I first began sharing my faith when I went to college. Before college, I was under the impression (likely due to the weak catechism classes I was enrolled in during high school) that one "church" was as good as another. (I put "church" in quotes because the Bible only speaks of one Church--Jesus's (see Matthew 16).
My freshmen year of college, a fellow student introduced me one evening to Scott Hahn's conversion story. (Follow the link for a transcript of the very life-changing talk that I heard that night!) Scott Hahn was a popular Presbyterian minister and dedicated anti-Catholic who, through a surprising turn of events, ended up joining the Catholic Church in 1986. I did a little more research, and to my surprise, I found that Scott Hahn was only one of many Protestant ministers who had recently given up their careers and (sadly) many of their friends to join the Catholic Church. (The Coming Home Network was eventually founded by one of these converts to answer questions and minister to Protestant pastors and laymen who are in the process of converting to the Catholic Church.) God used these converts to help me appreciate the profound gift that I was given of being Catholic. I began reading their conversion stories and studying the books that drew them to the Catholic faith. I also acquired some of the books that they read while they were Protestant, books such as Loraine Boettner's Roman Catholicism, the book Scott Hahn describes as the "bible of anti-Catholicism." Although most of my reading was admittedly by Catholic authors, I have always tried to read about Protestantism by reading Protestant authors as well, and so I built up a small but substantial collection of Protestant books.
Shortly after I began sharing my faith, when I was a sophomore in college, I met a very sweet girl who I began dating. Although we quickly discovered that she was Baptist and I was Catholic, we still enjoyed spending time together. However, as our relationship grew more serious, we also began discussing the differences in our faiths. On Sunday mornings, she would join me at Mass, and then I would join her for services at Idlewild Baptist Church, in Tampa, FL. Idlewild was the first Baptist church I had attended, though it reminded me of one of the Assemblies of God services I had attended in high school with a friend. I became familiar with the Baptist liturgy (the familiar song-greeting-song-song-prayers-offering-song-sermon-song).
She gave me Baptist materials to read, and I gave her Catholic materials. We had many long and difficult discussions, too many of which were focused on each of us trying to convert the other. We both eventually learned that it is only God who converts people...and in His timing. Our job is simply to plant the seeds and, as St. Peter once exhorted, be ready with a reason for our hope.
As our conversations became more and more difficult, I began praying for a miracle. Our relationships seemed hopeless; one of us would either have to convert or we would have to break up. And the idea of converting was one that neither of us, at that point, would consider. I called my friend who had introduced me to Scott Hahn to ask for advice. He encouraged me to spend an hour a day with Jesus in the Eucharist. Jesus humbly waits for us in all the tabernacles around the world. He once asked his apostles to stay awake with Him in prayer for one hour. My friend reminded me that he asks the same of us. My friend also told me of many petitions that had been granted after spending time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
I also turned to my mother for advice. My mom suggested I pray a novena asking for the intercession of St. Therese of Lisieux, also known as "the little flower." St. Therese was an unknown little nun in France who died in her early twenties. Her Story of a Soul quickly became one of the most widely read spiritual memoirs in the twentieth century, and St. Therese profound spiritual insights earned her recognition as a doctor of the Church. (Click here to read a touching blog post by Webster Bull about St. Therese.) During her life, she said that she wanted to spend her heaven doing good upon the earth, and that she would let fall a shower of roses. My mom told me that when people pray for nine days asking for St. Therese's intercession, they often receive a rose seemingly out of the blue during those nine days...a little reminder that St. Therese is indeed joining you in prayer before the throne of Christ in heaven. My mom told me two stories of people who had prayed the novena and received roses. In one case, a rose bloomed in the middle of winter. A woman walking home picked it off the bush and gave it to her husband, who (unbeknown to his wife) was praying the novena. (I've since learned of dozens of similar stories.)
So, here is what I decided: I would pray the novena at the nearby Catholic Church every day for nine days. Every day, I would pray through all three mysteries of the rosary (which focus on the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries of Christs life, death, and resurrection). I didn't know how St. Therese was going to deliver a rose to me, though. After all, I had just returned home from college for the summer. No one knew I was home. I only got out when I was going to church to pray. And I wasn't planning on any type of encounter where someone would give me, a twenty-year-old Florida boy, a rose.
As I prayed each day, laying my spiritual roses at the throne of Jesus in the beautiful gold tabernacle at my church, I asked Mary if she would pick one of them up and give it to St. Therese to give to me. I don't know where that prayer came from, but when you spend two hours a day within a few feet of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in the Eucharist, you start to feel pretty close to our Lord and the saints in heaven.
On the fifth day, I went to church, and for whatever reason, I could not keep focused; my mind was on everything but praying to our Lord and focusing on the mysteries of His life. After about a half-hour of prayer, I was about to throw in the towel, when I had the strong sense that I needed to stay. About ten minutes later, a Philippino lady came in to church, prostrated herself before Jesus in the tabernacle, and after a few minutes of prayer, turned to me and said, "I'm very impressed with your devotion. Please come speak with me when you are done praying." She proceeded to walk around the inside perimeter of the church, praying the stations of the cross. (Every Catholic Church is lined with "stations" representing the various stages of our Lord's passion.)
After finishing the joyful mysteries, I got up and went to speak with the lady, who introduced herself as Ophelia. We sat down in a pew, and she began to tell me a bit about herself. Only a few years back, she had been living a worldly life when she suddenly, one day, had a conversion of heart and began following the Lord. Since then, she began making a holy hour at church every morning. She described to me how, about a year before, she plain and simple got distracted one morning and forgot to make the holy hour. She complained to Jesus, asking Him how he could have let her miss this precious time she spent with Him each day. She resolved to go pray at church that afternoon. When she arrived, she saw a girl crying in front of the tabernacle, and she heard Jesus tell her that this girl was the reason he let Ophelia miss her holy hour that morning. This girl was scheduled to have an abortion but didn't want to go through with it, and she didn't know who she could talk to. Ophelia cared for her and prayed with her that day in this girl's hour of need.
The afternoon that I met Ophelia was the second morning that she was unable to make her daily holy hour. This time, she didn't get frustrated but rather trusted that the Lord had a reason. She told me that the moment she saw me from the back of the church, she knew once again in her heart that I was the reason.
She then described how she had just returned from a pilgrimage to Medagorge where she was witness to an apparition of our blessed mother, Mary. During the apparition, she explained, Mary had blessed the pilgrim's rosaries. Ophelia told me hesitantly that she had given all but three of them away, and then she stopped and turned her head to the side, as if in prayer. She turned back to me a moment later and said, "the Lord wants me to give one of them to you."
I could not believe it! St. Therese and Mary must have gotten so much delight out of this situation. Here I was, fresh out of my sophomore year, home for the summer, praying like I had never prayed before but wondering how this mini-miracle was going to take place, and suddenly my little toss-off prayer before the throne of Jesus is perfectly answered. Mary did pick up one the the spiritual roses that I had left at the throne of Jesus, blessed it, and given it back to me!
I knew that day that everything with my girlfriend was going to work out just fine. By the end of the novena, I was filled with such peace and joy, and I knew that her conversion was not to be my work, so lay off! I had many other moments that week of profound spiritual insights. The one that I'll never forget is the time I was meditating on the fourth sorrowful mystery: the carrying of the cross. I think it was the seventh or eighth day, and I was begging Jesus to show me something new that I hadn't meditated on concerning when he carried the cross. Suddenly, I began hearing music, but not just any music. I looked to the corner of my eye, and an old lady who I had never seen before had come into church and begun playing the organ. (Being that I was part of the music ministry, I new all the musicians, and she was not one of them.) She began playing Pachabel's canon (the piece played at weddings when the bride walks down the aisle) at an unusually slow tempo. As I envisioned Christ carrying the cross, it struck me that Christ was walking the aisle to marry His bride, the Church, for whom he was laying down His life. Hearing strains of Pachabel's Canon, the normal image of a bride clad in white on the happiest day of her life seemed at one level a stark contrast with the naked, blood-stained skin of our savior carrying that heavy cross up to Golgatha so that he could marry his bride. Yet, as the layers of the musical canon increased, I could only imagine how much love Christ felt for you and for me to be making that painful walk down the aisle. I wept deeply that day, and ever since, I have not been able to think of Christ carrying His cross without hearing that slow rendition of Pachabel. Soon after I finished praying that mystery, the organist turned off the organ, left, and I never saw her again.
A few days after I finished the novena, my girlfriend drove to my hometown to pay me a visit to break up with me (I found this out months later). When she arrived, I was filled with so much happiness as I explained what had happened and that I was going to let her be, she lightened up. We had a great weekend together, and then she left to go back home. We continued dating, but I no longer brought up any contentious issues involving religion.
We dated all the way through my junior (her sophomore) year, and the following summer, went to the same music festival in Greensboro, N.C. I noticed that summer that her attitude toward Catholicism had dramatically changed, and she was beginning to express doubts in some of the things she had once believed as a Baptist. Turns out, because I had taken the pressure off, she had actually begun to read some of the books I had given her with curiosity. Many of the books contained the stories of Protestants who had joined the Catholic Church. Steve Ray's Crossing the Tiber: Evangelicals Discover the Historical Church was a big influence on her at this time. Not only did he load his conversion story with hundreds of footnotes of both Catholic and Protestant scholars, he also provided quotations and commentary on all the biblical sources and early church fathers on Baptism and the Eucharist, showing ultimately that the earliest Christians were Catholic in their thinking.
At the music festival, my girlfriend began joining me for Mass at the beautiful Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Greensboro. That was probably the first time that she had experience the breathtaking beauty of good Catholic architecture and reverent Mass. We both benefited from a kind lady who agreed to pick us up and drop us off at the music festival. At the end of the festival, this lady introduced us to Sister (now St.) Faustina, a Polish nun who wrote a diary of her communication with our Lord around the onset of WWII and who spread Jesus's message of divine mercy throughout the world. (The Sunday after Easter is the feast day of Divine Mercy, a feast that Jesus himself requested of St. Faustina.)
My girlfriend was quickly learning of the richness of faith, beauty, and holiness to be found in the Catholic Church. The more she learned about the Catholic Church, the more she realized that it far surpassed anything she had ever seen in the Baptist Church. Although the Baptists she knew loved the Lord and served him the best they knew how, the Baptist faith was simply lacking when compared to the bountiful riches of Catholicism. Most importantly, what she was learning through the Catholic Church was bringing her closer and closer to Jesus himself.
Soon, my girlfriend began thinking about attending RCIA classes. RCIA stands for Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, although many people who are already Christians also take this class in order to learn more about the Catholic Church so that they can be fully informed before making the commitment to join her. (This procedure is quite unlike how Protestant denominations attract new members. Many Protestant denominations try to get folks in the door with a committment, and only then, over the years, let them know the full gamut of know they've committed to.)
Before making the decision to explore joining the Catholic Church in a more official capacity, she wrestled with three questions: First, when and where does God want me to convert? Second, how and when is the best time to convert so that my Baptist parents will be as accepting as possible? Third, should I wait a year or two once while my boyfriend and I live on opposite sides of the country so that I can really affirm that this decision is my own?
Turns out, God was to have her wait until we had some time apart.
Since I was a year ahead of her in our undergraduate program, I graduated and went off to San Francisco to study at the music conservatory there. A year later, she entered a one-year graduate program at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. A year after that, we both ended up in Ann Arbor, MI, where we began attending Christ the King Catholic Church, which is where my soon-to-be fiancee joined the Catholic Church in April 2003.
Ah, but I get ahead of myself. When the story continues, you will learn all about my interaction with Baptists in San Francisco, including a one-on-one meeting with the pastor of one of the largest Baptist churches in the city.
Also, I realize now that I've spoken nothing of the correspondence I had with my future wife's pastor from her hometown Baptist Church in Rockledge, FL. I'll add that in as well.
Until later, may the peace of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all!