Recent studies suggest the Roman Catholic Church is in crisis: Infant baptisms are down, and some cradle Catholics are leaving. But this Easter weekend, the church will see an uptick in new members, converts who are bucking the trend.
It’s a special Sunday morning inside Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago holynamecathedral.org. The priest wears violet for Lent, the congregation sports green for St. Patrick’s Day, and the gospel reading is a crowd-pleaser: Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. And a few pews from the front, Carol Rose is about to change her life.
She stands to recite the Roman Catholic Profession of Faith, a vow Catholics around the world repeat at every Mass. But like the Argentinian Cardinal just named the church’s new Pope, Rose is crossing a threshold. Except she’s not Catholic. Not yet anyway. This Saturday, March 30, the night before Easter, Rose plans to convert to Catholicism.
“I don’t know how many times someone has asked me, “Oh really, you’re doing that?” Very judgy. And I’m, “well, thank you for not holding back.”
Rose is 28, and she describes herself as an actress by profession and a nanny by day job. She’s the daughter of Baptists and Catholics.
“I grew up a second-generation religious mutt,” she said. “My parents were kind of (a) split religious family and they weren’t sure who to make mad. Which church to take us to. So we didn’t really grow up in a church.”
This Holy Saturday, Cardinal Francis George will baptize Rose. If past years are an indication, more than 100,000 Americans will join her that day – about 1,100 in Chicago.
But the tide is turning the other way: Pew Studies show that for every new Catholic who joins, four others walk away. The Catholic Church isn’t alone – about a quarter of all Americans switch religions at some point – but Pew says Catholicism has taken the biggest hit.
Converts like Rose defy the trend. Rose spent years visiting all sorts of churches – Pentecostal, Presbyterian, even a temple – but nothing felt right. Then she watched her beloved grandmother die of cancer.
“I became very afraid of what happens after we’re gone,” she said. “I was just like, I need a faith, I need to build my faith stronger, I need to know what I believe so that I can not worry about this. It was just such a weight on me.”
She went to church with her boyfriend, a Catholic, and the faith started to feel like a good fit. But she struggled with some church teachings. She’s not the only one: Polls show most American Catholics disagree with church policies against birth control and gay marriage.
“That’s a really hard thing for me, because being in theater, obviously, I have a lot of homosexual friends, a lot of them,” she said. “And I love them. And I support them.”
But she says the church has a right to its beliefs, and she ultimately found its message of love and the beauty of the ritual too powerful to ignore.
“When you think about the history of it, when you think that Peter did this, and you think that this went back for 2,000 years, more than that, it’s moving to watch it on a daily basis and it’s you being part of that history.”
Rose is getting married in October. She started the church’s official conversion process last fall, a journey of faith that takes about a school year. After the homily on St. Patrick’s Day, Rose and 49 others in the conversion class quietly slip out of Mass before communion starts. They have breakfast of fruit and pastries and study the gospel.
Their guide during the mass and weekly classes is a 78-year-old woman with a seminary degree and a grandmotherly warmth, Anne Klocke.
Over Klocke’s 20 years at Holy Name, she’s shepherded hundreds of Catholic converts. She says half her students, like Rose, are marrying Catholics; the others enter alone, many drawn to the church’s commitment to the poor.
They enter at a pivotal time for the church: The day Klocke chatted with me, she was anxiously awaiting the announcement of the new pope. White smoke blew out of the Sistine Chapel chimney and the bells at Holy Name rang out a short time later.
“All of the excitement may perk some interest, and somebody who maybe thought of being Catholic two years ago may say, oh, I’ll take another look at that.” Klocke said.
“They’re all welcome here.”
It’s too soon to tell whether Pope Francis will inspire more converts. But as he settles in, Klocke will prepare to welcome her next flock – and she’s hoping for a papal bump in attendance.