Unhand the Cheerios…

cereals in basket

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Both kids were scheduled to work this morning, so we went as a family to the five o’clock Mass at St. Pius. It was the first time we’d gone there together — gorgeous church, lovely organ music, and the homily was short, sweet, and … a little crunchy.

The priest observed that every parish in America sweeps up at least a pound of Cheerios each weekend — a kind of divine detritus (my words) left behind by parents of small children who just want to be able to pray for five minutes. Then one day as he was watching his two-year-old nephew grow frustrated over trying to play with a truck with two fistfuls of Cheerios, he said, it made him realize that Cheerios are the perfect metaphor for human desire. “God holds out the truck, and we won’t let go of the Cheerios long enough to take it. But that’s what God is asking … he wants you to let go of the Cheerios,” he explained.

I looked at my mother, sitting so intently next to me. It has been only about three weeks since our priest gave her the anointing of the sick while she was in the hospital with pneumonia — for her, it was a sacramental windfall that included first confession, first Eucharist, confirmation, and last rights. Thank God, she recovered … and has been eager to go forward to receive Jesus each week. Her eyes just light up with so much joy, you never would have guessed what a miracle it is that she was standing there at all.

I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that I was brought up believing Catholics aren’t “really” Christians. So to see God work it out so that my mother goes forward to receive Jesus each week is a little … strange. I’d had two aunts (one on either side of the family) who had married Catholic boys, and it didn’t end well.  (Interestingly enough, one of them — my namesake — wound up tending to my grandmother in her later years. I so admire her.)

All I know is that, for the past two years, mom has been going to church with us each week … and remaining in the pew as the rest of us went up. She would say all the prayers, and sing along to all the hymns, and listen intently as our Nigerian priest would break open the Gospel. At night I would tuck mom in and read to her from some of the books I’m currently working on, and one day she pulled out one called Catholic and Christian by Dr. Alan Schreck … and we started reading THAT.

Next thing I know, she’s telling Fr. John that she wants to be a Catholic. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it’s because her Catholic daughter rescued her from memory care prison. Maybe it’s because I refused to give up praying with her for her marriage. Maybe it’s because … well, maybe it’s because we were both ready to let go of the Cheerios, and hold out our hands for whatever God wanted to give us.

And so we did. And you know what? It was even better than we thought.

The Priest Who Loved Me (The Love Project: Day 30)

egg rollsI hadn’t been in RCIA more than a month when I got the summons in the form of a phone call from his secretary. “Monsignor was wondering if you’d have time to let him take you to lunch this week.” My heart pounding, we set a noontime appointment at a local Chinese place a few days later. As soon as she hung up, I called my sponsor.

Well, she was my second sponsor, actually. My first one had quit after just a couple of weeks because I kept asking too many questions. So Dawn — the woman in charge of the program for adults interested in learning more about the Catholic Church — decided to take me on herself. “Don’t worry, Heidi. I’ve been telling him good things about you. He just wants to meet you.”

I arrived ten minutes late to find Monsignor waiting patiently, writing something in his appointment book. He smiled and stood up when he saw me, his Irish brogue warm with sincerity. “I’m so glad you could come.”

Over pork lo mein and egg rolls, he asked me gentle questions until he had heard the highlights of my story: the Catholic boyfriend I was forced to break up with because of his faith; my friend the Baptist minister who resigned his position because of his desire to join the Church; my summer in Poland that had left me groping for God, unable to pray until I found refuge in the last place I ever expected — inside the darkened sanctuary of that historic old parish in South Pasadena.

I had kind of tuned out during my own narrative, telling it as though it was someone else’s story. When at last I finally looked up, Monsignor was studying me intently, his eyes bright. Oh, man, now I’d really done it — I made a priest cry. I glanced at my watch. Two hours had gone by, yet he was clearly in no hurry to leave. He took a sip of tea, and cleared his throat.

“Heidi,” Monsignor Connelly said to me, taking my hand. “You are a gift to us.”

In that moment, sitting there in the middle of that Chinese restaurant, I could not recall the last time I had felt so completely and unreservedly loved and accepted. I was home at last.

Today’s Love in Action: Has there been a priest who has made a difference in your life? Have you thanked him?

Me? Evangelize?

Merry Christmas, dear readers! This week if you have a little extra time in your Christmas stocking, be sure to join Ebeth at A Catholic Mum Climbing the Pillars, where she has posted the Christmas edition of “Catholic Carnival” this week. Thanks, Ebeth!

“…there is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to talk to others of our friendship with him”. (CDF, “Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization,” 7).

Lately I’ve been thinking about what it means to “evangelize,” something we as Catholics are all called to do. As a convert to the faith, it occurs to me that my perspective on this subject may be somewhat different from that of some cradle Catholics.

First, I have experienced firsthand effective evangelization (as opposed to “evangelism,” the word most frequently used by Evangelical Christians). My preconceptions and misgivings about the Church crumbled like a proverbial house of cards largely thanks to the dedicated friendships of brothers and sisters in Christ who took to heart the admonition of St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel; when necessary, use words.”

Ordinary, Extraordinary Grace

Ironically, none of these grace-filled individuals were apologists or catechists. Rather, they were “ordinary” and usually soft-spoken channels of extraordinary grace.

The Catholic college friend who continued to support me in my missionary work (in Senegal) even after she learned that I hesitated to take her money because she wasn’t a “real” Christian.

The Catholic mother of a school friend who visited me in the hospital and figured out how to wash my hair for the first time in many weeks.

The Catholic boyfriend (I write about him in greater detail in the March/April issue of “Canticle) whose example made me search out for myself whether Catholics are, in fact, “saved.”

I do not write these things to minimize the importance of catechetics and apologetics. Once my heart was open to receive truth, my mind was persuaded by the books and tapes and teachings. Like many converts, I soaked up the eloquence of Scott Hahn, Karl Keating, and (in my case) Sheldon Vanauken. But my heart was wooed and won by the patient, unfailing love of simple humility … and sheer grace.

And so, I read with interest the Holy Father’s recent letter on evangelization, and his acknowledgment that this important work is about much more than imparting dogma. He writes: “… to evangelize does not mean simply to teach a doctrine, but to proclaim Jesus Christ by one’s words and actions, that is, to make oneself an instrument of his presence and action in the world” (CDF, “DNSAE”, 2).

Evangelization vs. “Evangelism”

Which brings me to the second half of my reflection on evangelization, namely, my experiences of evangelism (i.e. my efforts to bring others to Christ as an Evangelical Christian).

I had nearly completed my Bible school studies when a certain guest lecturer addressed my class on the importance of “church planting.” Soon the idea caught on, and many of my classmates made exalted plans to form teams and go off to the most remote parts of the world to start a church (in most cases, having never started one here at home).

This didn’t make sense to me; I had decided my time was better spent by reaching out to local immigrants and teaching them English as a Second Language (ESL). I said as much to one of my professors, who actually patted me on the head and said, “That’s OK, Heidi. You go ahead and teach English … the rest of us will get on with God’s work!”

I had been instructed in the finer points of street preaching, door-to-door witnessing, and homiletics. I wasn’t afraid to witness to the truth. But it seemed to me that the most effective witness is based not on sheer eloquence alone, but on relationship. And that, I realized, required time. I had listened with an increasing sense of discomfort as classmates (and a few of my teachers) come back from “witnessing,” declaring with great pride how they had silenced their opponent with their finely honed arguments. They had stripped away lies and exposed falsehoods, lobbing Bible verses like so many Molotov cocktails. As I listened, however, I wondered: Is the whole point of evangelism to silence opponents, or lead them to Jesus?

When I raised this point, however, they silenced me as well. “Don’t you know, Heidi, that while you’re teaching nouns and verbs and ladling soup, souls are going to hell every day? Don’t you know that, because you have not shared the Gospel as clearly and forcefully as you should, YOU are responsible for their fate?”

Squirming at the possibility that they might be right, I began to take a more direct approach, spending part of each “lesson” trying to persuade people to accept Jesus. The sense of urgency began to border on obsession. What if this was the last time I ever saw these people, and they died that night without ever praying the Sinner’s Prayer? Would they one day (at the Judgment Seat) accuse me of not trying hard enough to show them the truth?

There was another problem as well: It began to dawn on me that I had become so preoccupied with the state of other people’s souls, I did not give much thought to my own. I had already “accepted Jesus,” you see — and so there was no need to worry about the state of my own soul. I was going to heaven. Gossip … resentment … anger … even lies. None of it mattered, or so I thought; the blood of Jesus covered me.

Years later, I was struck by the fact that no one — not even the director of the RCIA program — used an ounce of force to convince me to become Catholic. “Don’t worry, Heidi,” she consoled me when I confessed a few weeks before the Vigil that I still didn’t “feel at peace” about joining them. “If you decide not to enter the Church at this Vigil, God may have other plans for you. Obviously you love God and want to do His will. Relax, and let things unfold a bit more. There is no hurry … God has all the time in the world.”

It was precisely what I needed to hear. The knot in the pit of my stomach unraveled, and I went to my first sacramental confession knowing that — whatever else happened to me — God knew my heart belonged to Him.

“…every activity of the Church has an essential evangelizing dimension and must never be separated from the commitment to help all persons to meet Christ in faith, which is the primary objective of evangelization: ‘Social issues and the Gospel are inseparable. When we bring people only knowledge, ability, technical competence and tools, we bring them too little'” (CDF, “DNSAE”, 2).

Church Girl Runs Home … to Rome

This is the title of my conversion story, part of which I have already written about here. It has been a little disorienting, at times, to encounter Catholics who — with all the best intentions — “defend” Christ and His Church with the same zeal I used to encounter in the Evangelical camp. I have to remind myself that zeal has its place, that truth sometimes does cut like a sword, that the “faith warrior” has an important place in the Kingdom of God.

And yet, there is room for the more cautious among us as well. There is a need for medics as well as soldiers; mothers who nurture as well as fathers who lead. In His Mercy, God has given me a glimpse of certain dangers so I can avoid them. To do that, He led me from church to church — and at times, even from country to country.

As a “Cross-Cultural Catholic,” I depend on God’s grace to carry on the work He gives me to do with a measure of humility and prudence, knowing how easy it can be to fall.

“Indeed, since the day of Pentecost, the Church has manifested the universality of her mission, welcoming in Christ the countless riches of peoples from all times and places in human history. Beyond its intrinsic anthropological value, every encounter with another person or culture is capable of revealing potentialities of the Gospel which hitherto may not have been fully explicit and which will enrich the life of Christians and the Church. Thanks to this dynamism, ‘tradition, which comes from the Apostles, makes progress in the Church by the help of the Holy Spirit’” (CDF, DNSAE, 6).

Looking Toward Jerusalem

It happens every Lent. We get to that place in the “big red book” and start singing a song that I have never managed to get through without choking up.

I have fixed my eyes on your hills,Jerusalem my
Though I can not see the end for me, I can not turn away.
We have set our hearts for the way; this journey is our destiny./ Let no one walk alone.The journey makes us one.
Other spirits, lesser gods, have courted me with
Here among you I have found a truth which bids me rise. *chorus*

To the tombs I went to mourn the hope I thought was gone,/ Here among you I awoke to unexpected dawn. *chorus*

I can’t listen to this song without thinking about the first time I ever heard it: as a candidateI poised at the edge, fearful of diving in to … what? Heresy? Ostracism? Liberation? I wasn’t sure … probably all of it. After nearly a year of study and reflection, I was still not 100% sure about leaping in to the Church with both feet. Something still held me back.

Several somethings, actually. My horrified parents. My spiritual ennui, complete with residual guilt over a number of personal choices. At the time, “Church Girl” had slidden far from grace, feeling cut off from every line of support I had ever known. In restrospect, I now realize that I was probably depressed. The only person, other than my sponsor, who would attend the confirmation would be an off-again, on-again romantic interest who (let’s be honest) was not someone I should have been with in the first place. Oh, and a woman who had reached out to me and offered me a job when I was this close to living on the street. Not my finest hour.

My sponsor suggested that I might want to wait another year. I knew this was not an option … Waiting wasn’t going to resolve anything … This was confirmed by the Filipino priest who heard (no saying how much he understood) my first confession. “You have a path. You need to follow it,” he told me. He also told me a story about a dog race and a rabbit, the point of which was that distractions could deter me only insofar as I let them.

So, I took a deep breath and leaped … And never looked back. Like the old song said, “I have decided to follow Jesus … no turning back, no turning back.” It’s the dangling your feet on the edge of the pool that will get you every time. Danglers never get anywhere. It’s the swimmers who discover the treasures hidden under the surface.

So if you’re looking toward Jerusalem, take heart and a deep breath. Then dive in —
Under the Mercy…