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.