After losing his father, Isaac Johnson's search for meaning and form culminates in decision to join Catholic Church at Easter

Editor's note: This story is the first in a series on new Catholics who entered the Catholic Church at Easter. New articles in the series will run every Friday throughout the Easter season.

HILLSDALE — When Hillsdale College junior Isaac Johnson first attended a Mass, he figured it would be a one-time occurrence — a favor to his roommate.

More than a year later, Johnson is one of 12 students from Hillsdale who joined the Catholic Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults this Easter at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Hillsdale.

Every Easter in recent memory, two dozen or so people have joined the Church through RCIA at St. Anthony. At least half of the group each year are undergraduate and graduate students from Hillsdale College — a phenomenon that has not gone unnoticed and one that many say is due to the college’s unique collegial and intellectual atmosphere.

A long journey

Johnson’s older siblings both attended Hillsdale, and his brother converted to Catholicism some years ago.

Johnson was raised in a large, nondenominational Protestant church in Lansing, but was baptized as an infant at a Presbyterian church, because his father insisted on it, Johnson said. Once he came to Hillsdale, he hopped from church to church during his freshman year.

In a pursuit of greater form and liturgy, he moved from church to church, including a Lutheran and, eventually, Anglican parish.

What he thought would be one visit to Mass led to an entire year of attendance at St. Anthony and, eventually, the decision to go through RCIA. As that process was beginning, a life-changing event occurred.

“His death happened far too soon, but my dad has always raised me to be a man of faith who tests himself and knows that a life of faith is always a wrestling,” Johnson said. “He raised us in a way that even though this is not what he would have expected for us, it is a confirmation and an honoring of him to be wrestling with our faith and reaching this culmination of it.”

In October 2018, Johnson’s father died. While his grief was strong, Johnson said he was able to have a hopeful conversation with his father about faith before he died.  

“The last conversation I had with him was letting him know I’m going through RCIA, and he gave his blessing, even though it was a hard conversation, and I never saw him again after that,” he said.

Johnson credits St. Anthony’s pastor, Fr. David Reamsnyder, and his sponsor, Hillsdale English professor Dwight Lindley, with helping him through such a difficult time.

He said while he lost his earthly father, through RCIA his has been able to depend on other father figures and grow closer to his heavenly Father. The Catholic Church’s understanding of praying in communion with the dead has also given him comfort.

Johnson does not feel he lost a connection to his father because of his decision to join the Church, he said.

“His death happened far too soon, but my dad has always raised me to be a man of faith who tests himself and knows that a life of faith is always a wrestling,” Johnson said. “He raised us in a way that even though this is not what he would have expected for us, it is a confirmation and an honoring of him to be wrestling with our faith and reaching this culmination of it.”

The environment for conversion

Visitors to St. Anthony are often surprised to hear how many people, particularly college students, join the Church each year. Johnson and his sponsor, Lindley, agree that much of the reason for this is the welcoming, friendly atmosphere that Catholic students, professors and staff members create on campus.

Isaac Johnson, center, chats with fellow Catholic Society members at “The Grotto,” an off-campus house owned by St. Anthony Parish and used as a hub for Hillsdale College's Catholic student ministry.

Johnson said the Catholic Society, the campus’ Catholic student ministry, was influential in his decision. He often attends evening gatherings where students pray the rosary. He is also a member of a men’s small group. Many of the Catholic Society’s events are run out of “The Grotto,” an off-campus house owned by St. Anthony and used as the hub for Catholic student ministry.

Lindley said he thinks conversion often happens because of true friendships, which are plentiful at Hillsdale College.

“The Catholic students, faculty, staff and families that are in this community tend to have pretty vibrant faith lives, and they’re not uncomfortable talking about it, which is not the way all parishes are,” Lindley said. “Because we’re not uncomfortable talking about it, it just comes up in our relationships with our friends. It [conversion] feels a lot more like a real option because of that — because the people who are in the church take it seriously and talk about it.”

“Because of the living faith in the people here, which is heartfelt and intelligent, it just comes up a lot in the context of friendship,” Lindley added.

Johnson said another aspect of his life at Hillsdale that contributed to his conversion was the search for “form” in connection with meaning.

In high school, he said, he often was assigned reading from early Church fathers, but those readings felt disconnected from what he knew about Christianity as a nondenominational Protestant.  

At Hillsdale, he was introduced to more foundational texts that inspired him to seek a structure and form for his faith.

Johnson said he was particularly drawn to the writings of Blessed John Henry Newman, whom he has taken as his confirmation saint.

“It’s not because I want to have structure for the sake of structure,” Johnson said. “It’s that harmony between art, literature, architecture — they culminate in the Catholic Church. As someone who studies the humanities, that, on a personal level, was extremely attractive.”

While attending an Anglican church, Johnson said he finally found the beautiful form of a worship service he was looking for, but then realized something was missing: the Eucharist.

He went from looking for liturgy to looking for what the liturgy is actually about — the Real Presence, he said.

Johnson agreed with Lindley that the deep friendships cultivated at Hillsdale lend themselves to conversion.

Catholic Society members at Hillsdale College pray during a meeting at “The Grotto.” 

“You have these friendships (with students and faculty), and you’re able to see what a Catholic intellectual life looks like,” Johnson said. “For many of us who want to go into an intellectual life, we’re seeing that lived in action and faith.”

Johnson hopes to earn a Ph.D. and teach literature someday.

A blessing every year

Megan Bowser, who helps coordinate RCIA efforts at St. Anthony, said she loves being a part of the conversion journey of those joining the Church each year.

“The best part of my role is that it allows me to see and participate in the journey of souls to Christ so that, as St. Mary Magdalene expressed, they can say, ‘I have seen the face of the Lord,’” she told Detroit Catholic via email.

Bowser was baptized Catholic but then fell away until she went through RCIA herself a few years ago.

“RCIA was an incredibly impactful experience, as it not only helped me understand the Catholic faith more fully, but it helped me understand and live the rhythm of its beautiful liturgical seasons,” Bowser said. “I love being Catholic, and I love helping others in their journey to the faith. As a convert myself, I count it as a blessing to be a part of this.”