New Catholics Welcomed by Missions at Easter
Every Easter, a number of adults and young people join the Catholic Church at Glenmary's missions. This year, the most dramatic example can be found at the Maynardville (Union County) and Rutledge (Grainger County), Tenn., missions, established in 2011 and led by pastor Father Steve Pawelk and his fellow Glenmary team members—Father Aaron Wessman and Brothers Craig Digmann and Joe Steen. At these two mission parishes, six adults and nine children will join the Catholic Church during 2014 Easter Vigil celebrations.
Father Aaron, faith formation director and associate pastor for both missions, says that, "first of all, the coming of these new members is the work of the Holy Spirit." But he adds that many factors foster the environment of support and acceptance that attracts people—such as the Glenmarians' presence, example and nurturing of individuals on their faith journeys; the mission communities' warm welcome; and dedicated lay catechists.
Chuck Patten, 68, and Sharen Smith, 64, are among those preparing to become Church members through the Maynardville mission's RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program. And they're both very happy for the opportunity.
Chuck reflects that "as a boy I was baptized in another Christian church. But I've never really been connected with an organized religion before. Up until 20 to 25 years ago, I considered myself an agnostic and was searching for answers."
He was a widower when he married his wife Sally 23 years ago. He credits her—a longtime Christian and recent Catholic convert (2003)—for "helping my thinking evolve and being a very good example by living her faith." After Sally became a founding member and active volunteer at the Maynardville mission, Chuck occasionally attended Mass with her. One week Father Steve asked the retiree if he'd help with the opening of an ecumenical emergency food pantry in Rutledge.
"He said he could tell I had a good heart," says Chuck. It was just the beginning of his volunteer efforts, which include pantry directorship, bookkeeping for both missions, and assistance with Brother Joe's home repair ministry.
Meanwhile, Chuck began attending Mass at the mission more frequently about a year ago because "I heard a message there I had not heard at other churches: Jesus loves everyone unconditionally, and we should do the same."
He also saw that message being put into action by both missioners and mission members. "The Glenmarians are always working to help everyone in need in the two counties. They don't just talk the talk; they walk the walk."
The installation of Pope Francis provided the final push Chuck needed to join the Church. "I've heard and seen his message of love. He could have been a Glenmarian!" Chuck says.
Now he is attending RCIA sessions and preparing to receive confirmation and first Communion at Easter Vigil. "This is the first church whose message makes sense to me. I wouldn't have heard it if Glenmary hadn't come here. I'm very thankful."
One weekday last September, Chuck was in the parking lot outside the Maynardville Catholic storefront church when Sharen Smith drove in, introduced herself, and asked how she could get information about becoming Catholic. "Chuck immediately called Father Steve and handed me his phone!" says Sharen. "And Father Steve said, ‘Just come in and talk to me and we'll go from there.'"
Even though she grew up in a Catholic family, Sharen was never baptized or instructed in the faith. "My parents divorced, and my mother wanted me to decide about my religion later on," she says. "My grandparents raised me and took me to Mass, and I've always had my personal faith and considered myself a Catholic. But I never became part of the Church or received the sacraments, which I always wanted to do."
Sharen and her husband of 45 years moved to the area in 2007. He's a member of another Christian church, and the couple respect each other's beliefs. Through the years, she says, she sometimes didn't have access to a Catholic church, and other times her life got in her way: "I thought of it as a spiritual roadblock."
When she first noticed the new Catholic storefront church in Maynardville in 2011, she was thrilled—and afterwards, every time she drove by, she thought about stopping. But after she went past it again that day in September 2013, she finally turned around and went back.
That decision led to meeting and sharing her story with Father Steve, attending Mass and now participating in RCIA.
"I feel like I have a Church family and I love it! I have felt welcomed by the whole community from the moment Chuck passed me his phone," Sharen says.
"I see this as my ‘aha' moment. The RCIA journey is profound. And I'm really looking forward to Easter Vigil and receiving baptism, confirmation and first Communion. Then I want to do whatever God calls me to do—like volunteering at the local food pantry. I'm so grateful to the Glenmarians for having the courage to come here and for making it all possible."
This article first appeared in the April 2014 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.