The Easter people

North Texas Catholic
(May 8, 2018) Feature

Father Mel Bessellieu lights the baptismal candle of Damien Santos during the Liturgy of Baptism.

Father Mel Bessellieu lights the baptismal candle of Damien Santos during the Liturgy of Baptism. Santos entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil Mass at St. Ann Parish in Burleson on March 31, 2018. (NTC photo/Juan Guajardo)

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Robert Powell, a fundamentalist Bible-based Protestant, was intrigued when Pope Benedict XVI resigned and the College of Cardinals assembled to select a new pope.

He asked a Catholic coworker, he queried Google, he even read the section in the Catechism of the Catholic Church about apostolic succession. “I read it to find out how ridiculous it was, but my thoughts transitioned to ‘I can’t find fault in that,’” he explained.

He then became “wild with curiosity” and started filling up a legal pad with everything he thought was unbiblical about Catholicism: the “extra” books in the Bible, Jesus’ command to call no man your father, Mary, and confession, to name a few.

As he dug into the answers, he had a paradigm shift and realized, “I can’t add to the division in Christianity. I have a duty to go back to the original Church that Jesus intended.”
It almost tore apart his marriage.

On the other hand, after Brian Seaman became Catholic, his marriage went “from good to great. We’re put together with God’s glue now.” He married Julie, a cradle Catholic, more than 30 years ago in a civil ceremony.

Throughout their marriage, he admired Julie for her dedication in taking their children to Mass alone each week. He would join them at Easter and Christmas. In 2012, his father-in-law invited him to a Christ Renews His Parish retreat, where Seaman “fell in love with the Lord.”

“It’s changed my life. I had tried to fill the emptiness inside with work, fishing, and sports. But I don’t have the desire to do those things now. I want to serve. I want to spend time with her. I have found the meaning of life.”

After his previous marriage was annulled, the Seamans were married in the Church on February 13, 2016. “I realized the importance of having Christ leading us together, even though He was with us all along,” said the St. Frances Cabrini parishioner, who was also baptized, confirmed, and received Holy Communion that momentous day.

Powell, Seaman, and others who join the Catholic Church as adults each have a conversion story with unique experiences and difficulties in their journey to Catholicism. However, they share a common element.

Father Daniel Kelley baptizes Angel Amandi.
Father Daniel Kelley baptizes Angel Amandi March 31, 2018 at St. Joseph Parish in Arlington. (NTC photo/Jayme Shedenhelm)

“We’re all wired for God. As such, all people of good will have this yearning . . . for what they know is lacking in their lives. Inevitably, that will draw people, if they have the proper exposure and openness, to the Church” said Jason Whitehead, diocesan director of faith formation, who left Southern Baptist ministry to become Catholic in 2012.

“In the end, you have to do what you have to do to follow Christ in the fullness that He can be followed. And that is in the Catholic Church,” continued Whitehead.

When Powell told his wife, Kristi, that he felt God was calling him into the Catholic Church, she thought he was joking. She had met Robert through the Church of Christ, and he had done some preaching at church and helped with youth ministry during their marriage.

But at a weekday Mass in December 2013, the students at Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Denton witnessed Powell joining the Catholic Church. His wife didn’t.

Kristi said, “Our grandparents and our parents were all Church of Christ. Marrying outside the Church of Christ would have been a deal-breaker.” Kristi thought Robert’s conversion could end their marriage and Robert’s salvation.

Hoping this was just a mid-life crisis, she asked him not to tell their three children and to continue attending Church of Christ services.

As the months passed and tensions rose, the Powells began attending both Catholic and Protestant services. He thought, “If I can get her near the Eucharist, near Jesus, something would miraculously happen.”

More than four tumultuous years and three Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) programs later, Kristi and their three children entered into full communion with the Catholic Church at St. Martin de Porres Parish in Frisco this January.

Mass Appeal

Working in South Korea, Liz Sanchez agreed to go to Mass with some coworkers although she was Baptist. After all, Mass was in English.

She liked feeling the connection to her Catholic friends in the U.S. who were hearing the same readings. “There is a deliberateness, a universality. Church is more than just who is in the same building that you are in,” she said.

So, when she returned to Texas and met her future husband, who was a member of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Arlington, she was open to exploring the faith.

She said, “My mother-in-law was a big influence on me. I thought Catholics had their rituals and just went through the motions. But she loved Jesus and prayed and held onto her faith outside of Mass.”

She joined the Church at the Easter Vigil Mass in 2012, got married, and soon was expecting a baby. While six-months pregnant, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

“I knew I was in His hands. I didn’t question ‘why did this happen?’ or have a faith struggle,” she said. She leaned on her Catholic faith to cope with brain surgery while pregnant and then the four-week wait to deliver her daughter and begin chemotherapy and radiation.

Sanchez and her daughter, who will start kindergarten in August, help with the food cart ministry at their home parish of St. Vincent de Paul in Arlington. She has also taught Rite of Christian Initiation for Children, which she said helped build up her knowledge, too.

“The tradition and history of the Catholic Church is rich, rich, rich, but I’ve realized what we have in common with Protestants is more than what we don’t,” she said.

Father John Swistovich confirms Cristina Almaden during an Easter Vigil Mass.
Father John Swistovich confirms Cristina Almaden during an Easter Vigil Mass at St. Michael Church in Bedford on Saturday, March 31, 2018. (NTC photo/Kevin Bartram)

A Brick Wall

Christina Almaden shares something in common with Sanchez — both have survived brain tumors. For Almaden, the diagnosis was “God’s sign, a brick wall.”

During her difficult childhood, Almaden sought refuge in prayer but rarely attended church. She envied the families who went to church together each Sunday, and she envisioned attending church with her future husband and children.

In 2010, she began experiencing difficulty seeing and emotional instability. One day in November, she couldn’t see her computer at work. That’s when a CT scan showed a large benign tumor wrapped around her optic nerve.

After she recovered, she began going to Mass with her Catholic husband, whom she married in 2008. She found “it’s what I’ve always wanted. It’s what I’ve always needed.”

Almaden entered the Catholic Church at St. Michael Parish’s Easter Vigil Mass March 31. 

Asking Questions

When Linda Wigginton’s home in New Orleans was devastated by flooding in Hurricane Katrina, or when her husband was diagnosed with lymphoma, she didn’t ask God why He allowed those tragedies to happen. And in caring for her patients at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, she didn’t ask why a loving God permits suffering in the world.

“I didn’t blame God because I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t believe any of it,” she admitted.

Through the crises, she had an internal certainty that she would be all right. However, the question that nagged at the back of her mind was “Why am I allowed to be happy?”

Last year, she decided to attend Mass at St. Ann Parish in Burleson with her husband of 19 years. She had stopped working weekends and it was a small sacrifice of time to her, but the gesture meant a lot to her Catholic spouse.

“I was encased in ice, and watching and listening at Mass chipped a little away every week. The more I attended, the more I loved it,” she said.  

“I came to the realization that I do believe in God. I can’t see or touch God, but I believe in Him,” she asserted.

Linda Wigginton and 10 others received the three sacraments of initiation of the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil Mass.

Linda Wigginton and 10 others received the three sacraments of initiation of the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil Mass at St. Ann Parish in Burleson on March 31, 2018. (NTC photo/Juan Guajardo)

From Darkness to Light

Wigginton was welcomed into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil service at St. Ann on March 31. The whole night was “beautiful” and “amazing,” especially Baptism, where “I literally felt my sins washed away” and the “joyful moment” of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

Also joining the Church at St. Ann that evening — Melissa Rhodes. Her first visits to St. Ann were during Eucharistic Adoration, where she experienced “the most peace I’ve ever felt” as she accompanied her mother through a fight with cancer. When her brother became Catholic and she saw the excitement and serenity in him, she began to think “maybe I need to do it, too.”

Her mother and brother witnessed Rhodes’ initiation into the Church. Afterwards, she followed her brother’s advice. She dabbed some confirmation chrism from her forehead onto one of her favorite Bible passages, the first chapter of John.

According to Whitehead, about 1,200 individuals in the diocese convert to Catholicism each year. Many join during the Easter Vigil — the “liturgy of liturgies.” The Mass, which can last as long as three hours, begins in darkness and recounts salvation history from the creation story through the Litany of the Saints.

Whitehead said the service is the “most profound example of unity,” bringing the Church together in time and place. New members receive all three sacraments of initiation, and the congregation renews their baptismal promises. 

Carlos De La Rosa, who was received into the Church at St. Michael Parish in Bedford, “realized the enormity of it and took it all in.” Expecting his first child this month, De La Rosa wanted to join the Church so that he and his wife could share the responsibility of bringing up his daughter in the faith.

He said the service was “humbling. Me with the mistakes I’ve made, I’m now part of a bigger family. It feels so incredible.”

Another new member, Brandon Story, was prompted by his children to join the Church. When he attended Mass with his wife and three children at St. Martin de Porres Parish, his kids asked why he didn’t receive Holy Communion. 

When he began RCIA last year, he “thought it was just something you have to do. Now I see the purpose.” Receiving the sacraments at the Easter Vigil left him “pumped. I feel like I’m set on a different path.”

Brandon Story receives Holy Communion.

Brandon Story receives Holy Communion from Father Richard Kirkham during the Paschal Vigil Mass at Saint Martin de Porres Church in Prosper, Saturday, March 31, 2018. (NTC Photo/Ben Torres)

Now What?

Whitehead, who taught RCIA for five years after joining the Church, recommends that new members of the Church fully participate in mystagogy, a series of classes to help them continue the journey as fully initiated members of the Body of Christ.

He expressed the importance of those already in the Church to include the new members so they don’t feel isolated or get lost in the shuffle of the transition.

Having responded to the call of Christ to the Church, new members now have a responsibility to build up the Body of Christ and put their gifts into the service of others.

Now that the Powells are singing from the same hymnal again, Kristi said their marital problems are resolved and they “go all the time” to St. Martin de Porres for Mass and Family Faith Formation classes. Ready and willing to serve, they plan to help with the next round of RCIA.

Easter, Easter Vigil Mass, Baptismal Candle, Liturgy of Baptism, Baptism, Damien Santos, Angel Amandi, Cristina Almaden, Confirmation, Cristina Almaden, Linda Wigginton, Sacraments, Initiation, Brandon Story, Holy Communion, trending-english