As a child I lived in Birmingham, England and attended a Methodist Sunday School; the church was across the street from my home but my parents did not attend. As far as actual belief was concerned, I muddled through into my mid-teens with little religious input other than morning Assembly at school, which consisted of a story with a religious slant, together with a hymn. My late teens were religiously a roller coaster experience. Billy Graham came to Manchester, some distance to the north of Birmingham, and the local Baptist church, into which I had been coaxed by a friend, decided to attend his mission. With great excitement and anticipation, we went to hear Graham’s message. It was electrifying — never had any of us beheld such an event. A huge number of people, myself included, went forward when invited. We returned home with lots of handouts and were deluged with subsequent mailings of material. We carefully read our Bibles, which, I have to say, was to be important for me, since it laid a foundation for my future love for, and involvement in, religion. However I can recall beginning to feel overwhelmed by the constant flow of material, and decided to spread my wings more widely.
Evenings at the Friday Club
This time a friend and I started attending the Anglican Mother Church of Birmingham, St. Martin in the Bull Ring. The large congregation was drawn from throughout the City, and it had a well-known young people’s club (16 to 25 years) called the Friday Club. (It was there, on the night of Friday, November 22, 1963 that we heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. We all went into the church to pray for him, his family, the U.S.A., and the World). Evenings at the Friday Club were divided into three sections: a film or talk, followed by group discussions, then ending with a time to dance (it was the days of “The Twist”) and chat. Being an only child, I learned a lot from listening to the older members. Importantly, it was at this Club that I met my future husband, Ivan. We were married at St. Martin’s on September 11, 1965 (that day in 2001 was another sad one for the U.S.A.). When one looks back on life, it is remarkable — providential — how events, seemingly beyond one’s control have had a huge impact. My changing churches took me to St. Martin. For Ivan, it was the result of being moved from Newcastle upon Tyne by his employer.
As a married couple, we had to move to Newcastle, where we stayed for a few years. We didn’t become involved with any church whilst here due to setting up our first home and other commitments. Meantime, we decided that Ivan should become an undergraduate at Durham University, so we moved again.
On to Durham, Then to Kenilworth
We had a wonderful time in Durham, socialising with colleagues and other undergraduates. I worked in the University administration to help support us financially. We worshiped at the Anglican Cathedral, and it was while we were there that I developed an abiding love of church music. I well remember an evening in the small chapel of Durham Castle, listening to Byrd’s Mass in Five Parts — a magnificent experience of the grand era of polyphony.
Ivan graduated, and we moved to Kenilworth in Warwickshire, along with his head of department, to set up a new Department of Sociology in the new University of Warwick. Ivan taught Social and Political Theory and the Sociology of Religion. We continued to worship as Anglicans, and our daughter, Sarah, was baptized in St. Nicholas’ Church. I had always wanted to teach, so when Sarah entered primary school, I enrolled in a teacher training course at Warwick University. I chose Religious Studies and History, and upon graduating, taught those subjects in the local secondary school. During these years in Kenilworth, we had spent our holidays in a leased cottage on the northwest coast of Scotland. The scenery is spectacular — mountains, sea, islands, and we had made a lot of friends there.
We Move to Scotland
During one visit, we were offered the chance of buying a croft (a tract of agricultural land). Sarah was nearing the end of her schooling, so we organized the construction of a house on the property, and as she moved to Edinburgh University, we moved into our new Highland home in August of 1990. I had obtained a teaching post in the local secondary school, and Ivan embarked on the task of building up a herd of Highland cattle.
Scotland is predominately Presbyterian, there being the Church of Scotland, the Free Presbyterian Church, and the Free Church, all of which give the Bible a major position in worship and in the lives of the people. At first, because it was closest, we attended our local Church of Scotland. Later, we moved to the Scottish Episcopal Church, which is governed, as is the Church of England, by the 39 Articles of Faith. However, we soon came to a defining moment. The Anglican Churches throughout the U.K. were entering a time of change: the language of the Book of Common Prayer was considered outdated, the hymns known from childhood were replaced by ones thought to be more relevant, and choirs were declining. I didn’t feel I belonged in this emerging culture, and neither did Ivan. We started to question our belief and felt that we should go outside our “Protestant box.”
Illness Strikes Ivan; We Begin Moving toward Catholicism
It began in 2010, when Ivan’s health began to decline. He was, after a number of years, diagnosed with an auto immune disease of unknown origin. We drifted away from church — and you know, it didn’t bother me that we weren’t attending any more. I continued to read my Bible and saying my prayers, and we began watching EWTN, which we had found, by chance, on television. (Or was it intended?) We began to think about our beliefs after becoming addicted to Marcus Grodi’s The Journey Home program.
Ivan’s health declined dramatically, and he was now diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer, with three months to live. This was a sickening blow.
Our son-in-law, David, referred us to a healer he had heard of who had had success in curing people. We went to see this man. On returning, we had another hospital appointment for an x-ray. They found that the cancer was reduced in size, and a transplant was now possible. What a relief! He was placed on the transplant list. Ivan’s medication was very strong, and he suffered with horrid, intensely vivid dreams. They were so frightening that he feared he might harm me as he thrashed about during the night.
One night, in his dreams, he had an encounter which was tangible and which had an enormous effect upon both of us. He dreamt he was standing in front of Jesus in His Passion — an appalling blood-soaked sight. Jesus looked straight at him, enveloped him in His arms and told him that “All would be well, whether he lived or died he was to understand that he was, as he always had been, in His care” (A Road to Rome: Walking in the Foothills of Catholicism by Ivan Oliver, p. 50, published by Gracewing.) Four months later, he received a new liver, thanks to the generosity of an unknown donor — God bless him or her. We sincerely believe that the healer, and most importantly the encounter with the crucified Lord, were miracles, for they changed our lives. We spoke with our Anglican priest, who had been very supportive during Ivan’s illness. He was not surprised. He said he had seen it coming and wished us well.
Our First Taste of the Mass, and of Tea with the Priest
With a renewed sense of purpose, we continued our research into Catholicism and decided to contact the Catholic priest, Fr. David, at St. Lawrence’s Catholic Church in Dingwall, who suggested we attend a Mass. The next Sunday, we drove the 64 miles to St. Lawrence’s parish to attend the Mass. We sat in the back row of the church, and wow! Christ on the cross on the wall behind the altar, the statues of Christ and Mary with trays of candles burning before them and lovely flower displays. The congregation genuflected before entering the pews, and the atmosphere in the church was so welcoming. I whispered to Ivan, “I’ve come home!” and he responded likewise. After Mass, the congregation moved outside to chat (there is no parish hall). On that day so many people made contact with us, some smiling, others engaging in conversation. Fr. David invited us into the rectory for a cup of tea and a chat — the first of many chats and cups of tea.
A Visit to Rome; the Following Year, We Enter the Church
Having searched for a religious home for some time, reading widely about Catholicism and strengthened by Christ’s visitation to my husband, I suggested we visit Rome. This was to be a pilgrimage in thanksgiving for Ivan’s life. We made the pilgrimage in 2008, a truly wonderful experience. Nothing prepares you, not even EWTN, for the stunning vista as you come out of the Bernini Colonnades and see St. Peter’s Basilica before you. A huge number of people were standing or walking around. It seemed that every nationality was represented. However, I have to say that, for me, the highlight was the visit to the excavations beneath the Papal Altar. We looked down into the Confessio Sancti Petri, below which there are further altars which rest upon the Constantinian Memorial, with which the Emperor covered even earlier memorials — the Trophy of Gauis and the Red and Graffiti Walls — which were erected over the first century tomb of St. Peter. The Graffiti Wall has a large number of devotional inscriptions chiselled into it by pilgrims in ancient times. These importantly include ITETP ENT: “Peter is here.” This is the beginning of the post-Resurrection Apostolic Succession. Today the bones are sealed away, not open to public view, but as we stood there looking at the Graffiti Wall and the bones of St. Peter, there wasn’t a dry eye to be seen. It was overwhelming. Indeed, I considered it to be a great privilege to be so near to the man who had received the keys to the kingdom of heaven from our Lord (see Matthew 16:19).
We also attended an open air Mass presided over by Pope Benedict in St. Peter’s Square, which was packed. At the end of the Mass, I said to Ivan, “I feel as though I’ve been looking through a window at a vast family of which I am not a part.” We were received into the Catholic Church on Sunday, the Octave of Easter (also called Divine Mercy Sunday) in 2009. That was a wonderful day surrounded by family, friends from England and a wonderful, welcoming congregation.
A Second Visit to Rome
Ivan and I returned to Rome in 2012 for our final visit together. This visit was so very different from the first. I was now part of this worldwide family known as the Catholic Church and felt quite at home. I pondered how this family stretched back to Christ Himself, born in Bethlehem two millennia ago. As I write about this visit in 2017, I’m there again, and there are tears of joy running down my cheeks.
But to particulars: why did I decide to become a Catholic? EWTN and The Journey Home in particular — thank God for Mother Angelica — along with reading about Catholicism, provided me with a vast amount of information, which has helped to focus my mind on what I believe.
Protestantism believes in God the Father, who created the heavens and the earth, and in Jesus Christ His Son. The Catholic Church also believes this, but it has done so for 2,000 years. The Reformation didn’t begin until the 16th century.
Jesus had a massive number of followers, but He had only twelve men who were His disciples, those whom He called Apostles, including Peter. They had witnessed miracles: diseases cured, demons expelled, storms calmed, Lazarus brought back from the dead, and many others. Jesus shows His divinity in Matthew 11:27: “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.” In Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus asks His disciples “Whom do men say the Son of Man is?” He hears a number of suggestions. Then He asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blesses him, then gives him an enormous responsibility. He says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.” This last sentence means that Peter can admit people into the Kingdom, and he also has power to make authoritative decisions in matters of faith or morals. What a responsibility! The importance here is that there is an unbroken line from Peter and the Apostles to Pope Francis and his bishops. It will continue into the future and the Catholic Church will be advancing the same Faith until the end of time. On those occasions when we hear Palestrina’s Tu Est Petrus on the Pope’s entry into St. Peter’s Basilica for Mass, we have the link all the way back to St. Peter lying way down beneath the high altar. This is known as the apostolic succession, and I feel strongly that it does hold the Faith together. The Catholic Church does not bend to the whims of secular society.
Now the Why of It: A Matter of Authentic Experience
Another major reason for becoming a Catholic is the doctrine of the Real Presence. Within Protestantism, in the communion service when the bread is given (I’m using the Anglican Church as an example), the minister says, “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart with thanksgiving.” When the wine is offered again “Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful” (Book of Common Prayer, Oxford Press, p. 179). There is no sense of reality of the Body and Blood and the “happening here and now” in this. How is it to affect me personally?
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, holds to the words of Christ: “This is My Body … this is My Blood.” These words, says the Church, were meant in their full sense, so that what was bread and wine becomes, by the Priest’s consecration, Christ Himself. Indeed, the Host becomes the Body of Christ. I am an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, and I feel humbled and honored to say, “The Blood of Christ” to my fellow members in the congregation.
I mentioned earlier that, when we visited our Catholic Church for the first time, I was taken aback by the statues. I love them now, as they focus the mind. Protestants respect Mary and the Virgin Birth but do not practice the special devotions offered to her by the Catholic Church. For me, from childhood, Mary was part of Christmas — the stable, the Wise Men, etc., but afterwards the scenery was packed away for another year. Now, after becoming Catholic, the Virgin Mary has gained a special place in my heart. Mary accepted her role as Mother of God’s Son. After the birth narratives and Jesus being lost and found in Jerusalem as a young boy, talking to the learned men in the Temple, the next time we hear of Mother and Son together is at the marriage in Cana. Jesus, at his Mother’s request, changes water into wine (John 2:1–11). Mary did accompany Jesus at times during His ministry and, of course, was at the foot of the Cross to witness His horrific death. She was with His disciples when the Holy Spirit descended on them. “When Mary departed from this earthly life the Roman Catholic Church believes that she was assumed into Heaven” (Mother of God, A History of the Virgin Mary by Miri Rubin, p. 55, published by Allen Lane, Penguin Group U.S.A., Inc.). She is referred to as the Queen of all the Saints, the Queen of Angels and the Queen of Heaven. (Catholicism, A Journey to the Heart of the Faith by Robert Barron, p. 89, Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, Image Books, Crown Publishing Group, New York.). Her visitations to Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe and many other places where miracles have taken place have confirmed the faith for thousands of Catholics throughout the world. A friend gave me a prayer card “The Memorare” — the picture of Mary has her standing with her mantle held up, and beneath are many people being sheltered by her care. The Memorare is a lovely prayer — along with, of course, the Hail Mary.
Ivan Departs; Another Visitation
I am fortunate to have a long-standing devout friend. She is a lay person in the Church and often visits the Vatican. My husband and I became Catholics during Pope Emeritus Benedict’s papacy. During her 2009 visit, the Pope gave my friend a rosary. She was our sponsor at our confirmation and gave me the rosary on the day of our entry into the Church. This gift is very precious to me, and the Rosary is a beautiful prayer.
I am mindful, too, of the many, many men and women who have been put to death for their Catholic Faith over the centuries, some horribly. Sadly, some are still being killed in some parts of the world. Other saints have written books to encourage faith; St. Teresa of Avila comes to mind here. In our own time we have the substantial writings of Pope Emeritus Benedict, which will become his legacy to the Catholic Church.
Naturally, I was very distressed by my husband’s final illness, when the cancer returned to his stomach. Ivan spent the last month at home, in the care of our district nurses and doctors, and enjoyed visits from friends and family. Our priest visited and administered the Anointing of the Sick. On August 28, 2015, at 11 p.m., Ivan died peacefully, with his family around him. His peaceful facial expression led me to murmur, “He has met his Maker.” He was buried on the day that would have been our 50th Wedding Anniversary. After it all was over, I felt very lonely.
Neighbors and friends from church were wonderful and still are. However, there were times when, dealing with the mass of paperwork which surrounds death, that I felt quite overwhelmed. I remember one day when I went through the house with clenched fists, screaming at the top of my voice, “I cannot cope with all this, Ivan! You were lucky, you had your vision, but I haven’t had one.” I immediately felt awful and pleaded for forgiveness from Jesus.
A few weeks passed by, and one morning I was sitting up in bed, reading the Morning Prayer and Mass for the Day from the Magnificat when I felt compelled to look at the door, which I leave about six inches open. There was a man standing on my side of the door, which hadn’t moved. His shoulders were leaning against the wall. He was dressed in a medium-light grey suit. He had a long face, long nose, long hair slightly curled on his shoulders, and he had the most beautiful eyes. He didn’t speak. I didn’t feel at all threatened. To my deep regret, however, I said “Who are you?” and he disappeared. I knew then I should have said, “My Lord and my God.” (I hope that I shall be able to rectify this at my death.) I turned back to my Magnificat and finished reading the Mass, but this time out loud. I felt utterly calm. Now, when I become anxious, I can induce that calmness. As you can imagine that vision has had an enormous effect upon me.
A Retreat and an Inspiration
Having had this experience, and given the fact that I had always wanted to go on retreat (Ivan never had an interest in going), I made contact with the Mother Prioress at the Benedictine Monastery in Largs, Scotland, on the coast south west of Glasgow. At this time, Marie-Adele Garnier, the Foundress of the Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre, Order of St. Benedict, was in the initial stages of canonization. The Mother Prioress asked for my help in distributing information about the Prayer for Canonization, which I did in my parish and to another in Inverness.
The matter remained there for a while.
However, following Ivan’s death, I decided to go ahead and book a retreat at the monastery in Largs. During my time there, I had occasion to sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament for an hour by myself; it was so calming and thought provoking that I was delighted when asked to spend another hour in the chapel. The Rev. Mother Prioress also asked me to proclaim the readings at two Masses. It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect and move forward. (Having been once and gained great benefit from my time there, I will be returning in August 2017.)
I was watching the EWTN program, Women of Grace, when Fr. Wade Menezes said, “Not to just endure suffering but embrace it. Suffering can lead straight to heaven.” His words took me back to those I spoke following Ivan’s death, “He has met His Maker.” This gave me a great deal of comfort and prompted me to think that perhaps this was why Ivan looked so at ease.
I came home from the retreat with the feeling that I would like to take a more active role in the Catholic Church and am exploring possibilities with the bishop of my diocese. I am so glad that, as a couple, we decided to take the “Road to Rome.” I do not think I would be where I am now without my faith.
I sincerely believe that my faith has given me the strength to cope with the loss of my husband. With the help and support of family, friends and the congregation St. Lawrence’s parish, I am inspired to move forward in a positive manner.