#PrayerStories: Sneaking into Mass

Holy FamilyNow, a lot of DREs will tell you this isn’t the ideal, but I sneaked into Masses at Holy Family, an old mission-style parish in South Pasadena, for six months before I thought about joining the Church. I made an appointment with the DRE, who was surprised that I had been receiving the Eucharist all this time, and gently told me that I should wait until I was Catholic to do this. Reluctantly, I agreed.

She gave me a sponsor, who quit three weeks later (I guess I asked too many questions). So she decided this little lamb needed a shepherd with a firmer hand, and took me on herself. She invited me for breakfast after Mass, invited me to spend time with her family (something I sorely needed at that time in my life, as I was feeling rather disenfranchised), and answered all my many, many questions. Sometimes we didn’t agree, based on what I had been reading about Church teaching. But she gave me a place to learn and grow, and be part of a community. Dawn Ponnet at Holy Family Parish was in a very real sense my spiritual mother.

At the Easter Vigil, I stood outside the church with my beautiful white dress and red-and-gold sash and lit candle that she had made for me, and I thought about the journey I had undertaken. No one in my family was present — they lived far away, and none of them agreed with what I was doing. My college friends were also uncomfortable with this choice, and stayed away. Two co-workers had shown up to celebrate with me. I found myself singing a song I had learned in Sunday school:

I have decided to follow Jesus. I have decided to follow Jesus. I have decided to follow Jesus,  no turning back, no turning back.

Though none go with me, still I will follow. Though none go with me, still I will follow. Though none go with me, still I will follow. No turning back, no turning back.

I haven’t stopped following. Haven’t stopped learning. And if you’re reading this, I hope you will follow him, too. Let’s take up this journey together!

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?