St. Augustine and a patient husband led this long-searching Christian to Catholicism

St. Augustine and a patient husband led this long-searching Christian to Catholicism

Juliana Pybus is confirmed at Holy Name Catholic Church in Sheridan, Colo., on Easter 2019.
Juliana Pybus is confirmed at Holy Name Catholic Church in Sheridan, Colo., on Easter 2019.

.- For Colorado native Juliana Pybus, faith has always been a central part of her life.

She was raised as a member of the Churches of Christ, an ecclesial community that is democratic, lacking a central authority, and leans heavily on the idea of sola scriptura - “if it's in the Bible you do it, and if it's not, you don't do it,” Pybus told CNA.

It was the church of her mother’s side of the family. Her grandfather was a heavily involved elder, a song leader, and a founder of one of the communities. Pybus’ mother had been going to the church since birth; her father, a lapsed Catholic, joined the Church of Christ upon marriage.

But despite her family’s strong ties, Juliana struggled to feel a connection to the small community. She joined a youth group in 6th grade, but there were only 10 kids, and she was the only girl her age.

“I was born in a year where it was just mostly guys. And at that age, you're not really going to interact with them,” Juliana recalled. “So I just never connected. I never really got involved there.”

In high school, Juliana started making friends with a lot of people who were involved in the St. Frances Cabrini youth group, a large group at a Catholic parish with involved priests and seminarians. Juliana said she was drawn to the enthusiasm and friendship of the leaders and members, the beauty and reverence of the Mass, and the intellectual arguments related to the Christian faith.

“(The seminarian leaders) weren't pushy about it, but they just were really good at talking about apologetics and what they believed and why they believed it. It was the first time that I think I had an intellectual explanation of anything faith-related. It was very logical in itself.”

At the time, Juliana’s parents did not voice strong objections to her involvement in the Catholic youth group.

“I remember the first time [my mother] dropped me off, she said something to the effect of, ‘just always think about what the Bible says.’ But [the youth group] had very biblical answers for all my questions,” she said. “She didn't say much about it, but we never talked a whole lot about...faith and deep things.”

For the most part, Juliana’s parents were happy about her involvement in the group.

“[My dad] was happy that I went, and I think that was my mom’s take too, was at least I had friends, I was going to youth group and I'm not doing other things I could be doing in high school. Like lesser of two evils kind of thing,” she said.

By the end of her senior year, Juliana was poised to convert to Catholicism - she said she was especially convinced after reading the bread of life discourse in the Gospel of John. A friend from the group had offered to be her confirmation sponsor, and she started talking with her family about it.

It did not go over well.

“When I told my mom, it was just a mess,” she said. “She was not happy about it. I don't know if mad is the right word...upset and confused, and probably had seen it coming, but didn't know what to do with it.”

Juliana said she also couldn’t bear the thought of telling her grandfather that she was leaving the community he loved.

“I couldn't get the courage to tell my grandpa. I just couldn’t do it,” she said. “He was a huge figure in my life. I looked up to him, really respected him, I did not want to do anything to disappoint him.”

Juliana went off to Abilene Christian University, her mother's alma mater, and doubts about her Catholic convictions continued to creep in. She tried to remain involved in Catholicism, but there were few Catholics in the area. She found an adoration chapel and joined RCIA, but she lacked the strong community she had in Denver.

“I started to wonder, well, maybe it was a social thing. Maybe it's not the right time. This is really creating a rift between me and my family, I don't like that. Maybe I was just rebelling, I don’t know. So I put it on pause. I felt like that was the best thing to do,” she said.

As school went on, Juliana studied philosophers such as Nietzsche and Marx who prompted her to question her faith even more. She also started spending time with a group of friends who were not very religious.

“I decided that the most responsible thing I could do, if I was ever going to believe anything, was to start from scratch as much as I could, just say I don't believe anything and see where I go,” she said. “This sounds weird in retrospect, but at the time I didn't know what else to do.”

She stopped going to church - kind of. “Sometimes I would go out of guilt,” she said.

But she couldn’t stay convinced that there was no God for long.

“I was like, ‘I think there must be something, and I don't know what, and maybe no one ever will, but it's not just us.’ I remember I was going home at night and I looked up … I just couldn't explain any of it - nature or how we work biologically. I just couldn't explain any of it without something higher, something outside.”

In her senior year, Juliana met Lawton, the man who would eventually become her husband. Faith-wise, they were in a similar place - discontented atheists who were sure there was more out there.

“I don't know if some people are just more drawn to (faith), if it's a personality thing... both of us were never content to stop looking for something. Maybe it was just grace, I really don’t know.”

When they started dating, Lawton had been occasionally going to an Episcopalian church in the area. Juliana started to join him.

“It was a gothic style church, really pretty,” she said.

Juliana said that in retrospect, she has always found herself drawn to beautiful churches and reverent liturgies.

“It was different, and sacred. And I don't think you get that in a lot of Protestant churches,” she said. “I'm not trying to critique, but (Protestants), we've got PowerPoint and we have a screen, we have Starbucks, you know?”

That Easter, after a lot of reading and consideration, Lawton was confirmed in the Episcopalian community - though he had also seriously considered the Orthodox Church.

Not long after, Juliana moved to North Carolina for work, while Lawton stayed in Texas for a year. They continued their relationship, and Juliana attended Episcopalian services on occasion.

When Lawton moved to join her in Raliegh, they decided they needed to become more involved with the Episcopalians. Juliana was confirmed, and they found a church they really liked, with a “high church” liturgical feel, active ministries, and a devout priest who was close to his people.

A year later, the priest to whom Juliana and Lawton – who were now married – had grown close announced to his congregation that he was converting to Catholicism.

“Lawton was like, ‘I respect him, I look up to him. What's he doing?’” So Lawton and Juliana started reading, and Lawton read a book on Church fathers, and St. John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Lawton was growing more convinced that Catholicism was true, but Juliana was actively trying to persuade him otherwise.

She said she had some resentments toward her high school experiences with Catholicism - she had started to doubt whether some of the friendships had been genuine. Her experience as an English major at a liberal arts school also jaded her against certain teachings of Catholicism.

"Who are you to say that you have truth, and who do you think you are?” Juliana said she thought of Catholicism at the time.

“Everything I would say, Lawton would have an answer for it, or he'd come back with an answer for it. And there didn't seem to be any arguing with it, so we just stopped talking about it for a while,” Juliana said.

When Lawton announced he had decided to convert, Juliana said she thought, “‘Well, I guess we'll figure it out.’ It was pretty painful though.”

A priest advised Lawton to wait a year to convert, since Juliana was not on board. He said he wanted them to talk about how they were going to raise their future children, and where they would go to church as a family. Lawton remained respectful of Juliana’s decision to remain Episcopalian, and attended services with her as well as Mass on Sundays.

Lawton joined RCIA, and after a time Juliana began attending with him, since he was making an effort to go to church with her. Most of the information was not new, she said, since they had both done a lot of reading about the Catholic Church. They made some good friends, but Juliana was still reticent to convert to Catholicism.

She said she started to accept that they would just believe different things, and they would work it out with their children as they came.

Some of the hardest things to accept about Catholicism for Juliana were its teaching against contraception, and the teaching authority the Church claims to have.

“Again, it was like, ‘Well, who are you to tell us what to do? This should be up to us,’” she said of her thoughts at the time on the Church’s teaching against contraception. “I get that in theory maybe it makes sense, but in practice, this is ridiculous that you'd ask people to do this.”

“And they claim authority. And so if you accept the authority, then you can kind of go along with everything else. But if not, it all kind of falls apart. So it's that lynch point,” Juliana said.

And having grown up a Protestant, she had a hard time coming around on Mary and the Eucharist.

“It was like, ‘Well, those are Catholic things. Those are where they went wrong,’” she said.

Lawton was confirmed into the Catholic Church in 2018, and that year they moved to Denver, having finished their graduate studies. They started attending Holy Name Catholic Church, a parish that had the liturgical elements and beautiful music they were looking for.

It was there that Juliana discussed some of her lingering hesitancies about Catholicism with the pastor, who encouraged her to read St. Augustine of Hippo's Confessions. At that time, Juliana said, she had “run out of arguments” and had intellectually accepted most things about the Church, but emotionally she was not yet on board.

She read the Confessions that summer in a month, during a bout of insomnia.

The story of St. Augustine’s own conversion - long in coming, reluctant in many ways - spoke to Juliana and convinced her that she needed to join the Catholic Church.

“I was hearing some of the things I'd gone through, and he's asking some of the same questions that I was asking, and he's feeling like he needs to move forward, but he tells God ‘not yet.’”

“I thought, ‘I guess if he could do it, I could do it.’ I just had a moment where I thought if anything's ever going to change or develop, this is the only way forward. If I stay here trying to get all the answers figured out, I'm going to be here forever. So I need to just do it,” she said.

Juliana was confirmed in the Catholic Church on Easter 2019, and chose St. Augustine as her confirmation saint. Since converting, she said it has felt peaceful and right.

“(I)f Christ really is who he says he is, then I believe that he intended to found a Church, and history, theology, and my own experience converged pointing to it being the Catholic Church. And that if Christ is the revealed truth and image of God, then following everything he taught and commanded should be, by grace, our only real goal in life,” she said.

“The Church seemed to provide the best groundwork for taking that seriously and offered the clearest path toward that, through sacraments and devotions and examples of the saints. And I wanted to be part of that communion, which despite so much ugliness lately and throughout history, has also produced so much beauty in art, literature, and especially the lives of the saints. It’s unpopular to say nowadays, but it all rang so clearly of truth that I couldn’t ignore it.”

“And honestly, having Lawton stay with me through long-distance and all the craziness, I think if it weren't for him...I wouldn't be Catholic if it wasn't for him.”