One of my favorite programs is EWTN’s “The Journey Home,” which features interviews with guests who have converted or reverted to Catholicism. Sometimes I like to imagine being in the hotseat across from Marcus Grodi…
Well, Marcus, I was six months old and my brother was two when our father left. Within a few days, Mom’s parents moved the three of us into their modest Iowa home to live with them and six of Mom’s younger siblings. As strong Italian-Irish Catholics, my grandparents were deeply disappointed in the failed marriage and were in no hurry for Mom to venture out as a divorced mother of two. When she finally did a few years later, she met and eloped with Jerry, a man who had been raised Methodist, seemed crazy about her, and didn’t seem to mind my brother and me.
Mom filled our home with traditional Catholic art and icons, but rarely took us to Mass. Since her first marriage had not been annulled, she was considered “living in sin,” and Mass without Communion held little attraction for her. My brothers—a younger was born when I was four—and I were not taught to pray, but Mom taught us the Guardian Angel prayer and never failed to put us to bed with a “Good night, God bless you.”
My happiest childhood memories were of St. Mary’s School, which I attended from second through fourth grade. I loved its world of peace and structure, and the cute young priest named Father Joe, who happened to share my birthday. Each school day began with Mass; and it was through this routine that I developed the strong, sweet faith that children can have: I loved Jesus to tears for his kindness and undeserved suffering, and knew God was my gentle, welcoming father. I memorized prayers and hymns with ease.
At the start of my fifth grade year, Mom enrolled us in public school, saying we could no longer afford St. Mary’s. I learned later that she had become angry with the pastor for counseling her to pursue the annulment of her first marriage. She wondered why money and paperwork had any say in God’s acceptance of her and her marriage situation. Furthermore, she had loved my father and didn’t consider their marriage a mistake. From that point on, my exposure to Catholicism was limited to household religious décor and visits to my grandparents’ home.
By the time I reached the eighth grade, I had lost touch with Jesus, and my parents had settled our family on the outskirts of a small farming community. Through medication, Jerry was learning to manage a depressive temperament and anger, which had for many years resulted in physical abuse toward Mom. These were better times for them, though I was haunted by the echoes of their violent early years, with the constant dread of Jerry turning on us all.
Eager to flee my home and small-town life, I graduated early in my senior year and moved to Iowa City to work as a waitress and save for my first semester at the University of Iowa. I had just turned 18 and started fall classes when I learned I was nearly three months pregnant with the child of my hometown boyfriend, who spent most weekends with me. Neither of us wanted to be parents, and I didn’t confide in anyone else before having an abortion. I thought only of myself, certain that having a baby at that time would mean living unhappily with my parents, being on welfare, and never going to college.
After the abortion, I immersed myself in studies and learning the restaurant business. I wanted to appear driven and confident; I didn’t want anyone to know how intensely I struggled for good grades, how ugly I felt if I didn’t work out every day, how it devastated me to be criticized or rejected in any way. Alcohol and promiscuity gave me a false sense of control, numbing my longing to be a good girl worthy of being loved.
A lifelong bookworm and dabbling writer, I claimed English as my major and studied diligently, despite feeling painfully inferior to my peers. The one professor I found approachable was a gray-haired Greek man who was warm, brilliant, and exuberantly Christian. I began visiting his office, where more than once I ended up crying as he prayed over me, assuring me that I could find all answers in Jesus and be truly happy only when I could “kneel and worship the Lord aloud, without shame,” as he could with his wife.
Occasionally I caught Mass at a church near campus, or just wandered in to cry in a pew. I never knew why I was there or whether God remembered me, and the prayers I’d once memorized were long forgotten. My heart told me that God existed, but I had no intelligent proof to offer my mostly atheistic friends, with whom I often engaged in heated arguments about it, with nothing to say except, “I can’t explain it; I just believe.” They called this “blind faith,” something that both frustrated and fascinated them. I did my best to hide how frightened I was that they were indeed right: that Jesus Christ was just a good man who lived and died like everyone else.
During my senior year of college, I became deeply depressed. I was afraid to share my feelings with anyone, because I didn’t want them to see me out of control, or burden them with my increasing despair. Though still mute when it came to praying, the words “help me, help me” kept playing in my head. Finding no relief on a crisis center hotline, I checked myself into a mental health facility for 72 hours. I wanted a doctor to fix me, to tell me I had some chemical imbalance to explain what was happening inside. Instead, I slept long hours, underwent some tests and counseling, and returned to Iowa City to finish my degree.
Back at my restaurant job, I met a handsome new bartender named Kevin. He was assertive, professional, and hardworking, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. The attraction was mutual, and early conversation revealed that we shared a Christian foundation and lingering hope in God. I told Mom that I had met the father of my children, sensing that God had sent Kevin to help me, at this vulnerable time, learn to love and trust and find my purpose in the world.
I graduated the following May. Kevin and I were still dating but struggled to get along, due mostly to my restlessness and inability to commit to one place, one job, and our relationship. Still, we liked to believe that the God we kept at arm’s length had brought us together for a reason. In 1994 we took PreCana classes and were married at a Eucharist-free Mass by an elderly priest who agreed to share the altar with Kevin’s uncle, a Southern Baptist Minister.
When our first child was born in 1998, joining a church sounded like a good idea for a family, so I began attending Mass at a parish that happened to be advertising a “Catholics Coming Home” program. That first evening, I informed the crowd that I wasn’t actually Catholic because I had only been baptized but never confirmed; Monsignor Frank promptly disagreed, saying that my baptism alone qualified me as Catholic. A seat was offered, stories were exchanged, and, night after night, misinformation about the Catholic Church was corrected by facts that were rooted in the legacy of Jesus Christ, whom I had loved so much as a little girl. I was smitten again, and it wasn’t long before Kevin agreed to have our son baptized there.
Since Kevin’s job forced him to work many weekends, I usually attended Mass with our son or alone. I became friendlier with Monsignor Frank, who encouraged me to attend an upcoming Christian Experience Weekend, at the end of which he would administer my long-overdue Sacrament of Confirmation. I agreed to attend, though I was anxious at the idea of being locked up for the weekend with strangers, let alone perfect church-ladies. I dragged my feet as I approached the doors that Friday night. But when I did, my eyes met a wall hanging embroidered with the words “Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name.”
As it turned out, the church-ladies were welcoming, admittedly imperfect, and as eager as I to have intelligent discussions about God and whether there could exist a universal truth. We asked tough questions and got straight answers that challenged our minds and penetrated our hearts. I was deeply moved by my first experience with group prayer and Rosary, and with making my first adult Reconciliation. Finally, on Sunday morning, I expressed my Confirmation vows in the intimate setting of a specially prepared chapel and my retreat companions. I was 30 years old, and felt like I was on honeymoon with Jesus.
I’d like to say that the honeymoon after Confirmation never ended, Marcus; that every waking moment I am dedicated to honoring my relationship with God. Alas, as with human marriages, every day there is work to be done and sacrifices to be made. I must be willing to learn and grow, weather the dry seasons, and do my part to keep the romance of faith alive. If I don’t, there won’t be a marriage worth coming home to.