The final leg of our journey couldn't have happened without the ministry of the Holy Spirit through a priest named Father Pat Sullivan. Father Pat was a godsend to my family. As pastor of two Catholic parishes (St. Elizabeth in Dilworth, MN, and St. Andrews in Hawley, MN) this wonderful servant of God has to keep track of a lot of sheep. And the Hershberger sheep wandered into the St. Andrew's pasture, quite by accident (though not without the providential guidance of the Spirit). As Cindy and I continued to explore Catholic faith by attending Mass at various parishes, we wondered if it would be more authentically "Catholic" to actually attend the parish closest to our home. That would be St. Andrews in Hawley. And so, armed with my iPhone Daily Mass locater, I discovered that St. Andrew's held weekday masses on Tuesday and Thursday. I showed up. I was immediately embraced by those who worshipped there and Father Pat began to minister to me in a very helpful way. We had good conversations. His manner of answering questions was winsome and affable. He clearly accepted me as a brother in Christ, even though I was not yet in full communion. As the weeks over the summer progressed, I grew to love attending Mass at St. Andrews and there were very few times that I was not in tears at some point during the worship. Cindy and I decided together that I should resign from my position as organist-choirmaster at the Episcopal cathedral in order for us to begin worshipping together at Mass on Sundays. My friends at the cathedral were very understanding and encouraging. They all wished me well and asked me to stay in touch. I don't think any of them were surprised by my decision to explore Catholicism. We began attending Sunday Mass at St. Andrews and I still attended weekday masses when I could. It was great to worship together! And still, tears usually flowed for me at different points in the Mass, on different occasions.
The next step for the Hershbergers was to begin the RCIA program. The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults is the Catholic Church's way of preparing non-Catholics for reception into the Church. For those who are not Christians, it is an extensive and intense means of instructing them in the basics of the Christian faith as well as the practices and teachings of the Church. Those desiring to become Christians and Catholics are referred to as catechumens. Their journey culminates in baptism, reception, confirmation, and first communion, which usually occurs at the Great Easter Vigil, which is the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday (a practice that goes back to the earliest centuries of Christian history). Those Christians who desire to come into full communion with the Church are referred to as candidates for reception. Baptism is not necessary for them, as the Church recognizes all water baptisms in the name of the Triune God, regardless of denomination. The RCIA program is used to make certain there are no holes in a Christian's understanding of the basics of the Christian faith and then to instruct them in Catholic faith and practice. They are also usually received, confirmed, and given first communion at the Great Easter Vigil. So, the Hershbergers began the RCIA program at St. Andrews in September, fully expecting to be received into the Church at the end of Holy Week before Easter Sunday at the Vigil. The classes were taught by Father Pat and/or Deacon Tom, the permanent Deacon at St. Andrews. We covered the topics that most Protestants coming into the Church would need to cover: the Sacraments (seven of them), Mary and the Saints, Purgatory, as well as the traditions of prayer, charity, and what the Christian life looks like for Catholics. I was already primed for these issues, and had been reading, studying, and praying about such things for some time. Cindy was, of course, much more cautious and needed plenty of time to think through such drastic changes in the practice of her faith. But she never wavered from the conviction that God was moving the family in this direction. Father Pat was particularly helpful to her in all of this, encouraging her to remain open to the moving of the Holy Spirit. As he once said to her, "None of us can ever fully understand all the depths and richness of the faith, God is only calling us to remain open to the leading of His Spirit to enter more fully in as we grow in the Lord." As the classes continued, I became more and more excited at the prospect of us entering into the Church. Cindy continued to quietly believe that God was calling us to become Catholic. Our children were openly willing to move forward as well.
I will never forget that night in November, shortly before Thanksgiving, when Father Pat called. He wanted to talk to both Cindy and me about something important. Cindy got on the other phone line and Father Pat told us that, in talking to Bishop Hoeppner, it was clear to him that the Hershbergers did not need to wait until Easter to be received, confirmed, and given first communion by the Catholic Church. Normally, catechumens and candidates are confirmed by the Bishop of the Diocese. Under special circumstances, the Bishop can grant a priest permission to receive and confirm. Such would be the case with us! Father Pat thought that the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 21st 2014, would be the perfect time for us to be brought into the Church. We were surprised and overjoyed at this news. Since our children were all ready and willing to join us in this, we all set to work making preparations.
Now, coming into the Catholic Church isn't just a simple transfer of membership, or the changing of churches. It is truly a conversion in many, many ways. We all chose patron saint names with which to be confirmed. I just couldn't decide between St. Francis of Assisi and St. Michael the Archangel. Father Pat assured me I could be named both. Cindy chose St. Margaret of Scotland. Valerie chose St. Winifred. Brett chose St. George, a nod in the direction of our Anglican background. Jillian chose St. Martha, and Julie chose St. Cecilia. We also had to choose sponsors. Brett and I chose my brother-in-law Doug, Cindy chose her close friend Michelle. Valerie and Jillian chose Cindy's sister Sarah, and Julie choose her cousin Emily. They would all stand with us and lay hands on us during our reception and confirmation. Most important, during the week prior to our reception and communion, all of us would make our first confession. Having already experienced "auricular" confession with several Episcopal and Anglican priests, I was not daunted by this at all, in fact, I was chomping at the bit. Cindy was understandably nervous. Father Pat was God's servant for her in her first confession, and she discovered the wisdom and counsel that arises out of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. After her time, I walked in to the confessional, and sat down opposite Father Pat and said, "Father, I hope you brought a snickers bar, because we're going to be here for a while!" He chuckled and said, "Jay, there is nothing you can tell me that I haven't heard before countless times!" I shared my life story, my struggle with sin, my failures to live as God wanted me to live, and my need for help. Father Pat was patient, a keen observer of the underlying needs I had, and a wise counselor with specific ways to help me live as God would have me live. When he pronounced absolution, I wept openly. He gave me a wonderful hug and we both walked out of the confessional. I embraced Cindy and continued to weep. We then visited with Father Pat for a time, and I felt as if chains, shrouds, and weights had all been lifted off of me. St. James' admonition to "confess your sins one to another" suddenly came alive for me in a whole new way.
And so, on December 21st, 2014, the Hershbergers swam the Tiber River. The water was warm, inviting, and cleansing. From that time forth we were known as
Jay Alan Francis Michael Hershberger
Cynthia Ann Margaret Hershberger
Valerie Ann Winifred Hershberger
Brett Daniel George Hershberger
Jillian Marie Martha Hershberger
Julie Anna Cecilia Hershberger
And here is a picture of the whole clan that day, including our sponsors, Father Pat (upper left) and Deacon Tom (upper right).
And so now you know our story. It is only one step along a continuing journey, however. The Christian life is a journey of faith, not a one-time event. Jesus is the object and heaven is the goal. The path is difficult, rocky, sometimes obscured, and sometimes God only allows one to see ahead by one or two steps. But Jesus provides the means of God's grace, the strength to make the journey, the light to light the path, and the nourishment to continue on. Such love, mercy, and peace. God picks us up when we fall and says, "now begin again and keep going." We are helped and cheered on by a tremendous cloud of witnesses in the arena of heaven. Only by God's grace and will of love towards us can we ever truly stay on that pathway to Himself.
Oh, Joyful Light, of the Holy Glory of the Father Immortal.
Heavenly, Holy, Blessed, Jesus Christ,
since we have come, to the setting of the sun,
and have seen the evening light,
we praise God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
It is proper for you to be praised at all times by fitting melody.
Oh, Son of God, Giver of Life,
wherefore the world glorifies You.--Melkite Catholic Church setting of the Phos hilaron