While RCIA candidates and elect learn about the rich history of the Catholic faith in preparation for joining the Church at Easter, converts Morgan Maxwell and John and Sondra Oliphant took it quite a bit farther, traveling 5,276 miles to the Vatican.
“All it did was further cement our dedication and our commitment that this was what we had been looking for all along,” John Oliphant said of his visit to the Vatican with his wife Sondra in September, a week before beginning RCIA classes at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers.
Morgan Baden Maxwell, 25, who is joining the Church at Our Lady of the Holy Souls in Little Rock, married Thomas Maxwell, a cradle Catholic on April 1. The two met through mutual friends as students at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and once the relationship became serious, religion became a discussion.
“We just knew we wanted to raise our kids in a church,” Maxwell said, who was raised Methodist. “I think as we went further down the line he couldn’t picture raising his kids as anything but Catholic.”
She began going to Mass on holidays like Christmas and Easter and was immediately overwhelmed. Although Thomas and his family tried to explain what was going on, Maxwell said she still felt out of place.
“I just didn’t know what to do. The first time I went I just wasn’t prepared,” she said, adding her first meeting with Samantha Denefe, director of evangelization and faith formation, provided clarity. “Samantha walked me through the church and pointed out that everything at the church has its reasons. That’s when I kind of realized it was for me. It’s not about rules; you realize it’s about the meaning behind everything.”
Maxwell not only embraced the faith as her own, but added a trip to the Vatican to their European honeymoon. On April 12, Pope Francis blessed the couple’s marriage and they attended the Holy Thursday Mass the next day.
“I’m extremely blessed and overjoyed. I know it has such meaning in our life,” Maxwell said before getting their marriage blessed. “Going forward in my faith life I’ll look back and as I mature in my faith life I’ll appreciate it even more.”
Thomas Maxwell said his new bride is eager to learn about the faith, even “dragging me to church.”
“It means a lot because I’m getting to take my wife and a new Catholic literally where the religion started,” he said. “Getting our marriage blessed by the pope, he’s the one with the direct line to God. It means the world to me. Somehow we’re blessed.”
For the Oliphants, their family has been on a different spiritual path. Before their marriage 15 years ago, the couple both identified as Christians, but neither was baptized or active in a church.
“Then when we got married we knew we wanted God in our lives and our children’s lives. We made the decision on a church home here locally at a Protestant church. At the same time we were actually baptized together in that church,” John said.
The couple, along which children Allison, 11, and Carson, 9, were active, working on different service projects within the faith community.
But after years of involvement, John and Sondra both felt something was “missing” spiritually.
“We went through a period of looking at other churches thinking we just needed a change of atmosphere. We realized it wasn’t that, we loved our church family,” John said.
Their first introduction to St. Vincent de Paul was through the school. After shadowing there, the family “fell in love with it immediately” and enrolled their children, Sondra said.
In an effort to learn more about the faith for their children they researched Catholicism, but Sondra was sold during her first Christmas Mass.
“It was perfect, it was peaceful. Everything just aligned … this is what we’ve been looking for,” Sondra said. While Sondra and their son Carson were ready to take the leap, John and their daughter Allison needed more time.
“I felt ready, but I felt this obligation to our church, to everything we had, our church family. I didn’t want our enthusiasm for the school to be our reason to become Catholic. It was such a deeper responsibility than that,” he said, even though he had begun researching Catholicism before they even visited the school.
In February 2016, John took a pilgrimage with the Protestant church to the Holy Land. He found clarity visiting Capernaum, sitting in the synagogue where Jesus gave the Bread of Life discourse.
“For me I wasn’t going to make the move without truly embracing” the meaning of the Eucharist, John said. During the trip, “I had an amazing interaction with two priests … it wasn’t just one word, it was a total experience. It was a God-sized event for me. For me in that moment in time it was deeply spiritual, I gained 100 percent clarity.”
In September, the couple went on a 10-day pilgrimage to Rome with Father Leo Patalinghug, author and host on EWTN, and Gus Lloyd, “Seize the Day” host on Sirius XM radio. Though they had not yet joined the Church, they soaked up the Catholic culture, everything from quiet reflection time in Assisi to attending the canonization Mass for St. Teresa of Kolkata. But the first daily Mass of the trip set the tone, they said, with a beam of light illuminating Father Patalinghug as he consecrated the bread and wine at the altar at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
“Everything was just coming to life. All these things we read, miracles that happened. It was surreal,” Sondra said, with John adding, “It was just an amazing trip of continued learning and deeper understanding of the history of the Church.”
Even though Allison and Carson did not take the pilgrimage, the children have each made the personal decision to join the Catholic Church, their parents said.
So as Maxwell and the Oliphants prepare for their new religious journey, they can reflect on their experiences at the Vatican to continually grow their faith.
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