In June 1990, having been accepted by an independent mission agency, and with the blessing of our pastor and members of our independent charismatic church, we sold our furniture, gave away our pets, packed our few remaining possessions, and moved to Antigua, Guatemala to study Spanish.
We felt God was calling us to serve in a more radical way, and serving as missionaries seemed the best way for our four children, ages seven to twelve, to see Christianity in action.
In language school, we encountered Dick and Mo Herman, the founders of a Catholic apostolate called Seguidores de la Cruz (Servants of the Cross). The Hermans had nine children, and with them were four single young adults who were prayerfully discerning whether God was calling them to marriage or to be priests or religious. They invited our family to a Lord’s Day celebration, a family ritual meal in which we, as non-Catholics, could fully participate. I was especially moved by the way they honored one another, praising some virtue they had seen in one of their children or another community member.
The Hermans welcomed us as peers. They lived simply, attended daily Mass, and their children seemed to be thriving. We admired them, sensing they had something we lacked. We acknowledged this to each other, saying, “they’re realmissionaries.”
Toward the end of our three months in language school, schools and streets in Antigua were closed for a solemn procession. Families solemnly processed, carrying the bones of Blessed Peter Betancourt, a Franciscan friar known locally as Hermano Pedro. His bones rested on red velvet pillows in a glass case atop a weighty wooden platform carried on the shoulders of about a dozen men. Thick incense wafted through the air, and women sang hymns while men beat drums or blew horns.
The sight of hundreds of Catholics venerating a dead man’s bones disturbed me. It seemed that a childlike humility and reverence in the Guatemalan people was being exploited by the Catholic Church. Didn’t veneration of saints detract from honoring Jesus? At the time, I didn’t know that it was only because Hermano Pedro had lived his life in such close union with Christ that he was honored as a saint. I knew nothing of the painstaking collection of data and verifiable evidence of miracles before the Church canonizes someone.
When I saw the joy evident in the faces of our new friends, the Hermans, I could not make sense of how they, whose love for Jesus was undeniable, could also pray to saints. I asked Dick Herman about it. “I know you’re a true Christian, in love with Jesus and filled with the Holy Spirit. Why isn’t Jesus enough? How can you justify praying to Mary and the saints?”
Dick answered, “I’ve studied the teachings of my Church, and I’m at peace with what I believe. I’m convinced that honoring Mary and the saints is right and good. I could try to explain all the reasons, but I’m not sure you’re ready to hear it. Mo and I value our friendship with you and Doug. I don’t want this difference to become an obstacle in our relationship with you. We have more in common than the things that divide us, so is it alright with you if we just focus on the things we share in common?” His answer demonstrated his love and respect for us. I set aside my questions because I valued their friendship, too. After language school, we parted ways, keeping in touch via our mission newsletters and promising to pray for one another.
An Unexpected Gift of Life
In the earliest days of our relationship, Doug and I discussed how many children we’d have. I wanted six; Doug was thinking two. We decided to compromise on four. Five and a half years into our marriage and two weeks before the birth of our fourth child, we took the advice of our friends and family and chose sterilization to limit the size of our family. Doug was twenty-nine and I was twenty-six. Less than two years later I regretted our decision. I buried my regrets for years, along with my desire for another baby, but the aching resurfaced with each monthly cycle, and I privately wept at the loss of our fertility. I knew couples who were infertile, while we had four healthy children. It wasn’t a grief I could share.
In November of 1991, our mission agency joined with another small organization from Florida to host a team of doctors and nurses to provide short term medical clinics in and near Nebaj. Our daughter Cana and I would serve as English-to-Spanish translators for the team. We collaborated with Guatemalan volunteers who could translate from Spanish to Mayan Ixil.
At dinner the first evening, someone asked if Cana and I had seen the babies at the malnutrition center. We had seen toddlers playing in the courtyard, but not any infants. Cana, twelve years old, was naturally excited to see them. We left the table and hurried together to a cold, dark room where crude wooden cribs held two baby girls nestled in coarse blankets. One baby was emaciated and passive; the other was chubby, alert, and responsive to our voices. When a caregiver stopped by, we bombarded her with questions.
“What are their names? How old are they? How long have they been here? This one doesn’t look malnourished, why is she here?”
The healthy baby girl’s name was Juanita. She was about three weeks old, and her mother had died just four days before our arrival. Her father had brought her to the center because he had nothing to feed her. He was supposed to return in about two weeks.
“Oh, Mama, let’s take her home … pleeeaase!”
Cana’s pleading was echoed by the inward yearning I felt. But I tried to be a good example for my daughter by the way I prayed, asking God to take care of Juanita’s needs, acknowledging that God knew her future even before she was born, and adding, “If you want us to be a part of her future, we say ‘yes.’”
The next morning, the team tried to cram too many volunteers into the available jeep for a trip to the neighboring village of Chajul. There was simply not enough room, so I was assigned by the team leader to make intercessory prayer. Reluctantly, I went to the designated room and began to pray.
After lunch, I received a message from one of the infant caregivers.
“The baby’s father is asking for you. He heard that you were asking questions about his baby, and he wants to talk to you.”
She led me to a room with a small desk and a few chairs. Waiting for us was Tomás Guzaro, a local pastor, community leader, and our team’s main contact in the village. Juan Brito Velasco, the baby’s father, was with him. Tomás explained that Juan Brito had been looking for a family member who could care for his daughter, someone who could feed her. He had asked several relatives, thinking perhaps a nursing niece or cousin might be willing to help him, but each barely had enough milk for her own child. Some were supplementing with a mixture of powdered oats and boiled water. None could afford expensive formula.
Because I had shown an interest in his baby, Juan Brito wondered if I would take her to live with our family for a year. Could we care for her temporarily? When she was older, her grandmother or another relative could take over.
I asked Tomás if he thought Juan Brito would allow me to adopt his daughter permanently. Such a question, he scolded, was entirely inappropriate, when the baby’s father was still grieving the death of his wife. He wouldn’t translate my question.
I breathed a prayer, and the choice before me became clear. I had heard that fifty percent of children born in the area didn’t survive past two years. Without a mother, Juanita’s odds were even worse. Would I choose to protect my own heart or her life?
The next couple of nights, I lay awake wondering how Doug would respond. I wished I could talk to him, but this was before cell phones, and I could only pray.
As soon as I reunited with Doug, I put the baby in a friend’s arms and ran to tell him what I’d done. He later told me that in the seconds that passed between “I have something to tell you” and “I brought home a baby,” the thought that flashed through his mind was “what, you’re pregnant?”
He didn’t wait for me to finish the speech I’d rehearsed.
“Well, where is she? I want to see her!”
When he held her and looked into her eyes, I recognized the same look of wonder on his face I’d seen when he first held our children as newborns. That settled it.
Eight months later, a missionary friend called to say that Juan Brito was on his way to our house “to take his baby back to the mountains.”
He and Tomás, who came to serve as translator, were about ten minutes away, we were told. We gathered the children to pray. Prayer and song brought me peace. But then my mind raced with thoughts of what I ought to send on the bus with Juan Brito. Would Juanita’s pacifier be a comfort or a health hazard? How much could he carry with him? Who would hold her and sing her lullabies?
To calm my growing panic, I recalled a Bible verse I had memorized: “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God which transcends all human understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7 NABRE).
While he was still on our doorstep, I placed Juanita into her birth father’s arms. Immediately, a supernatural peace enveloped me. I saw the love in his eyes as he held her, his tears welling up, but not quite spilling over. Was that relief and a hint of pride that she was alert and healthy? Juanita studied her father’s face, curious, with no fear. After a little while, she reached for me. Smiling, he let her come back into my arms.
After a quiet meal, Doug asked Tomás to translate for Juan Brito our request for permission to adopt his daughter permanently.
Juan Brito’s habit of pondering in silence before speaking produced long pauses after each question and answer.
“Will you buy food for her?”
“Will you buy clothes and shoes for her?”
“Will you send her to school?”
“The same school you send your other children to?”
“Will you teach her about Jesus?”
Tomás served as translator between Juan Brito’s Ixil and our limited Spanish. He turned toward me and reported, “Juan Brito wants me to tell you, ‘I came to take my daughter back to the mountains to live with her grandmother, but I cannot take her from the arms of her mother.’”
We discovered the Ixil name for Juana is Xhiv, so decided to call her Xhiv Catarina.
Caring for a newborn refocused me on the needs of all my children. In retrospect, it’s clear that our openness to new life in our family opened the door to new life in the spiritual realm.
The Grace to Question
My decision to devote more time to our family distanced me from others in our mission agency, but my new neighbor, Kris Franklin, was supportive, and our friendship quickly grew. We talked about everything, including our misgivings about the missionary subculture in Guatemala. Her husband, Marty, taught at the missionary kids’ school that our children attended.
She shared, and we discussed, Tom Howard’s Evangelical Is Not Enough, which opened my mind to the idea that liturgy and ritual meet universal human needs.
A couple of years later, a missionary friend traveled back to the States and asked us to store his small theological library. Doug was interested in how they “did church” in the early days. He was especially intrigued by a volume by J.B. Lightfoot called The Apostolic Fathers.
Around this time, I dreamt that I had moved to a house near a desert mountain. In my dream, I was certain that if I rearranged the furniture so as to have a good view of the mountain, it would bring me closer to God. The following morning, I described the dream in a letter to Kris Franklin, who had since moved back to Minnesota. I was sure the dream was connected to my longing for home. I confided to Kris, “I don’t even know what ‘home’ means any more.”
My letter to Kris crossed in the mail with one she sent me. She and Marty, along with their two children, had become Catholic. More than once she referred to their experience as “coming home.” She also sent the book Surprised by Truth: Eleven Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic.
Doug and I both read the book straight through. Here is part of my response as recorded in a journal entry for September 10, 1995:
My mind is suddenly open, curious, and alive …. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about this at all before …. I don’t know what happened. It’s as if my mind has been let out of a cage. And I don’t ever want to go back! Teach me your ways. I want to walk in your path. Give me an undivided heart that I might fear your name (Psalm 86:11).
The next day, our Catholic neighbor Rosa Maria, who had heard that I was sick, brought into my bedroom a vase filled with three dozen crimson roses.
The fragrance and beauty of the roses inspired me to meditate on their beauty as a form of prayer — a novel concept to me. What was that prayer, I wondered, that
Mary prayed when she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth? I found it in my Bible and whispered the words of the Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke.
When I finished, I added, “Thank you, Mary, for giving us that beautiful prayer.”
A flash of panic followed. Had I offended God? But peace prevailed, and a conviction that I had crossed an invisible line and would not go back.
My hunger for Scripture grew. I read Paul’s admonition in Philippians to think about what is good, lovely, and pure, and wrote:
We’re to think of Jesus and His Church and the saints and the hope to which we’ve been called. Paul implies that we’re to dwell on the teaching of the Apostles and practice it. Would that be the teaching of the Church? How different the Bible seems when I read it now! My mind is being changed — transformed without my doing anything. Thank you, Father, for your loving care and guidance. I will trust in you. January 1, 1996.
This new way of thinking affected everything. For women’s Bible study, I led a course called Experiencing God. The driving principle of the study was that Christians should find out where God is already at work and join Him. We had come to a Catholic country as missionaries and never asked what God might already be doing in and through the Catholic Church in Guatemala. Was God at work in the Catholic parishes in Antigua? How many active youth groups, faith communities, and religious orders had we ignored during the past five years?
The “big C” was the term we used for all things Catholic, and the “big C” was never far from my mind, as seen in this journal entry.
Doug told [a friend] this morning that “probably within a year we will be in the Catholic Church.” I am astonished to hear Doug speak it. I know it’s true, and I also find it scary. We are being drawn to the Catholic Church. There’s no denying it. What draws me most of all is Jesus Christ and His Presence in the Eucharist. I long to experience this sacrament, to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. March 19, 1996.
The Journey Home
In late April, we learned that our church in Arizona could no longer afford to support our family, so we planned to finish out the school year and leave Guatemala at the end of May. Vehicle repairs and travel documentation required by Guatemala and Mexico delayed us repeatedly until, on June 12th, our twentieth wedding anniversary, we received permission to travel through Mexico. But hours later we were stalled again.
Word came that guerrilla soldiers were blocking all traffic a few miles ahead. We had no choice but to wait it out. The interior of the vehicle was hot and muggy. Xhiv, now four years old, climbed up with me atop the vehicle. Just after sundown, a group wearing colorful masks danced and sang in celebration of a local festival. Xhiv signaled her fear by her tight, immovable grip on my fingers. After the masked dancers passed, she relaxed, and we gazed up at the stars. The sky’s spectacular beauty refreshed me, diminishing the day’s difficulties. God would not abandon us, I knew, no matter what the future held. I sang a version of the eighth Psalm.
When I stopped singing, Xhiv squeezed my hand, “again, mommy.” I sang until she dozed, then traded places with Doug.
Unable to sleep, I wrote:
It’s about 1:30 am, June 13th. We’ve been sitting here at this Pemex gasoline station for about six hours. The “Zapatistas” are still blocking the road ahead, and nobody seems to have any idea when they might allow traffic to pass again. There are hundreds of cars and trucks stopped on this side of the roadblock. We are all so weary ….
That evening, we stayed at a motel. Never had showers and clean sheets been so welcome!
On our journey’s next leg, a policeman tried to convince Doug that the law required flashing lights on the trailer. Doug called his bluff, and he let us go without a bribe.
We had mechanical problems a hundred miles south of the Reynosa border. Then we faced a two-hour delay involving drug police and more government paperwork.
When I saw the lights of Reynosa where we were headed for the night, hopeful expectation grew in me. Then, Doug groaned as I heard the repetitive thud of a flat tire. We pulled into a ranchito. Doug had seen a fire burning and sought permission to park our trailer while we looked for a spare.
Our headlights shone on a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe. We had passed Marian images throughout Mexico, but this one captured my attention. The Hermans, our Catholic friends from language school, lived in Reynosa and had invited us to spend the night. Too numb and weary to pray, I asked Mary to pray for us. A few minutes later, Doug returned with the best possible news. He had acquired both a 15-inch tire and an air compressor.
At midnight, the Hermans greeted us, providing showers, listening hearts, and a bottle of red wine. We slept soundly, and before we left, our friends gave us sound advice for crossing the border. Stateside at last, we made our way to Arizona.
Though we had promised not to rush into anything, we couldn’t settle into a church community leaving the question of Catholicism unanswered.
Kris Franklin had been in touch with the Coming Home Network and with well-known convert Tom Howard, who knew a family that had converted to Catholicism about a year before. Gary and Gayle Somers had recently moved to Arizona from Massachusetts. They suggested we meet with their priest. He welcomed us, asking if we had any questions about the Church’s teachings.
I admitted I struggled with some doctrines about Mary, and he said, “I can see that you really love our Lord Jesus. Why not ask Him to introduce you to His Mother?”
His unexpected answer pointed me back to Jesus and helped me see that Jesus was not in competition with His mother.
Doug and I loved the Mass, but parish life was a culture shock.
There were no greeters and no pew cards for visitors. How could we get to know people? Parishioners came to Mass and hurried away immediately, as if they had more important things to do.
The first night of Family RCIA, we wandered around campus looking for, according to the parish bulletin, the Activity Center. There was no sign or map to guide us. We finally stumbled upon the class already in progress. After attending for a few weeks, our teens protests increased, and we promised we’d bring their objections to the priest. We did, and our priest agreed to receive into the Church any family members who were ready on Gaudete Sunday (the third Sunday of Advent), December 1996.
I expected to be most stirred by receiving Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine at Communion, instead I was most vividly impacted by this prayer from the Rite of Confirmation:
Send your Holy Spirit upon her to be her helper and guide. Give her the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence. Fill her with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.
It seemed I had been waiting to hear these words since the day of my baptism nearly thirty years earlier. Now they washed over me like a strengthening healing balm.
That first evening at RCIA, a couple we had never met before invited us and six other couples to their home to celebrate with good food and wine.
Our thirst for learning the Catholic faith and putting it into practice continued to grow. Within four years, Doug entered diaconate formation and was ordained in 2004. Earning a master’s degree in theology, I now serve as Director of Religious Education at an urban, mostly Hispanic parish. On weekends, I accompany my husband as he forms deacons for the Diocese of Phoenix.
Catholic teaching on marriage and family life brought necessary healing to our marriage. In retrospect, we see how our decision to end our fertility negatively impacted our relationship. We had come to accept the way things were between us, but when we understood the gravity of what we had done and how we had robbed each other, we were deeply contrite. It was not a decision that could be reversed, but at the advice of a wise priest, we began to practice abstinence in our relationship for seven days each month, both as a form of penance and in solidarity with other couples who practice natural family planning. Abstinence within marriage has been healing for us, opening new lines of communication and making a path for love to flourish.
I never imagined I would enjoy the Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours together with my husband, nor can I explain the mysterious way it draws us together in Christ. Devotional prayers like the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy have strengthened our prayer life, as well.
The way all aspects of Catholic life illuminate and support each other is particularly satisfying. Doctrinal content informs people’s real life struggles. Liturgy takes all the matter of the world and sanctifies it. The Church’s social work makes the world a better place for all creation. Her rich intellectual history, reverence for the human person, riches of prayer and music draw me always deeper. And Je- sus Christ Himself at the center of each part and at the center of the whole makes me fully alive.