By Perry West
At Easter, Jessica Rider entered the Church through an avenue with which most Catholics are unfamiliar – she became a member of the Ruthenian Catholic Church.
Rider, 33, was welcomed into St Melany’s Byzantine Catholic Church in Tucson, Arizona at Easter. She described the experience as both intimate and engaging.
“It set a fire in me when I became a part of the Byzantine church. I never experienced so much longing to want to know as much as I possibly can,” she told CNA.
“I fell in love with Jesus Christ when I went to the Byzantine church.”
Some background: Most people think of the Catholic Church as a singular structure and institution. The reality is a little more complicated. The universal Catholic Church is actually a union of 24 different Churches, each of which is in communion with one another and with the pope, who is the visible head of the Church. The largest of those 24 Churches is the Latin Catholic Church, which has more than 1 billion members. The other Churches are much smaller; the second largest, the Ukranian Greek Catholic Church, has 4.4 million members.
The Ruthenian Catholic Church, the one Rider encountered in Arizona, has almost 500,000 members. It is sometimes referred to as the Byzantine Catholic Church, although that term can also be used to describe some of the other Churches in the Catholic communion.
Rider didn’t know most of that when she first stepped into St. Melany’s. But by Easter 2019, she had learned a lot about Byzantine rite Catholicism. It was then that she became a Catholic.
During the Divine Liturgy at the Easter Vigil, she stood with her pastor, Fr. Robert Rankin. They were surrounded by beautiful icons, an eastern tradition of gold leaf and painted wood which often depict biblical stories or images of Christ and the saints.
Rider received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, which Byzantine Catholics call “chrismation”, and holy communion. She was anointed with chrism on her forehead, her hands, feet, chest, mouth, nose, and eyes.
While her parents had shied away from their Catholic faith when they were young, Rider said she grew up attending Christian services.
Her parents had “experienced something traumatic” in the Church, Rider said. Though their experience led them away from the Catholic faith, they were cautiously supportive of her decision to become Catholic, she explained
“My mom was exposed to the Roman Catholic Church at a very young age and she kind of steered away from it,” she said. “My father also was raised Roman Catholic as well.”
Before she became Catholic, Rider attended Calvary Chapel, an association of evangelical Christian communities.
But when she experienced a trial of suffering, she began looking for answers. The search led her to St. Melany’s.
Two years ago, her brother died in a motorcycle accident. Around the same time, Rider was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a disease involving fatigue and musculoskeletal pain.
Before those hardships, Rider said, she had begun drifting away from Christianity. But once she started experiencing loss, she began to look at her priorities.
“I made a choice that day when it happened, either fall prey to sin or change your life and go back to Jesus, [my] first love. I chose Jesus and my whole life transformed after that,” she said.
It was after her brother’s accident that Rider met Jacob, the man who last month became her husband. Jacob himself had converted from Protestantism to the Byzantine Catholic faith before he met Jessica.
When they met, Jessica said, she was awakened to something beautiful and mysterious. She told CNA that Jacob did not push his Byzantine faith on her, she said, but politely encouraged her to join him at Divine Liturgy.
“There was something different about him that I have never seen in anybody else. I was intrigued by that,” she said.
“There was something about him that was just a lot of wisdom. He was also very patient and he wasn’t anxious. He wasn’t an anxious or stressed person at all. So I was just really curious on what happened in his life.”
She said meeting Fr. Rankin was also an inspiration for her conversion. Not only did he speak with wisdom, she said, but the priest had an incredible zeal for Christ.
“I love Fr. Rankin. The way he talks about Lord and the saints, he talks smiling through his eyes…I have never seen anybody talk about God or anything in this manner. So it was kind of hypnotizing to listen to him talk about it.”
The choice she made to follow Christ more closely after her brother’s death has changed everything in her life, Rider said.
“I mean, literally, I got a new job, I have a husband, I have a faith and a church,” she said.
Rider chose St. Faustina Kowalska as her confirmation saint. She said she related to Faustina’s trials and felt connected to the Divine Mercy Chaplet. She said Faustina, who trusted in Christ despite pains, helped her find a purpose in her illness, which still gives her chronic pain.
“The picture of Divine Mercy…was important because it’s my path. Without his mercy, I wouldn’t be here right now,” she said. “[It] truly hit home for me when I was making the choice because I was going through [my trial] …When I saw the image and when I heard her story, there was just no way that she wouldn’t be a part of what I would choose because I felt like that was me.”
“I’ve had to learn that everything comes from his hands and trusting in that there’s a purpose. If I am going to suffer as Christ suffers, then I will do so,” Rider added.
When she heard about the Church’s sexual scandals, Rider said, the crimes, though disturbing, did not dissuade her from entering the Church. She said her faith relies on Christ.
The scandals, she said, are opportunities to pray for Church leaders who have “fallen away, because there’s so much responsibility and authority they have in Church.”
Coming from a Protestant background, Rider said the idea of praying to Mary and the saints was a difficult concept to grasp. But the Byzantine community was a source of information for all her questions, she said. Rider added Catholics should not “sugar coat” the faith for new converts.
“I felt supported in a lot of ways. Any questions that I had, I didn’t feel that I was inconveniencing anyone to explain [it] to me or that it may have been a silly question.”
“I don’t feel like we need to change [Church teaching]…because that’s not what Jesus Christ is about. Sometimes being obedient, it’s hard and it hurts,” she added.
Rider said she fell in love with the Ruthenian Church’s beautiful traditions, songs, icons and community. She described the experience as intimate and captivating. She also mentioned that her parish community was welcoming to her, which has made her feel like she belongs.
“When I came in, I was welcomed,” she said. “It’s always been really important since I’ve come in the church, that we all support each other.”
“It’s very intimate. Everybody that is with you, we’re worshiping and praising, and we’re all holding fast and true to scripture.”
Since she became a Catholic, she said, the Holy Spirit has prompted her to share Christ with her coworkers, who have asked her about an image of St. Padre Pio she wears as a necklace. Although her friends do not fully understand her decision to convert, she said, they are inspired by her faith.
“My coworkers don’t get it. They don’t understand,” she said. “[But,] I have a lot of people ask me because I wear the icon of Padre Pio. It kind of opens up conversation. So it’s an opportunity for me to talk about it.”
“Every day I print out words of wisdom and then I connect the scripture to it and I hand them out to my coworkers … They love it. I mean, if I don’t give it to them by lunchtime, people are asking me where is that? So … he must be moving in a way that I could never.”