This is a guest post by my friend Kevin Heldt. He is an engineer and husband to Brianna Heldt.
On October 15, 2013, I had the honor of sharing my life/faith story with a group of about 90 men during our parish’s annual Mission Week. Recently a couple of people asked how we became Catholic. I figured sharing the text of that talk would be a good way to answer them.
Hello. My name is Kevin Heldt. I’ve been a parishioner here at Holy Name for about two years, and I’m honored to have the opportunity to speak to you tonight. I’m going to tell you some of the story of how my family and I found the Catholic Church. As you’ll see, it’s really more the story of how Christ’s Church found us.
I grew up in a loving, Christian family. Our family was Lutheran, hailing from a long line of German Lutherans who, until my parents moved west to California, had made Wisconsin their home. I had a wonderful childhood. And I have many fond memories from my church growing up. Sunday School was a wonderful chance to learn from the Bible while being with my friends. And I enjoyed the worship service too (I guess with the exception of when I was really little and, according to my parents, I’d religiously sleep through the sermon each week). I enjoyed participating in the liturgy too, as best I could before I could read and then confidently afterwards. Sometimes during the sermon, I’d pick up the Bible in the pew and read and reread my favorite Bible stories: David and Goliath, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, or Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection in the Gospels. I’m very fortunate to have had such positive experiences at church growing up. And not just fun “youth group”-y times, but profound encounters with God in the company of His people. I realize that not everyone is so lucky.
I was baptized when I was one month old. To this day, I credit my timely baptism with so much of what was good in my spiritual life growing up. I actively enjoyed learning about and worshipping God. And I really liked Confirmation Class as a junior higher, learning more about my faith and memorizing the creed, catechism answers, and many Bible verses. At a couple of key times during my childhood, God specifically impressed upon me the seriousness of following after Jesus, that I had to be “all in”, and take up my cross and follow him, loving him with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. I committed and recommitted to Him. And by God’s grace, I never went through a true “rebellious stage”, never walked away from God, and never struggled with serious doubts about God or my faith. I knew God was real as clearly as I knew the sun would rise each morning. I knew He loved me, and I knew He sent His Son to die for me and save me from my sins.
I think that sets a sufficient backdrop for getting to the meat of this story. Fast forward to the year 2000, the year I met my wife.
It was the typical story: boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy spends time with girl at a Weird Al concert trying to make her laugh but not too often so as not to appear too eager, boy later finds out girl thought boy talked too much anyway. Brianna was my first girlfriend, my first kiss, my first wife…
We were a wonderful match. We both loved Jesus with all our hearts and wanted to build our lives on the sure and solid foundation of following Him. We loved to laugh, appreciated the simple things, and enjoyed long discussions on just about every topic under the sun. Both extremely introspective, we had well-formed opinions on seemingly everything and high ideals too. Neither of us was content to settle for the status quo just because it was the status quo. And I think that approach to life is partly responsible for the unique directions our family would take over the years.
We married in 2002. I was twenty-one, she twenty. We entered marriage with many of the assumptions typical in Protestant circles: contraception was a given (I certainly had never heard a single word spoken against it in my 20 years), and we’d probably wait 5 years before having children. It’ll be better that way, I reasoned, because we’ll be more financially established, etc. Well, it didn’t take long for God to change all that.
Brianna started taking the Pill when we got married. This was standard practice for Protestants and we knew of no reason to do otherwise. However, the Pill had several horrible side effects, so fortunately Brianna went off of it only a few months into our marriage. A few months after that, we learned for the first time about the potential abortifacient effect of the Pill. We were horrified. I remember feeling so angry that no one seemed to know or care about this.
Skipping forward to happier things, we found out Brianna was pregnant with our first child on our one-year anniversary. To this day, I vividly remember sitting on the couch after Brianna delivered the news as the amazing realization that I was a father washed over me. For so long, I had intently sought out God’s will for my life. As a Protestant without the Catholic notion of vocation to ground my understanding of my life’s path, this was always a very individualized thing. But in that moment when I learned God had blessed me with a child, so much was suddenly so clear. Whatever else might come, I suddenly knew with certainty what God wanted from me in a very practical way for at least the next couple of decades: to be a Godly father and, with Brianna, raise this precious child to know and love God.
I learned a very simple but profound life lesson that day. So often, God’s direction, His plans for our lives, are made clear through the playing out of our basic life circumstances. In marrying and having a child, a huge swath of my life was mapped out for me. Now I realize, especially in our culture drunk on false notions of “self-actualization”, having that clarity is regularly seen as limiting, as a breach of our freedom. But this is simply false. Knowing with clarity the path you are on helps you to more fully appreciate the journey.
Parenting turned my whole world upside down. It was, in a word, amazing…
You have this adorable little creature that God worked through you to create, who loves you unconditionally. And who needs you. And what’s more, our marriage was enhanced in unexpected ways. We were this amazing team and each day, we had new reasons to fall in love with each other as we saw how well the other loved our child. I was beginning to really see the profound ramifications of God’s design.
So there I was, completely impressed by how wonderful marriage and family was, yet still immersed in a society that peddles ridiculous lies about those things. Every day I grew more incredulous about the sick, confused society around me. Committed spousal love, parenting, and precious children – this is what everyone runs away from?
A very important (and widely applicable) lesson came out of all of this. And if you only remember one thing from my talk, may it be this: regularly question your assumptions. Remain skeptical to the claims of your culture. This is only simple prudence when so many of the claims you know to be clearly false. Therefore it is only reasonable and wise to question the rest.
As Christians, Brianna and I had already spent two decades recognizing and rejecting many of society’s most prevalent “wisdom”s concerning life and what really matters. And though, back then we didn’t have well-developed theological hooks to hang our thoughts on, there were certain things that were already apparent. In becoming parents, it had become blatantly obvious how messed up the world was in terms of its core values surrounding children. And even in Christian circles. In our Christian circles, marriage was still valued. Waiting until marriage to have sex was still valued. Being a good husband and a good wife was still valued. But anything touching on what Catholic moral theologians call the primary ends of marriage (namely, the procreation and education of children)…crickets. Instead, children were often seen as potential obstacles to a healthy marriage. “You can still have a healthy marriage, but it will take extra work and you need to make sure you carve out plenty of time for just the two of you.” Now with any good lie, there is a nugget of truth in that: the marital relationship is essential and needs to be nurtured, especially when children are depending on it. But the notion that the children are somehow a natural enemy to this connection is, quite frankly, bizarre. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment. (Excerpt #2366)
Of course, at this point in the story I still knew nothing about the Catholic Church, much less its catechism. But nevertheless, God was clearly showing us these truths firsthand. And carried along by our daily experience of these truths, we found ourselves happily moving farther and farther away from those mainstream notions about marriage and children. Nope, family was wonderful, and it was just so weird that everyone didn’t unqualifiedly agree.
Another flash-forward is in order. In 2005, God led us to adopt. Though neither of us had ever given any thought to adoption, by God’s leading and after a ton of research and prayer, we came to the place where adoption was definitely something we wanted to do some day. And, as we’ve found God often does, He didn’t take too long to change that someday to now. For us the decision ultimately boiled down to two simple things: one, did we care about the things that Jesus cared about? It’s abundantly clear from Scripture that God cares deeply about the orphan and the widow. Simply put, we should too. And I realized that all too often, I only cared about me and mine. And two, our little girl, Anna, went to sleep in her nice warm bed with a full tummy each and every night. We had room in our home and our hearts to give that same thing to children who didn’t have it. So we started the adoption process and 7 months later, we brought home our twin sons, Yosef and Biniam, from Ethiopia.
Though exhausting, at least for that first year when we had 3 children two years old and under, the love in our family and in our hearts multiplied. Every positive cliché you’ve ever heard about God growing parents’ hearts when new children are added is absolutely true. When you have one child, you can’t fathom loving another child that much. And with that heart you probably couldn’t. But God grows your heart; He stretches your capacity to love. His beautiful design was becoming more and more plain to see.
The more we followed God in faith, the more eminently logical His ways began to appear, especially in contrast to the values of society. It became easier to reject those false values, such as: “the life devoid of sacrifice is the happy life”, “children are a burden”, or “if you’re going to have children, fine, but certainly make sure you stop after 2 or 3, or at the VERY most 4”. We found ourselves caring less and less what everyone else thought. We didn’t have to convince ourselves that children are a blessing simply because God says so. Instead, we witnessed that truth for ourselves each day.
Brianna gave birth to Kaitlyn a little over a year after our boys came home. Mary followed 2.5 years later after we had moved to Denver. Life was full and wonderful.
Now as Protestants, we were the only couple in our circle of friends who held these views concerning children and family and (though we didn’t know it had a name yet) openness to life. Then one day, Brianna decided to look into the reasons behind the Catholic Church’s prohibition of contraception. Though we didn’t know any practicing Catholics, we were vaguely aware that their Church taught against that.
We started reading…and we were blown away.
Stumbling upon the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and family, sexuality and vocation was very much like finding buried treasure. We’d been Christians our entire lives but had never come across anything like it. Not only did we find wonderful teachings giving voice to all the things we’d come to learn, we found teachings going far beyond what we’d learned, and we found dots being connected and many disparate truths coming together in a unified whole.
I had seen, in contrast to the ridiculously anti-children attitudes of society, how children are not a burden to be avoided at all costs but rather a blessing to be welcomed and appreciated. But from the Catholics, through old encyclicals like Casti Connubii, I learned the greater overarching picture of God’s design for marriage and family.
As I encountered and came to more deeply embrace these truths, the beauty of God’s creation loomed larger and more beautiful than I had ever known. And over the years, God has deepened our understanding about what living life in the married vocation is all about. We’ve learned that sacrifice is standard, that it is part and parcel of your God-given vocation when you are called to marriage. And that to run from it is to short-circuit His plan to grow you into a better person. A better parent. And a better spouse.
We’ve learned that growing in love and goodness and generosity is what the marital vocation is all about. God uses family as the crucible to strip away our selfishness. Everything leads back to that deep truth that I dimly apprehended when I first learned my wife was pregnant with our first child. At last, this is a clear and foolproof way to hear from and follow God. We faithfully follow Him into life circumstances where it becomes less and less possible to run away from him.
And finally we’ve learned that generosity is the goal, not privation. Jesus came that we “may have life, and may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10b) A holy life is one that wants the goods God desires to give us. That doesn’t hold back. That doesn’t shrink away from His bright light.
Now going into that time of research and reading, I had known next to nothing about the Catholic Church. It naturally didn’t take long before I had a profound respect for this Church that could explain such deep and meaningful things. And in the course of our study, we learned that all Christians used to be united in their stance against contraception. Then in 1930, the Anglicans made a provision that, in some cases, its use would be acceptable. And as always happens with these sorts of things, it didn’t take long before the “in some cases” was dropped and before all the other Protestant denominations followed suit. So the question asked itself, “If the Catholic Church could be this right, and this uniquely right, about this gigantic issue, what else might they be right about?”
We set out to answer that question, and through years of reading and studying, we discerned that the Catholic Church was indeed Christ’s true Church, built on Peter, and possessing the fullness of the faith. The Bible that we had loved our whole lives came alive in new ways, and so many truths we had always known in isolation now fit together beautifully.
And since entering full communion with the Catholic Church at the end of October 2011, we now receive Christ Himself in the Holy Eucharist. Jesus has blessed us so abundantly through His Church and the Sacraments and we remain humbled and deeply grateful that He would choose to open our eyes to the fullness of His truth.
Furthermore, it is so wonderful to be in a community of believers where new life is unconditionally treasured and celebrated. When we brought home our two daughters from Ethiopia in September of 2011, 4-year old Mekdes and 2-year old Tigist, each born with Down syndrome, everyone showered us and them with love and support. When the girls underwent three heart surgeries that fall to repair their heart defects, this same Catholic community prayed for us and brought us meals. When we learned Brianna was pregnant with our 8th child last summer, our announcement was met with happiness and joy. When little Alice was born and baptized in March, everyone celebrated with us again, this precious new child given first natural then supernatural life by our wonderful heavenly Father. It is so refreshing to consider that any time God chooses to bless us with another baby, our announcement will be similarly celebrated.
Much of what can be known about God is plain to all as the Book of Romans attests. The heavens show forth the glory of God, and the firmament declares the work of his hands. But some of God’s revelation is a bit more hidden. Though a sincere search of history will reveal that God Himself became man, died, and rose from the dead, many are not taught to make that search. Many more are taught to doubt these simple truths. Furthermore, many know and love Jesus but have encountered error mixed with truth from groups that have broken from His Church. After all, a similarly sincere search of history could have revealed (and ultimately did reveal) to me that Christ left a visible Church with the power to convey supernatural grace in His name. But I was brought up with some of those pieces missing. So, this Mission Week, my encouragement to those who have the light of faith is to share it. Don’t grow complacent. Don’t forget the magnitude of the blessings you have received. And don’t withhold that profound and saving faith from anyone in your life who might be open to the truth.
And to those who have not yet encountered the love of Jesus Christ, I want to encourage you as well. When a man who also happens to be God raises Himself from the dead, it’s a good idea to tune in and pay attention to Him. If He spent the years prior to His Resurrection teaching and preaching, it makes sense to learn and follow what He taught. But here’s the part I didn’t know about for almost three decades. If that same God-man leaves a church behind to act as His mystical body here on earth, carrying on the ministry He started, and able to transmit to us supernatural graces through the Holy Spirit…find that Church, and enter it. Don’t allow any hurdle to cause you to give up. Don’t allow pride to stand in your way. Come aboard the Ark of salvation.
Jesus is Lord. And He is the way, and the truth, and the life. What’s more, He has not left us as independent agents. Unknown to me for so long, He left us a Church to guard the true faith and dispense of divine grace.
Remember, the authentic teaching of Christ’s Church can always be trusted. And the sacramental graces given through the Church are powerful and effective. If you build your life around following that teaching, and consistently avail yourself of the Sacraments to receive those graces, you will live life to the fullest here on earth and spend eternity with Jesus in heaven. It really is as simple as that. God bless you all. And thank you