It is me. The new me. The me who, 7 years ago this last Easter Vigil, received the fullness of the Holy Spirit at Confirmation, just a few months after turning 50 years of age (I am 57 now). The me who had been raised Roman Catholic, left for what became a 35 year journey into the charismatic side of the Evangelical world, 20 within the Assemblies of God or similar groups and the other 15 a much wider variety of spiritual explorations, and who, at age 49, was inexplicably (even to me) drawn back to a Church I had nearly, but never totally, forgotten.
I will not re-hash that time period here for this post, but suffice it to say much good came from it as well as much unneeded struggle. On the positive, at the time I left Rome the average Catholic was not taught or encouraged to spend much time reading Sacred Scripture. In saying that, I need to clarify that Venerable Pope Pius XII, who was Pontiff at the time of my birth in 1955, wrote a beautiful Encyclical on this and did indeed ask the Faithful of the world to do exactly that. Please see:
for a copy of this powerful set of words. I think though that the typical pre-Vatican II family, such as ours, went out and purchased a Bible and it mostly sat on the shelf, or was read occasionally during Lent, and that done with no real Bible study aids or direction in how to do so. We did and do hear the Word of God proclaimed each and every time we attended Mass, and even then it tends to be more read or shared from the pulpit than in many “Sola Scriptura” denominations, but if one was to ask the street Catholic of those years to tell you the where or when something occurred (for instance which book of the Old Testament included the story of Jonah and the whale) they would probably look at you blankly and say “go ask Sister Leola.”
Which brings me to another topic of its own–“who was Sister Leola?” She was in the very last group of nuns in our small rural community that actually looked, in manner of dress at least, like the Blessed Virgin Mary who she represented and was proud to do so. None of this half-habited, mid-calf with panty hose and make up look for her. You knew she was a woman of God, and you did not mess with her. Ever. But Sister Leola had a good heart (and a slightly lazy eye which gave the effect of never quite knowing if she was watching you or someone else when she spoke or taught Catechism classes–a tool I later realized was actually very handy because we as children always thought she “might” be looking straight at us but were never sure!) and was the person I purchased my first Bible from (which I still have incidentally) for $1.00 saved from my paper route. I was in 6th grade, and Vatican II had just ended a mere 3 years earlier. With that had also come an era when the Faithful were once again exhorted even more so to read Sacred Scripture, and she wanted us as near-junior high students to begin doing so. She may have seemed old-fashioned to most of us by the “summer of love” next year following, but she had a vision far beyond her eye problems for helping those under her care and tutelage to stay true to the Lord and the Church.
So yes, we did own and read the Bible, but it was sporadic and without much guidance. Entering my 7th and 8th grade years, I began attending an Assemblies of God youth group, and each of them owned their own Bibles and brought them to church, so I proudly began to carry mine as well. And to read it. And to study it, book by book, lesson by lesson. That is what my years of Protestantism did for me, and it was huge, believe me. Now, when I go to Mass I never leave my Missal at home, as I have retained the practice of following along during each and every reading, and even occasionally taking a note or two. And I check each and every reference, even though they are not announced from the podium (or ambo if you prefer). Again, a gift from my Protestant years. Stories I heard as a young Catholic child now make sense in a way that others without that background very possibly miss. And yes, I know that Jonah was and is its own book, and that the “whale” was actually a “great fish.”
That is what I owe to Protestantism, but even more I owe to those years an understanding of the concept of “receiving Jesus” in a personal way. At this juncture I might bring the ire and irk of some of my Catholic sisters and brothers, but the Eucharist is not where that occurs primarily. Heretic you say? Not at all. I realize and fully accept that our Lord Jesus Christ as received in Holy Communion is the “source and summit” of the Christian Faith. But what good is a “source and summit” if you have little or no faith to walk in before or after? I think much of the lack of passion seen today in our Catholic Church towards living the Faith on a daily basis is due to getting the “cart before the horse” if you will. We are taught to reverence Jesus in the Eucharist, as well we should, but many, and certainly not all, are also under the mistaken impression that, since they were baptized and receive the Sacraments they are therefore “okay” with God. The idea of daily Bible reading seems more than tedious, and prayer happens only when narrowly swerving to miss a passing car on the freeway or during tornado weather.
My Protestant friends might say, “see, you Catholics are not ‘really’ Christians,” and sometimes that may be the case at least in practical if not technical terms, but that is not actually the issue here. Every single Mass offers the same basic components as the most fervent evangelical service. First we ask Christ to forgive our sins, then we listen to the Word, and a short commentary on it, and immediately after we profess our Faith with more detail than the “sinner’s prayer” generally ever has. After that we pray for one another and finally we culminate by obeying Jesus in going to the altar (yes, an altar call!) and receive Him personally in the consecrated host and chalice. So the message of receiving Jesus personally and then living for Him throughout the week is there, and solidly so. But why did I, and so many others, miss it, or at least miss the element of a living relationship that attempts to make Jesus the center of our lives?
I would contend it is because we are challenged in a vague sort of way to follow Him, but not personally at times. “We” are told that “we all should” live right, love God and neighbor, and to do better this next week than last. But often we are not told how that looks on a daily basis. And “we” tend to think, as I once did even growing up, that, as one older Irish Catholic woman once told me regarding daily Mass, “I don’t want to be too religious, you know.” Now she would never have missed Mass on a Sunday, and most likely had lived a long and faithful life with her husband before he died. She probably had never even heard of pornography, and her swearing was likely at a minimum–at least usually. She, in reality, was a Catholic Christian who loved our Lord, and understood what it meant to live in a “state of grace.” But yet she also probably lived, perhaps her whole life, largely on her terms. Novenas and fasting were for the nuns and priests, and daily Rosaries for the fanatics and very bored. She had Jesus, and He was indeed her best friend. She was not overly mean to people (unless they really deserved it of course!) and even then she didn’t really “hate” them. Too much anyway. But like many of us, she called upon Him on an “as needed” basis, and it never perhaps once occurred to her that the joy of Christianity was in the very “religiosity” she was happily avoiding.
That was the state to a large extent of the pre-Vatican II Catholic layperson. To those who wish for those “good old days” when the Mass was in Latin and coming to a distant Jesus was a constant battle need to realize that there was a down side to that era too. And many of us who eventually moved into a more radical discipleship did not find it in the Eucharist (although it was, as I said before, there all along but we sadly did not, as the disciples on the Emmaus road did, “recognize Him in the breaking of the bread”). He did not seem handily or easily accessible to us very frankly. And conversely we did not know we needed to avail ourselves to Him daily either. Thus came the appeal of a “personal Savior” who was and is beyond all Sacraments or ritual. But in accepting that side of Jesus we rejected another. What I and so many others did not realize, did not even fathom for whatever reason, was that such a choice was a false dichotomy to begin with. The Jesus of the Sacraments was and is the Jesus of the daily bread, including the mundane kind. Not only in the Eucharist but before and after. The one we should be praying to “without ceasing,” and who would be there immediately if we did so. My Protestant and particularly evangelical/charismatic friends “got” this. That is why the Bible meant so much to them. It was God’s Word, immediate and fresh. As the Psalms tell us mercy “new every morning.” By and large the Catholic people I knew did not. And many still do not.
Most, at least the ones I knew, were in the dubious category of that cradle Catholic woman mentioned above, who were faithfully Catholic but did not want to be “too” anything. She knew the rules and followed them, but Jesus was not her life and livelihood. Did I say He was her best friend? I think so still. But He was the kind of “best friend” who had long ago moved away to another city, or at least to the far side of town, and meanwhile she had to live here primarily without Him by her side or involved in her daily life and decisions. She missed the best in doing so, and did not seemingly have any idea that the Church had lovingly provided ways for her to stay close to Him constantly, starting yes with the Sacraments, but then continuing onward by making our very lives a Sacramental one. In short, knowing Him personally and fully.
So back to why I am “Stephen Francis.” Seven years ago this Easter weekend (I write this on Easter Monday of 2013), I found out what the fullness of the Holy Spirit actually meant. When Father Mark laid his hands on me, done so by the authority of the Archbishop, a successor to the first Apostles who had his authority from Rome and the Holy Father (at that time Pope Benedict XVI), I was connected to the early Church and sealed as a Catholic Christian. Confirmation is considered to be one of the “Sacraments of Initiation” and that is why. The other day I read somewhere online that “Confirmation is of the devil.” Not just cold but dangerous words, I would suggest. I may not have seen my need for it until age 50, but I never once thought it was demonic! That article on the other hand was. I just thought, and still do, that many receiving it miss its potential impact due to reasons already mentioned. But the reality is there if we just look with the eyes of Faith. It is there in fact even if we do not, but unfortunately many think of it as “graduation” rather than a new beginning. It was never meant as such. Ephesians tells us that we were “sealed by the Holy Spirit,” and Confirmation ensures this to be true. Gifts of the Holy Spirit will begin to flow from us, with or without our knowledge or understanding of them (although that very understanding is part of the sevenfold gift of the Spirit in fact), but those gifts flow from a Spirit-filled life–one that is God-centered and “other” centered instead of all about “me.” If that does not occur after being confirmed, it is not because we need yet another Sacrament, called in some in circles “the baptism in the Holy Spirit.” Please understand I believe charismatic gifts can occur, and do at times, but they are not the sign of having received this sealing. And one of the reasons we often choose a new name at Confirmation is exactly to make that sign real and relevant to us. It is a new, fresh beginning on a deeper level of our baptism into Christ. An extension of it if you will. Can one get to heaven without being confirmed? Yes indeed. But who would want to? It, not “tongues,” is the true and full outpouring of Pentecost for today. And the very lifeline to living out our baptism, which is the Sacrament of initial faith in Christ–and yes, as a personal and living Savior. The third Sacrament of Initiation, as we who are Catholic refer to this trio, Holy Communion or the Eucharist, if received in faith and reverence, then assists in what St Paul told to St Timothy, which is to “stir up” the gifts within us already received at baptism and Confirmation. And the Bible and our study of it fits in like a glove because, before every Eucharist, there is an exposition of the Word of God, first Old Testament, then Psalms (talk about praise and worship time!) and finally the Epistles and the Gospel. These each prepare us as fertile soil and, if listened to attentively, “break up the fallow ground” in anticipation of receiving the living water of the Spirit in what seem to be earthly elements of bread and wine. He (for the Holy Spirit is a member of the Godhead just as Jesus is) then drenches us and points us right back to Jesus the Christ, who is the “author and finisher” of our Faith–and yes the “source and summit.” And that is what Mass is all about, or should be. Every Sunday. And weekdays too.
So (for the third time then) why am I “Stephen Francis?” It is the common, although not universal, practice to receive a new name at Confirmation. Unlike our baptismal name, (in my case Richard Gerard) our Confirmation name is one we ourselves choose, or hopefully God chooses for us but through our own prayers and seeking for guidance in the matter. It is the “new start” to our “new start” of being baptized initially into the Lord Jesus Christ. And new it is. Even at age 50. It is the signature on the marriage certificate of our nuptials with God the Son.
Originally I was to have been confirmed at age 15, and after much prayer had chosen to take the name “Stephen,” after St Stephen the first or proto-martyr. But when I returned to the Church, for various reasons (written elsewhere on this blog–please see:
for that amazing story) I strongly sensed that St Francis of Assisi was to be my new patron saint. Yet Stephen was my original choice. Then one day it hit me–and the Holy Fathers John Paul I and II had done so as first and second in Papal history, that perhaps I too could take a double name as they had done for their Papacies. Permission was granted and I became Stephen Francis. One represented my original (pre-Protestant detour) saint of choice for this Sacrament, and the other the one who I believe was strongly instrumental in bringing me back home–again see the above listed link for that portion of the story. I later learned that they were both Deacons of the Church, and while Francis was not martyred, he was the first recorded saint (after possibly the Apostle St Paul) to have received the “stigmata.” This gift was also given to a modern saint, St Padre Pio, who did many miracles during his lifetime and beyond, including one for my family (again listed in my post on St Francis)–and who himself was a Capuchin Franciscan priest.
He (Francis) wanted this gift precisely so he would be, in a sense, a martyr for God, and to understand what Christ had gone through on the Cross for him and for us all. We think of St Francis as somehow merrily tripping lover of animals and flowers, and certainly he was at times just that. But he was a serious and tenacious man of God to the death as well. Again so was St Stephen. Both died young (we do not know Stephen’s exact age but just as a guess I am thinking perhaps around 30 or so) and St Francis was 44. Both died for Christ, but more importantly lived for Him, and in neither case did life or death matter to them–only Jesus and Him crucified in their lives. So actually they had much in common.
What I did not know until this weekend, and it was during “Joan’s Rome,” a short little 3 minute vignette program on EWTN done by a woman who has been a major and accomplished Vatican correspondent (but who somehow reminds me at times of the religious version of a gossip columnist as well), and in any case this lovely and intelligent woman was sharing something I had never known or even heard before–and it was no gossip either for that matter. In Assisi, people still flock to see the Basilica where St Francis is buried. But few know that, nestled in the trees or bushes nearby, is the small ancient Church of St Stephen. Yes, St Stephen the martyr! It was there that Francis, not yet a saint, was baptized as a child, attended Mass growing up, and whose bells rang out his death on October 3, 1226. In fact it is said that, upon his death, these bells rang spontaneously, telling the village of Assisi and the world that an amazing saint had just been granted entrance into heaven. Whether that part is totally factual is irrelevant, of course, but does show the high regard in Assisi and worldwide for St Francis. But before Francis was Stephen!!! And Stephen may well have been some part of his inspiration to be a deacon. And I knew nothing of the “Stephen/Francis” connection until seeing this clip on EWTN mere days ago. I had even debated whether it should be “Stephen Francis” or “Francis Stephen” but finally decided to go with the first combination as it better reflected the chronology of my journey back. Even now it gives me the chills to realize that these two saints, Stephen and Francis, chose me too. And Jesus chose both of them for a form of martyrdom and death to self. And, like me, both were called to be celibate and single.
I have much to live up to.
PS–And did I fail to mention that our new Holy Father, just in time for Easter, just happens to have taken the name Pope Francis, the first and only??? Nothing is by accident… Saints Stephen and Francis, the dynamic diaconate team, please pray for us!!!
- Pope leads Catholics into Easter at vigil service in St. Peter’s (Reuters) (newsdaily.com)
- The Radical Christianity Of Francis (dish.andrewsullivan.com)
- The unbearable beauty of the Catholic Church (quinersdiner.com)
- Pope Francis leads Catholics into Easter for first time (itv.com)
- Who Says Catholics Don’t Know the Bible? Nuns Win Big for Charity on Bible Game Show (VIDEO) (thesacredpage.com)
- Pope Francis, Washing Feet, What Will You do today? (goplayintraffic.wordpress.com)
- #Get# : The Does the Bible Teach Sola Scriptura? Catholic-Protestant Debate (volatilen66fq.wordpress.com)
- Welcome Jesus as a friend, Pope encourages at Easter Vigil (catholicnewsagency.com)
- For Pope Francis, the heart of the Church is the human heart (ncregister.com)