It was a phone call that our diocesan Office of Evangelization would never forget. “I would like to talk to someone about coming back to the Catholic faith,” a nervous voice said. “I’ve been away a long time. Over 50 years,” the woman, who identified herself as Susan, said. During the hour-long conversation that followed, Susan shared her story of gradually drifting away from the practice of her Catholic faith and how her life had been filled with struggles and heartbreak. But recently, a major experience had changed her whole perspective on life.
“What sparked your desire to come back to your Catholic faith?” I asked, curious to learn more of her story. “My husband,” she said, “before his death, he reached out to the ceiling and said one word, ‘home.’” From that moment on, Susan wanted to know more about this “home.”
Susan’s story was a dramatic one. Her husband had made many mistakes in life, mistakes that culminated in a severe prison sentence. John had entered prison an angry, bitter and unrepentant man. But during this time, he was visited by a deacon from a local parish who taught a Bible study at the prison. This Bible study quickly became the highlight of his week and gradually John discovered a relationship with Jesus that had replaced the hatred with love and bitterness with peace.
Susan found her husband had been utterly transformed and, even when he was in prison, seemed happier and freer than he had ever been. “I want that kind of freedom,” Susan said, “and I know that it doesn’t come from the world, but from somewhere else.” That somewhere else is Jesus.
One of my colleagues, Joe, is an especially patient and kind listener who can explain the most difficult teachings of the church in a kind and accessible manner. His compassion was just what Susan needed to feel comfortable and safe in sharing her story. Joe wanted to help Susan understand how much God loves her and help her find peace and happiness. She had once said to me that she felt that she was “beyond the reach of Christ.” “You are never beyond the reach of God’s love,” Joe and I told her constantly. One day, Susan came to our offices beaming and exclaimed, “I’m free! Today I made a confession and poured out my heart and soul to the priest. I feel like a new woman.”
With Joe’s help, Susan was able to express her sorrow at what had happened in her life and found the loving arms of Jesus open to her in the sacrament of reconciliation. When Susan received the Eucharist for the first time in 40 years, she cried. If truth be told, she wasn’t expecting any emotional response because she never saw herself as an emotional person. Nevertheless, she wept with joy.
It was a sweet homecoming. Joe was able to find Susan a parish home where she was welcomed as a new member. Susan now regularly attends Mass, reads Scripture on a daily basis and continues to grow in her relationship with Jesus.
You might think that this is an uncommon story, but in all of my years of ministering to those who have drifted away from their faith, I have found that there are many Susans and Johns all around us — in our communities, neighborhoods and even our families: Those we love who believe that Jesus and the Catholic faith have nothing to offer them anymore. But you can help.
At this time in the history of our church, when we are hurting from a wave of scandals and betrayals, you may be asking yourself, “Why should I make a gift this year or any year to the Bishop’s Appeal?”
It may feel that giving at this time is going to hurt, especially with all of the unfavorable media attention. What does not make the evening news, however, is how God is working in the lives of so many. In fact, the transformation of lives such as Susan’s rarely gets the attention it deserves. Yet, the Good News needs to be told, too.
Your gift is not just a gift of your money, but a gift that speaks “home” to many who are yearning for peace, love and hope. Your gift is one that helps a religious education student learn about the treasures of our Catholic faith. Or an elderly homebound parishioner receive a visit from their care minister who keeps them company, prays with them and brings them the gift of Jesus in the Eucharist. Or the gift of a new life and a fresh start like Susan and John received.
From the deacon who visited John, to the pastor who heard Susan’s confession or the gift of Joe’s patience and understanding, all of this is funded by your generosity and love. Thank you so much for giving so many the gift of “home.”
Stanz is director of Discipleship and Leadership Development for the Diocese of Green Bay.