Skip to comments."You Have Not Chosen Me, But I Have Chosen You..." (23 Surprised Converts)
Posted on 10/23/2009 3:28:51 PM PDT by NYer
Donna Steichen is a longtime investigative journalist who has written numerous articles in various Catholic publications. She is also the author of Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism (Ignatius Press, 1991), and editor of Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church (Ignatius Press, 1999).
Her most recent book, Chosen: How Christ Sent Twenty-three Surprised Converts to Replant His Vineyard (Ignatius, 2009), contains the inspiring and often surprising stories of men and women who were not drawn to the Church by sound evangelization programs, beautiful buildings and liturgies, or saintly witnesses among the clergy, but were attracted to Catholicism in spite of deficient catechesis, mediocre Masses, and uninspiring leadership.
Steichen recently spoke with Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight about the book and related current events.
Ignatius Insight: How did this collection of conversion stories come about? How did you go about selecting the twenty-three stories in this volume?
Donna Steichen: This has been called the age of the "three verts" in the Church. Well, I kept hearing from reverts and converts wanting to tell me how they came to find themselves in the Church.
Each story was deeply moving. Because of my research on feminism, I decided that all the stories in my 1999 book, Prodigal Daughters, should be those of women reverts. This time, I wanted to focus especially on those giving awesome evidence that in a Catholic conversion, it is Christ who does the choosing.
Ignatius Insight: While each conversion story has unique details and elements, what are some of the essential, common themes and characteristics? What lessons might be learned from those?
Donna Steichen: The unifying theme, of course, is that it is God who chooses. The most striking affirmation is that God does truly forgive the penitent any sin, however scarlet. If we have been properly catechized, we know that truth intellectually, but in personal accounts we see it brought to vivid life.
For me, the most unexpected theme is God's persistence, the way He offers His love again and again, in patient but unremitting courtship of the soul. We see why Francis Thompson rightly calls Him "The Hound of Heaven".
Ignatius Insight: In the Introduction you write, "Some of their accounts are as astonishing as if they had been drawn from a collection of medieval miracle stories." Which accounts astonished or amazed you the most? Why?
Donna Steichen: It is hard to choose the single most memorable account, but certainly Russell Ford's experiences qualify as amazing. First he heard a voice telling him to be patient, but he wasn't patient. In doubt and despair, he tried to hang himself, but the nylon rope broke.
Then he swallowed 90 sleeping pills—enough to kill a horse, according to his doctor—and all that resulted was that he slept for two days. Finally he concluded that he had just better be patient. Another physical marvel was the medically attested, spontaneous healing of Kari Beckman's congenitally deformed reproductive system.
On a spiritual level, marvels can be found in every story: dramatic coincidences that cry out "Divine Providence, " like skeptic Stephanie Block enrolling in a philosophy class for the wrong reasons, and finding herself Alice Von Hildebrand's student.
A recurring element is an experience of God's presence as indescribable, enveloping love, as Roy Schoeman describes so poignantly in his account of meeting Jesus.
Ignatius Insight: What are some ways in which these converts are replanting Christ's vineyard, the Church?
Donna Steichen: Most of us serve God's will by fulfilling our daily responsibilities, doing the work that lies in front of us. Caring for one's family rarely looks spectacular from the outside, but that is the way Christ reaches most human hearts, and rebuilds society one person at a time. An extraordinary example is former Wicca priestess Shannon Counihan, now an oblate in the Norbertine Third Order, raising and home schooling her eight children.
Other converts plunge into society's battles, fighting against the tide of death: Stephen Mosher leading the very effective Population Research Institute against the population-controllers, Austin Ruse using his multiple gifts to guide and support well-meaning UN delegates from Third World countries, and William L. Toffler, battling in the medical world against the forces oflegalized killing.
Some few converts put aside everything else to follow Jesus. Father Sebastian Walshe and Father Augustine Tran, the two priests contributors to Chosen, make the nature of those decisions unforgettably clear in their stories.
Ignatius Insight: Your career as an author and journalist has spanned the post-Vatican II era, and you've written quite a bit about the upheaval and difficulty of those years. What are some of the most significant changes among Catholics and within the Church—either good or ill—that you've witnessed over the past forty-plus years?
Donna Steichen: Readers will find that narrative spelled out pretty clearly in my introduction to Chosen .To be brief, I'll cite liturgy and religious education. Changes in the liturgy as it is usually celebrated have brought about a loss of reverence, an assault on the sense of the sacred, and esthetic degradation.
In my opinion, however, the worst devastation around us has been caused by the abject failure of religious education, all the way from primary catechesis—which virtually ceased to exist—through Catholic "higher education, " which has largely been conducted as if it was intended to destroy belief in the doctrines of the faith. At that task it has been successful. We see the consequences in the large number of non-believers in public life, who continue to declare themselves "devout" Catholics while lobbying and legislating in fierce opposition to the moral teachings of the Church.
On a more positive note, many of the lay Catholics betrayed by ill-advised "experts" awoke to the dismal state of affairs and took steps to preserve the faith. The charismatic movement was a haven that saved thousands from leaving the Church. Participation in the pro-life movement educated participants about the sacredness of life while simultaneously introducing them to Evangelical allies, and teaching them important political skills.
The move to parent-controlled education took shape in a variety of forms: private academies, homegrown catechesis, home schooling, new and reformed colleges, periodicals and publishing houses, until today a parallel educational system exists, doing a vastly more effective job of providing Catholic education for those who are privileged to be part of it.
Ignatius Insight: Looking back at the state of the Catholic Church in the U.S. in 1969 and the years immediately following, what signs of hope do you see today?
Donna Steichen: There are signs of spring all around us. Besides those I have already cited, there is the happy phenomenon of good new bishops, exhibiting an enthusiasm and zeal for the faith that has been extremely rare in the past four decades. It is surprising how many of these are in the Midwest, where the collapse first began in the early 1960s.
Also, I rejoice in the surprising openness of the uncatechized young to the historic faith. They don't show the hostility that was common twenty years ago; many really seem to want to know what Catholicism is all about.
Ignatius Insight: Your 1991 book, Ungodly Rage (Ignatius Press), detailed the collapse of many women's religious orders following the Council. What were the most significant reasons for that collapse? What role did the LCWR play in that collapse?
Donna Steichen: Sisters who saw their communities disintegrate told me that it happened because the faithful nuns were obedient and docile, while those who became radicalized behaved as if the end justified the means. Having been told by purveyors of the spurious "Spirit of Vatican Two" that their former lives of self-sacrifice had been all wrong, they repudiated the ideal of taking up their crosses, and chose instead to seek power and autonomy in the overthrow of the patriarchy.
Observing their tactics, onemight suppose they had beentrained on Saul Alinsky's Rules For Radicals.
The LCWR was leading the drive.
Ignatius Insight: Do you think the current investigation by the Vatican of women's religious in the U.S. will result in meaningful renewal and change? Why or why not?
Donna Steichen: I don't know what to expect—possibly a document on the Religious Life. That could be helpful for the future. But I believe God has provided the real answer to the crisis in religious life in thriving traditional communities like the Nashville Dominicans, Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, and the new Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.
Ignatius Insight: What do you think are some of the most important issues and challenges facing Catholics in the United States in the next decade?
Donna Steichen: Living and teaching the faith so that it can transform the toxic culture in which we live.
A Religion the New York Times Can Love | Donna Steichen
Surprised by Conversion: The Patterns of Faith | Peter E. Martin
Warning: This Is a Dangerous Book | Lorraine V. Murray
From Catholicism to Radical Feminism and Back | An Interview with Lorraine V. Murray
Has The Reformation Ended? | An Interview with Dr. Mark Noll
Evangelicals and Catholics in Conversation | An Interview with Dr. Brad Harper
From Protestantism to Catholicism | Six Journeys to Rome
Thomas Howard and the Kindly Light | IgnatiusInsight.com
Objections, Obstacles, Acceptance: An Interview with J. Budziszewski | Ignatius Insight
Thomas Howard on the Meaning of Tradition | IgnatiusInsight.com
Why Catholicism Makes Protestantism Tick | Mark Brumley
Would love to post all of their conversion stories but will begin with that of Russell Ford.
My life, prior to June 22, 1987, means virtually nothing. Thats how I perceive it anyway. Although my peers tell me my life ceased that day, I steadfastly hold to the belief that it was then that I was conceived in the womb of Holy Mother Church. My friends contend life ended because that is the day I began serving a twenty-five year sentence in an Alabama prison but I actually was born (again) twenty months later. Consequently, the last ten years of my life have been alive, contrasted to the first thirty years of a zombiatic existence.
This convict-converts story begins in June, 1973. I was fifteen years old and hooked on amphetamines and barbiturates, ingesting one hundred pills a day. Having been reared without the benefit of being taught Christian virtue, the only means of escape from my fathers brutality my adolescent mind could conceive was drugs. I was slowly dying from my habit, was in full self-destruct mode, and had become suicidal. No teenager should live with such a burden in life (although millions do), but that is the hand I was dealt.
Keeping a promise to an acquaintanceprimarily because I had nothing else to doI attended the evening service at a Southern Baptist Church in the tiny Ozark town where we lived. Since I had no more pills in my stash, and no means of getting more, going to the church would be an interesting and painless distraction. It turned out to be far more than I had bargained for.
If you have ever lived in a small town you know how everyone knows everybody elses business and how a bad reputation gets its recipient ostracized from life. Everyone at the small church (largest in town, but still small) knew who I was, that I had a drug problem, and that I was trouble. Still true to their belief that Jesus died for all men, these people treated me with a kindness to which I was unaccustomed. They got my attention. The next thing to grab my attention was the singing. I was impressed that those simple country folk actually believed it when they sang, "Oh victory in Jesus, my Savior forever! He sought me and bought me with his redeeming blood! He loved me ere I knew him, and all my love is due him! He plunged me to victory, beneath the cleansing flood!" They were excited about this Jesus.
The kindness shown to me, the devout singing, and the pastors words during the sermon took their toll. For the first time since I was seven, hope was trying to nudge despair out of the way. I began to see a possible alternative to suicide. I stepped forward during the invitational hymn. At approximately 8:00 P.M. on June 17, 1973, I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. With the help of two new friends at the church, I was able to kick the drug habit and rebuild my health. Thanks be to God, I have been drug free for a quarter of a century now.
Not long after getting my life on track I felt the call to preach. I was told to test the call by preaching. The results are part of a much longer story, but the congregants were excited enough to begin planning my future. They decided which Baptist university I would attend, which Baptist seminary, and how the first several years of my career would be spent. I didnt mind, though, as I had never known such a degree of interest before.
My pastor and the two associate pastors had become my mentors. While other kids were cruising or on dates, I was engaged in Bible study and lively discussions with those three exceptional Christian men. These men taught me to love Scripture, thus replacing a prior love for great intellectual works like Rolling Stone and National Lampoon. I think it not at all hyperbolic to say I have probably forgotten more Scripture passages than most Catholics will ever know.
Studying the Bible began to present a problem during my senior year of high school. I had no way of knowing it then, but God had begun to plant the seeds for Catholicism. My study of Scripture was beginning to cause doctrinal conflicts. For example, it seemed to me that the words of Jesus plainly taught the need for baptism, something Baptists view as a mere ordinance. I had trouble with John 20:23; was Jesus contradicting himself by teaching to forgive sin, then giving the apostles a choice of forgiving and retaining? I wondered about binding and loosing (Matt. 18:18). Although I couldnt put my finger on it, I knew there had to be something more to the "Lords Supper" than an oyster cracker and a swallow of Welchs finest.
Trying to discuss my growing list of theological difficulties with my mentors became a study in futility. When my questions or assertions backed them into a corner, I was either told my ideas were simply wrong or was told to wait until I made it to college and seminary to learn the deepest theological truths.
My pastor was on the board of regents for the college I was to attend, so I stuffed my doubts and questions until I could get there. At the college I met a new mentor, the chairman of the evangelism department. When he realized my questions were heartfelt concerns and not merely a new student trying to impress his professor, the good doctor met with me two or three times a week on his own time to discuss my difficulties. Our discussions always began amiably enough, but inevitably ended in frustration for us both. I asked questions, and the professor gave his best answers. Unfortunately, his answers only led to deeper questions. We would come full circle, back to the original question. He threw up his arms in frustration and exclaimed, "Mr. Ford, some things about Christianity are simply not intended to be known!"
Hogwash, I thought. I could not conceive of a God who would expect me to believe or be damned (Mark 16:16) and not tell me what to believe. I had reached a point of spiritual crisis. I knew I no longer could preach what Id been taught, as I no longer could believe it. The implication was that I would have to get my answers or leave school and any possibility of the ministry.
My mentor picked up on my sense of urgency when we met the last time. We began our usual discussion, quickly lapsing into the circular arguments that had become the hallmark. This time, though, the professor ended our discussion by adding one statement to his typical close: "Mr. Ford, perhaps you should reconsider your call to the ministry." I agreed. I left school the next morning and made a beeline for the Army recruiters office.
After my training with the Army was complete, I began to search for religious truth. I dont know why, but it never occurred to me to investigate any religion outside of Christianity, and I had been so prejudiced against Catholicism that it also never occurred to me to check out Rome. It took only two years of searching before I lapsed into fullblown agnosticism, living as a practical atheist.
Unaware it had become a religion to me, I gradually bought into secular humanism with an emphasis on capitalism. I decided God was in me, and that essentially made me a god. Power, money, possessions, and sex became the motivating factors in my life. I remember hearing testimonies from Baptist converts when I was in high school, telling how the more they had the more they wanted. They complained of feeling empty and unsatisfied. I didnt understand what they were talking about then, but I do now.
I kept thinking that just a little more money or another new car or one more woman would make me happy and fulfilled. Each time I achieved what I wanted I was unfulfilled. It became a vicious cycle of want-get-want more. I had become unhappy and cynical. The unhappiness brought bitterness, and the bitterness made me a dangerous man.
I was no doubt starved for truth. At those times when I was at my lowest, and when I was alone, I somehow mustered enough humility to pray. I fell to my knees and through my tears begged: "Jesus, if you are who you say you are, appear to me! Come to me and tell me the answers. If you appear, Ill stay at your feet to love and worship you!" The answer was always silence.
My lifestyle had become a greased slide to hell. I eventually descended so far down the shaft of indecency that I committed a felony in 1987. The judge rewarded me with a quarter century to experience Southern hospitality in Alabamas prisons. Once again I was suicidal. It wasnt an irrational tendency toward suicide, but rather well reasoned. Since I no longer believed in life after death, it made no sense to spend the next twentyfive years suffering in prison. I mulled this over for about a year and had just about made up my mind to take my life when Providence intervened.
A convict had been transferred from another prison and placed on the bunk next to mine. The old man automatically had my respect when I learned he had already served twenty-five years (now thirty-five). His age and the amount of time he had served are the only reasons I tolerated Michael A. Mayola when he decided to make me his project. I was lonesome, ornery, and mean. Mike was taking his life in his hands by bothering me, and he knew it. Writing about our first meeting several years later he stated, "Russell Ford was the most evil man I had ever met." Mike knew I was tolerating him, but he pushed it to the limit.
Mike began by baiting me with a few simple religious questions. When he sensed I was losing interest, he challenged me to take a test out of an old childrens Baltimore Catechism, telling me he didnt believe I could pass it. My intelligence having been insulted, I took up the challenge. I passed the test with a 100 percent score. (I wonder how many readers could pass a test from an old Baltimore Catechism.) Mike promised that if I passed he would leave me alone, but I wouldnt let him. I sensed this old convict might have the answers to my questions. I took up studying the catechism with him, but I never told him of my questions. I wanted to see if Catholicism could stand on its own without being tailored to fit me.
Mike wanted to study an hour a day. After two weeks of learning the faith, I couldnt get enough. We studied at least eight hours a day for nine months, and I was still hungry.
Not long after our studies began I realized the Catholic Church was the one founded by Jesus. I also realized I would have to become a Catholic. But my decision was purely intellectual. My emotional decision to become a Catholic came on August 24, 1988. The feast of St. Bartholomew was the day Mike taught me about the Holy Eucharist. As it began to dawn on me what Mike was saying about the Real Presence, my mind flashed back to all those times when I begged Jesus to show himself to me so I could worship him. I was now to discover he had been there all along, waiting for me at the nearest Catholic Church. Listening to Mikes explanation of transubstantiation and the Body, Blood, soul, and divinity of the Eucharistic Jesus, I suddenly fell helplessly, hopelessly, passionately in love with the Eucharist. Tears from over a decade of agony, frustration, and bitterness fell down my cheeks. I wept so hard Mike had to stop my lesson.
God is a God of mercy, but he is also a God of justice. He has answered my prayers and shown me his truth. He has shown me himself physically. Such is his mercy. Oh, but his painful justice! I had meant it when I told him I would stay at his feet to worship him if he would show himself. Unfortunately, all of the sins of my life that led me to prison increased his suffering on Calvary to an almost irreparable degree. My punishment under his justice? I get to hear Mass only once a month (if we can get a priest), and I never get a chance to adore him in his Eucharistic Presence. Jesus permitted me an opportunity to adore him once in 1992. Never since.
I was incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1989. Since then Jesus has blessed me with the opportunity to share my faith with thousands of other convicts. The Holy Spirit has used me to aid in the conversion of over one hundred of them, fifty of whom are my godsons. There are hundreds of stories I could write about prison evangelization, prison apologetics, and living the faith against all odds in prison. Indeed, a hefty book could be written. Perhaps someday I shall.
>>I wonder how many readers could pass a test from an old Baltimore Catechism<<
I don’t know if I could.
Wow. Truly amazing. My list, too, and to give as well.
I’m getting this book as soon as I can...
When I read this, my first thought was of the words of our Lord to St. Faustina on the topic of 'Chosen Souls'
Chosen souls are, in My hand, lights which I cast into the darkness of the world and with which I illumine it. As stars illumine the night, so chosen souls illumine the earth. And the more perfect a soul is, the stronger and the more far-reaching is the light shed by it. It can be hidden and unknown, even to those closest to it, and yet its holiness is reflected in souls even to the most distant extremities of the world. (1601)
Roy Schoeman's story has captivated me since the first time I read it. I have also read his book Salvation is from the Jews, which delves deep into Paul's gospel to the Hebrews to show how God pulled a veil across their eyes until the time is right.
This looks like an excellent book.
This looks like the perfect gift.
God works in mysterious ways. He wills all to come to salvation.
bump for later.