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Sensing spiritual void, growing numbers turn to Catholicism

cathedral

Unresolved rifts don't deter converts

February 16, 1997
Web posted at: 8:00 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Cynthia Tornquist

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Stephanie Vincenty and her sister, Esther, had no religious upbringing as children.

"Sometimes, when I sat in a church, I used to feel so left-out when others got the bread and the wine," says Esther Vincenty.

The two women say they were looking for a spiritual anchor -- and have found it by converting to Catholicism.

"From the first day, the first meeting we had, I knew this was for me," said Stephanie Vincenty.

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For the past year the sisters have participated in classes that include the study of the Bible and the catechism. As non-Catholics, both had to accept the authority of the Pope, the doctrine of a celibate priesthood and the requirement of confession, along with Catholic liturgy.

Then, according to Catholic tradition, on the first Sunday of Lent, the bishop called them to the sacrament of initiation.

They and the other new converts will be baptized at the Easter vigil and on Easter Sunday will receive their first Communion.

The number of adult converts to Roman Catholicism has reached its highest level in more than 20 years. Nationally, more than 160,000 converts will be admitted to the Church this year.

Church divided

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Despite its growth, difficult issues continue to divide Catholics, as illustrated by a demonstration Sunday outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan.

As Cardinal John O'Connor addressed the congregation during the annual Pontifical Mass celebrating the first Sunday of Lent, activists from a Fairfax, Virginia-based group known as "We Are Church" circulated petitions outside.

The group calls for a variety of changes in Catholic policies. It advocates women's ordination, optional celibacy for clergy, respect for rights of gay and lesbian Catholics and member participation in the selection of bishops and pastors.

"Jesus was open to dialogue with anyone, including people with whom he vehemently disagreed," said Sister Maureen Fiedler, national coordinator of We Are Church.

"If our faith community is going to be true to that kind of church that Jesus left us, we have to be open to dialogue as well," she said on the steps of the Fifth Avenue cathedral.

O'Connor told parishioners they must decide for themselves whether to sign. "You are grown Catholics in here, I trust your judgment," he said.

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Spiritual fulfillment

But these controversies don't deter many converts, particularly those who perceive Catholicism as a way to fill a spiritual void.

"There is a spirituality which is both traditional and alive, so they want that. That attracts them," says John Healey of Fordham University. For "some of them, I think it's the clarity on moral issues. And I know it sounds vague, but -- community. They want to be part of a religious community."

The fulfillment that the new converts gain seems to influence those around them.

"When I look at these people and see their enthusiasms and see what they are willing to overcome, I think that I had this all my life and it renews my own spirits," says Sister Rose Vermette.

Stephanie Vincenty says what began as a spiritual journey has become a personal one.

"My decision-making is changed," she says. "I'm more considerate of other people, not quick to think of something stupid, like 'why did that person say that to me?' I won't take it to heart, because maybe they're having a bad day."

That newfound faith gives her a feeling of peace she now shares with her sister.

 
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