I have been asked a couple of times how I made the transition from casual cafeteria Catholic to a faithful-to-the-Magisterium Catholic. It is easy to say it was by the grace of God, which is true, but the question begs more of an answer than that. A few more details and the answer still seems incomplete. Browsing through the Catholic blogosphere, one finds numerous blogs written by converts. Et Tu by Jen, Happy Catholic by Julie D., and The Dawn Patrol by Dawn Eden are some of my favorites. A common characteristic in these blogs is the inclusion of a conversion story. I am truly in awe of converts because they had to make the very bold decisive move to become Catholic. As a cradle Catholic, my “conversion” has been much more subtle. Over many years I gradually moved from being a passive observer of faith to an active seeker of faith. I cannot point to any event that triggered a great epiphany. I can point to many little nudges that pushed me to fully embrace Catholicism.
I started out with a good baseline. I grew up in a Catholic family. I went to a Catholic high school. Mass was part of every significant event in my life. Just as a convert to Catholicism must make a definitive choice to join the Church, it would have been a radical choice to call myself anything but Catholic. It was as much a part of my identity as brown eyes. But in some ways, that is how I looked at it. Just as I didn’t have to do anything to keep my eyes brown, I didn’t see anything I had to do to keep myself Catholic. I went to Mass every Sunday and even some weekdays, but I hadn’t really integrated my faith into my personal and professional life.
College was definitely not a time for strengthening my faith. The Catholic student center was all about getting an emotional response. The music, the liturgy, the retreats were all about fellowship with each other and getting that warm fuzzy feeling. The “liturgy director” was very vocal about tearing down any semblance of a traditional Catholic liturgy. I once stopped by the center in the evening and was surprised to find some sort of service going on. As I peeked in I saw the sanctuary was full of young men with close- cropped beards. I figured out later that the liturgy director was using the student center to run a gay ministry. In many ways I felt more comfortable when I attended the high church Episcopal service at the very traditional looking Episcopal Church across the street. But I just couldn’t let go of that Catholic identity.
Once I started medical school my faith got a good swift kick in the pants. Becoming a doctor either thrusts you to your knees or convinces you, you are God. For me it was the former. I truly felt dwarfed and humbled by the sheer immensity and gravity of medicine. As a doctor I was invited to impact the lives of others in a most profound and intimate way. I felt so inadequate. Our medical discussions of bioethics seemed so shallow. I was searching for a moral authority greater than professor who presented everything in relative terms. About this time, Pope John Paul II was making himself seen and heard in a way that no Pope before him had ever done. I was seeing him call Catholics to a Catholicism that was something more than an activity occurring within the church walls on Sundays. I was discovering that my Catholic identity required a Catholic response. Rather than feeling constricted, I felt liberated. My medical reasoning was moored to something solid and unchanging. I also learned to pray as I saw patients and performed procedures. Viewing myself as the instrument of God’s healing power strengthened my diagnostic and therapeutic abilities. Even though I rarely mentioned God to my patients, I knew I was involved in His work and ministry.
Marriage and children gave another nudge to my Catholic faith. My husband was raised as an Episcopalian, but we both knew we needed a united faith life for our family. He didn’t feel like he left the Episcopal Church for Catholicism as much as the Episcopal Church left him. He had been raised to believe in the True Presence in a high Episcopal church so it really wasn’t much of a stretch to swim the Tiber. We attended Mass every Sunday, put our donation in the collection plate, made sure the children were baptized, and appeared to be just a regular Catholic family. However, I would also say we were pretty complacent about being Catholic. Three kids in 3 ½ years, my beginning medical career in the Air Force, his beginning career as an Air Force pilot all pretty much overshadowed any initiative to deepen our faith.
Then came Desert Storm. We had three children, ages 4, 3, and 1. We were both active duty. My husband deployed in January of 1991. I was on standby to deploy. My mother had to come live with me because I had to be ready to leave with only a few hours notice. I was an emotional wreck. My husband was flying F-16 combat missions over Iraq. I was at risk of being called away from my kids. I just felt like I was losing my grasp on everything I loved. I began praying the Rosary daily. Of course, I prayed for my husband’s safety, but I also found myself praying for the ability to accept whatever God had in store for me. That willingness to surrender to God’s will was pure grace. I would say that those months of Desert Storm were as close to a dramatic life-changing event as anything else that has ever happened to me. I was never called to deploy, but I was spiritually ready. It turned out that this was a time of deepening faith for my husband as well. He returned home on Sunday, March 17, 1991. I picked him up at the hangar early that morning. I had attended Mass the night before, thinking that he would be in no condition to go to church after flying home on the transport aircraft. Yet to my surprise, he was adamant that he get to Mass that Sunday morning. It was a very emotional experience. I guess we had both seen how transient this earthly world is and how important it is to keep reaching for the eternal. After Desert Storm, it was so much easier to talk to each other about faith and how our faith impacted our family decisions. It was no longer something relegated to its own compartment, but something becoming more and more integrated in our lives.
In the years that have followed we added one more child and had multiple military moves bouncing from East coast to West Coast to the Deep South to the Midwest and back to the East Coast. Every location has had its own unique set of opportunities and its own unique set of challenges. We have found over and over again that by keeping Christ and His Church as our center, as our touchstone, we have been able to maintain our balance in this topsy-turvy world. The challenge is to never feel like we are “good enough” Catholics. I think the military lifestyle of frequent moves strengthened our family bonds since our little domestic church is the one constant in an ever-changing environment. As a family, we push each other to reach the next level of faith. We are still learning and still growing in our faith. If I were going to summarize our family guiding philosophy it would be let our actions in this world be guided by our focus on living with Christ in the next world. The best way to maintain that focus is through Christ’s own One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.