Eight years ago on this day – the feast of St. Francis Xavier – I began to be converted.
Following an unofficial yet well-honored Mennonite tradition, I was doing a year of post-college voluntary service in Haiti under the church-based development organization Mennonite Central Committee. And in an ironically Mennonite twist, I was first drawn to the town’s Catholic parish through singing. I don’t remember exactly how this happened, but I somehow ended up attending a couple of parish choir rehearsals in preparation for the feastday of their patron, Francis Xavier, and then sang with the choir for the feast itself – a major event. The Haitian liturgical music, though unfamiliar to me, marked the first time I felt consciously “at home” in that little Haitian town. Maybe it was because they sang in harmony (a virtual necessity for Mennonites), at least on feastdays.
In any case, something about the liturgy that day drew me back, and continued to do so week after week. I began to notice that the liturgy provided a place for me to be a participant rather than a mere foreign novelty, and through this participation I became human to the parish community. Throughout that liturgical year (I was fortunate that the parish had a feastday that falls close to the beginning of Advent), the liturgy became a constant source of strength. And eventually I also began to notice that something very powerful was happening in the Eucharist.
I was converted, I have sometimes said, by Haitian Eucharistic hymns. Being the thorough and agonized decision-maker that I am, it would take me two full years of RCIA back in the United States, and another few years of playing the will-I-won’t-I game after that, to finally take the plunge into full communion with the Catholic Church. And yet the above statement is nonetheless true. It was on the feast of Corpus Christi, when we processed through town singing pretty much every communion song in the book, that I came to a surprising realization: sometime during those months of singing all those songs about the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, I had come to believe them.
I had gone into that community without the slightest expectation of such a world-changing ecclesial encounter. It was an unpredictably life-altering experience for which I will always be profoundly grateful. So I will give the final word here, in a way, to the community in which my conversion began, joining them as they keep the feast and implore their patron saint:
Franswa Zavye ki sen, priye pou nou.