Despite scandals Catholic conversions continue in Alaska

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Allegations of abuse and cover-ups by some members of the Catholic clergy enflame the news headlines almost daily. Meanwhile, every Easter, thousands of people around the world join the Catholic Church, founded by Jesus Christ. In the Archdiocese of Anchorage, 50 adults will enter the church this year — down slightly from last year but a jump of 22 percent from 2017. They are seeking and finding in the buffeted Barque of St. Peter, the source of all meaning, hope and truth.

CANDIDATES AND CATECHUMENS PREPARE

Adults seeking to become Catholic prepare for this conversion through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), which involves study and prayer that lead to initiation into the church by the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and holy Communion. In the typically yearlong process, people who are unbaptized are considered catechumens. They receive baptism, confirmation and holy Communion.

Those who have already been validly baptized — including those in Protestant denominations — are called candidates. Since the Catholic Church recognizes valid Trinitarian baptisms, candidates do not need to be baptized again; they receive confirmation and holy Communion. Catechumens and candidates usually receive the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil Mass, set for April 20.

This year, of Alaskan adults seeking to become Catholic in the Anchorage Archdiocese, 18 are adult catechumens and 32 adult candidates (not counting 23 children). In 2017, there were 15 catechumens and 24 candidates (and 20 children).

LIGHT AND HOPE

Raised without religion, Lindsay Belle Sobolik, 31, of Anchorage will formally enter the Catholic Church at Easter, seeking a “foundation” for her life — especially as she begins to raise a family. Finding this support wasn’t easy growing up in an agnostic home, Sobolik observed.

“There is kind of this emptiness,” she said. “You still have the ideas of what is the right thing to do, and your parents try to instill that in you, but you really don’t have something to look to as an example or a community that really shows that to you.”

But Sobolik sees that nurturing guidance in the “rich tradition” of Catholicism and the community at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage, where she attends Mass with her Catholic husband and their 4-year-old daughter.

Sobolik also seeks the hope that only comes from God.

“It’s kind of difficult being raised without any belief in God because there really is not any hope,” she said. “If something is bad, then it is just bad.”

Sobolik was inspired when her husband’s Catholic family, suffering tragedy, showed “hope and love in those darkest of times because of their faith.”

When people ask Sobolik why she’s becoming Catholic now, she says news about clergy sex abuse doesn’t change the “true faith” and one church founded by Jesus Christ. Once Sobolik is received into the church, she hopes to help others find their way as well.

“It’s absolutely right to follow that call,” she said.

‘I KNEW I WAS HOME’

Alex Vodlenshchuk, 27, of Wasilla, was raised attending services in a conservative Pentecostal congregation, but said he “never really accepted the faith and lived a very secular lifestyle.” In his 20s, he had a change of heart. He visited numerous Baptist and nondenominational congregations, and became interested in the Orthodox church. At the same time, he began reading the spiritual works of C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and St. Thomas Aquinas.

“I never really thought about going to a Catholic church,” Vodlenshchuk said. Then one Sunday morning last year, he “just decided to go, and as soon as I experienced my first Mass, I knew I was home,” he said.

Initially, Vodlenshchuk did not consider the Catholic Church partly because of the negative media and stereotyping of Catholic priests. While he grieves over the tragedy of any abuse, he said the Catholic Church is still the one founded by Jesus Christ, who promised, “the gates of hell will not prevail against his church.” Vodlenshchuk noted that God’s presence in the Eucharist and the power of the sacraments don’t depend on the personal holiness of priests.

“I don’t go there for the clergy,” he said. “I go there for God.”

Moreover, Vodlenshchuk observed that the problem of abuse cuts across society and is not unique to the Catholic Church. In fact, he noted that proportionately, there are more cases of abuse in other denominations and public school systems.

“It’s a human problem, not a Christian problem,” he said.

Of the three sacraments Vodlenshchuk will receive this Easter, he is most looking forward to baptism, after “all my life not being a member of Christ’s body.”

THE WHOLE TRUTH

Eric Miller, 39, of Healy, was received into the Catholic Church last October after a decade of personal study.

After graduating from Protestant seminary in Louisville, Ky., he started reading some of the earliest witnesses to the faith — the Early Church Fathers — whose works were not much addressed in seminary. Quickly, he faced a deep philosophical problem.

“As a Protestant, something that becomes very apparent early on was that I was holding to different positions on doctrine than they were,” he said.

Miller started questioning “how we know truths and who’s right.” Which led him to ask, “Who’s more likely to be right? Was it the early Catholic saints who “not only knew the cultural context but knew some of the apostles personally? Is it more likely that they got doctrine right or 2,000 years later in a culture completely removed from it that I did?”

Another big question was on the “bedrock foundation” of Protestantism: “sola scriptura” or “by Scripture alone,” a principle which insists that the Bible is the only source of formal rule of faith, excluding the church and sacred tradition.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sacred tradition comes from the apostles and “hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living tradition.”

“Sola scriptura” is not found explicitly anywhere in the Bible or deduced from it.

“It sounds nice on paper, but at the end of the day, it’s never ‘Scripture alone,’” Miller observed, noting the problems and divisions that arise when people invariably disagree on how to interpret passages of scripture.

“Philosophically, I found it unworkable,” Miller said. “And the remedy to that was the church.”

He found support in St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, in which “Saint Paul says it’s the church that’s the pillar and buttress of truth, and it’s the church that’s been endowed with the authority to interpret sacred Scripture.”

One of the last “big” questions for Miller: Orthodoxy versus Catholicism — two churches that claim apostolic succession and have valid sacraments. In the end, he said, Christ’s words — in the Gospel of St. Matthew — specifically addressed to Saint Peter and then the Twelve Apostles make clear the Catholic Church is “the church founded by Christ.”

Miller started talking to Catholic priests, who would sit with him over coffee and answer questions. He met and discussed his years of study and desire to enter the church with Father Michael Shields, pastor of the church of the Nativity in Magadan, Russia, a mission of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, while Father Shields was in Alaska. Soon after, in a private Mass, Miller was confirmed and received his first holy Communion, his newest infant son was baptized, and Miller and his wife’s marriage was sacramentally blessed.

Miller is most grateful for finding the “fullness of the faith, whereas before there were bits and pieces of the faith,” and especially the Eucharist, there “to lead me to salvation, to nourish me by Christ himself.”

‘DON’T GIVE UP IN THE DARKNESS’

When friends ask Miller why, in light of scandal, he would join the Catholic Church, he explains first “this is the church that Christ founded” and second, because Christ promised “the gates of hell would not prevail against the church until the end of time,” and we know “there are going to be wars.”

Study of salvation history offers a clear picture “about the nature of sin and ourselves,” Miller said. One sees “that pattern played out over and over” through the Old Testament history and the history of the church since Christ. “Whether it’s good kings and bad kings or good priests and unfaithful priests,” he noted the battle between good and evil has raged since the Fall and continues to “the end of the ages.”

“Christ and the apostles didn’t promise that the church wouldn’t be wracked with scandal, with sin and attacks from Satan,” Miller said. “It’s the exact opposite.”

Miller believes Christ’s warnings are meant to draw people to his church.

“It should cause us to cry out to God, to increase our acts of penance, to examine our own lives,” he said, “and really to cling to the church.”

“Christ came to the world in a time of darkness,” Miller observed. “I would say to people, don’t give up in the darkness.”


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