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Friends and FOCUS

Amber Cybulski
August 18, 2022 No Comments

I grew up on a farm outside of a small village in Ohio. My tiny village had half a dozen Christian churches, and my family belonged to the Church of the Brethren in the next town over. We lived in a very Protestant area (not that I would have called it that at the time). There was a Church of the Brethren in every town nearby and many United Churches of Christ and Churches of God in comparison. Until I was in college, I had no sense that these denominations were not “mainline,” or even what Protestantism was all about. I had barely heard of Catholicism and had no reason to believe it was anything worth looking into.

All in the Family

My father was a lifelong Church of the Brethren member and had even studied to be a pastor at one point, when I was young. His parents were active leaders in the church, and our family vacations, growing up, centered around traveling to the national Church of the Brethren convention each summer. I went to Church of the Brethren summer camps and youth conventions, and I remember being asked several times if I might be a pastor when I grew up.

When I began looking at colleges in 2007, my dad had me visit every Church of the Brethren college we could. I’ll never forget him telling me that college is the time when your faith is solidified — a statement he meant as a warning against losing my commitment to the Church of the Brethren. Nonetheless, I ended up at Bowling Green State University, and the nearest Church of the Brethren was too far away for me to attend my freshman year without a car. I started with the Christian church closest to my dorm and spiraled out from there until I found one that felt as close to the Church of the Brethren as possible. I decided on a Methodist church, and within a year ended up on their leadership team.

Enter JonMarc Grodi

At the same time, I ended up in a class with two Catholics who would have a lasting impact on my life and catapult me in a direction that changed my life forever. The class was called Critical Thinking, and we spent many sessions discussing moral issues.

I’ll never forget the day we discussed an article comparing the rights of dogs and the rights of babies before they are born. Growing up on a farm out in the country, my experience with animals differed widely from that of my classmates. While they were focused on the lack of human rights for the unborn, I couldn’t get past the claim that it was illegal to kill your dog. What if it had been hit by a car or severely wounded by a wild animal? Couldn’t you “put it down”?

After class, JonMarc (eldest son of Marcus Grodi, founder of the Coming Home Network International, a Catholic apostolate originally formed to help Protestant clergy and their families to transition to membership in the Catholic Church, but later has also invited inquirers of all backgrounds, providing information and counsel to each as needed) invited me to grab coffee and further the conversation. I remember sitting in the coffee shop, talking about the issue of abortion for the first time. I didn’t have any strong reasons to believe that abortion should be legal or acceptable, but neither was I convicted that it was always and everywhere wrong. I’d thought about abortion, but I’d never dug deeply into the issue. JonMarc explained the Catholic Church’s teaching that human life begins at the moment of conception and that a unique individual must be recognized as having the rights of a person (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 2270). He explained many of the popular disagreements between the pro-life and pro-abortion communities and how our faith informed what we could be certain was true. Abortion was a grave moral evil, and its proliferation in our country was a great tragedy. He answered all my questions, and I left convinced that the Catholic Church was right about this issue.

JonMarc Grodi and I would continue to get into debates during class that would sometimes continue long after the class ended. He introduced me to bits and pieces of Catholic thought, teaching, and reasoning. He also posed questions to help me analyze why I believed what I believed.

For many faith topics, my position had been established because I thought that what I had been taught was what every Christian believed. I had never heard of the idea that Mary didn’t have other children, that other books might be part of the Bible, or that abortion is always wrong because of the humanity of the unborn. I hadn’t rejected those ideas. I had just never heard of them. I’m sure I put up the best fight I could muster when first presented with these questions.

JonMarc also invited me to the Catholic student organization to hear his father speak about his conversion. His father ended up not being able to make it, but I stayed and listened to a recording of his conversion story. I don’t remember much of what happened in that meeting except that, at one point, everyone stood up and began chanting something together in unison. It was probably the Hail Mary prayer, but it felt cultist to me at the time. Where was the program, where were people getting these words from, and how did they all know them?

It was the first Catholic event I attended, and I ran out afterwards, heading straight to my Methodist Bible study. I told them I was never going back to the Catholic student organization again, because I felt so out of place. Thankfully, JonMarc did convince me to go back, and my next experience, which was with Eucharistic Adoration, was significantly different from what I experienced that first time. That second time, I remember feeling the change in the room: the Presence. I immediately felt the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist to be true. Jesus was there!

The praise and worship music was familiar, but the peace and warmth in the room was beyond anything I had experienced before. The lights were dimmed in most of the church, with spotlights shining upon the gold frame (which I later learned is called a monstrance) with a white circle in the middle. My eyes were fixed. I eventually made my way to the floor in front of the first pew and just sat in awe of that white circle — Jesus in the Eucharist. There were no words, only love, all-encompassing love.

I continued to question, learn, argue, and absorb everything. My sophomore year, I ended up roommates with the other Catholic from the Critical Thinking class, Alicia. Three things happened that pushed me across the Tiber that year.

First, I decided to try to read the whole Bible. The more I read, the more I realized that what I was reading didn’t fit the vision of Christianity I had developed growing up. However, it did fit the vision the Catholic Church proposed.

It seemed inevitable to me that people would disagree when we were all trying to figure it out for ourselves. I had heard the claim that the Holy Spirit, working in every Christian, was the way to truth. But how could that be true when so many people held contradictory beliefs, all of them claiming to be led by the Holy Spirit? Was I just left to decide which one was really led by God and which one was deceived? What made me a more reliable determiner of truth than another person? How was I to judge the holy from the unholy, truth from untruth, morality from immorality?

I figured we were all relying on the same information: the Bible, our own reason, what history survived from the time of Christ, and anything we could gather from observing the world around us. For the most part, I felt comfortable relying on my own reason to sort out what was true and what was false. I didn’t consider that there was any other option. I got my doctrine from listening to Christian music on the radio, shows on TV, thoughts shared in sermons, at Sunday school, or randomly in conversations, and I trusted myself to sort out the truth. However, as I began diving deeper into Scripture, I realized that the beliefs I had pieced together didn’t fit with what I was reading.

As JonMarc began to present the teachings of the Catholic Church, I saw a different foundation for knowing what is true. The Catholic Church’s beliefs weren’t defined by what a majority of its members happen to believe at any given time. Truth didn’t depend upon a vote. Truth didn’t change with the changing tides of popular opinion. For example, it wouldn’t matter if every Catholic in the world decided that abortion was morally okay. The Catholic Church’s official teachings would remain steadfast, consistently the same.

There is just one church that goes back to Jesus and the Apostles. This church has thousands of years of recorded history, it traces its beliefs through centuries, and those beliefs remain constant over time. As new issues arose, there was a clear path to making sure new teachings never contradicted old ones. Christ didn’t leave us with a giant game of telephone throughout the centuries or just a set list of writings and rules open to wide interpretation or misinterpretation. He left us with a Church, led by an unbroken succession of leaders beginning with the Apostles. I wasn’t left to my own devices to determine the truth based on my one or two decades of life experience. I could trust in the Church, the one Christ promised to protect from error.

Second, my sophomore year, my best friends who attended all the Protestant groups with me left to study abroad in England. Those Protestant friends weren’t there to invite me to attend Cru, but Alicia was there, and her invitations to the Catholic club were loving and consistent. The student group meetings focused on learning the teachings of the Church. One by one, all my “but what about this” objections were convincingly answered.

At one meeting, I had the opportunity to ask the local Catholic bishop about the meaning of a just war during a Q&A. The Church of the Brethren advocated strict pacifism, and I couldn’t see how war could ever be moral. As the bishop described the principles of the just war doctrine, I realized that it most easily applied to a type of war that was nothing like I imagined or had learned war to be. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain. All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective. There must be serious prospects of success before entering a war. The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated” (CCC 2309).

To me, these principles didn’t seem to apply to much if any of modern warfare and certainly never to both sides in any of the wars I had studied. Far from justifying warfare, the Church’s just-war doctrine was something I could agree with.

I didn’t have to agree that all the wars I had learned about in school were morally just, because, in fact, not all of them morally just. This was a relief, because it seemed like my own discernment had led me to a Catholic understanding — even when I didn’t realize we were on the same page theologically.

I was eventually able to move from just believing that what the Catholic Church taught was true to trusting the Catholic Church to be a truth teller. When I discovered a new teaching that didn’t make sense, I began to ask first whether I was missing something instead of first assuming that the Church was wrong or not fully informed.

Third, along with the student group meetings, I began attending Mass and Adoration. The Eucharist drew me in. I began to desire to receive Jesus sacramentally, and my heart burned to be united to Him in the way He was uniting Himself to those who went forward at Mass.

I was beginning to believe everything the Church taught to be true, but that didn’t propel me to immediate conversion. The church I grew up in was so light on doctrine that I could believe pretty much everything about Catholicism and still be a faithful member of the Church of the Brethren. But the one thing I couldn’t do was receive the sacraments, and my desire to receive my precious Jesus in the Eucharist eventually became so strong that it was worth risking everything for.

The Last Hurrah

The following summer of 2010, I arranged to attend one last Church of the Brethren national convention. If there was anything I was missing, any reason not to convert, I hoped to find it there. I also worried about telling my family. How would my father and grandfather react, seeing that they were so committed to the Church of the Brethren? My father had even warned me against letting this happen in college.

In early July, I traveled with my parents to Pittsburgh for the convention and found nothing in it more convincing than what I had discovered in the Catholic Church. I left the convention with the conviction that it would be my last; I was ready to join RCIA. I continued to keep it a secret from my family, and as far as they could see, my commitment to the Church of the Brethren was as strong as ever. Then tragedy struck.

My grandfather unexpectedly died of a stroke, and two weeks later my father passed from a “widow maker” heart attack. My last obstacles had been cleared in the most painful way possible. I told my mom the night my father died that I would be attending Catholic Mass rather than the Brethren church service the next morning (Sunday), and except when ill, I haven’t missed a Sunday Mass since. I mourned my grandfather and father, and I clung to the Mass and Adoration.

I officially joined RCIA in the fall of 2010. During that time, I heard a talk by recent converts that described the process like going through a divorce. Although I’ve never experienced the pain of divorce, the analogy prepared me for the loss of many relationships. I would never again be a part of the Church of the Brethren community I grew up in. I would never again be “one of them.” I wouldn’t see them every Sunday or reconnect on weekends when visiting my childhood home. I was drawing a line in the sand, and I still sometimes feel the pain of walking away from my former community.

Every Holy Thursday, the Church of the Brethren gather to wash each other’s feet in a beautiful, somber evening remembering the Last Supper and imitating Christ’s love for his disciples. (As I eventually discovered, the Catholic Church has a ritual washing of feet similar to this on Holy Thursday.) While I have come to have a new understanding of what Christ meant that night when he said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” I still miss my former church’s expression of community and love, especially on that night. On Holy Thursday every year, I mourn the divisions still present in the Christian community and pray specifically for all those I used to share this sacred night with.

This was a difficult time in my life, filled with great loss, but also replete with much gain. I have never ached and yearned for something so much in my life as I did waiting for Easter of 2011 to arrive. The power of the Sacrament of the Eucharist drew me in, but I felt the power of Reconciliation and Confirmation too. Prior to being confirmed, I would never have shared my faith with others. That, too, was changing in me.

I had found something new, something that I never knew existed. I wanted to share the Church with the world and Christ with every individual. I wanted to help everyone find the wealth of truth, beauty, and goodness in Catholicism. The Church wasn’t just a good fit for me. It was the best fit for everyone, and I wanted everyone to know it.

As for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I’ve met lots of people who run from it, struggle with the idea of it, or think they don’t need it, but I’ve never met someone who, after receiving the Sacrament, regretted it.

In the past 10-plus years since I joined the Church, I have found blessings beyond number. I now work full time for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), forming missionaries around the world and helping others come alive in Christ and come home to the Catholic Church. I think often of how, if it were not for the conversion of professor Scott Hahn and the many, many conversions that followed his, I don’t know where I would be. It was Scott who helped Curtis Martin start FOCUS. It was also Scott who challenged Marcus Grodi to consider the Catholic Church. It was Marcus who brought his son into the Church with him. It was JonMarc, that son, who introduced me to the Church and to the Eucharist.

I met my husband through FOCUS, and we now have four beloved children: one in heaven, two little boys running around our house, and a little girl on the way. God has been so very good, and we love and embrace our Catholic faith and the sacramental life that yields so many graces.


Amber Cybulski

Amber Cybulski occasionally writes for the FOCUS blog and is currently their editor. After serving as a FOCUS missionary for one year at Carnegie Mellon University and five years at Towson University in Maryland, Amber now works for FOCUS’ Formation Department. She holds a Bachelor’s in education from Bowling Green Education and spent two years teaching in northwest Ohio. Amber married Steven in July of 2016. Together they have four children: Jude Marie (in heaven), Tobiah, Theodore and another on the way. Amber loves consuming great books and delicious ice cream. She’s a teacher at heart and loves collecting new skills like woodworking, sewing, or painting. As Amber once said, “Teach me something new today, and I’ll be teaching it to the village tomorrow.” She grew up in an actual village, the Village of Pleasant Hill, where her family has lived for over 100 years. Her author page on the FOCUS website can be found here.

 

More about FOCUS: Founded in 1998, FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) is a Catholic apostolate whose mission is to share the hope and joy of the Gospel. FOCUS missionaries encounter people in friendship, inviting them into a personal relationship with Christ and accompanying them as they pursue lives of virtue and excellence. Through Bible studies, outreach events, mission trips and discipleship, missionaries inspire and build up others in the faith, sending them out to live out lifelong Catholic mission wherever they are.


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