When I was 18, I decided that the Catholic Church was not for me and left it behind.
I had been completely confused by what my teachers were dishing out in Religion class. I had parents who sort of flirted with the idea that there was really not much difference between denominations. Though it was a requirement to go to Mass each week, I had no idea why it was so important. My pastor was so caught up in social justice issues that he forgot to teach the Faith that backs it all up and makes it make sense.
As a result of all these mixed messages, I believed that not even the Church knew what it was teaching. Asking those three entities what Church teaching was on any given subject might yield three different answers.
So there I was, the summer after my senior year, desperately looking for a spiritual home. And I found one at a local evangelical megachurch. The services were engaging and uplifting and I found more than a little support for asking questions and they seemed more than happy to help me find the answers.
In those days, there was not yet a definitive Catechism of the Catholic Church, nor was there access to the vast resources of the Internet to research and find answers. When I asked questions, I got two kinds of responses: 1) a kind of a wishy-washy response about "following my conscience" or 2) I would get answers that seemed rehearsed and didn't seem to come from a grounding in scripture at all.
I had been away from Mass for several months when my father asked me to come and sing with his parish choir for Christmas. The music that was routinely played at the services that I went to at my evangelical church were simply no match for the majestic beauty of the choral masterpieces that my parents' parish choir was singing. So, on the First Sunday of Advent, I went to Mass to sing with the choir.
Music has always been a path to God for me. I find that every time I have a close encounter with God, music is involved either as an inspiration, a response to the experience or just the sign pointing to the beginning of the road. This time it was no different. It was love of the music that drew me to Church that day and marked the beginning of the path back.
I didn't go to Communion, of course. I still thought it was just a symbol and I didn't need a wafer to get close to God. I carried His Word in my heart, but I can remember meditating on the people coming back from Communion. No custody of the eyes for me: I was completely unaware that watching people receive Communion was kind of rude.
I spotted one of the kids I grew up with lurking at the back of the church. I always assumed that he was a juvenile delinquent. He had kind of a rough attitude and was always dressed like he was more ready for the bar, than church. But I recalled that he seemed to be here every Sunday.
He filed up to receive Communion behind one of the sweetest little old ladies I have ever known - one right behind the other - and with the same light shining in their eyes and an attitude of complete trust, they both received Communion. I realized in that very moment that there must be something here. There must be something real here.
I closed my eyes and realized that all over the world there were thousands of people receiving the Eucharist at that very moment. It was something that united all of us: the bad, the good, the rich and the poor. People who had lived before me and those who would come after me, too. Heaven help me, I actually heard the first verse of "One Bread, One Body" playing in my head: "Gentile or Jew, servant or free, woman or man, no more..." We truly are one body in Jesus Christ. And if the Eucharist crossed all those boundaries it could not possibly be untrue.
I was still unaware of the meaning of the term "Communion of Saints", but I had an experience of it in my head that day. I suddenly became aware of the unity that exists in the Eucharist - a unity that transcends time and space. It was life-altering.
Since that morning, I have never doubted the efficacy of the Eucharist. I knew it did something real, but it would be a few more years before I understood the Real Presence. I knew that there was something about it, and that I needed it. I realized that I had been missing it. It was food for those on a journey and I was definitely on a journey. But as yet, I still did not understand the reality of Jesus (body, blood, soul and divinity) in the Eucharist.
The thing I found so appealing about the evangelical megachurch I became attached to was if there was a question, they knew where to get the answer. They always looked to the Bible. In my experience, the Catholic Church simply didn't have that knowledge of the Word of God. But, the strength of this ability to go to scripture also becomes its weakness. The problem with the Sola Scriptura mindset is that there's a question of interpretation. Some things just can't be explained neatly. If I disagree with your interpretation, for example, who's right?
Because of the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church, there is an ultimate authority for interpretation. In my 30's I would eventually figure that out, but as a teenager, I was still very dedicated to having my own say and my own way. The breakdown happens when individuals decide that they don't like the Church's authoritative teaching so they throw it out. That's why I was getting different stories from different quarters.
Intellectual Pride is a constant struggle for me. I always want to handle things myself and then, once I have it handled, get back to God. Unfortunately, that's exactly the wrong order. I'm still working on that one: Poverty of Spirit and Humility are virtues that still elude me.
Additionally, there is an actual grace that is imparted in the Sacraments that you simply do not get elsewhere. While we have grace showered on us from all corners, the close, personal encounters with Christ through the sacraments give specific graces to strengthen us and build up charity in our lives. This is crucial to building understanding between ourselves and the world around us, as well as in our own hearts - leading us to know who we are as sons and daughters of God.
After realizing that there was a reality that I had missed in Communion, I couldn't wait to get to Communion the next week. Of course, I had no idea that I needed to go to Confession, but that would come later.
God used the Grace of the Sacraments to bring me closer to him and began to renovate my soul. I had found one missing piece, but was still searching for that scriptural support.