By Christopher Stefanick
Time is starting to carve wrinkles into my face and is slowly plucking hairs from my head. Time is annoying. It makes everything fade. It ushers friends and family one at a time over “the precipice” into eternity. But some day time will fade into a distant memory and we’ll have the last laugh. Though I guess that’s a reflection for another article. This one is about my conversion and why I’ve given my life to youth ministry.
Thanks to my parents I always had a sense of God’s presence, and as a little kid I wanted to be a saint. The roots they gave me never fully withered, though I came dangerously close to destroying them during the insanity known as “junior high.”
According to neurobiologists, the frontal lobe of the brain develops last. That’s the part devoted to reasoning. In junior high it is full of gray matter, that is, unformed brain space. So, like many young people, I regularly did things that might prompt the question, “What were you thinking?” To which I’d offer the honest reply, “I wasn’t.”
I was a sweet little kid with some bad influences and plenty of gray matter. As early as the sixth grade I had become an odd conglomeration of wholesomeness and sin. I remember coloring at a friend’s house after school with a crayon in one hand and a shot of Jack Daniel’s in the other.
By the seventh grade the crayons had disappeared and the world took center stage in my heart. I was on an IV-drip of toxic music, and my highest aspirations, like those of my rock gods, were to obtain alcohol, party and mess around with girls.
Thanks be to God, he rescued me before I became a trainwreck. Going into eighth grade my parents dragged me off to a retreat that changed my life. I felt new life pulsing through the dying faith-roots that had been planted in me as a young child.
It wasn’t just the keynotes or the prayer experiences at this conference that changed me. It was the faces of the attendees that left an indelible mark on my soul. I wanted their joy. The early Christians referred to themselves simply as “the living ones.” I had been dead and I wanted to be among the living again. And I experienced joy—real joy. Joy doesn’t come from the absence of problems, but from the presence of Christ. It is the soul’s response to an overwhelming outpouring of divine love.
However, as the proverb says, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so the fool returns to his folly” (Prov 26:11). And so I began a spiritual rollercoaster that lasted for a few years, going on retreats and then returning to my bad habits. But something had changed. My sins didn’t taste as sweet anymore. My soul had learned to recognize its thirst for the God who created it for himself. I realized that nothing else could quench that thirst. I was ruined.
By junior year of high school I was living a more disciplined Christian life and I made it my goal to share my faith with one person each day. “Give me someone to tell about you, Lord,” was my constant prayer. I helped to start a prayer group, recruited people to youth ministry at my parish, stood by those being bullied, godfathered a peer who was baptized, stood up for the dignity of women in the locker room, went to pro-life marches, and—by the grace of God—did it all in a way that was strangely “cool.”
In college I found a mighty river of grace that God would have flow through my life when I discovered I was being called to marriage. I realized that this wasn’t just a calling to marry a woman, but a vocation wherein I would encounter and be configured to Jesus Christ, “The Bridegroom.”
Through good times and bad, better and worse, sickness and health, this is my path to heaven. Jesus’ heart sacramentally beats within the ribcage of my wife for me. As I love her, so I’ve loved Him.
I’m 36 years old. I’ve been walking with the Lord for more than 23 years since that junior high retreat. I’ve been married for 15 years. God has blessed me with six gorgeous children and more than a decade of ministry.
My life has its struggles. Like anyone else, I deal with regular disappointments, eye-opening encounters with my own human weakness and with the weaknesses of others.
While the joys of life have far exceeded expectations, so has the pain. God tends to widen the heart’s capacity for love and joy (in other words, for his presence) through suffering. I wish he’d pick an alternate route, but I’m not him so I guess I have to keep taking up my cross!
Through every sorrow and joy, cross and resurrection of my life the theme of World Youth Day ’93 rings out clearly in my heart: “I have come so that they might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). There is a fullness in my life that no weakness and no struggle can take away. I found it in junior high and my desire to share that fullness for the rest of my life hasn’t changed since then.
Come to think of it, I guess this column and every conversion story is actually a roundabout reflection on time. The news in the papers passes every day. But there’s an ever-breaking event that’s new every morning, every second, every Mass. It’s the event of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and my life has been caught up in it.
I’ve been rescued from this generation and have become part of the generation of the living ones. I stand with that generation, which is very much alive on both sides of “the precipice,” all of us together, gathered around the empty tomb.
Speaker and author Christopher Stefanick was director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver. He has recently taken a job as director of Youth Outreach for YDisciple. Visit him at www.RealLifeCatholic.com.
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"The Good News on Youth"