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Agnostic Finds a Maronite Home

William McInnes
May 4, 2023 No Comments

I grew up in the Northern Beaches area of Sydney, Australia, a picturesque area of the city. Our family never went to church. We tried once, out of curiosity, when I was 10 years old, but decided it was not for us, and we never went back.

My parents had both been baptised as children, but the faith never stuck. My father, Steve, had been baptised Anglican, more out of tradition than a genuine dedication to the faith.

My mother, Anne, had been baptised in secret by her deeply Catholic mother, who knew a Catholic baptism wouldn’t be acceptable to her husband’s Anglican family. Unfortunately, my mother’s father would pass away when she was just eight years old, leaving her with a sense of shame over how religion had divided her family, and she had remained aloof.

This is the context into which I was born in 1995. Despite my maternal grandmother being a faithful Catholic, she rarely talked about it and never attempted to evangelize me or my twin sister, Alex. She would go to church every week, make blankets for the poor, and donate, but we never saw this as anything other than what grandma did.

Once Upon a Time…

My first real experience of Christianity came in kindergarten at the local state public school, during Scripture class. Since the start of public schooling in New South Wales, “special religious education,” or “Scripture class,” had been an integral part of the curriculum, allowing various faith groups to present a lesson each week for students in state schools.

It was during these lessons that I first learned the stories of Jesus, Moses, Noah and many other biblical characters. At the time, they didn’t feel like much more than stories. I was five years old, still believing in Santa and the Easter Bunny, and Jesus was just another fantasy character.

In 2005, when I was nine, my parents informed us that we were leaving Sydney to move to Norfolk Island, a tiny island in the middle of the South Pacific, about halfway between Australia and New Zealand, where my dad had a new job.

While the move was disruptive, it ended up being a wonderful experience for our whole family. It was also where the first seeds of my faith would be planted. Just like the public school back in Sydney, we had Scripture classes on Norfolk Island. My Scripture teacher on Norfolk Island was a young man named Mark.

Unlike my other teachers, who had talked about God and Jesus as far-off entities or mystical characters, Mark talked about God as if he were his own Father and Jesus as if he were a friend he caught up with on the weekends. It was the first time I had ever heard someone talk about the faith in this way and the first time I had heard anyone so young talk about Christianity. While it was hardly my moment of conversion, it planted a seed of faith in my heart and mind.

Spares, Strikes and God

We returned to Sydney in 2008 for me to start high school. I went to the local non-denominational Christian high school. My education was deeply infused with the faith. Every teacher at the school was a practicing Christian, we had Christian studies at least once a week, and every second week, we had an assembly dedicated to learning more about the faith. The seed that had been planted earlier by my Scripture teachers was now being watered, and the first shoots began to sprout.

In school year seven, one teacher organized a boys’ group which would go out on Friday evenings to a youth gathering at a local church. We would go ten-pin bowling, get dinner, and then go to the local church, infused with loud music, energetic youth pastors, and a strong crowd of enthusiastic teenagers.

Many of these churches encouraged people to come forward and give their lives to Jesus Christ, saying the so-called Sinner’s Prayer. Even as a 13-year-old, I felt slightly uncomfortable with that, knowing the ease with which people had declared their love for Jesus meant they would probably just as easily fall away.

It wasn’t enough to deter me completely, however, and I began going to a local Pentecostal/Charismatic Evangelical church on Friday nights.

I went there on and off over the next few years, relishing the upbeat music and free sausage sizzle dinners on offer. If someone had asked me at this point if I was a Christian, I probably would have said I was. While I was hardly practicing, I had a feeling of the truth of Christ and God. In my final year of high school, I helped lead a boys’ Bible study for year seven students, but already, my faith was starting to run dry.

Halfway through the year, amid the final weeks of rehearsals for the school musical, in which I was playing the lead, I had my first kiss and began dating my first girlfriend. Within weeks, what had started as an innocent first kiss on the oval had escalated, and two months later, she was telling me she was ready to have sex if I was ready.

Something deep within me knew that I just couldn’t take that next step. By the grace of God, I turned her down and broke up with her. But while something had stirred in my heart, it wasn’t enough to stop me from pursuing the pleasures in life. Shortly after turning 18, at the end of my final year of high school, I was off drinking and dating. The seal had been broken. But within a few short months, my heart would be stirred once more.

After visiting my sister, who was studying in Bathurst, a large regional town west of Sydney, I spent the night with a girl I had only met earlier that day. While once again, I managed to avoid losing my virginity, we had been intimate. The next day, I had no desire to speak to her or see her again. Despite this, I knew I had done something intensely wrong and that I wasn’t liking the person I had become. I knew it was wrong to act in such a transactional way with a young woman. The experience left a scar on my heart.

First Great Losses

Towards the end of that same year, as I was finishing my second semester at university, both my two remaining grandparents passed away. While their deaths were far from sudden, the passing of my mum’s mum and my dad’s dad had rocked our family.

Suddenly, my sister and I were without grandparents, and my parents were facing an even more tremendous loss, with the passing of their own parents. The rock that I had always built my life upon was my family. Up until that point, it had been a strong base for my life, supported by the loving union of my parents and the love within our family. My parents, dealing with their own awful loss, were not able to support me through my grief. It left me with little else to do but retreat into myself and, for the first time in more than a year, pray.

I can’t remember what I prayed or how often I prayed through that period, but that prayer was enough to get me through. I turned to God as a son would turn to his father, and I found the comfort and support I needed. I didn’t see it at the time, but God’s plan for my life was unfolding. With my heart newly open to God and prayer, He had started working.

A few months after the death of my grandparents, at the start of my second year of university in 2015, I transferred into a new course: journalism.

Friendship and Fellowship Can Change Us

I had managed to get high enough marks to allow me to transfer into the journalism course and even begin a second degree, called a Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation (BCII).

Just a week or two after classes resumed, the BCII course had an orientation session. While I was entering my second year of university, most students attending the session had yet to start university, and many were nervous. Towards the end of the orientation event, we were asked to form small groups for an upcoming assessment task. Sitting in the back of the room, I had introduced myself to a young man next to me. We decided to team up and set about finding other members for our group. Behind me was a young woman with dark hair, who had her face buried in her phone. I politely introduced myself and asked if she wanted to be in our group, to which she shyly responded, “Sure.”

She introduced herself as Sheryl. Little did I know, I had just met the person who would later be my baptismal sponsor. God’s divine plan was truly at work that day, and I hate to ponder where my life would have gone if I hadn’t met Sheryl. She and I quickly became good friends. It turns out she, too, was studying journalism, along with her best friend Bridget. I helped guide her through the ins and outs of university that I had learned in my first year, and we’d talk about assignments, lectures, and tutors.

Within weeks, we were talking daily, and the questions about university quickly turned into questions about life and faith. I learned that she was a Maronite Catholic, a term I had never come across before.

I began to learn about Catholicism, something I hadn’t really encountered up until that point… learning about the Rosary, the devotions, the prayers, the beliefs, the way of life. While I hardly had a desire to become Catholic, Sheryl’s strong spiritual influence was rubbing off on me, and I had a desire to go more deeply into my Christian faith.

Just a few months after meeting Sheryl, I went on a mission trip to Rwanda for the second time with my old high school, where I was working part-time in the IT department. I had made this trip before, as a 16-year-old, but this time I travelled as chaperone to the students.

The trip had been life changing as a 16-year-old in forming a world view of my privilege and blessings in life, but the second time around, it ignited my desire to go deeper with my faith. While the first trip was marked by memories of places and people, the second trip elevated my thoughts to the church services we went to and the prayers we shared.

However, the trip also meant I was unable to complete the BCII degree. But I had already gleaned all I needed out of the course: I had met Sheryl. Over the next few months, towards the end of 2015, our friendship grew stronger and stronger. We would hang out after university and on weekends, making the trip across Sydney to visit and spend time with each other.

She saw the inklings of my faith and began to encourage it even more. We would visit grottos and churches, praying together. Following a trip to the Holy Land in 2016, Sheryl’s friend, Bridget, had brought me back a rosary and books about the faith for me to read. While the culture and spirituality of the Maronites was becoming attractive, the Catholic Church as a whole still wasn’t.

I had just started going regularly, with a colleague from work, to an Anglican church service for the first time. While the colleague had grown up in Lebanon as a Maronite Catholic, she had liberalized in her faith and was now a firm Protestant.

That church wasn’t for me, though, and I found myself developing very little connection to it, even after attending for several weeks. I ultimately had no drive to attend and so stopped going altogether.

A year or two after I met Sheryl, I confronted my first big problem with the Catholic Church. Australia was going through a Marriage Law Postal Survey, a national survey designed to gauge support for legalizing same-sex marriage in Australia. While the survey was voluntary and non-binding, it was seen as a referendum which would guide an inevitable vote in parliament.

With gay friends and relatives, I didn’t think twice about voting to allow same-sex couples to marry. In fact, I didn’t know how anyone could possibly vote No to the legislation, so I was shocked to find my Catholic friends, whom I knew as loving and caring people, would vote against the rights of people to “marry as they choose.”

While I was happy to see the vote eventually pass parliament and be legalised, I was already beginning to question my position. I had developed an openness to the Catholic position on people with same-sex attraction and began to throw myself into the theology behind it. I was pleasantly surprised to find a dignified and respectful understanding of same-sex attraction. Not only did the Church honor the dignity of every person faced with this struggle, but it also recognized the attraction as not just being a choice. It didn’t define people by their sexuality, but honored them as first and foremost being a child of God, worthy of God’s and our love. The consistency with which the Catholic Church approached sex, marriage, celibacy and relationships would eventually win me over, and although it would take some years, I eventually came to understand the sacredness of marriage and regretted ever voting as I had.

Growing Up and Growing Within

At the start of 2017, as I entered my final year of university, I got an internship at The Sydney Morning Herald, one of the largest newspapers in the country. Following the internship, I started working as a breaking news reporter for the publication — a dream I could never have hoped to see actualized so soon.

It was also in the middle of that year that I would go to my first Mass at Our Lady of Lebanon Co-Cathedral in Harris Park.

During their feast week celebrations at Our Lady of Lebanon in the middle of August 2017, a friend invited me to a barbecue at the church on Saturday night. I decided to go along, not knowing what I was letting myself in for. Thousands of people were packed into the car park of the church, with food, music, and activities. Wow!

I enjoyed myself immensely, and when my friend messaged me on Sunday morning, asking if I’d like to go to the Sunday night festivities, too, I accepted. As part of the invitation, he asked if I would also like to go to Mass beforehand. Despite some reservations, I said Yes.

I remember very little about the Mass, other than being intensely overwhelmed. I was sitting next to my friend, Elie, in the middle of a packed church. The hymns were sometimes in Arabic, sometimes in Syriac or Aramaic. We would sit, we would stand, we would sit again. It was confusing; I didn’t know what was going on. But I knew there was something special about it and wanted to go again.

Still, it was hard for me to exercise this desire. I had no draw to a Roman Catholic church, and the closest Maronite church was close to an hour’s drive away from home.

Despite my desire to explore this faith a bit more, I entered into a dry period while I worked on my career. I got a full-time job at The Australian Financial Review as a markets reporter, but all the while, I was growing in my friendship with my Maronite friends and starting to distance myself from some others. I was still praying with friends at churches and grottos, but that was about it.

Towards the end of 2018, at the end of my first year of full-time work, I began to feel the tug again. One of my Maronite friends, Selina, invited me to join her for Mass one day at her church in the Hills area of Sydney. At that time, I hadn’t been to another Mass since that first Mass 18 months prior.

On February 17, 2019, I attended Christ the Redeemer Maronite Parish. I can’t remember much about the liturgy or the homily, but I remember feeling I was in the right place. I was welcome here, and unlike many churches of other denominations, I felt the people’s reverence. This wasn’t a place where people were coming to socialize, to listen to music or dance. This was a place where they were coming to pray, worship and spend time with God.

The priest, Monsignor Shora Maree, who was so beautifully reverent during the liturgy, delivered a powerful homily. I felt God was calling me to this parish.

I was still living with my parents at the time and hadn’t told them where I was going. I’d say I was going to hang out with Selina. I wasn’t necessarily afraid of their reaction, but I knew there would be questions that I didn’t want to answer.

Throughout 2019, I attended Mass almost every week. I began ushering and would help the youth with their events. But when everyone got to go up to receive Christ, I would remain behind.

I knew I was in the right place, but something was still holding me back from committing to baptism. Throughout 2020, I prayed for guidance. Despite the Maronite Church being my only real connection to the Catholic Church, I still didn’t know if I could be Maronite. But at the end of 2020, through prayer and the guidance of God, I decided to be baptized.

Once I made that decision, I threw myself into the life of the Church, fasting during Lent, doing the Stations of the Cross, and attending weekday Masses on certain feast days.

Far from being completely sold on every doctrine, there were still a few that bothered me. I didn’t like the idea of praying to saints, something I’d never done. While I didn’t completely object to the idea, I thought it was bizarre that anyone would use someone else as an intercessor between himself and God.

That all changed on March 23, 2021, as I was drafting a post for social media about Saint Rafqa. She was a Maronite nun who had endured great pain during her life, but always considered it an opportunity to share in Jesus’ Passion. I was so moved by her story that I decided to attend Mass for her feast day.

Sitting in the pews before Mass, looking at the beautiful image of Saint Rafqa placed below the lectern, I decided to pray for her intercession, asking that I be able to share in the same love for God that she had clearly displayed.

In that moment, I realized the beauty of prayer to the saints. In the Epistle of James, we’re told “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:16). I had prayed knowing that, if St. Rafqa could hear my prayer, she would surely elevate that prayer to God through her righteousness.

While, even a year after being baptized, I don’t regularly pray for the intercession of saints, I have come to understand the beauty of offering up our prayers for the intercession of the righteous people who have gone before us.

It would take me longer to accept the Church’s doctrines on the Blessed Virgin Mary, and I would only reach a point of comfort on Mariology after being baptized.

Unlike in the Latin Rite, where people are usually received into the Church at Easter, there isn’t as much structure in the Maronite Church. I was told to do the Alpha course at a neighbouring parish and do a 20-week course to learn about the Maronite faith.

During this time, I was overwhelmed by the support of all the youth at Christ the Redeemer and my other Maronite friends. I began to meet more Maronites, who were excited by my journey and supported me through my entry into the Church. But I was just about to be dealt a hard blow during my catechumen year, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Australia had largely managed to avoid lockdowns in early 2020, aside from some restrictions on small gatherings through the first few months of 2020, when pandemic began. But in the middle of 2021, New South Wales entered a total lockdown. Churches were closed, no one could visit anyone, and in some suburbs, leaving home wasn’t allowed.

At this time, I was living by myself in a one bedroom apartment, trying to complete my formation. My introductory course to the Maronite faith was forced to go online, and I completely lost physical contact with my Maronite friends.

I did what I could, doing online Bible studies and watching Mass online by myself in my living room. I turned my television unit into a small altar with candles and religious figures.

My baptism date had been set at October 30, but as that date got closer, it looked like it would have to be postponed. I was devastated by the possibility. Would I get baptized privately? Would it be postpone indefinitely?

But God’s plan was in action. Two weeks before my baptism, the lockdowns came to an end, and despite some restrictions, I was able to be baptized in the presence of 70 of my closest friends and immediate family.

Finding My Home

On October 30, 2021, I was received into the Maronite Catholic Church. Sheryl, who had been unwavering in her support and guidance during my formation, was my sponsor. Our friend Bridget engaged a photographer, and I celebrated with people I hadn’t seen face to face in months. My mum, dad, and sister had tears in their eyes throughout the whole ceremony.

I received the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, and a day later, received my first Holy Communion. Monsignor Shora, the man who had inspired me so deeply in my faith journey and been a constant guide, presided over all three sacraments. At the conclusion of my first Mass and First Holy Communion, he announced to the congregation that I’d been baptized the day before, and the whole congregation broke into rapturous applause.

While I had been warned that baptism wouldn’t magically fix all the problems in my life, the graces I received from it were clear. I felt more clarity in my life than I’d had before, and truly felt the presence of the Paraclete guiding.

In early 2022, just a few months after my baptism, I had my biggest theological breakthrough. My baptism had meant accepting the teachings, doctrines, and authority of the Catholic Church, but that didn’t mean I fully understood everything, particularly when it came to Mary.

An avid listener of Catholic Answers and The Journey Home, I was inspired by the journey of Tim Staples, someone who had shared many of my concerns about Mariology, only to eventually become one of her most passionate defenders. In his responses, he had recommended his book Behold Your Mother: A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines. During a Lenten youth retreat, I read the book, consuming it in its entirety in just two nights. Along with prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, I made the breakthrough I needed on Mary, and now see the immense beauty in Mariology and of her role as the Mother of God. It has given the Rosary, which I had previously prayed with a sense of emptiness, a whole new meaning and depth.

Heading into the Easter period of 2022, I decided to quit my job in journalism after finding a media and communications role at the Diocese of Broken Bay in Sydney. While I had not been set on working for the Church following my baptism, I felt God was calling me to his vineyard and to be his worker. I know there is an abundance of grace and mercy waiting for me every time I come to God.

I cannot thank Him enough for the grace he has put in my life. Following His call to the Church, then to baptism, and now to be His worker, I have found peace and love like never before.

Acutely aware of just how blessed I have been, following God’s call in my life, I’m now discerning where he wants me to go next, whether that be towards the vocation of marriage or a vocation dedicated entirely to his service in the priesthood.

William McInnes

William McInnes is a Senior Mission & Media Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Broken Bay, promoting the work of the Diocese within Catholic, Christian and secular communities through media. He was formerly a journalist for The Australian Financial Review and The Sydney Morning Herald, two of the largest newspapers in Australia.

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