The Day it All Began

The Day it All Began December 3, 2012

Eight years ago on this day – the feast of St. Francis Xavier – I began to be converted.

Parish of St. Francis Xavier, Desarmes, Haiti – Julia Smucker

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.

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  • Mark Gordon

    It was a great day for all of us, Julia!

  • Reblogged this on RD Revilo.

  • Carl Diederichs

    I think seeing a beloved community be community is what draws most people who come to the Catholic Church. People join All Saints most often after worshipping with us. Some also come to the Welcome Table after being fed at the tables at our Meal Program.

    • Julia Smucker

      Excellent! Eucharist leads to loving your neighbor – and vice-versa. Exactly as it should be!

  • Andrew

    Thank you for your conversion story, Julia. I think one of the wonderful things about the Catholic Church is that it conveys the faith through art, music, and imagery as much as — if not more than — though theology; our faith experience is sensuous and not just cerebral. Conversion via Haitian Eucharistic hymns seems to me like a beautiful, natural, and organic way of entering our Church.

    • Julia Smucker

      Funny you say that, because being a pretty cerebral person it felt to me for awhile like I was going in the back way by first experiencing the liturgy in community (and sort of absorbing some sacramental theology by osmosis in the process), and then learning about the thought and teachings behind what I had discovered. But at some point in RCIA I picked up on the idea that that was actually pretty normal and I wasn’t really doing it backwards as I had thought.

      • Andrew

        You can probably imagine that, for people like me who were “born” into the faith and baptized as an infant, it seems natural for the first experience of liturgy be the music and community and candles and so forth, and for all the cerebral stuff to come later. So for us cradle Catholics, the “back way” is the only way!

        • Julia Smucker

          Oh, of course! I’ve learned a lot, from one of my professors in particular, about precognitive formation within the community of faith, but I hadn’t really connected it to my own experience in this way. Thanks for bringing that out!

  • Thales

    Wow, what a great story, Julia. Thank you for sharing it.

  • A truly wonderful conversion story!

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Julia, a beautiful story! But I have one silly question: does a conversion story like this one give pause to the mission directors of the Mennonite Central Committee? It must be rather disconcerting to them to send fine young Mennonites like yourself out on Mission and have them come back Catholics! 🙂

    • Julia Smucker

      Someone else said the same thing, mostly in jest, when I was sharing this story the other day. But if I may try to answer your “silly question” seriously, MCC really doesn’t consider itself a mission organization; the goal isn’t making Mennonites but “service in the name of Christ.” The basic requirement for joining is that one be an actively practicing Christian with a commitment to biblical nonviolence.

      I have also been involved with another Mennonite organization that really is a mission organization (though still in a more holistic sense than simply making converts), in which I’ve heard a few people jokingly refer to MCC as “the dark side”. 🙂

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Thanks for the clarification!

  • Brian Martin

    Thank you for sharing, and thank you to you for the voice you bring to discussions, and to Vox Nova for inviting you to do so.

    • Julia Smucker

      Thanks. I really am very grateful for this outlet and community of colleagues in Catholic thought.