During this month of Mary, I always find it inspiring to spend time in prayer contemplating her great “yes” to God. Though I can never know Mary in this life, the amazing gift she gave to all mankind shows just how selfless, pure, and Holy she is. The kind of mother to Jesus and to all humanity that every mother strives to be.
In thinking of Mary’s yes to God, I questioned if I could or would ever be able to say yes and give Him all that He was asking for. I thought of my conversion story, how my heart has been changed by Him, and I realized in my own small way that I have already given Him my yes.
When you’re a child, the world seems so small. You can be anything, do anything, you have infinite time to see the world. You know that all you have to do is think something, and you can make it happen.
I knew I wanted to be Catholic from the moment I smelled the old sweet mahogany wood and incense in my father’s church. As a young child, I remember walking into St. Cecilia’s parish in Hastings, Nebraska with my father and just feeling more at home there than almost anywhere else in the world. There was this thing though, I couldn’t be Catholic.
My story is the same as too many others, a child of an unhappy marriage which led to divorce. A child not unwanted, but a constant reminder of the mistakes that two people had made. My father was Catholic and my mother Methodist. Neither of them practicing, but both absolutely sure that their religion was right.
I lived with my mom who soon remarried and had more children, every other weekend and two weeks in the summer I saw my dad who soon remarried and had more children.
I distinctly remember on one occasion asking my step-mother if I could become Catholic. She looked at me with more love in her eyes then I had ever seen her show for me, but replied that my mother wouldn’t let me. It was then at 7 or 8 I knew I would never be allowed to be Catholic, because just like so many other things in my life, it was something my parents could use to hurt one another. My dreams could never come true, because they were still bitter about their dreams not coming true.
Time went on, I grew, but my parents didn’t. Their hatred toward one another raged through my childhood and adolescence. I occasionally attended Mass with my dad and his family when I visited, and envied my step-brother and step-sister as they came home from school wearing uniforms and toting religion assignments.
But, there was this moment, a moment that changed my life in ways that I can’t describe or explain. A second when time stood still, and I knew that God was real and good and answered my prayers. My anti-Catholic mother, who in every sense of the word hated Catholics decided to send me to a Catholic high school! She of course had her justifications. I was turning into a bad seed in public schools and making the wrong friends. But this one seemingly insignificant decision, is the beginning of my conversion. The beginning of the most beautiful story I can tell in my life. The story of how God purified hearts, dug souls out of the deepest pits of sin, and brought his children close to his bosom.
As I entered the building that would shape my destiny, I was terrified. I wondered if everyone could tell I was a Methodist simply by looking at me. Maybe they would notice that my brand new Bible had never been opened, let alone read. I of course had the regular fears any freshman might have, and I was terrified to start at a school where I knew no one, but mostly I thought they’d sniff me out and soon kick my non-believing behind out of there.
Days and months went on, I was an awkward teenager and so was everyone else, though of course I can only see that in retrospect. It was clear that I was far behind in Religion class, and I remember dreading group work, review days, anything where it became apparent how completely ignorant I truly was. I had joined the school choir, and as we prepared to sing at school Masses I found myself moronically thumbing through missal pages and trying to hold back the tears as I stood when I was supposed to sit. I longed to know the divine secrets these other people knew, and as I watched them go to Jesus in the Communion line my heart ached.
More time passed, and it became easier. I learned the routines, and was soon much better at faking my way through things. I eventually made friends, joined clubs, finished classes and became a “normal” high school student. Fast forward to junior year, and a certain young man, Eric, met my eye. We started a relationship, and lucky for us, we were young and stupid. We didn’t know the things of this world, and so we entered a serious relationship totally in love with one another and completely devoted. Did I mention this man became my husband?
Eric and I dated through high school, and went to college together. He and I knew from very early on that we would be married, but we both wanted to wait until we graduated college. It was also completely understood that if I wanted to marry Eric, his parents expected me to convert. Of course I was ecstatic at this idea, and so the summer before Eric’s senior year as an undergraduate, I decided it was time to begin RCIA. I distinctly remember telling my mom what I had planned. I knew she wouldn’t be happy, but I also knew that I was an adult and it was finally my choice. The thing about family is they know you so well, and this is usually a great thing, but in this case, my mom knew exactly what to say to break my heart.
She said, “Your great-grandmother will roll over in her grave when she hears of your conversion.”
It hurt. It hurt a lot. I idolized my great-grandma, and my mom knew it. My mother knew she had already lost the battle, so she went for the gut. I don’t know what I expected her to say, but that wasn’t it. It didn’t matter though, it was finally my choice and not hers and so I excitedly began RCIA.
I was catechized by two loving deacons in our parish, and became Catholic during the Easter vigil in 2004 with my husband as my sponsor. I chose St. Adelaide, a patron saint of parenthood and second marriages which I felt was fitting based on my childhood. I remember that moment, when I first consumed Jesus in the Eucharist, and I expected to feel different….feel something. And yet, nothing. Shouldn’t this be the end of my story? How could it be that I was finally Catholic, yet my heart was still not whole. I didn’t understand, and I honestly felt as if God was angry because I didn’t obey his call sooner. I feared that all along my mom was right, that I should never have become Catholic. I had lost so much of that wonder and awe for The Church with age, and I so deeply wanted it back.
However, I quickly pushed these feelings to the back of my mind, and dreamt of wedding plans, our future careers, and our lives together. We became barely practicing Catholics as I found that when you surround yourself with “lukewarm Catholics” that that is what you become. Sometimes we attended Sunday Mass, sometimes not, and that was it. We made choices that were a slap in the face to the Mother Church, because we thought we knew better. But, Eric and I were married in the Church that December, and began our lives together.
My husband became a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and I started looking for a teaching job. I interviewed several places, but wasn’t getting called back. I was nervous. I applied for anything and everything I could find. One day, I received a call to come interview at North American Martyrs School in Lincoln, Nebraska. This day, the day of my interview with Sr. Patricia, was the first day of my real conversion. If I thought it was difficult to become Catholic, I was wrong. The real work began when I saw that my heart needed to change to actually be a Catholic woman.
As I drove home from the interview I called my husband. I told him that I would never ever accept that job, that the pay was laughable. I mean really, what self-respecting college graduate would start at $23,000? My husband was in grad school, there was no way we could live off of that. Plus, I was certain that I’d be getting called back from the other schools at which I’d interviewed. But, I didn’t.
A week went by and no one else called. I was scared I wouldn’t have a job at all. And so, when Sr. Patricia called back to ask if I’d decided, I said yes to her. I was just relieved to have a job after I got off the phone, and yet here’s the best part. That same day, after she called, I had two other job offers both for much more money and with the opportunity to earn my Master’s degree in 18 months during my first year of teaching. It was in this moment, that I accepted divine intervention. Though nowhere near as awesome as Mary’s “yes”, this was the beginning of my yes to God. I allowed Him to direct my life’s path.
Now, I wish I could recall every detail of my three years in this holy place, but alas after five children my memory often fails. I can tell you that never having been to Rome or the Holy Land, Lincoln Nebraska is the holiest of places I’ve ever been. Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz is a holy man, and leads his sheep with a rod and staff.
As part of my job I was required to take the students to daily Mass every single school day. We had prayer time in the church as a class once a week, adoration and benediction on the first Friday of every month, confession once a quarter, stations of the cross every week during Lent and that was just the beginning.The altar boys (boys-only) deserved their nickname: “The Knights of the Altar”. The girls respected them for it. Dozens of men in the parish served as acolytes. The idea of unvested extraordinary ministers or even permanent deacons were unheard of. There were actual religious sisters teaching in our school, and twice a month our parish priest came to teach in our classroom. The students in the school knew the faith better than anyone else I had ever met, and could defend it to any well spoken adult. The priests were amazing, and the diocese has one of the highest priest to parishioner ratios. They gave homilies about the tough issues, and didn’t apologize for it. The priests inspired everyone in the parish to do more, give more, pray more, love more.
Sometime during this amazing experience, I began to hear a whisper. A whisper I didn’t want to listen to because it was scary, but I knew it was from God. I heard it, “Rachel, put aside these Earthly things and follow Me.” And worse yet, I knew exactly what He was talking about: contraception. Through much prayer, my husband and I agreed that we needed to stop using birth control and begin using Natural Family Planning, as our hearts were not yet ready to welcome children into our family. Soon after I gained the courage to go to confession and pour out my guilt for this sin, and words cannot say the true forgiveness I felt. I knew I would have to battle this mistake my entire life, but as I left the confessional, for the first time ever, I felt like a child of God.
My husband and I started using NFP in November of that year, and immediately realized from the charting, that something was not right. A story to be told some other time, but we soon discovered with the help of an amazing NaPro doctor that I had polycystic ovaries, and possible fertility problems. In fact I was told that it may be difficult to impossible for my husband and I to conceive. Information that is crushing to any woman, and especially to my 23 year-old self.
This led to THE moment, the moment of my true conversion. The moment where I could no longer be the person I used to be and instead had to be who God made me to be. Where I would have to die to self and live in Him, the culmination of my “yes” to Him.
And it is in the spirit of the diocese that my husband and I decided to participate in a Lenten retreat. The retreat had it’s ups and downs, but we found of course that the more we poured ourselves into it, the more we got out of it. During the last week of the retreat, the Sunday before Holy Week, we were called to participate in Eucharistic adoration. Our small group knelt in the front pew and prayed. But then, our priest did something amazing. He brought Jesus to us in the monstrance. He came down the row, and one by one each person was allowed to touch Him. I prayed with more fervor than I ever had before. I asked God to come into my heart, and for the courage to make a true dwelling place for Him. Then, Father Kilcawley stood in front of me, and in his hands was Jesus, truly present in the Eucharist. This was the moment that my life had led up to, the culmination of my journey finally at hand. I laid my hands on Him and began to cry tears of true joy and love. I heard his voice more clearly than I ever had or have since, and I heard Him tell me to be a mother. I knew He had used this retreat to purify my soul, bring me to Him, and remind me of my purpose in life. That one single moment in time was my conversion.
Needless to say, that Easter vigil was the most beautiful Mass I have ever attended, and God’s amazing love continued to follow me. A few weeks later, I discovered that I was pregnant with our first child! A year later, at Easter Mass, I welcomed my mother into the Church. Yes, you read that right, my anti-Catholic mother.
I realized that being dubbed a Catholic just wasn’t enough. God wants all of you, your whole heart and soul, and he won’t rest until he has it. Our family has continued to grow in love and in number through Him as I listened to his whispers in my life. Most recently, I answered God’s call in my life and said yes to veiling at Mass, and as always when I listen to Him I am sublimely happy.
And, this is how I picture Mary, sublimely happy. Yes, she was human, and laden with daily tasks as any wife or mother is, but I know her “yes” to God must have radiated from her everyday.