Serving in the ministry of Christian Initiation at St. Maximilian Kolbe, I meet a lot of people who wish to become Catholic. There’s power in hearing the story that led them to the church. And each one has a different story. I know. I’ve been there.

Growing up, I had Catholic friends. I was exposed to a lot of youth death from childhood cancers to accidents in my home town. By the time I graduated from high school, I had been around the death of five young people. The fear of death was debilitating. Where did they go? Would they rot in the grave? The land of nothingness had me awake at night in sheer panic.

As those discovering the church file in to initiation, I share my story and add that, had I known the church back then, my childhood would have been so much better.

My introduction to the Catholic church as a child was notable. The ritual of the Mass to an un-churched outsider made me aware that they had something that I didn’t. Observing the rituals, motions, prayers and responses, Catholics seemingly knew where to go, what to do, and what to say, and when to say it. Lost in the mystery, I was consumed by it in a most bizarre way. Sitting in the back of the church, panic set in. I had an out-of-control coughing fit, with tears rolling down my face, I was choking, and on the verge of vomiting.

I’ll never forget that experience. I had wanted to be able to make it entirely through a Mass without pitting out my clothing or gasping for breath. I yearned to return and blend in with my Catholic friends at mass.

It would be years later that I would have that chance. It was Easter of my junior year in college, and my boyfriend was Catholic. So off we went to church for what was to be his once-a-year visit. Sitting in the back pew, I was proud that I was able to blend in. No coughing fits this time. I looked down most of the time, and kneeled down when everyone else did. Only a few noticed that I didn’t go up for communion. “You’re not Catholic, so you stay put” was the advice of my boyfriend.

What was this communion, I wondered? Eventually, it was the mystery of it all, which, several years and boyfriends later, would call me, my husband and family to the Catholic church.

I discovered that the journey didn’t end with the initiation sacraments. It was a journey of a lifetime, and the destination was heaven. Fear of death would cease. As a baptized member of God’s family, life was different. I was a part of something bigger: God’s plan, not mine. God’s creation meant that I could let go and trust in God when things happened that made no sense to me.

And there are plenty of things that don’t make sense. Childhood disease is one of those mysteries. Why would God rob a young child of a life, removing her from a strong loving family, a neighborhood and a community?

God works in mysterious ways. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that everything happens for a reason. And bad things become good in bizarre ways. In sadness we are called together, and we grow from the experience.

The high Catholic funeral Mass of 9-year-old Katie Wittmere last week had me recall my childhood Catholic church anxiety, but this time, I felt at home and at peace. It was elebrated by Bishop Malone, three priests and a deacon. A eulogy was delivered by her mother, a rosary was said before the funeral began. It was as Catholic as Catholic could be. My faith experience brought me to another level: I believe that I attended a funeral Mass of a future saint.

As her mother delivered the eulogy, she shared the last few weeks of Katie’s life. “Are you afraid to die?” she asked her daughter. “I don’t think about it,” Katie replied, requesting that family members not cry. The simplicity of Katie’s life – games and pizza, ice cream and sunsets – was such that each day was, in Katie’s words, the best day of her life. It was Katie’s love and devotion to the Rosary, and her faith that made living with cancer a gift of faith to others.

Katie’s faith serves as a reminder: when you live a life of faith, there is no reason to fear death because you receive the gift of eternal life. In simplicity, each day can be the best day of your life. And when the going gets tough, put your trust in God. No doubt, God’s plan for Katie was to inspire others to discover or grow in faith through prayer. Please pray for Katie’s family.


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