College Converts: 3 Students’ Paths to the Catholic Church
Each in their own way, they’ve met the Person of Jesus and made the decision to pursue him as a member of the Catholic Church.
Taking classes, working part time, building a social life, and encountering the truth of the Catholic faith: That’s how these students are spending their college careers. Each in their own way, they’ve met the Person of Jesus and made the decision to pursue him as a member of the Catholic Church.
Aidan Cyrus ran a half-mile in the rain to get to the second Mass he had ever been to in his life. It was in the brand-new towering, austere chapel on Hillsdale College’s campus, and he went because, for some reason, he felt compelled to go.
Kneeling beside his friends in a pew, he watched the bishop raise the consecrated Host and say: “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
“I’m not an emotional guy. I grew up in a church community that was very intense about your feelings because that’s how you stay close to Christ. I was turned off by that,” Cyrus told the Register. “But when the bishop held up the Host, I had this real feeling of fear, of genuine terror.”
Because if this was true, if that was Christ, he thought, he’d better change a lot about his life, and as soon as possible.
After Mass, he related his experience to a friend, who told him he had spent the Mass praying Cyrus would come to understand the Eucharist. Ten months later, that friend would sponsor Cyrus as he entered the Catholic Church.
Now 21 years old and a senior at Hillsdale, Cyrus grew up in a devout, loving, nondenominational family and attended a Baptist church where people referred to themselves as “Bible-believing Christians.” He grew confused when he observed what he understood to be their interpretation of what the Bible said instead.
He attended church mostly for his participation in the worship band and often skipped it for Sunday soccer games. When he left for college in southern Virginia, he chose a church based on the music its services held.
After a year, he transferred to Hillsdale, a small evangelical Christian liberal arts school in Michigan.
“At Hillsdale, everybody knows what they believe, for the most part, and why they believe it. They’re also, for the most part, willing to change what they believe. They have a sort of intellectual humility,” Cyrus explained. “You’re reading these great things and surrounded by these people who are all very intentional and caring about what they believe.”
He made friends, especially Catholic ones, who “weren’t lukewarm in any way” and found it the perfect spot to wrestle with his own faith. He began attending the local Anglican church and felt drawn to the beauty of the liturgy and lack of similarity to the rock music he was accustomed to in an evangelical background.
He attended that Mass in the campus chapel at the invitation of his friends, and afterwards, he said it was just a matter of reading and talking to as many people as he possibly could.
“Because, even in my lukewarmness as a Christian, I believed in prayer,” Cyrus said of the conversation he and his friend had after Mass. “If he was praying that I would, in some way, understand the Eucharist, and I understood the Eucharist in some way, then there must be some goodness and some truth in the Catholic Church. The Church was not just the sort of ‘slippery slope’ that I understood growing up.”
He dove into the readings of the early Church Fathers and described them as deep and substantial works that affected his perception of Catholic doctrine he previously didn’t understand or believe in.
“When I have the disciples of St. John saying, ‘Yeah, this is the Body of Christ, and you’re a heretic if you think otherwise,’ I should probably be listening,” Cyrus said. “He’s probably more right than Pastor Bob from First Baptist.”
He spent a few months avoiding the process of actually becoming Catholic, attempting to be convinced otherwise. He knew he would likely lose friends and experience awkwardness with his family. It wasn’t fun, he said, but it had to happen.
Before his first confession, he spent a couple hours in the church writing what he described as his own little version of Augustine’s Confessions. He walked into the confessional, and before he left, the priest had to offer him a tissue.
“It feels just incredible when he says those words of absolution. I was a mess for the rest of the day,” Cyrus said. “I actually have to repent to Christ in person, in the person of the priest, not just in my head. That was a lot easier. Your spiritual life means you actually have responsibilities now.”
After his conversion, everything became magnified, he explained.
“Sin becomes very real, but so do the great parts of the Catholic life,” he said. “There’s so much more life and joy because of the realness of sin that I’ve experienced. You feel to an even greater extent the goodness and the redemption of Christ.”
For college students like Sarah, conversion comes with some additional complications.
For the sake of her anonymity, she’ll be known here only as Sarah, because she’s an 18-year-old college freshman enrolled in RCIA, or OCIA as it’s now called, and her parents don’t yet know. She’s preparing for and excited to enter the Church this Easter. “There’s going to be so much grace and so much good that will come out of it.”
Raised in reformed Judaism and a nonreligious home, she got her foot in the door of the Catholic Church by picking arguments with a high-school teacher, a practicing Catholic college graduate who taught geometry.
She pressed him on major moral questions no one knew how to answer. With grandparents who survived the Holocaust, some queries were particularly important to Sarah. “If God is good, if God loves us, why did World War II happen?”
She talked with him almost every day, engaging in philosophical and political debates for an hour or two. By 10th grade, he had convinced her of the existence of God.
“It was something I hadn’t had any possibility of believing because my upbringing was so secular,” Sarah said. “From there, all the dominoes just fell.”
The summer before her senior year, she attended a summer program at the same liberal arts school her teacher had graduated from and described it as “probably the best two weeks of my life.”
She found herself surrounded by people who shared her political beliefs and engaged in deep conversation with them. While the sudden immersion into a Catholic community jarred her, and the lack of superficiality among them surprised her, she got to see the Catholic faith from the outside.
Sarah had no idea what the Rosary was, but each night, people would gather to pray it.
“It’s just a bunch of people walking, reciting this stuff, and every night, I was like, ‘I’m not supposed to be here.’ I’d just run away,” she recalled, laughing. “Which was a weird experience, looking back on it, because now I know what the Rosary is, and it’s just so beautiful.”
“Wow, these people have something that I don’t,” she thought to herself a couple of weeks after the trip. “I want that: the overwhelming joy that comes from a life with Christ.”
Once she came to terms with the moral questions she had been wrestling with and discovered explanations for them, something she felt she needed to convert, she experienced “overwhelming peace and joy.”
While she had hoped to attend that school, after telling her parents about her plans, Sarah found herself at a public research university instead. She finds immense grace in that, she said, and isn’t discouraged.
The wife of the teacher she had debated major theological questions with in high school grew up with the same priest who now ministers to her college campus. And a brand-new Newman Center arrived on campus just as Sarah did as a freshman last fall, when she got “as involved as possible.”
For her confirmation saint, Sarah chose St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, better known as Edith Stein, a Jewish convert and brilliant philosopher.
“Being able to receive Communion is just, whoa: What a concept,” Sarah said. “To be able to fully, actually, be a part of the Church is such an exciting prospect.”
“Hey, I like your mullet.”
College senior Andrew Dannemiller turned to greet the stranger complimenting his haircut: a Catholic missionary also leaving 9pm Mass.
The next morning, Dannemiller called the parish and registered for OCIA.
Unknowingly, that St. Paul’s Outreach missionary became the sign Dannemiller had been hoping for, one that provided Catholic, brotherly community on his campus of Ohio State University after Dannemiller’s years of contemplating the Catholic faith. He’ll enter the Church this Easter and plans to become a SPO missionary himself after graduation.
“All of college, I keep feeling this tug on my heart of, ‘You need to explore Catholicism,’” Dannemiller told the Register.
Now 22 years old, Dannemiller was just 7 when his family left the Catholic Church to become nondenominational Christians and a teenager when he experienced what he says, “in hindsight, was the Holy Spirit.”
As a high schooler, struggling to feel spiritually fed at the nondenominational church, he began walking regularly to the nearby Catholic parish to attend Sunday Mass. Eucharistic teaching would become a major influence on his eventual conversion.
“John 6 was kind of the big thing for me. The Eucharist is really Jesus; the blood is the blood,” Dannemiller explained, adding wryly, “And after that, I was just kind of … like, ‘Aw, man, it’s true.’”
At the insistence of a friend, he returned to his parents’ church his senior year of high school. Throughout college, he continued to regularly read Scripture, researching different pieces of the Catholic faith and thinking again and again to himself, “Oh, that makes sense.”
“I got to that point that I wanted to think about it, but discerning turned into delaying and delaying turned into denying, eventually,” Dannemiller said. “I could feel it because I started getting less and less satisfied going to a nondenominational church.”
Moving back to OSU’s campus for his senior year, he decided to return to attending Catholic daily Mass. “No one will be there,” he told himself.
He was right: It was just Dannemiller, the priest and the reader. After the priest presented the Eucharist to him twice, Dannemiller politely waving him away, he left thinking of how awkward that was — and yet how great it felt to be back in a Catholic church.
“I went to Mass, and everything just changed for the better. For years I just tried to avoid going to Columbus, and then getting my four-year degree totally worked out in a way that I couldn’t imagine it being so beautiful,” he said. “But the Lord always works for you, even if you’re trying to work against him.”
He’s spending this Lenten season doing everything he can to prepare before receiving Jesus and growing closer to the Lord. At times, it’s difficult to be patient.
“Honestly, at this point in my life, I have waited a long time and have contemplated Catholicism for so long. There’s a point where you’re like, I want to get this over with, and I just want to receive the Eucharist,” Dannemiller explained.
Now, he’s glad to have the chance to wait, to make the Lenten season as impactful as possible. In a way, he said, he’s excited to wait.
“At every Mass I pray, ‘O Lord, I can’t wait to receive you,’” Dannemiller said. “One day — one day, I’ll be able to receive you.”
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