The Easter Vigil at the Cathedral of the Incarnation on Saturday, April 8, was a huge celebration for the University Catholic community at Vanderbilt and Belmont Universities as four students were initiated, and four students were brought into full communion with the Catholic Church.
“It is a great work of the Holy Spirit and a witness to the fact that people are hungry and not satisfied with the lies of the world,” said Father Rhodes Bolster, chaplain of University Catholic. “It’s people seeing the real truth of the Church and the truth of Catholicism,” he continued.
Father Bolster noted that part of the journey for some included volunteering for organizations such as the Heart of Mary House on the St. Edward Church campus. “The more they were exposed to the fullness and richness of the Church’s life, the more they fell in love with her,” he said. “It’s just really beautiful.”
Four students from Vanderbilt University were fully initiated into the Church as catechumens – Gabriel Barnard, Arthur Hahn, Landon Morales, and Andrew Draper. Each of their journeys to this point were unique, but no less inspired.
Hahn’s journey has taken several years to come into fruition. Even though he attended a Catholic high school, he said he was “largely atheist/agnostic throughout,” but then in his sophomore year, he noticed the verse John 3:16 on a sign.
“This was during what I would probably describe as my ‘hopeful agnostic’ years. I acknowledge that this very likely was just a strange visual illusion, but nevertheless, it was a very peculiar and impactful moment for me,” Hahn said.
Two years later, in 2019, he said he was at Mass when “I experienced a sudden and overwhelming feeling of love. If not surrounded by my 17-year-old male friends, I would have begun crying,” he admitted. “Up until this point, I had placed an enormous amount of weight on rationality and what my 17-year-old self-deemed overwhelming intellect.
“Looking back, I now believe that the largest factor hindering my conversion was my intellectual pride. After the experience, however, I felt that there was more to this world than the material and that it is not rational to insist on man to be able to rationally understand all things,” Hahn said. “From this moment forward, I viewed Christianity in a different light, but still, for whatever reason, dragged my feet.”
As he came to Vanderbilt, where he is now a rising senior double majoring in philosophy and economics with a minor in German studies, he said he was walking with a friend his freshman year when the topic of religion came up.
“I was asked where I was religiously. Despite my previous experiences, I answered that I was a ‘hopeful agnostic.’ Not five seconds later, I was hit by an SUV at 20 mph and was flung several feet in the air,” Hahn explained. “Completely bewildered, I got up without any serious injuries.
“As with the first two points, I acknowledge that this could be pure coincidence, but it would be awfully silly of me not to take such a painful hint at least somewhat seriously,” he said.
Finally, in his sophomore year at Vanderbilt, he said he was studying the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, which “introduced me to a radically new way of viewing the world, not just physically, but also metaphorically.”
Thus, he said, his conversion was not a single moment, but “if one thing had to take responsibility, it would have to be the Holy Spirit.”
Morales, who is a freshman at Vanderbilt, studying computer and political sciences, said his journey to the Catholic Church began with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was raised in a secular household. I was never baptized and, prior to coming to Vanderbilt, had never been to church,” Morales explained. “One day, while stuck inside my house during the COVID lockdown, I made the decision to read every page of the Bible, front to back.
“This was the first time I had ever opened a Bible, and it was the beginning of my religious journey,” he said. “It was not an instant transformation, but by my senior year of high school, I knew that I wanted to become a baptized Catholic.
“University Catholic has been vital in my entrance into the Catholic Church,” he added. “I have had the privilege to learn more about the faith and meet many wonderful people, including Father Bolster.”
Draper also credits University Catholic for being a large part of his conversion. Having been raised in an Assembly of God Church in rural Texas, he said his religious upbringing didn’t have a lot of formality.
“I had a severe deficiency of the beauty that should be inherent in the Christian faith. In attending Mass with Landon (Morales) for the first time, I had a bit of a sensory overload. While it was a fair bit intimidating, it was also incredibly beautiful,” Draper explained. “My awe of the Mass grew from week to week as I attended each Sunday night Mass celebrated by Father Bolster.
“In addition to the beauty of the Mass, I found serene beauty in things ranging from the photos of the Blessed Virgin all over the walls of the Frassati House to the little things such as the phrase ‘celebrating a Mass’ rather than ‘going to church,’” he continued.
Then, when he went home for Christmas break in December, the desire to convert was still just “a slight twinge” until he returned to Vanderbilt and attended Mass again after being away for a month.
“I was met with the feeling one has when reuniting with a good friend. I knew from that point, the beauty was more than just an ephemeral perception I had from a life deprived of beauty,” Draper said. “I knew instead that the beauty was something I craved and at that point decided to convert,” as he also noted that his journey included several theological debates with himself.
“My conversion was much more convoluted than just this. Were it not for the UCat community, I don’t believe I would have gotten to the point to be swayed into my baptism,” he admitted. “In the most genuine sense, I have never met a kinder, more hospitable community than the community at UCat.
“From my incredibly kind peers to the wonderful FOCUS missionaries and staff to the spiritual guidance of Father Bolster, I was surrounded by a community perfect for personal and religious growth,” Draper concluded. “I couldn’t be more thankful to have met each and every person I met through UCat.”
As the big day came for them to receive the sacraments, the students experienced a wide range of emotions.
“This year’s Easter Vigil was the most beautiful liturgy I’ve ever seen. My first communion was probably the most significant moment of the night for me. What drove me to Catholicism in the first place was the nihilistic dread I held towards death,” Hahn said. “Throughout my adolescence, I really did not understand what the purpose of building up a life was, only for it to all be swept away by death.
“With this in mind, Saturday’s vigil is really what my life for the last 20 years has been aiming towards,” he said. “Now that I have the chance of eternal life through Christ, I see everything in a different light.”
Draper said his baptism left him feeling rejuvenated and ecstatic.
“As I stood there, I had a rush of emotions. I was incredibly sad in thinking of all of my family members who wouldn’t get to be there with me or even be there for me to call and tell them about it, but I was incredibly happy to join the Church alongside my friends and join in full communion with the Lord,” Draper said. “Before I went, I anticipated the sadness I would feel, but I didn’t expect it to be so fleeting. Past that short moment of sadness, I was filled with great joy for the rest of the service.
“One thing that especially touched me was witnessing others receiving their sacraments,” he added. “Call me a stickler for community, but I truly feel a special connection to those who received the sacraments alongside me that night. Maybe it’s my small-town heritage showing, but I have a bit of a dependence on community, and the Church provides me with just that.
“Besides that, though,” he concluded, “the highlight was definitely the washing away of a lifetime of sin and corruption and the spiritual high I felt the rest of the night.”
Now, as some of the newest Catholics in the world, the students agree that it’s their responsibility to be an example to others.
“I hope to serve as an example that anyone, even those who are completely disconnected from the faith, can be welcomed with open arms by the Church and by Jesus Christ,” Morales said.
“I aspire to be an example of a positive Catholic male role model that the kids growing up in this corrupted world can look up to,” Draper added, to which Hahn agreed.
“Now that I have been fully received into the Church and look back on my journey, I feel like I have a responsibility to help those around me who might be in my shoes. We live in an incredibly secular, empirical world,” Hahn said. “This makes it very difficult for people to get over the mental hump between them and God. I hope that I can serve as an example for these types of people to consider religion, with particular attention to Catholicism, in a different, more compelling light.”
Along with the four catechumens, four University Catholic students were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Vanderbilt students Rebecca Grunkemeyer and Elden Parker, who were baptized in another Christian Church, received full communion into the Catholic Church, and Belmont students Katie Funk and Alex Sherman, who have been baptized Catholic, received their Confirmation.
The eight University Catholic students came together with the Cathedral catechumens and candidates who also received the sacraments, which included six adult baptisms and one infant baptism, seven candidates for full communion, four confirmations, and one child’s first Communion.