After being away at college for a while, I had settled into a routine. St. Thomas Aquinas, which had become my “home” church, held a Mass at 7pm on Sundays. It was a perfect time to wind down from the weekend and prepare myself for the week. Although I had several friends who attended that service, I liked to make myself scarce ahead of time, because I liked to have the time to worship with the community while at the same time worshiping by myself.
Most of the congregation at this particular mass consisted of students, but there were other members of the Ames community represented as well. It was here that little old ladies would start the tradition of turning to me as I was getting ready to leave and saying something like “You have such a wonderful voice!” At first I would respond with a thank you. Later I would respond that it was God that gave me the wonderful instrument. Later still, I started to tell them that St. Augustine said that “To sing is to pray twice,” a phrase that I still use.
After the 7pm Mass, the staff would have “Church Chats”, where one of the priests or a lay person would lead a group of parishioners in a discussion about faith, tradition, ethics, etc. For someone who grew up in an environment where things just “are the way they are” it was refreshing.
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The summer before my junior year, I had the great privilege of being able to travel to France and Italy with my family (my dad loves to travel and wanted to take my sister and I while we were still able to travel easily). In Paris we went to Mass at Notre Dame, officiated on that day by a Cardinal (whose name I do not remember). Having taken French in High School, (and of course with the conformity of the Latin Rite), I was pretty much able to follow along. Going to Rome and the Vatican was an even more exciting experience. Throughout Italy we had seen beautiful churches and works of art (e.g. St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, and Michelangelo’s David in Florence) but nothing compared to St. Peter’s Basilica, or the Sistine Chapel.
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But the most exciting event was still to come. By one of those “know someone who knows someone” connections we were able to get into Mass with a small group of people (about 30 or so) and Pope John Paul II. Surprisingly to me, the Pope did not officiate the Mass, but rather was part of the congregation. Looking back, it makes sense to me. Afterwards, the pontiff greeted us all. I was worried that I would be nervous and dumbstruck, but he was a very humble, warm, and witty person. He asked us where we were from, and when we said South Dakota, he said “We don’t get too many from there. New York, California, but not South Dakota.” He also gave everyone a rosary. I have never used a rosary very much, but of course I still have it and will use it on occasion.
My senior year, needing to fill out an elective for my degree, I took a New Testament class. It was a great class to take, as the critical thinking and historical context added an extra layer of interest for me. It was taught by Dr. Hector Avalos. Dr. Avalos let us know early that he had a photographic memory, calling roll the first day without a class list in front of him, and subsequently calling out students that had skipped class, again without referring to any written class list. He was very brilliant and thorough. And he is an atheist. This really troubled some students, and as a Christian, perhaps arguably should have troubled me, but it didn’t. Taking this one class helped me reassess my own faith. For a time I had to fall back on my basic articles of faith, and decided that I needed to scrub up a little more on my Christian faith.
After I graduated, I moved to Vermillion, SD to get a Master’s Degree from the University of South Dakota. Here I was able to reconnect with some of my High School friends. One late summer night, a few of us were sitting outside, downing some beers and smoking cigarettes (one habit I have thankfully dropped). Perhaps inexplicably, we started talking about faith, religion, and the nature of God. When I was walking home that night, I had an amazing experience. Still ruminating on our discussion, I made a point to myself in my mind. Today, I can’t even tell you what that point was (unfortunately) but I had an intense yet pleasurable surge of energy course through my body. Not quite electrical, not quite fire, not quite ice, I don’t know how to explain it. I do remember that it felt like it was coming from the inside out. Prior to that time, my view of God was somewhat Deist in nature. But here I felt as if I was being communicated with directly for the first time. Or at least for the first time that I was able to recognize and acknowledge it.
Coming in Part 4, Back to Music and my Protestant Wife