CONFESSIONS OF A CATHOLIC BLAH
My story really is not all that interesting. I just grew up in a somewhat normal childhood in the 50’s and never got into any serious trouble. Maybe this will serve as an inspiration to others in some odd way, though. I remember an incident that took place during the mid 70’s. This was the era of the so-called “Jesus Movement.” Young people who had rejected the traditional rolls of family life and church were out on their own experimenting with alternate lifestyles and religions. Somewhere – and things are not too clear just where – God moved through these people and raised an army of Believers who rejected the old “traditional” forms of Christianity. Their music was different; their fellowships were different; and in many ways their relationships with God were different. Many of them were ex-drug addicts, ex-gang members, ex-prostitutes…much of the dregs of society that the churches had, for the most part, written off.
During the late 60’s and early-to-mid 70’s stories of drastically changed lives and deliverance from drug addiction were commonplace. I sat in one weeknight Bible study, though, where an older gentleman shared with the group about how God was helping him with his struggle to lose weight. My story is of the same caliber, a testimony about how God cares about the mundane things in life in addition to the spectacular, so grab the No Doz and a pot of coffee and join me.
I was baptized at Saint Mary’s parish in Marion, Ohio. St. Mary’s is the largest parish in the Columbus diocese. This is significant, because it was so big; it was difficult to really connect with anyone who was not already a friend or family member. Mass was scheduled four or five times on Sunday morning as I was growing up. Later a second church building was added in another part of town with two or three Masses scheduled, with Saturday evening Masses being added at each church to help folks fulfill their obligation to attend Mass every Sunday.
Back then attendance at Mass was mandatory on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation. To miss Mass without a good reason was to commit a mortal sin. We had a lot of demands put upon us during this period. Eating meat on Friday, attendance at a (Gasp!) Protestant service, even reading the Bible was forbidden. I wasn’t very devout. I went to Mass because my mother took me. I had my First Communion and Confirmation because they were expected of me. It never even occurred to me to not participate in these things.
My early time was rather uneventful, learning the Baltimore Catechism and just staying out of God’s way. That was something I really started wondering about. On one hand, we learned about how God loved us, but then we were also taught how God seemed to be up in heaven just waiting for someone to get out of line. Guilt played a large part in my spiritual life. If I went to confession and had not gone for quite a while, I’d get scolded by the priest for waiting so long. Eventually, I just stopped going. From time to time – especially in the summer – I’d lose track of the day of the week and inadvertently eat meat on Friday. The terror I felt can be understood only by older Catholics.
Eventually, I started noticing inconsistencies in the lives of Catholics around me. Most of them, I can now understand just from the standpoint of human nature, and people’s inability to live up to the ideals that they genuinely hold. But there were others that leave a strong impression on an adolescent. As I explained earlier, missing Mass without a good reason was considered a mortal sin. This is most dangerous, because death with unconfessed mortal sin on your soul meant an instant trip to hell. Really.
You noncatholics have probably heard of mortal and venial sins, but may not understand them. The Catholic Church has a two-tiered system of sin. Venial sins are small things such as lies, theft, etc. Mortal sins are much more serious, such as murder or, before Vatican II, eating meat on Friday. (I’m really not making this stuff up!) Venial sins will send you to purgatory for an undisclosed amount of time, but you eventually would make it to heaven (Maybe. We don’t want to commit the sin of presumption here.)
Well, missing Mass on a Sunday was a mortal sin, but there were times when we would go to my grandparents’ house to pick them up for Mass, and my grandfather would be sitting in his easy chair in his undershirt. “I don’t feel like going to Mass today…” Now when I’d been told by God’s church that missing Mass was a ticket to hell, and my grandfather was very casual about attendance, and this didn’t seem to bother anyone, it had a profound impact on me. I consider those instances to be the time when I started wondering about the absolute authority of pronouncements from the Church.
Even after I was left to my own devices, though, I kept attending Mass. By my early teens, I really had no real belief. I suppose I kept going out of cultural inertia or just to cover my bets, but I was by then a confirmed agnostic. If anyone had asked me at this point if I believed in God, I probably would have replied in the affirmative, but I had no idea what He was like or how (or if) it were possible to know Him…or even if I’d want to. The changes from Vatican II started finding their way into the Mass, and frankly, I was glad to see them come. I had never studied Latin, so the Mass was a big mystery to me as I was growing up. Now the Mass was being celebrated in English, and even if I still didn’t believe what was being said, at least I understood it better. The Bible was no longer forbidden to lay people, but I still didn’t read it.
I think a slight detour is in order here. When I was young I was what was euphemistically called “husky.” I was fat. My doctor had me on a diet when I was three years old. I was never athletic (naturally) and since that seems to be the prerequisite for popularity among the young, I had few friends. Oh, I always had a few, and so I suppose I never really noticed that much how few I had, but I spent a lot of time by myself. My family had always had books around, and I learned to read before I started school. Books were an escape for me, and to this day I still have an almost insatiable appetite for reading. I lived just down the street from grade school, so I’d walk home for lunch, eat, then sit on a register and read until it was time to go back. I read books from the library; I read books from school; I read my father’s science fiction anthologies; I read murder mysteries; I read the encyclopedia; I read the cereal box as I ate breakfast… As I entered my teens I started branching into new territory. I already had read in several fields of the natural sciences. I branched out to psychology, philosophy, the occult, but not theology. I’d already tried Christianity (or so I believed) and found it wanting.
Four days before I sixteenth birthday I hit a semi truck while riding my bicycle. (Insert Groucho Marx joke here.) I suffered a compound fracture to my left leg and missed six weeks of school. This would have been bad enough, but it was my sophomore year of high school, my first year after junior high, and only two weeks into the school year. I got back to school on crutches after those six weeks only to discover that what few friends I had from junior high had made new friends. For all practical purposes I didn’t know anybody, and this only served to drive me deeper inward, and into my books. That Christmas I got a set of weights and as soon as my cast came off I started an exercise routine. By the end of my junior year I was downright slim and I had my first date (with a GIRL!) that summer. My senior year found me with a new physique, better attitude…and no personality.
I was downright SHY ! Painfully so. I had plenty of dates, but was terrible with small talk, I knew nothing about drawing people into conversations and was, for the most part, just as lonely as I’d always been. Somewhere I discovered a reservoir of humor and started making more friends. One significant spiritual event in during this time was when I started dating a girl whose parents were Lutherans. To my surprise, these folks absolutely HATED me because I was Catholic. Having little interest in religion at that point, I was quite taken aback by their animosity. They never wanted to discuss theology with me; they just had no use for me. Other than that my senior year ended as most senior years do, although my graduating class scandalized our parents by rewriting the words to “25 or 6 to 4” for our class song, and we sang along with music from “Marion Transit Authority” at our commencement. That summer I worked as a painter and prepared to go to college that fall.
College was a trip. I was majoring in mechanical engineering. High school had been quite easy. In fact, I rarely cracked a book during my senior year, but still qualified for membership in the National Honor Society. (Although I didn’t join. THAT was a whole different crowd than the one where I felt comfortable.) I paid for it that next fall as I entered my freshman year at college with no study habits. Exacerbating the situation was the fact that I had inadvertently been scheduled for a physics class before having the two prerequisites. I limped along the best I could, but it was a losing battle. My inherent laziness did nothing to help the situation. But I was there for a different Reason…
One day I was sitting in the student lounge not doing much of anything – probably waiting for a eucher game to start up. A friend from a couple of my classes came up and stuck a newspaper under my nose. “CHRIST RETURNS!” a headline screamed. “MILLIONS MISSING AROUND THE WORLD!” What in the world was this talking about? At the Mass we had always repeated, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again,” but I had never heard about people actually disappearing during this event. I read the newspaper – it was only four pages – and got scared. Really scared. All of the articles pretty much said the same thing: If you were not taken up when Christ returned, you were done for, man. Most of my initial reading of this paper is a hazy memory. I failed to notice the section that explained how to be among those who were taken. I gave the paper back to my friend and worried about what it said for a few days. But there were classes to attend, schoolwork to do, and card games to win.
Later that fall I started dating a girl who got to mean a lot to me. She was intelligent, funny, and easy on the eyes. For someone who was ignored by the opposite sex during most of his adolescence, infatuation came easy. Time spent with her was totally pleasant.
During this same time my grandfather went into the hospital with cancer. It was spreading throughout his body, and his doctor gave him just a short time to live. “There are no atheists in the foxholes.” I prayed, asking God to allow my grandfather to live. Even though I really had no idea if He were there, I was grasping for anything. With the typical Catholic mindset I offered up to God as a sacrifice the only thing that really mattered to me at the time: my relationship with that girl. She and I started drifting apart. My grandfather continued to live – way beyond the maximum time given by the doctors. There was one problem, though. My grandfather didn’t get better; he just kept hanging on and continued to lose weight. He had always been robust and full of love for life, but now he was just a shell of his former self. I thought, “What am I doing?” (There’s that Catholic mindset again!) I prayed again, asking God to end his suffering. I wouldn’t ask for an end to our original agreement, I just couldn’t stand to see my grandfather continue to deteriorate. Shortly after that, he died.
Now, to this day I have no idea how much was due to my prayers or how much was coincidence. I have long ago learned that God very rarely strikes bargains, but I also know that He does things that are totally inexplicable to our limited understanding. Wherever the truth lies, these events had quite a profound effect on me at the time. But, as it all too often happened, after the shock wore off everyday living shoved things eternal from my mind.
I started dating the sister of a friend. My friend was moving out of state, and at a going-away party for her I met a group of very strange people (or maybe I should call the “peculiar.”) Some time earlier my friend had started attending what she called a “fellowship,” and I had no idea what went on there. These people were all from the fellowship. They seemed a little odd, but likable. Most of them were generally my age although the leaders of the group were 26 and 28. One was a teacher from my high school. They seemed ancient. I discovered that this fellowship was actually a nondenominational Bible study. As I’d said, I had never read the Bible, and I imagined a Bible study involving a group of wizened old folks sitting in silence around a dimly-lit living room, reading their Bibles.
The day came to drive my friend to the airport, but it was to mean much more to me than that. That morning I woke up knowing God existed! I’m really not sure what it was that turned me from an agnostic to a theist. Either God had supernaturally revealed Himself to me, or perhaps all of my learning had finally come into focus. Whatever it was, the feeling was thunderous. I decided I’d like to get to know this God.
My girlfriend was a Protestant, and had told me about the various Bibles she’d acquired through the years. I borrowed one from her and started reading. The writing style seemed geared toward someone, say, in the third grade, but I couldn’t get enough. I was living at home and commuting an hour to school with a friend. When he drove I got an hour of reading the Bible on the way down and another hour on the way home.
The Gospels were quite interesting, although parts were somewhat disturbing. I noticed right away how Matthew kept punctuating his narrative with phrases such as, “…so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled…” It seemed as if he were saying that the Scriptures had some sort of life of their own, or some kind of authority over history as it unfolded. Another very disturbing segment was in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount when He said, “If your eye offends you, tear it out and cast it away from you, for it is better to enter heaven with only one eye that to be cast whole into hell.” Whew. Whatever happened to “Holy Infant, so tender and mild?” All I was looking for was a continuation of those good feelings. I kept reading, hoping I’d find some clue.
There was one student at school who was a bit of a geek. This was the early 70’s, when most of us were…well…hairy. My hair was past my shoulders – at least it would have been if it didn’t frizz like it did. It went completely out of the picture on my student ID. Mr. Geek had his hair trimmed short. He was just too different from the rest of us nonconformists (Heh.) He, like the rest of us, carried his books in a satchel. The major difference between him and the rest of us though, was that he had bumper stickers on his satchel. Yes, bumper stickers. One said, “Honk if you love Jesus!” Well that pegged him right there. On the other side he had one that read “John 3:16 tells it like it is!” Judging from his appearance, no doubt from a repressive upbringing, the verse probably was something along the lines of, “If your right hand offends you…” I pulled out my New Testament and turned to John 3:16. It read, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” That was quite literally the last thing I expected to read. It gave me much to think about.
I was still looking for some way to get to know God. In my Bible reading I started finding things that were difficult to understand. I also read in Matthew’s gospel (chapter 24), Mark’s gospel (chapter 13), and Luke’s gospel (chapter 21) of a snatching away of God’s “elect.” Jesus said in Matthew, “…and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other… Then there shall be two men in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left.”
I wondered if this could be what that paper had been talking about. I just plain didn’t have anyone to ask. I wondered if this “fellowship” would have someone who could explain. I found out that they met every Thursday night, and went that next week. To my surprise, I did not find a group of wrinkled old people, but a large crowd of young people my own age. I recognized many of them from high school (although we had run in different groups), some of them among the more popular cliques. One fellow had a guitar and I thought, “Oh no. Get ready for ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore’ and ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’” I had another pleasant surprise. The songs were fairly upbeat and most of them dealt with God’s love. There was one, though that gave me pause. The message of the song was, “The Son has come and you’ve been left behind.” THAT again! Was this a major theme of the Bible that the Catholic Church had completely ignored?
After the singing there was a time of prayer. These people actually talked to God! And they prayed many times thanking Him for answers. It all was quite different from the scripted prayers I’d learned growing up, or the prayers off the cuff that were most often no more than, “Gimme, gimme, gimme.”
After the prayers we started getting into the Bible. They were working their way through Paul’s letter to the Romans. They were at chapter 14, where Paul admonished those strong in their faith to watch out for those who were weak. The leader (Bill, I’d met him at my friend’s going-away party) took the principle from this passage and applied it to every-day life. Don’t take a ham sandwich to your Jewish friend’s house; don’t wear jeans to church if that will offend people; and things such as these. These were principles I already tried to live by. I was pleased to hear that God wished us to behave in such a way that I already held as an ideal.
At the end of the study, people stayed around to talk. These people actually came because they wanted to. After 19 years of forced church attendance, I found this rather unusual. They also came up and welcomed me. They seemed genuinely glad to see me.
I started attending the fellowship on a regular basis. With this, in conjunction with my Bible reading on my own, I was learning a lot, but there were still things eluding my understanding. There were many concepts that seemed just out of my reach. I began visiting the home of one of the older participants (Rick, the 28-year-old.) I started inundating him with questions. At times others would be over and we’d spend much time discussing the things of God.
After I’d been attending the Bible study for a few weeks news started surfacing about an upcoming evangelistic crusade in a nearby town. There was going to be a youth rally to get the area Christian youth mobilized to bring in their friends. My friends were all planning to go and, naturally, I wanted to go also. At the rally, there was a fellow from a local fellowship associated with a Christian community located on a farm. He led the crowd in songs – most of which I recognized from Bible study (I found out later that many of the people from Bible study, including Rick and Bill, attended services on Sunday mornings at this farm.) This fellow started talking about the love of God, and Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. I was getting to feel like an old hand at this. Much of it was familiar by now.
At the end of the program Dalton (as I later found out was his name) asked everyone to bow their heads and close their eyes. He said, “If any of you would like to ask Jesus into your life and be your Savior, raise your hand.” I was taken aback. What was he talking about? Was this something these “Jesus People” did periodically? I mean, I was already doing everything these other people were doing, wasn’t I? Time stretched into (it seemed) ten or fifteen minutes. I started wondering what this guy was waiting for. I started getting into a mental debate. Why don’t you do this? Why should I? Isn’t this just the next logical step in what you are already doing? What would I be letting myself in for? Come on! Raise your hand! I think I’ll just pass on this. Come on. I don’t know… Comeoncomeoncomeoncomeon…
I raised my hand.
Dalton led those of us who’d raised our hands in a short prayer, asking Jesus to be our Savior. I have heard stories by some people whose time of conversion was thunderous. I didn’t feel a thing. As a matter of fact, it felt like such a non-event that I did not take much notice of it. I still was looking for a continuation of those warm fuzzies from the previous fall. That night, though, April 8th, 1972, was like the turning of a corner for me. I had been dead, now I was alive. I was an enemy of God, now I was aligned with Him against the god of this world. I had been headed for hell, now my home was heaven.
My friends kept track of the date for me. As I grew in my faith I started noticing changes in me. A big change was that my understanding of the Bible accelerated. New things were becoming clearer every day. I made friends with Mr. Geek (His name is Mike.) and started flooding him with questions that I had.
There was another change, though, that was even bigger – the significance of which can be best appreciated by a Roman Catholic: I could now relax in my relationship with God. The Church has given us Catholics soooo many rules and rituals to earn eternal life…and then you could never be sure until you were actually stepping through the Pearly Gates. But the Bible gives assurance of salvation and a home in heaven for all who believe. It didn’t take me long to recognize that the Church presents heaven as a reward. Now, a reward is something in payment for what you have done – wages, if you will. But the only wages mentioned in the Bible in this regard is in Romans 6:23: For the wages of sin is death. But heaven is a gift. That same verse also tells us …but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If you are Roman Catholic and reading this (or an evangelical Christian struggling with your relationship with God), understand that there is absolutely nothing that you can do to gain God’s favor. Paul wrote, But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) How could God love us more? And that was when we were still God’s enemies. Salvation is not some kind of reward, but God’s solution to the problem of sin. God has always wanted to have a relationship with us, but the sin in our lives kept us apart. Jesus’ death was God’s solution, and now He is free to actually enjoy our company.
At the time of my conversion there were those who thought this was just some kick I was on, but God is faithful, and will complete what He has begun in me. In a few weeks as of this writing, I will have been a Christian for 30 years. About six months after I became a Christian I found some papers I’d written the previous fall for a class in school. I was amazed at how much my attitude had changed in less than a year. Where I had been an agnostic, a nihilist, and a hedonist, now I had assurance of God’s existence and a hope for the future. I had an answer for troubled friends other than just my sympathy. There have been some extremely tough times as a direct result of my faith, but God has always been there to see me through.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God's elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, "For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long;” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, (Did you get that? Not even life, with all of its distractions, temptations, and hurts can separate us from God.) nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I told you that my story wouldn’t be all that interesting, but I hope that in some small way, I have inspired someone to seek out God and let Him prove Himself to you.