Teenage history buff joins the Catholic Church


By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

Seventeen-year-old Zaden Elliott’s journey to the Catholic Church began in an unexpected way during high school. “I have always been interested in history and culture and different religions,” said Zaden, who lives in Richland. “For me, personally, I wasn’t into God. I was of the mindset that Christians are overly superstitious.”

Zaden Elliott, front, with his sponsor Joseph Perna at St. Mary Parish-Fairfield. Elliott entered the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil April 16.

His attitude changed as he learned more about different religions, particularly the Catholic Church, with encouragement from another teen he became friends with while playing online games. Zaden described his friend as “very Catholic.” They got into conversations about religion. “He educated me. He opened my mind to Catholicism,” Zaden said. “I went on Google Maps and searched for Catholic churches near me.”

The search led to St. Mary Catholic Church in Fairfield. “I started going to Mass and just sat and listened.” He copied the movements of everyone around him — sitting, standing and kneeling. “It was very different from the Lutheran services I had gone to in the past.” His family did not regularly attend church services, but his mom’s family was Lutheran, he said.


Music was one of the things that intrigued him about the Catholic Church. Hymns from centuries past made the connection to Jesus and the Scriptures. “It felt a lot more real to me.” Catholic Church architecture also made an impression. “Cathedrals, like the one in Davenport (Sacred Heart Cathedral), were incredible to me.

Sometimes I’ll get lost in the Mass thinking about every little thing that has significance.”

He attended Mass at St. Mary “at least every two weeks for probably a month and a half before I inquired about getting into RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults).” “He called the church and talked to Bert (Roberta Danielson, office contact) and said he wanted to join the Catholic Church. She gave me his number and I called him,” said Karen Crossland, the parish’s RCIA coordinator. It was the first time she could recall a youth asking about joining the Catholic Church.

She said Zaden told her Jesus’ statement to Peter convinced him the Catholic Church was the true Church: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…” (Matthew 16:18). Zaden began RCIA last August. “He was a deep thinker in class. He didn’t talk a lot but when he did, you could tell he put a lot of thought into what we were discussing,” Crossland said.

Seven people participated in RCIA, including Zaden; parishioner Gerry Garles assisted Crossland with the class. Zaden described RCIA formation as perfect. “They encouraged discussion and thinking,” covering a wide range of topics, such as the Mass and the sacraments. “It really helped me to understand the architecture” and church symbols, he said. Discussion about the Eucharist affected him profoundly. “To think that Jesus’ body and blood is literally in this object (the host), you have to abandon all of your previous notions … you have to be open to everything and willing to consider everything.”

The RCIA team suggested a sponsor for Zaden, parishioner Joseph Perna. “We were a good fit,” Zaden said. “His family is Sicilian and my dad’s side is Sicilian. Zaden and Joseph enjoyed their talks and discussions. “Every time I had a question, he was able to answer,” Zaden said.

Joseph felt honored to serve as sponsor. “It was an opportunity to bring a young man into the church. It’s super important these days for young people to have a grounding in the faith.” Joseph admires Zaden’s initiative. “He’s found something that is more precious than gold. He’s found the faith…. It’s important for him and for us as a Church. He’s a talented guy and he’s a young guy and he wants to know more. He’s like a son to me, in Christ.”

On April 16, Zaden received the sacraments of initiation during the Easter Vigil in St. Mary Catholic Church. Zaden’s mom, Billie, and three younger brothers, Xzavier, 16, Oakley, 13, and Cashton, 7, attended the vigil. Zaden said his mom, and his dad, Anthony, were very happy about his decision.

He described his feelings as a new Catholic in this way: “Somebody without glasses (who needs them) sees the world as blurry. When they put on glasses, everything is made perfectly clear. That’s how I felt spiritually. I felt like I put on my spiritual glasses and I could see everything more clearly.”

Friends at Pekin High School in Packwood, Iowa, from which Zaden graduated last week, were happy for him, he said. One friend, Zach, “was very much interested in me getting into the Catholic Church even though he isn’t Catholic.”

Zaden plans to study this fall at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, with dreams of becoming a U.S. Navy pilot. He hopes to attend the Basilica of St. Augustine in St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest church still standing in Florida.

He also hopes to serve as a role model for other young adult Catholics. “We have to have role models who are our age,” he said.

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