A Matter of Faith

By Albert McKeon
Telegraph [Nashua NH]
April 20, 2003

They walked different paths, starting their journeys in disparate places.

They awake this Easter morning united, having found spiritual fulfillment in the Catholic Church.

Robert Paul, Melinda Norcross and Sheila Clegg had seen loved ones participate in the church. Eventually they felt an itch, then a slight tug and finally a yearning for religious completion in adulthood.

So at a time when the Catholic Church in America has seen participation and contributions decline - in part because of the clergy abuse crisis - these three Nashua area residents have fully joined the institution.

They understand the crisis facing the church and recognize the suffering of abuse victims. They believe the church will rebound and hope to strengthen it. Their journey, though, is not focused so much on the secular structure of the church as it is on its divine core.

Paul and Clegg had already received some of the sacraments after having been baptized Catholic as children. Norcross comes from a family with deep roots in Judaism; she speaks Hebrew.

Before a crowded St. Kathyrn Church in Hudson on Saturday night, Norcross had her head drenched at a baptismal font. When Mass ended, she had received her first Communion and confirmation - the sacrament that recognizes a Catholic's bond with the Holy Spirit.

Across the Merrimack River in Nashua, Paul received the sacraments of Communion and confirmation at St. Louis de Gonzague Church, while Clegg accepted her first Communion wafer at Immaculate Conception Church.

They joined more than 400 people who received some or all of those sacraments at Holy Saturday Masses across New Hampshire.

They hit the home stretch of their journey on a cold Sunday in March, when fewer than a dozen protesters stood on the street facing St. Joseph Cathedral in Manchester. The protesters demanded Bishop John McCormack's resignation, faulting his handling of abuse cases for the Archdiocese of Boston.

Inside the cathedral, the 400 catechumens - those not baptized - and candidates - those previously baptized but without the other sacraments - celebrated Mass with McCormack. The Mass complemented the rite of election, in which the church recognized the 400 and officially invited them to receive the sacraments.

"It's down from last year, but given the climate and the times, it's a phenomenal amount of people," said Sister Mary Elizabeth Whalen, director of the Manchester Diocese's Office of the Catechumenate.

Inspired by the Holy Land

Robert Paul, 55, had seen his wife, Lorraine, and their children, Lisa and Matthew, worship as Catholics. Matthew was an altar server.

Paul essentially left the church as a young boy. Raised by a Protestant father and a Catholic mother in Lowell, Mass., Paul was snared in a family dispute on religion.

"I always felt, 'When he's ready,' " Lorraine said. "The priest said not to rush him."

Some St. Francis Xavier parishioners thought Lorraine was unmarried. They rarely saw Paul, and when he did attend Mass, he felt uncomfortable.

But the church's former pastor, the Rev. Marcel Martel, put him at ease.

Martel knew Paul had yet to receive his first Communion. He nonetheless welcomed Paul in the Communion line. But instead of dispensing the Eucharist, Martel would bless Paul.

Another turning point came when Paul and his wife visited Jerusalem and Rome in 2000. The next year he started attending Mass faithfully, and correlating the written word with his tangible experience.

"To see where Jesus walked," Paul said. "It had given me a deeper feeling for things. It's not just words or phrases in a book."

With St. Francis Xavier about to close, the family transferred to St. Louis, where Paul entered the church's Rite of Christian Initiation program.

Like Clegg and Norcross, Paul undertook a 13-week crash course in Catholicism.

Religious phrases no longer seem quite as mysterious. The words of the Gospel made sense. He now appreciates the value in a metaphor expressed by the church's pastoral minister, Deacon David Hamel.

"It's like having a flashlight in front of your face; you can't see around you," Paul said. "Then you move it away and you can see. I wasn't looking. I had the tools, but unless you put them to use, it doesn't work."

Expanding Judaism

Melinda Norcross wanted to see where her boyfriend Mark went every Sunday morning. She followed him to Catholic Mass as a sign of support, and to satisfy a curiosity.

"At some point it became me going for the word - a message of devotion, faith and love, engendered each week," Norcross said.

Jews believe the messiah has not yet arrived, whereas Christians accept Jesus as God's son. Norcross had to immerse herself in a new concept on several levels.

Norcross, 36, is an engineer. The thought of three people being one - the Holy Trinity of God the father, Jesus the son and the Holy Spirit - is hard to equate mathematically.

She also found it troublesome to bow before the cross; she had learned it was a sign of idolatry. But the Rev. Gary Belliveau explained that the Christian cross is a symbol of Jesus' death, she said.

"For the first time I'm turning to the Bible in pure conviction," Norcross said. "Christianity has the idea that you approach your life with the cup half full. The message is clear and consistent."

Norcross's father disapproves of her conversion. They have reached a consensus of sorts in which they do not discuss it.

She thinks a background in Judaism will only augment her Catholicism, what she considers a "bonus."

"I will not stop being Jewish when I'm baptized," she said. "I am Jewish by birth, but Jesus is in my blood. I'll have the best of both worlds."

She wanted to enter a Rite of Christian Initiation program in 2001, but her mother died. Norcross grieved by following the Hebrew seven-day period of mourning known as Shivah.

She joined the program the following year, and felt a confirmation of her decision while attending a Mass in January; She was plucked out of the crowd to give a reading.

Norcross recognizes the pain felt by victims of clergy abuse, but she refutes the notion that church is set "to go down in flames." It has lasted 2,000 years, and it will remain intact well into the future, she said.

"The only way it is going to rise is if people join it," she said. "The only place we can go is forward. The converts of this year have even more of a profound responsibility."

A source of comfort

Sheila Clegg expected to have a long and lonely winter when her husband of 29 years, David, died last year.

David was Catholic, as are their five children. Clegg arranged a Catholic burial for him, and soon appreciated the kindness expressed by the Rev. Marc Gagne, pastor of Immaculate Conception.

Gagne and parishioners "were wonderful," and everything just "clicked," she said.

Clegg, 55, discovered through records that she was baptized and received first Communion at age 13, but that was the extent of her Catholicism. She later attended Baptist churches, but was always "searching for the right church," she said.

Last week she confidently considered the search complete. She attended the various Holy Week Masses leading to Easter feeling whole and anxious to receive the Eucharist.

Her Rite of Christian Initiation class basically refreshed her knowledge of the church.

"But I haven't learned it all," she said. "I have a long way to go."

She finds stability in the Catholic Church, even though it suffered a tremendous blow with the abuse scandal.

"It's a very, very strong church," Shelia said. "They'll survive. I never did ask, 'Is this the right thing?' I guess I'm one of those people that has to see for myself."

Clegg has met McCormack three times in the past year. She senses that he's repentant for whatever decisions he made on abusive clergy.

"I find him to be a very straightforward, humble person," she said. "He's a human being. I liked him. I liked him."

But as Clegg tells inquisitive family members, she's renewing her bond with the church because of its teachings and expression of faith: the trinity, Christ's status as son of God and the idea of eternal grace.

She has another reason: "My husband is gone. Life is short. I want to make sure I'm in the same neighborhood as him."


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