Last week, like so many Catholics around the world, I welcomed the Year of Faith with a joyful and grateful heart, excited for the journey to a more profound relationship with God and the Church. Yet, it was not always that way for me. My children and the experience of their birth brought me back to my faith and my Church.
My relationship with God and the Catholic Church had taken a number of detours prior to the birth of my twin sons in 2007. As a child, I fulfilled all the fundamentals – Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation – but I would not say that faith or religion were an explicit part of my family’s household. The years in which I attended an all-girls Catholic high school sponsored by the School Sisters of Notre Dame were critical to my faith formation and a high point, to date, in my life as a Catholic. Similarly, four years at Boston College, a Jesuit institution, certainly underscored powerful notions of Catholic social justice, the Sisters having already sown those seeds. But by the end of my college years, I was already at odds with the Church over a number of different issues.
For the next 17 years, I struggled mightily to leave the Church. I found an Episcopal Church I liked, and even wallowed in a brief period of atheism after the death of my grandfather from Alzheimer’s Disease. Periodically, I would return to the Catholic Church because, despite my grievances, I did not really feel at home elsewhere. These reunions were always short-lived because I simply could not see a path forward for myself in the Church.
In retrospect, had I focused more on the tenets of my faith, and particularly the Creed (as Catholics are asked to do in the Year of Faith), I might have been able to more constructively process whatever conflict I felt with the Church. And while I made somewhat of an effort to reconcile myself with the Church, for example, speaking to clergy about my various struggles, my depth of discernment was apparently not what it needed to be for me to truly see the light. Father Thomas Merton has said, “Faith is not just conformity, it is life. It embraces all the realms of life, penetrating into the most mysterious and inaccessible depths not only of our unknown spiritual being but even of God’s own hidden essence and love. Faith, then, is the only way of opening up the true depths of reality, even of our own reality.”
When I became pregnant with my twin boys in 2006, I knew I would raise them with faith and Christianity. In fact, their Baptism was something I looked forward to; even before I was married and expecting my own children, I loved attending Baptisms, and dreamed of a day when I might welcome my own children into Christianity. However, for much of my pregnancy, my husband and I vacillated over whether we would Baptize them in the Episcopal or Catholic Church. My husband is also a Catholic, but shared some of the same difficulties I did in finding a place in the Church. I was due in late March 2007, and as of early winter, the vote was with the Episcopal Church.
All that changed on a cold February evening in 2007 when I gave birth to my sons, Luke and Jed, seven weeks early. Although Jed’s distress in the womb had caused an emergency delivery, he seemed to be stable, although extremely fragile at a mere 3 pounds. Our cautious joy quickly turned to worry as Luke went almost immediately into acute respiratory distress. By the next day, the doctors had Luke on a ventilator with a chest tube. I knew things were dire when I called down to the NICU to check on Luke, and the neonatologist suggested that I stay in my room until they could get him stabilized.
A sense of terror rising, I called a floor nurse and asked for a chaplain. I had to consider baptizing Luke in the NICU. She said, “Is a Catholic priest OK?” To which I replied, “Yes, I am Catholic.” Within minutes, a diminutive, white-haired woman, Sister Jo Mascera, stood at my bedside, and for the next three weeks unconditionally lead me back to the Church. She brought me the Eucharist, and urged me to receive it often, clearly sensing the divine strength I needed. Sr. Jo placed delicate blue children’s Rosary Beads in my boys’ incubators, where they remained for the duration of their stay, a powerful sign of the watchful eye of the Blessed Mother. Oh, how she knew the pathos of a mother watching her child suffer. Sister prayed over my boys regularly, even when I was not there. When I look back on it, it is not surprising that the messenger of God meant to deliver me back to the Church was a nun, my first and beloved role models in the Church.
I also believe that St. Luke, the evangelist and healer, interceded on my behalf. I always loved the name “Luke” because I was drawn to the voice of St. Luke in the birth narratives of the Gospel. My Luke, my firstborn, named even before his birth, was a living symbol of the miraculousness of birth, sent to remind me of the powerful message of the Gospel, particularly God entering the human experience in the form of a vulnerable baby, given in Grace to his human mother. From that moment forward, I was home and vowed to recommit to my faith.
Fast forward to this past Thursday, the beginning of the Year of Faith. I watched my now 5-year old sons ring bells in our Parish parking lot with the rest of their classmates from the Parish school, and then I attended Mass, sitting where I usually do, near the statue of Mary. I listened to the Gospel reading, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be open.” Matthew 7:7-8. Our Pastor in his Homily urged us to, “go seek our faith.” As I know firsthand, you can and will find it.
As I sat in my usual spot, close to the altar, basking in the light of the vaulted nave, I thought, as I have so many times over the last five years, this is my Church. It is where I Baptized my sons with all of our family and friends present- a day I thought my heart might burst with joy and gratitude. It is where I went to pray for their health when they were babies, and still do each and every time I go to Mass. I brought my son, Jed, here for the Anointing of the Sick before he had to have surgery, and watched my Pastor lovingly pray over my child and gently etch the Cross in sacred oil on his little forehead. I can tell you exactly where I sat and the feelings I had when I pondered the matters of conscience that forced me to resign from my job last year. It is where I have quietly bonded with my husband, children, parents, new friends and old ones. It is where I give thanks and ask for strength, purpose and direction — this perfectly imperfect human body of Christ. And, yes, I can say after so many years, I am Catholic.
Copyright 2012 Leslie Rohrbacker