Give Grace a Chance
Featuring Jackie Barry/
May 9, 2016
Erma Bombeck once said of those born on Christmas day, “There are 364 other days to choose from, but you were chosen to enter the world on a day when peace and joy reign.” I was one of two babies born the morning of December 25, 1946 at a hospital in Flagstaff, Arizona, having to wait my turn while the other baby was brought into the world. My father jokes about how he nearly ran over a Catholic priest upon leaving the hospital, his tires sliding on the ice down a steep Flagstaff street.
I was still very young when my family moved from Arizona to the desert town of Victorville, California. In 1951, my parents converted to Catholicism and I was baptized. Later, we moved to Riverside, California, where I attended St. Francis de Sales Catholic School, receiving my First Communion in 1954. I then transferred to St. Thomas Catholic School and was confirmed in 1958. Many of the friends I made at these schools later left the Church, as I myself did; only a handful of them have remained Catholic. But we all shared many wonderful memories of growing up Catholic, and of all my childhood experiences, these times were some of the best.
My parents raised us with a strict sense of commitment to the Church; we were converts, after all. We prayed daily Rosaries, attended Mass each Sunday, went to confession at least once a month and learned reverence and devotion to the Blessed Mother. Rosaries were prayed together on our knees in the living room. Our prankish brother would make faces or noises and set us girls off in silent laughter, resulting in our father giving us a stern look. I must admit that our Rosaries were not very reverent.
After I left grammar school, our parents could no longer afford to send us to Catholic schools, so I attended public junior high and high school. I was used to small classroom sizes, uniforms, and strict rules. Now I was exposed to a world so totally foreign that it took months for me to feel like I fit in, and even more time to make new friends, since most of mine had gone on to Catholic high school. However, our family continued with our Catholic upbringing, and most of the friends I ran around with were from my grammar school days, so faith still played an important role in my life.
I stayed home once I graduated from high school, attending a two-year college, where I earned my Associate Degree. Then I was accepted at the University of Northern Arizona to pursue a four-year degree in teaching; however, the lure of becoming a flight attendant derailed those plans. I went to an interview for Eastern Airlines and was accepted for training in Miami. I was ecstatic! I flew to Florida, having never been on a plane before! Somehow I divined that, when I left California, I would not be back for a very long time. But not knowing the future, I had no idea I would be leaving behind my Catholic faith as well.
On My Own and Flying High
It was difficult to be a faithful Catholic while working as a flight attendant. I was stationed in Alexandria, Virginia and was on call for both Dulles and Reagan airports. I rarely had Sundays off, so it became ever easier not to attend Mass. Besides, there really was no local Catholic parish where I lived and I had no car. We flight attendants relied on taxis and public transportation to get us to and from the airport. One roommate did have a car, but she was out on flights many times when I was not. One time when she was home, she suggested we go to the local Lutheran church (she was Lutheran), and I thought, “Why not?” I had grown up with the notion that it was sinful to attend a Protestant church, and for a time felt guilty about going. But after enjoying the warmth and hospitality of this congregation, I had no problem attending periodically with my friend. This began my exposure to other faith traditions and an overall feeling that God was present there as well as in my Catholic church back in California. So I gave it no further thought.
Through a mutual friend, I met, fell in love with, and married my husband. He is Methodist and was in the Air Force at the time, stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War. We were married in April of 1970 at the Methodist church in Riverside, California. My parents, still very much Catholic, never said a word about it, and I appreciated that from them. My husband’s remaining military time was spent in Biloxi, Mississippi right after Hurricane Camille had destroyed much of the area. It seemed like an idyllic life. We rented a small place off base and remained there for almost another year before his time in the military was completed.
Married and Methodist
We attended services on base as well as at a small Methodist church in Biloxi. Methodism was quickly becoming a part of my life, and I felt very comfortable in its surroundings. My husband’s family had been Methodists for generations; some had been circuit riders back in the 1800’s. I learned a lot about the history of John and Charles Wesley, and I still love to sing the beautiful Charles Wesley hymns. Even though there were times during my early married life that a longing filled my heart, I wasn’t aware what it was, and I wasn’t considering returning to Catholicism.
We left Mississippi in 1971 and headed back to California, where my husband and I both worked while he finished college at the University of California at Riverside. We were active in the Methodist Church in Redlands, where his folks lived, and we settled in comfortably, not suspecting that a career opportunity would soon have us headed to Texas. It was in Texas that we raised our family and became entrenched in the Texan way of life, loving the land, the people, and their values of faith and family. Here we met some of our best long-term friends; here our children grew up, married, and raised our grandchildren. Here, too, I began to be aware that something was missing in my life. But it would be another 43 years before I would realize just what had been burning so long, deep down in my soul. It was that flame of the Holy Spirit which had ignited in me when I was confirmed. It had never left; it was, for all those years, just reduced to a faintly glowing ember.
We started our Texas life in the town of Edna. Having been raised in California, this was my first experience in a very small town. It was somewhat of a culture shock. My husband was a probation officer for a tri-county area, and Edna was close to most places he had to travel. The town was full of ranchers and farmers and had a long history of families who had settled the area before Texas became a state. They were welcoming and friendly to us and before long we settled into the community. Nearly everyone in Edna was Baptist, Methodist, or Lutheran. After trying a Lutheran church in another small town nearby at the invitation of some new friends, we decided on a Methodist congregation. I do not recall where the Catholic church was or if there was even one in town. I had left my Catholic roots in California and did not give them another thought.
Most activities in a small town generally involve the church you belong to. I joined the women’s circle and various other organizations as a break from taking care of our new son.
A couple of years later, we moved on to Beaumont, Texas, east of Houston. My husband had been offered employment there in the mental health field. His college major had been psychology, and he felt this would be a good opportunity. Here we were introduced to a whole different way of life, with a bit of Cajun influence, moss covered trees, and a swamp near the Nueces River. We immediately joined a local Methodist church. We are still close to the friends we made there, including the pastor and his wife. Our daughter was born in Beaumont in 1978 and baptized in that Methodist church. We took an active part in church life, and Sunday school became the foundation of many friendships and activities. Our children formed their foundational Christian beliefs in the Methodist Sunday school, vacation Bible school, summer camp, and the Methodist youth program. It was a small but vibrant church and drew me closer into the Methodist way of life — a life of piety, fellowship, and love. I can still smell the rich furniture oil that the altar society used on the pews, altar rail, and wood seats for the choir. The old style church, with its stained glass windows, choir loft behind the pulpit, red carpet down the center aisle, and red cushioned pews, was a warm, comforting sanctuary, a place of peace.
Fanning the Coals
A few years later, we moved to Fort Worth. My husband began working for the Salvation Army at a halfway house for street people and ex-offenders. Again we became involved in the Methodist Church and its many activities for young families. And here the guidance of the Holy Spirit began to manifest itself in my life, gradually leading me back “home” to the Catholic Church. Looking back, I sometimes wonder if my zealous work in the Methodist Church was a way of ignoring the will of God. Any time there was a request for a volunteer, my hand went up. I was also working full time for a pharmaceutical company, which required some travel. Add to that raising a family and then discovering that my husband was suffering from chronic depression, and I’m not quite sure how we got through those times. I’m convinced that it was the grace of God that sustained us.
It was also at this time that my brother was diagnosed with brain cancer. He put up a good fight, but ultimately, about five years later, he passed away, leaving a wife and two small children. It was a devastating time for our family, especially for our parents. I am sure our parents’ deep Catholic devotion enabled them to get through it.
A Call to — What?
During these hectic years, my husband began to feel a call to ministry. He entered Brite Divinity School on the Texas Christian University campus. Adding this to his full time work schedule made for a difficult life at home. Thankfully, our children were old enough to cope with it, though at times, looking back, I realize that God must have been in this for us to have survived this crazy period and remain married!
About this time, I noticed an ad in our local newspaper for an event at one of the local Catholic parished that was for those interested in returning to the Catholic Faith. For some reason this piqued my interest, and I decided to attend. I mentioned it to my husband, trying to downplay it since he was preparing for the Methodist ministry, and this was undoubtedly not something he wanted to hear. I went to the seminar, which consisted of a discussion of some of the changes since the Second Vatican Council, a tour of the church, and a Q&A with a couple of priests. There were very few in attendance, but the event was interesting and I felt something stir within my heart. But after several days of talking myself out of doing anything about it, I dismissed the idea from my mind and returned to my work and volunteer activities at church.
Then I decided to finish college. I attended Dallas Baptist University, receiving a Bachelor’s degree in General Studies. The required curriculum provided exposure to classes in religion. These classes were geared towards the Baptist way of thinking about the Gospels, salvation, and our relationship with God, and the experience would ultimately push me to question just what I did believe.
Not long after I graduated, I began to think that I too might have a call to the ministry. I enrolled at Brite Divinity School following my husband, who by then had nearly completed his studies. One of my classes was on John Wesley. I enjoyed the class, but it just did not feel right. Something was missing. Where was I supposed to be?
Because of my husband’s depression and other medical issues, he was never able to fully enjoy being a minister. He received his M.Div. degree, but other than a few associate positions, he was unable to fulfill what he perceived to be a divine call. This caused him great distress in subsequent years.
The Ember Re-ignites
Our Sunday school class was made up of like-minded individuals, with whom we formed close relationships and had many lively discussions. During some of these classes, we would discuss various Scripture passages, and I began to take a careful look at just what I believed. I found myself examining our class conversations with a critical eye, which I would later realize was a Catholic perspective. Gradually, it became apparent that I was in trouble. I would go home and look up these topics on Catholic websites. I became aware that something deep inside me was stirring, and I was afraid of what it might be. I quit my research, took long walks and told myself, “This can’t be happening!” Like Jonah, I tried to run as far away from God as I could. I understood that the Holy Spirit was the cause of these feelings, and I pleaded with Him to let me alone. During that dark time, I had ordered Bishop Sheen’s book, Life is Worth Living. It was a page-turner for me, and once I finished it, I knew I needed to return to my Catholic roots.
I began to dig deep into the history of the Church, looking for answers to those things I had begun to question as a Protestant. Why did the Reformers leave the Catholic Church? What really happened between Martin Luther and the Church, and what about those who came after him? Did they leave because they were led by God to start another church or because of a mistaken interpretation of the Bible and the writings of the Church Fathers? I had read 2 Peter 1:20–21: “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” This seemed to reject a purely individualistic interpretation of Scripture. Moreover, St. Augustine had written, “If you believe what you like in the gospels and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe in, but yourself.” And I had remembered one of my Methodist friends say that he liked being Methodist because he could interpret the Gospels for himself.
The most important thing drawing me back to the Catholic Church for me was the Eucharist. I had read and re-read chapter six of the Gospel of John, especially verses 53–58, about the bread from heaven. It haunted me: What, really, was the Eucharist? I remember at one point asking my husband why Methodists only had communion once per month. He had mentioned that early on, when he was young, the Methodist Church had communion every Sunday. The decision was later made to have it only once per month because then it would mean more to the congregation. I then came to realize how much I missed being able to receive the Body and Blood of Christ any day of the week!
The Full Flame
Now what to do? All these questions about family, friends, relationships, and so forth began going through my head. What would people think and especially my husband? I had encountered a website that advertised they would help with any questions or concerns about the Catholic faith, so I began a correspondence. I never met this person other than online, but he was my mentor and guide through a most tumultuous time. I visited a couple of nearby Catholic churches and noted that not a whole lot had changed other than that the altar was now facing the congregation and the liturgy was in English. The basics were still there. I finally decided on a home parish, but it would be six months after my encounter with the Holy Spirit before I could find the courage to walk through the door of the parish office to speak with someone about my interest in returning to the Church. And what do you think? I knew the lady who greeted me through our volunteer work at the federal prison!
After walking through that door, I received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time in 50 years, and I understood that nothing would be the same again. Though my knees shook and my stomach had butterflies, I also realized this was finally what the Holy Spirit had in mind for me: a return to the Church of my childhood. I received the Eucharist on Passion Sunday of 2011 and recalled that little girl back in 1954 wearing a scratchy, white starched dress, veil, stockings, and white shoes walking down the aisle of that church in Riverside, California to receive Communion for the very first time. My marriage was also convalidated during this time through a process called a Decree in Sanatio in Radice (healing at the root) by the chancery office of the Diocese of Ft. Worth, Texas. This meant my marriage was now valid without a new marriage ceremony. Nothing was required of my husband.
How did my return to the Catholic Church play out at home? Not as well as I had hoped, but I was braced for the inevitable questions and confrontations. My husband had said I needed to do what I felt was best, but once I actually made the commitment to return to the Catholic Church, the reality set in and we had some contentious times. Among other things, he reminded me of that promise I had made to remain Methodist all of our married life. What could I say? God called, I answered.
The most difficult struggle I have had in returning to the Catholic Church is not being able to participate with my husband at his communion table. He has had the same feeling of not being welcome at mine. He is still reluctant to attend Mass with me because he cannot receive the Eucharist, and I understand, because the Eucharist is the “source and summit of our faith.” But I continue to go with him to our Sunday school class and church service, and I kneel with him at his altar with my arm around him as he receives communion.
As to the rest of the family, our son just looked at me and pleaded, “Why?” Our daughter, who is currently unchurched, said, “It’s your soul, Mom.” I sent out an email to all our Sunday school members explaining the reasons for my return to the Catholic Faith. I received no questions or comments initially, but little by little as time passed some would ask questions about the Church on certain hot button topics, and if I did not know the answer, I would look it up and respond later. Some of my closest Methodist friends have been very gracious about my return; others tend to show indifference, perhaps because they are not sure what to say. One dear older, semi-retired minister walks up to me every now and then and asks me, “Are you still happy in the Catholic Church?” To my “Yes,” he responds, “Then I am very happy you are at home there.”
I probably would have returned to the Catholic Church even if I had not been Methodist, but I will say that my faith is more enriched because of the time I spent as a Methodist. Having studied Methodism and read about John Wesley, I learned to appreciate the Wesleyan spirit and the deep, abiding faith of those “not so far from the tree.” I had a Franciscan friar once tell me that John Wesley is the “St. Francis of the Methodists.” I believe that to be true. There are times when I wish I had not left the Catholic Church. But then I look back and realize how much more I appreciate the Catholic Faith because of that time I spent as a Methodist. The theme for Methodists is “open minds, open hearts.” Do we not believe this as Catholics?
My mother passed away in April of 2014. Among one of the most precious things I received from her were her prayer books for the Liturgy of the Hours. In each of these books are her notations, prayers, favorite hymns, and psalms. This has probably been the greatest gift I have received since returning to the Church.
I recently participated in a Mass and conferring of the sacraments by the bishop at the federal prison and realized how far I had come. As we all raised our voices in song and praise and walked in procession to receive the Eucharist together as sisters in Christ, I realized this is where God had wanted me all along. How fulfilling this ministry is, how fulfilled I feel as a Catholic returning home!
There is a prayer I ran across not too long ago, written by the Servant of God Elisabeth Leseur (France, 1866–1914). I pray it on those days when I feel sadness in my lonely journey of faith. Elisabeth’s husband was an atheist and did not convert until after her death from cancer. This prayer brightens my life. My hope is it will help others as well.
Loving During the Storm
“My Savior, I am all alone spiritually, as you know. You know, too, how I suffer from the hostility or indifference of certain persons. I think that is why you have done so much for me and given me so much in your goodness. And now with your gentle gaze you are dispersing the clouds that in these last months have so often overshadowed me. You are kindling my heart again after leaving it in painful dryness; you are chasing away the darkness and the confusion. Thank you, my beloved Savior, my God! I know that sorrow will return, for effort and struggle are your will for us. Your love has conquered, and I know that you will not abandon me and that deep peace will remain with me. To love during the storm is very consoling, and my love grows stronger after each sorrow, each setback. Complete abandonment to you, offering my heart and my life in your service.”
— Servant of God Elisabeth Leseur