HILLSDALE, Mich. — Students at Hillsdale College pursue goodness, truth and beauty through a liberal arts curriculum. To their surprise, some find what they are seeking in the Catholic Church.
This year, 18 Hillsdale students are preparing to enter the Church. Due to the coronavirus crisis, their entry is tentatively planned for the vigil of Pentecost.
“When I came to Hillsdale, I had no idea that I would be Catholic by my senior year,” a 2018 graduate told the Register. “If someone had told me that, I would have been kind of horrified, honestly. It’s just beautiful how natural and gradual the conversion was.”
Each year, around a dozen students enter the Church during the Easter vigil at Hillsdale’s parish, St. Anthony of Padua. Many credit the school’s curriculum, with its focus on Western tradition, as a catalyst for their conversions.
Isaac Kirshner, a junior, was “pretty adamantly anti-Catholic” when he arrived at Hillsdale and, as a freshman, only attended Baptist churches. The required curriculum, however, forced him to reexamine his faith.
“I started reading a lot from early Christianity,” Kirshner said. “I realized that my faith, my religious practices didn’t look like the early Church’s. Either I was wrong or they were wrong. Being steeped in the grand tradition that we have here at Hillsdale, I had to conclude that the wisdom of my forefathers was probably right. I decided I needed to look into it.”
Kirshner will enter the Church this year. “My faith actually makes sense now,” he said.
Past professor Jeffrey Lehman was a sponsor for multiple students who entered the Church during his six years teaching at Hillsdale and agrees that the course of study “invites students to wrestle with” questions like Kirshner’s.
“Given the nature of the curriculum at Hillsdale College, these questions do not just come up incidentally,” said Lehman, who now teaches humanities and classical education at the University of Dallas. “With Hillsdale’s commitment to teaching the great works of the Western tradition and also establishing a strong historical understanding of that tradition, the curriculum itself invites such questions.”
Founded by Baptist abolitionists in 1844, Hillsdale College is now a nonsectarian Christian institution that considers itself, according to its mission statement, “a trustee of our Western philosophical and theological inheritance tracing to Athens and Jerusalem.”
“Hillsdale College provides an amazing atmosphere for dialogue among Christians,” Lehman said. “There are Catholic professors, Protestant professors and Orthodox professors, and they each teach authentically from their own tradition. Lectures and discussions in the classroom prompt comments and questions that naturally spill over into lunchtime and late-night conversations. One common thread that I see running through the conversion stories is that they often start with intense conversations that spark an interest in understanding the Catholic Tradition and an openness to considering it carefully.”
Abby Leali, a junior, was already planning on entering the Church when she enrolled at Hillsdale. Her family had been studying the Catholic faith since they met a Catholic deacon while picking up an item advertised on Craigslist. Eventually they decided to enter the Church as a family.
Still, the Catholics Leali met at Hillsdale deepened her faith. “I came there thinking, ‘All right, well fine, I’ll be a Catholic,’” she said. “Then I got there and I was like, ‘Oh no, actually I get to be a Catholic.’”
Aidan Cyrus, a sophomore, “just went through the motions” of being Christian at the university where he spent his freshman year. He had lots of questions but never felt like he had answers.
“It wasn’t until I came to Hillsdale, which has just such an intellectual atmosphere, that it caused me to really be introspective and think about what I believe,” Cyrus said. “Now that these questions were always just tossed around and people were always debating or questioning or trying to get answers, I actually began to go into depth. I got into a really good group of friends who are mostly Catholic, and they helped me get answers to the stereotypes or misconceptions I had about the faith.”
Cyrus’ search for answers led him to enroll in Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) at St. Anthony’s, but he was “still kind of anti-Catholic” in his thinking. The turning point came during a Mass celebrated by Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing in Hillsdale’s new chapel. “I just went because I thought it would be beautiful,” Cyrus said. “When he held up the Eucharist and said ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,’ I had a real fear of God for the first time in my life. That was the moment where I was like, ‘If this is true, everything I do must change, and I don’t really have a choice now.’”
“It took me a long time to get around the doctrine of Mary, the doctrine of the saints, the doctrine of adoration,” Cyrus said. “These practices were so new and strange to me, but once I had the belief in the Eucharist, it all just kind of fit together.” He will enter the Church this year, as well.
Jill Riegle, a senior, came to Hillsdale as a nondenominational Protestant and was struck by the fact that other Protestants joked about going “church shopping.” She became haunted by questions about the purpose of attending church and what counted as church. “What am I even looking for? What does it mean to go to church? Why do we do this?”
She also began to wonder about the Protestant tradition of emphasizing faith alone. “When there’s this connotation of faith alone, it implies that there’s just this belief, and this belief in Jesus is all that you need,” Riegle said. “But then thinking about faith in Scripture, it just didn’t seem to line up. Most examples of faith in Scripture are after someone has done something. Is faith just this heart thing, like a warm feeling, or is it an expression?”
The anti-Catholic bias that she encountered spurred her investigation of the Church. “Part of the beauty of being at Hillsdale is the diversity of opinion that exists there, especially when it comes to religious beliefs,” Riegle said. “I just wanted to understand more about why so many people were against Catholicism specifically. If all of the rumors that people say are true about the Catholic Church, at the time I was like, ‘Well, this is evil, and we have to figure out how to fix it. But if these rumors are all wrong, then what’s really going on here?’”
During a summer of intense study between her sophomore and junior years she read a typological study of the Eucharist. “Based off of everything I knew about Scripture and the way that Christ revealed himself to man, it actually made a ton of sense,” Riegle said. “All of my other questions just paled in comparison to the possibility that Christ really was present in the Eucharist.” Riegle entered the Church last Easter.
“If you understand what the Catholic Church teaches about the Eucharist, then either this is idolatry and evil, actual evil, or it’s true and nothing else matters,” Riegle said.
Philip Berntson, a senior, “just didn’t care” about his faith when he arrived at Hillsdale. After finishing high school, he had spent a year participating in Christian mission trips overseas and became disillusioned.
“There were the leaders on the base and there were random people who came who would talk about random topics like ‘Lordship’ or ‘God’s Father Heart,’” said Berntson. “It was so stupid. I was like, ‘Who are you to teach about this? What do you know about this? Nothing. You’re just some random swimming coach from South Africa. Why should I care what you have to say?’”
He also questioned the value of their evangelization of remote tribes in Africa. “We would talk about Jesus, we would talk about the Gospel, and then we would be like, ‘Okay, do you want to accept Jesus?’ And they’d be like, ‘Sure.’ Then we would leave and that was that. I was like, ‘What are we even bringing to these people? What are we even talking about?’ ‘Do you accept Jesus in your heart?’ — what does that mean?”
Like Riegle, Berntson was disturbed to hear Protestants talking about “church shopping” when he came to Hillsdale. He was also talking to Catholics and becoming friends with Catholics for the first time. “I would ask them, ‘Oh, what church are you going to?’ before I knew they were Catholic,” Bernston said. “They were like, ‘St. Anthony’s, because it’s the parish that we have here.’ I was like, ‘Wow. No church shopping for these people; they just know where they’re going. That sounds super nice.’”
When he started reading books from the Western Tradition that describe early Christians and early Christianity, he had more questions. “I was like, ‘Wait a second — why does this stuff feel so foreign and weird to me? Why does the Christianity I’ve been presented with not match this at all in any way?’”
Bernston was so ignorant of Catholic beliefs that when he heard students talking about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, he Googled “the Holy Eucharist” and read the Wikipedia page. “I was like, are you kidding me? I had never heard of this. Ever. I’m like, ‘Okay, what have I been searching for in Christianity? I’ve been searching for actual, real authority. I’m looking for actual, real substance.’”
He started to investigate the teachings of the Church. “The greatest claim of Christianity is God becomes man,” Bernston said. “So if Christ really came into human history — and we have organizational hierarchy, we have organizational authority, we have all these things — why on earth would he not establish the sacraments? And if he established the sacraments, which are a physical way in which we commune with the spiritual — it’s like the two things being united, which is what the Incarnation was — this is the whole point of Christianity, the entire point.”
“I just felt like I had really no other choice,” said Bernston, who entered the Church last Easter. “I just decided to become Catholic. I honestly never looked back.”
Mary Rose Short writes from Southern California.
This story was updated after posting.