Meet three of the Catholic Church’s newest faithful

Moira Cullings

As we approach Easter, catechumens and candidates throughout the Archdiocese of Denver are joining or coming back to the Catholic Church.

The Denver Catholic spoke with three men and women who have answered this call — a man who grew up attending a non-denominational Christian church but became an atheist, a Catholic who came back to the Church, and a former Lutheran.

Their stories of faith are different, but their common love of Catholicism brings a fresh perspective and new joy to the Church.

Candidate discovers ‘overwhelming sense of security and family’ in Catholic Church

Chase Carlson was only 13 years old when he started using drugs, and he didn’t stop until he was almost 22.

“I’ve overdosed twice,” said Chase. “I’m not dead. I’ve had a lot of things happen that should’ve killed me, and they didn’t.”

God had a greater purpose for his life.

After battling with drugs and leaving Christianity, Chase Carlson will enter the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Lakewood. (Photo By Moira Cullings)

Although Chase, a chef at Il Posto in Denver, had been baptized at eight years old, his family wasn’t devoutly religious. They attended a non-denominational Christian church, but as he grew up, Chase stopped believing in God entirely.

It wasn’t until he attended Alcoholics Anonymous for the second time that Chase opened his heart to believing in the possibility of a higher power. He began reminiscing on his upbringing as a Christian.

“I was still super adamant against religion,” he said. “You see the news — it’s pretty easy to judge the Catholic Church.”

But his boss at the time, who was a convert to Catholicism, asked Chase to go to Mass with him.

“That sounds a little intense,” Chase thought at the time.

But he was intrigued, and for the second time in his life, he stepped into a Catholic church to attend Mass. This time, he didn’t walk out halfway through the celebration.

Right away, “I had this overwhelming sense of security and family,” he said.

“I walked in. ‘I have tattoos on my face, on my hands,’” he thought.

‘“I’m going to get looked at weird.’”

But to his surprise, Chase had the opposite experience.

“At the end of Mass, all of these people are coming up. They’re shaking my hand. They’re like, ‘We’ve never seen you here before. It’s so nice to meet you.’

“For the first time in 10 years, I felt like I had a positive place to be, and I felt some sort of overcoming of God in my life.”

Chase started going to Mass every week.

“I really wanted to be a part of this,” he said. “I really wanted to learn more about it, and I wanted to understand the ritualistic aspect and where it comes from and why it is the way that it is.”

“I wanted to develop a relationship with God, instead of knowing that he exists and [simply] wanting him in my life. That’s how I found RCIA.”

Before starting his journey of becoming a member of the Catholic Church, Chase was still skeptical about some aspects of Catholicism, particularly because several of the Catholics he knew growing up claimed to be religious, but didn’t embody the Church’s teachings with their actions.

“I believe in God, but not that one,” said Chase. “That’s not what I think God’s about.”

Chase put those feelings aside and focused on the truth of the faith.

“Actually going to Mass, it was a whole different experience,” he said. “It just felt right.”

Chase used Google to find an RCIA program that met on Wednesday nights, which is how he found Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Lakewood.

“I love this place,” he said. “I got brought here for a reason.”

Chase has found help through both his sponsor and Christine Sullivan, who works in Adult Formation and Christian Initiation for the parish.

“Both of them were very much open-minded and really helped push me along the way,” he said.

Just like lifelong Catholics, Chase has faced challenges when learning about the Holy Trinity and frustrations when his prayers aren’t answered in the way he hopes them to be.

His favorite part of the faith is the ritualistic aspects.

“I love the sit, stand, kneel,” he said. “I love the prayers that we go through every time during Mass. I love the passion that comes out of the priest. It’s amazing to see so much energy and light come out of these guys.”

Chase has also been inspired by the universality and history of the Church.

“This is something that’s been happening for thousands of years,” he said.

“On Sundays, I always think about the fact that every hour of all Sunday long, everybody all over the world is hearing the same thing that I just heard in their own language.

“The teaching is the same for the day everywhere in the world, and it’s so cool to me that while I’m sitting there, somebody else is sitting at Mass on the other side of the world hearing the exact same thing.”

Chase is excited to become a member of the Catholic Church this Easter, and to feel fully a part of the faith he’s grown to love.

“I needed positive people to be around,” he said. “And I finally found somewhere to make that happen.”

After father’s death, sign brings Lutheran home to Catholic Church

When Lauren Josephson’s father passed away on Oct. 26, 2018, she traveled back to her home state of Pennsylvania to be with her family and help with the funeral arrangements.

Just three days after she returned home to Denver, something unexpected happened.

“A seminarian and a priest showed up to my door,” said Lauren.

Lauren Josephson grew up Lutheran but always felt a pull toward the Catholic faith. She was received into the Church at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Denver April 7. (Photo by Moira Cullings).

The two men asked her if they could pray for any of her intentions, and, unbeknownst to them, it was the sign Lauren needed.

Lauren had been considering joining the Catholic Church long before they came but hadn’t committed to it yet.

“There’s no greater sign than a seminarian and a priest showing up at your door,” she said.

Little did Lauren know that just a short time later, Austin Habash, that seminarian, would be her RCIA sponsor.

Lauren grew up Lutheran in a rural town. Her family sometimes attended Catholic Mass out of convenience, so Lauren was always familiar with the Catholic Church.

“I always felt most comfortable at Mass,” she said.

Lauren attended Mount St. Mary College and Seminary for two years before transferring to Colorado State. The Catholic faith had “always been on my radar,” she said.

In her 20s, Lauren focused on her career, and in her 30s, she settled down and started a family.

She had been attending Mass at various local churches up until the point when she received a visit from Austin and Father Geronimo Gonzalez. That experience solidified her decision to become Catholic, and after going through the RCIA process, Lauren received First Communion and confirmation on April 7.

“I’m just so excited to have gotten to this point, because it’s been so long,” she said.

One of the things Lauren loves most about the Catholic faith is having saints to intercede for her.

“To me, sometimes it’s easier to pray to a friend to ask for something if you’re in trouble,” she said. “The saints are incredible. Sometimes, they can be slightly more relatable depending on what challenges you’re going through.”

Lauren is grateful for the support of Laurel Eyers, who runs the RCIA program at St. Vincent de Paul.

“She’s amazing as a teacher,” she said. “She knows so much, and her love for God is infectious.”

She is also thankful Austin was her sponsor.

“He’s so amazing, so warm and welcoming,” she said. “He’s given me so many books to read. I don’t think you can get any better than a soon-to-be priest.”

Although the sex abuse crisis hits close to home since many of Lauren’s friends from Pennsylvania have been impacted by the state’s Grand Jury Report, Lauren sees more good in the Church than evil.

“Any company or organization always has some bad media,” she said. “There’s bad seeds, and I’m still understanding how it was dealt with.”

But Lauren is convinced this was the greatest time for her to enter the Church.

“I feel like now more than ever, there needs to be a better face and influence,” she said.

Lauren is excited to officially call herself Catholic.

“I always felt like the Catholic Church is the one church where all you have to do is love and ask to be forgiven,” she said. “That’s all that matters at the end of the day.”

‘God’s trying to tell me something’

When Steven Sisneros was about to receive confirmation on March 30, he was anxious — until he began to pray.

“When we got to the church, I was a little nervous,” he said. “I had gone to confession twice in the last 20 days — more than I had in the last 20 years. I didn’t feel guilt in my heart, so I was open to receiving the Lord.

Steven Sisneros was raised Catholic but grew apart from his faith after his teenage years. He came back to the faith and was confirmed  at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Northglenn March 30. (Photo provided)

“I closed my eyes, I began to pray and then I felt the love in the room of the sponsors and the children’s excitement,” he said. “I prayed some more, and God just told me, ‘It’s going to be ok. I love you.’”

Steven’s journey up until that moment was full of ups and downs — from going through the motions to becoming passionate about and dedicated to his faith.

Growing up Catholic, Steven attended Catechism class as a child, but as he got older, his mom gave him the choice to continue going or not.

“At the time, as a kid you’d think it was a burden,” he said. “We’d try to find ways to get out of it. So I opted out, which I regret now as an adult.”

It wasn’t until years later when religion came back into the picture for Steven.

“When I went to college, I was kind of lost,” he said. “I started going back to church on a regular basis with a friend of mine.”

But when he moved to New Mexico, he didn’t know any Catholics and didn’t belong to a church, so he stopped going.

“It will always be there,” he thought. “So, I can go back. Or maybe I don’t want to go back.”

While in New Mexico, Steven met his wife, Irene, who was also Catholic. But the couple didn’t go to Mass together until right before they got married.

“We really didn’t know where we stood,” said Steven.

The couple had two boys but still weren’t regularly practicing their faith. It wasn’t until Steven’s best friend asked him to be his son’s godfather when Steven’s interest in the Church peaked.

“I thought about it, and then I took it seriously,” said Steven. “If I’m going to do this, I need to do it the right way.”

Steven began taking classes to learn more about the faith and attended Mass periodically. Right after his first godson was baptized, he had another request to be a godfather — this time from his cousin.

“I was like, ‘God’s trying to tell me something,’” said Steven. “I need to be in these children’s lives in one capacity or another.”

At this point, Irene and Steven had moved to Colorado and began attending confirmation classes at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Northglenn.

“It’s been enlightening,” said Steven. “It’s sad to say this, but I’m glad I’ve done it at a more mature age than as an adolescent because I really can have a better grasp of what I need to know now, as opposed to when I would’ve been younger and going through the motions.”

Steven said that although he was nervous before receiving confirmation, he heard God’s call clearly and was ready to accept it.

“Going through confirmation was heart-opening,” said Steven. “It makes me more aware of what I’m doing and how I’m speaking to people and [makes me] appreciate the voice of the Lord when we’re at Mass.”

Steven is grateful for the staff at Immaculate Heart who have helped him on his faith journey, particularly Director of Faith Formation Calysta Kohlrust and the parish priests.

“They really give you an outlet to have a relationship with God on your own,” he said.

And despite the negative media attention the Catholic Church has received, particularly with the sex abuse scandal, Steven sees the bigger picture.

“The negativity that comes through the media or through people you encounter is all isolated incidences,” he said.

“Bad things happen to good people every single day. The media will do whatever they can to make sure that if something bad happens, they’re going to put that in the forefront.”

Steven is now on the path to be a strong role model for the young people God has placed in his life.

“It took me a lot of sinning and a lot of soul seeking to really come back to the Church and understand that as a man, I need to be an example to my children and my godchildren,” he said.

COMING UP: A holy Church begins with you

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A holy Church begins with you

Bishop Rodriguez challenges Catholics to realize their call to holiness

Roxanne King

Even as the Catholic Church deals with the disgrace and shame of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and moves forward with repentance and renewal, it is challenging as faithful not to be disheartened and discouraged.

The answer to this situation is to follow the Scriptural mandate to holiness all Catholic Christians have been given, Denver auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez told attendees of the May 17-19 Aspen Catholic conference titled, “The Encounter: New Life in Jesus Christ.”

As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, ‘be holy, because I [am] holy,’” the bishop said, quoting I Peter 1:15-16.

“Holiness,” the bishop asserted, “…is the only thing that will get our Church through this crisis. It’s a transformation that we all need.”

The annual conference, an initiative of Father John Hilton, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Aspen where the event was held, drew people from the Archdiocese of Denver and from outside the state to strengthen their relationship with Jesus Christ, deepen their understanding of the Catholic faith, renew their spirit in the beauty of Colorado’s high country, and return home equipped to better share their faith.

Despite the current crisis, which is evidence the Church is comprised of sinners, every Sunday when professing the Creed, Catholics say, “I believe in the holy Catholic Church.”

“We say publicly that we believe the Catholic Church is holy. Do we mean it?” Bishop Rodriguez mused before affirming: “The Catholic Church, like it or not, will always be holy for three reasons.”

First: “Jesus Christ is the author of holiness and he is the head of the Church. … Jesus is the Church with all of us. The holiness of Jesus fills the whole Church.”

Second: “The Church is the only institution in the world that possesses all the means of sanctification left by Christ for his Church to sanctify its members and to make them holy.”

Third: “There are many, many holy people in the Church, both in heaven and here on earth.”

Holiness…is the only thing that will get our Church through this crisis. It’s a transformation that we all need.”

Slain STEM School shooting hero Kendrick Castillo is an example of a holy, young Catholic, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“He gave his life for his classmates. If this is not holiness, what is?” the bishop said about the 18-year-old who was killed May 7 when he tackled a teen shooter.

Servant of God Julia Greeley, a former slave known for her acts of charity and generosity from her own meager means to others in early Denver, and St. John Paul II, who in emphasizing the universal call to holiness of all Christians beatified and canonized more people than the combined total of his predecessors in the five centuries before him, were among others Bishop Rodriguez mentioned who comprise “the great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) of those believers who have preceded us into God’s kingdom. Additionally, there are countless “next-door saints,” he said, using a term coined by Pope Francis to describe those unknowns of heroic virtue among our family, friends and neighbors.

Rodriguez said, because the Scriptures say, Christ so loved the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy (Eph 5:25-26).

“‘The Church is holy because it proceeds from God, who is holy,’” the bishop said, quoting Pope Francis’ Oct. 2, 2013, general audience address. “’It is not holy by our merits; we are not able to make her holy. It is God, the Holy Spirit, who in his love makes the Church holy.’

“The Catholic Church is and will be holy, even though some of her members still need repentance and conversion,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Great sinners don’t make our Church unholy, but make the Church a factory of saints, where sinners are made holy by the power of God.”

Holiness is our deepest longing because we were created to be holy, the bishop said. But the only way to realize that call is to submit to God and allow him to transform us, he said, using the scriptural analogy of clay taking shape in a potter’s hands.

“We cannot deserve, produce, gain, create, or make holiness,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Only God in his gratuitousness and infinite love can make a saint of you. … Holiness is pure gift, is grace.”

Catholics believe holiness is real — that grace received through the sacraments, prayer and reading Scripture, infuses and transforms the believer into a new creation, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“Salvation is real,” the bishop said. “Pope Francis [warns] about a heresy that has been in the Church since apostolic times under different appearances — Gnosticism. It is a doctrine of salvation by knowledge, reducing Christianity to doctrine [or] text, to something intellectual.”

In doing so, Gnosticism loses the flesh of the incarnation and reduces Jesus to his message, Bishop Rodriguez said. Likewise, Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, a major figure of 20th-century biblical studies and liberal Christianity, promoted “demythologizing” the Gospel to attract modern adherents.

As a result, “people lost faith that these things really happened,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “[Bultmann] did tremendous damage to Christianity.”

The Apostles, however, insisted on the truth of Jesus’ incarnational reality, the bishop said, noting the First Letter of St. John proclaims: What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands, concerns the Word of life — for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you.

Great sinners don’t make our Church unholy, but make the Church a factory of saints, where sinners are made holy by the power of God.”

“Our Christian faith is not a body of doctrines, not a code of conduct, not an ethical idea, not an elaborated ritual,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “It is not even a community. It is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. It is an event. It is a person. It is an event that happens. In the Gospel everything begins with an encounter with Jesus. Have we encountered Jesus?”

Jesus may be encountered through prayer, Scripture and the sacraments, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“These are three gifts God has given to us to open us to holiness,” he said. “These are the Catholic ways to have a personal encounter with Jesus that is real.”

Regarding prayer: “The best way to start is to become aware of Jesus presence. … prayer [then] becomes a personal encounter, otherwise it’s an intellectual exercise.”

Regarding Scripture: “It’s not about information … it’s about God telling his love for me.”

Regarding sacraments: “The sacramental life is God touching me with his holiness.

“In the Catholic Church we believe that Jesus Christ didn’t want us to only have a recorded memory of him as in the Scriptures, but a living presence among us. He said: ‘I will be with you until the end of time.’”

I dare you to allow God to make a great saint of you.”

Just as Jesus was present with the people of Galilee healing and forgiving them, so he is present with us today through the sacraments, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“That’s why he instituted the sacraments. Each sacrament is a merciful and sweet touch of Jesus in our lives,” the bishop said. “This is what we mean when we say he makes us holy through the sacraments.”

So why isn’t there more holiness in our lives and more saints in the Church?

“God wants to work with our clay … but to make a saint is a question of love,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Love cannot be imposed, it cannot be mandated.”

Rather, one must cooperate with God’s grace to become the saint God desires.

“Last March, Pope Francis wrote an apostolic exhortation on our call to be holy, Rejoice and Be Glad,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “His thesis is that we have been made for happiness, and true happiness and joy only comes from a holy life.”

Holiness doesn’t mean perfection, performing miracles or that we are not tempted, Bishop Rodriguez said. Rather, it means loving God and one’s neighbor by doing the everyday tasks of life with love.

The answer for times of persecution and crisis in the Church has always been the holiness of the people of God, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“I dare you to allow God to make a great saint of you,” he challenged.

“This is our response to the Church crisis today: holy Catholic men and women,” he asserted. “We will never give up and we will fight against discouragement and loss of hope. Jesus is with us as he promised.”

Featured image by Roxanne King