Vladimir Handlos and Zander Hill were received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil at St. Matthew the Evangelist Parish in Bellevue. Their friend and Bible study partner, Andrew Case, also became a Catholic at the Easter Vigil, at his parish in Montana. COURTESY PHOTO

Encountering Jesus

Bible study leads young men from pain and uncertainty into a life of faith

Just a few years ago Vladimir Handlos was an atheist who considered the Bible nothing more than a “moral guidebook.”

Zander Hill believed in a “higher power” but wasn’t sure what that might be. He thought the Bible was just “an interesting piece of literature.”

Andrew Case grew up in a family that believed God was real “but we didn’t spend too much time either thinking about it or discussing it.” He believed the Bible held the truth but rarely turned to it for help.

Their perceptions of God and the Bible changed when each went through struggles and crises – and after the three young men set out to study the Bible together about a year and a half ago.

And much to their surprise, the holy book led them into the Catholic Church.

All three were initiated into the faith this year at the Easter Vigil, with Hill and Handlos being Baptized and Confirmed at St. Matthew the Evangelist Parish in Bellevue. They were among the more than 100 people in the archdiocese who received Baptism and the more than 215 Confirmed as Catholics at the Easter Vigil this year.

Case, who was baptized at a Protestant church last year, was Confirmed in the Catholic faith at a parish in Montana.

Andrew Case is pictured with his parents in Montana. COURTESY PHOTO

The friends, at ages 20 and 21, seem to be an exception among their generation, which increasingly has not adhered to any faith tradition. Among U.S. adults ages 30 and under, more respond as “none” when asked about religious affiliation, outranking both Protestants and Catholics, according to a General Social Survey, which has been asking Americans about their lives and beliefs for over 50 years.

Hill, Case and Handlos met in Bellevue during high school and middle school, and with a larger group of friends, enjoyed playing video games together, talking and hanging out.

But individually their lives began to change.


When Handlos was growing up, his parents had been members of Mormon and interdenominal churches. But eventually they fell away from both, said Handlos, now 21.

“I didn’t believe in a God or anything like that,” he said.

“I’d pray and I’d ask God ‘If You’re real, show me something, some sort of a presence, some sort of an actual proof that You exist,’ or ‘Help me in this situation, help me out here.’

“And I never really felt that. I never felt like God gave me definitive proof or lifted me out of my circumstances and saved me in the way I was wanting. So I just never really believed.”

But things began to change about nine months ago after a phone call. Handlos had joined the Bible study a few months earlier, but he still didn’t believe in God.

“One night – I have a friend in the military who’s been deployed in the Navy for a little bit – and I got a call from him.”

“We had a really, really long, difficult conversation about some stuff that was going on in his life – some real hard stuff he was dealing with, suicidal ideation, a lot of this real struggle that I could relate to, that I’d been through in the past.

“He was asking me for advice on it and how to deal with it,” Handlos said. “He was just breaking down and telling me about this stuff that he’d been seeing, and he was worried about himself going crazy.

“He had been seeing certain things he couldn’t explain, which to my understanding and to my belief, was a form of demonic oppression that he was under, because it’s something I similarly went through when I was younger,” Handlos said. “And just through my own reading and my own limited understanding of it, it seemed to kind of line up with what I’ve found of other accounts of demonic oppression and what that looks like, what that is.

“I remembered that feeling of isolation and loneliness and fear and not knowing what to do,” he said, “and just being in a really dark place. …. I didn’t even really know how I got out of it. I got to a really low place, and I guess God was always working in my life some way or another, helping me out.”

That night, however, Handlos didn’t know how to help his friend.

“I was really worried about what he might do or what was going on,” he said. “I remember I just told him I loved him and not to do anything, and I’d be checking up on him as often as I could.

“Then I got off that call and I was just crying because it was rough to hear that stuff. This friend of mine, he’s like a brother to me. So my brother’s thousands of miles away and there’s no way for me to help him or do anything.”

“So for the first time in my life,” he said, “I got down on one knee and I just prayed to God, and I said, ‘I don’t know if I have fully devoted myself to this or fully committed to believing, but if You are real, I need You to help my brother. There’s nothing I can do. I’m scared, and I don’t know what can be done.’

“I was praying, ‘If You help him, if You are real, if You help him, then I swear my life to You. I’ll follow You for the rest of my life. I will find whichever church is the real Church, and I’ll devote my life to You and do whatever You tell me to.’

“I swore that oath to God. And it was the first time that I ever felt that presence that I always wanted as a kid, an undeniable sort of proof. It was just the presence of God in a way that I still really can’t put into words how it feels.”

“I’ve had a couple other people say that they have also felt it,” Handlos said. “Some people describe it as an electric feeling or something. I don’t know. It was a certainty, or a warmth, something beyond physical or mental stuff, something beyond me.

“I felt God’s presence, and it felt like I had Jesus Christ put His hand on my shoulder and tell me to get up and to follow Him. Then He was taking that promise from me and He was going to hold me to it.

“So from that moment on, I devoted myself to trying to research into churches and figure out which way, or which one, I thought was the true Church of Christ.

Handlos is baptized by Father Leo Rigatuso at the Easter Vigil Mass at St. Matthew the Evangelist Church in Bellevue. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF


Growing up, “I had no relationship with God. I had no relationship with the Church,” Hill said. “My grandma is a Lutheran, but she wasn’t practicing even before I was born. So growing up I had pretty much no ties to the Church or God Himself.”

“I guess I wasn’t an atheist,” he said, “ but I wasn’t devoted to religion. … I believed in a higher power, but I didn’t really know what it was.”

About 18 months ago, when Case asked Hill if he was interested in starting a Bible study, Hill agreed.

“At first I just started reading the Bible because to me it was just an interesting piece of literature that’s been talked about for all of history,” he said. “That’s how I came into starting to appreciate the Bible because at first I just wanted to read through it and make my own opinions.

“But about four or five months into us having Bible studies every week, it was more than just a piece of literature to be studied,” said Hill, 21. “It was a whole lot more than that.”

“It started speaking out to me, and it kind of helped me realign my morals and start becoming a better version of myself,” he said.

“Right around when we started the Bible study, I was coming off of a pretty bad breakup,” Hill said. “It was a pretty bad time of my life.”

He and a woman he had dated for about three years ended their relationship.

“I think at that point I was maybe six months into the breakup and I was still kind of messed up,” he said. “I missed her a lot, even though she was really bad for me.

“Right around when we started the Bible study, the Bible was kind of telling me everything would be alright. God was telling me everything would be alright if I just kept going down the right path.”

More recently, about three months ago, Hill broke up with a girlfriend after a year and a half of dating.

“There were some pretty heavy moments between me and her where I turned to prayer, and God was telling me to let go. But I was being a little bit ignorant and didn’t listen. So our relationship lasted longer than it should have,” he said.

“In my mind I wanted to tough it out and live a life with her and get married at some point, but she just wasn’t in line with her ideals.”

“There was one night I was working my security job in downtown Omaha. We had a pretty bad fight and I had just finished one of my patrols of the building I was in. I had just sat down in our security room. I didn’t have an actual physical Bible with me at the time, so I pulled up one on my phone.

“I started reading through some verses. I think we were on Matthew at the time. Maybe I was just reading Matthew,” Hill said. “But I was just reading through the Bible, and I don’t even know how to describe this. I was reading through it, and it was making a lot of sense to me that this (a life of faith) is what I need to devote myself to.

“And if I want to have a relationship with someone, that it needed to be someone who wanted the same things as me: to be Catholic and be married in the Church. So I sat down to pray that night, and I suppose it was revealed to me that this isn’t the woman I was going to be with for the rest of my life.”

Hill is baptized at the Easter Vigil Mass by Father Rigatuso, pastor of St. Matthew the Evangelist Parish. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF


Case was born in California and moved to the Omaha area with his family when he was 9.

They occasionally went to nondenominational Protestant services, especially on holidays like Christmas and Easter, which they considered important.

They believed “very much” that God is real, Case said, “but we didn’t spend too much time either thinking about it or discussing it.”

He began taking his Christian faith more seriously when he was 15 or 16 years old and felt heavily depressed.

“My family has a history with depressive and mental illness,” said Case, who is now about to turn 21 and is living in Montana with his family.

“I got really depressed, to the point where I got suicidal in some instances,” he said in a phone interview. “It just felt pretty hopeless to the point where I was like, OK, I’m going to need some kind of sign – from anything really – to convince me that this is all worth it.

“And so I was sitting there; it was probably my worst moment in life. I was sitting there in a chair in my uncle’s house … and I was like, well if I don’t get a sign now, I’m just going to go end it and just be done.

“Luckily,” Case said, “God always listened and was there for me at that point. I kind of felt a warmth in that moment, I guess is the best way I can describe it, a peace really. I felt very at peace with everything, which I had not felt for a long time.”

He said he wasn’t even sure if his plea was a prayer. “It was more of me just being upset at the world and just kind of talking to nothing, I guess. At least that’s what I thought at that moment. ‘Alright, you got one chance, whatever’s out there.’

“So in that moment, it was just darkness, but then there was a feeling that that was … taken off me in a way. A weight had been lifted a little bit.”

“Up until that point, nothing was helping,” he said. “I hadn’t told really anyone how I’d felt. So I wasn’t on antidepressants or anything like that. So I hadn’t really felt anything like that before, the sense of everything’s going to be OK, because at that age, everything is just the worst. … Every little thing just piles up.

“At that point I was growing up vaguely Christian. I was like, well, I don’t really believe in anything else. I think God is real, and I don’t know if it (the relief he felt) immediately proves it to me, but it gave me the spark I needed to really investigate.”

“So after that, thankfully, I’d gotten on some antidepressants at the time to help me,” Case said, “and I felt like I really owed God. I considered God at that point. ‘You proved it to me. I told You that if You had helped me here, I would try and find out what the truth is.’

“So I kept my promise and started trying to figure out what all is real.”  

“I started reading the Bible a little bit,” he said, “kind of reading it off and on. I considered myself a nondenominational Christian since I didn’t really know any other way.”

About two years later, in 2020, he moved with his family to Kalispell, Montana.

“And my whole family actually started going back to church consistently, instead of just occasionally,” Case said. “We started going there, and that really got me way more interested in the faith than I had been before.”

“It was good for me to get out and start to see people who are trying to live differently than what the world was trying to offer,” he said.

“So I started reading the Bible more,” Case said. “I started talking about it more with my friends,” whom he kept in contact with.

“We still played video games together, even though I was so far away, but I still felt really close to them, as I still do. I just started talking about it (a Bible study)  more, and they seemed interested. Vlad and Zander especially were really interested, which was great.”

Case, second from right, is surrounded by family in Montana. COURTESY PHOTO

Case, second from right, is surrounded by family in Montana. COURTESY PHOTO


Because of the distance that separated Case from his friends, the Bible study was online. “We just started in Genesis and started reading away,” Case said. “We were going to go all the way through and read the whole thing.”

The friends read the first five books of the Bible and changed course.

Now, Case said, “We sit down and we read different parts, and actually we find it’s much more satisfying for us.”

“We read it out loud together and talk about it in the moment,” he said, “and then do research afterwards and come back together and talk about it more.”

Through the Bible study, Hill said he has felt called to devote himself to God. “I’ve been trying to follow Him, where He is, where He’s trying to guide me for the past couple of years. He’s helped me through a lot of emotional distress and bad situations.”

Before, “none of us was really into going to church or anything,” Handlos said, “and I didn’t believe in God.”

Because of the Bible study, he said, “I started looking into church stuff a little more heavily. … It was a pretty recent development to switch over to actually believing in God.”

“It was God’s work to get us to sit down and not be a bunch of hardheaded fools, which is what I’ve got a lot of practice doing,” Handlos said.

Hill, left, and Handlos prepare to process into church at the Easter Vigil. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

After about four months of Bible study, the friends began exploring different Christian denominations.

For all three, the Bible and their research kept pointing to Catholicism.

“When I’m reading through the Bible, I ask a lot of questions. I need a lot of answers,” Case said. “So I was going online and trying to figure out … what Jesus is making His Church to be.

“We are supposed to be one unified body,” he said. “So I just started going through different denominations and what they believe and asking questions to different people.”

“Honestly, it’s funny because Catholicism was probably my last choice to look at just because of all the lies and stuff that I’ve heard about it.”

“You always hear the classic: They worship Mary,” Case said.

“I didn’t understand the concept of the saints and how that worked or why you would pray to them. I didn’t really understand Purgatory and how all that worked. I didn’t understand the point of the pope.”

But “if you just put a little bit of effort into looking around, then you’d find your answer.”

Visiting a Catholic church cemented the deal for Case.

After walking into St. Richard Church in Columbia Falls, Montana, “I was looking around and I was really taken aback by just the sheer beauty of the church itself,” he said.

A woman inside the otherwise empty church welcomed him. Soon he began going to Mass there and found “very much what I wanted out of a service in a church. I’ve always wanted something that felt very reverent. It felt ancient, I guess, in a good way. It felt like it would stand the test of time.” 

“Just going to a Mass with this absolutely angelic choir behind me” and with everyone there but with “no one really talking to each other, but everyone was there to worship – I thought that was great,” Case said.

“Everything was visual and auditory,” he said. “They raised the Eucharist to the sky, then they rang bells. That was really interesting to me because I had never seen anything like that. It was my idea of what Heaven would look like and sound like.”

“So I just started going every week.”

Case said his journey into the Catholic faith seemed to happen in a flash.

 “It really grabbed me,” he said. “I was convinced pretty quickly, honestly. Just any question I would have, there would be some guy 700 years ago who answered it – which is still so great to me. Oh, someone else already thought of this. It felt very universal.

“Then at one of our Bible studies, afterwards, I had kind of brought up ‘Guys, I really know how much we kind of joke about the Catholics, but I do think they’re correct. I think they’ve convinced me that they’re right.’”

There was some initial hesitancy, but soon all three were diving headfirst into the faith. 

“Once we visited a Catholic Church, for me at least, it was just a totally different environment that I wanted to be part of,” Hill said.

Hill is Confirmed by Father Rigatuso during the Easter Vigil Mass. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

“The energy of the church (St. Matthew the Evangelist in Bellevue) felt different from the other ones I had visited before, and it just felt right.”

Handlos said he could feel the ‘real, actual presence of God’ in a Catholic church. After researching the Catholic faith and learning about its sacraments, history and sacred traditions, he, too, became convinced.


“Coming around to being Catholic has helped me just develop into a whole lot of a better person than I used to be,” Hill said. “I used to smoke a lot, and I used to drink very heavily. … I’m only 21, but I used to drink pretty bad. And the same thing with smoking. There were days when I wasn’t sober for weeks on end. … I was just kind of drifting along before finding the Bible.”

A verse from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans especially spoke to him: “I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Hill said he wants to be active in his new faith.

“I’m a very hands-on kind of person,” he said. “I very heavily believe in faith through works, and it’s just something the Catholic Church does. … Missionary work is something I very much want to do. … I think eventually I might go down the path of priesthood.”

Their conversion stories take on a new chapter as their Bible study continues but in a new venue, as Handlos and Hill join Case in Montana to all work together as solar panel installers and live under one roof. 

“We’re all going to rent out a place together, which I think will be good,” Case said. “I think it’s good that we’ll be together, and practicing the faith together will be really good for us, teaching each other and learning.”

Their Bible study will continue, he said. “We’re going to keep that going strong, probably get more people involved.”

Case encourages everyone to read and study the Bible.

“I think if you really read it and sit down and wrestle with it in your mind, I think you will be convinced. I think if you open yourself up to it, it is the truth and you tend to flock towards the truth.

“I’m really excited to get more people involved. I’m super excited about it.”

Handlos processes out of St. Matthew the Evangelist Church with other new Catholics after the Easter Vigil Mass. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF


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