Question Corner
With Father Kenneth Doyle

Q. I have been married to a Catholic woman for 39 years. I would like to become a Catholic and am wondering what that requires. I have been baptized and am Christian. (Also, I want to surprise my wife, which is why I can't ask her.) (Southern Louisiana)

A. I applaud you for your decision, and I am confident that, in addition to presenting your wife with a wonderful surprise, you feel that you will be comfortable in the Catholic Church as your new spiritual home.

You had probably best start with a call to the priest at your wife's church or to someone on the parish's catechetical staff. Many parishes have a formal program of instruction for converts, called RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.) This consists of a series of group instructions, often coupled with mentoring by someone long-experienced in the Catholic faith.

Several ceremonies over the course of the year would lead to formal acceptance into the Catholic faith at the Easter Vigil service.

In some parishes, there is an accommodation for special circumstances that could shorten the period of preparation; if, for example, you have been attending Mass with your wife for some time and are schooled both in the teachings of the Catholic Church and in its liturgical practices, you might need only some reading material and a few individual instructions, together with ample opportunity for you to ask any questions.

In any case, your local priest and Catholic parish are in the best position to speak with you and to decide on the most suitable approach.

Q. Please comment on the church's position on organ donation. (West Windsor, N.J.)

Upon death, can Catholics donate their bodies to science; for example, to a medical school? (Edisto Island, S.C.)

A. Both organ donation and the gift of a body to medical research at death are not only permitted but encouraged by the Catholic Church.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2296) says that "organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity."

In 1995, Blessed Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical "The Gospel of Life," called organ donation "a particular praiseworthy example" of "everyday heroism" that offers "a chance of health and even of life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope" (No. 86).

The necessary prerequisites are: the full, free and informed consent of the donor or those responsible for his care; and, in the case of organs harvested from a deceased person, moral certitude of death by the use of cardiopulmonary or neurological criteria accepted by the church.

In explaining its anatomical donor program, Georgetown University's School of Medicine explains that "dissection of a human body by every medical student is nothing less than an indispensable part of a first-rate medical education and of medical research in general," with the result that "the Catholic Church considers the donation of one's body to science to be a formal expression of love and concern for one's fellow human beings."

My own diocesan cemetery donates grave sites and burial services for the internment of the cremated remains of those who had donated their bodies to science.