Pentecost’s ‘Hidden Graces’: Becoming Catholic

New campus converts describe their journey to the Church.

Large numbers of converts, according to diocesan officials, can be found on college campuses such as the University of South Dakota, which is served by St. Thomas More Newman Center.
Large numbers of converts, according to diocesan officials, can be found on college campuses such as the University of South Dakota, which is served by St. Thomas More Newman Center. (photo: Courtesy photo)

As the Catholic Church prepares to celebrate Pentecost, which marks the establishment of the Catholic Church, many new converts to the faith are marking their 50th day as Catholics. 

Some were drawn to the Church by the quiet example of others; some have had more dramatic encounters.

Rylan Behnke wasn’t that interested in Catholicism when he went with a group of friends to an 8pm Sunday Mass near his college campus around late March 2022.

When the priest elevated the Host right after saying the words of consecration, though, something happened.

“I had this physiological, tangible change where my heart started beating faster,” Behnke said. “It was almost like God coming down and saying, ‘This is real, dude.’”

The next weekend, Behnke, 20, who was raised a Lutheran, went home to Slater, Minnesota, and attended a Lutheran church, expecting the same thing to happen. “And it didn’t come,” he said.

So he didn’t expect much the following Sunday, when he again went to Mass at St. Thomas More Newman Center, near the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.

Yet it happened again.

This past fall he joined the Newman Center’s Order of Christian Initiation for Adults (OCIA, formerly RCIA) program. This past April 30, he was received into the Catholic Church.

And that intense physical feeling at the consecration?

“I still get it every time,” said Behnke, a junior majoring in medical biology who hopes to become a surgeon. “I don’t know if that’s what God knew I needed to eventually convert or if that’s just what he chose to do. But man, I’m thankful that he did.”

Behnke is one of tens of thousands of non-Catholic adults who joined the Catholic Church last month. (National figures aren’t available yet for this year, but in 2022, according to the Official Catholic Directory, 26,272 adults were baptized, while 48,700 already-baptized non-Catholic Christians were received into full communion with the Church.)

Many new converts marking their 50th day as Catholics are young. 

Asked by the Register about places with large numbers of converts, diocesan officials repeatedly pointed to college campuses.

The Diocese of Lansing, Michigan, welcomed 473 people into the Catholic Church this past Easter among its 72 parishes, said David Kerr, director of communications. That’s an average of between six and seven per parish.

The highest number was at St. Anthony’s, in Hillsdale, where the pastor, Father David Reamsnyder, is himself a convert. It’s also the home of Hillsdale College, an evangelical Protestant school with an enrollment of 1,573.

“This is the most amazing Catholic school that’s non-Catholic in the United States,” said Deacon John Crowley, the head of the parish’s Order of Christian Initiation for Adults program.

The proof is in the numbers: Twenty-two Hillsdale students joined the Church at the Easter vigil, including five who were baptized. Those numbers have been holding steady in recent years.

The pastor, who celebrated the Easter vigil Mass last month, is away on sabbatical.

“Father has been here 10 years. He says, ‘We have a lot of students who come in freshman year, and they want nothing to do with the Catholic Church. By their sophomore year, they’re defending some Catholic things. By their third year, they’re like, ‘Maybe I’m going to look into this.’ And by their senior year, they’re like, ‘Why am I not Catholic?’” Deacon Crowley said.


Conversion by Coronavirus?

Carly Moran, 19, a sophomore at Hillsdale majoring in politics with a journalism minor, jumped that progression by two years. At 16, she was leaning toward getting baptized in the nondenominational Christian church she occasionally attended near her home in Sacramento, California. But the coronavirus shutdowns stopped that from happening. She used the time to finish reading the Bible.

 Her reading led to questions. The early Church described in Scripture seemed much more liturgical to her than what she had previously seen.

When she got to Hillsdale in 2021, she was initially put off by debates among some Catholic and Protestant students on the finer points of theology, and she didn’t attend church much. But this past fall, she got a spiritual boost from an unlikely source — her sorority. 

At Pi Beta Phi, she said, “I met people that were willing to have positive conversations about faith — ‘Here’s what I believe. Let me hear what you believe. And let me invite you to church.’”

The Mass immediately attracted her — especially when she compared it with her experiences at Anglican and Baptist church services. 

“And I realized that I felt the True Presence at the Catholic church,” she said, referring to the Eucharist, “and that was not the case at other places.” 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, in the Eucharist, “the Body and Blood, together with the Soul and Divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained” (1374).


Universal Church

After the Easter vigil homily at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut, 28 people left their pews and stood together near the altar. Eleven came for baptism, three received first Communion, and 14 were confirmed.

The last names were, among others, Latino, Russian, Armenian, Chinese and Iranian, along with European Americans and African Americans. Many of them were undergraduate or graduate students from nearby Yale University. 

Easter 2023
Candidates receive the sacrament of confirmation from parochial vicar Father Anthony Federico at the Easter vigil at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut. (Photo: Courtesy of St. Mary’s)

“Not one person in our RCIA program came through our outreach efforts. They all came on their own,” said Father Anthony Federico, parochial vicar at St. Mary’s, who oversaw the program this year. 

“To me, the big takeaway from that is that God has been preparing these souls with hidden graces for a long time.” Citywide, he said, 85 people joined the Church during Easter weekend among the seven parishes in New Haven (a city of about 135,000), including 45 at the mostly Spanish-speaking parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“It just contrasts so much with the narrative that we hear in the Northeast of ‘the Church is in decline,’” Father Federico said. “Of course, numerically that’s true. But just the movement of the Holy Spirit — to me, it’s a sign from God that we’re on the right track here in New Haven.”

OCIA leaders told the Register that online videos from Father Mike Schmitz, Bishop Robert Barron and Scott Hahn attract non-Catholic seekers and answer many of their misconceptions about the Church.


Different Questions

“The questions they’re coming with are different from 10 years ago. Every question that they want to know, they’ve already looked up five perspectives online,” said Father John Rutten, priest director of St. Thomas More Newman Center at the University of South Dakota. 

“They come to me already having used their reason. They may not have experienced the living presence of God. So we talk about that.”

St. Mary’s Catholic Center in College Station, Texas, which serves Texas A&M University, at Easter had 16 baptisms, 30 professions of faith from baptized non-Catholics, and 36 confirmations. 

The center’s Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program currently has 18 catechumens on course to be baptized in November 2023, up from seven last year, said Kevin Pesek, the director.

Conversations tend to focus not so much on doctrinal instruction as what it’s like to live the life of a Catholic.

“I feel like people didn’t know what they didn’t know. When we were able to present who God is, people responded, and very radically,” Pesek said. 

“I think when we just give people a chance, the heart knows what the heart wants.”

One of the new Aggie Catholics is Zachary Bishop Sauceda, 19, who was raised as a nondenominational-churchgoing Christian in south Texas. He told the Register he had a great-grandmother who was a Catholic, who modeled Christ for him. 


Family, Friends and Eucharist

In high school, his Catholic girlfriend and her family attracted him to the faith through their strong beliefs and the way they treated others. 

He asked to go to Mass with them and continued doing so frequently during senior year, and there he felt he encountered Jesus.

“Their love of him drew me to him through the Catholic Church,” said Sauceda, a freshman majoring in forensic and investigative sciences who wants to become a federal agent.

After arriving at Texas A&M last fall, he joined the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program and was baptized last month.

Long before then, though, he spent time in an adoration chapel.

“That’s as close as I could get for about two years. Him speaking to me. ‘This is truly what I want for you.’ That’s what I kept hearing,” Sauceda said. 

“It’s been a beautiful two-year transformation. And I can’t thank him enough. But I try to every day.”

LyLena Estabine, a junior at Harvard University, is in the OCIA program at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and plans to join the Church at the Easter Vigil on April 8.

Harvard Student Finds Her Answers in the Catholic Church

The Church’s teaching on Mary and the Eucharist were the two biggest hurdles for 21-year-old LyLena Estabine in accepting the Catholic faith. Ahead of her full entrance into the Catholic Church, Estabine, who is also consecrated to Mary, said she expects to shed tears when receiving Holy Communion for the first time.