Becoming a Catholic

The American Experience of Converts

Rome, (Zenit.org) Father John Flynn, LC | 1197 hits

Everybody knows that a significant number of people give up regular practice of their faith, but how many know that every year around 150,000 adults enter the Catholic Church in the United States?

The success of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) was examined in a recently-published book, “Becoming Catholic: Finding Rome in the American Religious Landscape,” by David Yamane, (Oxford University Press).

Yamane, a sociology teacher at Wake Forest University, has published numerous books and articles on the Catholic Church in the United States. This latest book is based on many years of fieldwork and interviews, with the assistance of a team of researchers and people who visited parishes.

It is the only book-length sociological analysis of the RCIA program, he notes in his introduction. Starting off, he examines in some detail the origins of the RCIA program flowing from the decisions of Vatican II.

From the very start of Christianity, Yamane commented, conversion has been an integral part of Catholicism, whether it was Saul encountering Christ on the road to Damascus, or the conversion of the Emperor Constantine.

Some of the most prominent Catholics in modern times have been converts: Cardinal Newman; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton; G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien; Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

Just since 1988 over two million adults have entered the Church in America through the RCIA process. Then, including converts from previous years, there are currently 5.6 million Catholic converts, who constitute 11% of all Catholics in the United States.

This group in itself is the fifth largest religious body in the country, just behind the Mormon church and ahead of the Evangelical Lutheran church.

This group of 11% is made up of 8% who were raised Protestants, 2% who were unaffiliated, and 1% who were raised in other religious traditions.

Marriage

While Yamane insisted that there is no single explanation of everyday conversion, he did comment that ”the strongest and most consistent predicator is clearly intermarriage.”

He referred to research from the 1940s and 50s that showed 75% of converts to the Catholic Church came as a result of interfaith marriage. Another study in the late 70s in America found that intermarriage accounted for more than 80% of Catholic converts.

One study he cited affirmed that currently about 60% of Americans marry someone from another religious tradition.

Nevertheless, Yamane was quick to observe that although non-Catholic spouses might be the source of many converts it is not as though they are a sort of religious shopper.

Although social networks without question explain the mechanism by which people come to enter the Catholic Church, he said that “they do not explain the meaning or the motivation” behind the decision to become a Catholic.

Deciding to convert is not so much a matter of just weighing up the options and making a sort of choice, Yamane argued. The circumstances of being in a mixed marriage are important, but the family dynamics also play an important role. Change comes when people want to become better mothers or fathers, wives or husbands.

The timing of a person’s conversion varies widely, Yamane found. It can happen when a couple becomes engaged, upon marriage or when a child is born or children receive their First Communion. In essence he argued that the decision to become a Catholic is a form of moral action.

Behind this overall structure Yamane and his team of researchers found considerable differences in how the RCIA program is implemented at the parish level.

The more fully the RCIA process is carried out the more candidates experience a greater understanding of what it means to be a Catholic and a more complete incorporation into the Church, he found.

Liturgy

Moreover, it is not just a question of the doctrine of the Church, but along with that, prayer, the liturgy and personal experience. It is not just learning about Catholicism, Yamane explained, but learning how to be a Catholic. “The key is not information, it is formation,” he added.

“By its nature, the liturgy can be pedagogically effective in helping the faithful to enter more deeply into the mystery being celebrated,” Yamane said, quoting from Benedict XVI’s postsynodal apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist.

“Liturgy and experience are both significant schools of faith,” Yamane commented. Bringing together individual experience and the Catholic tradition, even though it is done sometimes unevenly in the RCIA process, enables the participants to get a feel for Catholicism.

Faith is a journey, Yamane observed in his conclusion, and in many of the cases he studied it began with a sort of restlessness, that gives way to a desire for rootedness, and ends in a homecoming in the Church.

What happens to these individuals five or 10 years later? Nobody knows, he replied, but as one RCIA team commented, the conclusion of the RCIA process is only just the beginning.