By Jay Nies
Austin Kidwell was 6,700 miles from Boonville and a million miles from becoming Catholic when he completed his second tour of duty in Al-Fallujah, Iraq.
The ravages of sectarian violence, played out repeatedly before his eyes during the height of the Iraq War, had taken their toll.
“Long story short, after I left the military, I kind of became that super-annoying atheist guy,” he said. “You could say I had a disdain for religion. Everything I experienced in the Middle East, I lumped it all together with religion. Sort of like, ‘If religion didn’t exist, none of this would be happening.’”
He devoured the works of popular “New Atheist” authors, sharing their passion and certainty that God in all forms is a destructive fallacy.
His wife, Madeline, had been raised in a devoted Catholic family but stopped practicing her faith as a teen-ager. She never got confirmed.
As husband and wife, they belonged to no church.
Near the end of what Mr. Kidwell calls his “atheist journey,” he felt empty, off-balance and not fully present to his wife or their two sons.
He realized that since leaving the military, he had been working hard to restore his mind and body but not his spirit.
“But there’s also a spiritual part of your brain, and you need to exercise that, too,” he said.
Mrs. Kidwell also felt herself being summoned back to faith.
Her grandmother, who played a large role in her life, was a devout Christian woman. A little over a year ago, she passed away. Mrs. Kidwell recounted that the day prior to her grandmothers passing, she had what she could only describe in short as, “an unexpected and intense spiritual experience.”
Both could tell that they and each other were changing.
They finally talked about it during a Memorial Day barbecue.
Mr. Kidwell revealed that throughout both of his tours of duty, he wore a cross and pendant that his late grandmother, who was Catholic, had given him.
Mrs. Kidwell asked if it was a medal of St. Christopher, patron saint of safe travels.
“Yes, it was St. Christopher,” he said.
He recalled the day when two suicide bombers made separate attacks on the post where he was stationed.
“I thought for sure that I was going to die, and without thinking, I said, ‘I’m sorry,’” he recalled.
For years after surviving that ordeal, he wondered who he had apologized to, and for what.
“I think half of it was that I was sorry for wasting all of this, sorry I didn’t appreciate this life,” he said.
After that conversation, Mr. and Mrs. Kidwell started noticing signs that they were being called.
They thought the cross and St. Christopher pendant had gotten lost when Mr. Kidwell moved.
Turns out, his mother had it and kept it in a safe place for him.
“When I saw him reconnect with it — there’s no way to describe how incredible it was,” said Mrs. Kidwell. “The only thing I could compare it to was the birth of our children.”
With their hearts wide open, the signs continued, and they had to act.
They agreed they both wanted their children to attend a parochial school when they were of age.
“I remember saying to Austin how important it was that we as parents do absolutely everything we can to raise not just good, but great men — in mind, body, and spirit,” she recalled. “Austin’s immediate response to me was, ‘yes, like Warriors!’”
Later that day she did a Google search and found Ss. Peter and Paul School in Boonville and clicked on their webpage.
“At the top it read, ‘Home of the Warriors.’ I had goosebumps,” she said.
Soon after, they both entered the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) at Ss. Peter and Paul parish and never looked back.
They’re looking forward to receiving the sacraments of initiation at Easter and becoming active, faith-filled Catholic Christians.
They’re adamant about raising their sons as warriors for Christ, formed in mind, body and spirit to serve Him.
The Kidwells were among about 280 catechumens and candidates who joined Bishop John R. Gaydos at the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion as part of their preparation to receiving the Easter sacraments.
At the Easter Vigil, the catechumens will be baptized, and they and the candidates will be confirmed and will receive the Holy Eucharist for the first time.
Bishop Gaydos noted that the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is a restoration of the catechumenate, the communal process through which people were prepared to become Christian in the early days of the Church.
The process faded away over the centuries but was brought back into being after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
“This beautiful process of initiation has only been going on for the past 40 years,” Bishop Gaydos told everyone in the cathedral. “You all are part of a great legacy, part of the great grace of the Holy Spirit coming out of the Second Vatican Council, a reminder of how powerful God’s grace is in our midst.” He reminded the catechumens and candidates that they’re answering a call to follow Jesus at a time when doing so is no longer considered the norm.
He noted that just as Jesus was tested and tempted throughout His public ministry, leading right up to His crucifixion and death, so too would His followers.
Jesus prepared by spending 40 days and nights in the desert, close to God in constant prayer.
“This Lent is our desert experience, especially for you as you prepare for the Easter sacraments and for you sponsors and godparents who walk so closely with them,” he said.
He encouraged them to keep focusing on the gift of God’s strengthening grace that they will receive in the sacraments in just a few weeks.
“We are never alone on this journey,” he noted. “We have the love of God upholding us.”
“God has called you”
Summoned by name and accompanied by their godparents or sponsors, the catechumens and candidates shook hands with the bishop and entered the sanctuary of the cathedral.
From there, the catechumens sought to be counted among the elect, and the candidates reaffirmed their commitment to be conformed ever more radically into the image of Christ.
Bishop Gaydos asked the catechumens’ godparents to testify that the catechumens have been sufficiently prepared to be enrolled among the elect.
He then asked everyone else present to affirm the godparents’ testimony and to keep the catechumens in prayer.
He asked the catechumens whether they wish to enter fully into the sacramental life of the Church.
“We do,” they responded.
Then, in keeping with an ancient custom of the Church, he placed his signature on the Book of the Elect, which had been signed by each catechumen.
The bishop then spoke to the candidates, who are preparing for confirmation and First Holy Communion.
In unison, their sponsors testified to the candidates’ progress in learning about and living the faith they will profess.
The bishop asked the candidates whether it is their desire to enter into full communion with the Church.
“It is,” they declared.
“Join with us this Lent in a spirit of repentance. Hear the Lord’s call to conversion and be faithful to your baptismal covenant,” the bishop told them.
“With open arms”
As always, the candidates’ and catechumens’ stories are as varied and nuanced as the shards of glass that make up the cathedral’s colorful windows.
Mollie Thies is preparing to be baptized and confirmed and receive her First Holy Communion at St. Mary parish in Glasgow.
Raised in no faith tradition, she had been thinking about becoming Catholic when a friend offered to be her sponsor.
“We just talked about it,” Ms. Thies said. “I’m doing this because I want to be closer to God.”
That’s exactly what’s been happening as she continues the process of becoming Catholic.
“You have a feeling in your heart,” she said. “It brings more light to me.”
She asks for prayers for peace and strength as she enters the last phase of preparation and embarks on her new life in the Church.
Also in Glasgow, Kaila Boyland plans to be confirmed and receive her First Holy Communion at Easter.
She’s doing this in order to deepen her relationship with God and build a strong foundation of faith as she prepares to start a family.
Her dad’s family was Catholic and she was baptized in a Catholic church, but was not catechized while she was growing up.
She moved to Glasgow about nine years ago.
Now just seemed like a good time to complete the initiation process, she said.
She said she’ll treasure memories of the entire Rite of Election ceremony, especially being greeted by Bishop Gaydos as she stepped into the sanctuary with the other candidates.
She asks for prayers for her and her family as she prepares to be married in St. Mary Church next year.
“God is working”
Michael Groves is preparing to be baptized and confirmed and receive his First Holy Communion at Easter at Ss. Peter and Paul parish in Boonville.
He grew up without practicing any faith.
Shortly after his mother died last year, a series of seemingly guided events led to him meeting his fiancé, Melissa Hampton, who is a lifelong member of Ss. Peter and Paul.
“She’s an angel, and I couldn’t be happier,” he said.
Ms. Hampton invited him to go to Mass with her. Intrigued with everything he saw and heard, he kept coming back.
“I thought this might become a great journey,” he said.
He inquired about the process for becoming Catholic and entered the RCIA.
He enjoys the weekly classes with his sponsor, fellow candidates and catechumens and their sponsors, Deacon Dave Miller, Father Basil Euro, and the rest of the RCIA team.
“I’ve always believed in the Lord, but this is making it a lot clearer for me to understand,” he said.
He hopes to continue growing in understanding as he and his fiancé prepare to be married on Oct. 7.
“It’s a been a wonderful, wonderful experience,” he said. “God is working. That He is!”