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Religious tracts target Catholic church in St. Petersburg

Parishioners leaving Mass at St. Raphael's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg one recent Sunday evening weren't prepared for the sermon plastered to their windshields.

"Am I going to Heaven?'' asked the religious tracts, protected in sandwich bags against the evening's drizzle.

The assurance of a heavenly afterlife, the trifold pamphlets explained, doesn't come from keeping the Ten Commandments, confessing one's sins or doing good deeds. The correct answer — checked off on a 10-point list — is to "trust in Christ as my only hope.''

The tiny booklet bore the address of another congregation, Calvary Community Church, 4811 George Road, Tampa.

"That's kind of pretty aggressive to go out to actively proselytize where people are coming to worship,'' said Father Timothy Sherwood of St. Raphael's.

"Sometimes you get things on windshields for political things or the local pizza place, but to consider going to another church is highly unusual.''

Pastor Ralph "Yankee'' Arnold, 68, pastor of the 225- to 300-member Calvary Community Church, initially said he had no idea who distributed the tracts on St. Raphael's waterfront Snell Isle property. This week, though, he said he had learned that the person behind the campaign was actually a former St. Raphael's parishioner.

"She's concerned about them. She knows them and she loves them and she wants them to know what she now knows,'' he said.

Sherwood, 49, said even if the woman left the Catholic faith for theological reasons, her zeal is misplaced.

"Basic to the Christian call of discipleship is to treat others with kindness and respect,'' he said. "It certainly would not make for being a good neighbor if I put anti-Protestant tracts on the car windows of members from the Lutheran church a half-mile north of me or the Episcopal church just a quarter-mile south. I, too, am an adult convert from another Christian denomination, but I would never consider doing such a thing to my former church.''

Arnold, the Tampa preacher, said his church prints the tracts "by the thousands'' and encourages people "to pass them out wherever they go, to whomever they choose.''

Those who hand out the religious literature "just want people to have an honest opportunity to trust Jesus Christ as the only way of going to heaven, because trusting in a church or man or good works will not get you into heaven,'' he said.

Sherwood, who recently became pastor of the 1,500-family St. Raphael's parish, said Catholics have a different theology regarding redemption and salvation.

"We may not agree with them, but to assume that he has the exclusive idea of that I think is disrespectful to what our beliefs are or other Christian denominations,'' he said.

Catholics have often been targeted by tracts such as the ones distributed by Calvary Community Church, said Bill Leonard, professor of church history at Wake Forest University Divinity School.

"It is ironic that while popular culture these days shows how Christians have 'taken on' other world religions, especially Islam, some Christians still question the salvation of others who claim membership in the church,'' Leonard wrote in an e-mail.

Many Protestants, particularly in the South, continue to question the salvation of Catholics, Leonard said, because they believe the church promotes a sacramental approach to salvation with an overemphasis on good works and salvation through the church, rather than through Christ.

"These were arguments used in earlier times for opposing the building of Catholic churches and schools in Protestant enclaves, and for opposing Catholic candidates for public office,'' the Wake Forest professor said.

More recently, he said, Catholic parents complained to officials at certain Protestant-based universities "when their children have been told by their peers that they were 'lost' and 'going to hell' unless they converted, since Catholics 'were not Christians.' ''

Arnold, who describes Calvary Community as a fundamental Christian church, said the "Am I going to Heaven" tracts, don't attack any religion.

"It's not about getting everybody to our church. I just want them to trust Christ as their savior, but they can't do that, if they don't know the truth,'' said the evangelist, who spent three years driving across the country in a motor home and preaching.

"If somebody comes out of church and there's a piece of paper on their windshield, they can either take it or throw it in the trash. I get Catholic mail I never ordered, but it comes to my church and it is always talking about the wondrous, glorious Catholic church,'' Arnold said.

There's a difference between evangelizing and proselytizing, said Sherwood. His last parish — St. Joseph's on 22nd Avenue S — regularly evangelized lapsed Catholics and those who weren't affiliated with the church community, he said. "But when we found that they went to the local Baptist church, the AME church, we were very happy with that. We didn't go any further. That's how we approach it,'' he said.

But the practice of handing out tracts urging acceptance of Christ through a "certain plan of salvation'' continues, Leonard said.

"It is an old evangelical tradition,'' he said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Religious tracts target Catholic church in St. Petersburg 09/14/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 14, 2010 7:41pm]
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