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The Endless Gift

Mary L

My journey to becoming Catholic was not always easy or pretty. I like to tell people that I was raised “Navy chapel.” When I was growing up my family moved a lot, courtesy of the military. My parents always made sure that we attended “chapel” every Sunday. I think I was baptized Presbyterian before we started traveling with the military. Then after my father retired to California in the South Bay Area, we attended a Methodist church. To make a long story short, my parents leaned towards attending the more “liberal” Protestant churches.

For socialization reasons, my parents insisted that I attend the youth group at a chapel while we were stationed in the Philippines. The youth group went on retreat in the mountains and we heard an evangelist talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus. This was news to me because in my family there was no talk about God outside of church. We didn’t pray at home, not even grace before meals. I responded to the call for personal prayer, confessed my sins, and met my Savior. When I told my parents about “finding Jesus as my Savior” the news was received with icicles. They said the polite, “Oh, that’s nice, dear,” but never wanted to talk about it again.

I knew I had a personal experience with God so I continued praying and reading my Bible on my own, very quietly in my bedroom all during my adolescence. I attended a youth group but found that few shared my experience.

What Happened to the Love?

While I was in college, I met some people who also seemed to know the Savior. I attended their church, which was a charismatic fellowship. This was during the time of the Catholic renewal movement in Santa Clara County in the late 1960s. Some priests visited the youth group in that charismatic church and then invited us to their meetings. I was thrilled when I attended those Catholic renewal services! I could feel the unconditional love in those who fellowshipped there and the movement of the Holy Spirit in their worship. I remember declaring to a good friend of mine, “I could marry a Catholic!”

I met a gentleman who started attending the charismatic church that I also attended. He had been raised Catholic but stopped attending Mass to attend this new church. He had been a CCD instructor and at one time had wanted to be a priest. We developed a friendship that became more serious. I thought I had found my “Catholic” man, and we married in the charismatic church. Unfortunately, within three months of our marriage, he became physically abusive. But I felt like I had made my marriage vows forever, so I could not see my way clear to leave the marriage. We had two children. My husband’s mental illness became more severe; he was very abusive to the children. He threatened to kill their pets, so I gave the pets away. Child Protective Services was called to our home. I risked losing the children. I prayed. We attended church, but still the violence escalated. Because my husband had become so mentally ill that he could not work, I worked so we could eat and have a place to live. But he would not admit that he was ill and refused to seek help. I wondered where the unconditional love was that I had experienced in the Catholic renewal meetings.

The Way It Should Be

Finally, my life came to a crisis point. The stress threatened my health. One early morning I decided I could take no more. So I calmly explained to my husband that I had tried for over 10 years to make him happy but that he was still obviously very unhappy. I suggested that he look elsewhere for his happiness. His response was to heave a sigh of relief and tell me that he would be out in 20 minutes.

I filed for a divorce but could not bring myself to sign the final documents until I received a huge bill from a mental health facility where my estranged husband had been detained involuntarily. I figured I could not be financially responsible for his behavior any longer. After the divorce, I dated, but without peace of mind.

Then a girlfriend set me up with a nice Catholic gentleman. After we began dating steadily, I started attending Mass with him. Even so, we married in a civil ceremony. I was not yet Catholic, and he needed a Church annulment for his first marriage before we could marry in the Church. I attended RCIA to became Catholic. In those classes, I learned a lot about forgiveness and found the message of unconditional love I had so long been seeking. The Scripture immediately following the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 6, verses 14 and 15, became a reality for me: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

After I became Catholic and my husband’s first marriage was nullified, we were able to marry in the Catholic Church. Marriage in the Church was important to us because we realized that our civil marriage was not recognized by the Church as a valid union, and we wanted a holy marriage.

The Sacraments Save Me

In becoming Catholic, I learned the value of the sacrament of reconciliation. There is nothing on earth like going into confession with a heavy heart and conscience, having the priest counsel you briefly, and then receiving the absolution of the Church. As a Protestant, I prayed to God for forgiveness but frequently still felt guilty afterwards. James 5:16 came alive for me the first time I went through the sacrament of reconciliation: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” I found that confessing to a priest and being absolved from my sin lifted a huge weight off my shoulders.

I was enraptured with the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and with his love. I became an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and a minister to the sick for a time. Receiving the Eucharist is an incredibly holy experience, when we are able to partake of Christ’s body and blood. When we say the words: “Lord, I am not worthy, but only say the word, and I shall be healed,” we open ourselves for Almighty God to transform (or heal) us in every way that we need. If we have bad habits, we can go to Communion. If our body is weak or we are ill, receiving his body and blood affords Christ the opportunity touch us deeply. I like that we are able to meet Jesus in the Eucharist every time we gather together. Yes, we meet him as we read his word and in our private prayers, but being able to partake of him at every Mass enriches our communication with him exponentially.

Another sacrament of the Catholic Church that has been important for me is that of the anointing of the sick. I have had several surgeries, and I firmly believe that because of the anointing that I received prior to surgery, God guided the hand of the surgeons. I appreciate that the Catholic Church follows Scripture in James 5:14-15: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.”

Faith Takes Root

Catholic Bible studies, devotional guides, and the “Growing in Faith” meetings based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church also helped me become grounded in the faith. The New American Bible that I received upon becoming Catholic has literally fallen apart because of my looking up what Scripture has to say about various topics.

Another interesting study for me has been to read about the saints. Many of them were troubled or led worldly lives until they too had a conversion experience where they met the risen Jesus. It has helped me to read about other men and women and their journeys towards peace in Christ. It has also helped to read about their growth in their spirituality after their conversion and their humility. The saints’ stories give me hope for God’s ability to gradually transform my attitudes. Paul speaks of the example of the saints’ help in this transformation process:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2)

To convince me of the importance of the saints (which is sometimes difficult for a Catholic convert), I have been allowed to experience their intervention twice in my life. My neck was healed after five months of agony following an accident. Doctors, medication, and physical therapy had been unable to help with the pain, but when I dipped my fingers in the holy water at San Juan Bautiste Mission, I experienced a loud pop and regained full mobility of my neck. And just the other day, I felt impressed with a quiet message in my mind as I looked at a statue of Jesus with his Sacred Heart exposed. My husband and I had purchased the statue at Our Lady of Czestochowa shrine in Pennsylvania. The hands on the statue had been lost, and as I prayerfully expressed my regret over their loss, I was reminded that we are Jesus’ hands here on earth to extend his mercy to all. The saints will use most anything to relay a message from the Lord, even a broken statue.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to sponsor someone during her RCIA process. I was glad to share my growing faith and various written helps that I have found useful. Now I will be honored to be the godmother for this woman’s children. I was also excited to be able to encourage someone at work (while on our breaks) to participate in the RCIA program. She became Catholic, which prompted her and her husband to reconcile. I am so glad to carry the message of Christ’s unconditional love that I found in the Catholic Church. It is a gift that keeps on giving.

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