Thursday, April 24, 2014

Happy are those who are called to the Supper of the Lamb: Let us pray for our recent Catholic converts

St. Kateri Tekakwitha
I grew up as a Methodist in southwestern Oklahoma, but almost all my school friends belonged to evangelical Protestant churches. Those were the days when Protestants routinely went to church three times a week and held week-long Revivals at least once a year.

I often went to church with my evangelical Protestant friends and even went to their churches' revivals if I was invited.  Protestant preachers preached fiery sermons in those days--long on descriptions of the fires of hell and short on mercy. The object was to scare the bejeebers out of people--particularly any unchurched people who happened to be in attendance.

Preachers would generally bring the church service to a close with an "altar call" when they would invite people to come down to the front of the church and profess their belief in the Christian faith and join the congregation.  If an unbaptized person came forward, the preacher often baptized the new convert on the spot.  In other words, in the evangelical Protestant churches of my youth, the conversion process was quick--often lasting only a couple of hours.

Well the Catholics don't operate that way. Except in extraordinary circumstances, adult Catholic converts are baptized only once a year--at the Easter Vigil Mass.  The preparation for baptism and communion with the Catholic Church is lengthy, generally lasting six or seven months. An adult preparing to convert to Catholicism is called a catechumen and is usually required to attend once-a-week study sessions where they are introduced to Catholic doctrine.

And prior to baptism and first Communion, the catechumen participates in several preliminary rites: the Rite of Election, the First Scrutiny, the Second Scrutiny, the Third Scrutiny and the Ephpheta rite, which usually takes place early on the day of baptism.

In other words, joining the Catholic Church as an adult is not for sissies.  Thus, I am always moved at the Easter Vigil Mass to see people step forward to be baptized into the Catholic faith.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
How many Americans join the Catholic Church each year as adults? Between 60,000 and 70,000 I've been told, which is not so many when one considers that the total membership of the Catholic Church in the U.S. is about 70 million.  In my parish church on the LSU campus, only four adults were baptized at the Easter Vigil Mass--a small number out of an LSU student body of more than 30,000. And then we generally have about 35 to 40 people enter the Church from the Protestant denominations and are already baptized.

Still--altogether, less than 50 people a year join the Catholic Church in our parish.  Given the fact that a lot of people leave the Catholic Church as adults--the people who call themselves "recovering Catholics"--it is a miracle that the Church stays so strong.

In fact the Church reminds me a bit of the old joke about the flamboyant used care salesman who makes this pitch: "I buy cars high and sell cars low. How do I stay in business? I'm damned lucky!"

But I am not worried about the future of the Catholic Church. For one thing, as Dorothy Day pointed out, the Catholic Church is the Church of the poor. As long as we have poor people, we will have Catholics. And of course, America has been blessed by millions of Catholic immigrants from all over the world.

And whether they be few or many, our Catholic converts are the leaven of the Church. I know dozens of Catholic converts--all are enthusiastic in their faith and most are quite knowledgeable about it. I don't know a single person who converted to Catholicism as an adult who later left the Church.

And so let us pray for all the adult converts who joined the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil Mass, confident that many of them--like converts Dorothy Day, St. Edith Stein, G. K. Chesterton, Thomas Merton, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton--will shine like brilliant lights before the world, testaments by their faithful lives to the the living truth of Catholicism.

Like all human beings, God called these people to to the Supper of the Lamb.  And through some mystery, some working of the Holy Spirit, these people turned in the midst of their adult lives to the Lord's table.  Happy indeed are those who were called to the Lord's Supper and had the grace, the humility and the courage to accept the invitation.

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