There I was, about to enjoy my Chipotle for lunch, listening to some financial news, when the commercial came on. The Catholic Channel was covering the papal election over on channel 129.
That’s right, I thought. They’re electing a new Pope today. Funny, we had just visited Vatican City a few months before Pope Benedict announced his retirement. What a beautiful place! It was huge. Michelangelo’s paintings in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were breathtaking. The views of Rome from the top of the dome in St. Peter’s were spectacular.
What do they talk about on that channel when there isn’t a papal election, I wondered. I switched over to 129. My timing wasn’t bad. The two hosts were all fired up. A new Pope had been elected! Their excitement was overwhelming. “We have a new Vicar of Christ, and he’s about to make his first appearance,” one of them said. They were waiting for him to come out and make his first appearance in the window above St. Peter’s Square.
As I sat there, listening to them talk about this new Vicar, I realized I had tears running down my face. Tears of happiness. “We” had a new Pope! A new Holy Father to shepherd us in the Way of Christ.
I should mention one detail: I wasn’t Catholic.
Why was I so excited about this new Pope? Why was my heart filled with new joy and warmth at the thought of this new Pope and the energy he’d be bringing to the Church?
I drove back to work, wondering for a minute what this all meant. I quickly turned my thoughts to something else. I switched my radio over to The Blend, and acted like nothing had happened.
As I drove home from work later that day, I switched back to 129 to hear more about the new Pope.
I let almost a year go by without taking any action, or telling anyone about my new-found favorite station.
It’s not like the news that I had suddenly felt a spiritual (religious?) connection to the Catholic Church would be unwelcome in my family. My wife and daughters are Catholic. My daughters both graduated college with theology and philosophy degrees. My in-laws are Catholic. Many of our friends are Catholic. I’ve been an active volunteer at our Church for years. I had always been connected to the Catholic Church, but never had a spiritual connection. I never truly believed.
Now, for the first time in my life, I believed. An emptiness I didn’t know I had was suddenly filled.
I remember going to a weekend camp when I was about eight years old. Big David (who was a few years older than Little David, who also lived on our street) invited me to attend his camp in the mountains. That sounded pretty great to me, and I’m sure my parents were happy to have a weekend break from one of their rambunctious sons.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a Bible camp. This would be my first introduction to anything religious, since my family wasn’t religious. We arrived and were assigned to our cabins and counselors. I don’t remember my counselor’s name, but I do remember one of the first questions he asked me. “Bobby, have you accepted Jesus into your heart?”
Who was Jesus? What does he mean to accept Him? Why was I the only one he asked? What is this place? I spent an awkward weekend, being a volunteer kitchen helper (each cabin was in charge of service for one meal), listening to lectures from the Bible, and being asked at least once a day if I was ready to accept Jesus into my heart. Needless to say, my first introduction to Jesus didn’t go well.
I had a few more introductions over the years, and finally was introduced more formally by my (soon-to-be, at the time) wife, Janet. I learned a lot about the Catholic Church as I prepared to be married in one. And yet, I still didn’t know who Jesus was. I kept having the same questions I had when I was eight. Besides, I had things pretty well figured out, and going to church was a lot of commitment.
It’s interesting to me that the number forty comes up a lot in the Bible. Jesus spent forty days in the desert, fasting, and praying (and being tempted by Satan) after he was baptized. Only then was he fully ready to begin his public ministry. The Israelites spent forty years in the desert before they could return home. Noah’s Ark was put to use after it rained for forty days and nights. Moses spent forty days and forty nights on the mountain with God. Jesus was with his disciples for forty days after his resurrection.
From my first (messy) introduction to Jesus until this past weekend when I was baptized into the Catholic Church, I count forty years, almost to the day. I’m sure it’s a coincidence. Just like my random decision to switch over to channel 129 that day. Or, the way my daughter added some Christian music to my iPod. Those songs kept coming up over and over each time I went for a run. I got to know those songs pretty well. So well that I actually started thinking about their meaning, even before that day our new Pope was elected.
My baptism, confirmation, and first communion last Saturday night were the culmination of an almost year-long preparation process. The process included classes every Sunday, after Mass. It also included a ton of reading that I assigned to myself. Books about the Rosary, the Saints, Saint Paul the Apostle (the Saint I chose as my Confirmation Saint), and the Holy Land. I also did lots of reading from the Bible itself, as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Funny thing is that throughout this process, I couldn’t wait for each Sunday to come. I couldn’t wait to learn more about my faith, my Church’s history, and the love that Jesus has for each of us. What was an unreasonable commitment to my younger self has become an integral part of who I am today.
After forty years, I’m coming to the end of the beginning of my relationship with God.
Looking back, I can see so many places where God was with me, even as I ignored Him, or spoke against Him. He was patient. He knew I’d eventually find Him right where He’s always been…beside me.