Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian
For the first 12 years of his life, he was a Baptist. He was home-schooled through high school and started taking college courses when he was 15. He rides a unicycle, sings in choral groups and has an undergraduate degree in classical culture and literature. In the midst of that, Deacon Cassidy Stinson, 27, heard and answered the call to priesthood.
“My parents and I and my whole nuclear family can say we’re all converts; we were very Baptist before,” he said. “My grandfather on my father’s side is actually a retired Southern Baptist pastor, so my father is a pastor’s kid.”
Deacon Stinson’s parents, Deacon Mike (he was ordained a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Richmond in 2013) and Tanya Stinson, attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville with the intention, according to the younger deacon, of becoming missionaries.
“My parents, by the grace of God, decided at the same time for different reasons to become Catholic. It was completely providential. My father literally had this overnight conversion from reading a couple of books, ‘Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic’ by David Currie. Reading Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s conversion story in ‘Rome Sweet Home’ also helped,” he said.
At the same time Tanya was “being gradually drawn to the Church,” according to her son whose conversion was abrupt.
“My conversion was very easy. My mom turned around in the car one day and said, ‘So, we’re thinking about becoming Catholic.’ I said, ‘What’s a Catholic?’ And that was it,” he said.
Early faith formation
According to Deacon Stinson, since his father “did not really enjoy his experience in the public school system,” he and his wife opted to homeschool him and his younger brother and sister.
“It built a lot of very close relationships between me and my siblings and me and my parents. All of us have been very close and remain very close because we spent so much quality time together when we were younger,” he said.
That in-home education went beyond academic learning.
“It provided all of my core faith formation. Looking back on that now with the benefit of my formation, I see why the Church says that the family should be the primary source of faith formation for their children because that’s how I received it,” Deacon Stinson said.
While the family was still Baptist, Bible reading was a part of their home life that provided him with “the foundational education on the faith.”
“When we became Catholic, I had both of their personal witness and the benefit of them explaining to me why we became Catholic, why they believed what they believe now, and so all of that was very formative,” he said.
‘Very powerful experience’
Having completed an associate’s degree in general studies at Southside Virginia Community College, Deacon Stinson continued his education at William & Mary in 2011.
“My interest in classical studies drew on two things. As a home- schooler, one of the things you do, in our case, is vast amounts of reading, drawing on our libraries,” he said. “And I always loved ancient cultures. So I studied Roman culture in particular as a kid. I just thought it was fun. I loved reading about Greeks and Romans and all their mythology.”
That summer, Deacon Stinson accompanied his father to Italy where the latter did art history research.
“I was just awestruck by seeing all these things I had read about,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, practically speaking, with my life or career, but I thought this was something that I just enjoyed — the culture and this intellectual pursuit — so much. I thought it would be something that would be beneficial to pursue in college.”
That summer, Deacon Stinson also attended the Steubenville (Franciscan University) Conference in Atlanta sponsored by Life Teen. Up to that point, he had not thought about priesthood.
“I had a very powerful experience just in prayer of the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. It was this very fundamental, life-changing experience because it was the first time that I really knew without a shadow of a doubt that God was there,” he said of the “watershed moment” for his vocation. “I went into college having just had that experience and I said, ‘Alright, I’m pretty sure God is real so I should act like it.’”
At William & Mary he got involved in Catholic campus ministry.
“I went straight in, dove headlong into it, because I had just had that shock-and-awe moment,” Deacon Stinson said. “I already had this certainty that I wanted to be Catholic and be involved in my faith.”
During a campus ministry-sponsored retreat, he prayed about what he had seen in Rome and what he might do professionally with his degree — maybe become an archeologist or a researcher or a professor.
“I didn’t have any sense of peace about any of that stuff. Then I remember, kind of offhand, one of the places we passed on the trip when we were walking through downtown Rome was the Pontifical North American College, the American seminary in Rome,” Deacon Stinson recalled. “And out of nowhere, I had this thought: You could be a seminarian. In my mind’s eye I had this image of myself dressed in clerics, just standing on the street.”
What occurred during the next two to three seconds, he said, was an “undeniable, overpowering sense of peace…. It was out of nowhere.”
He continued, “Then I freaked out because I didn’t want to do it, and I had never thought about that consciously before. So I was like OK, that’s weird. That was when I took it seriously because that sense of peace was so obviously from outside myself,” Deacon Stinson said. “Where I hadn’t thought about it at all before, intentionally, all of a sudden it was the only thing I could think about.”
He informed his girlfriend whom he had known since they were 8 years old and whom he had “been dating pretty seriously for a year,” and he told his parents.
“Their thought was, ‘We were hoping you would think about the priesthood,’ which surprised me because I don’t remember it ever registering that they talked about me thinking about being a priest,” Deacon Stinson said. “Obviously the foundation had been built before then. They were very supportive. They never had any second thoughts about supporting me in that.”
For the two years he was at William & Mary, he was discerning his vocation.
“As soon as I started thinking about the priesthood, I really doubled down on making sure I had everything squared away to graduate on time because I didn’t want to lose a year of seminary, lose a year of priesthood,” he said, noting he took 18 credits in each of his last two semesters. In fall of 2013, he entered the Theological College at the Catholic University of America, Washington.
‘Fall in love with the Church’
During his time of initial discernment, Deacon Stinson received help from Father John David Ramsey, a former St. Therese parishioner whose vocational journey took him from academia to the seminary to priesthood in 2010. The priest, who was a chaplain at William & Mary in 2011, had been Deacon Mike Stinson’s confirmation sponsor in 2004 and is the godfather of the Stinsons’ daughter, Anna.
“I had seen him go through this whole seminary process, so I knew, one, real people become seminarians and priests; two, we had been up to visit him and I’d seen the seminary already; I knew it was a real place, and I had his positive example in those respects,” Deacon Stinson said. “And, three, once I started thinking about the priesthood, he was right there. I could say, ‘Hey, now I’m thinking about this, what do I do?’ So it was a very natural thing to just go and talk to him about it because we already had that relationship.” (See accompanying story.)
Father Ramsey, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Newport News, said the Stinson family’s faith is evident.
“The whole family loves Jesus Christ and being Christian has been at the center of everything,” he said. “They grew up with this deep awareness of serving Jesus — an awareness of lives to be lived for Jesus in service to him by serving others. Having Christian faith is at the heart of everything and is what matters most to them.”
Of the deacon whose vocation he helped discern, Father Ramsey said, “He has a first-rate mind, and he wants to use that and all his gifts and abilities to help people know Christ better, to bring the beauty of the Catholic faith to many people. He wants to serve the people of God.”
Deacon Stinson said that what excites him about becoming a priest is “absolutely, fundamentally, celebrating the sacraments.”
“I love preaching, I love the occasional opportunities I’ve had to celebrate baptisms, witness weddings, but I’m looking forward with enormous anticipation to celebrating the Mass and hearing confessions in particular because that is something that only the priest can offer to the Church,” he said. “It is something that is of immeasurable value to souls.”
What Deacon Stinson and his family have experienced is what he wants those he serves to experience.
“I would say that coming in, not as a cradle Catholic, but I have with my parents, with my family, really discovered a love for the Church in its entirety. The Church as it’s growing today, the Church in its history and in its doctrine, and I want to help people fall in love with the Church the same way my family and I have done,” he said.
Patron saint chose him
He isn’t sure how or why it happened, but when Cassidy Stinson was confirmed at his home parish, St. Therese, Farmville, he did not pick a saint’s name.
“No one ever told me that year that we were supposed to pick a saint, so I didn’t. I was confirmed with no patron saint, had no sense of who a patron saint would be, and that was true all the way up through college,” he said. “I got to maybe my senior year and was like, you know, a lot of people do this and for some reason I didn’t.”
As Deacon Stinson was contemplating entering the seminary and discerning whether priesthood was his calling, he was still wondering who his patron saint was. Father John David Ramsey advised him.
“He said, ‘I want you to read “The Story of a Soul.” Read the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.’ He didn’t say why; he just said to do it,” Deacon Stinson said. “So, I got it and I read it, and it really was something that fundamentally shaped my outlook on faith, on God, as I was first learning to pray, and it really shaped my vocation in a lot of ways.”
Learning about St. Thérèse’s “strong love for the priesthood,” and that she prayed for priests had an impact on the young seminarian.
“One of the things that has really shaped me is a love for the contemplative side of the Church. That is one of my passions — trying to promote that in pretty much every vocation,” he said, adding that he encourages people to explore that side of their prayer life because “it’s so needed.”
Deacon Stinson wants people to know that they can experience a deep prayer life, that it is not something reserved only for a few of the faithful.
“Everyone is called to a close, intimate relationship with God, and that is discovered fundamentally through prayer,” he said. “I hope I can lead them there.”
As for discovering his patron saint?
“It’s kind of like she chose me really,” Deacon Stinson said with a laugh.