I love reading conversion stories. I’ve read so many of them that I sometimes don’t remember exactly what a convert said about his journey, only that he entered the Church. That’s the case with a story I remember reading years ago, probably in an anthology of conversion stories. I don’t remember a lot of the details, only an extraordinary tale of answered prayer.
This convert had attended a famous Protestant seminary in the U.S., one which had been seeing a surprising number of its alumni enter the Catholic Church. When the convert was telling his conversion story to a religious-order priest, he mentioned to the priest he had been to Protestant seminary. The priest asked him the name of the school. “Oh, you probably have never heard of it,” the convert said, and then named the school. The priest smiled and said he knew the school very well. He used to teach there.
The convert was stunned, so the priest explained. The property on which the Protestant seminary now operated used to be a Catholic boys’ school run by this priest’s religious order. For many years, the priests who ran the school prayed for vocations to the priesthood from among the boys they taught. Then the school had to be closed and the property was sold to the Protestant group that started the convert’s seminary.
The priests’ prayers for vocations had produced unexpected fruit. Their prayers had been for vocations to the priesthood among the boys they taught. God answered with vocations to the Church among the students of the Protestant seminary.
A recent experience of my own with an unexpected answer to prayer reminded me of that story.
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the papacy in 2005, one of the commonly spoken concerns was that he had just turned 78 years old. Might his pontificate be unusually short? After all, John Paul I had died after only a month in the papacy in 1978 and he was more than a decade younger when he was elected than was Benedict XVI. Benedict himself, in comments made after accepting election, seemed to think his pontificate would be “short,” which at the time was considered to be a reference to his advanced age.
I decided to pray for Benedict’s continuation in the papacy, and I sometimes joked that I hoped it would last for decades. I knew that decades weren’t likely, but I also did not want to see a premature end to this papacy. So I composed a short prayer for what I wanted to be a lengthy pontificate for this Pope but added a hedge because I remembered Christ’s own prayer that “not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). After the first few years of Pope Benedict’s reign, I didn’t think to pray that prayer very often, but once in a while I would remember it. Then I would pray it again. Just in case. Because I have loved this Pope so much and wanted him to be with us for as long as possible.
Then word of the renouncement came, an ending to this pontificate that no one could have expected, no matter how many signs were posted and flags were flying. And I remembered again the prayer:
Lord, please give him [Pope Benedict] the time to do all that you have for him to do, leaving undone only that which you have for another to do.
I could in no way anticipate how God would interpret that prayer, but it seems obvious in light of recent events that he granted the prayer—in a wholly unexpected way. I was torn between letting out an anguished cri de coeur (“Lord, I didn’t mean that!”) and smiling over how God writes straight with crooked lines.
If there’s a moral to this story, I guess it it is to be careful what you pray for. You could well get it. But what you get may also be entirely unexpected.