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Spotlight Report

A faith survives a church in crisis

Conversions to Catholicism hold steady

By Rich Barlow, Globe Correspondent, 3/24/2002


Tom Watts says he was drawn to Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in Newton by the church's theology. (Globe Staff Photo / Essdras M. Suarez)

 Graphic
Becoming Catholic
People who converted to Catholicism in the Boston Archdiocese, including those who had never been baptized in any church and those who converted from another Christian religion.
Becoming Catholic

Source: Archdiocese of Boston, US Conference of Catholic Bishops

Globe Staff Graphic

The call, when it came to Joel Teeven, didn't resound with booming organ music or loud prayers, but came as a whisper in a funeral Mass for an Irish Catholic friend four years ago. Teeven, a one-time Unitarian - a faith as flexible as the Catholic church is doctrinaire - was awed by rituals like the receiving of communion, and he began exploring Catholicism.

When the scandal over sex abuse by priests broke, he understood the pain of the victims better than most outsiders; he's a social worker who investigates sexual and physical abuse at nursing homes and health care facilities.

On Easter Sunday, he will become a Catholic.

In a crisis that has shattered the faith of lifelong Catholics, his newborn faith is bolstered by lessons learned from his job. ''There are people in good nursing homes who do bad things,'' he said. ''It doesn't mean that it's a bad nursing home.'' He adds, ''There are a lot of people who are accused of abuse who don't do it.''

Beginning with a flood on Saturday's Easter Vigil and continuing with a trickle for several weeks after, hundreds of converts across the Archdiocese of Boston will receive sacraments and join the church. Despite mistakes and sins that have forced a cardinal to apologize repeatedly, despite stands on issues from contraception to the role of women that are at odds with many of its own believers, the Catholic Church continues to draw adherents, as it has for millennia. The number of adult newcomers to the church has actually held steady in Boston and nationwide for most of the last decade, and there's no sign the sex scandal has sapped conversions this year.

The archdiocese hasn't yet tallied the number of converts for the year, but even after disclosures that pedophile ex-priest John Geoghan was repeatedly reassigned to parishes despite abuse allegations, hundreds of people planning to convert attended a previously scheduled meeting with Cardinal Bernard Law. As for the number of converts, ''everybody said it's as large as it's been in the past,'' said the Rev. Chris Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

Religious conviction naturally tends to be more muscular when it's the result of adult choice rather than habit from childhood, and that partly explains the converts' determination to go forward. Tom Watt, a graphics designer about to join Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton, carries Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton's ''Orthodoxy'' and the Bible on his Palm Pilot. He and other converts say they're drawn by the church's theology and ideals and distinguish those from its leaders with their failings.

Many also say they found faith after shedding anti-Catholic prejudice inhaled from popular culture. They were reared on Cheech & Chong routines and other influences depicting a church of repent-or-roast sermons, finger-wagging authoritarians, and mysterious doctrines.

''It seemed a little nutty,'' says Richard Davis, a 29-year-old software developer in Cambridge, referring to his college-years take on everything Catholic, from the immaculate conception to the church's social conservatism. ''I didn't really buy any of it.'' For him, that changed dramatically about seven years ago, when he began studying the religion after a friend whose intellect he had long admired converted to Catholicism.

Davis and others stressed that the warm, flexible reception they received after early inquiries played a big part in their decision to go through with conversion. That's not necessarily a universal experience. ''You have two radically different approaches to church,'' said the Rev. Walter Cuenin, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians. ''One is focused on welcoming and wanting all to belong.'' In the other, he said, ''It seems the church puts up barriers.'' The latter, he said, is the type of church where a priest approached by a couple planning to marry would begin with a barrage of questions - Do you live in the parish? Are you living together? - ''rather than starting off with, `Well, congratulations.'''

Study and worship replace prejudices

If ever a biography would seem to preclude membership in the church of Rome, it's Joel Teeven's. As a child, his exposure to Catholicism came from his grandmother, an Episcopalian: ''She thought the pope was evil.''

Yet that funeral Mass four years ago stoked his curiosity, opening a window on a creed that was so different from the Unitarianism of his childhood. For Unitarians, belief in God is optional. Now he had stumbled on ''this whole institution and culture devoted to study and worship of God and Christ,'' he said. ''It was an intellectual response of, there's a big enigma here, and I want to learn more about it.'' After church-hopping for several months, he landed at St. Ignatius, a Jesuit pairsh in Newton. There, he felt a sense of community similar to what the Unitarians had offered.

He met with the pastor who asked Teeven to tell a little about himself. They delved into the break-up of his marriage, then in progress. [Teeven and his wife had been married in the Unitarian Church in the late '80s]. ''I was very regretful for what I had done. I blamed myself for the break-up ... and it's a very lonely experience.'' As they talked, the Jesuit pastor gave him a ''Catholic'' insight he desperately needed: ''That God loves me. Even though I may not love myself and feel that other people don't love me, there was an unqualified love.''

Persuaded to attend St. Ignatius's introductory program on Catholicism, he soon hit a roadblock. ''A lot of the discussion was foreign to me,'' as when a fellow student started talking about being a lamb in God's flock and fulfilling His will. ''I don't even understand what God is,'' said Teeven. ''What's this lamb-flock-of-sheep thing?'' He and some like-minded attendees confided their discomfort to the pastor, who agreed to lead them in a less doctrinaire weekly study of the Bible and Catholic history.

Unitarians are encouraged not just to think outside the box but, Teeven said, ''to question the box,'' and he found this Catholic study group exercising his intellect. Discussion plumbed the Jewish roots of Catholicism as the students plowed from Genesis and Exodus through the Gospels. The Jesuit pastor surprised Teeven by saying that Catholicism understood that different people had different relationships with their creator. ''I didn't feel that I had to hang myself with the same language that other people use. It's OK to question, and it's OK not to be 100 percent certain,'' Teeven said. ''There are all kinds of different Catholics.''

Last fall, he began the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the program based on ancient church practice that prepares non-Catholics to join the church. When the sex abuse charges washed over the church this year, they did nothing to erode his decision, he said.

Teeven said he feels awful for the victims who were molested and argues that church leaders tragically mishandled the situation. But, he said, ''I don't see what they've done as affecting the theology of the church.''

An awakening for an inner Catholic

 
Eric Saint-Amour was raised in a Methodist home, but says his interest in Catholicism formed after he met his future wife, Judi, who is Catholic. (Globe Staff Photo / Evan Richman)


If Teeven catapulted across a spiritual chasm between Unitarians and Catholics, Eric Saint-Amour was the opposite, a man of smoldering spirituality just waiting for his inner Catholic to be awakened. ''I've always believed in God,'' he said, ''and I really wanted to find a community and a church that I could be comfortable in.''

His childhood Methodism never sunk deep roots; he had stopped going to church by age 10 after his parents divorced. But after Saint-Amour moved to Massachusetts in 1999 and met his future wife, Judi, who is Catholic, he began coming with her to church. She tried to answer his questions about Catholicism but did not evangelize. He appreciated that tolerance and found even more when they attended Our Lady Help of Christians.

''My original perception of ... the Catholic Church was that it was too rigid for me,'' he said. He thought, for example, that the church would brook no talk about ordaining women. He was startled when the priest who celebrated his marriage, who was visiting from London, said he agreed with him that they should be ordained.

When the sex abuse scandal broke in January, friends questioned his decision. ''[People] have said, why are you continuing with this? And I said, more than ever, I want to be part of this church. ... I think the laity has a big chance now to really be part of change. And that inspires me.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/24/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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