Bob Armstrong has spent a lifetime looking for God.
At age 82, the retired statistician and professed agnostic took a leap of faith after studying the probability of God’s existence and joined the Catholic Church at Easter Vigil.
In search of evidence of God for much of his life, Mr. Armstrong came to the conclusion that there is more evidence that God exists than doesn’t exist.
So after working on his faith with Father Michael Woods of All Saints Church in Knoxville, the married father of two grown children was baptized, confirmed and received his first Holy Communion at All Saints on April 19.
Mr. Armstrong is among a growing number of converts filling the pews at Diocese of Knoxville Masses.
Now, the rest of the country is learning something that diocesan priests and parishioners already know – adults are joining the Church in ever increasing numbers. The diocese now ranks in the Top 10 for people converting to Catholicism.
A report issued by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University at Easter said the Diocese of Knoxville is tied at 10th place with the dioceses of Memphis and Lexington, Ky., in the number of Catholics per convert from 2010 to 2012.
The Diocese of Nashville ranked eighth in the study, and nearly half of the top dioceses for converts are from the Louisville province, which includes the dioceses of Knoxville (10), Nashville (8), Memphis (10), Lexington (10), Covington, Ky., Owensboro, Ky. (2), and the Archdiocese of Louisville.
The CARA study, which highlights the importance of Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) programs, has attracted attention from media outlets, including The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville and Knoxville television station WBIR.
In an interview, Bishop Richard F. Stika said he wasn’t surprised by the study’s findings, especially given the number of retirees, families and Hispanic Catholics relocating to the diocese.
“We’re a growing Church, both in people who are choosing to become Catholic as well as people moving in from out of town,” Bishop Stika said. “We have various populations of cultures, and Hispanic and Latino (communities) are very large. So they bring a beauty into the Church, as well as all the other ethnic groups. We just started a Vietnamese parish in Knoxville – the Church of Divine Mercy – and they average over 200 Vietnamese on a Sunday.”
Churches across the diocese held Rites of Election of Catechumens and Call to Continuing Conversion of Candidates before Easter to officially recognize adults and youth entering the Church during Easter Vigil.
Nearly 250 people in the Diocese of Knoxville entered the Church at Easter Vigil Mass, and the CARA study cited the diocese for averaging about 350 converts per year. Mr. Armstrong was among the 250 and fits the Diocese of Knoxville demographic well. He continues to study the Catholic faith with Deacon Tim Elliott of All Saints, who is the diocesan director of the Diaconate and Deacon Formation.
He and his wife, Joan Armstrong, are originally from New York and relocated to Talbott in the Five Rivers Deanery. Their daughter, Ginger Henderson, is active at All Saints. While he was an agnostic when he and Joan married in 1960, she was Catholic and they took marriage instruction from a priest and he agreed to raise their children Catholic.
In New York, he sought guidance from the Paulist Fathers about God’s existence, and they offered some words of wisdom.
“I read it and came to the conclusion that there is evidence, but no proof, of God’s existence. It said, ‘For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who do not believe, no proof is possible.’”
The couple’s faith journey led to East Tennessee, which has seen a dramatic increase in Catholicism, both among traditional Catholics and converts.
Sister Mary Timothea Elliott, RSM, who directs the diocesan Office of Christian Formation, welcomed the CARA report and added that those becoming Catholic at Easter are only a fraction of the people joining the Church annually.
“This universal movement to the New Evangelization has a lot to do with it. The availability in most parishes of faith formation programs makes parishioners aware of their responsibilities to share this good news,” Sister Mary Timothea said.
She pointed out that converts to the Catholic faith are vital to the Church’s continued growth.
“A large number of those in RCIA programs are converts and are so enthusiastic about their faith and are delighted to share it,” Sister Mary Timothea said.
One such convert, Michelle Mitrik, comes from a Protestant background and joined the Catholic Church last year as a member of St. Patrick Church in Morristown.
Mrs. Mitrik was attending a confirmation ceremony at St. Patrick on April 23, where her husband, who was baptized Catholic but was a practicing Protestant for years, returned to the Church.
“A friend invited me to the Catholic Church. I thought you had to be born Catholic; that’s not true. From the first Mass, it was just the right fit for the spiritual life I was looking for,” Mrs. Mitrik told WBIR. “Our whole family has kind of taken to this spiritual journey, and he (husband) is now being confirmed and having his first Communion tonight. It’s a really special day.”
The U.S. Catholic Church was expected to welcome at Easter more than 100,000 new adult Catholics into the faith through RCIA programs, according to the CARA study, which found that a major factor in converting to Catholicism was marriage.
More Catholics are marrying spouses who are outside the faith and more spouses subsequently are joining the Church. The CARA study also found that 35 percent of converts reside in the South compared to 20 percent living in the Northeast, a traditional Catholic stronghold.