Hundreds join or re-enter fold

New, returning Catholics take part in rites bringing them into church


For Leslie Schildgen, it was the death of the pope that did it.

"When John Paul [II] died, I was watching it on TV, and it was just my call to Christ. I was like, `OK. This is the truth,'" she said.

Schildgen, a 45-year-old legal secretary who was raised Lutheran, was one of about 800 men, women and children in the Archdiocese of Baltimore officially welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church yesterday on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.

New - and renewed - Catholics participated in a morning ceremony, known as preparation rites, at one of three churches in the archdiocese. In the evening, they returned to their home churches for baptism (for those who had missed that step), confirmation and the receiving of the Eucharist.

In the United States, the Roman Catholic Church has been troubled in recent years by a priest shortage, a sex abuse scandal and splits over issues such as contraception and the role of women in the church.

But reports of shrinking congregations in some regions are just part of the picture. The overall number of Catholics in the United States continues to climb. There were nearly 68 million Roman Catholics reported in the United States last year, according to a church directory, an increase of more than 7 million since 1995. The Archdiocese of Baltimore counts 517,679 members.

Schildgen said she drifted from her church when she was a child, and it took decades for her to return. "I've always had faith, but not in the strict, traditional sense," she said. "What attracted me was the rich tradition."

And the discipline.

"I like following the rules," she said. "I'm a conservative human being politically, socially and spiritually."

Schildgen was one of about 100 people who traveled to the basement of St. Francis of Assisi Church on Harford Road in Baltimore yesterday morning for the preparation rites. The diverse group included seniors and children, whites and blacks, teenagers in jeans and middle-aged women in smart suits. Some were raised in the Catholic tradition but never completed the process of becoming full members of the church. The rest found their way to Catholicism from other faiths. Many had taken preparatory classes - they prefer to call them "sessions" - for months, and others had been working toward this moment for years.

"You've made a choice," said Bishop Denis J. Madden, the archdiocese's urban vicar. "Transformation in anyone is a work of God, but each of us plays a part in that work."

After the homily, some of the celebrants offered testimonies. "This is a journey I started in 1968," one woman said.

Then they rose and, one by one, stood before Madden to be blessed in the Ephphetha Rite (from the Aramaic word meaning "Be opened"). With his thumb, he lightly touched their ears and traced a cross over their mouths. There followed a recitation of the Nicene Creed, which dates to the fourth century and lists the core beliefs of the faith. Finally, they sang a recessional hymn and dispersed, setting out into the sunny spring day.

Marie Wicks of Baltimore was formerly a Methodist but is married to a Catholic. She and her husband (who had never been confirmed), her daughter and grandson all participated in yesterday's rite.

"What appeals to me is the commitment to prayer. The dedication to praying for others and not just yourself," she said.

Her priest's inclusive attitude also inspired her, she said.

"You hear all these horror stories about how Catholics don't respect other Protestant faiths, but he had a different message," she said.

"The Catholic Church fit with my lifestyle and what I was looking for," said Lori Stone of Ellicott City, describing the church as "a family-oriented place where I can be supported, and a place where I can feel at home."

"I definitely like the ritual," Stone said. "I like to know that what I'm learning, everyone else in my faith is learning, too."

Stone, 29, who is African-American, grew up as a Baptist. "I used to see Catholicism as a white religion, but I learned it's very diverse," she said.

The ranks of Catholics continue to expand in this country, partly because of Catholics emigrating from Latin America, Asia and Africa, said Sharon Bogusz, the coordinator of evangelization and adult faith formation for the archdiocese. Some local churches have started to incorporate Spanish into Masses to accommodate the growing Hispanic population, she said.

"What we see in all our parishes is greater diversity," she said. "It parallels the changing of the face of diversity in the whole of the United States."

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