Courtship and Engagement: Her Side
Tim and I met and began dating as freshmen in college. At the time, I had a poor understanding of my faith. I felt that there were more similarities than differences between our denominations.
We both believed in the Trinity and in Jesus Christ. We could share some common prayers. We both believed in the importance of church attendance and in raising our children to be Christians. I wasn’t sure whether the difference in our denominations mattered.
When my mother expressed her concern over Tim’s faith, I shared with her that although Tim was Lutheran, he had more of a relationship with God than any of the Catholics I had dated. They were “Catholic” in name only. Tim, however, took his faith seriously.
Prior to and following our engagement in November 1988, Tim and I began to talk more seriously about our respective faiths. We took a premarital inventory and went through a marriage preparation course in the Catholic Church. I was grateful that Tim respected my desire to use Natural Family Planning in our marriage.
Tim did have a hard time, however, understanding the Church’s desire that couples raise their children as Catholics. I worried about our children and wondered what church they would attend. Not having any hard answers to that question, we trusted that God would show us His way.
Courtship and Engagement: His Side
I grew up surrounded largely by Lutherans. Aside from an occasional Catholic wedding, I was not exposed to Catholic traditions. I remember finding the wedding Masses long, the kneeling odd, and the church decorations ornate. Somehow, however, I acquired the usual prejudices against Mary, the pope, and confession.
At the age of ten, standing in a hallway on my first day in a new grade school, I met the first Catholic I ever truly got to know. Mark and I became best friends. At that age, religion wasn’t something he and I discussed, but as our relationship developed, we couldn’t help but recognize the differences in our lives. Mark and I spent as much time as we could at each other’s houses and on a few occasions attended each other’s churches.
One night while I was staying over at his home, I discovered a laminated prayer card from Italy sitting on his nightstand. It was a prayer card of St. Joseph. I found the artwork and the prayer to be quite beautiful. After I told him how much I admired the card, he gave it to me.
After high school, Mark, the prayer card, and I journeyed to the same college. In college as in high school, I used the St. Joseph prayer card in times of special need. As an intercessor, Joseph never seemed to fail.
It was at college that I met Mary. Mary and I lived on the same floor of our dormitory, and we became friends. We enjoyed going on walks with each other, talking for hours on end, and simply being with each other. By the end of our freshman year, we began dating.
Our courtship lasted four years. In Mary’s junior year, she decided to live off campus in the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry Center. Partly in response to her decision and partially out of my own desire to learn more about my faith, I decided to live in the Lutheran Campus Ministry called Christus House.
This move opened us up to discussing matters of faith more seriously. I was as committed in my Lutheran faith as Mary was in her Catholic faith. As resident peer ministers, we participated in joint retreats, prayed together, and took part together in Wednesday evening vespers.
I found the faith of Mary’s family, their devotion, and their traditions particularly attractive. They were truly a holy family; it showed in their faithful attendance at Mass every Sunday and in how they prayed together. I found myself drawn to Mary and her family. It was here that I first gained a respect for the Catholic tradition.
Once we were engaged, as an interdenominational couple we struggled with the questions all such couples face. What church would we attend? How would we raise our children?
We found comfort in the similarities and often prayed the Our Father together. We wrestled with the issues, and occasionally we argued. Slowly we began to realize that we could, if we remained respectful, work through it.
During marriage preparation the priest asked us whether we were willing to raise our children as Catholics. This promise was one I found difficult to understand. I felt slighted, as though Catholics thought my denomination was somehow inferior to or less important than theirs.
I thought to myself, What if I don’t want to raise our children Catholic? I certainly didn’t want to say yes to something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do. Reluctantly, I agreed. Although we didn’t have all the issues worked out, we were married on July 8, 1989.
Marriage: Her Side
We were married on a hot Minnesota summer day. The service was a mixed ceremony at St. Eloi’s Catholic Church in my hometown of Ghent, Minnesota. We decided not to have a Mass so that Tim’s side would not feel left out. Tim’s Lutheran campus pastor gave the homily, while our priest concelebrated.
I particularly remember the Our Father. Tim and I were gathered in a circle near the altar, holding hands with our wedding party, the pastor, and priest. In a wonderful display of ecumenism and unity, dear Father Bernie Schriner asked that everyone hold hands, even across the aisles. A college friend sang a moving rendition of the prayer.
Toward the end, overcome with emotion, Father Schriner shouted “Everyone!” and together everyone sang, “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.
After our wedding, as before, we would sometimes attend our churches separately. At other times, we would attend one or the other together, or sometimes we would attend both churches each Sunday. We both found it difficult to do this. Although I had been brought up in Catholic grade school, I didn’t understand my faith well enough to be able to explain to Tim why we had to go to both.
We continued to struggle with the issue and attended both churches until sometime in 1993. We had just moved into our first home in St. Paul, and Tim found it more convenient to attend St. Columba Catholic Church just three blocks away from our home.
Around this time, I began praying for Tim’s conversion. I didn’t know whether it was the right thing to do, so I would utter this prayer: “Lord, I don’t know whether this is Your will. If Tim could be converted, that would be great. Whatever You think is best, Lord.”
Marriage: His Side
It was so hot on the day we married that my brother, Jeff, my best man, Mark, and I had to stand in the Catholic school’s walk-in freezer to keep cool before the service. What struck me about the day is that it would be one of the few times in our lives when all those we cared about would be gathered together with us to help us celebrate our love for one another.
After our wedding, we struggled with Sunday services, vacillating between attending Mary’s church, mine, or both. I found it frustrating to attend both of our churches each Sunday morning. Often the readings would be the same.
It was difficult to watch Mary receive the Eucharist while I remained behind in the pew. I imagined how hard it would be to watch my family go up for Communion without me. The words spoken by the congregation in Mass — “Lord, I am not worthy to receive You, but only say the word and I shall be healed” — both irritated me and gave me hope. I felt that because I was Lutheran I was not deemed “worthy” to receive what Christ offered for all. I took hope, however, in the fact that Christ would “say the word” and heal me.
Over time, I grew disillusioned with the Lutheran parishes we attended. The teachings of each congregation seemed to vary greatly depending on the pastor. Mostly out of convenience, I started attending church with Mary and forgoing a Lutheran Sunday service, reserving attendance at Lutheran services for only special occasions such as Christmas and Easter.
The real crack in my Lutheran shell came, however, early in the 1990s as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began changing doctrine with regard to sexuality and abortion. The denomination even began funding pastors’ abortions through their medical insurance coverage. And abortion was an issue I could not compromise on.
The Catholic Church taught that abortion was always wrong, while the ELCA had started teaching that it was an unfortunate but necessary fact of life for some women. Suddenly, being Lutheran meant more to me than sitting in a pew. Ultimately, it meant believing everything that the Lutheran Church believes and teaches.
Thus began my walk down the road leading elsewhere. I was certainly attracted to the Catholic faith, but I had many questions and doubts. What I needed in my life was a fellow convert with whom I could dialogue.
My wife, Mary, and friend Mark had embraced the Catholic tradition because they had been born into it. I desperately needed to talk to someone who had come to it on his own. God provided exactly what I needed, but in a most unusual way.
Conversion: Her Side
During the summer of 1993, while walking home from church one morning, Tim expressed his potential desire to learn more about the Catholic faith. I was both shocked and excited. At the same time, I was cautious. I didn’t want to say too much.
I kept my distance and feared getting involved because I didn’t want him to feel pressured. I knew that if I pressured him, he would resent it later on. I knew that it had to be his free decision.
I didn’t want Tim converting because of me. I offered to be his sponsor and he accepted. So I began praying more.
Conversion: His Side
I had been wrestling with the idea of conversion, but what I needed more than anything was a fellow convert with whom I could talk. The Holy Spirit would answer that prayer in a most unusual way.
In 1992, at the age of twenty-five, I came to learn about the family I didn’t know I had. I also learned that because of the circumstances of my conception, my father had wanted me aborted.
To say that such news was shocking is an understatement. Learning the truth turned my whole world upside down. It threw everything I thought I knew into question. Yet learning that truth led me to a far greater truth.
The greatest blessing was learning of my half-brother Rich, whom I had never met. I gave Rich a call and we spoke for a long time, agreeing to meet at a nearby restaurant. I was nervous about our meeting and didn’t know what to expect. As I walked into the restaurant that evening, there was no denying who my brother was. We shared an undeniable resemblance.
Meeting him was like looking into a mirror and seeing myself thirteen years later. As we sat eating our hamburgers and comparing stories, the waitress asked, “Are you guys brothers?” Here we were, meeting for the first time in our lives, and a stranger could see the resemblance. We laughed, thinking, If you only knew!
In that meeting with Rich, a unique and inseparable bond was formed. We each felt more complete. Yet our bond is one that is more than genetic.
As we sat talking, I learned that Rich had converted to the Catholic faith at age eighteen. Not only had I gained the convert I needed to talk with, but I had also gained a brother.
Like me, he had grown up Lutheran. His sharing his story with me propelled me to learn more. The Holy Spirit had placed him in my life exactly when I needed him.
Not long after I met Rich, a couple of other events pointed me toward the Church. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church was published, and we purchased a copy. I liked having it around because it seemed to have answers for so many of my questions. It also impressed upon me the validity of having all that the Church believes in a single source. It gave meaning to the statement “one holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.”
Also at about this time, Mary’s church, St. Columba’s, started perpetual Eucharistic adoration. Feeling the need to pray more and not fully understanding the meaning of the Blessed Sacrament, I signed up to pray an hour each Sunday evening.
Unfortunately, the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program at our local church left something to be desired. Had it been for RCIA alone, I never would have converted. So I’m grateful that a friend offered to go with me to a thirteen-week “Fundamentals of Catholicism” class at a nearby parish.
The class was taught by an orthodox, faithful, and humble priest capable of handling any question put to him. It didn’t take long for the Holy Spirit to work within me. An audiotape by former Protestant minister Scott Hahn and the book Surprised by Truth further propelled me toward the decision I knew I had to make.
Incredibly, the issues with which I had long contended were no longer issues. They had melted away. I felt as if I had been infused with a knowledge and acceptance of the Church and her teachings.
I learned that asking the Blessed Virgin Mary or the saints to pray for me was no different from asking a friend to pray for me. I understood the Church’s respect for the sanctity of all human life and its teaching on the selfishness of contraception. I came to know the differences in belief about the Eucharist and why non-Catholic reception of our Lord’s Body and Blood would imply a unity among Christians that has not existed since the Reformation.
I wanted our family to be one spiritually. I was on the road to reconciliation.
Confession was my last major obstacle, more out of fear than any lack of understanding. It was difficult to overcome the Lutheran belief, as Martin Luther had put it, that we are “dung heaps covered with snow.” My teacher-priest compared the Lutheran concept of forgiveness to typing with an old typewriter. If a sin were like a mistake, you could white it out, but you would always know that the mistake had been made.
In contrast, he compared the Catholic idea of forgiveness to using a computer. Confession, he explained, was like hitting the delete key. Once the key was struck, you would never be able to tell the mistake had been made. If this was true, I felt that confession had to be an utterly powerful and freeing sacrament given by Christ to His Church.
On Ash Wednesday, I was moved to go to Confession. Compiling a laundry list of twenty-seven years’ worth of sin was a very humbling experience. The Cathedral of St. Paul seemed an appropriate place for the sacrament.
There, I poured out the sins of my life and was filled with the grace that accompanies the sacrament. It wasn’t a lightning bolt of grace, striking me suddenly, but rather a gradual appreciation of the sacrament and its graces. After confession, things moved quickly.
Converting is a covenant you enter into with God. Like marriage or parenthood, it is one of those things you can’t really try out beforehand. Once I decided to convert, there was no going back. It was all or nothing. Either I accepted the Church and her teachings, or I wasn’t Catholic. There was no room to pick and choose.
RCIA and the “Fundamentals” classes were very much like marriage preparation coursework and Engaged Encounter. There was only so much prayer, reading, discussion, and discerning I could do. My intellect could only take me so far. Eventually my heart had to follow.
Through adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, I had acquired an unquenchable thirst for the Eucharist. Truly, I was in love with God and was being moved to take a childlike leap. I didn’t have all the answers. I didn’t know where it would lead. But I had to trust in God. As the Church teaches, some things have been and will continue to be a mystery. This is what faith is.
I was unable to wait until Easter to convert. My heart had been opened to the truth. To delay converting felt like denying God.
On March 19, 1995, the feast day of St. Joseph, gathered with my friends and family and Mary as my sponsor, I professed my belief in the Holy Catholic Church and all her teachings, was confirmed, and accompanied Mary to the Lord’s Table for the first time since we had begun dating ten years earlier.
I can now look back on these remarkable events and clearly see the hand of God in their timing. Had I not learned the truth about my family, not only would I still be living without knowledge of my father or my half brothers, but I also probably never would have met my biological father before his death, and I might not have come into the Church.
New Life: Her Side
It is a sad statement about my Catholic education that I grew up so ignorant about my faith. In some ways, I was not taught my faith; in other ways, I took my faith for granted. I made no effort actively to learn more about it.
I now realize how thankful I am that Tim converted. The questions that Tim raised through his “Fundamentals” class inspired me to learn more. His questions and reading taught me things I never knew.
Tim shared with me what he was learning, and he taught me the true differences between Lutheran and Catholic beliefs. Tim’s conversion was a great blessing to me. I am a more faithful Catholic because of it.
I’m also thankful that the Spirit moved Tim to convert when he did. Though he didn’t convert in order to make our family life easier, his conversion did in fact make it easier, especially in raising children. It is an incredible blessing to be a family strong in one faith. It helps to make our decisions easier. We feel more united in how we discipline and raise our children, and we share common friends who feel strongly about their faith as well.
New Life: His Side
Although I believed in Christ as a Lutheran, my faith did not hold the fullness of truth so beautifully expressed in Christ and His Church. Therefore, through my conversion, 1 Corinthians 7:14 was fulfilled: An unbelieving husband was sanctified by a believing wife.
Even more miraculously, God took my love for Mary, combined it with my love for Him, and created new life, not only within me, but within us. Just weeks after my conversion, after a long struggle with infertility, my wife and I learned we were expecting a child.
Our joy was compounded in discovering that the timing would be near the timing of Christ’s own birth. We felt closer than ever to the Holy Family when we learned that our due date was Christmas. Elias Joseph Drake was born on December 27, 1995.
It used to be that both the Lutheran denominations and the Catholic Church seriously cautioned against mixed marriages because of the potential “danger of loss of faith.” While I understand their caution and the potential that mixed marriages have for causing pain, I marvel at the joy that Mary and I now share. In the end, our own mixed marriage strengthened not only my faith but Mary’s as well.