Saturday, September 21, 2013

Led Home by the Sign of His Cross (Briana Manthei)

When I met the woman who would later become my wife, one of the things that impressed me was how well she knew her Faith.  In fact, she could (and did) tell me  more than a few things about it that I (as a "cradle-Catholic") had not known or understood.  Perhaps the difference between us was a "because I have to" or "my Mom is making me learn this" attitude on my part.  Whereas with her, she WANTED to know the Truth.  She wanted to open her heart to God and let Him guide her where HE wanted her.  That attitude was one I would not fully adopt until I was already an adult.  For your reading pleasure, here is my wife's conversion story, "Led Home by the Sign of His Cross": 

I was raised in a Protestant home. My mom grew up in the Southern Baptist Church, and my dad didn't grow up in church, but was baptized as an adult, the same day I was baptized as a three-month old. We attended a Presbyterian (PCUSA) church, and it was there that I learned the basics of the Christian faith. I am still friends with some of those church members, and have many happy memories of mornings spent in Sunday school, listening to the pastor preach, and going to the nearby PCUSA summer camp. My parents divorced when I was nine, but my mom always made sure that my brother and I got to church every Sunday. She taught us to love God, to know right from wrong, and to treat other people the way we want to be treated. When my grandparents were visiting, we attended the local Baptist church with them, and we attended VBS there in the summers. I would often spend the night with friends and visit their churches with them as well. One Saturday night I spent the night with a Catholic friend. I must have been about 10 years old. The next day we went to Mass with her family. I was enthralled by how everyone dipped their hands in the holy water font and made the sign of the cross. After I got home I went into the bathroom and secretly got a cup of water and practiced doing what I had seen everyone else doing at Mass.

Growing up I'd heard many of the myths about the Catholic Church that Protestant kids probably typically hear - Catholics worship statues, Catholics place Mary above Jesus, Catholics aren't allowed to read the Bible – you know the drill. Mostly they were centered around Mary though, and that was my biggest hang-up. When I was 14, I enrolled in our church's confirmation class, and oddly enough, one of the requirements of the class was that we all attend a Catholic Mass together! We did this one Saturday evening, as we tried our best to blend in, sitting inconspicuously in the back pew of the same parish I had attended a few years before. That's when I heard a girl in my class whisper to another girl, “They believe that the bread actually becomes the body and blood of Christ.” I couldn't believe what I was hearing. How could someone believe that? Even so, I was very interested in the Mass, and in the tour of the sacristy that the priest gave us afterwards. I knew I wanted a crucifix necklace as a confirmation gift, and it was given to me by some Catholic friends of ours who attended my confirmation. I felt that it was more meaningful than just a cross, and I wore it regularly. The following year, some major problems developed in that church and we left it for another, smaller PCUSA church.

When I was 17, my younger brother began attending a Catholic school. He would bring home his book from religion class and show it to my mom, and they started saying things like, “Wow, that makes a lot of sense.” Around the same time, my mom, a social worker, began working with a community of Mexican migrant workers. The priest, Fr. Scott, who, little did we know was an apologetics master after trying to prove the Church wrong years earlier, gave her a Janet Smith tape called “Contraception: Why Not?” to listen to. His cover was, “if you are going to be working with these people, you need to understand what they believe.” So one morning I was getting ready for school, and I hear my mom listening to this tape. I was like, “Uh, Mom, what on EARTH are you listening to?” That was when I started to get worried. Things were moving a little too fast in the Catholic direction for me! Ironically, the Church's teaching on contraception later ended up being one of the easiest teachings for me to accept.

I remember going to Mass at my brother's school one night, I think it was Open House Night. The chapel was absolutely gorgeous, and the Mass was beautiful as well. I loved the music and the incense, all of it. There is also a fascinating replica of the Shroud of Turin in the back. But still, I thought, “this isn't for us!” (As a side note, six years later, my now husband and I, kneeling in front of a statue of our Blessed Mother, got engaged in this chapel, and the priest at the rectory blessed my ring. It was one of the best days of my life!)

As all of these events were preparing to reach their inevitable peak, I left to spend my senior year of high school as an exchange student in Spain. Although lapsed, my host family was, of course, Catholic, and had mostly warm feelings toward the Faith. We attended Mass on Christmas Eve at a huge basilica, and of course I toured many churches and cathedrals during my year there. Looking back, especially when I flip through the photo albums, I wish I had been able to appreciate them more from a Catholic perspective at that time, but of course God was working on me, and His timing is perfect. Somewhere in the middle of my year there, my mom and brother called me and announced that they had decided to become Catholic. I was not really that surprised, but I was upset. My mom told me that it was totally fine that I remain Protestant and continue to attend my own church, but that she felt that this was where God was leading them. I blurted out, “God wouldn't lead you to become Catholic!” When my host family asked why I was upset, and I told them, they said, “Oh, that's great! Catholicism is wonderful!” I felt like the black sheep of both families.

When I returned home, things were tense due to some separate family issues. That was the hardest year of my life. At first, I had continued to attend my Presbyterian church, but after a few months, I just started going to Mass with my mom and brother. I attended RCIA with them as well, partly to learn alongside them (although I made it clear that I would NOT be joining the Church), and partly because we all shared one car. The class was small, and the deacon who led it was wonderful, gently explaining the truths of the Faith. I remember hearing him talk about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and thinking in the back of my mind that it made a lot of sense. But I knew it just couldn't be true! It was hard for me to let go of my pre-conceived notions about Mary, and to accept how Catholics viewed her, even when presented with the truth of what the Church actually teaches. The class had a Christmas party, and the facilitators provided gifts for all of us, which were pocket calendars, each with the image of a different saint on the front. I got Our Lady of Guadalupe. I really thought it was a trick.

But my heart gradually softened. By the time Holy Week rolled around, I had actually thought briefly of asking if I could be confirmed at the Easter Vigil too. But I just wasn't quite ready. I still had some reservations about the Eucharist, and I figured I would wait and keep searching. A couple of months after the Easter Vigil, we were at Mass, and something was different. I felt a part of things, like I was a member of a big family, like I belonged there. When the priest began Mass, I forced myself to make the sign of the cross with everyone else. It was hard, and I really had to force myself, because in a way it was like I was admitting defeat. But at the same time, it felt right. The gospel reading that day was from John chapter 6. I felt the last of my doubts melting away, and that night I announced to my family that I had decided to become Catholic. At the Easter Vigil in the year 2000, I entered the Church, in the same parish where I had first seen everyone making the sign of the cross so many years before, and where I had first heard the truth of the Eucharist. It was a glorious day! I knew that I had finally come home, and I've never regretted it.

3 comments:

  1. That is an amazing story! I never knew you were a convert to the faith. How neat to look back on your life and see the gentle pushes God was giving you to find and join the Catholic Church.

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  2. WHAT A STORE OF LIFE FROM A GIRL I HAVE LOVED LIKE A DAUGHTER . I MET HER AND HER FAMILY WHEN SHE WAS APROX 11 OR 12. I LOVE WHAT SHE HAS BUILT WITH HER FAITH AND FAMILY.AS FOR ME . I KNOW GOD SAVED ME FROM ME FOR A REASON.

    FROM RICK THORNTON

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  3. Beautiful story, Briana! Thanks for sharing it with us!!

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