For Austin Russell, Easter used to mean dyeing eggs and finding candy. “It was the Easter Bunny — it was fun,” said Russell, 19, who grew up in a home that wasn’t very religious.
But this year, Easter carries a weightier meaning for the University of Maryland sophomore. When he started dating a Catholic woman and befriended other practicing Catholics, he became interested in the church’s teachings. He enrolled in a class to learn more, and this weekend, he joined a record number of people in the Washington area taking the final steps to convert to Catholicism. Once he is baptized and receives his first Communion this weekend, “I can really walk into the church and say that I’m a follower like everybody else. It’s going to be exciting.”
Easter culminates the holiest time on the Christian calendar and is the traditional time to convert for some groups, including Catholics.
Seventy-two percent of new converts cite marriage as an important reason for coming into the church, and the highest conversion rates are in the South, according to an analysis released last week by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a Georgetown University group that studies American Catholicism. The report also found that adult converts are more active in the church and more knowledgeable about the religion than those who have been Catholic since childhood.
Although conversion numbers in the Catholic Church have fallen nationally in recent years, possibly because marriage rates are down, they are up in the Washington area, where there has been an overall uptick in population. The Washington Archdiocese said it is welcoming 1,306 new Catholics this Easter, a higher number than it has ever recorded.
While the U.S. Catholic Church will soon become majority Latino because of immigration patterns from Catholic countries, converts within the United States tend to be more diverse. In the Washington area this year, nearly one-third are between 19 and 35. That does not surprise Susan Gibbs, an adviser to Catholic organizations and a board member of CARA.
“Washington is an interesting case because so many people come here to serve others,” she said. “Young people are searching for a start in life, and part of that journey can be to find faith.”
Washington is also home to two of the nation’s largest Catholic universities, Georgetown and Catholic, Gibbs noted, adding that other campus ministries, such as Catholic Terps at the University of Maryland, have active peer fellowship and evangelization programs.
“College, for a lot of these kids, is really a time for discovering who they are,” said Rob Walsh, chaplain at the Catholic Student Center on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus. “They’ve tried one side . . . through partying, through stuff, through sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, and it didn’t work.”
They may also be disappointed by the limits of technology and social media, he said, adding that replacing human interaction with screen time can make young people feel lonely.
“You can get so buried in it that you lose a part of who you are, and they reject that,” Walsh said of the young converts.
Aaron Holland, 18, a freshman there who grew up Methodist and became a Catholic this weekend, said he was drawn to Catholicism because he felt it answered more of his questions.
“It’s not so much what I learned in the Methodist Church, it’s what I didn’t learn,” said Holland, who is studying aerospace engineering. For example, when trying to reconcile his belief in evolution with the church’s view of creation, he said, he found more flexibility in the interpretations he heard in the Catholic Church.
“We don’t really know what happened in the beginning of creation, but we do know that sin came from that fall in the Garden of Eden,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be exactly what it is literally in there to be true. That was more satisfying as an answer.”
Reasons for converting are as diverse as the people going through the ceremony. Kim Finamore, 23, of Port Republic, Md., said she had gone through a hard time after the death of family members and the loss of a job. Embracing Catholicism this year, she said, “has kept me content with what I have and not necessarily wanting more than I have.”
Melissa Sandy, 37, of Chesapeake Beach, Md., who has spent the past year and a half studying and planning for her conversion ceremony this weekend, said she came to the church during a happy period. “It was the craziest thing,” she said. “Previously, my life was in turmoil. . . . God was the furthest thing from me.” When her life became more peaceful, she said, “it was like, ‘Let me explore this chapter.’ ”
Although small details of the conversion ceremony, such as music, may vary from one community to another, the main rituals are constant around the world. On the night before Easter, new Catholics are baptized, either by immersion in a vat or by water poured over the head; they are then anointed with oil that has been blessed.
“They always say it’s like a rebirth,” Sandy said. “I’ve never been baptized, and having your sins being washed away at the age of 37, it’s just pretty awesome.”
The prominence and popularity of Pope Francis, who was elected last year and has an 85 percent approval rating, could make Catholicism more attractive not only to non-Catholics but also to Catholics who have fallen away from the church, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“There’s a renewed interest, a renewed pride in the Catholic Church,” she said. “Personally, I’ve seen more people in church, people coming back.”
But this year may be too early to see the “Francis effect” in conversion rates, said Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the Washington Archdiocese, noting that the course of study leading to conversion generally takes nine to 12 months.
“People do tend to think about it for a while. It’s a pretty big decision,” she said. “In the next few years, we might start seeing more people saying Pope Francis was a factor.”
The 2006 arrival of Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who is known as one of the country’s most efficient administrators and who has expanded outreach efforts, has perhaps been more instrumental in attracting people, said Sara Blauvelt, director for catechesis at the Washington Archdiocese.
“He’s a great leader, and he gives great guidance to his priests,” she said, adding that the archdiocese has been encouraging the laity to go out and invite others to the church.
Silvia Flores, 27, a District resident who is converting this Easter, said she plans to do just that. As a Catholic, she said, “I can talk about the Bible to other people. . . . I can guide them to go to the Church.”
Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.