As an engineer I always tried to make rational decisions based on careful observation and physical evidence. So how did I come to believe in God and to join the Catholic Church at the age of 71? I have tried below to describe my journey, truthfully and humbly with God’s help, in the hope that it may help others in their own struggles.
From boyhood I marvelled at the atom, the stars, the earth, trees, ourselves, light, and the magnificent sunrise. How did these complex and beautiful miracles happen? Not by accident, or from nothing. Some intelligence, which many call God, had created them, and for a purpose. But which, if any, of the world’s Gods was he?
I had only vague religious and moral beliefs until I married my Catholic wife, vowed to help her raise our kids as Catholics, and attended Church with them (mainly Baptisms, Confirmations, Christmas and Easter). I read and thought about world religions, slowly discovering that Christianity makes great sense for a thinking person. The Christian God proved he loves us by coming down to explain himself and by sacrificing himself on the cross. And he demanded obedience to just a few short, sensible rules: Love him, love yourself by striving and allowing him to make you the just and faithful person he desires, and love others by helping them to do the same.
I regularly attended Mass (without Communion), studied Scripture and Christian books, and prayed. I set about overcoming my failings to improve myself in God’s eyes. But I failed. I tried harder, made promises to God, made bargains with him, and failed for 20 years. Eventually I was forced to admit that I could not do it, and gave myself up to God’s mercy to do with me as he wished. A frightening thing to do, but with a wonderful result: my struggles began to succeed, fear of failure grew into hope of success, and on these grew the strength to persevere.
Several incidents finally cemented my conversion. The first was my dad’s struggle with dementia and psychiatric issues. I angrily demanded that God explain why a frail old man must suffer, and into my mind came the thought of God’s Peace which surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:7). I became more peaceful and accepting. And so too did Dad. Coincidence, decided the rational, evidence-based engineer. But this acceptance then helped me to overcome my engineer’s disbelief in the transubstantiation of bread to flesh, to accept that my role was not to understand all things but to take Communion in good faith as he commanded (Jn 6:48–58).
I joined a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process to prepare for Catholic Baptism. I experienced the time, effort, care and expertise warmly volunteered to RCIA participants, my first taste of the Catholic Church as community. Until then I had seen God and religion as a private matter. And I learned what an insidious thing is pride: after explaining my background at an early RCIA meeting, I discovered how proud I was of my humility.
One night a friend arrived with a box of pebbles, told me to choose one which stood out for me, and turn it over. I did. Carved underneath was the word ‘peace’. I had now received that message twice. Another coincidence, decided the rational, evidence-based engineer. Months later, after the pebble message had helped me cope through a serious disease, I decided to keep it in a little box in case the disease returned. Instantly a powerful command burst in my head, no abstract thought this time but explicit words, burning in my brain: I did not send you that message to hide in a box. Share it.
Having demanded evidence for years, the rational, evidence-based engineer was stunned to silence. I can only describe what happened. You must come to your own conclusions about it, as I had to. Two days later, as a nervous first-time witness for God, I gave the pebble with God’s peace message to an old friend who was dying slowly of a terrible disease. He smiled, hugged and thanked me, and told me he would treasure it always. Months later, the news of his death arrived while I was writing this paragraph.
As my first-ever Confession approached, the accumulated sins of 71 years weighed on me. I prayed hard to God to help me prepare. He did; the confession was challenging but reassuring. The next morning I awoke sensing that some vital part of me was missing, and found it off in the distance. It was my failings. I sensed that with effort I could access them, but that doing so would cause deep sadness to God who loved me. The failings have since faded further, beyond desire, but not beyond memory or vigilance. I no longer feel incomplete, but whole.
My Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion were profound experiences of joy and peace in the shared presence and happiness of my whole family and many others. But after struggling for so many years, why did I feel unworthy of their congratulations? The answer came, my greatest lesson yet: the struggle was not my doing, and the success was not mine. They belonged to God, who had pursued me with love, quietly but relentlessly for 71 years. As he pursues each one of us. We just need to listen for him.
Len Rochford is a retired engineer from Melbourne who is married with four children and has recently converted to Catholicism.
This article was originally published in the July 2019 edition of the Melbourne Catholic Magazine.