I’ll never forget March 2005. Slumped in front of the TV, I watched with the world as Pope John Paul II lay dying. I wept at images of old and young thronging St. Peter’s Square and at news clips from the past: millions cheering his return to his native Poland; World Youth Day 1993 in Denver; the Berlin Wall crumbling; a glowing face, bowed in prayer. And most heart-rending: a feeble pontiff straining to utter a sound, betrayed by paralyzed vocal chords.
Riveted, I watched for hours—Thursday, Friday, Saturday. My tears streamed for this pope I never knew, for my dear friend Helen, who died of cancer two months before, and for numerous estrangements, losses, and griefs of a lifetime.
Dabbling and Drifting. Two miserable marriages, prolonged therapy and personal healing, and, eventually, two annulments had devoured more than two decades of my life, depleting me of any interest I might have had in a pope. Besides, I am a baby boomer. In the sixties I had nurtured an attitude of searing contempt towards authority. As a young Catholic in the post-Vatican II era, I had watched traditions collapse, and priests and religious leave the church in droves.
Searching for answers as structures crumbled around me, I dabbled in various non-Christian paths. Finally, in 1979 while participating in a Catholic charismatic prayer community, I committed my life to Jesus Christ.
But rejection of authority came easy. I never liked anyone else telling me what to do. So though I now called Jesus my Lord, I held onto the rebellious “protest” mentality of the sixties, following Jesus when convenient and following my own opinions when not. I didn’t notice that my conscience was growing increasingly dulled and that my own opinions were formed less by biblical and church teaching and more by the secular culture around me. In time I drifted out of Catholicism into another denomination.
Increasingly passive, I became less able to act according to my values. When voices of political correctness roared, I caved. Like the time my friend Helen and I were invited by her friend, Joanne, to join some people picketing an abortion clinic in another city.
Frozen to my chair, I felt heat flood my face. Thoughts collided: Abortion is murder . . . but . . . who am I to impose my values on others? Terrified to say yes, ashamed to say no, my heart pounded as the kitchen clock ticked. Finally, Helen spoke: “I don’t feel called to do that.”
Overcome with relief, I let myself off the hook. If Helen wasn’t called to this, then I wasn’t either, right?
Surprised by Divine Mercy. So on Saturday, April 2, 2005, there I sat, weeping for the pope, for Helen, and for who knows what unnamed losses. Then, as the death bells tolled, right on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, it happened. Out of the blue came this thunderbolt thought: The next morning, I could go to church—not to the service I’d been attending these last fourteen years, but to Mass at the nearby cathedral! Joy rippled within me. It was just a hint of things to come.
And slowly I came back, drawn to follow Jesus in the Catholic Church. I took small steps, re-entering gradually: making my first Confession in over thirty years, receiving the Eucharist, joining a parish. With trepidation, I sampled Catholic programming on television and radio. Surprised at the broadcasts’ professional quality, I was moved by hosts and guests who proclaimed their faith with passionate boldness as they addressed burning issues of the day. Any discomfort I felt when I deemed a program too conservative, preachy, or threatening was resolved with a quick flip of the channel.
A sense of desire and anticipation grew within me, and I began noticing a pattern emerging. It went something like this: God would move—often totally unnoticed by me—to soften some parched piece of ground in my heart. Then he would nudge me to do my part: to surrender that piece of my heart to him. In time, God would move again, pouring out a new measure of mercy, inviting me to respond. My part was simply to do whatever he asked. That’s it. Simple, yet profound. Alternating actions, with God leading and me following. Blinders being lifted, walls removed.
Making It Real. It’s now been over five years since that spring of mercy opened anew into my life. Gradually, distortions, lies, and ill informed views of Catholicism have been replaced with truth. Griefs have been healed. New friends and old, earthly and heavenly, walk alongside me, loving Jesus and sharing the joy I feel at being back in the Catholic fold. I have been blessed with a love for our Holy Father and a growing respect for his authority. Confusion and passivity are slipping away, and I am growing more able to act in a manner that’s consistent with my beliefs. And divine mercy still keeps meeting me at every turn, drawing, forgiving, strengthening, empowering.
Recently, I pulled my Toyota alongside the local Planned Parenthood center, where abortions are performed every other Friday. Two car doors opened. I fiddled with my rosary as my friends got out. I dillydallied, checked my cell phone. Nervous. Never done this before. What if there’s an incident? What if the “wrong” people see me out here? Help me, Lord.
At last I joined the others curbside and soon fell into the soothing, familiar rhythms of prayer. Nothing weird or scary or threatening happened. A few women, very young, came and went as we prayed. Seeing them made it all worthwhile. Whatever their business, whatever their plight, here were children of God desperately in need of prayer. Here was something I could do to carry God’s mercy onto the pavement and into needy lives. Thank you, Lord, for getting me here today. And yes, if you ask, I will come again.
"Be Not Afraid"! Every so often I continue to catch a sense of john Paul II, cheering, blessing, and yes, prodding me along the way. "Be not afraid! Be not afraid to open your heart to Christ!" Those blessed words throb like a drumbeat and encourage me along uncharted roads.
Maybe they can encourage you as well. Because while the circumstances of my return to the Catholic Church are unique, my call to conversion is not. You too—no matter where you are in life, however near or far you are from God—you are being called by our Lord.
At this very moment, he is pouring divine mercy into your life. Your part? Come to him. Come as you are: parched, exhausted, weak, or simply wanting more. Surrender. He's inviting you to take a step. Take it. Obey the nudge.
Healing, transformation, strengthening, and so much more will be given you. And God will bring needy people your way. Your part? Share the mercy you are given. Pass it on!
Margaret Ann Stimatz is a mental health professional living in Helena, Montana.