In the mid 1970s, my father returned to pastoral ministry. The former Wesleyan minister answered a call to re-enter the pastorate, this time as a Presbyterian. During the preceding months, while living on the family farm, two yoked Presbyterian churches were in between pastors (Lime Springs Presbyterian and Saratoga Presbyterian). The vacancy in their pulpits meant that they had to find a guest preacher every week until they could decide on a new pastor to replace their previous pastor. In Presbyterian churches, this process can take up to two years. My father was asked to fill the pulpit on Sunday morning. This became a weekly event. Eventually, the two Presbyterian parishes asked him to become their permanent pastor.
We changed schools once again, this time attending Riceville Community School (from 5th grade through 11th grade).
Our years in Riceville are, for me, the best years of my childhood. If there is a part of Iowa that has my heart, it is this town.
This is also the beginning of my deeper awareness of the Catholic Church. It wasn't just a parish on the other side of our public school playground (as when we lived in Cedar Falls). It was the parish of many of my school friends. That gave it meaning. It gave the parish character, personality, hands-and-feet, a face.
I heard these friends talk about Catholic things. I still believed that we had a better (perhaps even purer) faith, but I was beginning to listen . . . to take note.
We passed Immaculate Conception Parish twice every day on our way to and from school. We passed it every time we attended basketball games or football games or picked up a few groceries.
One evening, as we passed this parish, my father asked my mother if she knew what they meant by "Immaculate Conception". She said it probably had something to do with Jesus' birth. My father said, no, it refers to Mary's conception. Catholics believe she was conceived free of sin. My parents talked about that for a few minutes while I listened from the back seat.
It would be a significant memory for me. I would carry a prejudice against this teaching for decades and struggle with it during my own conversion into the Catholic Church. It would almost stop my journey. And indeed, it would have stopped my journey . . . if not for a miracle and a lot of grace.
The years at Riceville were full of many things. My father attended seminary in Dubuque and encountered some priests from the Catholic colleges in town (Loras and Clark). He began to accept the Presbyterian position on infant baptism. In fact, he became more sacramental in his theology, and my sister and I were baptized, we learned the Apostle's Creed and the Lord's Prayer (Our Father), and attend Presbyterian confirmation class.
In my middle school years, I attended Mass with one of my friends while spending the weekend with her family. I didn't have any clue as to what was taking place, but it was my closest encounter with the Eucharist - until I entered my 20s.
Another friend stayed overnight at my house and we spent one afternoon in my dad's church talking about the differences in our worship experiences. Catholic vs. Presbyterian.
My junior year, I went to prom with a Catholic boy. I had a serious crush on him and I think that fact also raised my awareness of his parish, Immaculate Conception.
Once again, I was blessed during these years to grow in my understanding of the faith - and the gifts we had as Presbyterians, even though we did not realize that all these gifts were ours because they were entrusted to Mother Church first and foremost.
No, we saw the faith differently. Christianity - in our minds - did not have a history to be traced. We had the Gospel stories and the other writings in the New Testament. But then, our legacy stopped, until the 1500s. We did not learn about the saints who lived during those first 1500 years. We did not study the Church Fathers. Or the development of doctrine. We did not discuss the origin of Sacred Scripture, how it too came from the Catholic Church, as She followed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
All these things were ours in isolation. They were gifts . . . that simply were -as though dropped down from heaven to no one in particular, to be picked up by Protestant Evangelicals somewhere in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Once again, we were in possession of many graces because we had received so many good things from our Catholic heritage - even if we didn't recognize the source.
This Sunday, I will be in Riceville. I will be attending Mass at Immaculate Conception. My heart is filled with so much as I anticipate this very special Mass.
I celebrate the gift of faith and a God who is so incredibly gentle and merciful and abounding in love.