Of all the moments during the memorable Easter Vigil at Franciscan University, perhaps the one with the most palpable joy comes when the Church receives her new members with open arms and often spontaneous applause.
Yet, the road there for the candidates isn’t always a straight or easy one. Each person’s story is unique, and Franciscan’s RCIA Program, directed by professor Scott Sollom, is prepared to answer every question and encounter each soul to lead him or her to the Church.
For two members of this year’s RCIA class, that means an encounter with something different than they’ve found elsewhere — a difference testifying to the truth of the Catholic faith.
For freshman Gary Pierre, the example and influence of friends has been huge in supplementing the research into religion he has done over the past three years.
Growing up in Haiti, none of Pierre’s friends or family were Catholic. He was baptized into the Church, and always believed in God, but never learned who God was. It wasn’t until his junior year of high school that Pierre said God first introduced himself through a YouTube video of the song “So Will I.”
“I knew I was missing a lot,” Pierre said. “God created me, and I wasn’t giving anything back to him. So, I started doing research about God.”
As a tennis player in Haiti, he travelled to Florida during his junior year, and there he encountered the Catholic faith through the Franciscan University tennis team. Since Franciscan was a Division III school and he enjoyed the company of the men on the team, Pierre decided to apply to Franciscan.
“I didn’t bother me that Franciscan was a Catholic school because I was just coming here for the education and for the tennis team because the guys were cool,” he admitted.
But when Pierre began attending Franciscan, he knew there was something unique about the way in which the students lived out their Catholic faith. After marveling at the dedication of the many students who attended 6:30 a.m. daily Mass, he decided to begin researching the Catholic faith.
“I wanted to know why anyone would go to Mass at 6:30 in the morning,” he said. “Didn’t these students have school? Weren’t they tired? I wanted to know more why they were doing it.”
During the middle of the fall semester, he noticed that other students had a main goal besides school: God’s kingdom. “Most students are in college for the degree, but here that’s just one part. So, I wanted that.”
During the time when Pierre “started doing Catholic things” such as going to Mass more frequently and praying, he encountered the Disciples of the Word household, whose wing he lives on.
“They would invite me to household things, and I’d say I’m busy … but I’d really be in my room listening to them,” he said.
As he continued to make friends and acquaintances, Pierre had a friend help him sign up for RCIA. Even though Pierre felt he wasn’t ready to begin the journey into the Church, his friend encouraged him and even wrote an introductory email to the director of RCIA. Pierre admitted he started going to RCIA just out of curiosity, but he soon found the environment helpful in answering many of his questions about the faith.
“The first day my friend went with me to support me,” Pierre said. “Since then, I’ve liked RCIA. I feel like I’m not alone because there are other students, faculty in there. … I honestly really like it and I’ve been learning a lot.”
For Pierre, knowing why the Church teaches what it does is important.
“I like to ask a lot of questions. I don’t want to believe in something I still have a lot of questions about. I want to make sure I understand everything.”
The other element of his formation was in the example of the Disciples, his soon-to-be household brothers, whom he called “really holy men.”
As Lent drew to an end, Pierre was excited and ready for his first Holy Communion. He said that it was difficult to sit and watch others take the Eucharist at Mass when he couldn’t share in that experience yet. Still, he said he was happier than ever before.
“After believing in God, I now know the extent of his power and his love,” he said.
Pierre’s quest for truth is echoed in another member of Franciscan’s RCIA class. Suzanne Macdonald, a master’s in theology student, wife and mother of five, is making the journey home after 25 years of attending Mass with her husband and family.
A Presbyterian who once planned on becoming a Presbyterian pastor with a master of divinity, Macdonald didn’t foresee that marrying a Catholic would eventually change her religious convictions.
For years, the Macdonalds went to two churches every week: Catholic and Presbyterian. Their children grew up with a diverse group of friends from both parishes. During this time, the Catholic Church in their diocese was struggling, which didn’t give Macdonald any encouragement to consider leaving her Presbyterian faith.
Yet when Macdonald’s husband had a six-month sabbatical and they decided to spend it in Steubenville, Ohio, a string of events unfolded which brought about a slow change of heart.
When her husband lost his job a short time after the sabbatical, the Macdonalds took the opportunity to rethink what they wanted for their children: a faithful Catholic community, which they weren’t finding in California. They set their sights on Steubenville and moved to the town while their oldest son was a student at Franciscan. Macdonald began taking master’s classes on campus and wrote many papers dealing with theological differences between Protestants and Catholics.
Like Pierre, Macdonald originally joined RCIA to learn more about Catholicism. Yet the more she learned, the more she was convicted by the coherence of the answers she found.
One of her primary issues with the Catholic Church was the phrase one has to say to enter, promising to believe “all” the Catholic Church teaches.
“I would ask people, ‘What is “all?”’ The phrase has held me up,” she admitted.
Even if she learned the right words, Macdonald said it wouldn’t be enough without truly being Catholic at heart. “I couldn’t imagine even feeling Catholic if I were to say the words and join the Church,” she recalled.
“For me it was never enough to look at the Bible and pope,” she added. “I wanted to believe everything the Church taught or not at all.”
She talked with Latin professors and looked at the oath of fidelity professed by faculty at the university, finding a greater understanding thanks to the work of one of the Church’s most gifted theologians — Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
“It means the deposit of faith,” she said. “Scripture and Tradition are what you have to believe, what God has revealed — it’s not infinite, just the core beliefs.”
This was extremely relieving for Macdonald, who found coherence and took confidence in the deposit of faith.
“There were things in the deposit of faith that were drawing me to be Catholic even though there were other things that scared me off,” she said. “There’s a coherence and a real attempt to refer back to the councils, saints and Scripture.”
This plainly differed from Macdonald’s experience as a Presbyterian.
“In order to be a Presbyterian pastor, I had to agree to a set of confessions that contradicted each other, but I thought, ‘what else am I going to do?’ Nothing else seemed better.”
Within her experience in RCIA, Macdonald found answers to her long-time questions which she hadn’t found satisfactory in California. Even if Sollom didn’t have all the answers, she said he always listened to and respected her questions, then gave her access to people with answers.
Through talking with many professors of theology, she encountered a sense of the freedom that comes from the framework of professing belief in the Church.
Macdonald’s road to the Catholic Church has been a submission of will and intellect with which she’s finally at peace. And with that submission, she was able to do something she hadn’t been able to do in 25 years of attending the Mass — receive Communion.
“You don’t have to have every single doctrine figured out and have written a paper on it,” she said. “I’ve stopped thinking about the wording and the phrase. … I trust that the Church has faithfully kept the deposit of faith and therefore I submit myself to that deposit of faith whether I agree with it or not. I’m choosing to submit.”