Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A conversion story. Saint Joseph does it again...

My friend and TFP-America Needs Fatima coordinator for Saint Louis, MO, Mark Serafino, just sent me this conversion story.

It is truly wonderful. And it came as a result of serious prayer and active apostolate of Mr. Serafino and his family and from devotion to Saint Joseph.

I will give it you in Mr. Serafino's own words:

"I am writing you tonight with a heart filled with joy. It was revealed to me tonight that on this coming Sunday April 13, 2008, the ranks of Holy Mother Church will grow by the addition of my neighbor, a convert over 50 years old.

Not just ‘any’ convert mind you, but a convert who has studied and taught theology, Greek, Latin and has described himself as a ‘reformed’ Anglican. A convert who not too long ago, held ‘services’ in his house with his family and friends, where he led them in prayer and scripture readings. Every convert is an occasion of joy for the Catholic Church, and my neighbor’s conversion is no different. However there is a powerful lesson in his conversion for us Catholics who already belong to this ‘exclusive’ club.

Please allow me to tell you the story (or the miniscule part of his story that I know) of his conversion. We met him and his family shortly after we moved to the country almost eight years ago. At the time he owned a small construction company and he had come to our house to give us an estimate on building a barn. Before long we met his family and found that they were an extremely helpful oasis of information and support for us transplanted city-folk on matters of gardening and small livestock.

One autumn evening his family invited us to their house for a ‘harvest party’. It was picturesque, filled with folk music, games and sincere, good conversations among neighbors. It was on this night that he told Valerie and me about his upbringing in the “Hill” section of St. Louis.

How he was left in the care every day of his neighbors, an elderly Italian couple who took him to daily Mass even though he was not Catholic. He told us how he was disappointed when the Mass changed, and he shared a great fondness for the couple and the Mass that they exposed him to at a tender young age. Our discussion on the Mass reminded me of a book that I had just read “How Christ Said the First Mass” and I offered to loan it to him, which I did several days later. (Some months later he informed me that he’d read it and passed it on to his son-in-law with no further comment)

We left the harvest party that night, thinking how sad it was that he could have been so close to the Catholic Church, but never really in. As the saying goes; ‘close but no cigar’. We admonished each other to pray for him and his family and went on with our lives.

At some point we discovered that he was a former language teacher and engaged him to tutor our daughter Kate in English Grammar. He was a superb teacher, but he came with a ‘catch’. He was going to tutor our daughter in English Grammar, using a Catholic Curriculum and some of her assignments would require her to read and write what would amount to be refutations of the protestant pseudo reformation.

Every Monday night he would come and teach Kate at 5:30 pm, and every night at 6:00 pm, the alarm clock would go off to remind us to pray the Angelus prayers. Each time, he would stop and listen, just as he did each time our family prayed grace before the evening meal.

He is very well schooled in scripture and quite capable of quoting chapter and verse, his faith and love for God was quite evident. Yet, there was that ‘thing’ that kept us separate. So many times Valerie and I talked about how far to go in our discussions on the Faith with him.

We would reason that our desire was for him to help our daughter learn English Grammar and we should stick to that topic and goal, yet he would ask us questions, rather he would make comments that if you really analyzed what he said, you realized that he was actually backing his way into a question about the Faith. It was like a chess match of words, a studied, slow and deliberate attempt on both sides to ‘peel the onion’ back and get to the core of what separated us.

Perhaps the most memorable and frequently discussed topic was that of St. Joseph. He had gone to work for a local carpenter who happened to be a Catholic. Our neighbor told us a story one day at the end of Kate’s lesson that he thought we’d appreciate. He told us that the men he worked with prayed to St. Joseph before they started their work, and that they would especially pray to him when the work presented a unique or difficult challenge, like with a difficult cut of wood.

We enthusiastically shared the story of St. Joseph with him and then, privately after he left marveled that in this day and age there were still Catholic carpenters who sought the intercession of Our Lord’s Foster Father in their work. How proud we were of those men (whom we STILL don’t know) for living their Faith. Lesson for us Catholics; live your Faith in all things that you do, especially your work in the secular world. The apostolate of example is more powerful than we can ever measure.

Each year our family prays the St. Joseph Novena, ending on his Feast Day. We have always said, that no favor that we have ever asked for has been denied with the exception of one. Last year one of the intentions in our novena was for the conversion of our neighbor until tonight, we could be tempted to think that our ‘streak’ might have come to an end.

When the school year was done, we saw less of our neighbor and went on with our lives. Months later, we learned that due to some financial difficulties he had taken a job working for the government in Afghanistan. His wife told us that he would be over there for about 1 year and that his workload was very heavy, and he was lonely missing home. She told us that he enjoyed getting letters.

During the winter, I wrote to him and included with my letter a book I had just finished reading on St. Thomas More. Some dirty trick, huh? Sending an Anglican a book about St. Thomas More is like challenging him to a duel, but he couldn’t fight me, he was ½ way around the world. Guess you could call me one cowardly soldier. Some weeks later, I received a return letter in the mail from him. Included in the package were a couple of scapulars, a plastic rosary and the U.S. Marine book of Catholic Prayers. Valerie and I both guessed that he was passing them on to me since he had no use for them. Little did we know.

He returned to the US over a year ago, and with the exception of one or two ‘sightings’ in the neighborhood, we have had little to no contact. That is until tonight. April 7, 2008, when he called my home asking to speak to me about a special favor he needed. He told me it was an unusual request but he wondered if I would be his sponsor when he was received into the Catholic Church at a Parish near my home on Sunday April 13, 2008. I nearly fainted and exploded all at once.

He told me that he had a friend in New Jersey and one in Oregon neither one of whom would be able to be there on Sunday and his priest asked him if he knew anyone local. My neighbor thought of me. He said he thought of me because I “got the ball rolling” when I gave him that book after the Harvest party and I had written to him and sent him another book when he was in Afghanistan. Now I can assure you that I was an insignificant tool used by Our Lord to push the ball, once it got rolling, my neighbor met the real ‘heavy lifters’ for the Faith.

You may be wondering who the other two men that couldn’t be here for his entrance into the Church are, they are both priests whom he met during his tour in Afghanistan. They are the ‘heavy lifters’, he told me that they were instrumental in words and deeds in his conversion. He gave me no detail, only to say that on 2 occasions he ‘should have been killed’ while he was there.

He said that while he was there, he saw the Church (in these 2 priests and others) in a way that he never imagined. Heroism, strength, love and unbending Faith that was so strong he knew he had to convert. Friends, the Catholic Church is alive and well, don’t let anyone tell you differently. Ever! I am proud that I will be there as his witness this Sunday, but I am a poor substitute for these great priests.

It has taken him over a year since his return to take this last glorious step. He has had and continues to have many challenges to overcome. He and his wife have 6 children, all of them raised outside of the Church, all but 2 adults with their own families. His wife is not as far on this journey as he is and he is praying that she will ‘catch up’ with him soon. By now you realize that I have not revealed his name.

It is only for now to protect his identity until he has been received in the Church with all of Her graces, and to allow him the privacy of his continued struggle with his family and their acceptance of his decision to come home. He told me tonight, that he explained his conversion to his wife by telling her that when you find the quarter that you lost you know it, you stop searching because the quarter is where it should be, and that what he feels like has happened to him. He is where he should be!

We have been praying for this conversion, yet if truth be known we prayed with a resignation that his conversion would never happen. We talked about all of the reasons that it couldn’t happen, and much of the time we lacked the confidence that it could happen. In God, all things are possible!

Please pray for him and his family. They have many, many challenges ahead of them.

Most of all, I ask you to pray to St. Joseph a prayer of thanksgiving for his intercession with this neighbor, our newest member of the Family of Souls. And, if you don’t know the Novena to St. Joseph, I’d be happy to send you copies.

In Jesu et Maria,
Mark Serafino

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