When Matt Ha came to this country in 1993 from a Buddhist upbringing in Vietnam, the 7-year-old had never been to a church service.
But after a friend exposed him to the Christian faith and after attending Catholic Mass with his girlfriend for the past two years, the sophomore computer science major said he has finally found where he belongs.
“My friend would speak about Christ and the teachings, and it really helped me,” Ha said. “I found it to be really comforting … but I didn’t want to rush into it.”
After learning more about the conversion process through the church, he decided to solidify his commitment to the faith during the Easter Vigil service Saturday at the Catholic Student Center. Ha was one of four university students baptized this weekend among a class of 19, said Lisa Greey, the campus minister at the center.
“It was awesome,” Ha said. “I’ve never experienced anything like that. Everything was really new for me.”
The conversions were part of the record-breaking number of Catholic converts in the Washington area this year, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The 1,306 new Catholics entering the Archdiocese of Washington this year is the most ever observed.
The 19 students enrolled in the preparation course on the campus as part of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, a process in which adults commit to joining the Catholic faith and meet once a week for lectures about the religion.
“If somebody is interested in learning about the Catholic faith and possibly becoming Catholic, it’s not the kind of thing you just do overnight,” said the Rev. Rob Walsh, the Catholic Student Center’s chaplain. “You need to really understand what you’re doing because it’s a lifelong commitment.”
Greey said the center’s RCIA class enrollment has fluctuated in the past, with 18 participants in 2012 and eight in 2013. People have been converting from several faiths and backgrounds, such as different Christian denominations or different religions, Greey said. Some come from nonreligious backgrounds, she said.
People might be joining the church in this area because the Archdiocese of Washington has been focusing on new evangelization, Greey said, a strategy that spreads faith while strengthening one’s own beliefs through service and liturgy. The faith resounds on a campus such as this one, she said, because students tend to be seeking a purpose in life.
“You wind up connecting them with faith,” Greey said. “The Catholic faith has so much to say about why we’re here, so much to say about the value that each person has.”
Walsh said that while all students who decide to convert to Catholicism have different stories, most are looking for more than just parties and the “Route 1 life.” Some college students experiment to try to find happiness but often feel unfulfilled, he said.
“Some people say, ‘Well, it’s not for me,’ and you can’t force it,” Walsh said. “But other people say, ‘Yeah, I think I want to give that a shot.’”
Danny Baxter, a junior computer science major, grew up Catholic and graduated from DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville but said he didn’t completely know what his faith meant to him until coming to college.
“We did what we had to. We went to Mass every week and prayed every now and again at dinner and stuff like that,” Baxter said. “It was just like checking off the boxes of Catholicism.”
Baxter’s interest was at its highest in high school as he attended a religion class as part of his daily routine, but it wasn’t until he found the Catholic Student Center that he really felt engaged, he said.
“I was always interested by it, and I wanted to check off all the boxes to be a good Catholic,” Baxter said. “And then I started realizing as I got older how fulfilling it is to do more than just check off the boxes and make it my own.”
The Catholic Church has been trying to move away from the poor press it’s gotten in the past, Baxter said. Building new relationships with people in the community has helped him, and “people are starting to realize what the church has to offer,” he said.