Eucharist, unity, clarity: What attracts converts to the Catholic Church?

Young converts A young woman is baptized at the 2024 Easter Vigil at St. Mary’s Catholic Center at Texas A&M. | Credit: Courtesy of St. Mary’s Catholic Center, Texas A&M

Zack Short was kneeling during adoration last fall, silently struggling with whether the host in the monstrance was actually Jesus or merely a piece of bread.

To his left was his girlfriend, Katie, a Catholic who had invited him to join the campus ministry’s catechism program for converts.

“I was like, ‘Lord, if this is really you, please speak to me. Lord, help my unbelief,’” Short recalled. “I kid you not: I saw light coming out of the Eucharist. It just clicked for me: This is really God.”

Later, he asked Katie if she saw the light. She didn’t. 

Short, 19, a sophomore majoring in mechanical manufacturing engineering technology who grew up going to a nondenominational church in Colorado, entered the Catholic Church during last month’s Easter Vigil Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Center at Texas A&M.

He is one of thousands of new Catholics in the United States, part of what appears to have been a bountiful harvest for the Church this past Easter.

Nationwide numbers aren’t available yet. But certain dioceses are reporting increases of 30%, 40%, 50%, and even more than 70%.

A non-Catholic can become a Catholic any day of the year. But the Easter Vigil is the traditional time to enter the Church, whose adult conversion program is built around preparing converts for that moment.

The National Catholic Register, CNA’s sister news partner, contacted every diocese in the United States in early April asking about numbers of converts at Easter, which this year was the last weekend in March. 

Catechesis for converts

The Church’s conversion program for adults is widely known as Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA, although the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted in November 2021 to begin a process to change the name to Order of Christian Initiation of Adults, with slight revisions of other terms as well.

The Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, jumps out: The number of converts there rose from 896 at Easter 2023 to 1,544 at Easter 2024, an increase of 72%.

Part of that eye-popping figure can be attributed to the area’s skyrocketing population, said Jason Whitehead, the director of evangelization and catechesis for the diocese. He also credits young priests in the diocese, who he says are “faithful,” “energetic,” and “willing to do anything,” including helping out at catechetical sessions.

But the diocese has also changed the way it prepares catechists to teach the faith. In 2021, the diocese began a three-year catechetical program that begins with an introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and moves to an intermediate level of theological instruction. It finishes with an area of concentration, such as catechesis for converts.

“The heart and soul of all three levels is the ability to talk to anyone about the Catholic faith,” Whitehead said. 

The program offers not just information about what the Church teaches but how to organize it, beginning with the old Baltimore Catechism question: Why did God make you? (“… to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in heaven.”)

It’s crucial, he said, to present Catholic doctrine in its fullness. 

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Whitehead, a former Baptist, came into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 2012. While he was happy to become a Catholic, he wasn’t happy with his parish’s RCIA sessions. 

“I saw one person after another leave the RCIA program because they were not being given the truth of the Gospel and the teachings of the Catholic Church,” Whitehead said. 

“If I have any influence over RCIA,” he said, “I’ll be doggone if anybody goes through an RCIA program like the one I went through. It is my personal mission that that never happens to another soul, until the Lord comes again.”

Hillsdale and the Diocese of Lansing

One perennial powerhouse of conversions is Hillsdale College, a nondenominational Christian school in Hillsdale, Michigan, that has a large population of Catholics. (One recent survey done by students in an applied math class at the school found that 43% of the students are Catholics.) 

The Easter Vigil Mass at St. Anthony’s Church in Hillsdale this year began at 9 p.m. and ended at midnight, followed by a Greek feast for more than 500 people that lasted until 4 in the morning, said Deacon John Crowley, who heads the parish’s conversion program.

Along the way, 28 people joined the Catholic Church, 22 of them current students at Hillsdale College, plus one who is a recent graduate of the school. 

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The total number of converts in the parish is up from 20 in 2023 for a 40% increase.

As for Hillsdale students: 1.4% of the college’s 1,563 undergraduates joined the Catholic Church on Saturday, March 30. 

St. Anthony’s contributed to an approximately 30% increase in converts in the Diocese of Lansing from 2023 — about 620 this year, the highest number in more than a decade. 

“To each of those new Catholics I say, ‘Welcome to the body of Christ. This is just the beginning of great things,’” said Bishop Earl Boyea in a video produced by the diocese. 

The video highlights the Campbell family — dad Cody, mom Kirsten, daughters Ryleigh, Khloe, and Cadyn, and son Elijah — who all joined the Catholic Church at St. Mary’s in Charlotte, Michigan.

Though raised Baptists, Cody and Kirsten were without a church when Cody on his own started studying the Protestant Reformation and then the Church Fathers, which made him interested in Catholicism. 

“You could say there was a raging storm taking place inside of me — like, I had to know. There was something that was pushing me to know where the truth actually comes from,” Cody said

Kirsten listened. Then a communion service at a Protestant church came up short for her. 

“I just sat there and I realized, ‘This, it’s not it,’” Kirsten said.

They talked afterward and found they were thinking the same thing. They called the local parish, and the OCIA director let them join the program, “a little late,” Kirsten said. 

“After we talked, after that day, it’s been nothing but peace. Like, I feel at home,” said Cody, who took the confirmation name Robert Bellarmine after the Counter-Reformation Italian Jesuit cardinal and doctor of the Church. 

College-age converts receive the sacrament of confirmation at St. Mary’s Catholic Center, Texas A&M, Easter 2024. Credit: Courtesy of St. Mary’s Catholic Center, Texas A&M
College-age converts receive the sacrament of confirmation at St. Mary’s Catholic Center, Texas A&M, Easter 2024. Credit: Courtesy of St. Mary’s Catholic Center, Texas A&M

Conversions Way, Way Up

As of mid-April, about two-fifths of the dioceses in the United States had responded to the Register’s queries. Some don’t have data for this year yet. A handful reported numbers similar to last year’s or small decreases. 

As for increases, some observers caution that this-worldly factors may be at play. Some cite a backup from the coronavirus shutdowns of a few years ago. One diocese reported that the diocese’s marriage tribunal issued a large number of declarations of nullity recently, which allowed would-be converts in what the Church considers irregular marriage situations to have their marriages blessed by the Church, therefore also facilitating their entrance into the Church this past Easter.

Even so, the increases are widespread. 

A small diocese in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Diocese of Marquette, saw a 70% jump (from 40 to 68 converts) from 2023 to 2024. Others seeing large increases include Grand Island, Nebraska (35%); Portland, Maine (35%); and Grand Rapids, Michigan (33%). 

Topping the charts so far is the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, which went from 181 to 339, an increase of 87%. The Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, saw an increase in converts of 53%: from 227 in 2023 to 347 in 2024. 

Among larger sees, in Texas, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston saw an increase of 30%, from 1,820 in 2023 to 2,364 in 2024; and the Archdiocese of San Antonio went up 39% (from 1,285 to 1,789). 

In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the total number of converts increased by about 4% (from 3,462 in 2023 to 3,596 in 2024). But the number of previously unbaptized catechumens receiving baptism in the Catholic Church increased 19%, from 1,743 to 2,075, the highest number in the archdiocese since 2016. 

The number of converts in the Archdiocese of New Orleans jumped 48% — from 294 in 2023 to 436 in 2024.

In the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, where the number of converts went from 278 at Easter 2023 to 388 at Easter 2024, a jump of almost 40%, the director of Christian formation, Deacon Jim Bello, credits a more flexible catechesis schedule, a spokesman said. 

“Formation is year-round, not just an RCIA ‘season,’ if you will,” said Jim Wogan, the diocese’s director of communications, by email. “It seems to have been successful.” 

That’s also a point of emphasis in the Diocese of St. Augustine in northeast Florida, which saw an increase from 625 converts in 2023 to 838 in 2024, up 34%. 

Spanish-speaking families make up a big portion, said Erin McGeever, the diocese’s director of Christian formation. San Jose Parish in Jacksonville, for instance, brought 64 people to the Rite of Election during Lent 2024, a 36% increase from 47 in 2023. 

The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine has seen steady growth, from 12 in 2022 to 18 in 2023 to 24 in 2024, she said. 

While she’s not sure why, exactly, she noted that the diocese has been emphasizing making the conversion program year-round.

The typical schedule mimics the school year, beginning around September and finishing in June, with the high point being the Easter Vigil. Sticking to that schedule can leave out people who show interest at some other point during the year.

She said that the cathedral parish has begun engaging with would-be converts right away. 

“So whenever people call, they put them into some programming, until they can get into the formal formation,” McGeever said. “Maybe that’s the key: taking people where they’re at… and filling in the blanks with them.” 

In the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, which saw an increase of 33% (from 515 in 2023 to 685 in 2024), the director of faith formation, Jeff Hines, said he’s not sure what to attribute it to, but he said it suggests a spiritual hunger in a society sharply divided. 

“You look at the state of the world, there’s a lot of reasons not to have hope today, particularly for young adults; so people are really looking for meaning and hope, which is exactly what the Church offers,” Hines said. 

“So it makes sense for this to happen,” he added. “We should not be surprised. We should be faithful to being open to people who are searching.” 

New Catholics at St. Mary’s Catholic Center, Texas A&M, Easter 2024. Credit: Courtesy of St. Mary’s Catholic Center, Texas A&M
New Catholics at St. Mary’s Catholic Center, Texas A&M, Easter 2024. Credit: Courtesy of St. Mary’s Catholic Center, Texas A&M

Deep in the soul of Texas

St. Mary’s Catholic Center at Texas A&M is so busy it offers its conversion program year-round and brings people into the Church twice a year: a September-to-Easter track and a January-to-November track. 

The group that entered the program in January 2024 is among the biggest that program director Kevin Pesek has seen.

This past Easter, St. Mary’s had 51 students enter the Church (18 baptized, 33 who made a profession of faith). That followed a group of 34 converts in November 2023 (14 baptisms, 20 professions of faith).

“I’m seeing more and more people coming in with nothing — no religious background,” Pesek said. “It’s very interesting.” 

Non-Catholic students join the program because Catholic students invite them, Pesek said, along the lines of Jesus’ words in John 1:39: “Come and see.”

“I’m not the one bringing them in. It’s all through our students. They’re the ones bringing them to Mass, doing the evangelization, bringing them in the door,” Pesek said. “I provide pizza the first night. That’s about as creative as I get.” 

In recent times, he has conducted an anonymous survey of new converts asking what drew them to the faith. He shared 57 of the responses, and they’re hard to characterize. Some cite the Eucharist, others the teaching authority of the Church, the papacy, unity, clarity, liturgy, community, the communion of saints, and strength to live a better life.

“The students who aren’t Catholic are hungry and are looking for something,” said Father Will Straten, the pastor of St. Mary’s. “People are just looking for something that’s authentic and real. They’re looking for something that’s grounded and seems to make sense.”

One of the Easter 2024 converts is Kirsten Ruby, 23, who is finishing a master’s degree in accounting at Texas A&M after spending four years there as an undergraduate. She began seriously considering the Catholic faith during the summer of 2023 through the intervention of a friend. 

As a kid, she went to Protestant churches (mostly Baptist) sporadically, but was never baptized. The main draw of RCIA for her was a chance to learn more about Jesus: “I saw it as a way of making up for never going to Sunday school as a kid,” she said. 

Once in the program, she engaged with the Church’s history and theology, aided by apologetics books by Catholic authors, including Richard Gaillardetz’s “By What Authority?”

She said she found the catechesis program at St. Mary’s helpful and particularly her sponsor, a current senior. 

Asking questions helped bring Ruby to the faith, and that continues now that she has joined the Church. 

“A big thing that keeps me close to God is questions, forever getting to know him,” Ruby said. “He’s an eternal spouse. You wouldn’t just marry your husband and run away with the ring. You’d want to stay and get to know him better.”

This story was first published by the National Catholic Register, CNA’s sister news partner, and is reprinted here on CNA with permission.

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