March 8, 2017 // Perspective
Why become Catholic?
Catechumens respond and offer insight into the mind of a convert
This Easter, Kim Pesta will join in full communion with the church at Christ the King Parish, South Bend. Originally from Erie, Pa., she never considered herself religious, growing up in a family that did not attend church and where religion was “not really discussed.” Now an auditor for a large firm, she began college at a public university, but decided to transfer to a Christian college because her brother attended there and “because it had a great reputation for producing hard working, smart individuals.” Suddenly, Pesta became “surrounded by people who practiced Christianity and who exuded Christian qualities. I wanted to be a part of whatever they were a part of…because they all seemed happy. I wanted to be more like them.”
Pesta was “always open to religion, but never pursued it” until transferring. A key point in her conversion came when she needed to find a roommate. After having a hard time finding the right fit, Pesta found herself frustrated and at a loss of what to do. “I decided to pray about it, because my friends told me that when they pray about things it would help their situation, in one way shape or form.” The next morning, she received an email from another female student — this time a good fit — asking to meet up with her to see if they would like to be roommates.
Pesta thought a lot about which denomination of Christianity she wanted to join. Her first impressions of Catholicism seemed very exclusive. “The people who I met that were Catholic were not very inclusive and it was difficult to follow along at Mass, so it was way down on my list of possible denominations to enter,” she explained. “I continued to do research, and ultimately came to the conclusion that I could not base an opinion about a denomination on a few bad apples, since in reality Catholicism preaches togetherness of the church.” Years later, “Truth became the rule of thumb, and all of a sudden Catholicism became my No. 1 choice because it adheres to the main principles of Christianity and is what I believe to be truth.
“When I ended up dating a Catholic who I could see a future with, it sealed the deal since I wanted my future family to be able to worship together and go to church together and not feel left out in any way, as I did when I was growing up.” Pesta will be married this autumn and looks forward to raising a Catholic family.
What she loves most about the faith is “the feeling of being a part of something bigger than all of us, but everybody acknowledging it and being happy about it all at the same time.”
Describing herself as “a doorkeeper of sorts,” Lisa Marino, director of the RCIA program at St. Matthew Cathedral Parish, South Bend, highlighted the beauty of the program.
“As people come knocking on the door of the Catholic Church at the invitation of Christ Himself, I am commissioned to answer that door, help them feel welcome, and help remove any obstacles which may impede them from entering the church fully. These may include misunderstandings, ignorance, despair, sin — the same obstacles I face,” she said. “We are constantly called to a deeper understanding of and life in the gifts of the church. Watching God draw each person to Himself in the sacraments in very concrete ways, and witnessing their response of longing and love for Him constantly encourages me. All this compels me into a deeper prayer life — prayer for the RCIA participants, myself, my family and community, and most centrally — worship of God out of sheer gratitude for who He is.”
Eleven people will enter the church this year at St. Matthew during the Easter Vigil. One of the elect, Wes Hamrick, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research associate with the Moore Institute, part of the National University of Ireland at Galway. In South Bend with the Keough-Naughton Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, he is grateful for Marino’s dedication to the RCIA program. “She’s a gifted teacher. The catechumens and candidates get so much support from the parish and the congregation and all of that makes a tremendous difference.
“Being the only non-Catholic in a large Catholic family, the question of conversion was always just kind of there, even if no one was actually talking about it. So part of the motivation for me was wanting to set a good example for my children. In other words, I didn’t want them to have doubts about their faith because of the fact that I remained outside the church.”
Raised by Christian, Bible- based Protestant parents who “weren’t particularly devout,” Hamrick “ had always maintained some kind of relationship with God, mainly through prayer.
“I suppose I began thinking more deeply about my relationship with God about five years ago. My wife is a convert to Catholicism, and both she and our children entered the church at Easter in 2012. … Over time, living in a Catholic family and having many close friends who were devout Catholics led me to think more consciously about what Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, meant for me.”
A turning point came in 2015.
“I’m an Irish-language scholar, so I was living in the Irish-speaking area just outside of Galway, where Mass at the local church was conducted entirely in Irish,”
Hamrick remembered. “I started going to Mass there partly because I was curious to hear it in Irish. But because it was in a foreign language, I really had to listen and think about what I was hearing in order to understand it. I didn’t know any of the prayers and responses, either, so I started memorizing those, just so I wouldn’t look like a complete interloper at this small village church. After a while “both the liturgy and the experience of the Mass itself started to have a profound effect on the way I thought about Catholicism,” Hamrick reflected.
“Eventually, I started going to Mass not because I wanted to hear it in Irish, but because I really wanted to be there. I can’t explain it in rational terms, and I’m not sure that’s even the right way to think about it.”
The beauty and thinking of Catholic theology also appealed to Hamrick. “There’s a comprehensive intellectual framework that answers almost every question. I’m not particularly interested in theology, as such, but it’s been really helpful to be able to turn to the Catechism or the tradition for answers.”
One thing Hamrick loves about the faith is “the way that the passage of time is divided up by the liturgical calendar and how that ties in with particular practices or observances, such as the lighting of additional Advent candles each week during Advent. In that way, the whole year is imbued with special meaning,” he described.
“Growing up, the celebration of Christmas was mainly limited to just a couple of days; but for Catholics the Christmas season runs from the first day of Advent through the Baptism of the Lord, with important holy days in between. I love that, because it allows us to continually reflect on what is sacred about the Christmas season.”
As he prepares for full communion in the church, he is strengthened by an increasing faith in God, as well as his wife’s support and encouragement.
“She went through RCIA five years ago, so she understands and can relate to what I’ve been doing. In addition, encouragement and well wishes from the members of St. Matthew parish have meant a lot to me,” said Hamrick.
A Hoosier originally from downstate, former atheist Adele Zhou found herself becoming a believer, “in a matter of seconds” after something happened during the summer. “I was in my room alone, meditating on my anxiety in starting grad school, and I felt something unexplainable and nonbiological within me. I couldn’t attribute a body part to it. I just knew somehow that it was infinite and it was God. And that was the beginning of everything.”
Zhou is currently a first-year graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in mathematics, and she appreciates efficiency. So when she heard another student remark at an information session at the general graduate school orientation about how the Catholic group was very well organized, it piqued her interest. “Also, more seriously, I figured God brought me to Notre Dame for a reason. So in a way I feel like Catholicism chose me first, and I’ve never questioned my choice to remain on this path.
“Life makes sense to me now because of Catholicism,” she continued. “I was very troubled before Catholicism, because I was being taught all of these values and roles that didn’t make me happy. But God’s word is the truth. Maybe the best way to say it is through the words of C.S. Lewis: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.’”
What troubles her about being Catholic is that now she fervently wishes everyone would accept a relationship with God and His church.
“I feel like I have a dinner table full of food and I see people around me, who I love, starving and I can’t feed them. The world is growing more and more secular; I used to be a part of that world, and I know what it feels like to starve spiritually. It is painful to see others go through it.”
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