I was baptized into the Catholic Church shortly after I was born, which was August 13, 1962. My extended family of hard-working, third and fourth generation Germans and Italians stood proudly by as the priest poured water on my head. My childhood then fell into the usual pattern of attending Mass, going to a Catholic school, and all the typical childhood activities such as sports and girl scouts.
During these years, I took my Catholic faith for granted. It was more tradition than anything else. I was Catholic, which meant summer festivals, spaghetti dinners, and frequent collections for St. Vincent de Paul. It meant there was someone important called the Pope and my Italian grandmothers wore medals of saints pinned to the inside of their underclothes. I knew of these traditions but didn't understand their meaning. It was a part of my identity, like having green eyes or dark blonde hair. However, I didn't realize that one's faith isn't a part of one's identity until you choose it, until you are aware that there are other choices and this one is the best.
While I was growing up, Catholic apologetics didn't exist. At least not for seventh-graders in Catholic schools. Missions and evangelism were also barely spoken about. The only missionaries I knew about were the priests who would visit the parish annually to talk about what they were doing and a second collection would be taken up for them. I quickly got the impression that if you weren't born a Catholic, you were flat out of luck. (Although 'luck' was a dubious thought since I was starting to feel my religion was about as interesting as a lint ball.) Who really spoke to anyone about considering Catholicism when they wanted to get serious about God?
Although my spiritual formation was weak, I always had a strong curiosity about God. I cannot remember ever not believing in God's existence. My first realization of what Jesus Christ did for mankind came while I was riding a bike when I was ten years old. I remember riding down my street, thinking about the crucifixion. The injustice of crucifying someone as perfect as Jesus when, in my child's mind, He did absolutely nothing wrong, was just not right. Suddenly I stopped as it hit me that He willingly took on that unjust sentence so that my sins would be forgiven. I remember feeling a deep sense of awe, remorse, and grief over what Jesus had done, just so I could be joined together with our heavenly Father. I can't say I comprehended all the minute details, but enough to understand that yes, what had happened was unfair but yet just at the same time.
Religion was one of my favorite classes. In high school, I looked forward to it, even though as a freshman and sophomore, all I remember is learning the songs from the musical, "Jesus Christ Superstar." But as a junior and senior, I took a two-year program simply called "Listening." For juniors, the choice was either "Listening" or going through the Old Testament. However, if I went through the Old Testament in my junior year, I could then take all the shorter, quarter classes during my senior year that had tantalizing titles such as "Sex and Marriage." It was a tough choice but I really didn't want to take Old Testament. With relief, I signed up for the "Listening" course.
Mrs. Olberding was a very dear woman. She approached the class from the ground up. She didn't assume anyone believed in God, even though all of us were raised Catholic. She took our questions seriously and never talked down to us. No question was seen as "silly" or "stupid." We all learned that it was okay to question as long as you were willing to find the answer. This class had a profound effect on my life. For the first time, an adult wasn't throwing stuff at me to believe but asking what I thought about belief.
Looking back, I now wish there was more teaching about my Catholic identity. The "Listening" class, for all its benefits, still did not make up for all the years I had not received instruction about my Catholic faith. If I were to blame anyone, it would be Vatican II. It was too much change and it seemed there weren't many guidelines. Parishes and schools were all able to determine on their own what they would teach and what they wouldn't. I understand that the mission of Vatican II was to breathe life into the church. But by opening the windows to the world to let the "fresh air of change" in, much of the world's poisonous fumes also came in. I really don't hold a grudge against the priests and nuns during that time. They were honestly trying to do what was best and in their eyes, they really thought they were helping Catholics become stronger in their faith. But I didn't grow as a Catholic because no one really explained well what being a Catholic meant. And perhaps more importantly, it wasn't consistently explained. Children need to be trained and that training does not happen in one semester or even a year. The consistency I'm talking about is experienced when the home life mirrors the Church and the Church mirrors the teaching of the Bible and the Magisterium. (That latter part is something I'm still learning about, but I do understand that there is church government authority, which in Catholicism, is partly seen in Canon law and the hierarchy.)
For instance, I had no idea until just a few months ago that there were priests whose sole purpose was interpreting Canon law. Did you know that it is the oldest, continuing legal system in the Western world? Neither did I. Nor did I realize that there were titles such as "Promoters of Justice" and "Defenders of the Bond." (Which I think just sounds as cool as all get-out. Sort of like Spiritual Super-Heroes.) There is so much to our Catholic faith that I am both delighted by the riches but yet saddened that it's taken me this long to find these treasures.
So. Back to high school. I graduated and attended the University of Dayton, a Marianist college, not far from my hometown of Cincinnati. I remember feeling like a bird, finally released to fly wherever she pleased during my freshman year. Suddenly I could "skip" Mass if I wanted and no one would really know. Of course my parents would ask if I was attending Mass and I would dutifully say yes - which was half-true. I did attend. But only when I wasn't hung-over from the previous night's partying with my girlfriends. Occasionally I'd attend Mass on a Saturday night so I wouldn't have to worry about going the next day, but I started to skip attending more often than not.
During this time, I was doing the usual college scene which meant attending parties where I didn't really know anyone, drinking, getting slightly drunk (or very), wobbling home to collapse in bed and then wake up feeling like a truck ran over me. It quickly grew wearisome and I sought a campus counselor to sift through my mess.
Counselor: "What do you think is your problem?"
Me: "Um. That I want love?" (This was in response to my keen desire to find a boyfriend. My approach of getting drunk and then trying to talk to drunk college boys clearly wasn't meeting my goal.)
Counselor: "That's not a problem. Everyone wants love in their life. What do you think is your problem?"
Me: "Um. Maybe it's the way I'm going about trying to find love?"
Counselor: (pleased but not entirely) "Close. What do you think is your problem?"
Me: (after thinking a little more) "Well. Could it be that I'm drinking too much?"
Counselor: (Dancing wildly while confetti showers down upon us. No, not really but almost.) "Yes! Bingo! You got it!"
That was in 1981. It was a pivotal point because it made me realize that I really didn't want to continue that behavior. I started to find other alternatives to hanging out in strange college campus houses with strange boys drinking strange alcoholic concoctions. I wasn't entirely surprised when my "friends" no longer came around. Since I was no longer buying everyone pitchers of beer, my coolness value had significantly decreased.
Suddenly I noticed a small group of students in my dorm who would gather together on a Friday night and play backgammon. It didn't seem exciting but I secretly admired them for going against the flow. I spoke to them on occasion but never joined in. It was another small pivotal point to show me there were better ways to spend a Friday night than what I had been doing. I started to read my Bible more often.
In 1982, I transferred to the University of Cincinnati. Most of my reason for doing so was to be near my boyfriend, who lived in Cincinnati. This was my first "long-term" relationship and was to be my only, next to the one with my husband. I was 19 years old. I was about to make a huge decision that would change my life dramatically. I joined Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.
Now my reasons for joining IVCF were not completely pure. (As is true for most of my decisions.) I was a new student, transferring from a small college to a campus of thousands. I knew no one. I also realized if I wanted to make friends, I'd have to go beyond the classroom walls. One day, I saw a poster for a Bible study sponsored by IVCF. I liked the name and thought, "This is what I need! Christian friends who don't drink and who will provide some wholesome socializing!" Spiritual upheavals were far from my mind.
So I walked into the Bible study and was immediately welcomed with genuine warmth. It was great to make new friends, especially those who really wanted to please God. Because deep down inside, I wanted to live a life pleasing to God. It was just very difficult when surrounded by constant debauchery. But from the very start, I noticed something "different" about those in the Bible study. They really liked the Bible! They took it seriously and discussed the verses earnestly. I had never really been in a Catholic setting where such a thing occurred.
The leader of the Bible study invited me to her home for dinner. Afterward, she led me to her living room where she asked me questions about my faith. Now at this point, I thought I was a Christian, although now realize that I didn't have an understanding about my faith. She asked the classic question of where would I go when I died. I promptly said that I hoped I'd go to heaven. She asked why I thought this. I responded by sharing the predictable answer of "I didn't kill anyone and tried to be a good person." She quickly told me that nothing I could do would earn my salvation, that it was only through the blood of Christ's sacrifice that my sins were forgiven. Long story short - she led me in the "Sinner's Prayer" where I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.
It was as though a fire had been lit in me. Before I devoured fictional books. Now I was ravenous to consume the Bible and books about the Christian faith. I couldn't read those books fast enough. I wanted to know God and grow in my Christian faith. I was also willing to "count the cost" as it became apparent my life needed to change in a major way.
What is interesting at this juncture is that the Catholic Church played a part in my "conversion." Our local parish was hosting a "Christ Renews His Parish"(CRHP) retreat. Both my mother and I participated in this weekend retreat, where we were given a Bible and taught about salvation and forgiveness through what Jesus Christ had done. I remember one elderly lady loudly protesting when told she could read the Bible on her own. "Oh, no!" She exclaimed. "Only the priest can interpret it!" I knew what she had been raised with and also knew that not even many Catholics thought they should read the Bible on their own. I took my copy of the Bible home and started to read it more thoroughly. Our group met weekly for a few months to follow up the retreat experience. It was a joyful time and spiritually very satisfying.
As interesting as CRHP was, it didn't seem enough to quench my thirst for more and "different." I became more involved with IVCF and as I did, I became more distant with the Catholic Church. I remember attending a special Spring Break outreach with IVCF. We visited Ft. Lauderdale at the height of the annual party-central mode for high school and college students. We were involved with open-air preaching and witnessing as much as we could to those gathered on the beach. (Which usually didn't end so well. "God?I don't want to talk about God! I came down here to forget about God and have fun!!")
Pastor Ron Rand, our official leader for that week, was bold, passionate, and inventive with his messages. I'll never forget the picture of him on top of the shoulders of one of our guys as they walked around the sand, with Pastor Ron's voice growing hoarse from trying to yell above the roar of the ocean's waves. Pastor Ron loved young people and it was evident in the way he would joke around and also encourage us. I was intrigued. I was also very interested in following him when we returned home since he was the co-pastor of a Presbyterian church.
I started to attend Pastor Ron's church when we returned, much to the dismay of my parents. They couldn't understand why I wanted to attend any other church than the one I was born into. I tried to patiently explain that the Catholic Church wasn't "meeting my needs" to grow spiritually. It was difficult to say that at the time, the Catholic Church didn't have the capability to conduct Bible studies outside of church. Other parishes may have been doing this at the time. All I knew is that my own parish was not. The CRHP program only lasted a few weeks and then was over. I remembered feeling sad when it ended. I definitely missed the shared fellowship.
This fellowship was foreign to me, but once I tasted it, I was hooked. Before, I was used to attending Mass where many people would dash out to the parking lot immediately after receiving Communion. I never had the opportunity to get to know my fellow parishioners because they simply weren't available. Adults were able to meet one another if their kids were in the Catholic schools, usually through attending sporting events. But for younger people, the only option was attending CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) or nothing. I did attend CYO meetings, but they seemed to focus more on high school age and below during that time.
The Presbyterian church was different. After church, they'd gather in a building called Fellowship Hall for conversation and coffee. There was a bookstore and library, which of course drew me like a moth to light. This was where I started to learn about different Christian authors and also get to know my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I often wouldn't get home until hours later and then have to explain to my father where I was, which wasn't welcome news to him, to say the least.
IVCF had a short-term missions program. I was able to raise support to attend the 1985 Europe short-term mission trip. Again, this turned out to be yet another pivotal point in my spiritual journey.
I had always yearned to visit Ireland. My parents were often a little perplexed by my fascination with this country since there wasn't a drop of Irish blood on either side of our families. But I was about to get my wish fulfilled when IVCF made Ireland our first stop on a 10-week mission trip. The plan was to stay in various countries with hosts while we worked with local churches in their evangelism programs. We landed in Dublin and spent two weeks in Ireland. Then we traveled with our leaders Steve and Miki to Oxford, Paris, Aix-en-Provence, Amsterdam, and Germany with the last being the final stage of our journey.
I visited Mass in Ireland and noticed how "dead" it seemed to me compared to the liveliness of the Protestant celebrations we usually attended. I'll never forget the first part of our journey started with a well-meaning but anti-Catholic preacher who all but called Rome the "whore of Babylon." Several of the young girls on our team left the teaching in tears as they feared for the spiritual safety of their families. I remember feeling a bit confused but leaning toward what the preacher said since it made sense at the time and no one challenged him.
I'd like to interrupt the story briefly here: This is exactly why I feel strongly about equipping myself with Catholic apologetics. There are many Christians who do not understand their own history as a Church let along Catholic doctrine - which is in essence, the christian church's doctrine. If I had been better equipped back then, I would have challenged that teacher. (And of course it almost goes without saying I probably wouldn't have been there to begin with since I wouldn't have left the Catholic Church.) But it is vitally important that as Catholics, we understand why we believe what we believe because there are many of our separated brothers and sisters in Christ who don't know and have been fed lies. Okay. End of interruption.
After the mission trip ended, I stayed in Europe for a few more weeks, visiting a friend in Greece and traveling to Italy. I was able to visit Vatican City but it is my regret that it was not a pilgrimage. Still, it is impossible not to be impressed with Vatican City as a city of magnificent beauty, let alone spiritual significance. I wandered the corridors of the Vatican's museum in utter awe. I had visited some of the finest museums in the world, but all seemed to pale in comparison with the Vatican's treasures.
Many think of the Catholic Church as "hoarding" such things, but suddenly I saw it in a different light. What if the Catholic Church was protecting such valuables? Protecting history so that it would not be forgotten? And isn't that what the Catholic Church still does today? Protect the faith so that it is not forgotten?
I bought a cheap leather book cover with an image of St. Peter's Square and Basilica impressed upon it. I placed it on my journal, which I was faithfully keeping at that time while traveling. I wish I could say I bought blessed rosaries for my parents but that was the furthest thing from my mind at the time. I treated the visit to Vatican City as a tourist and flew home from Rome, unchanged in my intent to leave all Catholic things behind.
Once I returned home, I realized I had a burning desire in my heart to share my faith with others. I studied, took classes at the church whenever available, and joined the evangelism team. I was finished with college and now looked at the secular work world as my mission field. I would try to engage people in conversations about God and even flirted with open-air preaching. (Yes. I was a bit of an oddity.) During lunch, I had befriended a colorful group of Christians who were comprised of downtown workers and a few urban dwellers. One of them was a street preacher and would preach on Fountain Square during noon, when the area was filled with downtown workers enjoying their lunch.
One day, I sensed a desire to preach but wasn't keen on following through. Many thoughts flitted through my head such as, "What on earth are you thinking?" And "Are you crazy?!" The one street preacher realized what was happening and encouraged me. The group huddled around me, laid hands on me and prayed for boldness. Suddenly I felt the boldness and marched out into the square and yes, started to preach. I remember being surprised as some of the things I had read about Christianity started to flow from my mouth. I read so much that oftentimes the information would drop deep in my brain but wouldn't necessarily surface in a timely manner. Not that day. Everything I had read that focused on evidence now came to my lips. I remembered thinking what a sight I must have been, dressed in my charcoal-gray flannel skirt and jacket with an ivory blouse, stockings and black high heels as I paced back and forth slowly on the square.
A few businessmen stopped and gathered around, some looking down upon me from the walkway above. I started to emphasize the illegal aspect of Jesus Christ's arrest and how if today He had been brought up on false charges, the whole case against Him could have thrown out of court if the law was truly followed, which it wasn't back then and probably still wouldn't have been followed today - because God had a better plan. The preaching lasted perhaps for 15-20 minutes tops. (After all, I also was on my lunch break and couldn't do it for too long...) But afterward I felt humbled and prayed God used the words to plant seeds. This little group and I would often do such things and then pass around Bibles to those who wanted them.
I joined the Presbyterian church and attended faithfully. But something inside of me still wanted "something more" and it wasn't until I was introduced to the "Charismatic" side that I started to understand. I wanted more of the Holy Spirit. I wanted to learn about spiritual gifts. The Presbyterian church had another service that focused on this and I began to attend. I loved it. I was enthralled with the thought that God had given us spiritual gifts to be used for His glory. Again, I started to study about the gifts and offices as I tried to understand what was expected of me.
My fascination with "things of the Spirit" took me from the Presbyterian church to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. At this time, in the late 80's, I started to hear more about this unique church and decided to visit. At that time, our local VCF had only one service and met in the auditorium of a trade school building. (Today, the church is in a custom-built building complete with a gym and food court. It has approximately 6,000 members.) I immediately liked the casual atmosphere and especially the coffee served at the beginning. We were even encouraged to bring in our coffee cups as we relaxed after the worship time to listen to the sermon. (Or "teaching" as it was called.) However, what really caught my eye was what happened after the service. The pastor would end his teaching by singing another worship song and then invite people who hadn't made a decision to follow Christ to come up front for prayer. Then he went further by saying there were some people who were present who had various ailments ("I sense there is someone here who has been struggling with back pain for years. If you come up and allow our prayer teams to pray over you, I believe God wants to touch you and bring healing...") and people indeed, would come up for prayer.
And if that wasn't thrilling enough, there were people who would come up for prayer who would suddenly "manifest." Now "manifest" was a word I learned early on simply by watching someone acting very strange and then asking a fellow believer, "What the heck is that?!" Manifesting refers to someone showing demonic oppression. (Which is a heck of a lot more common than possession as Linda Blair did in "The Exorcist.") Sometimes such manifestations would freak people out but I was again, fascinated. The way I looked at it, Jesus Christ came to set the captive free and there were loads of people held captive by many things, including demonic junk. So I watched as people would pray over such tormented souls and then watch again in amazement as peace and serenity settled upon them. I was hooked! That's what I wanted to see, people set free!
After that, I left the Presbyterian church, joined theVineyard Christian Fellowship and immediately immersed myself in their small groups, church services, and training. I joined the prayer teams and learned how to sense things in the spirit and be sensitive to what God was doing with a person. I headed into church early Sunday mornings for intercessory prayer with the pastor and a small group of people. I joined the evangelism team where we'd visit various neighborhoods, knock on their doors and invite them to church. I partook of the early days of the creation of "servant evangelism" where we'd give away free Cokes to people in downtown Cincinnati on Fountain Square or give free carwashes "just to show people God loved them." (We had some wild service projects. Everything from wrapping gifts at Christmas time in a busy mall to washing windshields of parked cars to cleaning toilets for businesses.)
Throughout this time, I was growing into leadership. I started by co-leading a small group and then eventually led one. One day, I met a man who was in the process of being trained to plant another Vineyard church in town. We both clicked with our vision and love for poetry. Dave and his wife, Jodi, were two of the best Christians I'd ever met. They both had a heart for seeing God touch people and bring them into His Kingdom. Dave asked if I would pray about being a part of the church plant and I agreed. Long story short - I joined what began as a small group out of their home, which led to Sunday meetings in an Oddfellow's Hall, which then led to Sunday meetings at the city's recreation center, which then led our church purchasing the property of a Catholic parish that had to sell it to merge with another one.
Somewhere in the early 90's, we suddenly had a gorgeous Catholic church, a convent, a rectory, and a small schoolhouse. (A loan was taken although the church was and is still poor. Suffice it to say the pastor today works as part owner of his father's garage, which he enjoys but the church can't financially support him and his family.) I remember feeling sad when I thought of a Catholic church having to merge with another parish because of dwindling numbers. Even though I was separated from the Catholic church, I never hated it. I had compassion for the priests who were trying to do the best they could. The church building we bought had a beautiful curved, high ceiling with tall stained-glass windows. It had old wooden pews that were sold off and upholstered chairs were brought in. Of course the kneelers went, too.
Those were actually good days for me. I developed deep friendships with my fellow leaders. I was now on the board of trustees and directed the women's ministry and prayer ministry. I handled the training and organization of our prayer teams and scheduled women's prayer breakfasts. The leaders were in a small group of their own, which caused a small bit of dissension since some said we were being elitist. However, I did then and still say there is a place for such groups. Leaders shoulder a burden that is unknown to those who aren't in their shoes. It isn't easy to be transparent about such burdens with those who aren't involved in the same life. That small group of leaders taught me much about support and encouragement. I still hold each one of those leaders dear in my heart.
Another pivotal point in my life came when I heard about an extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon a Vineyard church in Canada. I was intrigued when I heard about people having an encounter with God that included physical experiences such as shaking or falling down. I was highly curious and not a little suspicious since I thought many people forced themselves to do things and then said it was God doing it. I wanted to see with my own eyes what was happening and also experience it if indeed, it was real.
The astonishing development started to become dubbed, "The Toronto Blessing." I pursued it with a vengeance. I am one for planning but for this opportunity, I threw all planning out the window. I convinced a small group from my area to let me drive with them to Toronto for a conference. I hadn't registered nor did I have a room to stay in. I was going on blind faith that registration wouldn't be closed by the time I arrived and I'd find somewhere to stay. My traveling partners were staying elsewhere, so I was left to make my own arrangements. Happily, the registration was not closed and I found a woman who allowed me to stay with her in her hotel room and split the cost. I was set.
The conference was a series of teachings about what God was doing and how He desired to see His children made whole, delivered from their hurt, so that they could then touch a hurting world. But really, in my opinion no one really could grasp what God was doing because it looked like a circus. People would suddenly break out into laughter, others would shake so hard, they'd fall to the floor. To anyone who was not a Christian or even a more solemn Christian, the entire place would like like a madhouse! Sometimes God does confound man and sometimes I think He does it just to show us He's God and we're not. During that weekend, I opened myself to Him and asked over and over if it was real. His response to me was to touch me and yes, it was real and I did fall down hard. In fact, I remember a British newspaper being at the conference and I saw one photographer snapping away as I was body-slammed to the floor. So much for decorum!
Trying to explain such things sounds strange when you've not experienced them, and I still have questions regarding that time in my life. But my main question for myself and others was simple: Are you drawn closer to God? Is there any fruit born in your life from such an experience? How has it changed you?
I noticed that there were a group of people who were like children when it came to the Holy Spirit. These were the ones who sought experience after experience, not truly absorbing but just running to the next conference of the next "outpouring" to experience what they perceived as more blessings. Many people though, returned to their home churches to share what had happened and encourage their church members to seek God even more earnestly. I was in the latter group. My little group drove home to Ohio, excited and amazed by what we had seen, heard, and experienced. It was an awesome time of fellowship and we couldn't wait to share it with our churches.
However, my pastor and his wife were almost indifferent to "The Toronto Blessing." They simply weren't interested in learning more about it, let alone asking for God to bring it to their church. I felt enormously disappointed since at that time, I believed many would miss out on a gift God was giving to His church. I didn't argue with my pastor, but did spend a great deal of time in prayer, asking God to show me what I was to do with my new passion. I briefly visited another Vineyard church that had embraced "The Blessing" and enjoyed fellowship with them. I stayed with my home church, but was saddened when I saw a split occur in the Vineyard Association of Churches. The Toronto church, after much discussion with national leadership, finally chose to leave the Association after it was clear that some wanted to put the brakes on what was happening. As a result, several other Vineyard churches left the Association and became independent. Not exactly the kind of "fruit" I had hoped to see.
I realized that my quest for learning more about the Holy Spirit and His gifts were taking me in a different direction. My current church was focused on gentle Bible studies and reaching out to the neighborhood with games and service projects. I wanted a bit more pizazz. I wanted to see people collide head-on with God because in my mind, God was huge, enormous, and after encountering Him, one's life was never the same. At that time, my perspective was my driving force. It wasn't as though the Bible studies and evangelism weren't enough, it was just that I saw how people hungered for experience. I had hungered for it, too, and during that time, believed that most people lived in a fog, unaware of the intensity of love God had for us. That intensity was made real by such things as "The Toronto Blessing." I knew I was changed but I also knew I had a responsibility to hold my experiences accountable to God's word and leadership. It was difficult to do when the leadership either didn't understand or agree.
My desire to grow in spiritual gifts increased and although I was disappointed by my pastor's decision, I still respected him while realizing that it may have been time for me to depart. It was important to me to not only define my spiritual gifts, but to cultivate them. I felt a strong obligation to God to pursue Him and His calling for my life, even when my heart would rather stay put. A friend of mine, who was also my partner in intercessory prayer, introduced me to a ministry in Charlotte, North Carolina who focused on training in the gift of prophecy. I was very intrigued, since I knew about this gift but had seen few practice it according to St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. I wasn't interested in flakiness, which is usually what I witnessed when it came to the prophetic gifting. I wanted respectability. (As if anyone who heard God speak could have even the tiniest bit of respectability from the world...)
I started to read the publications of this ministry and was smitten. It seemed exactly the type of ministry I was hoping to find. There were plenty of Scripture references in their writing and something rang true in my spirit when I read the historical pieces on noteworthy Christians of the past who were part of major revivals. I attended one of their conferences with my friend and after, desired with all my heart to attend their three-year school of ministry program. When I returned home, I notified everyone that I was going to apply to the school and received encouragement to do so, even from my pastor.
My intention was to learn more about the prophetic gift and mature spiritually in all areas as a Christian. My application was accepted for the school and I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina without knowing a soul, thrilled to be a part of the very first class of the ministry school.
Little did I know that Charlotte would be the place where I grew enormously in my understanding of the prophetic gift, but also where my romance with non-denominational churches would start to die. When I arrived, the church there was still in its infancy but growing by leaps and bounds. I was one of the first students for their brand new school of ministry. Students and families had moved to Charlotte, North Carolina from all over the country and even overseas. We had a woman from Switzerland who joined us. Others came from California and Washington State. We quickly bonded and felt blessed to be a part of something we were sure would only grow larger in time. We were all eager to be equipped spiritually and then to launch out like the early church in the book of Acts, seeking to do God's will.
It didn't take long for me to realize that this ministry was rather tough, almost like a boot camp. Several of the leaders had very strong personalities and one in particular, in his words, "didn't suffer fools gladly." I accepted this type of behavior, that bordered often on rude, because I wanted to learn. I reasoned that I had been "coddled" by the softness of the Vineyard and I needed to "toughen up" spiritually because as this ministry constantly reminded us, we were engaged in a spiritual battle. The enemy wasn't letting up on trying to discourage or destroy us. And he certainly wasn't going to take any evangelistic efforts lying down. We were all marked targets, so we better be paying attention to that "spiritual armor" St. Paul spoke about in his letter to the Ephesians.
There were many times when that tough approach concerned me. I saw several people get hurt deeply as they were either overlooked or worse, "corrected" by leadership. Questions began to rise in my mind regarding such treatment. Were we not to confront in love? Was not gentleness a part of who Christ was and is still today? Although the story in St. Matthew 15 of the Gentile woman asking for the healing of her daughter but willing to take breadcrumbs from the table was pointed out as proof that Jesus Christ was "rude," I suspected it was an excuse for those who wanted to justify their inconsiderate behavior. I never thought Jesus was anything but loving when anyone truly sought Him. Even for that Gentile woman, He praised her persistence.
I was to witness more. The ministry attracted people who were emotionally wounded and often they would act out from that woundedness. I realized that churches overall needed to help people receive healing but there was no place for that within this ministry. They likened themselves as a place where people were "equipped", not healed. It wasn't a place for new believers, either, since what they were providing; in their minds, was "meat" and not "milk." Pastoral care wasn't a priority.
I also noticed that we rarely celebrated communion and didn't have a baptismal font. If someone did decided to become a Christian, one of the leaders had to take them to another nearby church for baptism. Communion was something that happened once a month and even that started to turn into once a quarter. Evidently, it wasn't seen as important enough to commit to practicing on a regular and frequent basis.
In the middle of my second year as a student, I was hired to be the church secretary. I immediately was plunged into the day-to-day operations of a church and all the accompanying needs and demands that people have regarding their spiritual leadership. My compassion grew for the pastors as I witnessed many times unreasonable demands made upon them. I was saddened when strangers would walk through the door, hoping to get money for whatever need and I had to turn them away. Our church had no "benevolence fund" and believed that people's needs were to be met within the home group structure. As much sense as that made, it was still very difficult to know people were hurting and we couldn't help them.
I found other ministries who did help and started my own reference list when such occasions arose. My boss, who was the Administrative Pastor, was one of the best bosses I had ever served. John was a retired "full bird" Air Force Colonel who got the job done. I gleaned as much as I could from his outstanding organizational skills and pitched in to help whenever he needed me, which was quite frequently, given the growth cycle of the church. I also learned why church secretaries often attended Sunday worship at another church. Since I didn't do this, I rarely felt like I could fully relax and worship at our church. Sunday mornings were filled with a constant flow of interruptions and requests. At times I could hide my annoyance, but other times my impatience would show. I reminded myself to focus and recognize this was an opportunity and one I'd likely not have for that long. I intended to graduate from the ministry school and then hopefully start to minister in other areas with a teaching and prayer ministry. However, God had other ideas...
When I would talk with my family, my father especially would ask me when I was coming back home. I kept trying to defer the conversation because in my mind, I was never going back. I had this idea that I was going to be traveling all over the country for ministry and my "home base" would be Charlotte. Much had happened in a few years. I was promoted from church secretary to being the Pastoral/Academic Advisor for the ministry school. It was more responsibility, but I was eager to learn and serve in this new arena. After less than a year, I was formally ordained as a pastor within the church. I'll never forget my family traveling to Charlotte to witness the short ordination ceremony that happened within the Easter Sunday service. They were happy for me since they knew my heart's desire was to serve within the ministry. I can only imagine the bittersweet emotion my parents must have felt as they probably wondered why I couldn't find my place within a Catholic church. Little did either they or I know that this ordination would actually be the beginning of the end for my involvement with non-denominational churches.
At that time, I was very sensitive to the subject of women ministering within the church. As the first woman who held the position of a pastoral role within the ministry school, I realized I needed to tread carefully. My position as the Academic Advisor had put me in a delicate place of being both the ministry school's and the student's advocate. On one hand, the students had questions about their classes and their ministry projects. On the other hand, the senior leadership of the ministry had a certain vision they were following and often would collide with passionate, but perhaps misguided, students.
Then there were the women students who looked to me as a spokesman for women in ministry. I would remind them that a woman in ministry's first priority is to hear God and obey. It wasn't (and I still believe isn't) the job of a woman to seek acceptance, validation, or recognition from man for this service. The women followed Jesus Christ and ministered to Him. As far as I was concerned, that was to be the example we as women were to follow. But it was difficult, I knew. Many women still felt "left out" when it came to being included in leadership. I, myself, was still not a part of the senior leadership team although the man who had previously held the position, was. I admit there were times I struggled with this, but would offer it up to God and trust that in His time, and if it was His will, He would change things. The only response I was to have was submission to the authorities He had placed over me.
During the next two years, I saw more incidences of students being discouraged by the occasionally harsh treatment by leadership. The concept of a "boot camp" was embraced more as the clear message was given to newer students: We're here to 'toughen' you up. I had concerns, of course. In my mind, we as Christians weren't to focus on being "tough," but being loving. Love, was the weak area in the ministry. Even the senior pastor had admitted it. Pastoral care wasn't a priority, either. If people felt hurt or offended, they were simply expected to "get over it" and move on. Although I didn't advocate wallowing in self-pity, I also saw the value in helping a fellow brother or sister in Christ prayerfully deal with such emotions and especially move into a place of forgiveness and peace. Suffice it to say, there wasn't much openness to such an approach.
Things started to crumble for me toward the end of 2000. A micro-managing boss who had been re-assigned a year ago was now back and I didn't relish the change. I was starting to feel more and more like a round peg being happy in a square hole, aware of the differences in approach I had and how those differences weren't sitting well with some leaders. Whenever I had concerns, I would gently bring them to the table. I was perhaps hyper-sensitive in being perceived as "pushy," so I was careful with my words and actions. Still, I couldn't resist trying to offer a few ideas for the ministry school's program, one which was to have an immediate and unexpected result.
Years ago, when I was still a member of the Vineyard, a special Bible study was offered that had a small group tackle the book, Search For Significance: Seeing Your True Worth Through God's Eyes by Robert S. Magee. The study was straightforward, although provacative and deep. It asked the question: Where do you get your sense of worth? From what people think of you? From what you do? Or from God?
I had gone through the study, many weeks of meeting with a closed group, and experienced a revolutionary way of looking at my relationship with God. The study revealed many fears I had and released me from the bondage of people's opinion. It was simply life-changing and I became quickly a big fan of the book and workbook. Within the ministry school, I saw the potential for helping new students adjust by suggesting that all students study this during their first year in the required attendence for home groups. One of my duties was taking almost a hundred incoming students and assigning them to a home group. These home groups did not have a particular program to follow. The small group leader was free to teach whatever they saw fit and was encouraged to be "led by the Holy Spirit."
I saw the study as a wonderful way to bring all the students together and strengthen their faith. One of the things that concerned me with the new students (and truly, new people who joined the church) was an immediate rush to be recognized for having a certain spiritual gift and then included in the particular ministry to exercise that gift. Sounds fine on the surface, but the hunger for recognition told me that a person was still looking for the opinion of man, and not God. If a student went through the Search for Significance study, it would help greatly in getting them grounded.
During a senior staff meeting, I proposed the idea. One senior leader adamantly told me no and was obviously not interested in hearing anything more about it. I didn't argue but felt disappointed that the idea was so quickly cut down, especially since I rarely was included in senior meetings and it was the first time I contributed anything. The next day, during another meeting, I brought up a different issue relating to the school program. The same senior leader leveled his gaze at me and said he had already told me no regarding the "Search for Significance" idea and didn't want to discuss it anymore. It was one of those "Twilight Zone" moments when I felt like I was in another universe, the kind where you say one thing but the person hears something entirely different. I was amazed and confused. I hadn't brought up the book at all but was talking about something completely different. Evidently, the senior leader was still stuck on the memory from the day before.
During my years of involvement with non-denominational churches, I often noticed how charismatic people would rise to leadership positions. Whether such people were spiritually mature enough to hold such positions was at times questionable, but it happened often enough that allowed me to track it. The senior leader was mature but had a calculating, and at times controlling personality that caused most people to keep a distance. His communication style verged on bullying and sent me the clear message that I was not to approach him because he was the initiator, not me. Communicating with such types is tricky. In the end, keeping your dignity while doing so becomes nearly impossible. My interactions with him were often the catalyst for much prayer.
The day after the second meeting, I had a visit from another senior pastor. He warned me that I didn't want to get "on the bad side" of the senior leader. He said that even though my idea had some merit, that I was to "let it go." I looked him in the eye and said it was already gone after that first meeting but it seemed the senior leader was the one who hadn't let it go. He nodded and tried to say some encouraging words. I told him I would not bring it up again. I felt sad that such an exchange even happened, especially thinking that if anyone had an issue with me, that they chose not to directly confront me but go about it "sideways" by using someone else.
However, afterward I felt as though a door had closed. I no longer felt as though I was fitting into the ministry organization and started to pray about the next step I was to take. Meanwhile, my father was encouraging me to return home. I remember talking to him on a Sunday night, resisting his request again, and then later going to bed as normal. On Monday morning, I awoke and had a certainty that I indeed was going to be moving back to Cincinnati. There was peace in my heart regarding the choice and I felt this was God's way of showing me what the next step was to be.
What was ironic (although irony to us is often God's way of shifting gears) was that just before I was going to tell my boss about my decision, I received word (from the same man who "warned" me) that I was going to be asked to be a part of the senior leadership team. Only a month ago, I would have be elated by such news. But on that day, I realized not only did I not want it, I didn't need it. I had fully crossed over to the other side of being free from having any of my own spiritual gifts "confirmed" by leadership. For so many years, as I had sought God for instruction, I had always submitted fully to leadership. I still believe in submission, but realized that submitting to unhealthy leadership was doing me no good spiritually. It was time to regroup and spend time in prayer.
I gave my notice to the ministry and it was received. No attempts were really made to get me to stay. What was touching though, was the response of the students. Many told me how much I had meant to them and how they were going to miss me. It was the students I had come to love the most in Charlotte. Most of them were between the ages of 20-30 years old with a few older ones scattered in each class. I always had a heart for young students and knew I would miss them, also.
So, in mid-December, 2000, my father and brother traveled up to Charlotte to help me pack everything up and return to Cincinnati. I remembered feeling relief as they did this for me. I will never forget the help they provided. We headed out as I took one last look at my little cottage, my refuge from a very hectic and stressful job. I didn't realize just how much stress I was under until I met an old friend from my church in Cincinnati. He took one look at me and said incredulously, "What happened to you?!" I didn't understand his question and asked him to explain. He said that before I left for Charlotte, I had a youthful and relaxed look about me. Now that he saw me just after my return, he noted that I looked old. Tired. Weary. That's when I started to understand just how stressed I had been.
God was incredibly gracious to me by providing a perfect work schedule. I found a part-time job where I worked Monday, Tuesday, and a half-day on Wednesday. The rest of the day on Wednesdays, I would go to a cleaning job. I cleaned one older single woman's home one week and then the alternate weeks, another woman's home. Every Thursday, I cleaned a large home along with with another woman. I remember my mother not being thrilled with my choice to work as a house cleaner, but I told her it was temporary and gave me the chance to rest a little while still making money.
During this time, I could barely sit in a church. I tried to visit my home church, but felt uncomfortable, as though trying to fit into an old set of clothes that now was too small. I made myself go through the motions since some of my old friends were expecting me, I was sure, to jump back into church activities. I couldn't do it. A crazier part of me even tried to apply for the position of Hospitality Pastor at the Vineyard I had originally attended. The church now had thousands of members and the staff had grown more professional and, yes, more corporate. They had a slick graphics department that cranked out glossy brochures and complex audio/visual presentations. Their new location had a food court just outside of the main sanctuary area, a bookstore, a special meeting area for newcomers, and many other features. It was light years away from what I had remembered.
What was amusing to me was that I didn't even make the second cut from the evaluation process. It was just amazing. My father's next door neighbor was on staff and the one who alerted me to the position. It wasn't a posted position, so I first had to explain to a nameless/faceless individual on the phone how I learned about it, then was asked for my address so I could "fill out some forms." Some forms. They were psychological tests given to businesses to assess potential candidates. I dutifully completed them and sent them off. I received another set of forms and did the same. I spoke with someone on the phone who asked more questions. About a week later, I received a note saying I didn't even meet the minimum requirements for a position that basically was a glorified scheduling position. (The Hospitality Pastor organized the greeting teams, parking lot greeters, ushers, and coffee-making teams.) I laughed as I remembered how many plates I was expected to keep spinning in the air while in Charlotte but a part of me was somehow relieved when I got the word. I was trying to find my way back into ministry but God was telling me it wasn't the place nor the time. Meanwhile, the same friend who said I looked old thought I was out of my mind to even try. He didn't care much for mega-churches.
So during that time, I attended church sporadically. I enjoyed re-connecting with my family and overall relaxed. I found a little apartment, joined the YMCA, and also a cycling group. I was exercising regularly and started to feel better than I had in a long time. I had come to the conclusion that perhaps I was called to be single and started to send for information from nearby colleges and universitites. I was looking into the possibility of returning to school to get a Master's degree, either in communication art or writing. And because God seems to love surprising us, that is when I met my husband.
We met online, in a Christian chat room. I certainly was open to meeting someone but never thought it would happen on the internet! I had heard too many "horror" stories about such pairings and was not interested. However, I quickly discovered that Mickey lived in Columbus, which wasn't that far from Cincinnati. I reasoned that at least we could meet without it costing an arm and a leg in airfare costs. We exchanged over seventy emails before we had our first date. After that date, I remember floating as I realized he was "different" than anyone else I had ever dated and it was wonderful. We soon were traveling back and forth on the weekends to do things such as visiting the annual Renaissance Festival, the Labor Day fireworks in Cincninnati, and hiking in Hocking Hills. I remember how I would cry when we'd have to depart for our respective homes, longing to be with him during the week.
Mickey proposed after only a few months and I was amazed how easily the "yes" flowed from my mouth. It was the most natural thing in the world to say yes, even though I had wondered if I would feel nervous or unsure. After praying about it, I felt fairly confident that this indeed was God's choice for my mate. 9/11 came and shook everyone. I called Mickey right away just to hear his voice. I called my family immediately to tell them I loved them. I think everyone else did the same thing. The tragic and horrendous event of that terrorist attack made me even more determined to appreciate life each day. Mickey and I set our wedding date for December and couldn't wait. Because I never thought I'd return to the Catholic Church, I didn't look for any special dispensation to marry Mickey, who was divorced. My pastor of the smaller Vineyard church plant married us in, ironically, a Catholic Church that they had bought after the parish had to merge with another one.
My family was still very happy for me and we celebrated with a small gathering of both friends and immediate family members. Almost a year from my return to Cincinnati, I now was moving yet again to another city but at least, not so far away. I was just happy to now know that my sweetheart and I were together during the week, no more tearful goodbyes on Sundays.
Mickey had spent years with the Church of Christ. I fully expected us to find a church home in Columbus and attend services together. I was surprised that this didn't happen. Although Mickey and I had many conversations about our faith, I couldn't convince him to help find a church for both of us. He reluctantly accompanied me to one non-denominational church but it was obvious he wasn't interested. We attended a few times his brother's church, another Church of Christ but instrumental and feeling more like a non-denominational church than anything else. And so I found myself on Sunday, visiting various churches on my own. I visited three different Vineyard churches but none persuaded me to stay and make it my church home. It was 2002 and I was still feeling incomplete spiritually.
Over time, it was just easier to stay home on a Sunday morning. Months passed into years as I would occasionally feel the pang of being churchless. In 2006, my life took another momentous turn, this time, orienting me toward my eventual return to the Catholic church.
My mother was raised by a strong Italian Catholic family. In fact, my brother knew more about their involvement with their local parish than I did. They lived just blocks away from what is now a historical church. Old St. Mary's in Cincinnati may look deceptively bland and humble from the outside, with it's painted white brick and concrete steps, but inside it's is a different story. The church was the pride and joy of the neighborhood decades ago, when it was filled with German, Italian, and Polish immigrants. Some families even baked those bricks in their own ovens. My parents were married there.
My great-grandmother and grandmother washed and ironed the priest's linens. I can't remember my grandmother's bedroom without thinking of the crucifix on the wall, the statue of the Blessed Virgin, and the tall, red glass candle holder that often had candles lit in them. In fact, it's difficult to think of my grandmother at all without her Catholic identity. She was Catholic through and through and it defined her, oriented her world, and proved to be a guiding light for all in her family. She and my mother wore medals pinned to their undergarments; and my grandmother, before she passed away, proudly showed me a small book that had all the Catholic prayers in them. I would give anything right now to tell her with genuine emotion that yes, they are beautiful and right. At the time, I was still recovering from my time in Charlotte; and instead nodded politely and thought her sweet and sentimental.
My mother was Catholic but a little more independent than her mother. I don't remember her talking to the priest as much, but yet she raised my brother and I with a clear understanding that we were Catholic and we were to be obedient and trust the Church. I do remember the many talks we had after I left the Catholic Church. She was mostly angry, not understanding why I couldn't accept my heritage as she did. I tried to explain to her my questing heart, but it was difficult. She never felt the need to do such things and never would have imagined defying not only her parents, but her church by doing something else. However, I would take special memories, like my admiration for our high school priest who turned into an amazing pastor, as a way to connect to her and let her know I didn't totally forget where I came from.
My mother was never a fully healthy person. My last memory of her as being normal and healthy was when I was very young. As she aged, health conditions developed. Some were real, others seemed exacerbated by hidden demons she fought everyday. But throughout it all, she was a loving, giving person, filled with compassion for those who, as she'd say, were "kicked around." A cousin of hers got pregnant as a teenager. Almost everyone in the family shunned her and the irresponsible neighborhood boy who reluctantly married her. My mother, though, embraced her fully and gave them some furniture we no longer used so they "at least had something." That was a good example of the generous spirit of my mother. She was always thinking of other people. She was usually the first to let someone new to our family feel welcome and include them in our gatherings.
But her health became more of an issue over the years. When I was 28, she was experiencing pain and had to be rushed to the hospital. It was discovered her kidneys were failing. The doctor said it was a 50/50 proposition. She could either pull out or not. I immediately called the prayer chain at my church and asked for prayers and interceded heavily for her life. I basically told God I wasn't ready to lose my mom just yet, and she simply needed to live. I'm sure my voice was like the shell yelling at the ocean, but our prayers were nevertheless answered and my mother pulled through. She seemed to improve afterward but still was on too many prescriptions in my book.
I was so happy that she was able to witness my wedding and that I had found a wonderful man who loved me and treated me well. Although it may not have been the large, Italian wedding she had hoped for, it was a special time shared with her family. It wasn't long after when she developed diverticulitis, a condition that led to having a colostomy. My mother endured having a bag attached to her for over a year before the doctor was able to go in and reverse it. Unfortunately, my mother's healing was filled with setbacks and her overall health started to deteriorate as a result. I'll never forget though, that she still had the spunk to tell me in January 2007 that "she was going to beat this" and come out on the other side. Since I was in denial about the severity of her condition, I believed her and encouraged her.
On March 17, 2007, my father called me to let me know he was putting my mother in hospice. The call was expected and unexpected at the same time. My mother had been in hospitals almost more than out since 2005 and it was obvious she simply wasn't getting better. Still, I cried in my husband's arms as I tried to accept the inevitable. We traveled to Cincinnati the next day. By the time we got there, my mother was quietly resting in bed, surrounded by her family. I had the opportunity to spend some time with her alone, telling her how much I loved her and how much I was going to miss her. She knew that out of everyone in the family, I was the emotional basketcase when it came to relatives passing on. She was more pragmatic than I was and viewed it as a natural part of life.
Somehow, God gave me the strength to tell her that I was going to be okay. I think there was a part of her that needed to hear that because like any good Italian, she was a worrier. I didn't want her to worry about me and reminded her I had a good husband who would take care of me. I think it allowed her to sigh in relief as she focused on her own journey home. I didn't want to leave her, but we did. Early the next day, she peacefully passed from this life into the next.
While preparing for the funeral at my parent's house, I had a strange desire to watch EWTN. My father had told me about the Catholic broadcasting station and although it didn't immediately hold any interest for me, I felt compelled to watch it. I turned it on and watched two priests take questions from the internet. One person sent in a question asking about "the happy death." My ears perked up. One of the priests said that St. Joseph is called the patron saint of "the happy death" because tradition holds that he died with Jesus on one side of him, and Mary on the other. There was something about the date that stuck in my mind. I remembered looking at a Catholic calendar and noticing a Feast Day but couldn't remember whose it was. I quickly went to the kitchen to look at the calendar. Sure enough, March 19, the day my mother passed away, was the Feast Day of St. Joseph! How amazing!
This little bit of information brought an enormous amount of consolation to me. I knew my mother was apprehensive about her own death and it comforted me greatly to know she had support, especially St. Joseph's! I realized there was an interesting connection we had with St. Joseph. My mother's name was Josephine, a derivative of the name Joseph. She passed away on his feast day and was buried in St. Joseph's cemetary. The next day, I visited a Catholic bookstore that was literally around the corner from my parent's home and bought a St. Joseph medal to wear around my neck. I bought one for my brother, too, although he looked at it with about as much interest as I used to have toward Catholic things. However, I wore it and later had it blessed by a priest. I still wear it to this day.
The necklace felt almost like an oddity since I wasn't attending Mass or even remotely involved again with the Catholic Church. But something had happened, a shift inside that told me I was now going in the right direction. I asked my father if it would be okay if I took my mother's rosary, the one my first-cousin had given to her from her trip to Rome. My father happily said yes. Again, I didn't fully understand the significance. I simply looked at it as something of my mother's and I wanted it as a keepsake. I wasn't thinking it would mean more than that to me, but again, God was going to surprise me.
After the funeral, I returned home with a hole in my heart big enough to swallow the moon. I felt so lost, so alone. My mother was the one of the few people in my life who told me the truth. She'd chide me (and rightfully so) when I was being selfish or insensitive. She was the one who reminded me that I was "raised better than that." I wasn't sure how I was going to live without her. But God was gentle and kind with me, providing little moments of encouragement and comfort. Answering my father's phone one day, I heard my cousin's voice on the other end. She surprised me by saying how much my voice sounded like my mother's. I had been worried about forgetting how my mother's voice sounded and suddenly, I heard it in my own. It was an amazing and comforting realization. Ever since that moment, there have been many times that I've heard my mother's voice and inflections in my own. God is good.
During that time, I felt as though my life had been thrown up into the air and came down hard, scattering pieces all over the floor. I felt confused and unsure of how to grieve. I just knew that most of the time, I wanted to be left alone to cry. I asked Mickey if it would be okay if I found several part-time jobs instead of working one full-time job. He agreed and was very patient and understanding. He knew how difficult it was for me. So I continued to teach part-time my digital scrapbooking classes and found a part-time cleaning job. Again, the cleaning job provided me the perfect way to work but yet in total solitude. There were many times during that year when I would stop whatever cleaning task I was doing to simply cry and grieve over my loss. I would finger the St. Joseph necklace and found myself asking for his intercession for comfort. And it would surprise me when I felt it.
The day after my mother's funeral Mass, I went to church at a nearby parish in Columbus. I waited afterward to talk to the priest. I wasn't sure what I was going to say, but knew I wanted the St. Joseph necklace and my rosary to be blessed by him, as my father suggested. The priest looked at me kindly and as soon as I opened my mouth, I started to cry. I was embarrassed, but the priest, Fr. B, took me to the side to give us privacy and listened to my request. He prayed a blessing over the rosary and the necklace and then shared how he had just lost his own mother five months ago. I remembered feeling deeply touched that God gave me someone who could understand my sorrow.
Although I received comfort from occasionally attending Mass shortly after my mother passed away, I didn't want to (in my mind) get "carried away." I explained to my husband that it gave me comfort to attend but I thought it would be a phase, so I wouldn't worry him. My husband was raised in the Lutheran church, but had switched to attending a Church of Christ when he was older. I also still had to struggle with many of my anti-Catholic beliefs that had been instilled in me while attending non-Catholic churches and ministries. All of the same concerns that non-Catholics had, were also mine.
In February 2008, my sister-in-law's father passed away. His courageous battle with cancer finally ended and my heart grieved for the loss. My niece and nephew had lost both a grandmother and grandfather in less than a year. I knew my sister-in-law was close to her father and prayed as soon as I heard the news. However, something prompted me to pray the rosary for her and her family. It was the oddest thing, since it had literally been decades (no pun intended) since I last prayed the rosary. I knew I'd remember, but I was still operating under the belief that the rosary was senseless "repetitive" prayers that was rebuffed by Jesus in St. Matthew 6:7.
Still, I decided to obey the prompting and prayed the rosary for the first time in over 25 years. I felt as though I did the right thing and added more prayers for my sister-in-law and family. A few days later, I spoke with another cousin by phone. She shared with me how she struggled with being anxious. I felt a great deal of compassion in my heart and encouraged her to seek God. Again, I felt a prompting to pray the rosary for her. This time I visited a local parish and entered the sanctuary. I knelt and prayed the rosary on behalf of my cousin.
All the while, I was starting to become curious about my Catholic upbringing. I had found a Catholic radio station in town, St. Gabriel, and started to listen to its programming. I felt like a thirsty woman who finally found water. I hadn't realized how dry I was spiritually until I started to surround myself with godly teaching. And yes, it was godly. As much as I was suspicious or cautious about Catholicism, I was pleasantly surprised by the solid teaching I was hearing during the various programs I started to follow. I had no idea how much the Catholic Church had changed during the past 25 years, but I was about to find out.
I'll never forget the day I told my husband that I thought I was being drawn back to the Catholic Church. To explain to my beloved husband that it wasn't a "phase" but something more permanent was one of the most difficult things I ever had done. I had been fighting this return for almost a year. I realized how much comfort attending Mass brought me, but it was going deeper than that. There was a spiritual peace I was feeling that was quite unexpected. When I was younger, the Mass was "boring" to me, rote, familiar and without meaning. At least that's what it seemed to be at the time.
Now everything held meaning. Now there was reassurance in the ancient prayers as I started to become aware of the historicity of the Mass. When your world has been shaken to the core, it is an amazing blessing to find something that has never changed. It is simply a miracle to find something you can hold onto like a strong horse, in times of trouble; grasping his mane as he carries you to safety. Metaphors, shadows, and types always run through my mind and the Catholic Church was starting to form definite images in my mind. My favorite is that of a huge battleship. Some call the Church "The Barque of Peter". The image made perfect sense to me. Many storms have come and gone, many attempts to destroy the Church have occured. But history shows that the Church continues to sail on, for Jesus said that not even the gates of Hell would destroy it.
So, I tearfully told my husband what was going on inside of me. He understood but made it clear he had no interest in the Catholic Church. I nodded. I realized my mission wasn't to get him straightened out spiritually but focus on my own path. I also knew I would be interceding for him later, anyway. I was also tearful because I knew my husband's very good friend was very anti-Catholic. In fact, throughout the seven years I had known him, we had a few conversations about the Catholic Church.
Although I wasn't quite comfortable referring to the church as "The Whore of Babylon," he certainly did. As far as he was concerned, the Catholic Church was evil, holding its members hostages with silly rules such as abiding by the Sacraments and weird traditions such as venerating the saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Most of the time, I would agree with him but generally thought many Catholics were simply misguided.
One Sunday, I noticed an announcement in the parish bulletin about a special program for Catholics who had been away and were now investigating the possibility of returning. The program, "Inviting Catholics Home" sounded appealing. It was held at another parish and I quickly signed up. Meanwhile, I was in contact with the only Catholic I knew in town, Beth. (Not her real name.) Beth became a guide of sorts, informing me of different parishes and their pastors. She was attending an older parish in town that sounded very traditional. At that time, I truly wasn't sure if I was "traditional" or "progressive." I knew I had some strong beliefs already, but yet could see the the attraction of both. Beth told me that the parish who was hosting the program was almost a congregation "hybrid."
She further explained that what happened over the years was that many members had married Protestants and eventually returned to the Catholic Church. But as an attempt to bridge doctrinal differences, much of the Catholic doctrine had been watered down. As a result, the parish in question had a slight non-denominational feel to it, which to me felt strange. I felt as though I was back in the ocean again, bobbing along with no rudder, no anchor, and no power. I remember when the program took the participants into the sanctuary and my disappointment as I looked at modern architecture.
What folly! How did it come to be that man thought creating a bland block of concrete could reflect God's grandeur or lead a person into the lofty heavens of the meditation of the soul? It actually was embarrassing to me.
When I looked for the Tabernacle, I was both astounded to see before me a small, black box in the middle of what looked to be a large, gray stone open bookcase. It was ugly and bleak looking. I asked the leader in surprise, "Is that the Tabernacle?" He nodded. I kept my mouth closed but couldn't help but say inside, Oh, Lord... You deserve so much more. Again, I was being gently shown the differences in the Catholic church, but also my preferences were starting to come to the forefront. I was trying hard not to be judgemental toward those who practiced their faith differently, but the artist in me cried out for excellence in all things - including the visuals of the church. I was about to enter a very rich world, but a virtual one, and one that would lead me to the place that was right for me.
The "coming home" program was evidently aimed toward softening the return for a wayward Catholic and ensuring that any concerns about the Catholic Church being rigid or legalistic should be squashed, pronto. I thought that it was an interesting approach since it showed the program's biased opinion; which was: Anyone returning to the Catholic Church or investigating the possibility of becoming a Catholic surely could not want what was considered the old ways. Certainly lapsed Catholics had left the Catholic Church because they were frustrated with "rules" and religiosity, and wanted to retain their independence; believing what they wanted, when they wanted, and practicing it however they wanted.
I'll never forget the session where we had a nun give the presentation. She asked if there were any questions at the end and I spoke up. I said, "Sister, I've been hearing about the issue of Catholic identity. Everything you've said tonight doesn't sound too different from what a non-denominational church is seeking. What makes a Catholic different?" She looked at me and stated matter-of-factly, "The Pope." I was a bit shocked. That was it? The Pope? Not one word was said about the Sacraments, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Rosary, the Feast Days, the Saints - nothing. She even had the boldness to share with everyone that "no one" has the right to keep any Catholic from receiving Communion. As far as she was concerned, she would encourage all Catholics to take Communion whenever they wanted, although she quickly added that she could not say such things publically or the Bishop would have to correct her.
However, she added with a tight smile, she would push her belief to other Catholics "behind closed doors" every chance she got. I remembered thinking, "Sister, have you no shame?!" It was completely astounding to me how a nun who had taken Holy Orders could so blatantly show her disdain for the Magisterium, and then encourage others to do the same! To say I was unimpressed would be a huge understatement.
I was evaluating everything. While I was going through the program, I started to scour the internet for Catholic resources. I was delighted to find a wide variety of blogs, websites, and message boards. I was extremely curious and my appetite was whetted. The more I found, the more I wanted to find. The very first site I stumbled upon was The Curt Jester, which was nothing less than a blessing from God. The blog owner, Jeff Miller, was an atheist who had converted to Catholicism. I found his site to be filled with interesting stories and wonderful resources on the Catholic Church. I could sense his devotion through his posts and of course, his very funny wit.
Through him, I was introduced to the glorious blog, The Crescat. Created by "Carolina Cannonball," The Crescat was a stunning display of Catholic imagery. Everything from photographs of nuns enjoying sports to gorgeous architecture to breathtaking works of art - Carolina Cannonball managed to find (and still does) some of the most amazing works of Catholic and Orthodox art on the web. One day, Carolina happened to mention a "Fr. Z." I had no idea who he was, so I scanned her blogroll. Sure enough, I saw a link for a Fr. Zuhlsdorf. I clicked the link and was brought to his blog, What Does the Prayer Really Say? I was immediately fascinated by the obvious intellect of his posts and insider information regarding Vatican activity. I felt I could learn much from reading his blog, which turned out to be true. What I didn't anticipate, was learning more about the Traditional Latin Mass (and all the various names for it: Extraordinary Form, Tridentine, and recently Gregorian Rite as Pope Benedict XIV likes to call it.)
The parish I was attending was what seemed to be a typical Catholic parish. It was the same parish I had visited the day after my mother was buried. The church building was modern, with a stone wall behind the altar and three abstract designed stained-glass windows above. It was conveniently located near our home, taking less than five minutes to reach. With the high gas prices, I was motivated to find a church nearby and felt like I had my church home. My return to the Catholic Church meant I had to deal with the results of marrying outside the church. In order for my marriage to be convalidated, my husband's previous marriage had to be annulled. This was part of the reason why I cried on that day when I told him the news of my return. I knew the annullment process would be long and potentially painful for him since he had to revisit his past marriage and examine it. Even though it was short and had ended almost twenty years ago, I knew I was expecting a great deal.
I connected with Beth off and on, explaining some thoughts as I was going through the program. She, herself, was also a "revert," a term I quickly disliked. The term sounded alien to me. (I adopted instead my own version of the name: a "reclaimer." I reasoned that I was reclaiming the faith I was raised in when I was younger, and the visual thought of discovering I had gold all along was extemely pleasing. ) I asked Beth some questions about her parish, especially about the Latin Mass. She asked if I had ever been to a Traditional Latin Mass. I quickly said I probably wouldn't enjoy it since I didn't know Latin, however, it seemed this "Fr. Z" was quite the promoter of it. She laughed gently and encouraged me to attend at least once because it was, as she said, "so beautiful." I promised I would do so.
I remember one day being near the church that celebrated the Traditional Latin Mass. (TLM) I drove by and found the old building, right on a busy main street in a neighborhood that had seen better days. The surrounding buildings had that tired look as only down-and-out neighborhoods have and I noticed grates on the windows. When I tried the doors to the sanctuary, they were locked. I wasn't surprised. Part of me said, you've seen it. It's in a depressing neighborhood. The parish you now attend is so much closer. Come for a visit someday. Someday far away... I've always been a girl of convenience and practicality. It was convenient to attend a church less than five minutes from me. It wasn't convenient to hop in the car and drive for 15 minutes, even though that is deliciously close for most people. So I shrugged, got in my car and drove off.
Meanwhile, I kept reading Fr. Z's blog and was finding other great blogs. A pattern was starting to emerge. I was being drawn to blogs that either had traditional Catholics penning their thoughts or those who loved the Traditional Latin Mass. I came upon Kimberly's Catholic Family Vignettes blog, with a special section for those who loved the TLM. I learned about Una Voce, an organization for the promotion of the TLM and that Holy Family, the parish in a needy neighborhood, was the home to an Una Voce chapter.
I started to hear for the first time the term, "Cafeteria Catholic." I suspected the meaning as soon as I heard it. Those who "picked and choosed" whatever they wanted of their Catholicity were labeled with this term. I started to understand the dissension within the Catholic Church and felt a shift within me as I realized what I believed and why. Although I was conservative politically, I didn't assume I'd be conservative necessarily, in my religion. For years I was a part of churches that if anything, were un-traditonal. But I also realized some things were changiing within me. I didn't feel the need to push the boundaries or prove anything. All I wanted was a place to quietly worship God and to hear His voice. I needed reminding. I needed stability.
The older I've gotten, the more I appreciate stability. Change can provide growth but it can also wreak havoc on our sense of security, which is just as important. I was blessed to be raised in a home that gave this security in abundance to my brother and I. I had my opportunities to explore and experiment although I realized now that my discoveries didn't solidify my separation from the Catholic Church; but instead, quite the opposite.
It showed me how other churches aren't "complete" and why. My emotions over the past year have been a mixed-bag of amazement, astonishment, surprise, sadness, frustration, and joy - just to name a few. As much delight I am experiencing with re-discovering my Catholic identity, I am saddened by Catholics who seem to want to distance themselves from their roots. It's almost as though they want to be the "cool" kids with the "un-cool" parents, separating themselves as much as possible from their "clueless" family.
Well, I'd love to say to them: Guess what? Your "old, uncool" parents do have a clue, after all. You're the ones that are "clueless." (I realize I'm being snarky, but there it is. A church that has withstood for two thousand years would be allowed, I think, to occasionally express some level of impatience with those who still refuse its validity.)
I decided one Sunday to visit Holy Family. My father had said the same thing I said to Beth. "You won't understand anything!" I agreed but thought since I had never been to a TLM, why not try it? See what all the fuss is about. At 8:45 AM, I pulled on the front door. This time it opened. It was a beautiful Spring day and other parishioners were entering nodding a greeting to me and smiling. As soon as I entered, I realized I was in a place that took church seriously. A sign stood just to the side of the door, PLEASE BE SILENT BEYOND THIS POINT. Although the exterior of the red brick building looked shabby from the outside, it was anything but on the inside.
Tall, stained glass windows were decorated with the faces of the saints. The architecture reminded me of my mother's church, the grand and beautiful Old St. Mary's in Cincinnati. Old, worn wooden pews were lined up, all facing the altar. The wooden floors creaked as I slowly stepped upon them. Tall pillars grew from the floor and flowered into arches over the lower part of the ceiling. The center of the church had the highest part of the ceiling, with soft, curving finials that melted into the arching middle. The altar area was painted a lovely shade of deep mauve with cream colored walls surrounding it. The statue of Mary holding Baby Jesus was on the left and St. Joseph on the right, occupying shallow niches in the walls and both with a series of candles to the side. An almost life-sized wooden crucifix with Jesus was on the side, also. I noticed a nun had placed herself in the nearest pew next to it.
The altar was to me, breathtaking. As a student of art, I especially appreciated the work of the Old Masters. I had been blessed to have seen some of the greatest museums in the world and the work of Catholic artisans. Holy Family's altar was typical of a traditional altar, but still gorgeous in its own right.Towering spires climbed to the heavens on both sides, creating a mini-cathedral silhouette. There were three statues in the middle. The top one was Jesus, and the others were Moses and Elijah. Underneath the ivory towers was a series of other carvings of the saints. The width of the altar stretched out, and on each side, a statue of a white angel bowed, his wings folded in supplication. I was immediately reminded of the Ark of the Covenant and how angels were carved into that which would be carried into the Holy of Holies.
It was at that moment that I realized how much the Catholic Church had absorbed from our Jewish parentage. Christianity would not exist without Judiasm. Jesus came first for the Jews, then the Gentiles. When the Jewish people of the first century accepted Jesus Christ as Messiah, their practice didn't change but instead, became fuller and richer. Jewish tradition was sacred and that tradition had flowed into the first century church, infusing the church with a reverence for truth. The Levitical Priesthood was never lost, but preserved in the lineage that now included St. Peter and those who followed.
I noticed that some of the women around me wore veils on their heads. It made me smile as I remembered my mother wearing a veil long ago, and my grandmother and great-grandmother. I knew the significance of it, which came from 1 Corinthians 11. Women were to keep their head covered during worship and prayer to signify how they were "covered" in God's pattern of authority. Ironically, shortly after I had married, Mickey and I had discussions about this practice. He gently challenged me on it while I resisted what I considered to be a societal custom of the day. I didn't see the relevance of it for our modern times. But one day when I went to visit a Vineyard church, I decided to test it out. I tied a short scarf around my head and went out the door. I felt odd and slightly ridiculous as I sat surrounded by bare-headed women. I'm sure they didn't notice but I felt silly. I never wore the scarf to church again. I lightly said to my dear husband, "Well, I tried." He didn't seem particularly bothered about it and since he wasn't attending church, he didn't encourage me to try again.
There was a seriousness, a sobriety about the people attending the TLM that told me they were fully aware of what the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was all about. A few online friends had warned me that some thought the TLM was the only real Catholic service. Now I understood.
One of the reasons I had left the Catholic Church was the irritation I felt by other people's disinterest in the Mass. It seemed most people were apathetic and simply doing it out of habit or obligation. Aside from the fact that a sense of obligation isn't entirely bad; to my young "twentysomething" mind, it was wrong. I was excited about my faith and I wanted to be around those who were excited, too. When I looked around the Catholic parish I was attending at the time, I saw people who were bored. It frustrated me and saddened me at the same time.
The people who surrounded me that day at the TLM were not bored. I could tell. Most who came in would genuflect humbly, enter the pew, and then immediately kneel to pray. There isn't a specific prayer that is required, although some Catholics may have one they use, but it is to be a time of preparation of the mind and spirit for worship. There was a definite reverence in the air and I was reminded of the first time I had attended a Messianic congregation service.
Jewish people who accept Jesus (or Y'shua) as Messiah are considered Messianic Jews. There are Messianic congregations scattered throughout the United States. If one is near you, I highly recommend attending a service, which will be held on a Saturday, the Jewish calendar's Shabbat. A Messianic congregation is a safe place for Jewish believers. For many Jews, the idea of "converting" to Christianity is an unpleasant thought. In many Jewish people's minds, their memories are filled with history's atrocities as so-called "Christians" perpetrated unspeakable savagery upon their race. Instead, Jewish believers in Y'shua are called "completed," which makes perfect sense. They already have been raised with the Old Covenant. Now they embrace the New Covenant through the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Within the Catholic Church, for many years, Jewish worship permeated every part of the liturgy. Since the first century Church was comprised mostly of Jews and a growing number of Gentiles, it is logical that Jewish practice and tradition was continued. When I visited the Messianic congregation in North Carolina for the first time, I immediately noticed an acknowledgement of holiness from all who entered. There was a clear demarcation from the ordinary things of the world and the extraordinary things of God. This line has been blurred from decades of casualness that has cultivated what I believe is a lackadaisical spirit. Many non-denominational churches are especially filled with such people who approach a Sunday morning church service no differently than attending a sporting event.
As I sat in the pew, heard the chants from the choir, who sang the most beautiful Latin prayers; I realized how much the Catholic Church had lost when the Traditional Latin Mass was relegated to a few gray-haired oddballs who were seen as hopelessly stuck in a rut and refused to "get with the program" and get "modern."
Jewish tradition has bonded the Jewish people together for centuries. It is difficult to imagine how else this race would have survived with their identity intact if not for such tradition. No matter how persecuted they were, no matter how scattered they may have been across the world, the Feast days, the Shabbat, and their language - so entwined with their relationship with God - kept them not only together, but strengthened them.
The Traditional Latin Mass preserved the Jewish tradition and especially, the sense of reverence we are to have when entering "the Holy of Holies." The priesthood with their special garments, the incense and sacred vessels - all have their roots in Jewish worship. I was in awe as everything came full circle for me on that day I first attended the Tridentine service.
There is such a richness and beauty in the TLM that it is difficult to summarize it in a few short paragraphs. I know people far more knowledgeable than I have written books about this subject (and of course, I hope to read them) but it indeed is unfortunate that so many Catholics are unaware of the treasures this "Mass for all the Ages" holds. All I knew was that I felt a slight thrill go through me as I realized I was celebrating Mass exactly as someone did centuries ago. In fact, I felt more connected to all the past saints, including the Apostles, during the TLM than I ever had in my life. As one ponders the fact that the Latin Mass, (which was formalized in 1570), has survived for over 400 years; one cannot help but be impressed. The thought of the TLM especially surviving the turbulent decades of the sixties and seventies is especially impressive.
Throughout my visit to the TLM, I was feeling a combination of awe and joy. I really was amazed by how much I was getting from it without understanding Latin. But I did and was impressed to see so many others enjoy it, too. After the service, I introduced myself to the parish priest and told him how much I enjoyed the service. I told him it was the first time I had ever attended a Latin Mass. He smiled and noting my gray hair, asked when I was born. "1962. The year Vatican II happened."
"Ah," He said knowingly. "You weren't raised with it, then." I said yes, that was true, but I had a feeling I'd be back. He smiled and said he was glad I came.
Now I was at a crossroads of sorts. I had no intention whatsoever of falling in love with the TLM and attending a church not in my own backyard. But I felt a pull toward Holy Family and knew that the choice really had already been made. I had found my church home. Within a week, I found two Catholic bookstores. At one, I bought a copy of the 1962 Roman Missal. At the second, I bought a white lace mantilla. I was now off and running toward discovering all I could about this precious Mass.
My brother was stunned that I was going to a Latin Mass and my father was surprised, but happy. I explained to both of them that it was a beautiful Mass and a shame more Catholics didn't open themselves to the possibility of liking it. Holy Family had "coffee and doughnuts" after their Masses and I took it as an opportunity to get to know some of my fellow parishioners. It wasn't easy walking into a room full of strangers, but I slowly started to introduce myself.
From reading Fr. Z's blog, I realized that many other Catholics would have loved to have a Latin Mass available to them, but didn't. Some had to make do with a Novus Ordo (Or "New Mass") said in Latin, while others had the Traditional Latin Mass (or Tridentine, or Solemn High Mass) offered only a few times a year. I was again stunned by God's generosity by placing me near a parish that not only celebrated the TLM every Sunday morning, but on Monday and Wednesday mornings, Thursday evenings, and on the first Saturday of the month. Talk about an embarrassment of riches! My schedule at the time allowed me to attend Mass on Monday and Wednesday mornings, and it was there I started to get to know the homeschooling moms.
I am so touched when I see a Catholic family at a TLM, complete with the little girls wearing their mantillas and being carefully instructed to genuflect before entering the pew. It blesses my heart so greatly as I realize they are being given such a great spiritual inheritance. No matter what happens to them as they grow older, they will always remember attending Mass and being taught to show reverence for it.
I made an appointment to visit with the priest who I spoke with after the Mass. I wanted to get to know him and let him know of my situation. We met and I'll never forget what he said as I explained that I was in the process of getting an annulment so the marriage could be blessed and recognized by the church.
He looked me in the eye and said, "Isn't it wonderful that the Catholic Church will say the hard things to you? The things no one else will say?"
I leaned toward him at the table we were sitting at and said, "Father, do you know what I feel? Cared for. Protected. I feel as though the Catholic Church is the only church that would call me out on something and hold me accountable." Fr. L gave me a knowing look and nodded with a smile.
Yes. It was very true. No other non-Catholic church would even think it was a big deal to marry someone who had been divorced. Only the Catholic Church raised any questions about it.
He told me to keep him up-to-date on the progress and then showed me around the parish. I could tell he was proud of the community and the various ministries of the church, such as the soup kitchen, which was the largest in town. I told him what had happened at my "Coming Home" program and all the questions I asked. He looked at me and with a laugh, said, "I bet they didn't like you too much!" I chuckled and said I suspected it but at least learned where some of the boundaries were for me, personally. If I was coming back to the Catholic Church, I wanted the pure, unadulterated Catholicism. None of this diluted stuff that had popular "spirituality" blended in and liberal political thought thrown in.
And so, I think I am finally nearing the end of how it came to be, my return to the Catholic Church. It is the beginning of another part of my spiritual journey and one, I must admit, that still surprises the heck out of me whenever I really think about it. For so many years, I was a member of a non-denominational church, never dreaming that I would find any satisfaction within a liturgical service someday.
My perspective has changed dramatically, but what also has changed has been a new compassion that I know has been given to me from the Lord. I know I still have many "rough edges" for Him to smooth. But I have seen priests now, and leaders within non-Catholic churches, in a new light. Both are really doing the best they can with what they have. All of us are frail and weak, when you really get down to it. Forgiveness is something not only for our enemies, but for those who we call friends. In fact, it is more difficult to forgive someone you counted as a friend, someone you trusted, than to forgive someone who you know doesn't really care about you.
It is my hope that my story would at least cause some thought among Catholics who have left the Church for non-denominational congregations. The Catholic Church is certainly far from perfect, but the Church has existed since the very beginning, from the very early days of Pentecost until now. Battles have raged around the world, intending to destroy the Church, but have failed. Internal schemes have bloomed like a poisoned rose, but the thorns of deceit never mortally wounded her. We have so much to be thankful for, but more than anything, for the truth and endurance of Jesus' words to St. Peter: And the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. (Matt. 16:13-20)
So, if you've read this far and you're a Catholic who's been away for a very, very long time; I stretch out my arms to you and say gently, "Come home. Come home to the one who loves you, who will teach you the truth in fullness, who will never abandon you or forget you. Come home."
May you hear His voice and respond with an elated, "Yes, Lord!"