May 6, 2016

New Catholics follow varied paths to the Church at Easter

Father Aaron Pfaff, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Shelbyville, poses with newly confirmed Catholic Edy Ballard and her sponsor, Carol McElroy, in St. Joseph Church after the parish’s Easter Vigil Mass on March 26. (Submitted photo)

Father Aaron Pfaff, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Shelbyville, poses with newly confirmed Catholic Edy Ballard and her sponsor, Carol McElroy, in St. Joseph Church after the parish’s Easter Vigil Mass on March 26. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

As the Church marks the resurrection of Christ at Easter, it also welcomes new members who enter into their own new life as Catholics.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis welcomed 910 souls into the full communion of the Church on Easter weekend through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in parishes throughout central and southern Indiana. (See a list of all the new Catholics)

Each new member brings a rich story of their call to Catholicism. Each bears the touch of God calling them closer to him in union with the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church founded by Christ.

Here are four of those special stories.

‘Feels like coming home’

When Edy Ballard went to Mass in 2015, a lot had changed since her prior Mass experience. After all, the last time she had stepped into a Catholic Church was the same year that Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon in 1969.

“I remember the Latin Mass,” she recalled. “I don’t remember the priest facing the congregation. I remember not understanding a word, and the church was very dark.”

Ballard, 56, was just 10 years old and living in New Jersey when her parents divorced.

“It really fractured our family,” she said. “No one took me to church after that. I didn’t leave [the Church] because of a bad experience. I just drifted away, and nothing ever felt authentic after that.”

She journeyed from atheism to being a born-again Christian, ultimately joining a Methodist church.

“You just say, ‘Yes, I want Jesus as my Lord and Savior,’ and you’re in,” she said of joining the church. “I wondered, ‘Am I a Methodist, or just someone going to a Methodist church?’ ”

In the 1990s, Ballard took classes at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, operated by the Sisters of Providence in St. Mary-of-the-Woods. She was required to take a religion class, so she chose “The Church in Contemporary Society.”

“I didn’t realize ‘Church’ with a capital ‘C’ meant the Catholic Church,” she said with a chuckle. “We read Vatican II documents, and they were so readable.”

A non-Catholic friend began maligning the Church to Ballard, saying that Catholics worshipped statues and did not interpret the Bible correctly.

“She’d say Catholics don’t believe x-y-z,” said Ballard. “I’d open up the Vatican II papers and say, ‘That’s not correct.’ It opened my eyes.”

Last year, amidst the talk of the pope coming to the United States in September, Ballard felt a nudge. She found the website for “Catholics Come Home,” an apostolate that serves Catholics who have lost ties to the faith.

“The homepage said, ‘The Church hasn’t been the same since you left’ and ‘We’ve been waiting for you.’ That’s such a powerful thing to see and hear,” she said.

Ballard realized what she was missing in the Methodist church was a sense of authority.

“When you’re in your 20s, maybe it’s fulfilling to go to a church that says, ‘Here are the basics, but you can interpret the Bible however you want,’ ” she said. “But in your 50s, you’re looking for something with authority that is authentic.”

Returning to the Church held a pleasant surprise for Ballard.

“Church was nothing like what I remembered, but the reverence, tradition and history were all still there,” she said. “The scary pieces were gone. I don’t think I ever saw my priest’s face when I was little. I just saw the back of him. So the first time I met with [Father Aaron Pfaff, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Shelbyville], the first thing I said was, ‘You’re not so scary!’ ”

Ballard started going to RCIA classes at St. Joseph Parish. She and her husband had their marriage convalidated on Palm Sunday, and she received the sacrament of confirmation—taking the name of St. Thérèse of Lisieux—during the Easter Vigil Mass on March 26.

“Everyone at St. Joseph’s has been so welcoming,” said Ballard.

“To me it really does feel like coming home. I feel like all the words spoken by ‘Catholics Come Home’ are genuine. I feel like the Church has been waiting for me, and is genuinely happy I’m home.”

An atheist who ‘went all in’ for the faith

If a Christian who knew Kelly Wilbur six years ago were to meet him today, he would be in for a surprise at Wilbur’s transformation.

“I was like the atheist that most Christians would want to stay away from, like [The God Delusion author and atheist] Richard Dawkins,” he said. “I ridiculed what I perceived as their hypocrisy and arrogance and ignorance.”

Wilbur, 44, was raised in a fundamentalist Pentecostal church. By the time he was 16, he could no longer believe in something that seemed so “artificial and superficial.”

When he married his wife Melanie 13 years ago, he never dreamed she would become Catholic.

“I accepted it begrudgingly,” he admitted.

The Wilburs, who have two children, sent their oldest son to the school of Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Parish in Indianapolis, where Melanie was received into full communion of the Church.

“I didn’t think of all the ramifications of that [decision],” he said. “All of a sudden, I’m starting to be surrounded by Catholic influences.”

Then six years ago, Wilbur met Pete, a devout Catholic. From Pete, he learned the concept of selfless and sacrificial love.

“This whole concept really resonated with me,” said Wilbur. “I started to incorporate it into my life. It took love—something I previously thought was just a feeling—and changed it to mean seeking for the good of others.

“It changed the way I was a husband, a father, a friend, everything,” he said. “Looking back, that was really God starting to work his way into my life. That love was like a river that wasn’t going to stop once I opened the door.”

Two years ago, Wilbur was at a funeral at Nativity when something happened that he could only describe as an event that made him “realize that there is a God, and that he’s personal, and he was knocking at the door. An all-powerful, almighty being comes knocking on your door, you might want to figure out what he wants.”

He began to read and study books on different religions, and finally concluded that “the only place I could find where this whole concept of selfless and sacrificial love coincided with this concept of a personal God was in Jesus.”

Pete challenged Wilbur, pointing out that he was “spending a lot of time trying to know about God, but not spending much time trying to know God.”

So the one-time denier of God began to pray.

“Some of the things that came from that [prayer] were that I needed to learn how to depend on God, how to submit and be obedient,” he said. “I think it was that flow that led me to the Catholic Church, because it’s within the Catholic Church that you learn how to depend and submit. These are not words you hear in other denominations.”

And so, after going through RCIA, the former atheist was received into full communion of the Church at Nativity during the Easter Vigil Mass on March 26. He took St. Paul as his patron “because of his conversion from someone who persecutes Christians to someone who obviously went all in,” said Wilbur.

He and Melanie also had their marriage convalidated after the Vigil Mass. (See related photo, page 12.)

Now the tables have turned, said Wilbur.

“I love talking with atheists about religion and philosophy,” he said. “I know where they’re coming from. I know the weaknesses they’ll point out.

“I didn’t pick Catholicism like it was on some buffet table. I truly believe this is where the fullness of the truth is.”

‘It seemed so natural’

When Rachel Hoffman signed up for RCIA classes at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis last September, she admits it was strictly an “academic pursuit.”

“I wasn’t going with the intent of converting,” she said. “I just wanted to learn more.”

Learning about different faiths is precisely what Hoffman, 32, had been doing for the last decade. She had not been raised in any particular faith. Only in high school did her mother start going to a Christian church, but even then it was just an occasional visit.

“I was about 22 or 23 when I became interested in different branches of Christianity,” she said. “I took it seriously, but I saw it more as a learning process than making a decision and sticking to it. I wasn’t committed to anything in particular.”

In August of 2013, Hoffman married her husband, Christopher, a Catholic. After two years of going to Mass with Christopher at St. Thomas Aquinas, Rachel decided it was time to learn more about the Catholic faith.

What she did not anticipate was the feeling, two months later, of being called to Catholicism.

“I did a lot of thinking and praying,” she said. “Part of it was the awesome people who do RCIA at St. Thomas. As I got to know more people, I felt like it was a community I could be part of.

“Second was Pope Francis. I find him to be so refreshing. He’s a great example of the type of Christian I want to be. His emphasis on mercy, social justice and the environment I find refreshing.

“And the Church has such a rich history. You can go really deep as far as knowledge, the hierarchy, the structure, the history and the faith. There’s something for everyone, and that’s something I like.”

As Rachel felt called more deeply into the faith, Christopher felt inspired, too. He had never been confirmed, so when Rachel received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and first Communion during the Easter Vigil Mass on March 26, Christopher was also confirmed.

“Going to RCIA is the first thing we did together at church besides going to Mass,” said Rachel. “This was fun to do together where we were encouraged to talk and share what we were thinking. It took us outside our comfort zone, but we did it together.

“We had similar beliefs, but this helped open our eyes that we can rely on each other spiritually. And we have a great community at St. Thomas that we now know is there for us.”

Rachel sees this new beginning as “a lifestyle change. It’s not just checking off a box saying, ‘I’m Catholic.’

“The way I feel about this whole experience is that it seemed so natural, like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. In my heart, it felt like such a natural spiritual progression.

“Ten years ago, [Catholicism] wouldn’t even have been on my radar. I just happened to marry a Catholic boy and started going to Catholic Mass.

“It just goes to show that whatever ideas you have for your life, it doesn’t matter—God will put you where he wants to put you.”

‘A call to a more devout life’

Daniel Tews was as Lutheran as possible before feeling called to Catholicism.

“I had been a pastor for about six years and was a pastor of three churches in South Dakota,” said Tews, 39. “I was raised in a strong Lutheran family. I went to Lutheran schools. My ancestors built the oldest Lutheran church in Wisconsin, and my family still worships there.”

His journey—and the journey of his wife Shayna and their five children—to Catholicism began of all places at a Baptist funeral about four years ago.

“At this funeral, this Baptist pastor said, ‘And some people think that in order to be a pastor you have to go to school and learn things!’ ” Tews recalled. “He told it as a funny joke. To me, it was a mindboggling idea that you could just one day become a pastor.”

He started reading again the works of Luther and Lutheran documents that he’d read in the seminary. He also decided to read the writings of the early Church fathers.

“We were taught in Lutheran school that the Church was always Lutheran until the Catholics fouled it up in the 8th or 9th century,” he said. As he read the early Church documents, though, he said “there were times I was literally screaming out loud in my office because [the early Church] wasn’t Lutheran—it was profoundly Catholic from day one.”

Next, Tews picked up the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“I realized that everything I had been taught about the Catholic Church was at best a poor caricature of it, if not an outright lie,” he said. “It was a one-two punch for me that the early Church wasn’t Lutheran, and then the stuff I thought Catholics were wrong about, they were completely correct, and there was evidence of it since the very beginning.”

The final evidence that convinced this lifelong Lutheran and devoted pastor that the Catholic Church embodied the authentic faith founded by Christ was the role of the pope.

“Ultimately, every person either becomes their own pope, or every church that starts itself becomes its own pope,” he said. “So you either have the one that has actually existed since the beginning and has been given the Holy Spirit to keep it from error, or you have the whatever-thousands of denominations there are. To me it comes down to somebody having this authority.”

Nevertheless, the decision to leave the Lutheran church was not an easy one.

“For me to leave, that was my income, our home [that the church owned],” he said. “I loved being a pastor.”

By January of last year, Tews said he was “so tired of standing in both camps.” He spent time fasting and praying, and he finally broached the subject with his wife.

He admits that Shayna, who had been baptized Catholic but not raised in the faith, “was shocked at the very beginning” by the news of his inclination to leave the Lutheran faith and pursue becoming Catholic.

“But God works in amazing ways,” he said.

Shayna agreed, referring to her involvement at the time in a book study composed of several large Catholic families.

“I think this [group] was a way for the Holy Spirit to condition me to receive [Daniel’s] news, because these women were such strong women of faith,” said Shayna, 39. “I didn’t know anyone like them. Their faith was everything to them, not just whatever day they attended Mass. Everything in their life revolved around their faith. That was striking to me. I was a little envious of their wonderful faith.”

Still, she was hesitant about leaving the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.

“I was really at first trying to find a way to not have to leave,” said Shayna. “But it became too difficult to live a double life of trying to learn about Catholicism at home and feeling compelled to adopt that as our life, yet wanting to not mention it to our church.”

Daniel finally made the decision to resign from his role as pastor of the three South Dakota churches last summer. He officially resigned last October.

To be closer to both of their parents, the couple moved with their five children—ranging in age from 1 to 10—to Brazil, where they joined Annunciation Parish and all were received into full communion of the Church during the Easter Vigil Mass on March 26.

“My first holy Communion was beautiful,” said Daniel. “I came back to my pew, and all I could say over and over was ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’ It was such a long journey.”

Shayna agreed.

“It feels like we’ve come so far, and yet it feels like just the beginning of a call to a more devout life,” she said. “We feel like [the Easter Vigil] seemed like the pinnacle. But no, we’ve got a new ladder to go up now.

“I pray the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to take on the challenge and do what he needs us to do and be who he needs us to be.” †

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