BY James Farrell | April 26 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

P1040022

‘I was a devout atheist, I lived by Dawkins — then I found Christ.’ A special report on the RCIA

James Farrell speaks to two former atheists about their journey to the Church, and asks RCIA leaders about why the programme is so successful at bringing people to the Faith

Kirsten Braidwood

Medieval History and Biblical Studies student at St Andrews University

I was Baptised into the Anglican Church but was raised in an atheist family. At 19 I became ill and reached the end of my tether.

I happened upon a woman’s group exploring the 16th chapter of John’s Gospel and when I heard the words it felt like I had been punched in the heart.

I went to St Andrews University. It felt like there was a church on every street. Back home there had only been two churches and so I basically just church-hopped and never really settled.

 

Lack of sanctity

I found that at a lot of times there wasn’t much reverence or sanctity in their worship, they didn’t really place much emphasis on the Eucharist.

I then moved to Dundee and there were two churches there and both were Catholic. It was more similar to what I had experienced in the Anglican church and very reverent and nice.

I could see that this was actual worship rather than just symbolic worship.

I had this feeling that ultimately there is a reason to this and I asked God not to stop that desire in me and if that is what he wanted from me then I’d become a Catholic. And he kindled that desire in me; it was everything and all I could think about.

The big thing was meeting Fr Michael John [the university chaplain] and realising this is what I’ve always been called to.

 

Challenges

My family weren’t religious and that was something I had to contend with. I had an atheist boyfriend as well and that’s why I had moved to Dundee; I was living with him at the time. When I went there [Dundee] the priest wasn’t bothered about RCIA, he just told me to keep going with things.

Whereas at St Andrews Fr Michael John said, ‘I want you to come and think about this.’ He knew about my relationships and how I was raised and that helped.

I knew that I had to act differently and think about why I was doing it but I was going through all of this while with an atheist.

 

A big decision

And I had to ultimately say, is this worth holding me back from something that I want? So I had to leave Dundee and my flat.

That was all a bit chaotic but I knew that God would help me through it.

I now believed in a loving God who created man and woman. I don’t get to not care about things anymore. I have an obligation to say I can’t just do whatever I want.

I’m still around people in uni who are discussing these things and I just don’t feel safe to voice an opinion.

Uni is seen as this place were you are striking out on your own and you can go wild, with sex and drugs and stuff like that. I

have two friends who are coming along [to the reception] who have extreme secular views and will see a culture that is very counter that.

 

RCIA

There was a group that met every Monday from October and we watched Bishop [Robert] Barron’s Catholicism and discussed different aspects.

We did that until Christmas and then we had about four weeks break to think about going further ahead. That was our introduction to Catholicism.

Then we moved on to looking at the Catechism and we went through that as a group in preparation.

 

Variety of people

I was really surprised about the difference in the people there. There’s a girl who comes from Hong Kong and didn’t have a Christian background at all, another one who had an atheist background and three mothers with children who have been raising their kids as Catholic.

I was actually kind of jealous of them. They were people who knew where they belonged.

Going to chaplaincy events, I realised how nice everyone was. That sense of belonging has really been there.

Whenever you walk into the chaplaincy or go to the society there’s always someone there to talk to and they really help you grow in your Faith and make you part of the community.

 

Spiritual side

The spiritual side has played a massive role. I’ve been to prayer groups and I really like the Rosary a lot.

I feel like you get to go to someone who you can relate to, Mary suffered a lot and knows just what it’s like to be a saint. You can ask Mary as your mother to bring you to her Son.

I had been involved in different prayer groups in churches and you always had to compose your own prayers and speak out how you were feeling but that doesn’t always work if you are in spiritual drought or just don’t know what to say.

It’s great that the Catholic Church has things like the Rosary to turn to. You get to bring whatever you are carrying to Mass and bear that in prayer and I think if you begin to understand that it’s really useful.

 

Rohan Bald

Fourth year medicine student at Glasgow University

I was a devout atheist and explicitly called myself an atheist. I believed that life had no meaning.

I was baptised in the Church of England but had fully rejected it by 11 years old when I couldn’t get the answers to questions I was asking. I acted like there was no truth to life and that life was pretty miserable.

I was much more selfish. I was lazy, less motivated, driven by my own benefit. I lived by [Richard] Dawkins’ idea that the universe has ‘nothing but pitiless indifference.’

For years I couldn’t get off my mind that I was going to die some day. If you are going to die then all you are doing is building on sand and anything you do will just turn to dust. And putting effort into something is hard, so why bother.

I was looking for some answers and solutions, really looking for the truth. I thought, ‘some things just don’t add up.’

 

Internet

The internet played a role in how I got [to RCIA]. Not just the internet but books as well, CS Lewis and Chesterton—but it was through the internet that I was pointed to those books.

Some of my friends have said they are Christian because of its ethical stance and what they’ve heard online from people like [Canadian author and academic] Jordan Peterson.

I started listening to Jordan Peterson in July 2017 and I was hooked. I would listen to his podcasts whenever I could, on the way to work and on my breaks. He prodded me in my axioms.

 

Meaning and truth

His stuff helps you change your values but it doesn’t get you the whole way. I began to think maybe there is meaning and truth and he pointed me towards Christianity.

When I started looking into things I never thought that I would believe in it, it was just something that I thought I’d be able to use.

When I was looking into it I thought, ‘hey the Bible says some interesting things, I should look into that.’

One day I actually just typed ‘Catholic’ into Google and up popped Brian Holdsworth and Bishop [Robert] Barron.

I listened to them and then I did some research into the Reformation and realised that there is a difference in Christianity—it’s not just all the same.

 

Finding the right path

There were competing claims as to what Christianity is and I wanted to find out what is right and the most true.

CS Lewis said an atheist can never be too careful what he reads. I think his trilemma that Jesus is either ‘a liar, a lunatic or the Lord’ was the thing that got me over the edge, understanding what Christians think God is and his role in the universe, that God is behind everything in the universe, like a painter behind the painting.

I was watching YouTube videos up until February 2018. At that point I was doing a psychology and religion essays and I had to look up the Book of Job.

 

Research

I got into [online resource] the Bible Project around March or April. I must’ve listened to between 300 to 400 hours of podcasts and then read some books over the summer.

I entered [Glasgow] chaplaincy for the first time in September 2018. It took me 14 months to go from a dogmatic atheist to entering a church. It was quite quick when I listened to other people.

I didn’t actually know what a Catholic was then, or what they believed because I hadn’t really met any actual Catholics.

 

Learning curve

I didn’t know what RCIA was. I could say that I thought Catholicism was true but I really didn’t know much.

The RCIA gave me an understanding of the Sacraments. I had known the Church had a different ethical approach and I was starting to learn why.

At first it was very strange. The first few days in the chaplaincy took some getting used to. At the Catholic Society they say an Our Father at the start of the meeting and I thought, ‘what is this cult I have gotten myself involved with.’

I was reluctant to begin with but God sought me out. I was the mouse chasing the cat, as CS Lewis puts it.

Prayer was difficult to begin with but my philosophical assumptions up until that point had not been correct, so at that point I was kind of open to trying anything. Although it was difficult I had to do it and then it just fell into place and now it feels natural.

 

Difficulties

Because of all the ethical teachings there was a lot of my life I had to change. I think when I ‘came out’ of the Catholic closest that was pretty difficult.

A lot of my friends are atheist and to try and explain that it wasn’t just ‘wish fulfilment,’ that I reasoned my way here, has been difficult.

It’s been hard especially at Christmas with my family. They were a bit shocked. I had comments like, ‘isn’t that the sexist church?’

 

Family feedback

My brother thinks I’m deluded and joined a cult. My Dad says he’s a Christian without Christ. He likes some of the values. My mum is vaguely spiritual.

There were parts of Christianity that I didn’t have all the answers to and I couldn’t defend it as well as I would have liked to.

There are three [people in RCIA] who I have become quite close friends with. I don’t think anyone else was explicit atheist.

Most are from Catholic backgrounds but it was been a great chance to get to know each other and I would say we’ve grown together.

 

Fr William McFadden

RCIA coordinator, Galloway Diocese

 Galloway Diocese has put a level of importance to RCIA around the parishes, which was tied in with reorganisation in the diocese. Nowadays the coordinator is more of a resource as most parishes have a structure in place.

There are a lot of different people who play a role in RCIA now in the diocese; there is a good nucleus in the parishes.

Part of my role is just to be there as a sounding board for the priests and catechists in the parishes for any queries that might arise about different issues.

 

A different approach

Nowadays people approach the Church differently; they don’t just knock on the parish door the way they used to.

People are using the internet a lot more so I’m becoming the first port of call as people come through the diocese that way.

We have 14 people entering the Church this Easter from 10 parishes and that’s just for Easter. It doesn’t always work in that they are received in to the Church at Easter time.

People who are enquiring are varied. There are people in their teens to people in their 70’s. The good thing to see is that people are coming forward.

 

Diversity

All are called in a unique way—there’s no box that people are fitting into. All of them are at different stages in their lives as well.

There’s no one thread for every one. It’s a huge diversion of people, all sorts of life and situations being received into the Church.

They are all surprising. Every year God motivates people in different ways and that’s what is wonderful about RCIA.

It’s a Sacrament that is really about the life of the Church. Its about people: there is a whole vision for the Church.

The vision of Church is contained in the rite. It’s about communion, participation, the spiritual life and commitments.

 

Canon David Wallace

RCIA Coordinator, Glasgow archdiocese

Those preparing to enter the Church have spent many months in their parishes discovering life in the Catholic Church and have bravely taken the courage to find out more.

They felt God was calling them to the Sacraments and to the Catholic way of life.

Coming together as part of the diocesan community for a day of retreat ahead of the Rite of Election (First Sunday in Lent) is quite breathtaking as they appreciate that they are not alone in their journey, but truly part of something universal.

 

A ‘poignant moment’

As the catechumens are called by name at the Rite of Election, they come forward, together with their chosen godparents and write their names in the Book of the Elect before the archbishop addresses the group.

Those previously Baptised are called by name and come before the archbishop, with their sponsor, who recognises their desire of conversion. It is a truly poignant moment for each of these people in their journey of Faith.

The Season of Lent is a time of ‘purification and enlightenment’ for those preparing for Sacraments of Initiation. Those to be Baptised celebrate ‘scrutinies’ and presentations of the Creed and the Our Father.

 

Lent

Witnessing these celebrations are deeply encouraging for the entire community and remind us all of the fact that Lent was originally created as a preparation for those seeking life in the Church. We have joined the Catechumens for Lent, not vice versa.

Arriving at the Easter Vigil, the Elect are Baptised, Confirmed and receive the Eucharist for the first time.

What a wonderful experience for them and for the entire assembly to share in these moments of grace.

 

Journey of Faith

Their journey does not end here. Parish groups continue to meet through the Easter season and unpack what has happened, exploring what it’s like to live in this new way of life.

This is a wonderful time to appreciate the community of the Church and to embrace the parish community where they worship, pray and celebrate.

Having ministered in this field for 15 years, it is so encouraging every year to see the fruits of RCIA catechists and the accompaniment they offer in their parishes come to fruition.

 

Dedication

The support they offer is a real example of their dedicated service to the Gospel. It is also reassuring to see the Faith of those who seek life in the Church and real sign of life to each parish community.

The journeys of Faith people make, each with their own unique story, inspire and draw life.

With 75 people in Glasgow seeking to become members of the Church this year, I think that the parish communities involved can’t but sit up and pay attention to growth within the Church!

It’s clear that the gift of Faith is for anyone who wants it.

 

Colette Ramsay

Catechist at St Peter’s, Glasgow

Pope Francis once said, ‘A Catechist is a person who keeps the memory of God alive in themselves and they revive it in others.’

Having been born into a Catholic family I always felt God’s presence in my life. My gift of Faith has remained strong in all the ups and downs of my life.

I became involved in RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation, about 12 years ago when my son was at school.

I sponsored a parent from the school into the Catholic Church at St Peter’s, Partick in 2007. This experience catapulted me into sponsoring many people over the years.

 

Searching for meaning

Apart from my job and bringing up a family, I had studied some social psychology, philosophical ethics and completed a counselling course. I found people searching for meaning and guidance in their lives.

This led me to study a two-year theological education course and train as a catechist. For me the answers to life struggles could always be found in trusting in God.

After being commissioned for five years by the Archbishop of Glasgow, I spoke to my parish priest Canon Peter McBride and he luckily allowed me to take up my role as parish catechist for RCIA.

 

Parish support

His support is there when I need it and that has given me confidence to do what I do.

The role as RCIA catechist is voluntary but such a privilege and an honour. We have classes/meetings each week from September until Easter.

I prefer to say that I journey with the catechumens and candidates through the RCIA process and that Jesus is our Teacher.

I often quote the Emmaus story (Luke 24: 13-34).

 

Stages

There are four stages of the Rite and the culmination of this journey of initiation is the celebration of the Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.

The first stage is Enquiry, when people come to enquire about membership of the Church.

At this stage for me it is vital that they are met with a warm welcome and encouragement and I offer them support through all the process.

We cover a variety of subjects from RCIA process, meaning of the Mass, seven Sacraments, Christian moral living, social justice, life ethics and Lenten period and lots more.

The class is relaxed and allows for discussion between ourselves.

 

Friendly environment

I also take them on a tour of the church so they ask questions and sometimes we visit Schoenstatt for a wee retreat and lunch.

I put a lot of commitment into my role as catechist because these people inspire me. Their stories and reasons for making a decision to become Catholic and full members of the Church are so varied and extraordinary it gives me such hope for the future. God works in amazing ways to bring them here.

No one can make another person come into the Church—or if a lapsed Catholic, back to the Church. It is through God working in them that they as adults make that decision and God has chosen them.

This Easter vigil there were 12 lovely people entering into the Catholic community at St Peter’s in Partick as well as the rest of our archdiocese in our great city of Glasgow.

There are also people making enquiries now for the next programme. Surely this brings us great hope in our Faith especially in the tide that often flows against us.

Jesus commanded that His followers do two things: first, make disciples of all nations and, second, Baptise them. Happy Easter!

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