Story by Don Clemmer
The descent of a plague might deter some people contemplating a major life decision such as switching to another Christian denomination, but that’s not how Traci Cornett and Ashley Wettstain, who both attended the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults through the Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington, Kentucky, characterize the role of the pandemic in their move to Catholicism.
Rather than some ominous sign, both women found themselves with time and space they hadn’t had before.
“The pandemic was kind of instrumental because everything stopped,” said Cornett, a mental health nurse practitioner and mother of three. “There was just time to think about things and the ability to distance yourself a little bit.”
This distance included from her previous nondenominational church, allowing her to discern a change that began when her middle daughter — then 16 — went to the March for Life in 2018, was impressed with the Catholics she met on the trip and, after much study and discernment, wanted to join RCIA. Cornett agreed but wanted to sit in and hear what was being taught.
“There was so much of it I agreed with,” she said, noting that she found agreement in areas including God, salvation and even much of the church. This led to a realization: “Everything I knew about Catholicism in the past was taught to me by Protestants who didn’t understand Catholicism at all,” she said.
Cornett and her youngest daughter entered RCIA together in May of 2020 and were confirmed Nov. 1. Her husband, Alan, joined RCIA later in 2020 and was confirmed Jan. 17. And Cornett insists that having four-fifths of her family going Catholic in a short time is not the most unusual part of her change.
“I don’t know what a real Mass is like!” she said. “I didn’t experience Mass pre-COVID.” But at least, when wearing a mask, nobody can see you don’t know the responses.
Wettstain, a dental student at the University of Kentucky, agrees that quarantine was “God’s timing for sure.” She was dating and attending Mass at the UK Newman Center with a Catholic medical student, and in lockdown she helped pass the time by watching YouTube videos of a woman’s testimonial of her switch from a Protestant tradition to Catholicism.
Now in RCIA at the cathedral with her boyfriend’s mother as her sponsor, Wettstain has heard other candidates begin their story, “With this pandemic and not being busy …”
An almost entirely virtual RCIA experience has not deterred Wettstain, who praises the cathedral staff for offering a dynamic program, complete with breakout discussions and guest speakers.
Deacon Tim Weinmann, the cathedral’s director of faith formation, expressed his gratitude for the availability of technology that allowed the cathedral to make the jump quickly, allowing catechumens and candidates to remain connected and engaged.
Some have even told him the pandemic influenced them in their decision to seek out the Catholic Church.
“They saw a stability and strength that has stood strong for 2,000 years, and it made them curious to know more,” said Deacon Weinmann.
“I really admire the people coming through the RCIA process, especially right now. We as a RCIA team learn so much from them, and they strengthened our faith every week,” said Kathy Meikel, an RCIA team member at Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary, a large and diverse parish in Lexington.
“I learned to never give up and to keep chipping away. God’s word and God’s love and mercy are meant to be shared especially with our world in such a shambles.”
Across the diocese, over 150 miles from Lexington itself, Father Rob Adams initially saw his own efforts at virtual RCIA as “making the best of the situation, both of the world during a global pandemic and the general situation in Appalachia.”
Pastor of St. George in Jenkins and St. Francis of Assisi in Pikeville, two small parishes near the Kentucky-Virginia line, the young priest’s Facebook Live sessions have found a wider audience than RCIA, not only with his parishioners but around the world.
“I have been surprised how many non-Catholics or inactive Catholics watch the sessions,” Father Adams said. “God only knows what will come of that.”
While he sees the benefits of a format that allows people to learn at home on their own time, he’s hesitant to say whether this is useful moving forward or merely a stop-gap mechanism.
But, he added, the ability to reach to people, especially on the peripheries, is undeniable: “I have one parishioner in Jenkins who lives very far in the mountains. She is disabled and has not been able to come to church for a long time, but she watches RCIA every week.”