Friday, October 26, 2007

My conversion/RCIA/(almost)Vocation story

People always talk about how they love conversion and vocation stories. Back in 2006 a member of the Catholic-Pages forum (who, incidentally, is in the seminary right now) asked for conversion stories from people who in their discernment did not enter the seminary. Being naturally long-winded, I gave him far more than he asked for, and probably even more than he wanted. I've tweaked the post a little to update it, but only a little.


My discernment was and has been ongoing, when I stop to think about it, for as long as I can remember. For much of it, my paternal grandmother always provided a certain grounding in God, being the good Irish Catholic that she is, even though my parents raised me without any religious experience at all. Because of her I always considered myself a closet Catholic even though I had no idea what that meant. I have often called her my own St. Monica since I'm quite sure she was praying for my conversion from the time of my birth. Now when I say "without any religious experience" I do truly mean it - religion was just never a topic of conversation, neither encouraged or discouraged, it just never came up. It seems impossible to me now, but so it was.

My first experience with the Church was through a girlfriend who was going through a mix of RCIC/RCIA (too old for one, too young for the other); she brought me to my first Mass. Then I knew I was on to something. This was neither the first nor last time, however, that I would have the cover lifted from my eyes only to shut them from the brightness.

A while later, while in college I was confronted by a different girl I was dating on why I was so bound by the rules of a Church to which I didn't even belong. That really cut right to the heart of it - I was always defending the Church's position on things, to the best of my very limited abilities, but yet I hadn't ever bothered to make any attempt to enter the Church. What she said hit me hard, like someone lifting up a dark corner of your still-beating heart in front of your eyes. But still, it took me about three more years to call up and join RCIA. One morning while at work I said "fine", grabbed the phone book, and called the first Catholic church I found. An older gentleman, the pastor (silly me, I didn't know the office wasn't open yet!) answered the phone and talked with me for a bit and put me on the list for when the RCIA class started. There was a nervous part of me that hoped they wouldn't call back because then it wouldn't be my fault, or so I theorized. To my everlasting surprise and joy, however, that was not to be - God wasn't going to let me off that easily this time. A few months later the "real" discernment started. I should preface the rest of this story with the fact that I suffer terrible social anxiety when faced with either talking on the phone or face-to-face with a group of strangers. Not exactly the makings of a priest, eh?

So RCIA started, and some wonderful people were there, along with the new assistant pastor, who was a "second-career" priest. We got a handful of books and a reading list for each session - it felt just like the college classes I was still finishing, but my heart was pounding the whole time, which I just put to anxiety. So for the first couple of classes I kept quiet, and kept up with the requested reading - I was going to just coast along in the middle of the class and go as un-noticed as possible. But the reading had my attention, and before long I had read all of the books they had given us and was looking for more. Being a computer guy, I discovered the Vatican's website and started reading Papal encyclicals; my theory was if you're going to get info, get it from the top. Humane Vitae, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Evangelium Vitae, Veritatis Splendor, you name it, I read it. And curiously, as heavy as it was, it all just "made sense". Even more than that, much of it was directly contradictory to the positions I'd so lightly held as a know-it-all college kid, but it was those very contradictions that made the most sense to me. I began to see how thin a veneer my perception of life had been and how utterly deep the Church's understanding was.

As I continued to read, classes went on. And I think people started to notice that I just sat in class with a most peculiar serene smile on my face. It was like coming home, when you had never even known you were lost. Our facilitators and I became good friends, and the priest and I became friends as well to an extent. Then the dream that I had once came to me where I was told, "I have something better for you". I thought, for sure, that was leading me toward the priesthood. I was never afraid of the thought of celibacy, or of any of the daunting challenges of the priesthood for by then I knew God would stand beside me. I've never been one for half-measures and this seemed the logical conclusion to my travels.

Before long, I was attending the Morning Prayer, Rosary and Daily Mass. And not long after that they had me leading Morning Prayer since our fine Sister who usually led us had gone on retreat. Somewhere in all this I decided that if we had a feast day it would be proper to provide a little preface to Morning Prayer explaining the feast. Like I said, I don't do half-measures. The day Sister returned was a Marian feast, although I don't remember which. My preface, to this day, I do not remember a word of. But I do remember that Sister hugged me with tears in her eyes before we headed to Mass. I knew something was going on.

Before the Easter Vigil even came, I had made up my mind that my calling must have been to become a priest. The Vigil came and went, and I continued on knowing where I was headed. Then several months later, to the parish came a man who was in final discernment. He was a few years older than me, and was to head to the seminary the next fall. He lived in the rectory and performed odd jobs as well as offloading from me some of the jobs I had taken on which were more the property of a proper accolyte. He and I became good friends and could feel ourselves on the pedestal of the entire parish. Both of us were uncomfortable with it, but knew it was the price of putting your lamp on a stand. Then one day he just disappeared - he cleaned out his things from the rectory and moved away. The pressure to be as perfect as the priests with whom he lived and the fishbowl of parish life had been more than he could take. (A note to the reader: this is a good lesson for everyone - encourage those discerning their vocation to the priesthood, but don't suffocate them. It's a hard enough time for many as it is without having additional pressure to live up to expectations.)

So now it was just me, trying to be perfect for two of us. After some time of strong shock and not a little panic, I decided that now was the time to talk to the Vocations Director and make my internal decision formal and public. During this time, to make things even more interesting, I had been told that upon graduation that spring I was to find myself a new job for the College at which I worked would not hire its own graduates. Strange, but true. The meeting with the Director did not go as I had planned.

I attended morning Mass, then drove to the meeting. I waited patiently all the while wondering just how close I was sitting to our Bishop. I had been there before, but for some reason that day the proximity seemed more intense. Finally the Director came out, we walked back to his office and chit-chatted for a few minutes. Finally, brass tacks time. When I told him I'd like to enter the seminary he closed my little "personnel folder" and told me he thought I needed more time, that I had to mature as a Catholic (and how right he has proven to have been!) some before I could make such a decision. I accepted his answer, since he reports to the Bishop, the decendant of the Apostles, and left. The drive home was more agonizing than any I have ever had before or since.

All the while on the drive I pondered what God could be calling me to. I couldn't keep my job, but I also couldn't afford to be without one either. Something was totally incongruous to me. I also knew that I couldn't very well take a job knowing that I would leave it in a year or two, since no one would hire a new guy for just a couple of years, and I couldn't lie about it since that wouldn't exactly be very Christian. Somehow in that drive I decided that God was merely treating me like Abraham, to see if I was in fact willing to say "yes" to Him even if it meant giving up everything. And when I said "yes", He was then telling me "good, but I have something else for you". I believed it, I went on with it and such was life.

Some time after this I met the woman who is now my wife. I found that job that I needed, and God has provided for us quite well. For a while I drifted nearer the margins than the center of His Church, but for whatever reason this (catholic-pages) site, and this (2006) Lent renewed in the center of my being that fire to know God and that unceasing desire to serve something greater than myself. I know I cannot become a priest, and I do not question that for a second, and I am too young to enter the diaconate. But there is something there that just won't quit and I can't for the life of me figure out what it is. So, I continue to discern.

So that's me, up to now. The last part still remains true as well - there is this gnawing hunger to do ... something for the Lord and His Church, but for the life of me I haven't the foggiest idea what that ever-elusive something is. Some day, God willing, I'll figure it out - but until then I'll continue to struggle and pray, as it should be I imagine.