‘It feels like more of my home’

Through the church, three young Mainers of differing backgrounds are finding a new calling. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of a new pontiff is causing long-lapsed Catholics to take another look.

Three young women at the Buffalo Wild Wings dinner — Christine Savage and Megan McMahon, both 23, and Hillary Cusack, 25 — are discerning whether to serve the church as religious sisters.

A few years ago, Savage was nowhere near that decision. Even as a child in a Catholic family, she thought church was “silly.” She partied in college, lived with her then-boyfriend. She says she never was happy. She explored other religions, Taoism, Wicca, but they didn’t bring her whatever she was looking for.

After she graduated with a nursing degree, she slowly started to return to the Catholic Church. A year and a half ago, she became more involved and eventually joined Ignite, met the “best friends [she’s] ever had,” and is considering the convent.

“To this day, I can’t really explain what changed or how,” Savage said.

McMahon was baptized later than “normal,” at age 7, when her mother returned to the church. Her faith grew stronger during college when friends started asking her about her beliefs and she explained and explored them on a deeper level.

Cusack is a “cradle Catholic” who was born into a family that instilled the faith in her. She attended parochial school. The church always has been the driving force in her life, the constant.

“I have no other identity,” she said during a recent interview. “I’m a teacher right now, I might not be a teacher next year. Right now, I’m a daughter of my parents, someday I might not be. All these other things can fully fade away — except for the relationship I have with Christ.”

New pope, new outlook

When Marianne Lynch of Bangor left the Catholic Church in her mid-20s, she felt her relationship with the faith was broken. She thought she’d be like many Mainers — spiritual, but not affiliated with any denomination — and not worshipping with a congregation every Sunday.

For Lynch, an attorney, her turning point was one mentioned by many Catholics now returning to the faith: the election of Pope Francis in 2013. His emphasis on the church’s role in caring for the poor and his willingness to talk about homosexuality and the definition of family in the 21st century, Lynch said, made it possible for her to return to Mass with a joy she never expected.

“It’s cool to be Catholic now,” she said. “My understanding of what it means to be Catholic is now more in sync with what he is saying.”

Lynch is the daughter of first-generation Americans. Her father was Irish Catholic, her mother, Italian Catholic. She was active in her parish in high school in Connecticut and college in Boston, due in part to Pope John Paul II, whose emphasis on youth and the role of women in the church appealed to her.

The revelations in the early 2000s about the sex abuse of children by priests did not shake Lynch’s faith, but left her deeply disillusioned about the church.

“It was very distressing to me that they did not seem to be applying the same criteria to themselves or to priests behaving in abominable ways, while at the same time putting an emphasis on divorce or birth control,” she said. “It didn’t affect my faith in God at all, but in terms of my actually participating in the church, it had a serious impact on that.”

Lynch said Pope Francis’ approach has changed her attitude, by emphasizing environmental and conservation causes, being more open about homosexuality, and eschewing trappings of the office such as the papal estate and custom-made vehicles.

For her and others, the church feels again like a welcoming place.

“It feels right,” she said of going back to the Catholic Church. “Now that the message comports with what my heart was telling me was the right thing. It feels like more of my home.”

Next, the last chapter: A popular pontiff helps, but restoring the church in Maine has been the product of tough business decisions and adapting to changing times and demographics. As some traditions fall by the wayside, new ones are being forged, especially by Maine’s immigrant community.