There is a chapter of my life that I want to share with you, but I'm not very proud of it. It centers on the time that I was in college and it has had a profound impact on my life. It may provide some hope and, in its own way, offer some encouragement.
When I went away to college in Ann Arbor, I found myself taking advantage of the novel freedom that is part of every new college student’s life. Since I was no longer under the direct influence of the benevolent dictatorship of my parents, I discovered that I could put Sunday morning to a variety of different uses. Initially, I tried to make sure that I went to Mass as regularly as possible. However, as the cold of winter began to settle in, I found that it was more enticing to turn off the alarm, roll over, and enjoy a few more hours of sleep.
One week turned into a month. One month turned into a few more. Certainly, whenever I was home, I made sure to attend Mass with my family, but when I was on my own, I found it easier to fill my Sundays with a variety of distractions. All the while, though, I felt something–or was it Someone?–tugging at my heart. I knew that I was missing something in my life, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. That feeling was there, at the periphery, and it would not go away.
This pattern continued for several years until, one weekend, some Catholic friends invited me to come to Mass with them. I had just bought my first car, so the transportation question was solved. Through their gentle coaxing, I accepted their invitation and joined them for Mass one Sunday morning at St. Francis of Assisi in Ann Arbor. I walked through the doors of the church and suddenly felt back home. That gentle tug in my heart had cooperated with my friends’ gentle invitation, and God led me back to where I had needed to be all along.
There were other invitations that quickly followed – invitations that encouraged me to begin making use of my God-given gifts in ways that gave me a sense of interior satisfaction. Soon, I knew that I had been reconnected with a reality much larger than myself – I had been reconnected with Jesus, who had been patiently, lovingly, persistently tugging at my heart and leading me by the hand back to a deeper relationship with him and with his church. The rest, as we might say, is history.
It took a while for me to respond to God’s invitation extended through the gentle words and actions of others, but it worked. There was no wag-ging of the index finger, no guilt-tripping and no harsh words. That lesson about the power of faithful, patient, gentle invitation in my own life has influenced me profoundly and it literally changed the course of my life.
During the quiet weeks of Advent, before the dawn of Christmas, I encourage each of you to offer that same gentle invitation to someone you know. Perhaps he has been away from the church for a while. Perhaps she has been looking for a deeper relationship with God and simply can’t name it as such. Perhaps they find themselves on a journey of faith, looking for a church to call home. Isn’t it possible for each of us, in our own gentle way, to extend a hand of invitation and a few words of encouragement? We can be a people of welcome and overcome obstacles so that, together, our journey in FAITH can continue.