|In Your Midst||
My Journey Home
Cathedral parishioners reflect on what brought them back to the Church
Catholics Come Home is the name given to a series of television commercials that will be running throughout Western Washington during Lent. They are a way for the Church to put the word out to people who may have drifted from their faith that the Church is their home and that they are welcome. It’s also a message that St. James Cathedral has been putting out for a long time as the following stories from fellow parishioners make wonderfully clear. And compelling stories they are! Each one is unique and each one is a testimonial to the mysterious power of God’s grace and the equally mysterious power of our Catholic symbols and rituals to channel that grace.
I have no way of knowing how many people will respond to the “Catholics Come Home” television commercials but this I do know: those who come to St. James will find here what people have always found—a home, a warm welcome and, yes, a wonderful community with whom to walk the journey of faith, a journey into God, the God we worship in our magnificent Cathedral, the God whose face we continue to find in the least of our brothers and sisters.
Father Michael G. Ryan
I was a cradle Catholic born in Bombay, India. My dad was Catholic (his side of the family were Portuguese colonists) and we went to church every Sunday whilst growing up. I went to a protestant school run by the British called Cathedral School, where we sang traditional hymns at assembly every morning regardless of whether you were Christian or not. I joined the choir and loved it (many of the great hymns we sing at St. James are the same ones I sang many years ago in India!). When I left India as a young man and came to the USA, I pretty much stopped going to church, not for any specific reason—I just did not seem to make it a priority. After getting married, I started to go to the Buddhist temple along with my wife (who is Buddhist) and the kids. I liked learning about Buddhism and stayed a Buddhist for many years. Then came the “conversion”—not a flash of insight, not a sudden awareness, but an inexplicable gentle force to return to my Catholic faith. This happened a few years ago, when my father died in India and we brought my mother to live here in the USA with us. My mom was very devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary and carried a picture of her and a cross wherever she went. My mother asked me to go to church with her to remember my father each month on the anniversary of the day he died. I went to St. Jude’s in Redmond with her. Attending Mass again after being away for 30 years and participating in the liturgy seemed so natural, so easy, so comfortable, that I started to feel the urge. I looked for a church near the Seattle Buddhist Temple and found St. James Cathedral quite by accident. I went into the Cathedral and felt the overwhelming force of wanting to be there as frequently as I could. My mom accompanied me to Mass at St. James. I met Father Ryan and knew this was it. I joined the returning Catholic class at St. James and was welcomed back like the prodigal son. I knew I was home. My mom died a year later with the joy of knowing that I had returned to the Catholic Church. I love this Cathedral and all that make it the body of Christ. I sometimes look back and say to myself, how could I have been away for 30 years? And then I thank the Holy Spirit for finding me and bringing me home.
Jesus came for sinners and I know he certainly came for me. I am a sinner who took my imperfections seriously. I was not “good enough” to be God’s chosen and to have a place at God’s table. I slipped away from the Church because I didn’t feel worthy and I did not fully accept God’s loving forgiveness.
For years I attended what I called, “the Holy Church of No Alarm.” I did as I pleased on Sunday mornings—slept in, drank a pot of coffee and leisurely read the Sunday paper. Ah! Sundays were a day of rest! But it never felt right. I had a nagging doubt that I was missing something. I occasionally attended Christian services with friends at any place but a Catholic Church. It was good, but never satisfactory.
I clearly knew that God was calling me back to my roots, my home, my soul. Not knowing quite how to get home, I procrastinated. Maybe next Sunday, next Easter, next year.
Through a dear Lutheran friend of mine, I was invited to attend Taizé. I entered the Cathedral on a warm August late afternoon. Intimidated by the large and beautiful space, I quietly sat in one of the pews, looked at everything around me, and what did I see? I saw God’s engraved invitation that said “Welcome Back.” With tears streaming down my face, I knew at last I was home! The prodigal daughter, with all her sins—emotional baggage, issues with the Church, and bitterness—I felt the intense relief that I was held in God’s abundant love and grace.
I took that “invitation” with me, and then it took me about three weeks to screw up the courage to call about the Welcome Back program. With a new series of sessions starting soon, I called and said I wanted to come home and I needed help. I got the help I needed to bring me back into God’s family. The Welcome Back team helped me on my journey to make things “right,” including the opportunity to reconcile with God and the Church through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Yes, I am still a sinner, and I am blessed to be here and to know God’s love and forgiveness—the forgiveness that I could not take into my heart earlier in my life. And yes, I still have my issues with “the Church,” but I have courage to face those issues and to bring myself into dialogue with honor, respect, openness and prayer. And there is no more bitterness because I am loved unconditionally, just as I am.
Every time I enter the Cathedral, I am reminded of that healing grace I first experienced during that life-changing Taizé many years ago. This is my home, you are my family, and I share Sunday “dinner” at the Table of the Lord with all of you.
Theresa Van De Ven
I left the Church in deep bitterness when it failed to give comfort when comfort was most needed: denying a Catholic burial for my father, a refusal that shattered his devout mother’s heart. Five years later, she took that grief to her grave. I held on to the anger for fifteen more. I now see that the failure was entirely human: one priest trying to work within his limitations. But in those days, I scorned God and the Church with all the righteousness I could muster.
Given that contempt, I think it’s nothing short of a miracle to find myself at St. James. Some miracles take time. As I grew older, it became more difficult to explain life with the uncomplicated certainties of my youth. My heart grew softer with the admonitions of my patient wife, who thought I was better than my hostility. And, it became more difficult to summarily dismiss the beliefs of people I respected, who valued faith as the foundation for their gift of intellect. When persistent questions of middle-age came to a critical mass, I was amazed to find I missed the comfort of our symbols and rituals. The Easter Vigil’s last moment of darkness before light and chimes heralding a new beginning like no other. A bank of candles glowing under Mary’s outstretched arms, as if she were gathering our prayers to take to her Son. Symbols that make the ultimate Intangible a little more tangible.
In coming back, I didn’t find answers to most of my questions. That’s OK, because what I did find—to my delight—were amazing people. A cathedral staff with the foresight to share their pastor’s homilies online: homilies that spoke passionately of God’s love expressed through people bringing justice to the oppressed. A “Welcome Back” team who instinctively knew when to step aside and let the Holy Spirit do the talking. To my greatest joy, I found you, my parish family. Without your knowing it, you help me grow in faith. You help me find my way simply by being the people you are, joyful pilgrims who do astonishing things with beautiful grace: feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, comforting the bereaved and forgotten. And, to my deepest gratitude, you do what I once thought was impossible: you help me see God.
I don’t know exactly when I stopped going to Mass. By the time I moved to Washington twenty years ago, my practice had already begun to fade. When I started working long hours serving indigent clients, I felt very strongly that I was doing God’s work … so surely He could spare me for an hour a week.
I don’t remember when I first began to feel there was no intention behind my work anymore. Why was I providing legal services to the poor? Why was I killing myself with those long hours at work? Certainly not the money, but I couldn’t summon the spark that had inspired me so much in the beginning. I remembered it, though; and the memory left me feeling lonely and purposeless and afraid.
Years later, I do distinctly remember talking to a friend who shared
my feelings of emptiness, of longing, of searching for something I
couldn’t identify. My friend had an inspired thought … “Let’s go
to Mass for Lent!” And we did.
Now, I feel blessed to be part of a parish with such a strong and loving community, in a Church with a very real commitment to serve others. I enjoy the opportunities to explore my gifts and to find ways to give them back to God through this community, whether I’m baking muffins or hosting a retreat or doing my job with intention. My faith is once again my home base, and my faith community is the people I come to see each week to share my prayers with, and Mass is a celebration I look forward to because I know it will rekindle that spark. And I am grateful every day that my friend opened herself to the Holy Spirit that day and chose to speak her inspiration.
I moved here from Minneapolis twenty years ago where I had been very involved with my parish. As happy as I was, my life, much like yours I am sure, had its deserts. Losing one of my younger sisters and my mother, not to mention 14 funerals in 8 months, three of them young people I had taught over the years in CCD, was a big desert for me. Situations like these along with my fragile faith and lack of trust tempted me to think about giving up on God and church and just running away.
In Seattle I attended my neighborhood church but as time went on and more trials occurred, the deaths of another younger sister and my father, and homilies that were not particularly good, my doubts about God and church began to come up again. Although I did not leave the Church, I did not always attend Sunday Mass. About this time three events occurred simultaneously that would affect my life. The first was God’s grace awakening me to the fact that you cannot run away from much in this life no matter how tempted you may be or how painful it is. Just as there are deserts, there is also the Spirit of God at work and it kept tugging at me to stay the course, to continue to search for God. About this same time the second event occurred. A friend in Minneapolis sent me a book by a Seattle author as a gift. Space does not permit me to say how wonderful this book is; you will have to find that out for yourself, but permit me to quote one paragraph from My Grandfather’s House by Robert Clark that caused me to rethink my faith and dig myself out of this desert I was beginning to enter:
“I do not doubt the things the church teaches and which I affirmed…. They seem plausible enough, mysteries though they are. Rather, I doubt my assent to them, my continuing ability to hold them as I feel I ought to, to believe them aright. The church understands this: Its founder, the first pope, St. Peter, was the epitome of doubt. In speaking to Jesus himself, the best he could muster by way of a credo was, I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief... Conversion and the practice of religion are the taking on of a perpetual labor as quotidian as housework. Faith is never complete, at rest in the same state, or located in the same place because we ourselves [are] in motion. We are forever needing to turn and be turned toward it; to discover and be discovered by it.”
The third event was finding St. James. I was visiting St. James more often than attending my own parish, and because I liked what I heard from the pulpit and the diversity of the community and its outreach, I registered as a parishioner. Because of my poor attendance at my previous parish I visited with Rosanne Michaels at St. James about the Welcome Back program to see if it was something I should do. I never did go through the program as a participant, instead Rosanne convinced me to join the Welcome Back Team! The privilege to journey with Catholics coming home who are responding to God’s grace to return to the sacramental life of their Church continually strengthens my faith. Welcome back!
My story of leaving is rather ordinary; I simply drifted away. On my own for the first time at eighteen, I just stopped going to Mass. Weeks turned into months and then years, 15 total before I returned. I had no particular grievance with the church, but over time it was easy to latch onto negative views. It helped justify my falling away, my staying away. I grew up going to Mass at a large parish in Buffalo, New York. My parents were active in ministries and they made sure I had First Communion and Confirmation. Yet I drifted away so easily.
Like my drifting, my return seems ordinary as well. I do not have a single incident that set me on my return pathway. I was a restless person; in those 15 years I lived in eight states, always looking for the next thing I was going to do. I think I desired to be close to God in all those years, but I would not sit still long enough to figure this out. The Holy Spirit used all sorts of means and people to get my attention. From the few Masses I attended every year when I was visiting my parents, the prayer cards my Mom always included with her letters, the growing collection of saint medals that intrigued me, and my Grandmother’s rosary I was given to keep. I felt so unworthy to have these things, but there they were, sentinel reminders that I was Catholic. I finally became aware that my restlessness was a desire to be closer to God, and for me that meant returning to the church I knew.
Returning was not easy for me; most of it was due to my feeling I had to earn my way back. For two years I struggled, going to different churches, throwing myself into service work. I had not taken any time to develop spiritually, my service gave way to resentment and before long I was no longer going to Mass. Six months later I was still thinking about going back and I found myself in a pew at St. James. I decided to take one Sunday at a time, I would be anonymous and let God lead me. The Sundays started to add up and I no longer counted them. I found myself in Welcome Back. I started to relearn all I had forgotten and started listening with new ears. I started to pray again and there was a chance for Reconciliation. I had finally surrendered my struggle and I found a sense of peace to calm my restlessness.
Upon reflection, I have been fortunate in the people who helped me on my journey back to the church. I am thankful for the mentors who helped shape my life. In fact, their impact has stayed with me to this day. While in college, I found myself questioning the human shortcomings of the Church. I was disappointed and discouraged by what I saw as contradictions between the Church’s teachings and the practices of leaders in the Church. I stayed away from the Church for quite a number of years.
Years later, while attending a retreat, the session leader encouraged me to read The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. He suggested it as a reflection on the journey toward reconciliation. Around that same time, while living on First Hill, my curiosity led me to attend a 5:30 service at St. James Cathedral. Somewhere in the middle of Father Ryan’s sermon, he reminded us of Christ’s calling—I am in your midst as one who serves. During the mass, I picked up a “Welcome Back” card and read that a new class was starting up in a week. Again, my curiosity led me to the first session. The gentle spirit of Rosanne Michaels, the coordinator of the program, filled the room that evening. Each of us who came had a chance to tell our story—what drew us away, what drew us back. I found that I was not alone in my disappointment with the Church’s ways. But over the course of several sessions, I felt the gift of reconciliation. I came to see that the Church is made up of human beings—people with gifts and faults, strengths and weaknesses. And, inspired by the people in that “Welcome Back” class, I felt the unconditional love of the father who welcomes his prodigal son back home.
Each Sunday at the 5:30 Mass, I am reminded of the unconditional love and acceptance of the Father. It is through the people around me that I hear the call to serve others. I am grateful for the inspiration and nourishment I receive in this community of St. James Cathedral—a community of God’s people.
In my younger years, I began to have serious doubts about my faith and the church no longer seemed inspiring. I needed something more to grow spiritually and gradually turned to Eastern religions. Before I knew it, I had slipped away.
My family moved to Seattle in 1992 and I soon found a small group who meditated weekly with a Buddhist teacher. One spring day in 2001, after attending a noon concert with a friend, she suggested we visit the “Cathedral.“ The cathedral?! I knew where the Buddhist temples were but had no idea where the Catholic cathedral was. I dutifully followed my friend up the front steps of St. James and feeling like a stranger, I took my lead from her, kneeling and sitting when she did. It had been almost 30 years…. As I sat in that beautiful and holy place, I remembered the peace I had felt as a child when I was part of that ancient religion, the religion I had walked away from so many years ago. Serendipitously, I saw a little Welcome Back card, casually picked it up and tucked it away. I kept thinking about it and about six months later, I enrolled in Rosanne Michaels’ Welcome Back class, thinking—“I’ll check it out—no commitment.” The class was wonderful and very informative about the changes that had taken place in the years I had been gone. It was a very non-pressure series of lectures and discussions and I soon began to feel comfortable with everyone and what was being taught. The Catholic Church had opened many windows and was welcoming of people no matter where they were on their spiritual path. I felt I could be Catholic and still find a little inspiration from other sources as well. Returning was easy and felt absolutely right.
I have been a member of St. James for eight years and “coming back” was one of my best decisions ever. The beauty, music and liturgy, the intelligence and inspiration of the homilies and classes fill my soul. I also love being part of a community that so generously serves the needs of those in the overall community who require some extra help. As a bonus, I have met kindred spirits who have become my friends and truly feel part of a wonderful and supportive group. After a long and circuitous journey, I am Home!
I am a convert to the Catholic faith. I converted while attending a Jesuit college in the Midwest. When our children were very young (4 and 8) and in CCD at our parish in Southern California we had a minor dispute about scheduling our kids’ CCD classes. The dispute escalated when we received a letter from a lay minister of the parish challenging our commitment and faith (at least that is the way I read the letter). As a further irritation, the efforts we had made to have our marriage convalidated in that parish were thwarted by a pastor who actually fell asleep during our initial interview (after telling us how improbable our success might be).
All of these experiences (and in particular the lack of encouragement
from the parish community) combined with our exposure to a very
welcoming faith community at the local Lutheran church, led to us
parting with our Catholic parish. This departure lasted 13 years, until
we were introduced to the Welcome Back program here at St. James.
Not only did the Welcome Back experience bring us back to the Church but it led to the convalidation of our marriage and enhanced our faith life which then led to participation in ministries such as Adult Confirmation, Hospitality, RCIA Sponsoring, to mention a few. I believe that the Welcome Back program at St. James is a model for all parishes, with its non-threatening, non-judgmental approach, which made us (being somewhat skeptical at the time) feel at ease.
“Complete this novena and you will not die outside the Church, no matter what may happen in your life..."
As I had done throughout my catechism years, I ignored Sister’s pronouncement. How could someone leave the church? Would I leave my family, even though many of them were unpleasant or difficult? It was too much for a child’s mind.
My childhood church, a provincial parish in Massachusetts, was
obsessed with Protestants. Avoid them! Save your soul! I knew many
Protestants, including my mother and her many sisters, and I noticed
that when they went to church, they took pies. The extra ones usually
wound up at our house because “might as well make an extra one!”
I was a failure at being unchurched. Going to church was ingrained in
me. I became an active Episcopalian and was befriended by a gifted
woman priest who saw that I had no adult faith formation. She encouraged
me to attend some classes, and suggested useful books. I was introduced
to the Bible for the first time, although it was an academic
acquaintance. I decided that, to update my education, I’d visit a
Catholic parish. My expectations were pretty low. I had ignored news of
Vatican II, figuring it was some kind of conference to formalize the
fear of Protestants.
They say that the sense of smell is one of the last to leave a dying person. My proof that this is true is that despite all those years of nurturing my mind, my nose caught that unmistakable Catholic smell. I describe it as years of burning beeswax candles. On that morning it hit me like the aromas of my mother’s pies.
As I relaxed and took in the golden lighting and the rainbow of architecture and vestments, including Father Ryan’s distinctive red chalice, I had another of those forbidden little-girl thoughts:
“I wonder if Rome knows about this place? I don’t think they’d approve of it.”
The Welcome Back program helped me sort it out, and I have been at St. James for ten years.
It still seems like a miracle.
I left my faith after years of parochial school, of being an altar server, of dutifully attending weekly Mass and observing the days of obligation. Looking back it is plain that I had at best only a shallow sense of what faith really means. I looked at church and all I was able to see were rules and prohibitions. At some level I came to equate faith with “missing out on something.” I often felt guilty, fearful. Then I began to be angry. In many ways I was not happy. And it grew easy to blame much of that on the Church. I left for college, arrogant, convinced I had outgrown any need for faith.
I thought I knew or could find what would make me feel happy, comfortable with myself, at ease in the world. But the faster I pursued that on my own, the less I was able to realize it. I was aware of a great longing underneath what I felt or did, but I couldn’t name it, and I certainly wasn’t able to fill it.
Years passed; much happened in my life, some of it good, more of it
bad. The worst of it was a shrinking inside, a growing
disconnection and isolation. My world offered many things to
perhaps fill, or at least distract me, from that void. None of
them turned out to be life giving; most left things worse.
At some point the call became louder than my fears. I don’t know how it happened, but out of my searching I was given a gift of grace. It was a grace that both let me realize that I wanted reconciliation, the Sacrament of Penance, and that gave me the courage to approach it. I was able to reach out, fearful, anxious, but as honest as I could be. I think I expected that I might be turned away; instead I was welcomed. I left in tears, feeling forgiven, relieved and knowing a door had opened for me.
My faith today is nourished by realizing over and over the depth of my need for that mysterious grace, and how present that grace is for me when I am open and present for it. It is nourished by the sacraments, by my participating in the life of my church. It is nourished by my prayer and by my prayers with the family that is my church. It is nourished by my learning to listen
I still have a longing, but now I live with a sense that I move in the direction it calls me.
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