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 | By Mary D. Dillard

To Know and to Love

A Heart Forever Changed

I took a step back and thought, ‘I finally know what God wants me to do … He wants me to become a Catholic,’” remembers Johnna Hawkins, a senior at John Carroll Catholic High School in Birmingham. Her revelation wasn’t one taken lightly, nor one that happened overnight.

Hawkins’ parents were always adamant about her attending a private school, knowing the benefits of a faith-based curriculum and environment. After attending a Baptist elementary school, Hawkins followed her best friend to St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Birmingham, where she started her sixth-grade year. She does confess to being “upset” about uniforms, but that didn’t last long. Something else caught her attention: the Eucharist. “I remember being so confused about Communion,” admits Hawkins. “At the Baptist church, we would get grape juice and a piece of bread. It never was as important as in the Catholic Church.”

Attending Mass as part of her regular school schedule allowed a seed to be planted: the idea of “walking up to receive God.”

Week after week, the seed of faith was cultivated. Hawkins would go on to spend her eighth-grade year at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School in Homewood. Her involvement in Toy Bowl and other school functions as well as the friendships she forged helped to make John Carroll Catholic the natural next step. 

As a freshman, she was familiar with the topics being discussed in her theology class. “I knew a lot of it because I had been to Catholic school before, but,” she confesses, “I never actually applied it to my life.”

One day in class, she was completing an assignment which involved reading about Protestantism. “We had to read these articles, and it explained how Protestants believe the Eucharist is a symbol; that it isn’t actually God,” Hawkins recalls. Even though it would have been easy to dismiss the task as a simple requirement for a grade, she decided to take a look at her own beliefs. It was then that she concluded that she was a baptized Protestant who didn’t believe the Eucharist was just some symbol. “It was like this realization that maybe my beliefs didn’t line up anymore with the Protestant faith.”

Her realization helped her open her heart and “get serious” about her faith. She got involved in campus ministry with Abby King, John Carroll Catholic’s campus minister, at the helm. As a result of her experience with the ministry, during her junior year, she became involved with leading retreats for underclassmen. 

On one retreat in particular, Metanoia, freshmen and sophomores have the opportunity to share their faith. The honest testimony had a major effect on Hawkins. “Just talking with them and hearing their experiences with their faith helped me take a step back,” says Hawkins. Taking that step back allowed her heart to be changed.

She went to Father Jonathan Howell, the chaplain at John Carroll Catholic, and “bawled” her eyes out. It was then she felt she knew what God’s plan was for her.

The next school day, Hawkins went to King and exclaimed, “I want to become Catholic. How do I make this happen?”  

Father Howell had been wanting to offer the sacraments at the school, so he, King, and Sister Mary Patrick Connor, one of John Carroll Catholic’s theology teachers, worked together to organize RCIA instruction at the school. “Some people feel uncomfortable with the fact that we allow high school students to join the Church,” Father Howell explains. “There is an assumption that we are proselytizing them, but it is simply the result of them growing and developing the Christian faith that they already have.” 

Regarding Hawkins, the chaplain was able to see the already present love she had for Jesus, which she attributes to her Baptist roots. “Becoming Catholic,” Father Howell says, “is not a rejection of the foundation that our Protestant brothers and sisters have begun; rather, it is a completion of it.”

In her efforts to complete her foundation, once a week during her lunch period, Hawkins joined several classmates for RCIA class. After months of instruction, on the morning of May 5, Hawkins and nine of her classmates walked through the doors of John Carroll Catholic prepared to receive the sacrament of confirmation. 

Looking back at the morning, Hawkins smiles and sheepishly recalls, “I remember it so vividly. We were about to process in, and one of my friends, Thornton, was the altar server. He was the cross bearer, and I was the first in line behind the cross. I remember thinking, ‘This is the beginning of me walking with Christ.’”

As Father Bob Sullivan, president of John Carroll Catholic, anointed Hawkins with sacred chrism, she glanced over at her mother, a non-Catholic, and saw her in tears. “My mother never cries,” says Hawkins, “but when I saw her crying, I started crying and it all just felt so right.”

Having the entire student body present for the sacrament left its mark. At the beginning of this school year, the students involved with campus ministry attended a day of recollection at Casa Maria Convent and Retreat House in Irondale run by the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word. Sister Mary Patrick’s group was discussing the Eucharist and how to make it tangible in daily life when a student offered an example. The student began explaining how watching students receive the sacrament of confirmation and some receive the Blessed Sacrament for the very first time was something she would never forget. Remembering Hawkins, the student said, “I just watched her. She was so joyful.” 

For Sister Mary Patrick, Hawkins’ joy is more than a personality trait. “It’s actually like a virtue that she possesses,” Sister reveals. “Obviously, the Lord has had His hand on her because she has suffered difficulties, like many of us have, but she just has kept that joy. ... She’s got a virtue of faith and joy that is very evident, and others in the school have noticed it.”

As Hawkins’ freshman theology teacher, Sister Mary Patrick was one of the first to notice. She confesses to thinking, “She’s going to be Catholic one day.” Of course, she never anticipated it being so soon, but the sister credits several elements. Primarily, she credits Hawkins’ parents who, even though not Catholic, supported their daughter on her faith journey. Sister Mary Patrick also credits Hawkins’ formation in both her Baptist and Catholic schools.

Most certainly, Hawkins is a testament to the goodness of Catholic education. “I feel a part of something,” explains Hawkins, “and that makes a huge difference. ... Like with Ms. King and Sister Mary Patrick, and even my coaches, I know that they love me and they care for me. They have my best interest at heart. I truly do believe that.”

The care and love Hawkins has experienced stems from the reality that Catholic education is rooted in Christ. “If our seniors have amazing ACT scores and are great athletes or performers but do not know Jesus,” says Father Howell, “then we have failed them. Our number one priority is to bring our young people to know and love Jesus, and Johnna is a prime example of what Catholic schools are trying to achieve.”