I was never churched as a child but ended up attending a Lutheran high school because I was a borderline delinquent. The sheriff and my parents thought a disciplined parochial school would help me. Consequently, I became a Lutheran and was educated in the Bible and basic Christian belief. However, once out of high school I had little concern for religion and ceased going to church. I did eventually marry a good “cradle” Catholic girl but was never pressured to become Catholic or even to go to church until our kids started CCD.
To be honest, I decided to become Catholic at first, for family unity reasons. Whereas confirmation is supposed to be a culminating event for entry into the faith, in my case the real faith journey of conversion only started after that. Upon reflection, I believe there are three roads to coming to and to sustaining faith which is analogous to the notion of having an integrated spirit, mind, and body. It is a spiritual, cognitive, and physical journey. In my case, the spiritual journey was through the full appreciation and experience of the Eucharist. The cognitive journey involved studying the history of the Church and the development of the Bible to understand the authenticity and authority of the Church. The physical journey first involved just practicing the faith and going to Mass. However, most impressionable occurrences were those which involved working with and experiencing Catholic role models. The modeling and devout faith of Catholics I observed made a significant impact and served as a kind of conversion experience.
The Physical Journey with Catholic Role Models
I think for many, growing up as a cradle Catholics, the faith journey can be established through the rituals of going to Mass from an early age and practicing religion both within the faith and secular settings all of one’s life. It is like having established an exercise habit; it is just part of one’s daily living routine. It is a habit that I had to develop.
While many things enabled me to grow in my faith, a key one initially was what I observed in Catholics. There were several Church-related experiences that made significant impressions. My wife was my first role model as I developed the habit of attending Mass. She was a source of inspiration for she was committed to full participation and she expected me to do the same. There were many other experiences with fellow Catholics that made a profound impact on me.
My wife and I went on a Marriage Encounter one weekend sponsored by our Church and I was amazed at the number of written prayers that were said on our behalf by fellow parishioners we didn’t even know. The notion that strangers were praying for us made me ask the question of why would someone pray for a stranger?
At about the same time we both had the opportunity to go to Poland to conduct preventive medicine education programs for Christian physicians. This was during the late 1980’s, Communism was still ruling the country, and Solidarity was emerging as a movement. I was overwhelmed by the faith of the Polish people and their reverence for Pope John Paul II. There would not be enough room within the churches for Mass and many would be standing outside hearing Mass on a loudspeaker often in the rain and snow waiting to go in to receive the Eucharist. I asked the question, ” What could compel these Poles to suffer through bad weather just to go to Mass?”
A few years later, immediately after the Gulf War, I was conducting training for the Saudi National Guard in Saudi Arabia and found that Mass or any other church service was not allowed. I spoke with some American Catholics in the foreigner living compound who expressed a sincere sadness for not being able to practice their faith. They would try to make one or two weekend visits to Europe a month to be able to attend Mass at considerable expense. Again, I asked a question as to what encouraged them to go out of their way, at significant cost just to go to Mass?
In time, I was asked to join the Knights of Columbus. My perception of the Knights before joining them was that it was a group of guys who made pancake breakfasts and fish frys to raise money and got together to drink beer. Those are example activities they do but little did I realize that those activities are just the tip of the iceberg. What I learned was our parish, like others, could not survive if not for the numerous projects they did from fixing the roof to painting buildings etc. At a national and international level, the Knights have been the primary proponents for the Pro-Life movement, disaster relief, and major providers of the funding to support seminarians and persecuted Christians in the Middle East. The Knights truly demonstrate the power of what committed men can accomplish and again I asked the question what inspires them to spend all the time, talent and treasure? Whatever it was, it was enough to want me to belong.
In all things show yourself to an example of good deeds (Titus 2:7, 8).
I have experienced many priest role models such as the Army Chaplin who was going to jump into Cuba with my Airborne unit during the Cuban missile crisis. I asked him why he was doing this since it wasn’t required of him. His answer was simple and direct. “Where you guys go I will always go” There was the 90-year-old retired priest who said Mass daily in his home in a small mountain town. Several locals would show up daily and he would get in his walker and slowly say the Mass at his home alter. He was crippled up with arthritis but sharp as a tack mentally. He always expressed great joy even though he was in pain. I asked him one day why he was able to always seem joyful and positive. He said it was all about receiving Jesus. I remember him saying” The Eucharist is food for my soul but it also food for my attitude”.
Impact on the Faith Journey
These kinds of experiences lead me to conclude that there really must be something to this Catholic faith beyond professing a creed and going to Mass! In trying to answer my questions, several thoughts resounded in me. First, these committed Catholics had a profound sense of community that they wanted to be part of. Secondly, they demonstrated a desire and love for the Eucharist and the Mass. Thirdly, they were not passive recipients about their faith but active participants in living out the faith. Fourthly, they expressed what I call a “we” religion not a “me religion in practicing charity and concern for “the other”. They did not “sit on the sidelines”. Finally, especially the priests, were models for selflessness and service following the model of Jesus Christ – the ultimate role model.
As part of my “physical journey”, the role models I observed and worked with solidified that there is something special and unique about the Catholic Church. It set the stage for my spiritual and mental journey that I am still on. It was a process whereby the modeling that I observed reinforced the belief and acceptance of Catholicism.
Role models set examples that are to not just to be admired but to also be imitated. The life of Jesus and the stories of the saints can do the same. The difference for me was that the many Catholics I experienced were here and now and became my friends and “partners” in practicing the faith. In many respects the role models that I observed in my faith journey reflect the saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi “Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words”. These encounters in my faith journey highlight that what we say and do show others what our faith is about. In that sense, it can be for better or for worse. These role models I mentioned served as a challenge to strive to always serve as a positive role model for the better.
but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe”. 1 Timothy 4:12