24 March 2008

Welcome Home

It has been an Easter to remember for so many reasons. I am not the best wordsmith in the world, so my blog posts tend to be few and far between, I hope to do justice to the events of the last four days.

But the last four days are the culmination of a journey that started back in January 2006. In fact, it was only just January 06, as the moment I can pinpoint when I felt the pull of Christ. In the early hours of the morning of Jan 1st, a couple of hours after the midnight celebrations of New Year's Eve, I had my conversion moment. One day I will attempt to describe exactly what happened back then, but I doubt I would be able to adequately define the events that led to where I am today.

I'm waffling, lets move on. After that special moment, I had no doubts in my mind where I was being called to. It was just obvious it was the Catholic Church, no other option even entered my mind. Not knowing anyone who went to Church, I wasn't sure what to do next. Obviously, I needed to start going to Church, but it didn't seem that simple. Was I just supposed to turn up, and start praying? How were you supposed to pray? What would happen in Church? I was sure everyone would notice me straight away, that I would stand out from the crowd, and I really find that uncomfortable. I hadn't had much religious thought in my life, I was unsure what to do. And after all, maybe this feeling would go away. But it didn't. After a few days, I decided to get a book to help me understand what I might be getting into. A quick browse around Amazon, I found "Catholicism for Dummies" and I thought that would be a nice easy introduction, and that's how it turned out. A nice simple explanation to what Catholics believe, and why.

From the book, I found at that for a Catholic to miss Sunday Mass without valid reason, could be considered a Mortal Sin. That's the push I needed, I just knew if I was going to go the full way into 'becoming Catholic' I *had* to go to Mass. The very next Sunday I went to my first Mass, and have done every week since. I don't remember much about my first Mass, I just recall sitting in a pew tucked away in the corner, watching everyone else, standing up when they did, sitting, kneeling, and trying to follow what was happening in the Missal. Which wasn't that easy, as it goes, after the readings I soon lost my place once we went to the Eucharistic prayers. I was too self conscious to make the sign of the cross, to say the prayers out loud, to make the responses after the readings, I thought I would be in a community where everyone knew each other and I would stand out like the stranger in those films who walks into the quiet country pub and everyone stops talking to watch what they do.

After Mass, I had a feeling of confusion, not really understanding what had happened, but underlying it all a feeling that it was the right thing to do. After a couple of months I noticed something in the newsletter. It said something along the lines of "If you are thinking of becoming a Catholic, call this number" I wished there was an email address, but there was not. The notice was in the newsletter for a couple of weeks, but I hadn't plucked up the courage to call. Then it disappeared, I guess to make way for other notices, but a few weeks later it was back. I had to make the call. I had been going to Mass every week for about three months now, I knew I wanted to get more understanding of what to do at Mass, I thought that is what I would get from the advertised RCIA, I wouldn't get much further trying to work things out on my own, so I made the call. The voice at the end of the phone was a joy. So calm, so nice and relaxed, so welcoming. I stumbled and stuttered an explanation of what I thought I was looking for, and I was invited to join the next session, which would be held in the Church, on a Thursday evening.

The RCIA group was around 6 or 7 people as I recall, Father was there, and a few others who seemed to know each other quite well. I just sat there, trying to understand what was happening. It all went over my head, and for the whole session I never said a word, until near the end, after one of the Catechists had given a fairly lengthy explanation or some such, somebody said "I don't get what you mean" I breathed a deep sigh of relief and said my only words of the night "me neither!". Of course, just the point was being talked about, I was talking about the whole group session thing! It didn't make sense to me at all. Where I had thought it would be a group that explained to wannabe Catholics why we did what we did in Mass, it was a discussion about something else, I don't even recall what.

But I went back the following week, where some others were there who had not been at the first session, including someone who had joined just a few weeks before me. What a relief, to find I wasn't the only newbie there. After a few weeks I started to recall people's names, and the group settled down into a regular bunch of people I started to feel comfortable with, but I was still saying very little. In fact, throughout my whole time in RCIA I haven't said much, really, even on occasions when I have had something relevant to add. The words would stick in my mouth, with the thought in my mind "Better to keep quiet and let people think you are stupid than open your mouth and confirm it". An old saying but one I took to heart. I knew little about the Bible, even less about the Catholic Faith, I didn't feel able to pass comment initially, and that is pretty much how I stayed, even as I started to learn and understand more.

Over the weeks and months, I found I was developing a real thirst for knowledge and understanding, I wanted to learn more, to know more, to understand more. My enthusiasm was high, and my hunger for the Word of God was insatiable. I searched the internet and found a whole world of resource, information and explanation on a variety of websites. I'm a bit of a phone geek, and I soon found software that lets me have the Bible on my phone, and I started to download 100's of podcasts and MP3 files that detailed so many different aspects of the Faith. Finally, I was in my element. I stored loads of MP3 files and podcasts to my phone to listen to on the move, I burned loads of CD's and kept them in my car, eventually I purchased an iPod for the extra storage and put everything I had there. On the way to work, and on the way home, which is around an hour each way, I listened to what I had downloaded. Of everything I have ever used, five people are top of the MP3 list for the help I have received on understanding the Faith. First, there is Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Then, there is Father John Corapi. Next, is Scott Hahn, then Michael Voris, and finally Father Robert Baron. Each person listed here is passionate about the Faith, each teaches what the Church teaches, not what they *think* the Church should teach and each has the ability to take a sometimes difficult subject and explain it in a way that makes it easy to understand without taking away from the fullness of the teaching. A wonderful gift indeed. If you've never listened to any of these people, I'd suggest you give it a try.

I subsequently found, on the satellite system I have for Italian TV, EWTN. I'd heard of EWTN on Catholic Forums, but as far as I knew, it was an American based station. To find it transmitting on Satellite, to find Catholic programming I could watch anytime I wanted was just amazing. In the UK, I am not aware of any transmission of Catholic programming, either radio or TV, so finding EWTN was a real bonus. A few weeks later I discovered EWTN transmits on SKY TV, hidden amongst other religious channels. A gem in a sea of trash, it really is.

And that is how I progressed, with podcasts, internet forums, TV, radio, all supplementing my study at RCIA, leading me into a love for the Word of God, feeding my desire for more, never satisfying it, the more I got, the more I understood the more I wanted. I still do. I started buying more books from Amazon; I've bought more books in the last 18 months than I have in the last 10 years, easily.

All of this helped. As I learned the importance of the Mass, learned the teachings of the Church, it felt more and more like something I wanted. I wanted to be a full member of the Church. The more I learned, the more I accepted everything the Church teaches. Often, I wouldn't fully understand straight away but accepted fully the teachings of the Church. I am very straight in my understanding, there is little room for grey areas, I'm very black and white on my understanding of the Church teachings. I don't think I have blind Faith, where I will accept anything just because the Church says so, but I have yet to hear something that I can't accept.

And that became my weekly ritual, and has been for the last year and a half. My journey to completing the first step of the rest of my life. And that brings me, finally, to Easter 2008. Everything I've looked for over the last two years has led me to this point. To the Easter Vigil, to full membership of the Church, to be in communion with the Church, to be able to partake in the Eucharist, the ultimate objective, the thing I came to desire more than anything else. I'd already been christened when I was young, but not for religious reasons. It was just the done thing, when you had a child back then, you got christened. As I was christened in the Church of England, it is recognised as valid by the Catholic Church, so Easter Vigil meant for me, confirmation and first communion. The person who was on the RCIA program just a few weeks before I joined, and who I've shared many wonderful moments with over the last two years, also joined the Church this Easter, and she was baptised, as well as receiving confirmation and first communion. It has been good to have someone to share the journey with.

So the Easter Vigil. Only the third I've ever attended in all my life, a moving Mass, so emotional and meaningful for so many reasons. The Church, in darkness, the lighting of the candle, the passing of the light through the Church, the readings, the incense, the choir hitting form at just the right moment, the congregation giving it their all as they join in the hymns, it is a wonderful experience, to share the fellowship with everyone around. After the homily, my friend and I were called up front. She was baptised, and we were confirmed. Now, for my confirmation name, I was sure it would be Joseph. I truly love St Joseph, for so many reasons, and I feel a strong connection with him, but eventually, my confirmation name was Augustine.

We had Lent study groups this year, based on the theme "Who is my Neighbour". All parishioners who want to share time together sign up for the groups, and we are divided into groups and assigned a day when we can meet up and talk about one of the Sunday readings and how that relates to the Who is my Neighbour theme. At our very first group at some point during the session, one of the participants made a throw away remark about "that wretched man Augustine". It wasn't nasty, or mean, but I was shocked at how that phrase came out. It prompted me to do some browsing around the net, I also recalled that our Holy Father Pope Benedict had given a series on St Augustine at back in Early January. Over the Lent period, as we studied the excellent readings from the Gospel of John, for both RCIA and the Lent group, it seemed everywhere I looked I was finding St Augustine. I found some new website I had not used before, readings from the Church Fathers on the Gospel of St John, and the one that stood out time and again was St Augustine, I found some stuff on the New Advent website on the Gospel, all from St Augustine. I listened to Fr Baron's homilies during Lent, and he kept on quoting St Augustine. I purchased a book, the Confessions of St Augustine. I looked around the Biblia Clerus site for study, and St Augustine was prominent, everywhere I looked. I had a feeling in my mind that maybe Augustine would be my confirmation name, but I dismissed it, I had already decided to take St Joseph. Until, in conversation with my fellow RCIA colleague, when I was again going on about the wonderful writings I had found from St Augustine, she said "You know, you should take Augustine as your confirmation name, you seem to be connecting so much with him recently". It just clarified the thought I'd had before. I prayed, and made the choice, and Augustine is the name I took. It was a strange experience as I received confirmation, to hear the Priest call me Augustine.

After that, my friend and I sat down, we had the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and because we were sitting at the front, we waited as everyone filed past until finally, it was our moment. Of everything, this for me was THE moment I had longed for, for the last two years. Finally, finally, I could take Holy Communion. No longer would I have to sit there in my pew as everyone else filed past. It was torturous, the wait has been sometimes so long, but every single second I had to wait was worth it. I went up to Father, and as well as I could, I opened my mouth and took communion. It seemed like that moment lasted forever, as if it was suspended, I could sense nothing else other than what I was doing right in that moment, I couldn't hear the choir, nor was I aware of anyone around me, all I knew in that second was just an overwhelming sensation. It means so much, there, right before me IS Jesus Christ, and I am sharing in something so huge, I am not ashamed to admit I don't fully understand, but that doesn't matter, it really doesn't. The finer points of how, why, are important, of course, but in that moment it is just me and my Lord. It means everything, it IS everything, it was really painful waiting for this moment, at every Mass when I couldn't take communion, but I would never change one thing. At that moment, it was just Jesus Christ, and me. And that is something so special, I will never be able to find words to do the experience credit, never.

After Mass, some special people who've made a real contribution to the journey gave us some nice gifts, and some cards with wonderful heartfelt messages inside. One of the cards had a message inside, with a heading "Welcome Home". And I know I am home.

I've gone on a bit. If you've just read all that, well done. This would be the moment, where I thank Alan who was my sponsor, where I thank Adrian, Angela, Janet, Joyce and Walter for giving their time in RCIA, where I thank John and Sandra who joined RCIA in the last few months, where I thank Caroline who has shared the journey, and given so much, and where I thank Catherine, my fellow new Catholic. Also Monsignor Turner, Father Robert, and David, who have all made a huge impact on my journey over the last two years. There are many other people who have made an impact on me, people who have shared my enthusiasm for the Faith and people who have challenged me in how I view the Faith, who I won't name here, but I will make sure they know how grateful I am.

I'm just going to finish by saying for everyone who ever reads this and is not Catholic, but is thinking about joining the Church, just do it. If anything is holding you back, work it out, and get to the Church. It is worth it. Anyone who is currently going through RCIA, stick with it. However long your journey is, it will be worth it. And even when you become a full member of the Church, there is still so much more to come. And anyone who is Catholic, keep in mind just how fantastic, how amazing, how great it is, to be Catholic.


Mac McLernon said...

Congratulations... and welcome home!

Anonymous said...

I was sure everyone would notice me straight away, that I would stand out from the crowd, and I really find that uncomfortable.

So did I!!!

A very moving account. God bless you, and like Mac says: "Welcome Home!".

Jay3GSM said...

Thanks for the welcome, it is so good to be fully part of the Church.

Mac McLernon said...

Jay, you've been tagged!

Mairin :o) said...

this is a wonderful, moving post. The reverence and anticipation you show for the Eucharist is beautiful. I applaud your courage and tenacity. Welcome home and congratulations.

Volpius Leonius said...

Hi Jay,

I've just discovered your blog my friend, that was a very moving story, welcome to the Family my brother.

Yours in Christ,