How My Mother’s Mistakes Strengthened My Faith

wedding, marriage, matrimony, sacrament, man, woman, couple, union, family, faith


The Catechism of the Catholic Church upholds the biblical directive that parents are the first (and most important) teachers of their children. What we often fail to realize is that what we do can have much more effect on our children than what we say or how we instruct. Who hasn’t seen one of their less than desirable actions or words mimicked by a child and felt a sudden blush of guilt? Sometimes, though, a child learns an important lesson from the mistakes in a parent’s life, and how they rise to the occasion. That was the case for me.

Born in Germany, to a Lutheran father and Catholic mother, my earliest memories revolve around spirited fights between my parents. Although Mom was devout, he approached atheism, but she somehow managed to have my younger brother and I baptized as infants. It became painfully evident that my father was not a nice man. He cheated even before marriage and was abusive as well. Too young to fully understand the implications then, as I matured and later became an adult, the woeful tale became clearer. Long before I could fully comprehend it all, he left, covertly spiriting my younger brother away and leaving my mother as a divorcee with a young daughter. Through all of this turmoil, my mother maintained her faith.

By the time I was five, someone new had entered the picture. This American Airman was kind and gentle. I fondly remember playing circus, with him carrying me on his back, while my mother warmheartedly looked on. Things don’t always work out neatly, however. Red tape and language barriers between the Air Force, the United States government, and Germany greatly hindered attempted annulment proceedings. As a result, a civil marriage was performed and then a little sister was born into the family. I can still remember hearing that my baby sister had been denied baptism because she was born into an illicit marriage. My mother, however, tenaciously persisted and found a kindly old priest to confer the sacrament. To complete the family unit, I was also adopted and became the daughter of an American. By this time, any efforts to reunite us with my little brother had been exhausted. Our family of four moved to the U.S. without him; he could not be found.

Fast forward a few years, after assignments to several states and retirement from the Air Force, we settled in Dad’s native Kentucky. We had become a family of seven—Mom, Dad, and a collection of five children. There was still no annulment, but we had never lacked catechesis. We were all baptized, received First Holy Communion, Confirmation, and were frequently taken to Confession. The poignant vision of our mother, tears of joy (for us) and pain (for her situation) was impossible to ignore at each of these special occasions. As each of us matured in the faith life as Catholic citizens, she was our teacher, our champion, and immovable anchor. We never missed Mass, attended Catholic schools when available, and had priest friends who frequently visited our home. For all practical purposes, we appeared to be the optimal Catholic family, with one exception—our parents were unable to join us in an actively Catholic life.

All of that changed one beautiful October afternoon, when after a long, tedious, multi-linguistic annulment process, Mom and Dad were married in the Church. Our small church community and five children were present. The long awaited celebration of love and faith had finally become reality! After the reception, we decorated our family station wagon with cans and ribbons. The sign on the back read, ‘Congratulations, Mom and Dad—Just Married!’

A few years later, we were reunited with my missing brother, now an adult. He had been raised to think his father’s wife was his mother. It wasn’t until her death that he was told the truth: \”She wasn’t your real mother. Your mother lives somewhere in Kentucky.\” What a reunion that was! At last, all eight of us were united! It was a true lesson in faith, love, and hope. Our mother had surely illustrated a strong faith in the face of adversity. Mom died of breast cancer a few years later, at the young age of 58. Yet, she had been an incredible witness to us. She lived through many trials but never lost her faith. She even met her estranged husband at one point and offered her forgiveness. His comment to her? \”There was one thing I could never break—your Catholic faith. I always respected that.\” Her years of persistent love and hope had culminated in a family strengthened by adversity. She had illustrated, with her very life, what it means to live your Catholic faith.

All of us are adults now, with children and even grandchildren of our own. The Catholic faith persists as the most important thing in our lives. We have learned, from loving example, what it means to stay faithful—no matter where your choices lead you. Mistakes will be made but how you face the resulting strife, determines who you are. If nurtured and fed, Faith will always win out!

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18 thoughts on “How My Mother’s Mistakes Strengthened My Faith”

  1. I went through an unwanted divorce while I was pregnant with our fifth little boy. I’ve been a single mom for over five years now and probably understand better than many what your mom was going through. I have decided to wait for the annulment results before beginning dating, but I have mixed feelings about the whole process and whatever outcome results from it, a process designed by and a decision made by men. I have thought about remaining single for the rest of my life despite the fact that I so loved being wife and mother and of the conflict that would bring to my peace and joy. I am so thankful your mom found, not only a wonderful man, but also peace and joy in the church marriage. I would imagine that did increase their Love because it became completely unmarred. Thank you for sharing this hopeful piece. God Bless…

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  3. Your mom and dad showed respect for the Sacraments by abstaining from them during the time needed to wait until they could marry in the Church…she made a sacrifice and set a good example. What a blessing that she was a faithful teacher to you. My parents were married Catholic in 1962 but literally left Catholicism at the end of the aisle as they exited the church that day. My father was not Catholic and had no intention of having it be part of his family. Our family faith tradition was somewhere between non-existant and bad. I became Catholic in 1991 and they didn’t quite know what to make of me (they still don’t).

    1. Birgit Atherton Jones

      Thank you for sharing your story, Tammy. In your case as well as ours, faith won out for those who were willing to listen to the whisper of the Holy Spirit. God bless!

  4. The courage to share the personal story with its many heartaches and joy is so generous of you Birgit. Until we stand unclothed before all and unafraid to speak no one knows in fact who we are. Thank you for your role as a Pro Life woman in addressing the humanness of those we love and the road to eternal salvation through our Mother the church. More than anything else this is a testimony to the power of our Catholic faith. God Bless.

    1. Birgit Atherton Jones

      Exactly! The power of Christ’s own Church is that she, with inspiration from the Holy Spirit, can take flawed humans and make them saints. By His grace we find we can do what would seem impossible.

  5. Birgit thank you for sharing this wonderful account of your mother and how she overcame adversity. She had great faith!

  6. Megan Ann Eggers

    Wow, when I read this I read a story about a couple who were humanly flawed, yet had two beautiful children. A marriage that never really existed. Love that transcended all the odds of culture and baggage from the previous relationship, and a man who exemplified the love of St. Joseph by becoming a husband and father when he didn’t have to be. I love stories that show show Catholics how they actually are- beautifully flawed humans that are always trying to get closer and closer to God.

    1. Birgit Atherton Jones

      Spot on! No, the first marriage never existed and that’s why an annulment was possible. Had there been a marriage, the state of my parents would have remained outside the Church (unless my biological father died, of course). I have been blessed without measure. It’s so easy to look for perfection in ourselves and others. Although we should always aim for perfection, it’s an important revelation that we won’t find it on this earth. As flawed humans, striving for godliness, we need to share our journey with others so that, they too, might learn from mistakes and triumphs.

  7. Birgit – as always your words have touched me. Beautiful and so much TRUTH. Thank you for sharing. I can only imagine the sweet legacy you are leaving for your own children. God Bless. 🙂

    1. Birgit Atherton Jones

      What a sweet thing to say! My mother’s dying words to me were, ‘now you’re me’. I think she meant for me to continue sharing the faith as she had. That’s what I try to do with my writing, as well as how I live.

  8. Having faith, as your noble mother did, is not just a Catholic virtue. Sometimes you
    fine columnists try to project a sacred aura that surrounds ONLY our church. To address the fly in the ointment, you would also need to include, as I’m positive Jesus would not, that the church also considered your mom living in adultery, in a state of mortal sin and not worthy to receive Jesus. Fortunately, Pope Francis is aware of this strange anomaly created at a time when – I’m trying to remember the king who was required to kneel in the snow for three days to obtain pardon for an offense – the harsher the penance the better the result, or so they thought. In any case, one of the reasons the churches are woefully unattended has to do with this very condition – divorce. The genuine love your mom and stepdad shared was not increased one iota at being told they could now show it because a panel signed a form saying it had been legitimized. Someday, just as we don’t require tortuous payback for our fallen selves,
    the church will reevaluate this stricture which is on par with murder far as mortal goes

    1. Birgit Atherton Jones

      Thank you for commenting, however, I must address some of your points.
      1.) Since this is a Catholic site and my own testimony, as a Catholic, it should be fully expected to retain a Catholic flavor.
      2.) My mother *was* living in adultery etc. and knew it, which is why she abstained from receiving the sacraments.
      3.) Pope Francis has not, as some assume, stepped toward weakening the stance of the Church in regards to divorced *and* remarried members – n.b. justified divorce itself does not exclude one from the sacraments.
      4.) He is my dad, not step dad – as he adopted me.
      5.) A ‘panel’ doesn’t an annulment make – a marriage, invalid from inception does. This isn’t randomly decided, nor is it ‘Catholic divorce’. It’s a condition that impedes valid marriage at its very start.
      6.) To darken the light of God’s grace in a soul is to perform a willful act of disobedience – just as Adam and Eve committed. That murder is more serious, doesn’t affect the fact that divorce is grave matter.

    2. Well put. However, Jesus was very adament when he equated adultery with even looking at another man or woman in that way – hence, the CC is the only church that has two specific commandments (6 and 9) to deal with it. I have no doubt that hundreds of millions of Catholics receive communion after a brush with the 9th with narry a thought to graveness. Since rooting out this silent sin is seldom if ever mentioned, the church seems biased in how it applies its restrictions and don’t kid yourself for
      a minute, annulment is Catholic divorce.

    3. Birgit Atherton Jones

      That there are Catholics who receive Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist while in this state proves nothing – other than the confusion and defiance found in flawed humans. That their souls are in mortal danger is a sad and terrifying reflection of their choices. This ‘silent sin’ as you call it, is actually often spoken of. I also know others who refrain from receiving, all the while still attending Mass religiously. My heart aches for them as it did for my mother.

      You show a lack of understanding about the true definition of annulment, however. It might be valuable to read some official information about it rather than depending on flawed, anecdotal opinions. The main requirement to being granted an annulment is to prove that the marriage requirements never existed – that there was an impediment at its inception. This can be shown in a number of ways, but the point is that nothing that happened *after* the wedding is evaluated. It’s purely the state of mind of both *before* they said ‘I do’.

    4. “…the state of mind of both *before* they said ‘I do’….
      This first cause can be said of every marriage that fails.

      The rational and coherent definition of adultery is one or moree
      parties who have an affair while in a married state. In Jesus’
      time it was very common for men and only men to divorce their
      wives for a secondary gain. Put into context, the church had not
      the right or wisdom to extend it to abused spouses whose partners leave them. The only reason marriage became a sacrament is that Mary asked her Son for a favor as Jesus would most likely not have demonstrated His first miracle otherwise. And as stated, any sacrament needing two commandments aligned against it should send up warning
      flags – hence, a mother church’s rule imposed on her priests.

    5. Emilianne Hackett

      I am always amazed by people who simply assume that others agree with them. I’m quite sure Jesus, as well as the Church, would have considered this lady to be living in adultery, as that’s what she was doing. I think that the love these two shared most likely *was* increased at being told they could not show it. Adversity and challenge have a way of increasing love. The Church will not reevaluate this rule, as there is no reason to. Pope Francis, who everyone seems to see as a Holy Mr. Rogers. (And I LOVE Mr. Rogers) is not going to go around changing Church teaching just because it makes people feel bad, That’s not religion. Religion has rules, and sometimes those rules make people feel bad. The reason Church is woefully unattended is because people have adopted an “I’ll do what I want when I want because it feels good and I don’t care who it hurts” mentality and the Church refuses to bow to that.

    6. Birgit Atherton Jones

      You’re exactly right! Whenever we struggle, whenever we battle to gain a coveted goal – that’s when we show true determination and the prize is all the sweeter.

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