How in the world was I going to tell my wife that I would like for us to consider becoming Roman Catholic? That was uppermost in my mind as I returned from that fateful trip to Washington DC in June of 2014. She had always been much more Protestant than I, having been raised in a very small fundamentalist denomination that looked with suspicion on all denominations, especially the Catholic Church. She had come to a lot of the same conclusions as I in our faith journey together, though usually with a lot more turmoil and struggle than me. But this? Becoming Roman Catholic? I feared that this would be a bridge too far, even for her. I decided to keep this to myself. I asked God to show me the right way to approach her, and I told Him I would not do this without her, so that if we were going to do it at all, she would want to do it as well. For the next three weeks I read everything I could get my hands on. I read Tad Szulc' biography of John Paul II, a volume I had picked up several years ago at the Archive used bookstore in Pasadena, CA. I began reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church (still working on that one), which I found in a thrift store. I checked out of the college library Patrick Madrid's Surprised by Truth and Mark Shea's By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition. I also brought home from the Episcopal Cathedral a copy of Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking, a powerful testimony about this brave nun's ministry to death-row inmates. Of course, there was Chesterton's Orthodoxy which is a rollicking swashbuckler and full of insight. I prayed, I read, but said nothing to my wife. I spoke daily with my brother-in-law. I met my sister-in-law for lunch and we talked about how to approach Cindy. I also spoke two or three times a week with my Italian concert pianist friend Tom about my desire to become a Catholic. The encouragement I received from them all was reassuring and motivating. But I had no clue as to how Cindy would respond. And still, I said nothing to her.
Then it happened. And she was the one who initiated it! We were sitting at the table one evening talking about the current state of cultural decay in modern society, and as usual, I was bloviating about solutions to the world's problems. Cindy is a patient listener, and is sure to be a saint for that alone! All of a sudden, she looked at me and said, "Jay, are you thinking about becoming a Roman Catholic?" My mouth opened, then closed, then opened again, but I was so unsure of what to say, that I could only stammer out the words, "I am thinking about it, but I wouldn't ever do such a thing without you." Her response stunned me. "Okay, I would be willing to check it out. I need to think about it for a couple of weeks, though." Simple. Direct. To the point. I was so in shock I did not know quite what to say. All I could think to ask was, "How did you know?" "Jay, I am not stupid or blind. I've noticed that you have been reading a lot of Catholic material lately, and so knew that this was probably in the wind." Again, I was stunned. All I could think was that I am married to an amazing woman, whose inner spirit and beauty is just as deep and wonderful as she is beautiful to behold.
That next week, I had to stay in town while I taught at a summer music camp at the college. My wife wanted to read something about the Catholic faith, but she isn't one for the dry and dusty details of doctrine or dogma. Her faith is encouraged by stories of Christians whose lives inspire and motivate. She picked up Sister Prejean's book Dead Man Walking. She also began talking to her sister, finding out that we had been talking as well, which she teased me about. When I came home from music camp, she was ready to talk. She enjoyed the book by Prejean, but of course, was mystified by Catholic devotion to Mary, praying the Rosary, seeking the intercession of the saints, and all of those things that Protestants tend to focus on when thinking about how different Catholicism is in practice. Despite that, she indicated that she was willing to try it out, not promising anything, but added that I would need to be patient with her, for she could probably get there at some point. Unlike me, with my Hofferian true believer temperament, she is far more prudent and cautious, and has to think through it all before she embraces change. Patience is not my strong suit, but in this case, I assured her I would be as patient as an oak tree. We would do this together, or not at all.
We decided that the best way to check out the Catholic faith was to experience it directly. Because my Sunday mornings were still occupied as organist-choirmaster at the Episcopal Cathedral, we started to attend Saturday Mass at various Catholic churches in the area. Much of Catholic worship is familiar to Anglicans and Lutherans, for the basic structure of worship is the same, rooted in a common heritage of practice. There were some wording differences in the Creed and some congregational responses that took some getting used to. Of course, the few Marian references seem strange, even exotic and mysterious, but made sense in the overall shape of the liturgy. I was a nervous wreck, going to observe our first Mass together. I wondered if she would respond afterwards with something like "I don't think I can do this." We went to the Cathedral of St. Mary in downtown Fargo, where my brother-in-law and his family attend. That seemed a logical place to start. After Mass, we walked down the street to a local pizzeria and visited about it all. I was prepared for her to be unhappy. To my pleasant surprise, she enjoyed it. She said she felt that she had been to church, and although there were things she didn't understand, she thought that we needed to keep doing this. The biggest blessing was that we were finally worshipping together as a family. And the tradition of after Mass-pizza was a bonus. She also told me that she had begun talking to a friend of hers, the mother of the young man that dated our teenaged daughter, whose family was Catholic. Cindy had grown very close to this woman, and part of her attraction to their friendship was that her friend's faith seemed so real, quiet, and yet genuine. If this was what being Catholic was, she could well contemplate such a possibility. As well, Cindy had always stated that she loved Pope Francis, and even once said, "With a Pope like that, I could even consider Catholicism." She resonated with Pope Francis' love for the poor and marginalized, his practical, down-to-earth approach to faith and life, and his surprising manner of doing things that shocked and amazed the world, including some Catholics!
My wife is a brave and courageous human being. Birthing five children took a great deal of courage, and especially when one of them was stillborn, knowing ahead of time that the pain and agony of labor would produce only death and grief. Over the years, putting up with my career and over-the-top extroverted personality took a lot of courage and patience. Even more, to contemplate a fundamental change in religious faith and practice for her required courage of spirit. My wife has it all, and my respect and admiration for her grows and grows as we journey together in life. Her act of courage on this particular journey would be perhaps the biggest one of all. You see, when someone grows up in a fundamentalist tradition, there's a little micro-chip recorder implanted in the brain that sends out a signal instructing the believer not to think about anything that might challenge the tenets of their faith. And it sends out electrical shocks when the believer starts asking questions about Catholicism. Am I being facetious? Perhaps, though just a little.
An even bigger surprise was in store for us when our adult children decided to take this journey with us. Our oldest daughter, a single mom with two wonderful daughters, and our son, a manager of a local shoe store, learned of our decision to check it out and decided to join us. Moreover, when we sat down with our two younger daughters and informed them of our intention to pursue the Catholic faith, the older of the two said, "I am so glad to hear you say this because I was going to talk to you about whether or not I could become a Catholic." I couldn't have asked for a more beautiful miracle from God than this. So...the Hershbergers began this adventure towards home in the summer of 2014. And a great tale hangs thereto...
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