By MIKE BERGER
I was surprised when I first found out that my father wasn’t always Catholic.
As a child growing up, my sisters and I could see that he was very strong in the Catholic faith, he was a man of conviction, and he loved my mother. We said the Rosary on our knees during Advent and Lent each year and went to Sunday Mass faithfully.
My father regularly played the organ at parish liturgies and also taught in the religious education program after we settled in at St. Cyril parish in central Tucson (east Tucson at that time) after moving from Ohio. Like many Catholic kids, I thought the whole world was Catholic.
I think I was in my pre- or early teens when I found out that my dad had grown up as a Methodist. In fact, his father was an active member and elder of the Methodist church in Ada, Ohio. After I got over the surprise, I asked him about it. When and why had he “switched” churches?
It was during World War II when dad was stationed in the Philippines that he met a Catholic priest and got to know him well. It was through this relationship and friendship, questioning and dialogue, that my dad decided that the Catholic Church embodied the fullest expression of the divine that he had witnessed…and he had a devotion to the Eucharist.
He told me that when you make a major decision like he did as an adult, it has more power and commitment.
After high school and 12 years of Catholic education, I remember asking, ‘Is that all there is? As a “cradle Catholic” I had taken it all for granted and had become disillusioned about large institutions including the Church. It was the late 60’s and early 70’s. Enough said!
Little did I know that I was about to encounter God in a powerful way through a young adult retreat called SEARCH…a retreat that brought me face to face with the person and message of Jesus, where I experienced my need for love and forgiveness, where I learned to accept and make sense of suffering and loss and where I discovered a new identity based on a transforming God within.
This retreat, by the way, is still changing young lives here in Tucson. My own young adult moment of new relationships, dialogue and decision had appeared at the time I needed it most.
After heading down the same path as my father, ready to leave the Church of my birth, I was challenged by a priest I met to share my faith and gifts with others in ministry – to “bloom where I was planted”.
A short time after that, my dad was suddenly taken from us in a tragic accident. I was 22. One of the great moments of my life occurred in the midst of tragedy. I was asked by this same priest to give the eulogy at my father’s funeral.
I got to honor the man I so admired and loved to a church full of people. In the process I experienced the grace and blessings of a compassionate God who is all about new life – even when loss or death takes center stage. I’ll never forget it.
Mike Berger is the director for the Office of Catechesis for the Diocese of Tucson.