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From Heathen to Catholic

Craig Alexander
March 15, 2021 No Comments

The Early Years

I am the second of four children raised in a home with an alcoholic father. His verbal and physical abuse of the entire family only ended when he left. I ask readers to pray for my father; his name is Ivan.

After our father’s departure, our mother worked hard to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. She also safeguarded our spiritual lives with weekly Sunday school and church attendance at Highspire United Methodist Church. This was where I came to know Jesus and where I was baptized. I came to know Him, as our Protestant brothers and sisters say, as my Lord and Savior. I also served as an acolyte in our family church. In the Methodist tradition, this referred to the child who lit the candles before church services.

There were two main things on my mind when I attended church at this time in my life. One was trying to stay awake (which mom helped with an elbow every now and then); the other was when would the service be over, so we could eat lunch. We very much looked forward to lunch on Sunday, since we always had fried chicken, something I really liked.

The Methodist Church was a good foundation for my faith life. I will always be grateful to it, for it was this church that brought me to Our Lord. In high school, being a typical male teenager, I was more interested in girls than studies. But I managed to graduate anyway in June of 1980.

The Marine Corps Years

I enlisted in the Marine Corps on the delayed entry program in September of 1979, starting my active duty on July 10, 1980, reporting to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina for boot camp. The only great love one receives at Parris Island is from the sand fleas and horseflies, as they feast on you in the early morning hours during physical training.

The majority of us recruits did participate in church services. Most of us went as a way to have at least one hour away from our drill instructors. There was no desire to hear the word of God, or even listen to the sermon. The main thing on my mind was, again, staying awake and what would we be having for lunch. Thus I drifted far from any engagement with God and faith. I call that time my “heathen years.”

During my early years in the Marine Corps, I met my future wife, Lisa, while stationed in Millington, Tennessee for training in my future duties. My wife was raised in the Catholic Faith, but was not practicing her religion when I met her. We dated for a year, then I was assigned to new duty at Whidbey Island, Washington for further training. I asked my girlfriend’s mother for permission to marry her daughter. Being a wise woman, she said she felt we were too young, and that we should just continue dating. Of course, being a strong-headed Marine, I did not listen to her advice and was engaged to be married before I left for Whidbey Island.

I had absolutely no knowledge of the Catholic Faith or its practices and had no idea what Pre-Cana (marriage preparation) classes were. I received my instruction from the priest who was assigned to my new duty station. The word “instruction” is misleading in my case. I do not remember the name of this priest, but he will one day be a saint for having to deal with me. We never truly had classes to prepare me for marriage, and that was my fault. All I did was argue with the priest. I would say, “you Catholics worship Mary, you Catholics believe you can earn your way to heaven, and you do not even read the Bible.” This priest was so kind and patient with me and tried to answer all my questions. I say try, because I “knew everything,” and no matter what he said, I just told him he was wrong.

Lisa and I were married on October 2, 1982 at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Memphis, Tennessee. We were blessed with one child from our marriage, our son, Craig, Jr. Unfortunately, our marriage did not last. We were divorced on December 15, 1985. I truly feel that part of the reason our marriage did not survive was that, in the short time we were married, we may have attended Mass just three times, including our wedding day. I received a Decree of Nullity from the Diocese of Harrisburg on May 9, 2007. Lisa passed away on August 28, 2017, and I ask for prayers for the repose of her soul.

During my 13 years in the Marine Corps, I was deployed to numerous parts of the world, including to the Middle East, where I served in the first Gulf War. It was while on the first of these deployments, as a freshly divorced 25-year-old Marine assigned to the Philippines, that I met a number of sailors who had been stationed there in the past. With these new-found friends (I called them my tour guides of debauchery), I engaged in frequent sins of the flesh. There were a number of priests that were serving in this area of the Philippines in an effort to assist people to leave the life of sin. Sadly, my attitude toward those priests was one of derision and scorn. We would tell them that they were wasting their time, that there was nothing they could do to halt what was going on.

If you looked at me now, you could say that God has a sense of humor. I have gone from a man of no faith to one who is Catholic and studying for the priesthood for a diocese with a large number of Philippine priests. I must tell you that if it is Our Lord’s will that I be ordained a priest, I would like to return to the same area in the Philippines where I was previously stationed and serve there for a period of time in reparation for my previous sinful ways. I may have been a freshly divorced Marine, with “tour guides” to these activities, but I am the one who must be held responsible for what I did. My military buddies are not to blame for my actions; I alone am to blame. At least I received an honorable discharge when I returned home.

The Dawning of Light

Once I returned home, my mother came to live with me, and between us, we developed a cooperative way of life. We had a Sunday routine. My mother would go to her Fundamentalist Bible church, and I would stay home. Every Sunday, I would prepare lunch and have it ready for her when she returned. She would try to talk with me about what she had heard and learned in church that day, but I was not at all interested. I did not want to hear about God, the Bible, or anything having to do with religion. I was happy with my life the way it was. I had a great job working for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), and always had female companionship. As far as I could see, I had no need of God.

Then came that glorious Sunday around 17 years ago, when I received my call to conversion. I was sitting at home, thinking of what I would prepare for lunch that Sunday, when suddenly and without explanation, I had this overwhelming desire to go to Mass. Not just to church, but to a Catholic Mass. Not being raised Catholic, I did not know the location of any Catholic parish. I looked in the phone book (we still had phone books in those days) and located a parish. I arrived late and sat in the back of the church. Later, I would be told that I must already be Catholic, because I arrived late to that first Mass and sat in the back!

I sat there, watching and listening, believing I would have the same feeling as when I had attended the Methodist church many years before. Those were feelings of struggling to stay awake and wanting it to be over so I could go eat lunch. The first part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word, commenced, and I was shocked. They were reading the Bible. In fact, they were reading a great deal of Scripture! This could not be, for I had always been told that the Bible is not read in the Catholic Church or by Catholics.

Then the second part of the Mass began, the Liturgy of the Eucharist. I watched as this man, who seemed to be wearing some type of dress (really, it was the Mass vestment), started to place what appeared to be dishes on this large table. I listened to the words of consecration, not comprehending their meaning. As the priest raised the Holy Eucharist, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I was transfixed and could not look away … I did not wish to look away. I sat there in the back of the church with tears streaming down my face, powerless to halt their flow. Why that day, why that time in my life, did I have this overwhelming desire to attend Mass, after not having been in any church in over 15 years? Why was it a desire for the Mass and not just for church? Why was this happening to me, what was the driving force? Was it the Holy Spirit who moved me to action? I did not understand. That day, there was no problem staying awake, or any thoughts of what would be for lunch.

For the next six weeks, I went to various Catholic churches and was graced with the same experience. I would learn the reason for the tears five years later, after I entered Holy Mother Church. I was asked to write about what the Holy Eucharist meant to me. I believe the Holy Spirit revealed to my heart, in those first years of attending Mass, as the Holy Eucharist was elevated, that the Eucharist was Our Lord, but I did not understand it at the time. I now know that it is at the consecration that heaven comes down to earth upon the altar. We are transported back to the Last Supper, and to the foot of the cross. Our Lord’s sacrifice for us is represented in an unbloody manner.

I have been told that Saint Pio of Pietrelcina (the 20th century stigmatist popularly known as Padre Pio) was asked what he saw when he prayed the Mass. He said that, during the Mass, at the Epiclesis, as he invokes the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine, heaven comes down to earth. The altar becomes surrounded by angels and saints, including the Blessed Mother. They kneel at the altar of the Lord. At the elevation of the consecrated Body and Blood of our Lord, all the angels and saints fall prostrate, worshiping and praising our Lord. If we only had eyes to see, how could we ever shun the Mass?

One day, I came to the parish of St. Peter one Sunday and had this experience. It was there that I felt I had found a home. Why this parish, why then, on that Sunday did I feel at home? I had been to other parishes over the previous six weeks, but did not have that feeling. At this Mass, as in the score of an opera, the readings would rise to a great crescendo, culminating in a moving homily by the Monsignor (an honorary title for an eminent priest). All the parts of the Mass would lead that day to a wonderful whole in the Holy Eucharist.

That same Sunday, in their bulletin, they had an article on their Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process. The process was starting that Thursday. The call to conversion continued. I attended the RCIA program and was blessed with wonderful, faithful teachers of the faith. One of them was a holy priest who had the habit of giving nicknames to people enrolled in the program. My nickname was “The Questioner.” Monsignor explained that I was always well prepared for class and would ask well-thought-out questions. He said I always kept him and the other teachers on their toes.

This was also a wonderful time with my mother. We both had similar misconceptions about the Catholic Faith. As these items were explained in class, I would return home and talk with my mother about them. It was a wonderful time to share with her the great joy I was experiencing.

I had made a promise to myself at the start of the RCIA process that if I did not believe everything that the Catholic Church professed and believed, I would not — I could not — enter the Church. There was one such area: the Ten Commandments. Not all of them, just the fourth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16). I could not understand how, after the abuse I had suffered from my father, I could keep this commandment towards him. And if I could not, how could I stand there before God and the parish and say I agreed with the teachings of the Church? How could I receive the Holy Eucharist? The Holy Eucharist that for the past year, at every Mass, I longed for with tears streaming down my face.

I spoke with Monsignor, and once more this wise and holy man opened my eyes and my heart. He explained to me that I will never be able to forget what had been done to me, but that I was called to forgive my father. That, as we pray the Our Father, we say, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Therefore, I was called to forgive. He also explained that, when it comes to honoring my father, I am to make sure that my father is taken care of. That he has a place to live and food to eat, and that I am to be concerned for his well-being. I have been blessed with many things since entering Holy Mother Church, and one of them is that the church has given me back my father.

We in the RCIA class had a retreat. In it, the Sacrament of Reconciliation was explained to us, and we had the opportunity to receive this sacrament for the first time. I was petrified! We had the option to confess either to the Monsignor or to a younger priest. I elected to go to the Monsignor, because I assumed that he would be tough on me, especially for the sins I had committed during my time in the Marine Corps. He was just the opposite! He was very understanding and gentle, and greatly helped to alleviate my fears about this wonderful sacrament. Then, after most of a year of attending RCIA classes every Thursday, it was time to prepare to enter Holy Mother Church. Holy Saturday morning, the class met in the church for rehearsal. The entire upcoming evening was explained to us, and we were given the opportunity to practice receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion. I could feel my emotions greatly at that practice and was concerned whether I could make it through the Mass that night.

My family went out to eat that night before Mass, and we talked about what would be happening in a few hours. As we were getting ready to leave, the waitress thanked us. She said it was really nice to see a whole family pray together before they ate their meal. I arrived with my family that night, and they were seated in pews next to those entering the Church. The Mass began in the dark, as all Holy Saturday Masses begin. This reminded me of my own darkness, as I first answered my call to conversion. We were called, along with our sponsors, to come up in front of the altar, where we received the Sacrament of Confirmation.

The Mass proceeded, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist began. As in the past, when the priest elevated the Holy Eucharist, tears were streaming down my face. But this Mass was different in one important respect, because it was during this night, at this Mass, that I would receive for the first time our precious Lord in the Holy Eucharist. This would be the first time I would have the great privilege of receiving His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. I approached Our Lord, trembling and weeping, saying in my heart, “who am I to receive you?” I received Our Lord, returned to my pew, and knelt down to give thanks. I no longer had tears flowing down my face — now they were cascading in a huge torrent.

I then heard my seven-year-old niece ask her mother, my sister, “Mommy, why is Uncle Craig crying?” My sister informed her, “Uncle Craig is crying because he is happy.” My sweet niece asked in reply, “If he is happy, why is he crying?” It was on that night of March 26, 2005 that the veil of darkness was lifted forever, as I answered my call to conversion.

What was present that night that was absent at the other Masses I had attended? The most significant change would be as I approached Our Lord to receive Him for the first time. This lowly man would dare to approach the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in humble supplication, to receive Him into himself, materially as well as spiritually. Can I now say that the conversion of mind and heart within me is complete? I would have to say “no,” because we are always growing closer to Our Lord in both mind and heart, and that conversion will only be complete when we are home with Our Lord in paradise. I can truly say that all I wish to do is to give my life in service to our Lord, His Church, and His people.

I am no Abram (who became Abraham), Saul (who became Paul), or Augustine (who went from sinner to bishop and saint). They had their calls to conversion and answered them. I have now answered my call and have been truly blessed by it. Later, there came another call for me, a call to the priesthood. That call came one Saturday night on the drive to a hockey game. It came on a cellular phone while driving on Bullfrog Valley Road. But that is another subject for another time.

May our Lord bless all who read this, and may I ask you to please keep me, my late wife, and my father in your prayers as I go forth to serve our Lord in His vineyard.

Craig Alexander

Craig Alexander is a seminarian for the diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Craig served in the United States Marine Corps and was honorably discharged in 1992. He was employed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation prior to his entry into seminary. He has one son, Craig, Jr., from his marriage to Lisa, who passed away in 2017. Craig was received into the Catholic Church on March 26, 2005.

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