Taking Courage: How God Drew Me into the Light of His Church
Featuring Alicia Smith/
July 21, 2014
*Last name has been changed at the author’s request
This story is about how I became a Christian as an adult, and, much later, came home to the Catholic Church. I sincerely hope the reader will be more amused at my follies than appalled. I also hope that my stumbling sentences show how someone like me may be intercepted and brought into the light more quickly than my own personal stubbornness allowed!
Instability and abuse
My dad was raised Catholic and my mom was raised Protestant. My oldest brother was an unexpected joy, and they were quickly married to avoid a scandal. Things were rocky when my brother was still a toddler and my mom had an affair and conceived a child by another man. My dad, due to his Catholic upbringing and strong convictions about marriage, stayed with my mom, encouraged her to have the child, and considered my half brother as his own. He also promised my mom that he wouldn’t tell anyone, even my half brother. It was only by this great act of forgiveness that I came along three years later. Both my brother and my half brother were baptized in the Catholic Church. However, by the time I came along, my mom had angrily rejected both my father and his religion. (I often wonder if his forgiveness was too much for her to accept.) She was adamant about me not being baptized and decided that she wanted a divorce. My dad secretly gave me an emergency baptism when I was less than a month old. My parents divorced when I was a year old. My mom won custody, and my dad was given visitation rights.
I had a very abusive home life with my mom. She had already found another boyfriend before driving my dad away. The boyfriend moved us to Arizona and things grew steadily worse. The boyfriend’s son moved in and could do no wrong in his father’s eyes. His offenses would always be blamed on my siblings and me. We fell into the sad routine of taking turns confessing to wrongs we didn’t do and taking the assigned beatings. Sleep was not sacred in our house because we would often be awakened or yanked out of bed for punishment at any hour, typically when the boyfriend was drunk and angry. I also lived in fear of my half brother. Once he began puberty, he would try to get to me whenever we were alone in the house. I would fight him off or hide in my room with my feet propped against the door to keep him out. He would use kitchen knives beneath the door to try to dislodge my feet. I began to stay away from home until I knew my mom was home from work. I was too terrified to tell anyone. It was only after he was caught showing my friend and me dirty movies that he stopped harassing me.
A flicker of hope
One day after school, I attended a local Christian club for kids that was held at a neighbor’s house. I knew nothing about Christianity except that this “Good News Club” gave out cookies once they finished telling Bible stories. The leader of the club had a felt board with little felt characters to illustrate Bible stories, which I enjoyed. They talked about how to pray, but the thought of praying to “God” frightened me. Sadly, when my mom found out about the club, I was forbidden to return.
Several weeks later, there was an especially brutal night, and after being allowed to return to bed, out of desperation, I tried to pray. Nothing happened, so I cried harder, because I thought I didn’t do it right. My room was dark, except for a small amount of light coming under the door. I was under my thin blanket and curled in a ball on my side. The blanket was tucked in tight beneath the mattress and didn’t quite reach my pillow, so my shoulder was exposed. As I was simmering down to quiet whimper, I felt the blanket pulled up over my shoulder. I ceased whimpering and froze in terror. Surveying the room with my eyes, I saw that the door was still closed, the cat was undisturbed, and the blanket was now over my shoulder. There was not enough time for anyone to enter and the cat always jumped down and made her escape when someone came in. I pinched myself several times to make sure I was awake and then got up to thoroughly check the room. I found nothing. I slowly realized that it was a friendly experience, whatever it was. It didn’t change my circumstances, but it did change my outlook: maybe I wasn’t alone, and there was somebody listening when I prayed. For the first time, I felt a flicker of hope.
The taste of a new life
Eventually, we returned to the San Francisco Bay area, where my father lived. The boyfriend kicked us out when I was eleven, and it was one of the happiest moments I can remember. My mom was terrified to be in a poor neighborhood in the little rental house, but I was elated to feel safer now that we were away from the boyfriend. (I wish struggling, single parents understood that poverty and safety are much better than a nice house and abuse.)
As a teenager, I pestered my folks to take me church. My mom gave in one Easter and took me to a Unitarian Universalist church. Their God did not seem at all like the God in those few Bible stories I heard in the after school club. I left feeling completely baffled. My dad took me to a Catholic service once, but he didn’t explain anything so, although it was interesting, nothing made sense. He had still not returned to the Church himself, (he had left after the divorce), so we sat in the back and crept out early.
I was very lucky that my dad stayed in my life, despite the divorce; visiting my dad was an escape from the realities of my life with my mom. My best friend, My-hanh, and I roamed the streams and hills in the rural parts of the county and enjoyed the freedom to play and explore. She and her mother emigrated from Vietnam in 1980. We both lived with our struggling single mothers and loved the same movies. We taught each other about our respective cultures. My-hanh was a big part of my life and we have kept in touch over the years. I found out recently that she converted from Buddhism to Catholicism when her daughter began attending Catholic school.
One spring, when I was 16, my dad proposed that I fix up the barn behind his house, so he could rent a horse for the summer. I loved horses, so I enthusiastically dove into the task of preparing the old barn. The horse we found was in a bad spot, so my dad actually bought her instead of leasing her. She was a sour, older mare, but, in my eyes, she was a most beautiful and noble horse. She was also very difficult to ride. At the end of the summer, I moved her to a cheap boarding stable near my mom’s house. I worked weekends and took eight buses per day to feed and care for her. I also worked at the stable to earn her keep. The barn manager, Old Harold, was an old cowboy. He was raised in Wyoming and had many stories to tell about ranch life and the ethics of caring for livestock. Old Harold passed away after I graduated from high school. I didn’t know he was Catholic until I went to his funeral. I took his lessons seriously and remained devoted to that mare for the rest of her life. I still apply the cowboy ethics I learned from Harold to the animals we have on our farm today.
After high school graduation, in 1989, I was still needed at home so I took a job with the local police department in San Mateo, California. I learned quickly how to relate to men in a professional environment. I also learned that it was natural for people who have been subjected to abuse or injustice as a child to be attracted towards jobs in which they might hope to prevent such abuses toward other children. I saved money while working hard as an evidence technician/desk officer, but when my dad offered to help pay for college, I jumped at the chance.
In 1993, I left California, hauling my old horse with me, and headed to college for my first real taste of freedom. Away from my mom’s anti-religion attitudes, I felt free to really investigate for myself. My mom told me horrible things about Catholicism — Catholics degraded women and thought babies who were not baptized went to hell. She also carried on about how horrible my father was whenever I asked about the Catholic Church. She was very liberal about her views towards homosexuality, abortion, and contraception. When I left her, I had similar views. Not only did I travel to another state to attend college, but I moved from the very liberal San Francisco Bay area to the very conservative city of Fort Collins, Colorado to attend Colorado State University. Ironically, when I moved in to my dorm, it had just been vacated by Catholic youth groups that were there for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Denver!
Just like all college students, I began to brush off the dust of the past to discover who I was and who I wanted to be. I felt a huge burden lifted when I was finally away from my mom. Her attitude was predominately selfish and negative. I found myself smiling and happier than I had ever been. The horse had helped me develop my character into someone I actually liked. I decided that integrity was the most important trait to work on next. I had lied often as a child to hide what I was ashamed of or to pretend everything was okay when it wasn’t. To not feel the need to lie was a new sort of freedom.
During my second semester, I saw a flyer on campus about a special Stations of the Cross at a local Catholic church (St. John XXIII University Parish). It promised to tell the story of Jesus’ sacrifice. I had missed that. I knew nothing about Easter, nor did I have any clue why Jesus was on a cross in the first place (wasn’t He God’s Son?). Some classmates talked about it and I was curious. It was a college parish and the Stations of the Cross were self-guided (i.e., no pressure), so why not? When I showed up, another college kid handed me a map, and I was off. Each stop on the map had different props and some sort of activity to do to act out some part of the theme. I was fascinated. Each Station was a brand new discovery. It didn’t take long before I was shocked and appalled at the way Jesus was treated. I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing — and I hate crying in front of strangers — but I had to know the whole story. I heard other people sniffling, so I knew I wasn’t alone. There was a Station that talked about Mary and her anguish. I thought Mary was only around in manger scenes during Christmas. The flyer didn’t say that this would be sad. I thought Easter was about happy things like spring, bunny rabbits, and eggs. When I finished the Stations, I was overwhelmed. I felt like I just met someone really important, but also very close to me, like a beloved family member, and then…He died. I had to regain my composure while some more college kids led me into where they were serving food. They didn’t need to feed me — Shoot! They had me after the Stations! — but college students never turn down free food.
I couldn’t believe this was the Church that my mom hated so much. She must not know about this story. If she could go through what I just did, she would get it. They said to come back for Easter and I was looking forward to it. That is, until I called my mom. She became quite hysterical and it turned into another one-way discussion. I tried to explain but she dismissed everything as “brainwashing” or “manipulation”.
I missed the Easter service and moped around for weeks until my roommate told me that she was raised Episcopalian and they were very close to Catholicism. The Episcopalians gladly took me in that spring. I went to a weekly Bible study and an introductory class. By summer, they told me I should be baptized. I told my parents that I was going to become a Christian. I had very little reaction from my mom. She was just happy it wasn’t the Catholic Church. My dad said he had given me a conditional baptism, to “hold me over” until I was baptized at a church (his innocent misunderstanding and probably a “face-palm” moment for God). Of course, neither of us knew better, so I was (re-)baptized and asked to join their youth group as a college intern. I enjoyed it, but everyone knew so much more about God than I did, even the little kids. I was pretty humbled.
That fall was when I noticed the first drawback to being Episcopalian. As a double major in Animal Science and Microbiology, I took a virology class, which focused entirely on HIV. My childhood in the San Francisco Bay area had familiarized me with HIV and AIDS. I began reading the newspaper when I was very young and remember when the bathhouses were closed in San Francisco (although, I didn’t understand why men would need to go somewhere else to take a bath). I remember reading many sad stories about various men struck down by AIDS at a young age. Between the terror I experienced at my half-brother’s attempts to get to me and the stories about this horrible disease, I had decided, quite young, that I would not sleep around.
In the course description, it clearly stated that there was a service project at the Public Health Department (PHD) in Denver, Colorado, but noted that you could pick an alternative project if you had any “religious objections”. The professor explained that they typically help the PHD’s mobile clinic. Me, being a brand new Christian, trotted down to my church and asked about whether or not I should participate. The answer was, “Sure. Why not?” So, I signed up.
The class was intense and by the end we were thoroughly familiar with just how sneaky, under-handed, and devastating this disease was at the cellular level. The time came for our service project. We first visited a hospice with mostly young men dying of AIDS. We all felt tremendous compassion for these men with scarecrow bodies and sunken faces. It was tough to see people our age that were dying. Despite my own feelings regarding sex outside of marriage, I knew that many adults didn’t wait and they needed to be careful.
The following day, we were in the PHD van, which drove us to the center of downtown Denver to pass out condoms. We were motivated by what we saw the day before and sure that everyone needed to prevent disease if they couldn’t control themselves. It was a blustery day. Encouraged by the Health Department employees, I cheerfully filled my pockets with condoms, walked over to the sidewalk and offered one to a passing jogger. He gave me a funny look, took one, and then tossed in the garbage. Oh, well. Next, I saw a couple walking; they had their coats wrapped tight against the wind. I offered the gentleman a condom. He reached up and pulled his coat collar down, revealing a white and black collar — he was a priest! What I had assumed was a couple, was actually a priest and a religious sister walking to the cathedral. He said, “No, thank you”. I apologized profusely, ran back to the van, dumped out my pockets, and sat down the rest of the day. My classmates laughed when they heard what happened, but now they were too spooked to pass out condoms, so none of us really did anything the rest of the day.
As I mulled over the events of that day, the deeper questions set in. Why was it wrong to try to prevent this disease with birth control and why didn’t my new Episcopal friends warn me about this? How did I innately know it was wrong? Not just because I was (unknowingly) offering something to someone who was chaste, but deep down, I knew it was wrong to be handing out condoms to anyone. Was I encouraging them to use them or simply trying to keep them from getting sick? The Episcopal college group had even invited Planned Parenthood to our group to discuss contraception. Were the morals I was raised with entirely wrong? Was it more than a personal preference? I should have probably just submitted and gone right back to the Catholics then, but stubbornness is a familial trait.
Becoming a disciple
Meanwhile, I rented a room from a farm widow, named Ruth, who was an LCMS Lutheran. It was a business relationship that quickly became a close friendship. I still consider her my second mom. I loved living with someone who had a strong faith. I learned how to thank God before meals and to see Him during the daily routine. I prayed more often and continued to sporadically attend the Episcopal Church because Ruth told me communion at her church was closed. Why was that? I wondered, The Episcopalians let everyone come up to receive.
In 1997, I joined the US Navy. Due to my upbringing, I was terrified of taking out any sort of loan and the price of veterinary school was too intimidating. What I had was paid for. If I couldn’t afford it, cash in hand, I didn’t want it. I had almost finished college, but through a strange turn of events, I ended up two classes short to fulfill the requirement. I wanted financial security and the military offered it — so, off to Boot Camp I went, and my horse went into retirement at a friend’s farm. While in Boot Camp, they gave us three choices for worship services: Baptist, Catholic, or Lutheran. Both the large Baptist and Catholic services were patrolled by angry-looking Recruit Division Commanders, but the Lutherans were left in peace. I chose Lutheran, since it was far less stressful, plus, Ruth had given me a wonderful impression of Lutherans. After “lights out” in Boot Camp, everyone in my division said the Our Father together. It was something we had decided the first day of Boot Camp and kept it up throughout our time together. Sometimes someone would sing a hymn, but mostly, it was just us reciting a prayer together to end the day in peace among ourselves and with God.
After initially serving in Bethesda, Maryland, I received orders to the US Naval Hospital Guam. Once I arrived on Guam, I found a little Lutheran church among all the Catholic ones. It was a missionary church run by an LCMS pastor. I worked in the ICU as the hospital corpsman and made rank quickly. I was soon one of the top corpsmen in the hospital. Unlike hospitals stateside, for the people we served, we were really the last hope. If we couldn’t save someone, they couldn’t be medevaced — there was just no other recourse.
I was quietly fascinated by the culture and the religion of the Chamorros and Filipinos that we served, who were predominantly Catholic. Patients died occasionally, as in any hospital, but it wasn’t the dramatic movie type deaths. They were mostly peaceful and expected deaths. I stayed out of the way of the visiting clergy, out of respect. However, I was very pleased when they came to care for a patient, because it always made the patient more comfortable. Some showed marked improvement after a visit from their priest.
One night, an elderly priest was medevaced in from a remote island. Since he was separated from his parish by distance, he had no visitors. It didn’t take long for the doctors to determine that he was dying. I worked with some very good people, but none of them were churchgoers and, thus, were shy about attending to the priest. They didn’t neglect their duties, but they stayed away and didn’t offer the regular comfort measures. I felt bad for him, so I tried to help. His feet were dry and cracked (hospital air systems have very little humidity). I offered to put lotion on his feet. He appreciated it. He asked if I was Catholic, and I felt bad telling him I was Lutheran. They sent him back to his island parish the following day, and we heard that he had died soon afterwards. We were sad to hear that he passed, but glad that he made it home in time.
I had applied for an NROTC two-year scholarship and was accepted into the program about 10 months into my tour on Guam. I left Guam and went directly to Newport, Rhode Island and into the doting, loving care of a USMC Gunnery Sergeant (heavy sarcasm) for summer training. After re-learning how to do everything from marching to speaking to weapons systems, I arrived that fall at George Washington University in DC ready to finally finish college. I picked up my old horse and found an inexpensive place to keep her where I could visit her on the weekends. An occasional quiet ride through the woods did us both some good. It was 1999 and the presidential primaries were just beginning. After being touched by Senator John McCain’s care for POWs, I volunteered for his campaign. Senator’s McCain’s strength was derived from his faith, just like his triumphant rival, President George W. Bush. Instead of feeling threatened, as my mom felt towards politicians with faith, I felt encouraged by it.
After two years, I had finished the NROTC requirements, as well as completed both my GWU degree and my CSU degree. I was commissioned in May of 2001. I was back in Rhode Island for training as a Surface Warfare Officer when the World Trade Center Twin Towers were hit on 9/11.
A courageous Catholic example
Within a few months, I reported to my first ship, the USS Tortuga. We had the chance to see many countries, both in northern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. My first deployment was to the Baltic Sea to work with NATO countries. The second one deployment was to the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. We were extended in the Persian Gulf when the war in Iraq began in March 2003. A new Commanding Officer reported onto our ship when we were still in the Mediterranean. He was Catholic and made it very clear that he did not tolerate swearing. Now, sailors have a particularly long and well-earned reputation in that particular endeavor. They can actually be quite creative with their uses of common swear words. In fact, I observed one Chief Petty Officer cussing out a piece of equipment for five minutes straight, covering all aspects of the malfunctioning piece of machinery’s questionable family background, personal habits, sexual orientation, and even its eternal fate. He never repeated a single phrase. It was quite a display.
To actually have a Captain boldly demand that we all change our bad habits was surprising. The reaction was the typical sailor grumbling and scoffing. However, through several excellent decisions and amazing leadership during some difficult maneuvers, he soon made us want to change those bad habits to please him. He also showed the best example of integrity and living one’s faith that I have personally seen in any military officer. Once, our ship picked up over 100 suspected Al-Qaida prisoners and their civilian contractor interrogators. These interrogators ate with us in the wardroom and we all found their general attitudes and lack of respect towards their charges distasteful. Our Captain went much further. He had heard about their techniques and strictly forbid them any contact with the prisoners while onboard his ship. Word spread like wildfire through the ship’s company. As much as we were angry with terrorists, we agreed with our Captain. Although the specific techniques were not known, we trusted that he was right. The US Navy also respected his position and I believe that is one reason he was later awarded the Bronze Star.
The Catholic Church Is like a “Ship”
Shipboard life is tough for all sailors, but there is an extra element as a woman when you are far outnumbered by men. My early lessons in how to relate to men in the workplace, back when I worked for the police department, helped me. I was also anxious to follow the UCMJ and show respect for myself and the US Navy. It was not difficult for me to relate to my shipmates as siblings, whether on or off the ship. It felt very natural to think of them as brothers and sisters, to relate to our Captain as a father, and to think of our ship as a mother. We called the ship “she”, as sailors do, and fretted over her condition, because without her, we would not survive. It was easy to fight the enemy, because you were defending your ship (mother), your shipmates (family), and following your Captain’s (father’s) orders. I had no idea that this is the same model used by the Catholic Church; it just felt natural.
We had chaplains assigned to our ship from a variety of denominations. One of the first was an LCMS Lutheran, which, at first, made me very happy. However, I quickly realized that only a handful of people were allowed to receive communion on the ship and there were no other services or blessings a Lutheran pastor can provide. It became a contentious point when many Marines, who were about to be deployed into Iraq at the beginning of the war, complained bitterly about the chaplain not being able to do anything for them. Many were Baptist or Catholic. I spoke up to the Captain about the issue, even though I had enjoyed the idea of a chaplain from my own denomination onboard, it was not right to have someone who was so restricted by his own denomination that he could not serve the greatest needs of the service members onboard. The Lutheran chaplain was replaced by a Catholic priest. I was feeling a mixture of shame for helping to run off the previous chaplain and resentment towards his replacement. Not long after the new chaplain arrived, news reached the ship regarding a large scandal with Catholic priests and children. Some other officers made cracks behind the chaplain’s back, and I admit that, in righteous indignation, I laughed along with them. I was sure that the Catholic Church had gone astray in the ways that the Lutherans told me.
Then the day came when I was feeling quite low and trapped by a particularly difficult situation with two hostile senior officers. I had nowhere to turn except to the chaplain. After a quick talk, I felt better. After that, I defended him when the jokes began. The truth was that the Catholic chaplain was far more available to the sailors and Marines on our ship than the Lutheran chaplain was. I quit avoiding him and actually called him “Father” once instead of just “Sir” when I passed him in the passageway.
On my second ship, the USS Normandy, I was assigned as an engineering officer in charge of forty sailors. Again, we deployed to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a much better tour, made easier by the fact that my roommate was a very good role model for everyone on the ship. She was also the Catholic lay leader. Everyone respected her and her faith. In fact, the one time she cussed, it was because of one sailor who did something unbelievably dangerous, and she lost her cool. We all had the same reaction. We were all angry with the sailor that upset her enough to make her swear.
I managed to see over eleven different countries during port visits. I have never been a drinker, so ventured out during the day to see the sights and always slept on the ship. As a woman, it’s amazing how much trouble you can avoid if you never get drunk. The day tours always included the local cathedrals. I saw St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, as well as a beautiful little church in Militello, Sicily, and toured St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valleta, Malta. They were all incredible, but I felt like I was trespassing. The Catholic churches were all open and welcoming to tourists. While in Gothenburg, Sweden, my buddy and I spotted a Lutheran church on top of a hill, climbed all the way up, only to find it closed — the only Lutheran church I saw in any of my port visits and it was closed on the weekend! (Not fair.)
Towards the end of my tour on my first ship, I bought a little farm of my own and my old mare lived out the last of her days there. I couldn’t believe I owned a little piece of land. I marveled at the idea of being responsible for every tree and other living thing on the property. It was peaceful, but scary to be alone. I adopted a dog from the pound for companionship and security.
By now, I had thought that I would perhaps be alone through life as I was in my thirties and had not much time to date while assigned to ships. My determination to wait until marriage had not waivered and, fortunately, it weeded out many potential dates fairly quickly. Once shore duty came along, I found out that there was finally someone just for me. I trusted him almost immediately, which both amazed and frightened me. He and I both agreed that marriage should be forever and wanted to spend every moment we could together. I had never even had a serious relationship and he had never been married. We were both very picky, because of the failed relationships of our respective parents. I was working at the gas turbine inspection command and he was working as a Navy family physician. We were one rank apart, which meant the Navy had no issue with us dating. He joined my Lutheran church (he was baptized Episcopalian as a teen) and the pastor took us through all the pre-marital counseling. We were married in 2006, on Easter afternoon, in the Lutheran Church. We both got out of the US Navy around the same time, sold our respective homes, and we were ready to start our new life together in Florida.
We found a Lutheran church soon after arriving in Florida. My husband began working as a self-employed family physician, and I returned to college for graduate studies in biology. Fulfilling a long time dream, I finally applied to veterinary school at University of Florida, but we found out we were expecting and the baby was due the same week school began. Obviously, God had other plans. I did not make it to the interviews but if I had, I would have withdrawn my application. During pregnancy, I worked through some of the issues during my childhood. I finally told my mom and dad about the things my half-brother had tried to do when we were kids. My half-brother was a drug addict now and had been for almost a decade. I heard that he had been arrested and was facing prison time unless he could make it through an intensive VA drug treatment program. When he made it through, I talked to him to congratulate him and he was so different than I had ever remembered him. He met a very nice woman and married her the following year. I worked through forgiving him and we have never been closer. My parents’ secret had come out when my half brother was in his teens, but it wasn’t until very recently, that everything was out in the open between everyone in my family. Now, I hope he can feel at peace and know that he is still family, regardless.
Our son, John, was born in 2008 and he was baptized in the Lutheran Church. Finally becoming a mother was incredible. I had the ferocity of a mama bear tempered by the adoring love for our baby. Every night, after putting John to bed, I cried and thanked God on my knees for both my husband and our son.
What to do about religion?
Raising a child with religion is new to both my husband and me, since neither of us experienced it in our own childhoods, but we resolved to do our best. John attended a Lutheran preschool. By the time he was ready for kindergarten, we were exploring our options. Unimpressed by the local elementary school, we decided to send John to Annunciation Catholic School, in Middleburg, Florida (at one point, we wondered if this were a sign). Without pushing us, my dad admitted how happy he was about our choice for our son’s education. Although, I worried that John would be confused about religion, even though we were not regularly attending church.
In the meantime, Pope Francis was elected and my husband was being recruited to work at a new Catholic hospital closer to home. We were impressed with the new Pope. I didn’t understand why other Christians were making a big deal about Catholics having to accept the Pope’s authority. During the war, as a naval officer, I had been willing to fight and die for a much lesser man.
The first week at Catholic school, John brought home a picture of Mary and said that the school Mass was about her. When I inquired politely, his teacher invited me to attend the school Mass with him, so I could see what he was being taught. The next week, I followed John into the school’s church; he taught me what to do with the holy water. I sat next to him and tried not to get lost. By the end, I had some questions and was directed to the leader for children’s education. She was very polite and patient with me and my list of questions. John asked me to come to Mass with him every Thursday (who can say “no” to their own child?), and, thus, my list of questions grew. I eventually was directed to the adult education director, who was equally kind and patient. Finally, after a few more Masses, I had a deeper set of questions about the Eucharist, the sacraments, and Mary. I was told I should speak to the priest. I objected, explaining that I couldn’t waste his time, because I was Lutheran, and I was just trying to differentiate between what my son was taught and what I knew about my denomination’s teachings. Nevertheless, I was referred to Fr. Andy. Fr. Andy was very welcoming and answered my questions thoroughly. He also suggested I read a book about the early Church Fathers.
Coincidently, my mom was visiting us that week. I didn’t tell her much about my appointment with Fr. Andy, but she was suspicious. I have forgiven my mom for the past, and we have a fairly healthy relationship; however, we differ greatly in political and religious views. She did not react well when I eventually told her I was studying Catholicism.
The following week, my mom went home and my dad came for a visit. Out of respect for him, we attended Sunday Mass. Meanwhile, I had been reading the book Fr. Andy had recommended. At this point, I had no idea that God had set the wheels in motion, and I was doomed to become Catholic!
The weekend following my dad’s visit was Reformation Sunday, and we were planning to go to our Lutheran church. We hadn’t attended a Lutheran service since mid-summer. Reformation Day is really the day they talk about Martin Luther, wear red to represent the Reformation, and thumb their noses at the Catholic Church. I was dragging my feet that morning, and we left late. I didn’t really want to hear about Martin Luther, nor did I have the spirit to thumb my nose at anyone. I would rather hear more about Mary. She sparked my curiosity much more than a grumpy old German that lived long ago. The Catholic church is closer to our farm and starts fifteen minutes later. When we were about to pass it, I told my husband that we were running too late and should just turn in there instead. We went to Mass that morning (even though I had my red sweater on). Ironically (or Providentially), that was the Sunday we began attending Mass regularly.
Learning about Catholicism, after being schooled by Protestants, felt like I had only been allowed to view little random pieces of incredible artwork. It is only now that I understand the pieces were a single, beautiful masterpiece. I was shocked at many things in the book on the early Church Fathers. The way they did everything was so…well…Catholic! These early Christians gave the Faith a historical perspective that both the Episcopalians and the Lutherans had entirely ignored. When the RCIA leader gave me the class material, I dove right in! Everything was making sense intellectually. My husband was learning a little from me, but he was very busy settling into his new job and couldn’t make the evening RCIA classes; therefore, I was asked to attend a parish apologetics class that met during the day. At first, it felt like I was trying to drink from a fire hose, but the other members were very attentive and took good care of me. Not long after that, I told Fr. Andy that, even though I knew I had a lot to learn, I was sure I wanted to become Catholic.
Awestruck by the Presence of God
I was studying diligently and enjoyed attending both Sunday Mass as well as the school Mass with our son. However, I noticed that I sometimes had trouble looking at the altar during the Eucharist. It was as if the Eucharist was too strong, or I was too unworthy (perhaps both). I intellectually understood the idea of transubstantiation, but I knew there was more to this Sacrament than studying about it in books — I needed to seek understanding through prayer. I was curious about the rosary, so Deacon Joseph provided me with a rosary and took the time to show me how to do the prayers. I felt clumsy at first, but saying it with someone else was very helpful.
One morning, some friends from the apologetics class invited me to pray the rosary in the chapel with them. When I first agreed, I didn’t realize the chapel was where the tabernacle was located — where Jesus in the Eucharist was reposed outside of Mass. I started trembling when I reached the chapel door, and it was very difficult for me to go inside. I couldn’t fully look at the tabernacle. I felt unworthy to be in there so close to God, and, well, I was terrified. I wasn’t reconciled yet, so maybe that’s why I felt so much fear. When I reached out to pray, I felt like I was practically bumping into God! Now, I finally understood what the “Real Presence” meant — and they weren’t kidding. I kept my eyes shut while we prayed, and began to calm down as we progressed through the prayer, even though I was still too much in awe to be fully comfortable. That night, I read in the RCIA lesson that we should approach God with fear and trembling. Considering my experience in front of the Eucharist, that made sense.
The following week, I went back to pray the rosary again. I wanted to be there, even if I was still afraid. I didn’t tremble as much the second time, but I still had trouble looking at the tabernacle. I try to go every week now. Our son learned how to pray the rosary at school, so we began praying a decade together at night before bed, in addition to our regular prayers and readings. My husband and I have agreed to raise our son Catholic.
As a final, unexpected test, the new pastor at our former Lutheran church cornered me when I was visiting a friend. He grilled me for about thirty minutes as to why I left the Lutheran church. He was tough, but I answered his questions politely and didn’t back down. At the end, he said I was a good defender of Catholicism. He has twenty-six years as a pastor versus my six months of studying. It was intimidating. I guess I’ve come a long way.
Being reconciled to God
After months of preparation, I went through Lenten season this year thoroughly embracing the themes of reconciliation and charity. I looked forward to my First Reconciliation and Easter Week with trepidation and awe.
As I prepared for Reconciliation, the thought of my past sins weighed me down. I reflected on the Examination of Conscience many times over the period of Lent. Each time, I cried with remorse. As the date of my first Confession approached, I felt everything from terror to eagerness. I wanted to rid myself of these burdens, but first I had to bolster my courage. Other recent converts helped me tremendously by telling me about their experiences. The last few days before the Sacrament were the most emotional. The day before, my nervousness was obvious to everyone. I spent the day on the verge of tears. My list had been written, revised, and revised again. I added newly remembered sins up through the morning of my first Confession; everything was neatly organized by Commandment. I even set up the shredder to deal with the list when I was finished.
I entered the church that night trembling. I had left my husband and son at home to enjoy a pizza night. I had been too nervous to eat anything. My throat was dry and my knees felt like they were knocking. I walked slowly over to the line for Confession and tried to distract myself by reading. When it was my turn, I admit to eyeing the exit door briefly before going into the room. I trembled as I spoke and the paper shook. The Act of Contrition was the hardest to say without crying. Then, I listened to the words of absolution carefully. Once it was over, I got up and left feeling a bit dumbstruck. I walked down the aisle in a daze, almost to the end, before remembering to stop and pray. Just minutes before, I had been about to cry (and had been on the verge of tears all day), but there was no more fear or sadness in me. I couldn’t tell what it was that I felt at first. It was as if someone had hit a reset button. Then, slowly a growing joy began to dawn on me as I went through the prayers. I got up to leave and noticed my shoulders didn’t ache from the tension that had intensified over the last few days. As I left, Fr. Andy asked me how I felt. The only word that came to mind was, “Better!” He gave me a hug, and I felt like a returned prodigal child. I left the church feeling light and free.
After a night’s sleep, I finally understood that this was the true Church that Christ passed down to His Apostles. As a Protestant, I never knew if I was really forgiven. There was no real “Eureka!” moment when I confessed sins by myself. There was no one to loose or bind these sins for me, the way God had intended. It was just me, fervently hoping that my feeble prayer, however earnest, had actually worked. Meanwhile, now I knew the real Church and felt real forgiveness. This is the Church passed down from Jesus and nurtured through 2,000 years despite persecution, war, tyranny, reformation, and heresy. This incredible sacrament was preserved through the centuries, even though easier shortcuts were falsely promised, and gladly taken, by many. I had Jesus to thank for saving us all through His death on the cross and His Church to thank for allowing me the peace of true forgiveness. I was overwhelmed by this gift and tremendously thankful to the Catholic Church. I felt a new deep loyalty towards the Church for her gift. When I had left the US Navy, I had been willing to lay down my life for my country and once I was honorably discharged, I had felt abandoned. I felt like I had lost a family. Now, it felt like I had found something even more worthy of such loyalty that would never abandon me. What I had lost in the US Navy, I had gained a hundred-fold in God’s true Church.
The remaining weeks of preparation took on more meaning. Each day was something not to be squandered but spent trying to learn more or pray more.
The reward of courage
Finally, Easter Week arrived. The gloominess of Good Friday’s service reminded me of the first time I had ever heard about the Stations of the Cross. It had been my first encounter with Jesus, and the first time I had heard about how He died for us. Not only was I far more familiar with the story now, but I had faith in the Passion of Christ, instead of just curiosity.
At the Easter Vigil, all the candidates sat together with our sponsors. We enjoyed being treated like family by everyone and shared excited smiles with each other. The darkness at the beginning of the Vigil Mass mirrored my own darkness growing up, just as the light mirrored my own recent awakening. My knees trembled again when we stood up to recite our oath. I have taken two previous oaths in my lifetime: one was when I enlisted in the US Navy and the other was when I became a naval officer. The oath I took at the Easter Vigil Mass was far more important — and I meant every carefully, memorized word.
As we prepared for the Eucharist, I remembered all the times I couldn’t fully look at the altar during Mass; that feeling of trepidation and fear had taken time to work through. I knew the first time I entered the chapel and trembled from the force of the Presence that I wanted to be worthy. Reconciliation meant I was in a state of grace, but now that it was almost time, I had little clouds of doubt of my own worthiness again. I believe in transubstantiation and knew that He was truly present. It took more courage to approach the altar that night than anything I did in the military. I prayed and trusted fully in His grace. The feeling of Jesus being the guest of my soul was incredible. I found myself walking carefully, as if to take good care of His Presence. The only regret was that I couldn’t share the Eucharist with my husband and son. I wanted to hold them close as if they could feel it, too. They waited, patiently, supportively and lovingly.
What had begun 20 years ago
Our son asked me on the way home if he was Catholic now, too. I told him that he was being raised Catholic and would be in class for his First Communion in just a few years. He seemed satisfied with that. John has been calling himself Catholic for months now and takes pride in the fact that he was the one who asked me to come to the school Mass with him every week. He also taught me how to say the “Hail Mary” back in September and insisted we include it in our nightly prayers. The little evangelist is working on his father now.
I feel like I started this journey twenty years ago and wish I had the courage back then to do what I’m doing now. I would have to say that, although Pope Francis broke the ice, but from there, it was Mary who got us in the door. Then, Fr. Andy and the members of our parish got me to stay!
Every Mass is still a wonder to me. I hope to continue to learn and grow in faith, as well as find new ways to give back to the Church that brought me fully out of the darkness and into the light.
Update: Both my husband and my mother-in-law became Catholic at Easter 2016. Our son received his First Communion in May 2016.