The story of St. Paul's conversion is a very powerful one. Many Christians refer to the fact that God can melt anyone's heart, even when that person is a great persecutor of Christians. While many debate what St. Paul had actually seen and experienced when he had his encounter with Christ, including the secular world who claim that it was an experience based on guilt or possibly a heat stroke. Still, there is something to be said about a man who turned away from his life of privilege in order to join the movement that he once persecuted.
In looking at the theological significance of this event it comes down to the reality of what it means to encounter Christ. For St. Paul, it was on the road to Damascus but what is it like for each of us while we walk to our own Damascus. We often hear the stories of those who come from other faiths and their conversion to Catholicism. Many of them have beautiful stories of how they came to their decision. But what about those who were born into the faith? Can they have a conversion story?
Many cradle Catholics are more “culturally Catholic”, practicing the faith without an understanding of the deep-seeded truths within the rituals or prayers, A 2015 study by PEW Research found that more than half of Catholics born into the faith leave the Church with only a handful coming back. Another study found that only about one-third of Catholics actually believe in Transubstantiation, that the bread and the wine actually become the Body and Blood of Christ during Consecration.
Faith is an internal journey, often marred by the struggles we each encounter or even just the day-to-day distractions that pull us away from maintaining our relationship with God. The issue with Catholicism is it is not a faith that will seek you, you must seek the faith yourself by delving into your interior being. It takes work, and just like it says in the letter of James “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”
The word conversion comes from the Latin convertĕre meaning “to turn around”, a change in direction. For cradle Catholics, this conversion can go one of several ways. Some become atheists, completely abandoning the idea of a faith practice. Some maintain some agnosticism, where they don’t fully believe but don’t disbelieve in God. Others convert to other denominations of Christianity. But there are those who actually grasp their Catholicism, rediscovering their faith in a whole new light and go from being culturally Catholic to a faithful Catholic. There is a transition period that varies in length, for some it’s weeks, others it’s months, and for many others it may take years.
Each being raised in the faith, partaking in the practices and rituals, neither author of this blog understood the deeper meanings, the why behind the faith and its practices, they just knew the how. Now they reflect on their own conversion stories
“Yes, Lord” – Carlos’s story
I was born and raised in the faith, which was why it was always close to me in one way or another. Therefore, my conversion was not so much me discovering the truth of Jesus Christ as taught by the Roman Catholic Church but in the feeling of change during those moments of saying yes to the Lord. This is why I appreciate the Church's teaching on how conversion is a lifelong process as this has certainly been a part of my faith journey.
With that being said, I would like to share three significant moments in my life that have brought me to where I am today. Yes, I am still a student of the faith and I relish the idea of having to spend the rest of my life growing as a Catholic, but these moments helped define me in a way that allowed me to arrive to the place where I belong, which is right here and right now.
My parents made the decision to put me in Catholic school when I was about to start high school. It was not something I appreciated at the time having to start over and leaving friends and acquaintances I’d known since preschool. However, I did appreciate the fact that it was a campus that I was familiar with: St. Anthony High School in Long Beach, CA. My father worked there for many years and remained until he retired years after I completed my high school studies.
I did not have the highest grades, nor was I the most vocal, but there was something about these classes that really made me think about my faith. In fact, it was as early as my freshmen year when I first contemplated the idea of being a theology teacher. The seed had been planted.
Drumming is one of my passions, and I began college at at El Camino Community College in Torrance, California as a music major. In my second year, I befriended many devout Christians who challenged me as a Catholic. I don't know if this was a coincidence or God keeping an eye on me due to the fact that I was already performing in night clubs. Many of my evangelical friends asked a lot of intriguing questions, and I often felt unqualified to answer them. This led me to ask my father to take me to a couple of Catholic bookstores so I could get pick up some books that really explained the faith.
The light of Spirit not only shone on me, but it also illuminated the faith that was in my heart. Now I had a deeper understanding of the things that I had believed and done all my life, and was now I was able to go back to school and explain my Catholic beliefs to my peers. Aside from that, I was now able to say that I was now Catholic because I choose to be and not just because I was raised in the faith. How important was this to me? Within a couple of years when I was not studying at Cal State Long Beach I would eventually change my major from Music to Religious Studies.
Fast forward to 2021. I was an experienced veteran teacher, had already co-founded HCD, published author while still working as a professional musician. Everything seemed to be going really well. My faith was a part of my livelihood and right there hovering over me, keeping me out of trouble. But was that enough? Is that how a Catholic is supposed to live? Is it a day job at work and Mass on the weekends or was I supposed to do more?
I looked in the mirror....and with the help of ministry partner, I made a leap of faith. I let go of a big part of my life: performing in nightclubs and casinos. Yes, there are the occasional dinner gigs and time spent working on my own music but, it was time to focus more on my faith life, our ministry and giving more of my time to my family rather than thinking about how my working gigs were providing for my family or, admitting to myself that I not only enjoyed performing but that I was trying to let a part of my ego fill a void in my heart that only God could fill.
How was this a conversion experience? I saw what God gave to me after trusting in Him. As soon as I took that leap of faith HCD got even busier. My family life improved. I was even more focused teaching my classes at work. And, in doing God's work my heart was filled by the Lord and it made me feel like a new man. Of course I am far from perfect but the newness I felt was this notion that I was on the right path, which was a path I could not find had I not made a big decision.
Yes Lord, I trust in You.
Listening to the Call – Angel’s story
You might ask how someone whose family went to Church every Sunday and went to Catholic school for twelve years felt they knew nothing of their own faith, but by the time I had graduated high school, I knew the basics and that was it. I knew the prayers, I knew the responses to Mass so I didn’t look like a fool. But how deep did I actually take the words of the prayers I recited? I didn’t even know or understand where many of these prayers originated or what they meant. But I memorized them, I knew how to behave in Church, when to sit, when to stand, when to kneel. So how did I go from someone who knew the bare minimum to suddenly founding a ministry and teaching Catechism?
Firstly, being raised in a Catholic family and going to Catholic school for so long actually can, and hopefully does, instill some intrinsic values planted deep within. But at the time I saw no value in my education and took theology classes for granted. Once it went beyond memorizing the 10 Commandments and the words to the prayers, nothing stuck. Years later, with what I have to do in ministry, I looked back and wished I had paid more attention in theology classes because it could have cut some time on my research, but I realized I just was not ready to take it in.
One of my earliest faith awakenings happened during my Confirmation 3-day retreat when I was 16. It was an emotional experience, one that I had not expected. I’ll be honest I did not find my catechists those two years very inspiring, but the sense of community I felt during those 3 days up on the snow-filled mountains with my peers and the all-powerful working Spirit ignited a fire in me. I came down from that mountain on what I called a “Jesus high” which was only fueled by the Youth Day celebration the following week. To be in an arena with thousands of other teenagers listening to stories and testimonies of hope, to be chanting and battling at each other “We love Jesus” as different groups went by, and to be singing along praising and worshipping God, it was awe-inspiring. I did decide the following year to become a teacher’s aid, but due to the Catechist quitting, ended up teaching what I could. Then life happened.
It did not occur to me when I started dating my husband how important it would be for me to have not just a life partner, but a partner in faith. He was one of those who was “baptized Catholic” but only went to Church at Christmas and Easter, if he even went at all. When I’d say let’s go to Church, we often found ourselves “too busy” at times to go. Eventually I stopped going altogether. I prayed the Rosary at family gatherings because I knew how. But none of it felt like it meant anything. Then one day, I drove by my Church, the one I was baptized, went to school, had my First Reconciliation and First Community, Confirmed and married at. There was no Mass and it was empty, the lights were dimmed. I was suddenly overcome with emotions and felt this sense of “I’ve come home.” From then I began to go to Church more regularly again, often without my husband.
A friend of mine moved from Hawaii to Santa Monica to help start a Christian Church. They had no one to do any music so she asked me if I’d help and sing. At one point, I was going to 6 am Mass at my Catholic Church then going to the protestant church to help set up and sing. It became too tiring and felt I was more useful at the other church, so I stopped going to my Catholic Masses, in my head thinking “I’m still praising God and going to church.” Still, there was something missing. Being part of it for a period of time, I could see why others would be drawn to this type of faith practice. They knew how to appeal to your human desires. But I often questioned what the pastors were preaching about abundance overflowing as they were talking about the riches and material goods. Where was Jesus’ humility? Occasionally they would partake in their own communion, which I never felt right participating in. I sometimes took the bread and the grape juice they handed me (they were pre-packaged in little plastic cups and containers) because I didn’t want to be rude, but I just held onto it without consuming it. It felt wrong and I couldn’t understand why, but even then, there was this sense of greater meaning that I could fathom in the traditions held by the Church.
Eventually I stopped going but would still visit on occasion as the people there became friends. On one such occasion, they were doing communion and the pastor made the comment “It’s not like the Catholics who just do it as a ritual” immediately before he read the exact same passages from Luke that our priests recite during Consecration. He knew I was there and that I had never renounced my Catholic faith. What was his purpose? Was he trying to “enlighten” me in the ways that their form of Christianity was better or more meaningful? Whatever it was had the opposite effect. It compelled me to become even more Catholic in my beliefs than before. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of “loyalty” to my faith and this need to defend it.
Fast forward to two kids in Catholic school, it was here that I learned the value of my Catholic education really held. My little 5-year-old kindergartener is laying in his toddler bed and says, “Mommy, let’s pray.” I’ve said in previous blogs how my children pushed me to become a better Catholic. It was then that I realized I could not just live my faith in the privacy of my own locked door or when I’m in Church. I had to live it in every aspect, becoming the example my children needed.
For years, there was a gnawing within me that there was more that I could do. The real turning point, though, was in 2018 when Carlos and I began to talk about our ministry and what we wanted to show the world: the value of each person from the moment of their creation. It was then that I also felt the calling to go back and teach Catechism. While doing the Stations of the Cross during Lent that year, there was a strong urge to return to teaching, strong enough that I was driven to tears thinking of it. I did not have to act upon it myself but was asked to do it and I said yes. Ministry pushed me even deeper into my faith, and for the first time in my life, I was truly hungry to know more and look beyond what was written on the page. Friends told me they could see a difference, even in my outlook on God’s will and on people. It seeped into everything I did, even the way I practice medicine. All the experiences I had since starting our ministry pushed me into a deeper reverence.
I also realized what was missing when the other church tried to offer me communion. It was merely an earthly symbol, regular bread and grape juice, not the Consecrated Host. In other words, it was not the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. I gained the confidence to fight for the values I hold, particularly the pro-life issues, because I was thrown into the deep end and forced to look beyond my own fears and speak what I felt was guided by the Spirit in order to evangelize to others. Things I used to fear, I no longer feared, even something as small as being in the dark. Because I am finally confident in the Lord’s presence within me.
What is even more affirming is the way my family has changed. My children are not afraid to show me their faith and love for Jesus. They talk to me about what they learn in religion class, and know that they can ask me questions about the faith. My husband now joins us every Sunday for Mass, and is more willing than he was before to take the children the times I am not with them. He does pay attention to the sermons and asks questions. He has yet to go on his own, but I am grateful that he no longer resists and is an active participant when he is there.
Having answered His call has definitely shown me the challenges I face. The more faithful I became, the greater the challenges. Many of them were emotional ones. But if there is one thing I believe now more than ever, it’s that the Lord always puts us where we need to be.
Faith is an individualized journey affected by many outside factors. It requires an internal reflection and with an outward expression. We often encounter moments that can either make us or break us, allowing ourselves to be defeated or to rise to His call, and we have a choice as to the outcome. Our destination is to get closer and closer to God, to do His will and to find our place in His kingdom both in heaven and on earth. When we do, we can see the positive effects it has, not only on ourselves, but on those we love around us. As we see the example in the example of St. Paul, we don’t have to be born saintly. It takes a willing change in our hearts to answer His call to greatness.
Fertility Care Practitioner Intern and NaPro Technology Medical Consultant Intern with the St. Paul VI Institute
BA & MA in Religious Studies from Cal State Long Beach
Certified Through the Theology of the Body Institute
Co-Founder of Humana Corpus Dignitate