A candidate’s journey into the church 

By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator   

“It is time.”  

 

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Pictured before Bishop Michael G. Duca during the Rite of Election at St. Joseph Cathedral on March 1 are the unbaptized catechumens from the Diocese of Baton Rouge who will enter the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil Masses through the RCIA program. Baptized candidates were also recognized. There will be 447 catechumens and candidates who will be entering the church in the diocese. Photo by Debbie Shelley | The Catholic Commentator

 

Stephen Hooge woke up with this thought April 25, 2019, the morning of his daughter, Savannah’s confirmation at St. Isidore Church in Baker.  

Thinking about the important step his daughter would take that night in being sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, he decided to make his own leap of faith by entering the Catholic Church.  

Hooge ran the gambit of attending different denominational churches. Baptized Lutheran, he was raised Baptist, and in middle school he met a good friend who attended a non-denominational church and started going there. 

But things changed when he attended Zachary High School and met his wife and high school sweetheart, Sarah, who was Catholic. The experience of attending Mass was a spiritual and cultural shock for him.  

“The entire Mass I was blown away because I had never seen anything like that,” mused Hooge. “Growing up I always thought church was praise and worship, the preacher gets up and reads from the Bible and puts his spin on whatever he’s talking about that day. It was never structured.  

“(When I first went to Mass) I thought ‘Is this church? Wow, it’s super quiet.’ ”  

But he was intrigued with the Christmas décor and beauty of the Christmas liturgy, the votive candles around the church and other things.  

The Hooges were both 18 when they married in the Catholic Church and their children were baptized and are being raised Catholic.  

Hooge attended St. Isidore with his family but if anyone asked him if he thought about becoming Catholic he casually said, “I thought about it” or if they told him they would answer any of his questions he simply replied, “Okay, thanks.” 

Emphasizing that the call of God himself was the strongest pull, he nonetheless had emotional tugs through the years.  

When the rest of his family went up to receive Communion he stayed behind in the pews. With misty eyes and a quivering voice, he noted that one Sunday after Communion, his son, Noah, who was just learning to talk, asked, “Why didn’t you go too?”  

He also admired the zeal that Monice “Mo” Oliphant, director of religious education, had in working with youth and how joyful his daughter and other St. Isidore youth had in serving on mission trips in Vacherie. The Hooges’ children also shared what they were learning in their parish school of religion classes, which was, in a way, an early formation experience for him. </span id=”13″>

Father Frank Bass, pastor of St. Isidore, was also inspirational in his homilies and the way he ministered to people.  

Hooge said he felt he was already a Catholic without actually being one.  

“It was like I was engaged to the Catholic Church for many years,” said Hooge, who was “slow footed” in making the commitment to full communion with the church. “It hit heavy on my heart. I didn’t know exactly when, but I knew it was coming.”  

On the morning of his daughter’s confirmation he knew it was time to make his move. He emailed Oliphant and asked her when RCIA classes started. She replied they would be starting in the fall and that she was thrilled.  

“It has been such a joy to watch Stephen on his journey to full communion in the Catholic Church. He is on fire,” said Oliphant. “His wonder and anticipation inspire us to not take the gifts of the church – the sacraments and our relationship with the dear Lord – for granted.” 

Hooge’s voice filled with emotion again when he talked about his family’s painful experience of Sarah’s father, Louis Mier Jr., passing away on Aug. 28. Having known his father-in-law since he was in his teens, he saw him as his “buddy” and “father.” 

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Stephen Hooge, back row right, with wife, Sarah, will enter the Catholic Church at St. Isidore Church in Baker at the Easter Vigil Mass April 11. Pictured with the Hooges at the confirmation of their daughter, Savannah, are their children, front row, from left, Jonathan, Savannah, Noah and Annabeth.</span id=”0″> Photo provided by Stephen Hooge  

 

Going through the grieving process, Hooge emailed Oliphant at the beginning of September with a “just checking in” email to see if he had missed any RCIA classes. She replied classes had not started yet and St. Isidore would help him with the classes.  

“It helped me in my healing,” said Hooge, who felt his father-in-law’s presence throughout the process.  

During the Rite of Election at a packed St. Joseph Cathedral on March 1, Hooge said he had a profound peace when he responded, “Here I am” when his name was announced.  

“My wife was next to me, and it was as if we were the only ones there,” said Hooge.

Yet he said he was amazed at the diversity of the people present and how the language easily flowed from English to Spanish to Vietnamese.  

“That really surprised me,” Hooge said. “To see all the different backgrounds and races, little kids, people in their 70s, people my age. Sarah said, ‘How cool that all throughout the world the same thing is going on’ (in the liturgy of the Mass).”  

Sarah Hooge said, “There really are no words to describe what Stephen joining the faith has done for my faith and for our family. We have been to the Catholic Church together for over 20 years.  I’ve always told myself that I would never ask Stephen to become Catholic, that it would be have to be something he is pulled to do. In fact, I did not even know he was joining the church until he told me that he had signed up for the classes. And things have been completely different since then.    

“He has always been our leader in so many ways but now he leads our family even more.  He has learned things about Catholicism that I didn’t know. I have asked him questions and he knew the answers.  We have open discussions about the church and our faith more than ever.  This experience has solidified our faith in God and our love for the church – as a couple and as a family.    

Hooge is “excited beyond words” that he will be receiving the Eucharist at the Easter Vigil Mass. He further hopes to mentor others who will want to come into the church and become active in its ministries. He said men of the parish would ask him if he wanted to join the Knights of Columbus and he would have to tell them, “I’m not Catholic.” But the most recent time a man asked, he smiled and said, “Soon, buddy, soon.”  

“I’ve never felt more alive,” said Hooge.