For Some, a New Beginning at Easter
Large Class of Converts at Mother Seton Signals Hope for Once-Troubled Church

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007

At Mother Seton Parish's Easter Vigil service last night, the front pews were filled with pilgrims who grew up far from the Catholic faith.

There was a sparkling-eyed Muslim teenager, a Buddhist social worker raised in Sri Lankha and a Protestant immigrant from Jamaica. But by the end of the ceremony, those three, along with a dozen others, had been initiated into Catholicism in a rite that started in darkness and ended in hugs and tears of joy.

Mother Seton, made up mostly of young families, is a microcosm of the increasingly diverse face of Catholicism in the region. Newcomers from a variety of ethnicities, races and faiths have helped build the Germantown church into one of the Archdiocese of Washington's fastest-growing parishes.

The converts were among 2,000 people in the area inducted last night during Easter Vigil services, in which Catholics welcome newcomers to their faith as they celebrate the Easter resurrection of their suffering Christ. Today in the Washington area, where there are almost 1 million Catholics, Masses are celebrated in more than 20 languages.

At Mother Seton Parish, which has endured its own anguish -- including a homicide and a sexual abuse allegation -- and resurrection in recent years, the event was a culmination of seven months of study by the converts in a basement classroom. Led by longtime parishioner Michael Schwartz, class members, ages 16 to 62, immersed themselves in Catholic beliefs and practices. Each also chose a Catholic sponsor and a patron saint.

Along the way, they peppered Schwartz with questions on the nuts and bolts of the faith: Do Catholics genuflect on the right or left knee? (The right.) Is plastic surgery allowed? (It is.) Does the Church really demand chastity outside marriage? (It does.)

"It's been a long year, but it's been an enjoyable one," said Nicholas Duncan, 39, who spent his childhood in Jamaica as a Protestant. He decided to join his wife and son in the Catholic faith after his wife was laid off and the family was struggling financially. He prayed for help to get through the crisis.

"God gave me the strength each time I needed it," he said. "It made me start to think that it's time for me to do something, especially since God was there in my life."

Hard times also brought Yamuna Perera, 28, who grew up Buddhist, to the Catholic faith.

As a teenager struggling with family tensions in New York, she stumbled across a Catholic chapel and began dropping in to ask God for help.

Her conversion to Catholicism, she said, is her way of thanking God for the comfort she received. She is now married to a Catholic and expecting her first child in September.

Donya Botkan, 16, a junior at Damascus High School, had to overcome the concerns of her Muslim parents, who assumed she was just going through a phase. She had been attending Mass at Mother Seton as a purely social event with her Catholic friends, but Jesus's message of compassion and forgiveness, she said, wove its way into her heart.

"You don't hear that as much in other faiths compared to Christianity," she said.

For the parish itself, which has been through troubling times, the large class of initiates is another hopeful message of this Easter season.

In 2000, its big and booming parish priest, Monsignor Thomas Wells, was fatally stabbed in his bedroom at the church rectory by a homeless man during a robbery. His bloodied body was discovered by parishioners.

Three years later, a former altar boy accused an ex-associate pastor at Mother Seton of sexually abusing him. The priest, the Rev. Aaron Cote, who had moved to a Rhode Island parish, was removed from the ministry.

Since then, the rectory where Wells was slain has been torn down and a $4.3 million church with a 750-seat sanctuary constructed on the site. Average Sunday attendance has swelled by 30 percent, to almost 3,000 worshipers, as the Rev. Ron Potts, 43, the briskly cheerful parish priest who replaced Wells, has worked hard to heal the congregation.

"Be not afraid," he counsels frequently from the pulpit in his bell-like tenor. By embracing the suffering of Jesus, he tells them, they will be strengthened by his grace and goodness.

In the sanctuary on a recent Tuesday, the nervous initiates rehearsed for last night's ceremony, which included baptism for those who had never been baptized, then first Communion for all.

"Have we all practiced receiving Communion?" Potts asked as they sat down in the pews, their Catholic sponsors seated behind them. The converts shook their heads.

Potts demonstrated, his cupped hands accepting an imaginary Host and then delicately placing it on his tongue with his right hand.

Botkan's sponsor, Stacey Horman, edged forward into her seat and murmured advice in her ear.

"Chew it as fast as you can," she counseled. Otherwise, "it'll stick to the roof of your mouth."

But practical concerns were swept aside last night when the ceremony got underway with the lighting of a fire after sunset in the chilly air outside the church entrance.

The converts, their sponsors and hundreds of church members then proceeded solemnly into the blackened sanctuary, representing the darkness of the world without God.

Once the worshipers were inside, candles were lit, the lights sprang on and the choir burst into song as sorrow turned to joy at the resurrection of the Lord.

As the ceremony progressed, the baptismal candidates were led to the marble baptismal font, turning their heads to the altar.

Potts poured water over their foreheads and declared, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."

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