Speakers’ Stories Reveal Faith Grows Against All Odds
Published: July 7, 2011
COLLEGE PARK—A former Protestant pastor who felt haunted by the hidden God in the presence of the Eucharist. A tiny Iraqi nun whose Catholic faith life grew living among the homeless amidst the devastation of war, even though she wasn’t Catholic. A priest who encouraged others to seek freedom from life’s material attachments—and let grace flow through their life. And a former secular Irish singer whose own faith—and career—took off after a serious throat operation left her unable to sing for years.
The stories shared by the speakers in the English track during the 2011 Eucharist Congress—Dr. Paul Thigpen, Sister Olga of the Eucharist, Father Bob Barron and Dana—were all different. But all shared a similar message: that the “abundant harvest” of faith starts with just a small seed planted in the wild garden of life’s trials and tribulations.
“I planted, Apollos watered; God gave the growth,” Thigpen said, quoting St. Paul, as he talked about his own circuitous journey to Catholicism. “It all starts with seeds and sprinkles.”
Here is a sampling of their talks and some audience reaction.
Sister Olga Of The Eucharist
In the garden of humanity, Olga Yaqob is certainly one of God’s most tenacious plants; rooted in hostile soil, her faith is now flowering into one of the 21st century’s new Catholic orders of sisters.
Sister Olga of the Eucharist, a native of Iraq, shares how she came to the United States in 2001. (Photos by Michael Alexander)
The diminutive 4-foot-10-inch Iraqi woman—dressed in the simple blue habit of her order— stepped in front of the podium in the cavernous Georgia International Convention Center hall to tell the crowd her story of growing up in a war-torn nation wondering if her country would ever see peace.
Olga could have been shielded from the carnage of war because of her family’s wealthy status. But she didn’t shy away, even when she saw the devastation caused by war up close as a teenager.
She helped prepare the bodies of the war dead for funerals. As she washed and cleaned the bodies, many horribly disfigured because of their injuries, she wept.
“I prayed for peace every day,” she said. “I thought, there has to be a way to stop the war, as I witnessed one funeral after the other. I thought this shouldn’t be the reality of how we treat each other. God says, ‘Peace be with you’… and we Christians have a responsibility to speak and preach about peace; I wanted to become a missionary of peace.”
She grew up in the Assyrian Church of the East, an ancient Christian church that broke with the Catholic Church in A.D. 431, but that began a fruitful theological dialogue again with Rome starting in the 1990s. Her own young seeds of faith—and that desire to become a missionary of peace—were cultivated by a Catholic family who invited her to Mass and showed her how to pray the rosary. It was while visiting a Catholic church that she also learned of the Virgin Mary and her role in the church.
“I thought, who can teach me to be closer to God than Mary,” Sister Olga said.
“Who can teach me more about peace than the Prince of Peace himself,” she said, as she reflected on the gradual growth of her Catholic faith.
Her faith grew despite the adversity she faced as she eventually began to embrace the Catholic Church and a celibate lifestyle, much to the dismay of her family and the church of her childhood.
Disowned by her family for running away to avoid an arranged marriage, she lived among the homeless helping others while she built her own faith life. Eventually, her piety and good works led her to be invited to start an Assyrian order of sisters by her bishop in 1995. But the Assyrian Church after several years rejected her because she continued her Catholic practices of praying the rosary and attending daily Mass. With the help of Jesuits, she came to the United States to study in Boston. There, while studying English, she began helping students at Boston University with their faith. She was able at last to join the Catholic Church and was asked by the archbishop of Boston to become the Catholic chaplain at the university. Now Sister Olga of the Eucharist has been invited again to start a new order of sisters, this time by Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley.
Listening to Sister Olga speak, Carolyn Webster was moved with emotion, reflecting on the good Catholics who let her experience their faith over the years. Webster attended the session with her 18-year-old daughter, Grace, This was the St. Anna’s parishioners’ first Eucharistic Congress.
“I see that suffering gets us to where we need to be to know our true vocation,” she said, reflecting on Sister Olga’s own faith journey. Then she looked up, with tears in her eyes. “Over the years, God has put good Catholics in my life, and I would attend Easter services. Last year, I witnessed a woman being baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church; she was so joyful. I knew I also wanted to receive the Eucharist—to experience that joy.” She joined the church in April with her teenagers.
Dr. Paul Thigpen
That hunger for the Eucharist was shared by another speaker, Dr. Paul Thigpen, whose own faith journey meant leaving his Protestant faith and a successful career as an evangelist.
“Even as a pastor I knew the power of the Eucharist—I would go into a Catholic church and see (the tabernacle) and know there was a presence. I was haunted by the hidden God,” Thigpen told the crowd. “I tell you that vocations do live in the Eucharist, and I was called to enter into our Lord’s Catholic Church.”
Dr. Paul Thigpen was the first speaker in the English track. Thigpen is a former evangelical Protestant pastor who entered the Catholic Church in 1993.
After years of work as a Protestant pastor, Thigpen became a Catholic in 1993. A prolific author and Catholic historian with a doctorate from Emory University, he directs the publishing division of the Coming Home Network International, an apostolate that helps non-Catholic clergy enter the Catholic Church.
Thigpen encouraged others attending the Eucharistic Congress to practice “10 small effective ways to evangelize” and share their faith.
“We have to help plant our faith and cultivate our faith,” he said. Those tips for Catholics to help with that “cultivation,” include: answering a question; recommending a good book; recalling a meaningful experience with God; offering to pray with someone or for someone; and providing an example of integrity to your own faith commitment.
Thigpen added that even doing everything on the list may not produce results. He added, “Be patient. If you plant the seed of faith, someone else will water.”
Father Bob Barron
Father Bob Barron, founder of “Word on Fire,” a global nonprofit media ministry, also encouraged the crowd to cultivate a very public Catholic faith. But he also reflected on the importance of the Eucharist in that faith in deepening an individual’s own vocation as a Catholic.
“Jesus makes meals so central to his ministry,” Father Barron said, as he recounted the story of the fishes and loaves and the Last Supper. “And you know we are what we eat. … In the Eucharist, we eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We conform unto him.”
He challenged the crowd to discover their own mission and vocation in sharing their faith with others.
“How do you allow divine grace to flow through you into the world?” he said to the crowd.
“To fulfill that you need freedom …freedom from your attachments to wealth, pleasure, power and honor. To be detached from these things is to be able to respond freely to God’s will.”
Father Barron is currently finishing up a documentary film series about the Catholic faith called “The Catholicism Project.”
Tony Rozier, a parishioner at the Cathedral of Christ the King, was taking notes during the English track, but stopped to reflect on what he had learned after Father Barron’s talk.
“I think the message and the recurring theme of today is that you never know God is all you need until God is all you have—and that’s when you really begin to live,” he said.
Dana, the singer whose hymn, “We Are One Body,” became the anthem for a resurgence of Catholic youth in the church, seemed to reflect Rozier’s thoughts, as she told the crowd her story of how her dormant childhood faith was renewed after an operation that left her unable to regain her singing voice for over a year. The popular singer told the crowd that it wasn’t until she finally allowed herself a small prayer to God that her answer was given—and her recovery started immediately.
“The hardest things that we meet in life—we can really look back on them and say that was a blessing to me,” said the singer, whose full name is Dana Rosemary Scallon.
She spoke with emotion as she shared with the crowd that Ireland will host its first Eucharistic Congress since 1932 next year, inviting everyone to come to Ireland in 2012.
“Your light of faith is needed in Ireland. I invite you to be with us in prayer or be with us physically,” she told the crowd.
Reflecting on the day, Lina Cruz summed up her own experience.
“The Eucharistic Congress always has touched me and refreshed my faith,” the St. Lawrence parishioner said, as she joined the rest of the crowd who held hands as they sang, “We Are One Body.”