by Katie Peterson
Special to The Leaven
WAMEGO — Sixteen-year-old Jocelyn Stewart spent years arguing with her friend Katie Zachgo about religion.
Baptized Lutheran, she had long since abandoned the practice of any faith.
But Zachgo, also 16, was an active member of the Catholic Church — which represented everything Stewart was arguing against.
“I used to be really agnostic . . . and used to be very, very against religion,” Stewart said. “We would probably argue . . . daily about it.”
But things began to change when Stewart met challenging times.
“I was going through a really rough time. I had and still have a lot of mental health issues, but I had a lot of big life events happen all at once and most of them were negative,” Stewart said. “I didn’t really know what to do. I didn’t really know where I was in life or where I was going, and I was really hopeless, honestly.”
That’s when Zachgo stepped in, Stewart said.
“She said when she was going through rough times, she would pray, or she would go to church, or she would try and get in better touch with her faith,” Stewart said. “So, I started going to youth group with her, which eventually, once I was comfortable with it, progressed into me going to church with her.”
Seven months later, Stewart officially converted to Catholicism at a special Mass on July 17 at St. Bernard Church in Wamego.
Zachgo served as her sponsor.
“At the end of the youth group era, when we started going to church together, I felt very proud of her that she made it that far, and she was taking that leap of faith,” Zachgo said. “When she asked me to be her sponsor, it was a very surreal moment.”
As Stewart continued to prepare to join the church, she and Zachgo regularly met with Deacon Jody Madden, director of faith formation at St. Bernard.
“Jocelyn was eager to learn and genuinely looked excited to be hearing the teachings of the church as well as the practical lessons we had on things like prayer,” Madden said.
“I think the lion’s share of the work of her conversion was done before she started meeting with me,” he added.
“All I did in this process was fan those flames. I provided the explanation as to what we believe and why we believed that,” he continued. “I think the real work of her conversion was the friendship that she and Katie had. From what I’ve been told, they had lots of deep conversations and freely disagreed with each other at times.
“However, when two people aren’t arguing to be right, but rather for the truth, the odds of finding the truth are much greater. In their case, it looked like the truth of the faith won out.”
But not long after Stewart made the decision to officially join the church, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Masses, including the Easter Vigil, were canceled.
While Stewart and Zachgo both said it was disappointing, they agreed the extra time was a blessing.
“After it all got pushed back, I was a little relieved just because I felt like, spiritually, yes, I was ready to make that decision, but I don’t know if I was prepared,” Stewart said. “To have that extra time to ask more questions, to get more information and to really ask myself if this was really something I wanted to do — it was a blessing.”
“It gave us time to get . . . more knowledge about the church,” Zachgo added.
When the day finally came, the wait was worth it.
“For me, finally,” said Stewart, “that assurance that I was experiencing my faith the same way that all the other people around me are . . . was a huge, huge deal for me because I was finally able to say that nobody can doubt me anymore.”
“The most memorable part . . . was probably receiving the Body and Blood,” she said. “That’s something I’ll probably remember for the rest of my life.”
Now, Stewart said she hopes her faith will always remain strong.
“I know that a lot of people who convert end up falling away,” Stewart said, “and, as sad as that is, in today’s society, I know that it’s very easy to put it on the side burner and start focusing on other things that you deem more important.
“I just really hope that I’m able to keep [faith] as one of my priorities, just because I don’t want to be one of those people who lets such a strong relationship go.”