Moving Mountains: The Catholic Church Welcomes Converts Despite Pandemic’s Hurdles
Despite the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus in the past year, converts feel blessed to ‘come home’ to the Church.
The Easter vigil is typically the culmination of months of preparation for those seeking full communion with the Catholic Church and an occasion for great celebration among the faithful. Life during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, has been anything but typical.
In 2020, diocesan restrictions caused delays to the reception of many catechumens and candidates into the Church. This year’s celebration may also be muted by required face coverings and limited attendance.
Despite the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus in the past year, converts feel blessed to “come home” to the Church.
“God always works in surprising ways, and the pandemic is no exception,” Tsh Oxenreider, a writer from Georgetown, Texas, told the Register. “Perhaps there is an encouragement that God has also used the pandemic to bring people to the Church.”
Tsh, her husband, Kyle, and their three children ages 10 to 16 are a prime example.
Although the Oxenreiders converted from evangelical Protestantism to Anglicanism several years ago, they still found themselves attracted to the Catholic Church — particularly its truth, beauty and goodness (called the “transcendentals” in classic theology).
Tsh said she was initially captivated by the Church’s beauty, which led her to its goodness. Truth, however, proved to be more elusive.
“The truth is where I ended up parking for years because there were so many questions,” Tsh said, acknowledging that many concerns stemmed from misconceptions learned in her youth.
The pandemic-induced pause in early 2020 provided the Oxenreiders an opportunity to dig in to the Church’s teaching with an intentionality that would have been challenging amidst the pace of typical family life.
They began livestreaming Mass, along with reading the writings of Church Fathers and listening to Catholic podcasts. They also connected with the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, a special diocese created by the Vatican for welcoming Anglicans into the Catholic Church. Father Jonathan Mitchican, a former Anglican priest, met with them virtually each week.
John Chapter 6
The Oxenreiders continued to wrestle with the Church’s teaching, but Tsh said they eventually realized they couldn’t “keep towing the line.”
Peter’s words in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel echoed in their minds.
“Where else would we go?” Tsh said. “It’s either the Catholic Church or nothing.”
By early 2021, the Oxenreiders decided to join the Church.
“At some point, it’s not that all the questions are now answered,” Tsh said. “That’s never going to happen. [But] you’re at a point where you’re ready and will continue learning.”
On Feb. 6, 2021, nearly a year after the pandemic began, the family of five was welcomed into the Catholic Church via the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in Houston.
The stay-at-home orders mandated during the pandemic’s early stages also played a role in Jared Richardson’s journey to the Catholic Church.
Richardson was raised Lutheran in Illinois but did not attend church services regularly. Looking back, he noticed being consistently surrounded by faithful Catholics throughout his life: his best friend and college roommate, professional colleagues and even a fellow high-school athlete who eventually became a sister with the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago.
After visiting several nondenominational churches in his late 20s, Richardson started the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Between his work schedule and traffic, he stopped attending, a reason he now admits was merely an excuse.
“If you want to do something, you move mountains,” he said. “I clearly was not doing that.”
Richardson’s curiosity about the Catholic faith continued to grow, however, as he began to read books given to him by friends. He started with C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, followed by works of Bishop Robert Barron and Scott Hahn — reading 40-plus books on Christianity in a single year.
Richardson said his life started to change when his brother died in early 2020, and he began to confront some long-standing personal issues. As his employment shifted to remote business during the pandemic, he realized the extra time not spent commuting to work could be given to learning more about the Catholic faith.
Richardson stopped by St. Bridget Catholic Church in Loves Park, Illinois, where he was delighted to find RCIA gathering in person (within social-distancing guidelines). He said he felt welcomed there and met a woman who became his sponsor.
Richardson recognized his struggle to make time for prayer, so for Lent he committed to attend daily Mass.
“It has changed my life,” he said. “Walking into church — when I get there early and I stay late — prayer is just flowing out of me.”
Richardson said he looks forward to his first reconciliation and ultimately reception into the Church this Easter.
“I have a feeling it’s going to unburden me and begin a process of making things right for a long time to come,” he said.
Angry at the Church
Jennie Laeng of Cleveland, was raised Catholic but said she felt angry with the Church after college.
“I didn’t see a place where I fit,” Laeng said. “I’m broken. I’m messy. I don’t fit into this neat little pretty box of what a Catholic woman should be.”
In March 2020, a friend from the University of Nebraska (from where Laeng graduated in 2017), invited her to a virtual prayer group. Laeng said she had learned the logistics of how to pray but hadn’t ever “showed up to prayer and allowed God to speak.”
“I knew all the rules and all the Church teaching, but I didn’t know what a consistent relationship [with God] was,” she said.
The daily 6am prayer group changed that for her. Laeng made a “pact with God” that she would attend the group every day and aim to be the first to share her reflection. In return, she asked God to make his presence known to her in a real way.
And he did.
“I wanted God to show up in my life with a bursting flame of fire, moving a mountain — all these big things,” Laeng said. “He has proven to me in the last year that he shows up to me in the quiet, consistent ‘boring’ space in my life. When I remove those silent spaces, I remove him.”
As a gymnast in college, Laeng said coaches, teammates and friends constantly told her whether she was good or bad. Thanks to the virtual group, she said God is revealing and healing her wounds.
“He [God] was able to teach me first who he is and who he says I am — my identity, how I fit,” she said.
Laeng said the insights she received in the “quarantine group” also sparked fruitful conversations with her fiancé, Coleman, who was in the process of joining the Church at the time.
One of the most significant topics was natural family planning (NFP). Armed with a graduate degree in public health, Laeng initially had no interest in NFP.
“I would roll my eyes [and think] that’s a joke,” she said.
In prayer, however, Laeng felt God encouraging her to learn more about it. When she researched the science behind the method, she discovered aspects of her health that she had never known, including an ovulation disorder that would have otherwise gone under the radar.
“I found the best-kept secret in the Church without it actually being a secret,” she said, lamenting that many Catholics either don’t practice NFP or don’t talk about it.
Marriage and Family
The Church’s teaching on marriage and family likewise drew Karl and Laurel Honegger of Broomfield, Colorado, to seek the sacraments of initiation for themselves and their five children in 2020. (Their sixth child was born in February 2021.)
Laurel said she often felt judged in Protestant circles for having a large family, but upon meeting Catholic families through a home-school group, she felt acceptance and joy.
“We’re kind of a hot-mess express sometimes,” Laurel quipped.
As the Honeggers learned more about Catholicism and its theology of suffering, grace and salvation, they felt called to join the Church. The couple originally hoped to receive the sacraments at the Easter vigil in April 2020, but the pandemic-related restrictions threw a wrench in their plans. The ceremony was delayed until May, and even then, only their godparents/sponsors received permission to attend.
The Honeggers were disappointed not to share the momentous occasion with members of their Bible study, other Catholic couples who had served as mentors and prayer warriors for their family.
“The pandemic was definitely very discouraging,” said Karl. “[Receiving the sacraments] is not just a personal thing; it’s a communal thing.”
Although their friends couldn’t witness the ceremony, they brought donuts to the church parking lot to celebrate afterward.
The couple even found a bit of humor amidst the chaos as they recalled one of their kids accidentally dropping a mask in the baptismal font.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic brought uncertainty to the Honeggers’ spiritual journey, Laurel said she appreciated the way the entire family could participate in livestreamed Mass together each week, contrary to nondenominational services that focused on sitting still and listening to a long sermon.
She also expressed gratitude to various “Catholic mom bloggers” and friends for sharing ways to celebrate Lent and Easter at home with her young children. For instance, the family processed through their home with palms and prayed the Stations of the Cross in their living room.
“Even though the churches were closed, we were able to do those things that make the faith more real and tangible,” Laurel said. “God’s grace covered this whole thing.”
Tsh Oxenreider agreed.
“I’m not glad [the pandemic] happened,” she said, acknowledging the suffering it has caused. “But it did happen, and I’m grateful God used that for our family’s good.”
Kimberly Jansen writes from Omaha, Nebraska.