Friday, September 28, 2012

My Conversion Story (II.)

(Continued from I.)
At breakfast that first day in Medjugorje, sis and I met the others staying at our guesthouse.   They included a priest (Fr. Pat), two farm boys, a couple of women who had been there before, a few older women, Mario my roommate who seemed “curious” like me, and Vincent, who quickly told us: “I don’t believe any of this stuff.  But I am newly retired and was getting in my wife’s hair, and so she insisted I take this trip.”  Ah!  A man of my own heart, a skeptic.  In all, there were seven men and six women in our group.
The village itself was very hilly.  Except for the church and its courtyard, everything else was up and down.  Sis was out of shape, and as we walked the hills she stopped often to rest.  That first night we went to evening mass in the church of St. James, and found it was a standing room only event.  We arrived early enough to be in a pew that first evening, but I was embarrassed at all the elderly people and villagers who had to stand.  I don’t recall what exactly was special about that first night, but sis and I never did do the “tourist thing” we had planned on the way over.  (There weren’t any cabs to be had in the village anyway.)  But we did go to that three-hour evening service, the one we had planned to attend only once, each and every night of the eight days we were there, and I knelt the three hours each night on the church’s concrete floor.
The children (then in their teens) were in the church choir loft away from the tourists, and Mary was said to be appearing to them there each night as we prayed the rosary after mass.  I can’t adequately describe those nights; the whole place just felt so holy, and we felt so blessed to be there.  The nightly mass had many concelebrants --- there were priests from around the world there.  We went to a couple of the afternoon English masses, and Fr. Pat celebrated a private mass for our house one day.
During the day, we were led to the homes of the children who were seeing Mary, and through a translator they patiently answered all our questions --- which they must have heard hundreds of times before.  We walked through grape and tobacco fields and on day 1 we climbed the hill where the apparitions first occurred.  At the half way point up was a small cross with a legend: “Adhere to the words of Our Lady or face the wrath of Christ.”  Sis had to stop at this point as did her more elderly roommate, but I went on to the top.  There was a cross there also, to mark the spot where it all started.  Comments in my picture book from then note: “Mary promises a major miracle, at this site, that will convert atheists and stand for all time.”
We climbed “Cross Hill” on the 4th day there.  A narrow, steep rocky path wound its way up; it was very slow going.  There were rest points along the way, at which were erected small markers for the 14 Stations of the Cross.  Sis only made it to the 5th Station, and only 7 of the 19 who started out made it all the way to the top.  Vincent, the total non-believer (like me) made it:  “My doctor is going to say THIS was a miracle.”  The huge concrete cross there had this engraving:  “To Jesus Christ, Savior of Mankind.  As a sign of their faith, love, and hope.  Was built by the parish of the people of Medjogorje 9/14/33.  Save us from every evil, Oh Jesus.”
Standing by the cross, I took in the sight of the tiny village far below, and I looked at my tired (now) friends.  And although awestruck by the downward view, I was more awestruck looking up at the huge cross.  Who were these people in 1933, who could haul tons of concrete and water up here, a very hard two-hour climb, to create this monument?  My analytical mind took all this in; it didn’t make sense.  This was insane.  It was all insane, I thought, including those slow-climbing women we were passing (again) on our way down.  It was around noon.  Dressed all in black, they had begun their slow climb up the steep rocky path at daybreak --- on their knees.  I stopped, and looking at them and very their visible faith, something came over me, and for the first time I cried, and I didn’t know why.  Something was happening here, and to me. 
I was to shed many more tears that week.
We heard much talk of miracles at Medjugorje, beyond the apparitions.  There were reported medical cures and the pile of crutches left there, other people who said they also had seen Mary, and many others had witnessed the “miracle of the sun,” where it grew larger and radiated lights in all colors, as people stared directly at it with no damage to their eyesight.  One afternoon, after I had spent time alone praying in the church, I met sis and her roommate outside.  They told me that they had looked up toward the huge concrete cross overlooking the village and had seen a large halo around it.  Kneeling down, they saw lights of many colors radiate from the halo, and the vision went on for a number of minutes.  They began praying the rosary aloud, and were surprised to hear others, kneeling around them, respond.  Many were seeing the same sight.  Sis was so happy!  And so was I.
I personally never did see a miracle while I was there.  I prayed in the church that I would not.  I now believed in the events, the apparitions, which were occurring there, but I wanted to see no miracles to prove it to me.  I didn’t want to be like my namesake, a “doubting Thomas,” who had to see to believe.  And then one afternoon, overcome by all these events, I knelt in the church and prayed that God would change my life.  I accepted that I was not correctly using the many talents He had given me; my life was yielding no fruit.  And so I gave my life, my will, to Him.  “Not my will, but Thy will be done in me.”  And I promised if He would show me what He wished me to do, I would do it.  My life had begun to change.
Everyone of the group of thirteen who stayed in our guesthouse in 1987 felt their life had changed during our visit.  Vincent, the reluctant traveler, couldn’t contain his amazement: “We have to tell everyone about this place.”  On the last night before flying home we discussed that living our faith would be more important than talking about this place.  And that last morning in Medjugorje, as we walked for the final time the half mile to church, we passed Duane, the farm boy who once confided to me what a great sinner he was.  Duane was proceeding to church much more slowly than us, on his knees.
I never went back to Medjugorje.  I always thought of it as a turning point in my life.  I’d like to think I’ve grown in holiness since then, although the Lord --- and Mary --- know I’ve much more growing to do.  I’ve been blessed to see and feel many miracles since then --- including the changing of a silver rosary to gold, something my wife wanted to rush to the jewelers to verify.  We’re divorced now.  But maybe this was part of a plan also. 
On one of the last days at Medjugorje, I insisted that sis and her roommate, Jean, climb the “smaller” hill of the original apparitions which I had climbed that first day.  Both begged: “No, we can’t,” but I insisted they could do it, “no matter how long it took.”  It was a long climb, a very slow climb, and we made many rest stops along the way.  But sis and Jean did make it to the top.  And they stopped and prayed, they cried and hugged one another, and me.  I’ve given many gifts to people and causes in my life, but I never felt so appreciated as I did that day.  I corresponded with Jean for many years afterward, until I received the letter from her children that said they were now caring for her, as her mind and body were failing.

Sis is gone now, and so is Jean.  I’m sure they pray for me.  I talk to sis sometimes, perhaps even more now than when she was alive.  She’s saving a place for me.  I know it.  And so is my Mother, Mary.  I still say three Hail Mary’s to her each night.
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God and His Mother have been very good to me.  They dragged me to a place and events where I could not avoid admitting that, despite my best efforts, I wasn’t leading such a good life.  And I agreed to change, if they’d help me.  If you should ever feel them asking you to change, my friends, don’t be afraid to get down on your knees also and ask: “What would you have me do?  Show me, and I promise I will do it.”  And I’m sure they will show you the way also --- and you will find joy and purpose in your travels through this world.  Travels to home, where they --- and all our loved ones --- will be waiting.
I hope to see you there.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

My Conversion Story (I.)

Early last Sunday morning in the adoration chapel, a young man sat near me reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  When, after an hour or so, he stood to leave, I commented on the value of that book and of my own recent delving into its pages.  In our subsequent discussion he mentioned that he had been to Medjugorje in 2009, and what a special place that was.  I said I also had been there, in late 1987, and too felt its holiness.  Then he mentioned that he is in his second year at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, studying to be a priest (please pray for Mark).
The fact that I was reminded it’s been 25 years since my pilgrimage in 1987 struck me as significant, and when I got home I went to this blog to read some of my thoughts about that time.  I was surprised how little I had written, on such an important time in my life.  That was when I began my conversion, and in fact the whole story of that event began about 25 years ago around this date.  And so, on this my 600th blog posting, I will document my story, for me, for you, and to give praise that God can turn any life around, even mine.  This is my conversion story.
First, let me start by saying that really isn’t true, because I was not totally converted then.  I’m not sure I’ll ever be that way in this life for I am like any other man:  I have doubts, and a deep-seeded desire/need to understand things --- and by the definition of who He is I’ll never understand God or His ways, at least not in this life.  To be honest, I may have “committed my life to Jesus” 25 years ago, but despite that there remains the caveat that St. Paul expressed.  If that is true:  “Why do I do the things I do not want to do?”
No, I am not converted, not totally, but I am on my way, and I can point to a day in 1987 when I turned in that direction.
In February 1987 Reader’s Digest magazine ran an article about some apparitions of the Mother of God said to be happening (since 1981) to six children in the village of Medjugorje, Yugoslavia.  “Interesting,” I thought.  A few months later my sister sent me a newspaper on the same subject.  Again I thought: “Interesting,” and dropped the matter from my mind.  In 1987 I was separated from my wife; I had bigger worries than stories of apparitions: how to straighten out my marriage, and I wasn’t finding anything to help with that.  Miracles from somewhere across the world were far from my mind.
Trying to understand myself and my marriage, I began keeping a journal around then.  Here is an entry:  “One day, I can’t recall why, I just decided that I wanted to go to Medjugorje (I even recall it was a Thursday evening, and I was sitting on the couch reading the Wall Street Journal at the time.).  I tossed it around for a week in my mind as being kind of silly, but it wouldn’t let go.  I called (my sister) Sally, who said she would not go with me; she said her husband wouldn’t let her go to a communist country.  Yet, a couple of days later, I got her excited letter asking to go.  I didn’t know why she had changed her mind (or her husband’s), nor why I had to go there when, if I were being logical, I would have said it wasn’t important.  But I had to go.”
Our decision to go together was one thing, getting there was another.  The village was on no map; no travel agent had ever heard of it.  A call to the archdiocese was met with a haughty: “We don’t approve of such things.”  And a hang-up!!  A call back finally got me a referral to a priest “who might know more.”  A call to him was met with the same “I can’t approve or recommend that place response,” and it was only when I said that “with or without your help I’m going there; I feel I have to,” that the priest calmed down and gave me the name of a travel agency in another state.  A call there, and sis and I were booked to travel for 10 days in November of 1987.
Short of arranging time off from work and packing, I don’t think I worried much about the trip.  What was there to worry about?  I knew next to nothing about the place!  (When I told my wife, I think she thought I was nuts.)  So the day finally came when sis arrived from Phoenix, and the two of us departed from Detroit.  On the long flight over, sis and I discovered others on the plane were going to the same destination, arranged by the same travel agency.  They told us more about Medjugorje:  “There is a Latin mass every night (and others throughout the day in various languages), and the full rosary was said afterward, taking about three hours.”  Three hours!  Yikes!!  I turned to sis and said: “Well, we’ll do that once, but on other nights we can go sightseeing to nearby cities (and I took out a map to show her).  I’m sure there will be cabs we can take.”  And except for that stop along the way in Prague, we spent much of the trip discussing our sightseeing plans.
Our flight originated in New York, stopping in London and then briefly in Prague.  As we touched down in communist Prague, the pilot said we were stopping only long enough to pick up a single passenger, and to “stay seated, please.”  So, of course, when the plane stopped everyone stood up to check the luggage compartments and visit (loudly) with nearby friends ---- until the plane door opened and two soldiers with machine guns quickly stepped into the aisle, facing us.  Whoosh!  Not a word was said, but everyone was suddenly sitting, very quietly.  “Maybe sis’ husband had a point about being wary of visiting a communist country,” I thought.  And I wondered what I had gotten us into.
Finally arriving in Dubrovnik, getting through customs checks (and lots more soldiers with guns), about twenty of us boarded a bus as the sun was setting.  There were no city lights and little highway traffic as the bus bumped down sparsely traveled roads into the total darkness.  Tired, we arrived in Medjugorje, the middle of nowhere, a few hours later.  It looked like everyone was sleeping when we were met by the state-sponsored tour guide, standing in a lighted courtyard.  She led us on a long walk to where we were to stay, and sis and I and eleven others went into the “guest house” of two of the villagers and their son.  None of them spoke English.  I don’t remember the small meal they set before us that night, all I recall is meeting Mario, my roommate, and crashing into the hard bed in our small room.  And I wondered if the Virgin Mary could really be visiting here in the middle of nowhere, in a communist country.  And why did she want me here?  I think that was the first time I considered that I was there because of her prodding.
My grade school nuns always said that if you prayed three Hail Mary’s before bed, Mary would not forget you.  Despite the years in which I failed to attend mass, I remained loyal to that habit.  And it seemed she didn’t forget --- and I didn’t understand, but here I was, where many said she was appearing every day.
The villagers said they had built the church of St. James much larger than necessary because they felt God wanted them to (but when I heard this in the back of my mind I wondered if they had been planing all this as a con).   Just like in 1933 when they had hauled concrete and water up a very high hill overlooking the village to build a giant concrete cross, in thanksgiving to Jesus 1900 years after his death.  It just all sounded hokey to me.  People don’t DO those things. 
Medjugorje seemed a loyally Catholic village in a sea of Muslims and atheists.  Over our eight days there, our tour guide led us around to “where it is said” things had and were happening.  Early on, I was unsure about this “apparition” thing, and when I saw the other hundreds of visitors to this small village I know I thought:  “It’s all a con.”  And I wasn’t the only one.
The Germans had occupied this area of the world in World War II and so our host husband spoke the one foreign language I could stammer through, and one day I asked him: “Why do you and your wife do all this?  How much of the money we paid to the travel agent do you get?”  He responded: “All monies go to the state.  We are paid for the food you eat, nothing more.  We do this because the Lady asks us to.  We make our money farming.”  So the atheist state was convincing these Catholics here to run a con on other Catholics from around the world, and get nothing out of it?  In this village, at least, there were no soldiers with guns.  No one seemed forced to do anything.  If this were a con, I couldn’t see it --- but I continued looking.
(Continued …)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Novena For The Nation -- Sept 29th

A little-noticed novena for the nation is scheduled to begin on September 29th, this Saturday.  A novena is nine days of prayer, focused on a particular topic, asking for God’s intervention and blessings.  This novena, a Novena to the Mother of God for the Nation, was promoted in the recent edition of the National Catholic Register newspaper.  A cover letter, written by Rev Frederick L. Miller, Professor of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, notes the following:

“Many of the values that shaped our country from the beginning seem to be at risk.  Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and the American bishops have noted the erosion of religious freedom in the United States, the first value guaranteed by the Constitution.   Other fundamental truths are also in danger: the God-given right to life of every unborn child, the value of virginity until marriage for our young people and the virtue of chastity for everyone, the very definition of marriage as the indissoluble bond between a man and a woman who are open to receive new life from God, and the responsibility of all to care for the disabled and the elderly until God calls them to himself.
It has rightly been said that there is more love in Mary’s heart than evil in the world.  This is the meaning of the angel Gabriel’s greeting: ‘Rejoice, Full of Grace.”  Mary is the woman chosen by God to be his mother and ours, but also to be the chief human enemy – the nemesis – of the evil one (Gn 3:15, Rv 12).  From her place in heaven, the Blessed Mother is eager to help her children in their struggles.  The bishops at Vatican Council II expressed this consoling truth:
Taken up to heaven, the Blessed Virgin did not lay aside her salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation.  By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into the happiness of their true home.
This ‘Novena to the Mother of God for the Nation’ will remind us of some of the central truths of the faith, in particular, the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of the Lord and Mary’s unique role in our salvation.  It will be, in a way, a catechism lesson that challenges us to a deeper conversion to Christ and a more generous life of charity.  With these intentions in mind, we shall turn to Mary and meditate on the graces of her life.
Everyone who joins in these nine days of prayer has his or her own needs.  Each person should remember to pray for the intentions of all.  We await a powerful outpouring of the graces of heaven through Mary’s hands.
You can find the full novena, additional suggestions of prayers and actions and information on EWTN’s coverage of the novena, at”

For me, this shall be the start of prayers and other actions during this year declared by the Church as The Year of Faith.  More on this later.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

God, Bless My Enemies

That’s a tough prayer to say, but I think it should be prayed.  If nothing else, it should be prayed out of the recognition that our enemies, like us, are here for a reason: even they can be part of God’s plan --- even part of His plan for me.  Conversion, growth, does not come without pains.
When we have pain and suffering, we cannot but notice it: it hurts.  And therefore so often our focus and prayers are that the pain might be alleviated --- and that’s not a bad thing, but WHY do we act and pray like that?  Do we pray as a reaction, an impulse to ease our pain, or with thought?  If impulse alone, we act and pray to alleviate our sufferings for our sake --- alone.  But perhaps there might be a better reason.
If our suffering were less, would our marriage be better?  Would we better focus on our children, giving them the love that they deserve?  Would we better be able to find and love God, and provide help for our eternal, not just our earthly, life?  Would we, in our sufferings, be less a trial to our neighbor, and his sufferings?
You ask but you to not receive because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.  James 4:3
Perhaps if we prayed not only to help ourselves but to help others, not to end our sufferings and free us from ALL pain, but to end it “enough,” God might answer our prayers.  I wrote last time about the Prodigal Son and the son who was seeking God’s gifts --- seeking gifts!! --- in the wrong way.  He wanted gifts but only the ones and in the ways HE planned.  Selfish children seek gifts that way.
Perhaps our prayer would be better if it were said thusly:
Lord, give me strength to do Your will for me.  Give me enough focus, free from pain, to see the needs of my loved ones and neighbors, that I might be Your love to them.  Free me from  focus on myself and my pains, that I might focus on You, and Yours.
You have granted me many blessings, Lord.  Let me take the blessings You have given me and share them with others, even the irritating whiney neighbor, or the crying baby.  Let me face my enemies and pains with love, forbearance, and trust in You.  Lord, save my enemies and my pains, and use them.
In my Catholic faith, You commanded me to love my neighbor as myself, but it takes no great faith to see that this is necessary.  We can accomplish nothing in this world alone; we cannot bring ourselves freedom from pain or sadness, not alone.  For our neighbor is here, too.  Let me see and understand this, and end my love for myself alone.
Jesus Christ, I believe You chose death on a cross for me out of love.  And with Your death You created a covenant between God and man, a covenant --- making us a family.  Help me to bear those sufferings I should, for our family, and for You.  Not my will, but Thy will be done.  I’ve tried fixing my problems and trusting in myself alone, and at the end of my efforts all I found was myself, alone. 
Lord, I will trust in You, and I will not be anxious. Free me from my pains and sufferings not for my sake, but for Yours, that I might be all You made me to be.