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Catholics hold day of penance, as millions return to faith

Fr. Joe Marcoux prepares for the Day of Penance and Mercy at St. Catherine of Siena parish in Ithaca.
John strolls down the steps of Immaculate Conception Church in Ithaca. More than six decades earlier, he was carried down these same stairs on the day of his baptism. After taking time away from the faith during his college years, John returned to the Catholic faith. At any given time, there are roughly 5 million Americans like John who are attending Church after returning to the Catholic faith, according to a 2008 estimate from Georgetown University.

“Since I have grown older, I have decided to do my part,” John said. “It comes from the heart.”

While nearly 20 percent of adults living in the United States are unaffiliated with a religion, according to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center, the Georgetown research suggests a significant portion of adults like John are rediscovering faith later in life, a trend especially pronounced among Catholics. About 9 percent of all Catholics attending mass are reverts, the research showed.

Now 66-years-old, John completed the Catholic sacrament of penance, where he confessed his sins to a priest, on March 21–his first penance in two years. The Diocese of Rochester, which oversees the Catholic churches in Ithaca, is using the sacrament of penance to drive former Catholics back to the religion. The diocese established the annual Day of Penance and Mercy three years ago, as a means of welcoming people home to Catholicism.

“If you ever leave the church, it’s really hard to get back,” Fr. Joe Marcoux, pastor at St. Catherine of Sienna in Ithaca, said. “So this was a way of helping people get back to the church where it wasn’t as hard.”

Marcoux expected only a handful of people to attend the first day of penance but was surprised when 120 people showed up. Each year since, he has listened to Catholics confess their sins from noon until nearly 11 p.m. Immaculate Conception Church, which saw only about half as many attendees, still said the turnout represents a significant desire for religion in the community.

“When you are still getting in your third year 60 people who come out, I think there is obviously a thirst for it,” Pastoral Associate Patrick Meyer said.

The diocese said fewer than 10 people attend confession weekly, compared to the 80-90 people who line up for the Day of Penance and Mercy at churches on average each year.

“We really thought that this would be a way of getting people to come to confession,” the diocese’s communications director Doug Mandaro said.

The retention rate, which is how many people raised in the Church stayed through adulthood, is higher among Catholics than for most other Christian denominations, Georgetown found. And while 68 percent of Catholics stayed with the Church, an impressive 84 percent of Hindus and 76 percent of Jews and Muslims remained faithful for their lives.

The return of Catholics to the Church and high retention rate is indicative of an increase in religious involvement across many faiths. When all faiths were considered the Georgetown researchers found 70 percent of Americans who were raised to believe God did not exist, eventually became members of religions as adults.

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