My Catholic Conversion Story – Part II: Enter Catholicism

A statue of the Our Lady of Grace in front of an image of Vatican City - the home of the Catholic Church. This is the same style of statue that I saw at Mass. The Virgin Mary has her arms out wide as if she is waiting to embrace someone.

Welcome, dear reader, to Part II of my conversion story! Thank you for joining me as I reminisce on my journey from an angsty agnostic to a Catholic convert. In Part I, I talked about my religious upbringing and gave a little insight into the messier parts of my home life. Part II will dive a little deeper into the events leading up to my decision to convert and the Mass that changed my life forever.

The End of the World as We Knew It.

Now, where was I? Oh, yes. The beginning of the end.

As I mentioned before, the situation at home became harder to ignore as the years went on. The abuse became more severe and more violent. My father threatened us with harm or death over even the smallest perceived slight. Depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and worse all held our family in their grasp. We talked to friends and family members, hoping someone would help and terrified that they would interfere at the same time. We begged Mom to leave. The answers were always the same: he’s not like that all the time. It really could be worse. At least we are not being (enter horrible scenario here). What will we do without him? How will we survive?

Finally, in December of 2012, a sibling told the right person the wrong thing. A friend’s mother had called Social Services. Police were sent to our home to take the younger kids to a safe house with our mother. My sister and I were on a trip with our grandparents when everything fell apart.

We could only listen helplessly as we received phone calls from our parents. Each one was desperate to tell their side of the story before the other. Dad seemed to have no idea that his actions made us fear for our lives. Mom was struggling with the desire to finally have a chance to start over and the fear of losing everything she had known for over 23 years. Everything was a giant mess.

The following year may sound familiar to anyone who has survived and escaped an abusive situation. Dad made promises and quickly broke them. Extended family members and friends drew battle lines despite the facts laid at their feet. In the end, my parents divorced after months of bouncing between pleas for forgiveness and quickly reverting to old habits. Life would never be the same, and I was utterly unprepared for the emotional rollercoaster that followed the upheaval of life as I knew it.

Anything but God.

Meanwhile, my faith had died amid all the turmoil. My slim hope that the magical man in the sky would hear my cries for relief and deliverance had faded. Even after we were “free,” my father’s abusive behaviors seemed to taint every facet of our lives. The services that we were attending did little to bring me any sense of comfort. If anything, the hypocritical antics of the various pastors and church-goers only solidified my utter distaste for organized religion.

So, like any agnostic worth her salt, I decided to handle everything myself. I tried to distract myself with entertainment, empty friendships, school. Whatever shiny new attractions caught my interest in my vain attempts to escape this new, confusing chapter of my life.

To the shock of absolutely no one, this strategy failed to satisfy. I found myself needing something or someone to believe in. Anything that could help me make sense of what was happening.

Enter the Catholic Church.

At the height of the madness, I decided that I should at least try a new church. As I Googled my options, I found myself cringing at the thought of attending any of the plethoras of Baptist, Methodist, or non-denominational churches that my home in the Bible Belt had to offer. I had tried all the colors of the Protestant rainbow and had been burned too many times even to contemplate crossing the thresholds of any such places again. So I kept on searching. Finally, I came across a listing that gave me pause: St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church.

I had been to Mass twice in my entire life at that point. I had spent a weekend with the Catholic friend I mentioned in Part I and attended both the Vigil and Sunday morning Mass for something called the Feast of Corpus Christi with her. (Fun fact, that was also the weekend I first laid eyes on my future husband, but that is a story for another time.)

I remember being more excited about the rare opportunity to spend the weekend at a friend’s house than the prospect of expanding my spiritual horizons. I remember telling anyone who had asked how my weekend went that, while great, Catholics are just plain weird. Everyone spoke at the same time like brainwashed robots. There was all that standing and kneeling and genuflecting. There were incense, bells, statues, and repetitive prayers to Jesus’ mother. I finished this explanation with the vehement declaration that I would never be Catholic.

And yet… There was that moment when the priest held up that round piece of bread, and the bells rang out. There was this moment of stillness, like everything in the world had stopped in that one, infinite moment as he lifted that host into the air. I remember the chills that ran down my spine and the hair that stood up on my arms. I remember catching my breath as I stared at that little white wafer. What was so special about it that had every member of this alien church on their knees in adoration?

In the end, I chalked it all up to just being excited to be anywhere that my best friend was and pushed the whole experience aside.

So, on that Sunday morning during the darkest year of my life, I asked my fallen-away Catholic grandfather to take me to St. Paul the Apostle.

The Mass That Changed Everything.

I can still recall the deep sense of dread that loomed over me as I walked through the doors of that church. No one seemed to notice my mistrusting expression as I watched the crowd of parishioners dip their fingers into bowls of water and make a cross over their bodies with their moistened fingers. They knelt and bowed their heads towards the large, golden box on the wall behind the altar. I did neither and slid into an empty pew and watched and waited. Only the faint hum of whispers filled the sanctuary as I waited for this strange service to begin.

And then, a bell rang.

Everyone around us stood up. My grandfather assumed the posture of the people around us and crossed himself at the appropriate times. The priest, a smiling man who radiated excitement, began the service in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and we were off. I relaxed slightly as I realized that the readings were, indeed, from the Bible.

My eyes wandered over to a statue of Mary in the corner behind the altar. It was facing me with arms out wide as if she wanted to embrace me. I looked away abruptly as that thought fluttered through my mind. If my Protestant upbringing had taught me anything, it was that thinking about hugging statues was definitely a one-way ticket to hell.

The priest read the Gospel and gave his homily. He spoke of a God who loves us so much that He assumed a frail, human body and died for our salvation. A God who humbled Himself to be born of a young, unwed woman. He then topped that off by giving that woman to be the heavenly mother of every human soul. This God loved us despite our sins. He even gave us something called Sacraments to help us on our journey to eternity so we could be united with Him.

The priest stopped speaking and invited everyone to recite a long creed. The whole church stated that they believed in God, the Father the Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. They professed a belief in Jesus Christ, His Only Son, our Lord. They spoke of the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son. There was something about believing in the Catholic Church, forgiving sins, and other things that didn’t keep my attention. We sat as people passed baskets around for the collection, and then rose again as the crowd around us began to sing a hymn that kept repeating “holy, holy, holy.”

And then, almost without warning, everyone dropped to their knees.

The Moment the Earth Stood Still.

I slowly knelt onto the cushioned kneeler that my grandfather had lowered and tried to mimic the people around me: hands clasped, either looking down or staring at the altar ahead. I kept my eyes open and tried not to be too obvious that I had no idea what was happening. The priest spread his hands out and read the words from a red book in front of him. I half-listened. I stared back at that statue of Mary and her gentle, open arms.

Then, I heard the words that changed my life forever: “You never cease to gather Your people to Yourself.”

I don’t know why that sentence resonated so much with my weary soul. It was certainly not the most profound thing I had heard that day, but I instantly broke into silent sobs.

This God gathers His people to Himself. He calls the ones He loves. And at that moment, even in the midst of all of my hurt and confusion, I knew from the bottom of my heart that that invitation to draw near to His Heart included me. Sinful, angry, doubting me.

I heard those bells again. My eyes locked onto that familiar round shape held between the fingertips of the priest. He was staring at the host with such devotion that I could not help but want to feel whatever he was feeling.

My breath caught; I felt that chill that I had felt at that very first Mass so long ago. The host was lowered back down onto the altar, and I looked back at that statue of Mary. Only this time, I did not see a cold piece of stone staring blankly in my direction. I knew that the woman that statue represented truly did want to hold me. More than that, she wanted to introduce me to her Son, who had called me by name. Her Son wanted me to be there with them at that moment and for all eternity.

I smiled and tried to hide the tears streaming down my cheeks. I watched everyone go up to eat the small wafers offered to them. The priest held out the host and repeated the same short phrase to each person approaching the altar, “the Body of Christ.” Each declaration was met with the same response, “Amen.”

The Mass ended, and the crowds disbursed. My grandfather spoke about where we should get breakfast before heading back to my grandmother. I asked to stay just a moment longer. I just wanted to sit in that pew and try to understand what had just happened. My heart, which had been hardened and taught to mistrust anything that had to do with that cold, judgmental genie in the sky, had melted. Suddenly and completely. Years of hurt and anger and doubt and disappointment had all vanished in a single, eternal moment.

I finally stood and walked out into the winter air. I went home, and things were still awful and confusing. But something had changed. I had changed. I still had no idea what had occurred on that altar on that Sunday. But I knew one thing for sure: whatever those Catholics had, I wanted more. And I was not going to stop until I understood why.

Thank you for joining me for this rather long installment of my story. Stay tuned for Part III!

Musings of a Catholic Mama uses Accessibility Checker to monitor our website's accessibility.