Raised as a Protestant in Arlington, Texas, my childhood was simple. It was in adulthood that things got complicated with different beliefs, different faiths, and a difficult marriage. Now, years later, living as empty nesters on an acreage just outside of a small eastern Texas town, I’d have to say that my life is pretty complete — and much simpler again.
Working at a Catholic non-profit organization for 13 years, helping those who are incapable of helping themselves, has been extremely rewarding. I also have a passion for writing and hope one day to establish an animal rescue haven, since God has blessed me with a deep love of animals. But, as is usually the case with life, things weren’t always so idyllic.
A Troubled Marriage
But let’s back up to those earlier times and my painful marriage to an abusive man, whom I had determined to divorce.
As an adult living in the city of Arlington, whose attendance at the local Protestant church was sparse at best, I could recall some Scripture, but I would never be able to find it for you in the Bible. I usually recognized Scripture as soon as I heard it, but I could rarely quote it correctly. Except John 3:16, of course. So, when a particular Scripture — Luke 16:18: “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” — dropped into my head that day as I sat pondering my life as a soon-to-be single mother, I was pretty surprised. Why would that Scripture, of all things, have popped into my head? I dismissed it immediately. Who knew that verse would end up being such a “God moment” that it would lead me in search of an annulment — as a Protestant!?
That Old Time Religion
I was raised in church as a child of the ’60s. It was a little Baptist church, several blocks from our home, and I remember clearly holding my big sister’s hand while we walked to Sunday school, with my older brother walking beside us. My mother would usually meet us for church an hour later, although daddy never did come. But as I got older, middle schoolish, I disliked going immensely. It seemed like the girls in our church were very cliquish, and I never felt welcome. I would beg my mom not to make me go. And eventually, she no longer did. Though as I grew into adulthood, those roots were still very much there.
When I was in my early twenties, my sister invited me to go with her to a new church she was attending. It was a small, spirit-filled Baptist church. I really liked the preacher and his wife. They were very down to earth, and his sermons were relatable. So, I attended occasional Sunday services. I also joined in on a couple of women’s meetings during the weekdays. Several months later, while two months pregnant with my first child, I was baptized at that church.
We visited a couple of other churches as well. This was the early ’80s, so spirit-filled churches and/or full-gospel churches were growing hugely in popularity. But, as it turned out, my attending church was no longer conducive to being married to an abusive, jealous husband. So, I decided it would be best to stop attending church altogether, for the time being.
Over the years, my three children would sometimes attend church with their friends. I would talk to them about Jesus, salvation, and prayer. Eventually, my children and I started attending a little Baptist church in the tiny East Texas town where we lived. But when both of my oldest children wanted to be baptized, the preacher refused, citing several reasons for postponement. He finally admitted that he didn’t want to baptize them until we joined their church. It seemed the main focus was on “joining the church,” growing the church. His priorities troubled me.
There are always some things we are taught in church that we can’t quite get our head around, but we are told to accept them on faith. Of course, that’s the very crux of following Christ: walking in faith. And I did it gladly, with my whole heart. But there were a few things I was taught in every Protestant church I attended that I had a hard time accepting. For instance, if we “asked but did not receive,” then clearly, we had committed some sin. Another was “we aren’t meant to suffer.” Seriously? Again, they taught that great sin brings on suffering, like some kind of spiritual precept.
While I always had a problem accepting these teachings and practices, the biggest issue of all was “once saved, always saved.” I adamantly refused to accept that. It did not make sense. But clearly my opinion was mine alone, because it was taught in every church I attended, and everyone I knew believed it and lived by it.
As I mentioned, I talked with my children a lot about Jesus when they were young, since it is our prime objective as a parent to help our children accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, and all that this entails. I found it extremely difficult when we would touch on the subject of “once you accept Jesus as your personal Savior, you are going to Heaven. Period. Nothing can ever take that grace away from you, nothing you could ever do can forfeit that privilege.”
Old Time Religion Gets Old
I really struggled with that. So much so that, one day, when my 14-year-old son broached the subject, I felt almost like I was betraying him with the usual answer.
“You mean all I have to do,” he began, “is invite Jesus into my heart, and mean it, then someday, years later, if I just decide to go out and do all kinds of terrible stuff, I’m still going to Heaven?” I was literally nodding yes, while inside my head was a silent chant of “That is ridiculous! It makes no sense!” And while it did feel wrong to continue to tell my children that, I was helpless to teach them anything different. It was all I had ever been taught — in every church, every revival, every church camp, even TV evangelists. Perhaps it was simply all the churches that I happened to attend, but I was unaware of any Christian faith that did not believe “once saved, always saved.” Little did I know.…
I had even heard different TV evangelists comment that if you are able to go out and sin again after accepting Christ into your heart, then you were never truly saved in the first place. That seems to imply that we will be perfect after accepting Christ and we are expected never to sin again! Knowing human weakness, that was completely unacceptable to me, as well. What about being Jesus to those in need, cultivating a strong prayer life, personal holiness, and forging and protecting an intimate relationship with Christ?
Eventually, my divorce proceeded, and I began to feel a massive weight slowly lifting from my shoulders as the finalization date drew near. According to the promise I had made to myself years earlier, my daughters and I began visiting different churches in the area. Once again, I was not very comfortable in them. The people were nice, but they really lacked warmth. We just needed to keep trying. We would find our church-fit eventually.
Then, as before, that same Scripture about divorce that had haunted me popped into my head. This was twice that the same Scripture came to me, and given the circumstance I was in, I definitely could not dismiss it as I had previously done.
The Verse That Changed the Course
Once again, Luke 16:18: “…and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” I had heard that verse spoken a few times in my life but had given it little thought. Nonetheless, whatever impression God wanted to make in me with that sudden spark of Scripture, it had worked.
After my divorce, I just wanted to be able to breathe. It had been many years of abuse, and the last thing I wanted to think about was getting married again. But somewhere, deep down inside, I knew one day I would. I wanted to experience the kind of marriage that God intended. I could only imagine a union so beautiful as that. There had to be a reason He had brought that Scripture to me, twice. I stressed over that incident for days, wanting to get it right. I even mentioned it to a couple of friends and family members, but not only did they insist that I was not interpreting it correctly, a couple of them seemed pretty offended that I had even brought it up.
My conclusion was that God’s plan for me was to never remarry. If that was God’s truth, drawn straight from Scripture, then I was glad to embrace it. For, through everything I had endured those past several years, Jesus accompanied me every step of the way. That was clear, and I was happy to sacrifice anything for Him.
Then, just as mysteriously as before, another word was now laid heavily upon me: annulment. Annul… what?? I didn’t understand the meaning of that word, and now it was suddenly right in my face. I had only heard it mentioned on TV, and if I remembered correctly, it was associated with “dissolving a marriage” (though, in reality, it means the Church determines a marriage never to have been a valid sacrament) and, most assuredly, associated with Catholics. Catholic was a word I had heard rarely while growing up, and I was fortunate to have never heard a harsh word toward Catholics or their beliefs. I even had a fascination with nuns in their habits, priests in their collars, all seen on TV, of course. Also, why were there special days marked on the calendar that, as my mother told me, were “holidays for other churches”? Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, First Sunday of Lent. Every time I filled out a hospital form, there was always a line that asked your religion — yet right under it was always another line asking, “Are You Catholic?” Weren’t we all supposed to be the same thing? The Catholic Church always seemed to be set apart from all other faiths and denominations. Why? I had always wondered.
So, suffice to say, I was definitely not anti-Catholic. But at the same time, other than the fascination with the collars and habits, I knew nothing about Catholicism, and the Catholic Church was nowhere on my radar.
By now I was really flying blind. The only thing I knew for certain was that I had to find out more about that word, “annulment.” I figured there was only one thing to do: talk to my dear friend who lived just down the road. The only Catholic I had ever known.
My friend, Nancy, was fully aware of the kind of marriage I had been in and was supportive of everything I was going through. She was almost giddy when I told her that I felt like God was putting the word “annulment” heavily on my heart. I asked her to shed some light on what that actually was. Later, I would learn she was so excited because she felt sure that, when I went seeking an annulment, my journey would almost surely lead me straight into the Catholic Church.
She and her husband traveled out of the country annually for their business, which was exactly where they were headed early the following morning, but she assured me we’d discuss annulments when she returned. I found that somewhat disappointing, because I was so anxious to find out about this “annulment” thing.
As always, when they went out of the country, I was to take care of their house, the plants, and the horses — though, according to Nancy, their new ranch hand, Ken, would be taking over the care of the horses for the winter. About one week after they left the country, I met Ken. He was Catholic and went to church with Nancy. He was the choir director there, but Ken was not just Catholic. He was excited to be Catholic! He talked about how he came into the church and about Catholicism — my new word — with exuberance. He was like a walking billboard for the Catholic faith. He was also charismatic, personable, and humorous. I wasn’t sure of most of what he was saying or any of those new Catholic terms.
During the month that followed, while my friend was out of the country, I saw Ken a couple of times a week, and we quickly became friends, both making it clear that we would only be friends. We helped each other with our various duties on Nancy’s ranch, and Ken continued to share about the Catholic Church.
Then, on the first Sunday of Nancy’s return, off we went to her Catholic church where, after Mass, she introduced me to the priest.
The priest and I immediately began to discuss annulments. He explained the process; possibly long and arduous, he warned. That was fine with me. There really wasn’t a question of Do I want to do this? Or Is this really necessary? I knew it was where God had led me. So, I certainly wasn’t going to question it. The priest also left me with the offer of perhaps attending a few RCIA classes, that I might better understand the Church’s reasoning behind an annulment.
RCIA, a Road Dotted With Grace
It would be several months before the next RCIA class began; several months of continuing to attend Mass with Nancy and still not understanding most of it, though Nancy walked me through it faithfully every Sunday, and of course, Ken stood at the front of the church directing the choir.
There was something about that little church nestled in the small town of Canton, Texas. Everyone I met was friendly, and I felt welcomed. But there was something else. Something I could feel. Something that was not at any other church where I had been. I suspected that maybe the Holy Spirit was just stronger in that church for some reason. Whatever it was, I was increasingly drawn to it.
During this time of awaiting RCIA class, Ken and I hung out more and more; from riding to church together to quick trips to Wal-Mart, and of course, to the theater, still keeping our friendship on a friends-only level; we were adamant about it. He said very little about the annulment I was seeking, even though he had gone through one himself.
By the time RCIA class started, my divorce was final and now I was going to learn all about annulments and the difference between a divorce and an annulment. But those simple classes would be anything but simple. Much to my shock, it turned out that everything else I was learning was absolutely jaw dropping. I was hearing answers. Answers!… to the many issues I had with certain Protestant things I’d been taught. Oh! to hear that we will suffer at times in our lives, but that we have the opportunity to offer it up and ask for it to be received by Jesus and used for the good of the Church and the whole world! Now this was a teaching that resonated, made sense, elevated suffering to an efficacious, redemptive, and profound offering of love. I would never view suffering the same way again. And, yes, I even learned of a solid rebuttal for “once saved, always saved” which, along with the enlightenment about suffering, aligned perfectly with Purgatory.
It was like hearing big wooden puzzle pieces suddenly dropping into place. I was so excited I could hardly sleep each night after class. I just wanted to share it with everyone. That’s when the glaring difference between Catholicism and Protestantism truly came to light for me. Unfortunately, the excitement I felt, the desire I had to share what I’d learned and to let everyone in on this huge discovery I had made — these things would be rejected by some. Protestant family and friends were not particularly interested in hearing all about my new journey. Except for my brother letting me know that he was not happy about my looking into Catholicism, everyone pretty much kept their opinions to themselves.
It would seem that, somewhere along the way, I was beginning to see myself in the Catholic Church. As with many converts, some of the things I questioned were praying to the saints, confession, and the Magisterium. I had absolutely no problem accepting the high honor of Mary, praying to her, or the Eucharist or even Purgatory. Especially Purgatory. That is something that made sense to me. While the words in the Bible, Old Testament pointing to the New Testament, were suddenly coming alive, the depth, truth, and beauty of the Eucharist and of Mary were also being confirmed in my spirit. I was seeing these things with fresh eyes, allowing myself to see them as the incredible love story that they truly are.
Over time, the Bible also made clear to me the workings of, and need for, the Magisterium. Eventually, too, I came to understand the huge role that the saints play in our lives every single day, coming to think of them as family. After all, even as Protestants, we never discounted the roles of the Archangels Gabriel or Michael. So why would we ever see the other saints in any lesser light? What a beautiful discovery!
Halfway into that RCIA year, I knew where I wanted to be. I knew where God was leading me. There was way too much truth and eye-opening discovery in this new word, Catholicism, to ignore. I was going to be Catholic.… I was home!
But also, barely halfway into the year, the teacher at that time was going through many health problems — on top of losing her husband — and as a result, she was out of class a lot. We had substitute teachers, cancelled classes, and later I would realize that a few important topics had been missed during that year.
The RCIA class in and of itself was amazing. I felt great love and comfort among my fellow converts and teachers. RCIA is a convert’s first glimpse into the Catholic faith, which makes it all the more compelling. The very first words our teacher spoke wer to explain who founded some of the various faith denominations: Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, etc. Then, when she said the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ himself, everything in my world shifted. The depths that the teachers go to in order to equip us with knowledge, with an armor of truth, knows no bounds. Not only was it evident that the teachers were eloquently led by the Holy Spirit, but the very presence of the Holy Spirit was overwhelming to me at times. I attend RCIA classes quite often to this day, and I am still always taken aback at how the teachers can take two thousand years steeped in rich history and profound glory and mold them into something that a simple layperson like me can actually grasp and understand.
On the Sunday that we were all to go to the Cathedral for the Rite of Acceptance, we candidates were in a little room, waiting for the moment when we would enter the Cathedral. I glanced at the table in front of me, and there were a couple of pamphlets there. Lone pamphlets, just sitting in the middle of the table. I couldn’t help but notice that the picture of the saint on the pamphlet was a little girl. Just as I reached for it we were called into the Cathedral, so I stuck the pamphlet into the black abyss of my purse.
Weeks passed, and at last it was Easter Vigil. I watched as the two people I had gone through RCIA class with came into full union with the Catholic Church. It was exciting to see, quite emotional.
At last, after waiting almost eighteen months for my annulment to be finalized, the Sunday came when I was to be confirmed into the Church. I was beyond excited about being able to receive the Eucharist for the first time. As I stood at the doorway of the nave, about to proceed down the aisle behind the priest, one of the deacons asked for the name of my patron Saint, as they write it on a sticker and put it on your chest.
“My what?” I asked, with the deer-in-the-headlights look on my face.
“Your patron Saint. What is the name of your patron Saint?”
I said earlier that a few things had been completely omitted in my RCIA class due to the unforeseen confusion of the stop-gap teaching during our instructor’s difficult year and many crises. So here I was, just staring at the deacon, not knowing what to say. Finally, I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about. He then gave me a quick 30-second tutorial on the subject.
“Do you not know about any saints at all?”
I stood shaking my head No… then remembered the little pamphlet I had grabbed off the table at the Rite of Acceptance. A pamphlet I had never even looked at afterwards.
I said, “Well, I have heard of one saint. A little girl. She had a very odd last name. But I don’t know anything about her.”
The deacon smiled and asked me, “Was it Maria Goretti?”
“Yes,” I nodded. “I think that was it.”
“Do you want her to be your patron Saint?”
I nodded. Who else would I choose? I knew of no one else.
He quickly wrote down her name, I slapped it on my shirt, and down the aisle we went.
I was confirmed. I received the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of my Savior for the first time. At that moment, I knew I would never regret seeking that annulment and finding the Catholic Church; I also knew I would never be the same.
No Longer Saintless
Several weeks later, I thought about that Sunday I stood at that doorway, saintless. Then it occurred to me that I had not yet read about the little girl saint. My patron Saint. I thought I might want to find out about her. So, I pulled out the pitiful pamphlet (now dogeared from its mileage in my purse) and read it. Tears filled my eyes in an instant. Her story was exactly what I needed. The tears tumbled. Once again, I was completely overwhelmed by my Jesus and His all-encompassing love for me.
Maria Goretti is a saint of abused people.
I know beyond a shadow of any doubt that every single unexplainable moment and circumstance during that time of my life, from the Scripture laid on my heart all the way to the pamphlet with the little girl’s picture on it, and all the moments in between, were beautifully and perfectly orchestrated by my Jesus.
God meant for me to find the Catholic Church.… I believe it always has been His will.
And a happy sidenote: the ranch hand/choir director, Ken, and I have been happily married for 17 years.