This is part 3 of a 4 part story on my coming to Christ. For the larger context, please read parts 1 and 2 of this series on the I will Lower my Net blog.
It was 1998, and I was 16, going on 17. It might be hard to believe, but I was already tired of my life routine at that point. I was actively searching for an alternative. I wasn’t on a very bad life track. In fact, I had a pretty bright future ahead. I had great grades. I was involved in plenty of extraciricular activities at school. I had good friends. Family life was a sure support. I was practicing my religion. But I was focused primarily on me, myself, and I. Most of what I did was for me, and that was getting tiresome. It was leading me to be depressed and anxious. It was isolating me from being fully engaged in life. Something had to give.
About a year earlier, in the summer of 1997, I was in a serious boating accident in Buffalo. I came out of it without a scratch. If things had gone a bit differently, I could have been killed (along with everyone else in the boat). We were fine, however, and I attributed that to our Guardian Angels and to God. After the accident occurred, we were stranded on the boat for what seemed to be an eternity. We awaited rescue. I remember looking up at the sky, feeling utterly helpless. I was in a very precarious situation, waiting to be taken away to safety. I thought to myself, “would I be satisfied if my life ended tonight? Has my life really had purpose?” That was the start of a changing of my stubborn mindset about life.
In the Spring of 1998, I received the Sacrament of Confirmation at St. Andrew Parish. I know that for many, this Sacrament does not bring a noticeable change. But for me, it certainly did. I want to say that it made me more honest. After being Confirmed, I had a deep desire to be a person of integrity. I wanted to be good through and through. I knew that this meant that my life needed a truer focus. It needed a surer guide than my own reasons and rationalizations. I wanted to change then, but did not know how.
I also knew that becoming more identifiably Christian meant being treated differently by my peers. There is a saying that goes, “if someone put you on trial for being a Christian, would they have enough evidence to convict you?” I had wanted the answer to that question to be both, “yes” and “no”. I had one friend in particular named Matt who was way out there for Jesus Christ. He shared faith very openly, and recruited people to get involved in faith events. I liked him, even admired him, but I didn’t want to be labeled like him. I thought that I would keep my religion to myself, get what I wanted out of it, and go unnoticed. That compromise worked for a while. But I found that I couldn’t stay on the fence forever.
Matt invited me to a Conference for teens at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Now, this was a serious decision to make, because I knew through my Grandmother and her friends that all the Charismatic Catholics were at this place. These Catholics would not leave me alone, but would actually expect me to do something with my religion. Uh oh! Decision time had come. I said yes. It was time to go an adventure. I made a really solid, sincere Confession (unlike some of the routine ones that I was made to do at school) and felt the healing mercy of the Lord in my soul. I got involved in a youth service outreach project at St. Peter Cathedral, Erie. Then, I went to Franciscan for the conference. I was blown away. Yes, there were the unusual charisms of the Spirit that I saw manifested in my Grandmother’s life: gifts of tears, resting in the Spirit, speaking in tongues, praying with outstretched hands. There were also familiar traditional Catholic activities, such as Eucharistic Adoration, the Rosary, and Mass. But most importantly, my heart changed. I came out of all these experiences with one conviction, “I was lost, but now, I was found. I was blind, but now I can see.”
After these experiences of grace, I was totally changed. I cannot explain how. At the time, I knew why. I had been touched by Christ – by the power of the Holy Spirit. A heavy sadness, a sorry self-focus had been lifted from me. I was now free to be who I was supposed to be. I was free to be what I had always wanted to be. I was free. I can’t explain completely to you what this is like. But it’s real. My whole life changed, not because of some outside circumstance that affected me, but because my heart changed. I changed from the inside out. I did not seek to radically change my life at this point. I knew that I did not need to do that. What I knew was that I had to begin witnessing to Christ, perform acts of charity, and have fellowship with like-minded Christians. Also, I needed to be open with God. It was most important to me to have integrity of faith. That meant that I had to be open to God’s guidance of my life. I could not be the director of my life’s journey. God had to be the one to lead, and I had to follow.
Fr. Steve Schreiber – Vocation Director for the Erie Diocese
The one and only Fr. Larry Richards, pastor and evangelist
I had a great summer, making a lot of new friends in Christ. I was introduced to a lot of joyful, positive people. These were people with whom I could feel relaxed and real. When school came back in August, it was my Senior year. I was very fortunate to have great people and great discipleship opportunities around me. Deacon Steve Schreiber (the famous Fr. Steve of of the On the Vine blog) was serving at St. Andrew Parish. He was the first cleric who I really got to know personally. He asked me to do a retreat called TEC (to Encounter Christ). I said yes, which was another grace of the Holy Spirit in my life. TEC (now known in the Erie Diocese as Divine Mercy Encounter, remaining TEC throughout the rest of the country) became home base for me. It was the place to enjoy service, discipleship, and evangelization with my peers. I am now blessed to continue to serve this community as a Priest.
The Divine Mercy Image
Fr. Larry Richards (known to many for his evangelization efforts in media, as well as his retreats and conferences) was our Campus Minister at Cathedral Prep. His style is a very challenging one. He does not compromise, but is very compassionate. He brought me closer to Christ that year. I began to go to daily Mass at School, and pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet after school each day. I also went to my first March for Life in Washington, D.C. (I had always been convinced of the need to protect the unborn). Finally, I began preparations to go with a small group of people to World Youth Day in Rome in the year 2000. As you can see, I took every discipleship opportunity I could find. Seeing Pope John Paul II would be the ultimate opportunity in the world of Catholic youth stuff. As I saved up money for the trip. I could hardly wait.
Meeting Bishop Trautman at the March For Life, 1999
By the time that I walked down the aisle of Erie’s Warner Theater to graduate from Cathedral Prep, my life had totally changed. People who knew me from the outside would not have thought much of it. Those closest to me (friends and family) would have noticed. I had not taken a vow of silence, or divorced myself from my friends. I had not done anything that was mystically weird. I simply had encountered Christ (or more accurately, I had allowed Christ to encounter me). I changed in my heart, and it made all the difference. I was still in my world, but not of the world. I had many challenges, which seemed to mount with each passing day. But, I was also with Christ, and surrounded by great people. I began to pull other people into this discipleship lifestyle as well. As I prepared to enroll at Gannon University in the Fall of 1999, I was blessed beyond measure. I belonged and had a purpose. I had been saved, so to speak. However, God was not through with me yet.
Graduation Day, June 6, 1999 – pictured with my grandmother, Phyllis Zack, my father, Pat, and mother Michelle Barron, and my sister Marie.