At a time when the Catholic Church, along with other denominations, is experiencing a decline in membership, one family on the Island is joining the faith community at Good Shepherd Roman Catholic Parish this Easter season. Seán McMahon and his wife Katie will be baptized into the church on Holy Saturday, April 8. Their little daughters, Isla and Fiona, will also receive the sacrament. It’s been an interesting path to where they’re headed.
I have to confess (no pun intended) that I first met Seán, who is also a terrific singer, songwriter, and musician, probably seven or eight years ago now, when he was playing at the Ritz. What I remember most about that encounter is talking about Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement — a little unusual for a Friday night conversation on Circuit Ave. His mom is Jewish and his dad is Catholic, and Seán has always had an interest in Judaism and Christianity, as well as many other spiritual and religious practices. He’s one of my favorite people to talk to about spiritual and faith experiences. His most recent involvement was in the Baptist denomination, as leader of the Aquinnah Baptist Church. Seán has to give up his role there as he makes a commitment to the Catholic Church. I’ve been to Aquinnah to hear him preach, and he always manages to tie the past to the present through scripture.
A couple of weeks ago, Seán texted me a YouTube link to a talk he gave at the up-Island church. Basically, he had to tell that special faith community — one that he truly loves — that because his plan is to become a Catholic, he’ll no longer be able to lead the Baptist congregation.
In fact, it was through Bible study preparation in that role that Seán began to explore the history of the Catholic faith. The passage that intrigued him was Isaiah 1:26, about the purification of Israel: “I will restore your judges as at first, and your counselors as in the beginning; After that you shall be called city of justice, faithful city.” Seán explains that what seemed to be a simple passage was actually profound.
“I unexpectedly ran into a convincing Biblical argument for apostolic succession, sacerdotal hierarchy, and the papacy in this study. This study — its 12 parts — is what decisively nudged me from a respect for Catholicism toward intellectual assent to its authoritative claims — my conscience followed suit, as I have committed my life to Jesus, and this opened my eyes to what it means to live in obedience to Him in His Kingdom,” Seán wrote in an email.
I took this to mean that Seán fully understood the Catholic Church was the original Christian church, and that the church today still exists based on that ancient model. He called his epiphany “an unexpected turn,” saying that he wasn’t looking to change denominations or to become a Catholic.
“I haven’t been shopping around for churches in hopes of finding one that would fit me,” he says. “I was quite at home in the Aquinnah church, because I felt, and still feel, called to that part of the Island (even nation) — it seems to be a sort of heart center. What happens there has significance for the rest of the Island, maybe beyond. There is a spiritual destiny unfolding up there, and I am listening for God’s guidance on it to this day.”
I asked him how the learning process was going leading up to the baptism in a couple of weeks. Seán explained that because there is a small number of folks going through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) process, he’s been studying directly with Father Paul Fedak, pastor of the Good Shepherd. Seán has, through discussion, prayer, and reflection, discerned that the Catholic tradition of Christian life is appropriate for him. He is passing along all he learns to his wife and his children.
“I like Father Paul,” Seán told me. “He seems like a fellow from another time. He’s never spoken of anything other than spiritual life and the church with me. He takes his faith, and our faith, seriously, and that’s a blessing. He always brings things back to Jesus. As a former pastor, I respect that. As a parishioner, I need that!”
Always open to talking about faith, I met Seán and his family at the Edgartown Diner after church last Sunday. What was very clear is that the whole family is joining the Catholic Church together. As a father, Seán explained how it is important to him that his children have a grounding in the church. He told me that his own dad had stopped going to Mass, but now that Seán and his family are going, his dad has gone back to Mass as well.
“They say once Catholic, always Catholic,” Seán said. “My father for a long time was not religious, but he always believed, and once we started talking about Mass, he started going to Mass again. That alone is so great … If she [Seán nodded toward his daughter Isla] has this grounding in her childhood, it’s going to be with her … there’s a lot to be said for having a ritual.”
Katie is on board to embrace the Catholic faith. “I think Seán and I agree that we both believe in God and we’re both spiritually minded. I don’t have the same fervor, but I’m willing to give it a try. It’s important to him, and I’m willing to support him. We have the same core beliefs.”
“When she says ‘support,’ it’s not like she just is assenting,” Seán says. “We’re going into this together … we’re all going to get baptized. She’s not supportive on the sideline, she’s supportive in the trenches.” They’re happy with the way the parish family at Good Shepherd embraces children, and they’re looking forward to building a foundation for their family.
I agreed with Seán when he brought up “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” There is comfort in knowing that the Mass will be the same no matter where you are, that you can go to a Catholic church anywhere in the world and find that reassurance that you are with God while you are at Mass. One of the best parts of writing this column is talking about how God works in people’s lives, and listening to how people in the community come into their faith. I hope above all else that this young family feels supported and loved as they make this decision.
The Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center hosts its annual Community Passover Seder on Thursday, April 6, at 5:30 pm, remotely and in person. Rabbi Caryn Broitman leads the service, which also includes musical accompaniment. It’s a beautiful evening with a shared sense of community while practicing something sacred. Check the website to make a reservation: mvhc.us/passover-seder-2023.html.
A global program from the Jehovah’s Witnesses takes place this weekend. The free 30-minute
presentation “You Can Face the Future with Confidence!” will be hosted at the Martha’s Vineyard Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, with a videoconferencing option available. The talk will take place Saturday, April 1, at 6 pm in Portuguese and then again on Sunday, April 2, at 9:30 am in English. The Island’s Jehovah’s Witness community commemorates the memorial of Jesus’ death on Tuesday, April 4, at 7 pm. It will be presented in English and Portuguese.