I feel incredibly blessed to have found the Truth of the Catholic Church at the age of 40 after spending over two decades in what I call the “spiritual wilderness,” a time when I had no faith in my life. This departure from God began in my teen years as I started to have serious doubts about my compatibility with the Baptist church and stopped attending at the age of 16. This rebellion then evolved to me declaring that I was an agnostic in college and later spending years as a workaholic who was too busy for God. A familiar tale, perhaps?
I am thankful that I grew up with faith-filled, hard working parents who taught me the values I still live by to this day. When I was nine, my parents moved from Annapolis, MD to a small town in south Georgia and became very involved in a local Baptist church. My earliest memory of this time was being baptized and going to the altar to “be saved.”
As a teenager, I still attended church, but was starting to feel that I didn’t belong there. I thought our preacher was making it up as he went along during his sermons and God’s message was getting lost in his inclination to put on a “show” every Sunday. When I was 16, I announced to my parents that I didn’t want to go to church anymore. We argued about it a lot, but they had taught me to think for myself and permitted me to stop attending even though my decision hurt them. Their own faith was stronger than ever and I think they believed I would return soon. Little did any of us know that I was about to leave my relationship with God for a very long time. “The LORD is with me to the end. LORD, your love endures forever. Never forsake the work of your hands!” (Psalm 138:8)
I graduated high school and went off to the University of Georgia on a partial scholarship, grant money, money my parents had scraped together, and student loans. My grades suffered as I thought of nothing other than having a good time with my friends. I would describe my college years as the most godless years of my life. I ignored everything I had been taught as a boy in church and embraced almost everything I knew in my heart to be wrong. I even told friends that I was an agnostic. “I command you: be firm and steadfast! Do not fear nor be dismayed, for the LORD, your God, is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)
I graduated from UGA in 1989 with a degree in political science. Leaving that hedonistic college town a few weeks after graduation was the best thing I could have done for my life and now it’s clear that God was watching over me during those self-indulgent years.
I have always been a hard worker and took any job I had very seriously. Immediately after graduation, I joined a retail tire company in Atlanta. I spent several years with this organization in roles of increasing leadership responsibility. On the outside I was making a good living and my career was going well, but I was empty inside. God was still nowhere to be found in my life and attending church was the farthest thing from my mind. But, He was still looking out for me. I met a young woman named Sandra Sienicki in 1993. We dated and quickly fell in love. I was feeling truly happy for the first time in a decade! We got engaged and were married in a Methodist Church in November of 1994.
My wife was baptized Catholic and came from a big New York Italian/Polish family, but her parents did not take her or her sister to church and she was never confirmed. Sandra believed in God, but she was not focused on having any kind of church life when we first married. I had given up my college agnosticism and believed in God again, but was not sure what to do about it. We would discuss going to church, but always found reasons not to go.
In October 1997 we were blessed with the birth of our first son, Alex. We were a very happy family. My career was progressing well in my new role as the Vice President of Recruiting for Waffle House, a billion dollar restaurant company I had joined in 1995. Sandra was able to quit her job and be a stay-at-home mom when Alex was born. In December of 1999, I changed the direction of my career and joined Bell Oaks Executive Search in order to cut down on work travel and spend more quality time with my family.
When our son Alex was 27 months old, we received the devastating diagnosis that he had autism. We both went into an emotional tailspin for a month as we tried to make sense of this news and understand how this could have happened. I wish that we had known how to pray back then, because we desperately needed God during those dark days. (II Corinthians 4:8-9) “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
We pulled ourselves together as we realized that this was not about us. It was about Alex. He needed our love, our focus, and the best medical care we could provide for him. As my wife and I were learning to give Alex what he needed, we began to talk more seriously about a church home, but again nothing happened. We needed God, but we were still lost and didn’t know how to find Him. Our second son, Ryan, was born in 2001 and he is now a wonderful boy of 11 who is bright, active, and has developed as a typical child. He loves his brother very much and has a very compassionate heart for which we are grateful.
The years passed. Attending church was still a topic of discussion, but nothing more.
Then in 2005, my wife was driving around one day a few miles from our home and accidentally discovered St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church. She excitedly told me about the beautiful parish and surrounding campus, which led to a lengthy discussion about the possibility of us joining the Catholic Church. Sandra began asking around, talking to friends and reading about the Church. While I was cautious about us becoming Catholic, I was very interested in its traditions and history and decided I should at least investigate. We met with the pastor, Fr. Frank, over the following weeks and felt drawn to the friendly parishioners. In the fall of that year, we started attending Sunday Mass at St. Peter Chanel and Sandra began formal instruction in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. Our plan was for me to enroll in the next RCIA class so I could be with our sons while Sandra attended classes.
Then, the Lord really got my attention. I was attending our second Mass with my family in early October of 2005. The Mass had just begun and I felt very uneasy, a feeling which had started when I woke up that morning. I was white as a sheet, sweating and felt very anxious. My family thought I was having a heart attack! This lasted for about 10 minutes. I remember thinking for the first time in my life, “Jesus, I don’t know what to do anymore and I need your help. I surrender. Please lead and I will follow.” As soon as I thought these words, I felt something like a strong push from behind…then I felt absolutely fine. I met with a deacon of the parish the next day who helped me understand that I had been helped by the Holy Spirit to let go of 23 years of stubbornness, pride, and ego that had been keeping me from Christ. At the age of 40, I had finally reached a place where I was ready to surrender to Christ and put His will before my own.
I experienced a “dying of self” the very minute I acknowledged that I was no longer in charge of my life. It is amazing to me that I never felt stronger and more alive than at the very moment I chose to trust and surrender to His Will. I had been in the spiritual wilderness for almost a quarter of a century and Christ was bringing me home. (John 3:8) The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
A new fervor
From a reluctant and cautious investigator of the Church, I became on fire for my new-found faith. My spiritual awakening took my family and friends by surprise. I read voraciously about the Catholic faith and met with our priests and deacons as often as possible. As my wife was completing her return to the Church of her baptism through RCIA, I kept busy with apologetics classes, Bible studies, reading, and talking to anyone I could about our Catholic faith.
Our sons were baptized in 2006 and I started RCIA in late summer of that year. My wife and I had our marriage convalidated in November and I came into the Church during the Feast of Christ the King, right after Thanksgiving. That year was such a turning point in our lives! We had been blessed by God with a great family, our faith had become an incredible source of strength, and we finally had the spiritual foundation that had always been missing in our lives. I will never forget that year and I thank our Heavenly Father every chance I get for not giving up on me and welcoming me home.