He struggled with drugs as a 12-year-old. That led to other bad choices for Duane Dodds over the years.
“Well, I’m going to hell for that one,” Dodds recalled saying throughout his youth. For years and largely until he started Rite of Christian Initiation classes at St. Mary Parish in Kingman, he said he really didn’t want to know what he was doing wrong.
“Now I’ve seen in my own heart what those things can do, even if it’s just my own heart,” Dodds said. And as far as the jokes he once told, now it’s “Why did I do that? What did I even think to do that?”
Dodds was one of seven at St. Mary’s and among the 2,000 candidates and catechumens across the Diocese of Phoenix who entered into full communion with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil March 30. It capped a months-long formation and discernment process at local parishes.
“Tonight, the Church celebrates a victory of love over sin and despair,” Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said during the Easter Vigil at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral. He baptized 35 new Catholics, confirming 67 total.
“Easter trumpets the Good News that nothing is impossible with God,” the bishop said, noting that the risen Christ defeats all darkness.
“Dying with Christ awakens a joy within us,” the bishop said, “The Good News is that we ask for this death because we know it leads to true life.”
Minutes after their baptism and confirmation, these new Catholics encountered the source and summit of the faith: the Eucharist. They came to the Lord’s table with a deep understanding of Church teaching and passion for living it out and sharing it.
“If I went to class every week for the rest of my life I wouldn’t learn enough,” Dodds said. Despite his often grueling work schedule, Dodds said he “never, never” wants to fall asleep in RCIA class.
His vigor came almost by accident. His wife, Cynthia, was going through formation classes last year and his full-time work in the copper mine and his on-call work with the fire department left the couple little time together. He came to class largely to be with her.
Dodds found himself in Catholic and Lutheran communities as a child. In adulthood, he long thought belonging to a church would be healthy for the family. The couple tried local churches including one that celebrates the Southern Baptist faith. Nothing clicked.
Cynthia worshipped in an Assembly of God congregation growing up, but stopped going as a teenager when her grandmother no longer drove. Years later, she remembered watching the film, “The Trouble with Angels.”
“Every time I saw something about the Catholic Church, I just loved it,” Cynthia said.
She ultimately ended up at Mass with her mother because of an invitation from a neighbor. Even though she didn’t understand everything that was going on, she said, “You felt Jesus was actually there.”
She remembers stepping foot inside the parish office at St. Mary several years ago.
“Everyone was just happy. It didn’t matter what we had done in our lives, they saw the end result,” Cynthia said.
Several months ago, Dodds was finally able to say, “OK, I’m ready.”
The three catechumens and four candidates who entered into full communion with the Church at the All Saints Catholic Newman Center in Tempe were equally eager to embrace the faith.
“They came to me already convinced that Jesus is God,” said Sr. Mary Eileen Jewell, PVMI.
She, too, had stories about the liturgy’s reverence and beauty speaking to the hearts of young adults.
“They’re really drawn to our Mass, which is a really great thing,” she said.
The Holy Spirit also worked through the Newman Center’s Fellowship of Catholic University Students. They played a role in this year’s converts through Bible studies and personal witness. Interest in the Church for one young man began during a Theology on Tap night with Bishop Olmsted.
“There are a lot of people really hungry for God right now,” Sr. Mary Eileen said.
Stephen Gallegos was one of them. He knew a little about Jesus, but not the origins of the Church.
By college, Gallegos had a friend involved at the Newman Center and reached out to him about a year-and-a-half ago. Gallegos learned about prayer and spirituality during last year’s undergrad retreat and other Church teachings through RCIA.
Gallegos was the first one to be baptized in the Newman Center’s new church and said he felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. He received the sacrament of confirmation later that night.
“I got a feeling of perfection,” Gallegos said after the Easter Vigil.
He once struggled with the problem of evil and blamed God for not intervening to change some circumstances.
“I didn’t understand that there was love and evil. You can’t really experience one side without the other being present,” Gallegos said.
He also gained a greater understanding of free will during formation and began to read St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae.
Dodds at St. Mary still grapples at times with free will. His oldest daughter asked about 15 years ago if the family could go to church. He wasn’t ready for a change then so they never went.
Now, as an adult, it’s hard for his daughter to embrace the thought, but Dodds briefly shares aspects of the faith with her so she can digest them. He continues to pray for her conversion.
His example has converted the hearts of those at his workplace, however. Dodds said at least a handful of people randomly approached him while he was in formation.
“They tell me that I make them think about their own actions for no other reason than they see me pray before I eat,” Dodds said.
A few started to pray more regularly. What’s more, the same group of people he used to joke around with, sometimes in a derogatory manner, are the very ones who now say, “Everyone wait, he’s praying,” at lunchtime.
Sarah Curtis, Dodds’ classmate at St. Mary, long felt a pull toward the Catholic Church. She learned about the crucifix and charity from her great-grandmother. She found a picture of a praying monk in her room “a very peaceful image,” and the occasional Christmas Masses she attended were profound experiences.
“Suddenly, I didn’t feel alone. It wasn’t about the people. In myself, I didn’t feel alone anymore,” she said. That sentiment had prevailed since her great-grandmother died when Curtis was 9.
At Mass, she felt complete. When she found out that there was no upper-age limit for fully entering the sacramental life of the Church, she jumped at the chance.
Curtis once studied world religions and respected that the Catholic Church addresses belief in the presence of good and evil.
“There’s no other religion that asks you those questions. It’s black and white. There’s nothing in the middle,” Curtis said. “No one goes completely basic and said, ‘Draw your line in the sand. Take your side and stand firm.’”
She called the Catholic faith her shield and foundation, said formation gave her marriage deeper meaning and said it inspired her husband, a cradle Catholic, to take RCIA classes for enrichment.
“It’s been such a blessing to realize this is where I belong,” Curtis said. “There’s nothing worse than feeling alone. To finally be free of that… [To know] there’s a presence there that will always be with me, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
J.D. Long-García contributed to this story.