One year ago this week, I was deep into my summer pastoral assignment at the Pontifical Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem, Israel. That summer was absolutely incredible—any who read my column regularly will know that I have an exceeding fondness for the Holy Land. I met friends there with whom I continue to be close; our shared experiences of the holiness of the place and the magnificence of the people formed a bond that has lasted. I simply cannot recommend it enough.
My experience of Israel was supercharged beyond my wildest imagination, however, I will never forget August 12, 2008 when a young man wandered into Notre Dame. I’m not really sure he knew what he was searching for, but he found a hint of it in Mass one Sunday evening, and the next day I was speaking with Joshua about Christianity and the Catholic faith.
What transpired was the most amazing ten days of my life—yes, ten days. Joshua went from being unbaptized and uncatechized to a fully incorporated Catholic on the Feast of the Queenship of Mary. I was given the grace to walk with him on his journey, which consisted of one magnificent intervention of the Holy Spirit after another—a process I could not hope to capture in one short column. At his baptism and confirmation, I stood as his godfather, and I will never forget the Mass we had together the next morning in the Tomb of Christ in the Holy Sepulcher. Joshua came to Israel, lived in the Holy Land for almost three months, found Jesus Christ as present as he was 2000 years ago, became Catholic, and then went home the next day. He had a profound impact on my life—not just as a sign of the power of the Holy Spirit, but also as a true friend—the kind of person who might come around in your life only once or twice.
A couple of weeks ago, Joshua came to visit me in Atlanta. He lives in the western United States but decided to spend the lion’s share of his vacation with me. I was so happy to see him. Interestingly, the day he arrived, I was just finishing with a four-day conference on the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program, where he met me for Sunday Mass.
From the information at the conference, it seems that the most difficult-to-implement aspect of RCIA is not the teaching or the regularization of canonical situations or the apologetics or dealing with families. Generally speaking, the part of RCIA most lacking is the mystagogical period. This period, which follows the initiation of the candidates and catechumens at the Easter Vigil, is often neglected or overlooked. A long-held tradition in the Church, many Church Fathers wrote on the theme (St. Cyril of Jerusalem in particular), recognizing that to truly penetrate sacramental mysteries, one must first receive the sacraments in faith. Only after receiving sacramental grace can one plumb the depths of the mystery which has now become an interior experiential reality. Tragically, this process is difficult in the American milestone achievement mindset—because once we have received the sought-after goal, we often simply drift away seeking our next accomplishment.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I learned that Joshua had really been living this mystagogical period well. Rather than lose his fervor, I witnessed that his faith has deepened and matured. I really shouldn’t be surprised I suppose; after all, I knew he was exceptional when I met him—he soaked up everything I threw at him—and that was a lot. He explained to me that since his initiation into the Church, he regularly reads the Scriptures and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, especially before Mass.
Joshua has a real thirst for knowledge about his faith. Many converts do: something about their searching in life leads them to desire a deeper knowledge of God. Perhaps it is the dominant Protestant and Evangelical culture in our country that questions—sometimes harshly—the beliefs of Catholics. Many converts, coming from these other faiths, are excellent apologists—and I must say that Joshua is well on his way to the same.
When I think of his story, of his conversion, and of his life in the past year, something deep inside of me is moved. Everyone reacts to the Holy Spirit in a different way. I have never in my life had a more direct experience of the majesty of God’s providence than my experience with Joshua last summer. To see how his faith has grown, and to remember the influence I have had on it, however imperfect, is a source of great comfort for me.
I was speaking with an agnostic the other day, and we began talking about the phrase “the certainty of faith.” He made the point that faith is belief in that about which we cannot be certain—otherwise it would not be faith but knowledge. I have been thinking about that conversation as I have been reflecting on this column. I understand the phrase “the certainty of faith,” but I am not sure I can explain it to anyone. I think that ultimately it is something you just have to experience: I know with absolute certainty that my interaction with Joshua a year ago and his entrance into new life was entirely the work of the Holy Spirit. I know with absolute certainty that the Lord had been working on him his entire life, and his moment in Jerusalem was the culmination of a perfect plan. And I also know with absolute certainty that this culmination was but a beginning, and that the Lord has great things planned for Joshua. All of this certainty is built upon the rock of the faith that I have received from the Church, a faith I have experienced and deepened and reconfirmed in my journey.
Ultimately, mystagogy never really ends. I’m still there, and I am grateful to be there with my godson and friend Joshua.