Convert Spotlight: Joel Garrison

Joel Garrison (Tim Roufa IRL) is a revert. That is, a “cradle Catholic” who had fallen away from the faith and has now returned. Technically, reverts are not converts. Technically, I am not either as I was validly baptized although not Catholic. I lump us all together because technicalities aside, all of these groups share similar characteristics. That is, separation from the true Church and joining / returning to find she really does embody the fullness of Christianity.

There is almost a script that many reverts follow. It goes something like this: baptized Catholic as an infant, attended Catholic schools, religious ed, Mass. Received first communion and was confirmed. Graduated high school and went to a Catholic college. Stopped going to Mass. Fell away from the Church and took a different path either as a “none” or as a Protestant. Life changes happen (e.g. marriage, children or death of a loved one) and the Church of their childhood is rediscovered. They are amazed to find a richness, depth and truth that – despite all that Catholic “education” – was never learned.

While that is my general observation and individual cases vary, FWIW I draw some conclusions: (1) catechesis of our children is terrible, starting with their parents who always have the primary responsibility to teach the faith and (2) many supposedly Catholic colleges are radically secular institutions with only a shallow Catholic veneer where we unwittingly send our kids to loose their faith. This is a big topic for another time, but if you have children approaching college age, educate yourself starting with the Newman Guide to choosing a genuine Catholic college.

Joel (sorry, stepping now off my soapbox and regrouping) follows the “script” with an interesting twist. That is, he was far more serious about his faith while growing up. He thought about the priesthood and once won a essay contest on “what the Eucharist means to me.” Joel rejoins the script in college (state colleges in his case), that is — slowly falling away. He later met, fell in love and married a “non-denominational” spending years in that ecclesiastical community. Inconsistencies eventually raised concerns for them both and led them to search for the true Church.

Let’s jump into Joel and Jamie’s (his wife) story at that point:

I don’t think I can ever fully and accurately convey to you how anti-catholic my wife truly was, but this strange turn of events can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit moving her. My prayers became even more fervent. It was clear to me that God was leading her somewhere, down a road that neither of us ever expected to travel, and one which I never thought I’d see again.

Her investigation into Orthodoxy lead her to looking into Catholicism. In Catholicism, she found the fullness of all of those teachings she found lacking in other faiths. Of course, she kept most of this to herself as she studied privately. Outwardly, she was becoming more and more distraught and resolute in her decision to not go to church. She would say, “there’s no church out there that teaches all truth. The only one that even comes close is the Catholic Church, and I am not going to be Catholic.”

I began to study on my own, first orthodoxy and then Catholicism. I read anti-catholic sources and found, to my surprise, the same intellectual dishonesty I had seen years earlier in the “grape juice” pamphlet. I seriously studied the accusations leveled against the “unbiblical” Catholic Church. To my surprise, I found the answers to all of my questions, and finally, after so many years, I learned what the “fullness of the faith” truly meant. I prayed and prayed and prayed that my wife would come to the same conclusions, but I did not want to influence her choice. This was a journey she needed to make on her own in order for it to mean anything.

In the meantime, Jamie continued with her studies independently of me. One day, she opened the door. “Oh,” she said, “if you only knew how close I was to becoming Catholic, if it just wasn’t for the Pope!? Having done a lot of research on my own, I asked her if she would be willing to study a verse for me. She agreed. I opened my Bible to Matthew 16:16-20. I asked her to read it to herself and tell me who the rock was, and what she thought it meant to be given the power to bind and to loose.

Coming Home

During this time, I decided to go to Mass for the first time in over 10 years. I asked my wife if she minded if I took the children with me. She agreed, but she stayed home, not wanting to make a commitment to anything yet and not wanting to do anything remotely Catholic until she had spoken to her parents to let them know her decision. She respected them deeply and wanted to let them know where she stood before she moved ahead in her journey.

As we drove to the church, I prepared my kids. They had never seen anything like a liturgical worship service. The preacher at our former church wore a shirt and tie and we all called him by his first name. There had been no opening procession, no crucifix, no creed and no prayer responses.

I let them know that this church would be weird to them, but that if they had any questions, to ask me and I would do my best to answer them. During Mass, I was amazed that I still remembered the responses and was struck by how powerful and beautiful the liturgy was. The young priest that was celebrating Mass showed a true love for his ministry and delivered a powerful sermon. I felt, after so many years, that this was what it was to truly worship God. It was, to put it simply, an amazing and life-changing experience.

Immediately after Mass, as my children and I walked outside, I prepared myself for the questions I knew were sure to come: “Why was the preacher wearing a dress? Why were all the people talking together? Why was the preacher holding up that round thing? What’s up with the bells and the chanting?”

Amazing Grace

Instead, only my daughter, the little girl who saved my life, spoke. She looked up at me with her gorgeous little eyes and said, simply, “I like this church. That just felt so…   right.” So simple yet so articulate, my sweet little princess had summarized my newly restored faith.

As we exited the church, I saw Father Mike Foley, the pastor of the church. Fr. Mike had known my family since we moved to Florida 25 years prior. Just a year before, he had flown to Pennsylvania to preside over my brother’s wedding, which had been the first and only time I had seen him in 10 years until that fateful day. He was standing all alone, which was unusual because Fr. Mike typically drew a crowd whenever he was around. It was as if he was waiting for me, even though he had no way of knowing I would be there and no reason to expect I would ever step foot on the grounds again.

As soon as he saw me, he opened his arms like the good shepherd he is and offered a hug. I cried and told him I wanted to come home. I made an appointment with him for later in the week, at which time I made my confession and he welcomed me back to the church that Jesus founded. That next Sunday, I received the Eucharist for the first time in over 10 years, and I have not been the same, inside or out, since.

Jamie’s comments strike a chord with many of us converts. While searching for the Church, we look everywhere. We don’t know where we will find it but do “know” it isn’t Catholicism. Of that we are certain. When it turns out to be the one place we were sure it could not possibly be, we never quite get over the surprise and how blessed we are to be led here by the Holy Spirit – despite our best attempts to block Him.

Joel’s complete story is on his blog: Reasonable Belief. Read it at A Reversion Story.

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