musacchio, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Nashville. This comes at a time when local priests say they are seeing about a 10% drop-off in attendance at Sunday Mass.

Over the past decade, more than 5,000 adults have become Catholics in the Diocese of Nashville. About 171,000 joined the church nationally last year.

”The RCIA is a real gift to the church,” said the Rev. Stephen Wolf of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Old Hickory. ”It is a great witness to the whole church.”

Jennifer Escue, a social worker who works for Catholic Charities in an office above the Holy Name church, had wanted to join the church for many years. Escue, who graduated from college last year with a degree in social work, said she views the scandal as part of a period of transition for the church.

”It seems to be a time of growth and reform,” Escue, 23, said.

And it seems to her that like an old family, the church is finding ways to keep going.

”When something bad happens to a family, you don’t just dissolve,” she said. ”You find a way to overcome it, and you keep going. That’s what I feel is happening, and that’s the way it should be.”

Escue, who grew up a Baptist, was first introduced to the Catholic Church when she went with her mother to a Christmas midnight Mass while she was in elementary school.

The drama of the Mass — such as the burning of incense and candles — sparked her interest at that young age. She said there have been times when she has been in a Catholic service and gotten chills at the beauty of the Mass.

The Catholic Church is also more tolerant of other religions than what she heard growing up as a Baptist, she said.

”Some of the best people that I know are Muslims,” she said. ”You’ll never convince me that they’re not going to heaven.”

Mary Catherine Dean, director of the program at Holy Name, said the church teaches that some people who have never been exposed to Jesus may go to heaven if they live a good life.

Another prospective Catholic, Brian Speck, said that his initial interest in the Catholic Church came through his wife’s family.

The emphasis on learning about the history of the Catholic Church has fascinated him, said Speck, a manager at Houston’s restaurant. It also has given him the perspective that the church has overcome obstacles in the past, he said.

Speck, 31, has attended Baptist and non-denominational Pentecostal churches in the past. He feels more a part of the community at Holy Name. That is partially because of where he is in his own life, said Speck, who recently celebrated his second wedding anniversary.

By getting to know people in the Holy Name parish and through his wife’s family, he has come to believe that the church’s strengths outweigh its problems.

”It has had to jump hurdles in its history before,” Speck said.

For House, who lives in Cheatham County, joining the church has been a process of learning new, less rational ways of thinking, she said. At one time, she considered herself an agnostic, she said. Now, she is trying to grasp beliefs that defy logic, such as the virgin birth of Jesus, the perpetual virginity of Mary and Jesus’ resurrection.

”That’s going to be the hardest part for me,” she said. ”Father (Joseph) Sanches has said there’s a leap of faith and you just have to be willing to take it.”

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