Always be ready to give a reason for your hope
For all the constant "coverage" of the St. Paul/Minneapolis archdiocese online and in the blog world, I think the full story of the amazing conversion that this entire archdiocese has gone through needs to be told again and again - to give hope and encouragement to those in other troubled dioceses and parishes. I never get tired of witnessing to the graces of God in our very blessed area of Minnesota, even while I continue to be saddened and cringe at the admittedly awful tales that have also emerged (usually to much greater fanfare) from our parishes and colleges. To help testify to this regional springtime of renewal, I am going to attempt now to relate my own tale of conversion and RE-version.
I came to this archdiocese "late", after Archbishop Harry Flynn had already been bishop here for many years and things were, I see now, definitely already on the upswing. The first few priestly "harvests" of Flynn's renewed efforts at vocations outreach, begun almost immediately after he took the helm here, were recently ordained and popping up at various parishes. Including one very fine and outstanding young, newly-ordained priest at my own neighborhood parish, which happened to be the Cathedral of St. Paul itself.
I had been raised Catholic, but had drifted away as many of the young adult generation now have done. I had gone to technical school and graduated, and I didn't know what to do with my life, career-wise or otherwise. Everything was a muddled mess. I moved to the Twin Cities partly as an "escape" from a seemingly meaningless life in rural Wisconsin, pursuing a career that I knew I wasn't good at and wasn't meant to do. That ended in failure a few months later, and I was asked to resign, it wasn't a surprise to me, it was only my stubborness that had refused to accept that I should have quit!
I had already been going back to school in Wisconsin part time, and had already made arrangements to transfer to the massive University of Minnesots-Twin Cities campus. Well, with this final kick out of my former career plans, I did enroll, but switched majors again, and began classes spring semester of 2003. As divine Providence ordained, when I had moved to the Cities in the previous summer, I for some reason had it on my heart that I HAD to find an apartment near the Cathedral. I didn't care much about the faith, but as soon as I saw that building from the freeway on the way into the metro, I was attracted to it. I did end up finding a wonderful apartment and moving right near the church. My parents, pleased at this, were hopeful that it would entice me to return to Mass. It didn't, I only went when they came to visit me and hounded me to go. But that spring, as I soon discovered that I didn't like the UofM, and didn't like depending on my parents to help me pay rent and tuition (though I thank God for that blessing now, I did not nearly appreicate it enough!). For some reason, I looked out my window (which overlooked the Cathedral's gloriously restored copper dome) one Sunday morning and decided to go to Mass.
At that first Mass, I encountered, for the first time, a YOUNG priest who actually seemed to believe what he was doing was worth my attention. His homily, then as always, was amazing for its breadth and depth and passionate presentation. And it spoke to me directly, as in a brief moment he talked about the Catholic Studies program at the University of St. Thomas. Oddly, when I was in high school I had wanted to go to St. Thomas, not because of faith reasons, but just... because. I liked it. But it was too expensive. Now, hearing him speak about it, I felt tugged - why couldn't I go there now? I had a new job, and I would be transferring from the state system with no debt.
I hated the UofM, because of it's size, but also because the political climate there quite simply repelled me - every class I endured professors and students condemninig my pro-life beliefs (always at least minimally maintained, praised be God) and my family's faith, and all the philosophy I was encountering just didn't seem RIGHT. Nietschze drove me back to the Church, I say now. I still pray often for all those poor souls who are entrapped blissfully in so many insane colleges and universities, selling their souls and consciences for empty promises of "happiness".
Anyway, after that Mass, I actually made the courageous effort to follow this priest on his way to the sacristy and ask him about his time at St. Thomas... one thing led to another, he encouraged me to transfer into the Catholic Studies program (I thought: Yeah, right, what are you, nuts?) instead of continuing in my major at the UofM. We chatted a bit, and I left. It so happened that at that Mass, there was an announcement made for all interested young adults (FYI, young adults in this context means ages 21-39, approximately) to meet for a brunch at a restaurant nearby... I didn't really want to go, but at the same time I was quite lonely, I didn't like the students at the UofM because of their immorality, but I didn't think I really wanted any "churchy" friends either. What I found was my best friend, who very quietly encouraged me, by just being who she was, to reconsider my faith. She introduced me to the THRIVING Catholic young adult circles of the archdiocese. Most of them are now my dearest friends, and a network of support in my work and in living out the faith.
God moves quickly when a crack opens for His grace, and before the week was out I had a major spiritual conversion, a reversion actually, and started pacing restlessly in my tiny apartment, with all its historica charm and material possessions that couldn't satisfy me, eventually falling to my knees and sobbing for Christ and only Him. Somehow, I knew that in order to find Him, I had to go back to church, and not the Protestant churches that I had frequented before leaving worship entirely, but back to the Catholic Church that I had ignored and scorned for so long. In order to go back to the Church, I HAD to go to confession first. I didn't even believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ then, but somehow I believed in confession, Lord only knows how.
The only priest I knew was that aforementioned young priest at the Cathedral, who didn't know anything about me, who seemed to think I was a "good Catholic" who would just LOVE to be in a Catholic Studies program at a college! It took me forever to call him, but I finally did. And got his voice mail (a very common occurance I would discover over the years that followed!). He very quietly and gently received me back into the Church a few days later, on a Friday afternoon in the middle of Lent, at the 3:00 hour of mercy. My first penance? The Divine Mercy chaplet. He even took me over to the Cathedral's Sacred Heart chapel to help me get started on it, before leaving me alone to experience being reunited with God. (I count one of my greatest blessings of my past year of study in Europe to be the opportunity to live, pray and worship at the Sancturary of Divine Mercy in Krakow, Poland where St. Faustina's tomb is in the original convent chapel.)
From that moment, everything just got swept away in a flood of grace, and things happened VERY quickly. I returned to the Church with a huge thirst for knowledge, amply provided by my priest and all my new young adult friends. I was like a sponge, soaking it all in, and it all made sense, every problem I had was resolved intellectually and emotionally thanks to very well-formed Catholic friends, priests, and even professors - at the Catholic Studies program at St. Thomas, which I transferred into (and switched my major to!) only a few weeks after being reconciled to God and Church! I not only transferred into a different school, but threw my heart and mind into not just a different major, but THREE new majors - Catholic Studies, Philosophy, and Theology. The day I discovered Aquinas was a dream come true, my own philosophy which had conflicted so much with the philosophy at the UofM was really Thomstic in nature - Surprise! I cannot recommend enough the University of St. Thomas, with its Catholic Studies and Philosophy programs, especially after returning just a few weeks ago from an entire year of study in Rome with the Catholic Studies program at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the "Angelicum"). It was truly a year full of amazing graces that I will treasure for eternity.
Within less than a year after I came back to the Church, in this blessed Archdiocese, I had become immersed in all the fruits that have been growing quietly here. I joined up with my Cathedral priest to help found a new young adults group at the Cathedral, its first venture being the popular Theology on Tap program, all of which was blessed by God - the group continues to thrive today with over 800 members. I was also involved in the newly formed Frassati Society, a young adults group that works to combine activity with prayer, with camping trips and service projects and all kinds of other "fun" things with tons of other young people who are committed to Christ and to sharing that love with others. I soon discovered the peace that understanding the Theology of the Body brings, as there was a large group of young adults who met weekly to go through a study of John Paul II's compiled Wednesday audiences on the topic of human sexuality and God's plan for us as men and women (this was right when Christopher West was beginning to become the key person on the lecture circut on this, so I was able to benefit from his works as well). I was also getting involved with various other groups and activities going on, the Emmanuel Community, Saint Paul's Outreach, Steubenville North youth conference, the pro-life and service work of the Franciscan Brothers of Peace during the Terri Schiavo tragedy. I rediscovered more of the beauty and reverence of our Catholic liturgical heritage through Latin Mass at the famous St. Agnes parish, the indult Tridentine Mass at St. Augusine's parish, and the Byzantine Divine Liturgy at the Franciscan Brothers of Peace. I celebrated my golden birthday on a Corpus Christi Sunday by participating in my first Archdiocesan Eucharistic Procession, with a thousand of my new family members down the streets of St. Paul and ending at my beloved Cathedral. I participated for the first time in praying the Rosary by being part of the twice-yearly Rosary procession of the Archdiocese, from the State Captiol to, yes, the Cathedral again, joined by another thousand people in candlelight vigil. I prayed in front of the local Planned Parenthood clinic with young college kids from St. Thomas and the SJV seminary, stood vigil for life with the Franciscan Brother of Peace (they get around!), and became involved with the hardworking young adults who are staffing the Total Life-Care Centers for pregnant women and new mothers. The list goes on, endlessly.
I quickly became friends with Catholics of all walks of life, and of all ages, all of them knowledgeable about their faith and committed to living it in their lives. I met many seminarians though my studies at St. Thomas and through the Cathedral's group, quite a few of whom are now ordained priests for the archdiocese - we had 15 priests ordained last year, and we have many more amazing guys to come, as the local college seminary is OVERFLOWING. St. John Vianney seminary is now renting 4 off-campus houses to have enough room for all the seminarians there! The major seminiary is also greatly improved (I have heard many horror stories of the "dark days" of a decade or two ago...), both in the quality of seminarians themselves (with great spiritual directors and a solid vocations director on board), and with a number of solid priests being sent to Rome for study and only now beginning to trickle back and take key teaching positions there. All other vocations are also being greatly encouraged, at least 4 of the women that I have met in the past two years have entered religious life, a lot of men have been discerning priesthood, others are discerning consecrated life, and of course a ton of couples have emerged and been married, all with true concern for the will of God and in faithfulness to Him.
Soon after I came back to the Church, my new best friend introduced me, very calmly and easily, to the joy of Eucharistic Adoration (she was surprised that I didn't know what it was all about, she was just excited to show me a parish's particularly beautiful adoration chapel - she had no idea that she was going to have to explain the whole purpose of it and why it was so good!). Turns out that the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis has the HIGHEST concentration of Perpetual Adoration chapels of anywhere in the US, and maybe the world!! We have over 35 of them, I think, where our Lord is visible in the Blessed Sacrament for us to adore and pray before at all hours of the day. No matter where you live, there is one near you - in one place I lived there were 4 Adoration chapels within a mile or two! Adoration was key to my growth in the spiritual life, and it has often been given as the real reason for the renewal of this entire Archdiocese, with so many faithful adorers constantly at prayer for the intentions of our Pope and bishop. Adoration is a huge part of my ongoing spiritual conversion.
So many young adults are now taking positions at area parishes and youth programs, and in the diocese, it is really at this point that the full flowering of the new evangelization that John Paul II called us to can happen, with serious Catholics entering into their vocations and careers with their "eyes fixed upon Jesus, who inspires and perfects our faith" (Heb. 12:2). I can only foresee even more beautiful things in the future for this Archdiocese, by the grace of God and our active cooperation with Him. For all our problems here, and there are still many as a lot of you know all too well, all I have to do is see the amazing things that God has done in my own life and in the lives of the people I have met in the past three years to see that there is so much HOPE here. All of us here in the St. Paul/Minneapolis Archdiocese have been entrusted with a great light for the universal Church, a light that we must now do our best to defend and share with the world. May the Lord continue to bless us who are priviledged to live here, and those who will be priviledged to move here in the future - may we all come to know, love and serve our Lord more fully in this life so that we may be truly happy with Him in the next!
God bless you all, no matter where you are, or what struggles you or your diocese is facing - Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini. Qui fecit caelum et terram!
Faced by all those men without faith, without hope; by minds desperately near the borders of anguish, seeking for a meaning in their life, you found your purpose: Him!
This discovery will permanently inject a new happiness into your existence, it will transform you, and present you with an immense daily hoard of beautiful things of which you were unaware, and which show you the joyful expanse of that broad path that leads you to God.
~St. Josemaria Escriva, Furrow, point 83