My return to the Catholic Church after twenty years away as an Evangelical Protestant was my heart’s response to Jesus, as He drew me back into full communion with His Church and complete union with Him in the Holy Eucharist.
I was baptized Shannon Mary Kelly, oldest of six children of an Irish-Catholic family in Bay City, Michigan. I made my First Confession and First Communion when I was eight years old. I remember how very close to Jesus I felt as I received Holy Communion for the first time.
I attended Catholic grade school. My grade school years were happy ones. The entire school attended daily Mass and the Stations of the Cross during Lent.
My favorite event was the annual May Crowning. Saturday afternoons usually meant going to Confession. In eighth grade, I was secretary/treasurer of our school’s Legion of Mary chapter.
My Catholic high school’s required religion class during freshman year was called “Salvation History.” Beginning with the creation account in the book of Genesis, we learned that through God’s love, the Hebrews became His chosen people, beginning with Abraham. God’s promise to them was fulfilled when He sent His Son Jesus to redeem the world. I really enjoyed that class, and I think that’s when my love for the Old Testament began.
During my sophomore year of high school, my mother died of cancer. It all happened very quickly, with just three months between her diagnosis and her death at age forty-four. Her death was a pivotal point of my life.
I had learned in my religion classes over the years that God had a will. To my sixteen-year-old mind, her death must have been His will, or He would never have allowed it to happen. I was afraid to let myself think too much about what was happening.
Mom was buried on a Friday, and by the following Monday morning, we had re-grouped as a motherless family. We just went on and didn’t talk much about Mom or her death. Losing my mother was a horrible thing that I could not fully comprehend until I became a mother myself.
The military and marriage
After high school, I attended college for two years. During that time I began to consider joining the military. Whenever I would think about it, I had a sense of God nudging me along. I believed that if joining the Navy wasn’t meant to be, He wouldn’t allow it to go much further. I pursued my dream and in October, 1973, entered the Women’s Naval Recruit Training Center, Orlando, Florida.
We weren’t allowed to keep much with us in boot camp, but I kept my rosary. Many nights I fell asleep while clutching it to ease my homesickness, wondering if I had made the biggest mistake of my life. Each Sunday we were allowed to attend chapel, so I never missed Mass.
After further training in San Diego, California, I was assigned to the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. As time went on, I became acclimated to my new life in the Navy. I worked hard and was content. I considered myself a devout Catholic. I could not see myself being anything else.
Early in 1976 I met the man who would become my husband. God used a kidney stone to bring us together. My husband remembers being helped off his ship into the ambulance in terrible pain, when a Scripture verse he learned as a child came to mind: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). Still, he wondered how anything good could possibly come from all that pain!
He didn’t know that while he, an Evangelical Protestant guy from Minnesota, was in the Portsmouth Naval Hospital with a kidney stone, he would meet me, a Catholic girl from Michigan. We were married at my home parish, Saint Boniface Church in Bay City, Michigan. My husband’s uncle, a Baptist pastor, also took part, praying a special blessing over us.
Our first few years of marriage were spent in the Norfolk, Virginia, area. We attended Mass together at the base chapel. After my enlistment ended in 1977, I worked towards completing my bachelor’s degree in history until our daughter was born in 1979.
We had her baptized into the Catholic Faith, but in my mind it was also somewhat of a child dedication ceremony, like those I had seen in some Evangelical Protestant settings. In fact, I was becoming more comfortable with the Evangelical Protestant way of looking at things, as this was the faith and culture in which my husband had been raised. My mother-in-law was one of the godliest women I’d ever known. Even though I had the Mass and Holy Eucharist, it seemed she was close to Jesus in a way I was not. Her faith was very appealing to me.
In 1980 we were transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which was considered then to be hardship duty. Remote and desolate, the base had no way off except by plane. I had an eight-month-old infant and was far away from family and friends.
In that setting, I believe God was drawing me closer to Him by allowing me to need Him in an even deeper way. As a new mother, I was becoming more aware of the tremendous responsibility my husband and I shared for the spiritual nurture of our daughter.
In Guantanamo I joined a Protestant ladies’ Bible study. Sometimes the Bible verses I read seemed to be written just for me. I had tried at other times in my life to read the Bible, but I’d never gotten very far with it. Now I found myself enjoying and looking forward to spending time in God’s Word. Even so, I was still attending Mass each week and serving as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.
Some of the new friends I made were staunchly anti-Catholic Protestants. I was told repeatedly that I had to believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins and then ask Him to be my personal Savior. My husband’s family believed the same thing.
I had no problem believing that Jesus died on the cross. It was an historical fact. There was a crucifix in every Catholic Church. We had a crucifix hanging on the wall in our home, and there was a crucifix on my rosary. As Catholics we were always being reminded of His suffering and death in the Stations of the Cross during Lent and the Gospel readings of Jesus’ Passion during Holy Week.
Still, I thought of Jesus’ death not so much in a personal way but in a general “for the whole world” way. As I read and studied more, I began to see that Jesus really had died for me personally — that He would have died for me even if I had been the only person in the world. That was how much He loved me. The personal aspect of His love made a deep impression on me.
I also began to get a tiny glimpse of the holiness of God. I had gone to sacramental Confession for all those years, yet now I started to feel a sorrow for my sins that was new, profound, and real. One night I knelt next to my bed and prayed what Evangelical Protestants often call “the sinner’s prayer,” confessing my sin and guilt.
I asked Jesus to come into my heart and be my personal Savior. I don’t remember it being a terribly emotional experience, but I had the sense that something significant had taken place. My Evangelical Protestant friends told me I was now “saved” or “born again.” Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that salvation is actually a lifelong process, and that I had already been “born again” through my baptism as a child.
Even so, I remained in the Catholic Church. I saw no conflict between attending Mass and being “born again.” I felt so close to Jesus. At that point, being “saved” meant for me a deepening of my love and need for Jesus and His grace. In hindsight, however, I can see that my Catholic beliefs were continuing to erode.
Leaving the Church
One Sunday at Mass as I was distributing Holy Communion, I wondered for the first time whether it were truly the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ! That thought rattled me, along with the realization that I could even have had such a thought. Some of my deeply held and, up to that time, unquestioned beliefs and practices were being challenged and belittled by my anti-Catholic friends, many of whom were former Catholics.
I was in no position to argue. I may have considered myself a devout Catholic, but even with twelve years of Catholic school, I didn’t know my faith well. I didn’t know the Bible the way they did. I decided that since they knew the Bible better than I did, they must be right. They believed that the Bible alone was the sole basis of faith.
They told me that Catholics believe they have to earn their salvation through good works. I felt a great sense of relief that I no longer had to do that to get into heaven. All my Catholic teaching had said that we could hope to attain heaven, but nobody knew for sure. I liked the certainty of the Evangelical Protestant beliefs better.
I was also told that because I had trusted Jesus as my personal Savior, I could know for certain that I would go straight to heaven, skipping the “layover” in purgatory. For them, purgatory wasn’t found in the Bible; it was an idea made up by the Catholic Church.
Within a few months I began seriously to consider leaving the Catholic Church. I didn’t leave out of anger or frustration, but because of what I considered the next step in my growing faith. It just seemed right somehow to join my husband as an Evangelical Protestant. One Sunday I was attending Mass; the next Sunday I was attending the Protestant service at the base chapel.
In 1982 we were transferred to the Washington, D.C., area. We joined a Southern Baptist Church. When our son was born the following year, we did not baptize him. Instead, we dedicated him to the Lord, committing ourselves to raise him with biblical values, so that he would grow up to accept Jesus someday as his personal Savior. It was in this context of Evangelical Protestant beliefs that our children were raised.
Four years later, we packed up again. My husband’s new duty station was Great Lakes Naval Base in Illinois. We were members of two different Evangelical Protestant churches over the following fifteen years. The first was an Evangelical Free Church; the second, a congregation of the Missionary Church of North America, a denomination headquartered in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The reasons we left one denomination and searched for another were important to us at the time. I think one of them was really a search for authority. The lack of it in my Evangelical world was starting to concern me.
I remember thinking at various times, Who is in charge here? Which pastor has the correct interpretation of the Scriptures? How can so many godly pastors, elder board members and parachurch organizations (such as Christian Women’s Club, in which I was deeply involved) have so many different opinions?
The answer I heard most often was that as Christians we could agree on the essentials, disagree on the nonessentials, with charity in all things. In my mind this only complicated things more. Who decided which were the essentials and which were the nonessentials?
Despite my occasional ruminations on such matters, our family flourished spiritually in those years. We enjoyed youth groups, small group ministries, musical productions, powerful Bible preaching, and deep friendships. Being Evangelical Protestant was all our children knew.
Sometimes they would ask me about Catholics or what they believed. I found myself defending the Catholic Church, hoping they would keep an open mind. When they heard untruths and misconceptions about Catholics in youth group, I tried to balance those out as best I could, despite my having been away from the Church for over a decade.
Once in a while, I would hear something in a sermon that would be a not-so-subtle dig at the Catholic Church. It would really irk me, and my reaction surprised me. After one such episode, I had to admit to myself that deep down inside, I would always be Catholic. I realized that I wouldn’t be where I was spiritually as an Evangelical without my solid Catholic foundation of faith.
The way back home
In 1996 a series of events began to unfold that would bring me back home to the Catholic Church. While I was recuperating from surgery, a dear Catholic friend sent me Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s book Rome Sweet Home. I was absolutely stunned after reading it.
They really knew the Scriptures, and yet they had come into the Catholic Church! What was I to do with that book? I didn’t dare throw it away: I speculated that my friend had asked a priest to bless it before she mailed it to me! So I shoved it in a drawer, hoping never again to have to think about all the things that the Hahns might be right about.
To put to rest what I still considered “stray thoughts” about the Catholic Church, I read Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic by David Currie. I didn’t want to admit that all his arguments might be valid either. But I knew the author had to be credible.
He was coming from where I was. He had in his background studies at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Many of the pastors I knew and respected had received their training at one or both of those institutions.
It was about that time as well that I discovered the writings of a Catholic priest named Henri Nouwen, particularly his book The Return of the Prodigal. In this book, Nouwen used the famous Rembrandt painting “The Prodigal” to describe and enlarge on the wonder of God’s forgiveness and love in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.
While channel surfing a few months later, in a flash I saw that Rembrandt painting! I had landed on The Journey Home on EWTN, hosted by Marcus Grodi. The Rembrandt painting was the backdrop on the set.
Marcus was a former Protestant pastor, now a Catholic, interviewing another Evangelical Protestant who had come home to the Catholic Church. I was so fascinated by the program that I continued to watch it secretly as often as I could, gripping the remote so I could quickly switch the channel if I heard anyone coming into the room!
I felt such camaraderie with these new and returned Catholics. I knew I wasn’t alone in my “stray thoughts” of returning to the Catholic Church. Others had made the journey and survived. That encouragement was tremendous, reassuring me that I wasn’t crazy after all.
The National Shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe is at Marytown in Libertyville, Illinois. In the fall of 1999, after driving past it for years, I got up the courage to enter the perpetual adoration chapel there.
When I opened the door to peek in, the fragrance and warmth from the many candles in the entryway lured me in for a closer look. It was beautiful in the way that Catholic churches had been beautiful in my childhood. And it was quiet.
I lit a candle. I sat in quiet contentment before Jesus exposed in the Blessed Sacrament. I was nourishing my starving Evangelical Protestant soul with Catholic richness and beauty.
I had done all there was to do as an Evangelical Protestant, and I was not satisfied. I knew God was calling me to something more, and I now know that something I longed for was Someone, Jesus Christ, truly present in the Holy Eucharist.
Several years went by in which I continued to study, read, and watch EWTN. Because I had been Catholic, many of the issues that might dog those coming into the Church for the first time weren’t foreign to me. For example, I learned to my surprise that purgatory has a biblical basis in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, and especially in one of the books not included in the Protestant versions of the Bible (see 2 Mc 12:46).
One term I do remember hearing for the first time (from Mother Angelica on EWTN) was “Magisterium of the Church.” This is the teaching office of the Church, whose authority was given by Jesus Christ to Saint Peter (see Mt 16:15-20), his successors, and the bishops in union with them. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they lead and protect the Church that Jesus founded.
God opens a door
One beautiful Sunday afternoon, through a series of circumstances that only God could have orchestrated, my husband and I found ourselves at the Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House in Barrington, Illinois. We were both ill at ease, since my husband was a lifelong Protestant and I had drifted away from the Church. I was sure there must be some sort of label, visible only to priests, that would flash “LAPSED CATHOLIC” across my forehead.
That day a wonderful priest, Father Bob, welcomed us. My husband was there in a professional capacity, so while he was occupied, Father Bob and I had a wonderful visit. There was an immediate spiritual connection between us.
He and I must have talked for over an hour about the Lord’s love and His goodness. I told him all about our family. But I didn’t tell him I was a former Catholic or that I was feeling drawn back to the Church.
As we were preparing to leave the retreat house, I decided I should “fess up.” So I asked Father Bob if non-practicing Catholics could make retreats there. He grinned and said, “Ah, that’s just the kind of folks we like!” I knew that someday I would return to Bellarmine.
Two days later was September 11, 2001. When our nation was attacked that day, needing comfort and reassurance, I went to noon Mass at Marytown. I was reminded again of the universality of the Catholic Church as I saw people of many ethnic backgrounds and of all ages at Mass.
That was a very significant point on my journey. On that day I knew for certain this was where I really belonged. And with each time I attended Mass, my longing to be united with Christ in the Holy Eucharist deepened.
As the weeks went by, I was feeling torn apart inside. I knew on the one hand that I was no longer truly an Evangelical Protestant. But I still couldn’t see how I could ever leave my congregation.
The last weekend in October, 2001, we attended parents’ weekend at our son’s college. He took us to the morning service of his Presbyterian congregation (Presbyterian Church of America). The congregation was commemorating Reformation Day, October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany. That act set in motion the Protestant movement.
As I sat in that little congregation, seeing the irony and God’s sense of humor, I secretly hoped I could return to the very Church Martin Luther had set out to reform. It was beginning to dawn on me that all the things my soul was craving — deeper intimacy with Jesus, liturgical worship, silence and solitude — I had had as a Catholic, and I had left them behind. Each week I would worship in my Evangelical congregation and be homesick for the Catholic Church.
One day as I was praying and worrying over the whole situation, I decided to state my case to the Lord. I laid out for Him the reasons I couldn’t possibly return to the Catholic Church, even though I really wanted to.
“What about our marriage of nearly twenty-five years, Lord?”
“And what about my relationships with my children, Lord?”
“And Lord, I know for sure that I’ll lose all my friends!”
Then the Lord spoke to my soul: “Shannon, do you love Me more than these?”
I slumped back in my chair. At that point, I was finally able to say, “O Lord, You know I love You. You are God, I am not. I will trust You.”
Then I actually became excited at the prospect of returning to the Church, because I knew He would make the way, and it would be perfect.
By early December I had received the blessings of my husband and children to do what I believed God was calling me to do. They trusted me. What a gift!
As the weeks went by, God was preparing me. I just had to be ready. I needed to go to Confession, but that was turning out to be the biggest hurdle. I discovered that most parishes had confessions only on Saturdays, which conflicted with my work schedule. A few parishes added some special times for the sacrament in preparation for Christmas, but work prevented me from those as well.
One morning, I happened to think about meeting Father Bob on our visit to the retreat house. When I called, he remembered me and was able to see me that very afternoon. God had made the way, and it was perfect.
Father Bob took the time to listen to the story of how I had come to that point in my spiritual journey. I told him how much I desired to receive Jesus — Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity — in the Eucharist. During our time together, Father Bob would quote a Scripture text or give an example from the Old Testament that he couldn’t possibly have known were particular favorites of mine. But the Holy Spirit knew! His Presence there was so apparent to me, urging me on as I made my first Confession in over twenty years on December 20, 2001.
My Blessed Mother’s call
Through the wondrous Sacrament of Reconciliation, I was once again in full communion with the Catholic Church. I was at peace, with the deep knowing that I was loved. For my penance, Father Bob asked me to say one Hail Mary. “As you are driving home,” he added, “think about how much your Blessed Mother loves you.”
A few days later, I received my “second” First Communion at Midnight Mass, in the wee hours of December 25, 2001.
Despite Father Bob’s admonition to think about Mary and her love for me, I wasn’t really too interested in Mary when I returned. I just wanted Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. I still had the residual distrust of Mary that I had absorbed while an Evangelical Protestant.
I had feared that giving any honor to Mary somehow took away honor from Jesus. Yet even in a few instances as an Evangelical, while I was trying not to honor her too much, I had found myself defending her. I had even taken her role in several dramatic productions, when I portrayed her standing at the foot of the Cross!
With Father Bob as my spiritual director, I started praying the rosary again, especially the new Luminous Mysteries. I was seeing for the first time that Mary always points to Jesus. I really can’t have Him without His Mother.
She says to me and to all of us, “Do whatever He tells you.” Jesus was telling me to love and trust His mother.
On September 19, 2005, at Marytown, I made my consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Almost as soon as I said the words of consecration, it was as if a cloud lifted and I saw that I had not been motherless all those years. My heavenly mother had never abandoned me, even when I had turned my back on her.
Just as my mom used to stand on our front porch and call her kids home for supper, I picture our Blessed Mother on a huge celestial veranda, calling her children home to her Son and to the fullness of faith that’s found in His Church. My deep desire for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, my longing for the ritual, depth, and beauty of the Catholic faith, were all calls that my soul heard and heeded. They were my Mother Mary’s voice, saying: “Shannon, it’s time to come home!”