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A Pick-up, a Pope Book, and a Profession of Faith

Neena Gaynor
July 22, 2022 No Comments

When I married a professional baseball player, life on the road kept us church hopping and searching for a home that checked all the boxes. It wasn’t until baseball was over and we were a family of 4 that we were challenged by strong Catholics–but God’s timing is perfect. 

The First Date

As far as first dates, I’d say ours was every bit as average as could be. Except for the marriage proposal. 

When my brother played matchmaker, it could only mean that Wade Gaynor was either a living saint or a complete nerd. I expected it was the latter, but was still interested in dinner and the balloon festival considering Wade had recently been drafted by the Detroit Tigers… .What gal wouldn’t be? 

The blinking Ferris wheel illuminated the brown, near-harvest tassels of surrounding cornfields. As I steered clear of the Strawberry Scrambler and marveled at the 300-pound watermelon, Wade tried to explain intricacies of the baseball life between balloon darts, Whack-A-Mole, and (of course) ball toss. 

“I promise, the Minor Leagues are not as glamourous as you’d think. But, what about you? Would you ever do something like that?” He pointed to the hot air balloons floating above us. 

“Absolutely not.” Something about relying on a big balloon and a basket didn’t seem sensible. And that’s how I liked to think of myself—practical, prudent, down to earth. I was a new nurse in a premier surgical unit, all methods, standards, and protocols. “Would you?”

“Maybe,” he smiled, “with the right company.” We made our way through the House of Mirrors. 

Long, skinny, short, fat, double, quadruple, countless. It’s amazing how just a few bends in the glass can make one thing appear totally different. How did Wade see me? Boring? Giggly? Flakey? I hoped it was something like the lengthened reflection and an ounce as kind as he had been. 

To my surprise, I didn’t want that first date to end, but I didn’t want to seem too anxious to fall in love, either. After outlasting the country music band, we made our way to the parking lot. I couldn’t tell if it was the cool, end-of-summer breeze or the way Wade gazed at me that gave me goosebumps. I hesitantly wrapped my arm around his, and he cradled my hand. Like learning a new dance to the beat of two hearts, I tried to match my steps to his long, slow strides. 

We passed an older couple throwing down their canes and all caution as they readied for the ride of their lives. They helped each other into the tiny basket. The hot air balloon pilot removed the fans and fired up the burners. The bright yellow balloon lifted into the air. 

Wade opened the door of his truck for me and lingered for a moment. Would this be the first kiss? He took a breath, readying himself for something big and pivotal, and then he closed my door. He made his way around the truck, lingering beyond the windshield. Hot air balloons bobbed and floated and decorated the star-sprinkled sky. My legs dangled over a season’s worth of soured laundry, baseball gloves, and empty Gatorade bottles. Wade had just returned to Kentucky after his Rookie season. Obviously, he hadn’t been home long enough to do laundry or clean, well, anything. 

The older couple waved for the adoring crowd a hundred feet below them. The balloon flew higher and higher. Wade ducked into his truck and apologetically tried to rub sticky pine tar off my sandal. I was Cinderella in a dirty, blue Ford pumpkin. This prince had the kindest eyes, deepest dimples, and was a mix of saintliness and simplicity. There was never an awkward pause in conversation, and yet every moment hadn’t needed to be filled with unnecessary jabber. Being with Wade was easy. It was the world that would make it more complicated.

He handed me my spit-shined shoe and turned down the radio. He rested his long arm on the steering wheel and smiled again, certainty in his eyes.

“I think we should get married, and we’d be just fine.” 

It was a humble proposal, and I never questioned if we could go the distance of that elderly couple celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary high in the sky. 

Wade asked me to promise that I’d wait for him to return from the Instructional League, a sort of fall training. I nodded my giddy, little head, “yes,” and wondered when that first kiss would happen, but that would be months away.

My life up to this point had been very typical—tennis lessons, Dean’s List, ebbs and flows of some shade of Christian spirituality—but I belonged to the world, and I loved the world. If only I had fallen for Jesus Christ as quickly as I had for Wade. Looking back, maybe it was the extravagantly generous promises of an eternal inheritance, peace in life’s storms, and unconditional, perfect love that was harder to trust than being married and “just fine.”

A Promise

My first six years of marriage were a whirlwind of bleacher seats, late suppers, and travel-sized toiletries. While my husband played professional baseball and signed autographs daily, I avoided using pens. Our plans could and did change too frequently to be written in ink. During those seasons in the Detroit Tigers organization, we moved at least four times a year. From my husband’s gentle example, I quickly learned the habit of daily Bible reading and reliance upon the Word of God. A baby in faith, but forever lion (tiger?) at heart, I prayed for home runs, safety, and for God to put us where He could use us—no matter what that meant. 

There should be something freeing about being able to pack everything we needed for six or nine months in the Subaru. I was masterful at frittering away time in unfamiliar cities like Lakeland, FL; Grand Rapids, MI; Erie, PA; and Toledo, OH. Eventually, I was feeding the baby from the (dis)comfort of his stroller tray and cheering for Daddy on third base from the Players’ Wives Section. Wherever we went, from sunny Spring Trainings to snowy northern springs, our little family was happy to travel together and make home base in any guest house, swanky loft, or mouse-ridden motel. We chased the dream, and quite often, knew we had realized it. 

Except…

Except there was a nagging sense of loss despite my husband’s success that I couldn’t shake, a desire to let a little dust settle. A home. Roots. Traveling was a beautiful gift that ultimately led us deeper in our faith, but our sojourning years were a trip less toward professional accolades, though they were present, and more toward a promise. But what? What was there beyond baseball’s complicated trades, travel, and contracts? In each church, I scrutinized everything from the children’s activities to the choir, from the carpet choice to the coffee availability. I expected my every want to be met while I also expected the church to meet the needs of others. Click To Tweet

The Search Begins

During Wade’s first Spring Training, an angel-like soul had preached from a Baptist pulpit in Florida about how, if one is looking for something wrong with a church, one will certainly find it. Wade was at practice or preparing for a game, the usual for Sundays in pro-baseball, so I sat alone in another padded pew. The pick-up-and-go lifestyle kept us church hopping from team to team, city to city, in-season and off-season. In each church, I scrutinized everything from the children’s activities to the choir, from the carpet choice to the coffee availability. I expected my every want to be met while I also expected the church to meet the needs of others. In truth, as that preacher convicted me, we should worship God and serve Him only (Luke 4:8).

During those wandering years, I learned about and praised the Lord in cafeterias, amphitheaters, strip malls, park gazebos, traditional sanctuaries that were brand new and some as old as the Civil War. The name of Jesus was proclaimed in every establishment, and my heart was moved at times in each… but I was weary, always searching, wandering in a desert of peanut shells, crackerjacks, and baby food jars. 

The world is full of distractions and difficulties that keep us dog-tired and drained. On our journey to find a place for our family, my heart longed for a break. I needed rest. Another move had us leaving a church whose people had become like family, but whose institution lacked defense for the most vulnerable. Upon further illumination, we saw this gaping crack oozed other issues. As my husband and I held our first born and few belongings, I appreciated the kind departure God offered us through another relocation. It was one of the may graces of our conversion.

There we went again. We kept saying we wanted a “Bible-based” church with a preacher that stood solidly and courageously on God’s Word. Surely, this meant no hierarchy or institution. 

The Last Season

My husband still can’t say what prompted him, other than the Holy Spirit, to pick up Pope St. John Paul II’s The Gospel of Life. You see, as we wandered in and out of churches, we searched knowing with full certainty that we were “anything but Catholic.” I watched as he would spend mornings reading and telling me about the insights he was gaining from his “Pope Book” as he called it.

You see, a run-in with rubella for Wade’s mother during pregnancy had her obstetrician suggesting abortion of her son, my husband. The faithful woman and their entire community prayed for a miracle, that the child would defy statistics of almost-certain severe birth defects or miscarriage. I couldn’t imagine Wade as anything but the strong, tall, able athlete, and so the story of his miraculous birth had only seemed distant and historical—not formative and an obvious result of divine protection. It wasn’t until motherhood that my eyes were fully opened to the atrocity of abortion and the gift of life. 

During that last Spring Training, there was one Sunday that we were able to go together to that Baptist Church that had gotten my fireball of faith rolling. That same angelic preacher stood before us and said to an uncomfortably silent and shifting congregation, “Thank God for the Roman Catholic Church and their unwavering support for life!”

Wade leaned over and mumbled, “Bet he’d like My Pope Book.” Church ended, and we left. What we knew could be the final baseball season began. 

We started the season in Triple-A (AAA) Toledo, Ohio. The Mudhens roster was packed with talent and dear friends, and I had never been more in love with Jesus. It was sure to be great.

Or was it? Time is supposed to heal all wounds, but I can still see scars on Wade’s knees and hips from that season of concrete-like infields. That year, Wade and I often joked how he was like the “Job of Baseball.” A bleeding batting average, some (really) bad hops, a demotion, vehicle woes, another broken lease, and another city. One late July night, Wade posted up with icepacks on the two twin beds we’d pushed together in the cheapest month-to-month rental we could find, a summer college housing unit. 

“Maybe we should just go home,” he said and tried to read my expression in the light of the muted television. 

I was exhausted. Only our one-year-old seemed to be thriving, thank God. 

I gestured to my growing mid-section and grinned, “I’m afraid we need your insurance.”

We shared a laugh. He fell fast asleep, but sleep evaded me. I prayed for strength, prayed for help, prayed for hits, and good bounces, and blessings galore. As I was praying, our one-year-old woke up as he did every night, begging to get in our bed. I never said no; it was his one constant in all the moving about. With his heavy head on my chest, I breathed him in, praising God now for the gift of life. For the life in my arms, the life in my belly, the life in my lungs and, also, quite evident by his snoring, in my husband. 

Life. Jesus came so that we may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). I placed my faith in Him, the “Word of life,” (1 John 1:1) and remembered earlier conversations Wade and I shared about the papal encyclical. How even through death on a cross, Jesus showed us that life is good. So many questions lingered—was this the end of baseball? Would another team sign him? Wade had asked if I wanted to go home, but we didn’t even know where that would be. Click To Tweet

So many questions lingered—was this the end of baseball? Would another team sign him? Wade had asked if I wanted to go home, but we didn’t even know where that would be. I snuggled my baby closer, reached for Wade’s hand, and tried for rest in those two beds that were, for the remainder of one very long season, one.

My Old Kentucky Home

Insurance for baseball players continues while the teams are playing, plus ten days. I’ve never cheered for the Tigers in the post-season quite like I did that year, but it wasn’t enough. Wade got a job as a warehouse manager, working longer hours and seeing less of us than he did if he was playing ball. Our second son was born in November. There was an option to renew a Minor League Contract, and another tempting option to play abroad in Italy, but a diagnosis of Failure to Thrive had us tethered to our son’s doctors and Kentucky. When my body had failed our little one, producing milk that was little more than water, I was devastated. I continued to lean desperately on the Lord, but I was a weak sheep without a shepherd. We still had no church home and hauled babies around like we were on a Sunday Best Tour.

We held fast to our checklist—an active children’s ministry, solid preaching, sound doctrine and stances, and communion every Sunday, because something about communion was really significant. Something about blood and the sacrifice of the Lamb of God had given us pause.  

With lights dimmed, one of those dynamic, courageous preachers stood before us and gestured to a little table with communion. Then he went to great lengths to explain how it was “just a symbol.” As I balanced a snoozing baby and juggled shots of grape juice, I watched as my husband put down his half-empty coffee and passed the tray by him. His body bent in fervent prayer, and I knew with sadness, he was right. Our exhausting search continued. Eventually, we would give into the easy, cheap substitute of streaming sermons as we sleepily cooked or ate breakfast.

I still praise God for this: another job opportunity (one more family-friendly) presented itself for my husband as our youngest gained strength and weight. Back in his hometown, we would move (yet again) and try to establish some roots.

Providentially, my dear friend had entered a religious order in Spain and was making her first home visit to Kentucky. This happened about the same time my husband met a man confident in his Catholic faith. He posed points to ponder. She provided answers, most we didn’t eagerly accept. I wonder now, through all the moving, people, and communities, how did we go 30 years without meeting a Catholic who ever challenged us with the love of the Blessed Sacrament?

As my husband poured over John 6, I squared off with Mother Mary and countless saints. We started looking for a motherless Protestant church with the Eucharist… because, as we knew with our whole heart, the bread and wine were so much more than “just a symbol.”

Roots

For as long as I’ve known my husband, I’ve prayed God would use us. If I’m honest with you, I thought that was on the world’s stage of baseball diamonds. But baseball had been over for a full year, and I welcomed the ordinariness of some clutter accumulating in the garage and the joy of planting seeds and seeing the miracle through to harvest. God had promised something… rest, a home, roots… but even on familiar soil, my soul lacked peace.

Finally, we agreed to “squander” one precious Sunday morning and silence the Sister-and-confident-friend by attending a Catholic Mass. Despite the distractions of my squirmy and sleep-fussy tots, I experienced the rest that God offers as soon as the cathedral doors opened.  Divinely, the Responsorial Psalm that day was, “In God alone is my soul at rest.”  I cherish such moments when God speaks so plainly. I was stirred to tears…and to true rest.

It seems like this is where RCIA picked up, some relationships got rocky, and where most people would say our conversion started. It almost goes without mentioning how surely God tended the garden of our souls even before we met each other and married, and even still. But to say Wade or I was an enthusiastic RCIA candidate would be a stretch. To us, attending a weekly class seemed just another one of those Catholic hoops to jump through before they would share the Eucharist with us. We went armed every week with Scripture as our sword, ready for battle with the patient RCIA leader and kind priest. 

We wielded our weapon of choice with crushing blows, defending God and His honor against those Marian teachings. 

“Be sure to leave room in your heart, just in case you’re wrong.” The eyes of the priest glistened with love. I sank into the old, worn down, itchy couch. I was so prideful to assert that God couldn’t…that He wouldn’t… honor the humble mother of His only begotten Son. 

It was a quiet drive home, until my brother called, asked where we were, and demanded to know what we were doing at a Catholic Church. “I want to go,” he said. My brother—the untamable cowboy/scratch-n-spit ballplayer-type, sitting through the grueling RCIA experience? It was unfathomable.

The first week my brother attended RCIA with us, Wade and I sat with zipped, humbled lips on pins and needles. When the priest started discussing liturgies and doctrine, for a moment I wished he would turn into the Duke, John Wayne. Or trade the collar for a ball hat; maybe that would keep my brother’s interest. The evening ended. I ran to get my children in the other room and returned to read Casey’s expression.

“See ya’ll next week.” He gave the boys a hug, and off he went to his truck.

To me, it was a miracle, but God doesn’t give just a little. He pours out His love extravagantly. In the coming weeks, my brother met a beautiful girl in RCIA, fell in love, and soon asked her to marry him. Before I met my baseball-playing husband, Wade, I had been slow to trust Jesus. As I was coming into the Church, I was more than hesitant to trust an institution, and I flat rode the brake on all things Mary for quite a while. Click To Tweet

Before I met Wade, I had been slow to trust Jesus. As I was coming into the Church, I was more than hesitant to trust an institution, and I flat rode the brake on all things Mary for quite a while. I had more than a basic understanding of Scripture and apologetics as my husband and I first began unearthing the treasures hidden in plain sight – the Mass, Jesus in the Eucharist. We relied almost completely on EWTN Catholic Radio and its internet publications for answers to our many questions. But even as I learned about the historical, theological, and Biblical support for devotion to Mary, my head failed to connect with my heart.

Profession of Faith

Wade and I were to make our first Holy Communion and be received into the Church on All Saint’s Day, 2017. I knew I’d be standing in front of the congregation and God professing that I believed “all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims” to be true. But did I really? I phoned a friend, that dear Sister now back in Spain.

Her advice? “Consecrate yourself to Mary.”

I picked up a sort of how-to book and slung it to the ground countless times, but I continued. I prayed a rosary every day. For a month, I read and wrestled and prayed, and each day I felt something within me softening… my heart? 

Days before we were to make that profession of faith, I took the boys on one of our usual walks.

“Mommy, why do birds sing?” My oldest hopped and skipped, looked for squirrels, and threatened to eat dried worms.

“They sing for God.”

He picked some acorns, filled his pockets with dirt and nuts. “I bet Mary and the birds sang to Jesus every day,” he said with bright eyes.

I almost fell into the sidewalk crack. How did the four-year-old have it figured out? Oh, motherhood must be the most humbling, most wonderful vocation God created. 

I imagined Mary walking with a chattering little Jesus. My boys and I turned and walked up the hill to the playground. I imagined Jesus carrying the cross up Calvary, and Mary walking from a distance, but with Him. From then on, I don’t think I’ve ever thought of the Blessed Mother without thinking of her Son. 

The 33rd day of my Consecration to Mary was on November 1st—All Saints Day. In honor of Mary, I wore a blue dress and stood next to my husband in front of a crowd gathering for a rainy noonday Mass. I felt like a bride joining Jesus’ Church. So many little, minor moments had led to this moment. So many people were a part of our journey. Standing next to my husband, I caught a glimpse of those easy dimples that always seem to appear when I reach for his steady hand.  

The kind priest leaned in, “What confirmation saint name did you finally choose?”

“Mary,” I answered.

“John Paul the Second,” Wade said.

What a sense of humor Heaven must have. Me, Mary. Wade, the Great Marian Saint. It was perfect.

As I walked down the aisle to receive Jesus, every step was full of thought.

I’m approaching the King. 

He is so humble. So gentle. So good.

Lord, why us? How? 

Oh, how He loves us! 

All of us. 

The priest held the Lamb of God before me, “The body of Christ.”

Thank you, Jesus.

I love you.

Amen.

The Beauty of Now

Today, we are beekeepers and small farmers rooted in our community. I work as our parish Ministry Leader. Wade is active with its youth group. And every day, with every muddy boot, chicken hatched, or kid dressed up as a sheep in the “live” nativity, I see God glorified through His creation. I see how He can plant roots of love and devotion in frozen cities, in sunbaked Spring Trainings, and in fertile Kentucky ground. He’s not limited by location, or circumstances, or baseball statistics. I see God glorified through His creation. I see how He can plant roots of love and devotion in frozen cities, in sunbaked Spring Trainings, and in fertile Kentucky ground. He’s not limited by location, or circumstances, or baseball… Click To Tweet

Just as I know my husband better for knowing his family, my relationship with our Lord has only deepened, and I know Him better for having met His mother and His Church. I want to share our faith with everyone, but especially my children. This is why I wrote A Garden for Mary. My hope is that the book will serve as a beautifully illustrated reminder that God loved us so much that He, God, became man. He saved us through His ultimate sacrifice and glorious resurrection. That’s our faith! I pray this book, these gardens and devotions for Mother Mary, give us pause in our busy, distracted, weary days – that we’re reminded of God’s real, deep, and perfect love for us. 

What a promise. No matter what, with Jesus Christ as Lord, we’re going to be just fine.


Neena Gaynor

Neena Gaynor is a wife, mother, and beekeeper in Kentucky. She is the adult ministry leader at her parish. Her children’s picture book, A Garden for Mary, is available now through TAN Books.


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