I fell away from the Catholic Church during my college years, and it took 30 years for me to find my way back. My story is about the loss of faith, not switching churches. I crossed over from childish belief to adult skepticism and came back with a mature understanding of faith.
How could a cradle Catholic, an altar boy, who had the wonderful benefit of eight years of parochial school under “the wings” of the Dominican sisters, fall so far? I recall one day in the classroom, probably in seventh or eighth grade, Sister Mary Evelyn warned us about the danger of losing our faith. It happened to one of her relatives and I wondered in a childish way how this could happen to anyone. I was convinced this could never happen to me. How is it that I remember this one little prophetic moment in the classroom so many years ago?
Cradled in Catholicism
I grew up in a small rural town in the heartland of America, surrounded by farmland as far as the eye could see. The two Catholic churches in my hometown — one ethnically German and the other Irish — recalled an earlier time in American history when immigrants settled in a new land filled with opportunity and freedom. God and country resonated in this post World War II America. I loved growing up in that little town, but when I was fifteen, my family moved.
My mom, a cradle Catholic, made sure that my two younger brothers and I always went to Mass and said our prayers. She worked in a shoe factory and sacrificed a lot for us kids. My dad didn’t go to church, but this never bothered me. He was a hard working coal miner in the early days and a U.S. Navy frogman in World War II; he left the matters of religion to mom. I am sure that my mother prayed for me every one of those 30 years I was out of the church and I owe a lot to both of my parents.
A fallen-away Catholic
So, how does it happen? How does a person lose faith after such a wonderful upbringing? It was a gradual process. I went to a public high school and attended Mass regularly during the late 50s. Once in college, however, things began to slide. Even though I still lived at home while commuting to an urban university, it was easy to miss Mass.
At first, it didn’t occur to me to question Catholic teachings, but my best friend in college was a fallen away Catholic and a self-professed atheist. Several of my classmates were atheists, or at least had serious questions about religion. I lost track of the few Catholic friends that I had after high school. I car-pooled with a classmate who would grill me about why I believed what the Catholic Church taught.
I started out defending my faith, but gradually I felt I had nothing to fall back on. I knew what I had been taught, but when challenged, I could only refer vaguely to the Bible. This was a big problem for me, because I had never actually read it. I lacked the depth of an adult understanding of the Catholic Faith and Scripture. When I would mention the Bible, my best friend (the fallen away Catholic) would say, “I gave up believing in fairy tales when I was a child.” Those words struck me hard in my youth and still resonate with me today. I pray that he will read the Bible one day and reconsider his atheism.
A distant deity
My best friend and I were studying to be engineers and we both elected to take three semesters of philosophy, which was offered to supplement our scientific training. One philosophy professor admitted to being an atheist. The books that we read ignored religion or approached God as if He were a distant deity. I am not sorry that I studied philosophy, but it raised many questions and provided few answers.
Gradually over the next five years, I began to doubt everything I was taught as a Catholic. I even questioned the existence of God. I wasn’t against religion or Catholic teaching, but it was easier to just forget about it. I stopped going to church altogether, except sometimes at Christmas and Easter. I stopped receiving the Sacraments, which (in hindsight) made matters worse. Why search for the un-knowable, the un-provable? Just live the “good life,” and after all, it was the 60s.
Peer pressure, atheists, and the 1960s culture had me seriously confused. I had crossed over to a point that I call the “Dark Side;” a point from which I thought I could never return. I was sort of “brainwashed.” I rarely sought help during my faith crisis, and when I did, I was told to just pray about it, but how can you pray when you don’t have any faith?
Marriage and my wife’s influence
Try as I might, God didn’t let me forget about Him. It was soon after college that I met my future wife, Mary Ann, who was Catholic. She wanted a church wedding, which meant I would have to at least try to be in good standing with the Church. What was I going to do now?
With what little faith I had left (and a little heroism), I went to Confession, hoping to make a turn-around, but I soon reverted back to my former lifestyle. Mary Ann tried to encourage me to attend Mass, but I only went occasionally, and even then, I just sort of sat there. For years to come, I pretty much left it up to her to take care of getting our two children to Mass. Does that sound familiar? I was just like my dad, but the similarity didn’t occur to me at the time.
Throughout this period of about 10 years, I could never forget about my Catholic upbringing. It kept prodding me, somehow. Eventually, I decided to take a Bible study taught by a lay theologian at a Catholic church in town. I told him my story after class and he was extremely nice to me. He was a young man about my age, recently married, and had a child at home. This was my first real encounter with the Bible — and it was interesting! I didn’t actually read it, though; I just listened to him talk about it, mainly the Old Testament.
Events that caused me to rethink my loss of faith
One afternoon after class, I questioned — maybe “challenged” is a better way of putting it — the teacher about the basis for belief in the Holy Spirit (coincidentally, belief in the Holy Spirit was what I was lacking). At first, it was just the teacher and I, but eventually the pastor walked through to close the church. They both spent time trying to explain the Holy Spirit in Scripture, but I couldn’t — or stubbornly wouldn’t — understand. The discussion carried over outside to a beautifully quiet summer evening. It was dark and we were still discussing the Holy Spirit when suddenly the outdoor light fixture came crashing down on the concrete not more than a hundred feet away from where we stood. I said to the teacher, “Wasn’t that a coincidence?” “Maybe,” he said with a wry smile. Well, I still didn’t read the Bible at that time, but this incident had a long-lasting impression.
One day at the golf course, I met a priest. We began talking and, after a while, I told him about my situation. He told me that before he became a priest, he was a captain in the U.S. Navy. He had quite a reputation and had a girl in every port. He was trying to tell me that we are all sinners and that, no matter where you have been, it is possible to come back to the Faith. Sadly, before I could arrange to talk with him further, he died from cancer. I still thank him today for how hard he was trying to help me.
Sometime later, I was driving at high speed when I heard a noise. I stopped to check my car and I found that the tire tread had separated and there was no tread left — none! I was riding on the inner tubing of the tire. I was in a very dangerous place on a two-lane, back road and I could have easily been killed. I recalled a previous time when I lost control of my vehicle and slid sideways down the middle of the road. The last thing I remember seeing were the headlights of an oncoming vehicle. Miraculously, I survived the crash and no one was hurt. Was God trying to tell me something?
Meanwhile, Mary Ann kept urging me to go to church with her. Around 1994, I finally agreed and we began to attend Mass together. Although I still had this “faith” problem, I found I really liked the priest at her church. His homilies were all based on Scripture and, as it turned out, he was a bomber pilot in World War II before becoming a priest later in life. Was it just a coincidence that both priests I liked had a military background?
Keeping an open mind
I learned this priest was teaching a class for non-Catholics who were considering becoming Catholic (RCIA). I decided to attend and keep an open mind, but I was still skeptical. Mary Ann attended with me and we studied from a book that presented the Faith with a lot of scriptural references. Later, we studied from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I also noticed the numerous references to the Bible as I read through the Catechism.
I didn’t tell the priest about my lack of faith, but I recall one question that I asked him had to do with the topic of faith. He said, “You should believe so that you can understand, not try to understand so you can believe.” This idea really struck me.
So it happened! I made an appointment to meet with this priest. I told him about my loss of faith and how I was unable to overcome it. “Why don’t you just go to Confession?” he said. I could tell that he meant face-to-face — right then! The last time I went to Confession was when I was married and that was behind a screen, 20 years ago! He said, “I will help you through it,” as he put on his stole. Somehow I knew when I made the appointment that he would ask me to go to Confession. I thought I wouldn’t do it, but I did! After absolution, I felt a great sense of relief. It was a dramatic moment as I knelt to receive Holy Communion the next Sunday after all of those lost years.
Looking at Scripture in a new “Light”
I had just taken a leap of faith, but did I just “magically” believe at that point? No, of course I didn’t. However, in order to help my unbelief, here is what I did: I read the New Testament from beginning to end!
I read the New Testament first, because it was easy to read and understand. I made notes in the margins and underlined certain passages. The “key” for me was to actually read it thoughtfully and prayerfully, not just to hear someone talk about it or to teach it. While reading, I searched for the teachings of the Catholic Church within the Scriptures. This changed my point of view. Like St. Paul, the “scales” fell off of my eyes. Now, I knew not only what I was taught, but I could see the truth of the Church teachings in the beautiful, written Word of God. I no longer needed to worry about a distant deity as I was taught in philosophy; I was able to see God in the Person of Jesus Christ!
I was no Bible scholar, but I didn’t need to be one. Just by reading Scripture in conjunction with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I knew I would not be in danger of misinterpreting what I read. Now, when I hear the Gospel at every Mass, I can truly identify with it in the context of the deeper understanding I received by reading the Bible as an integrated whole.
Now, I have crossed from the “Dark Side” back over to a place I call “The Light.” There is no doubt that my wife, Mary Ann, prayed for me and helped me to see that Light. I credit the Holy Spirit, prayer from loved ones, and help from priests for my reconversion. Receiving the Sacraments helped heal my soul, but reading the Catechism and the New Testament helped restore my faith.
Never in my wildest imagination would I have ever thought I would write this testimony.