.- It is easy to see after spending just a few minutes with Tiara Chivers that her faith is very dear to her. She clearly remembers her experiences as a child and has kept a scrapbook of significant mementos from her adult faith life also.
One of her earliest memories is attending a Protestant church with her parents and older brothers. It was an important time for her as a young girl growing up in Michigan because she always felt a connection with God and the church. However, she remembers that it wasn’t long before she was attending services all by herself.
“As I child I would go to church with my family, but very quickly my parents and my brothers kind of fell off of going to church,” she said. “But some of my earliest memories are of my mom making sure I went.”
“I was so excited. I loved church,” she added.
Chivers continued attending services alone, always taking with her a handkerchief neatly packed with coins for the collection given to her by her mother. As she entered her teenage years she began “hitchhiking” to church, asking friends and neighbors if they were going on Sunday so she could ride along.
When she was 15, Chivers participated in a foreign exchange program that sent her to study and live with a Catholic family in Madrid, Spain. She learned about Spanish language and culture and, especially, about the faith of her host family.
“I remember going to Mass, and I remember vividly walking in . . . and it just felt like home,” she said.
Even though the Mass was celebrated in a language she could not fully understand, she felt an immediate connection to the liturgy.
“I was at peace. I just knew that was it,” she said.
She considers that the beginning of her journey home to the Catholic Church, even though it would not be complete for years.
Back in the United States, Chivers finished college and graduate school before moving to Shreveport, La., to work for General Electric.
Oddly enough, she stumbled on the name of a Catholic church in Shreveport that popped up while she was doing Internet searches. After three months of seeing encouraging signs around her, she contacted the church and entered their RCIA program for people interested in becoming Catholic.
Her family and friends back home did not necessarily oppose her decision, but she says they were confused and unsure about why she felt the need to take this step in her faith journey.
However, after noticing subtle changes in her attitudes and beliefs, friends and coworkers became interested in her new way of life. They began to ask what she was learning in RCIA and the jokes and stereotypes about Catholics began to lessen.
As a gift for her baptism and entrance into the Catholic Church in 2005, her mother gave her a new handkerchief, a touching symbol and reminder of how her mother continued to encourage Chivers in her faith even when she herself did not practice.
“I could see them come around and really become accepting of my church and my church family,” she said. “And ever since then I found a sense of community with the church.”
For someone used to going to church alone, a sense of community was one of the ways she felt sure that she was on the path God had prepared for her.
Another sign came when she met Father Mark Mary during a women’s group visit to the Eternal Word Television Network studios in Alabama. When she told the priest that she was going on a parish pilgrimage to Italy, he asked her if she would say a prayer for him at a certain place in St. Peter’s Basilica where there was a painting of St. Peter healing a cripple. This was where Father Mark Mary celebrated his first Mass after ordination.
“I had never been to Italy or St. Peter’s, so I didn’t know what to expect,” she recalled.
When they arrived in Rome, they learned that their group had been “bumped” from a Mass they’d been scheduled to hold at the gravesite of St. Peter and moved to a small altar for their liturgical celebration.
“As we were walking to the back . . . I looked up and saw this painting,” she said with a smile.
She took out a picture that Father Mark Mary had e-mailed her and realized she had unexpectedly found the place where he had asked her to say a prayer.
Chivers formed such a connection with Italy that shortly after she returned home, she felt called to go back and live there in order to become immersed in her newfound Catholic faith.
Taking a leave of absence from her job, she flew to Italy with her belongings in hand, living initially in a Bridgettine convent while looking for an apartment. It was an exciting and scary experience to move thousands of miles from home to become closer to God.
She attended the papal audiences every Wednesday and Masses at the Vatican, always getting there early so she could get a spot up front. She remembers feeling such joy at the opportunity to worship with Pope Benedict XVI in person. After awhile, he began to notice her presence at the events.
“I don’t quite blend in with the Italian people,” Chivers said with a chuckle, but she was still surprised when the pope would give her a knowing smile whenever he saw her. There was even one time when, after greeting the people, he was about to exit when he saw Chivers and came back to shake her hand. It is a moment that has stuck with her.
When she moved back to the United States and began working in the Atlanta area, she became involved with the young adult ministry at the Cathedral of Christ the King, where she is a parishioner.
Chivers encourages others who have drifted away from the Catholic Church or those who are interested for the first time to take a look at the Church again with new eyes.
“It is hard,” she said about coming into the Catholic Church, especially when one has to wade through stereotypes or deal with past disappointing experiences with the Church. “But as you think about all the Church has to offer . . . take a look at it from a fresh perspective.”
“Just give it a chance,” she added with a smile.
Printed with permission from the Georgia Bulletin, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.