By now you might detect a certain theme in this conversion story: No one really moved to help Carol as she moved toward God and the Church. In fact, nearly six months after her visit, she told me she was unsure of how my husband felt about her future conversion, since Dean didn't respond with a lot of emotion or encouragement when she would speak of her desire to be Catholic. I assured her that he was thrilled and elated, but he had not wanted to influence her in any way, and so had tried to remain neutral. How sad we were to realize that our bending over backwards not to pressure Carol came across to her as indifference!
It’s amazing that she kept persevering, and it’s also a testament to the fact that this movement of grace was between God and Carol and had very little to do with the rest of us. God was working with Carol, whom He had loved tenderly and completely since He formed her in her mother’s womb, and whom He loved even through a lifetime of pain in which, quite honestly, she felt very little deep love from anyone. He was wooing her, her heart was open, and His plan was about to go into overdrive.
And here's where I learned how beautifully God can even put Facebook at the service of His plans.
From the time Carol asked for baptism, I tentatively began to catechize her and answer her questions over the phone when we occasionally talked (she had no computer, didn't text, no email, and was often hard to get via phone). After the fear of pushing her had disappeared, I knew that we had to find the perfect priest for Carol. We were getting excited at the possibility that she would become Catholic in time to receive Communion with us at our daughter's Nuptial Mass coming up in September. I finally got on a private Catholic Facebook group and explained the situation: We needed a priest in the Atlanta area who was loving, kind, compassionate, patient, knowledgeable, articulate, and 100% faithful to the Magisterium. He needed to be willing to help catechize my mother-in-law, who was essentially homebound, so he also needed to be somewhat close to her apartment. Basically, I was asking for the moon.
A wonderful woman, Layna Halstead, messaged me and told me of a monsignor and high school chaplain in Atlanta who was well-respected, and who had helped her cousin spiritually through a battle with leukemia, ministering to his family after he died. And as God would have it, his parish, the Cathedral of Christ the King, was just minutes from Carol’s apartment.
I emailed this priest on May 13, 2013. [Only in writing this post today did I take note of this spiritually significant date -- the first appearance of Our Lady to the children at Fatima -- and I continue to stand in awe of God's plan.]
I stress this: God could not have provided a more perfect priest for Carol than Monsignor Richard Lopez. This man is a gift straight from Heaven. I cannot express in words our gratitude and love for Fr. Lopez and all he did for Carol -- every bit of it with love and care. I sometimes wonder if he is really an angel in disguise? Fr. Lopez is a much-loved, much sought after (read: busy!!) priest, and yet he treated Carol as if she were the most important person on earth. He didn’t hesitate to meet her when I initially contacted him, then have regular visits with her to catechize her, making sure that she truly understood what she was undertaking. He brought her books and videos, and when he sat with her, he catechized her well (you should see his notes and bullet points we found in Carol’s books!) and taught her to pray. When this frail woman on oxygen (well under 100 lbs. and dropping) broke her femur and had surgery and weeks of rehab, he drove many miles to see her. And, Fr. Lopez did something that perhaps no other person on earth had ever done: He delighted in her. Never ridiculed her, never diminished her, but delighted in her. This holy priest truly stood in persona Christi -- in the person of Christ.
The other night I went back through all the emails that Fr. Lopez and I had written, from May 13, 2013 when I first contacted him, to just this month. Peppered in our discussions of catechesis and logistics and Carol’s illness were Father’s descriptions of Carol as “delightful”, “a joy”, with “humor and charm” intact even as she physically deteriorated. Father “really enjoy[ed] her company” and even after she fell and had her surgery, “her humor had me rolling on the floor”. He even mentioned how much he liked her cat! And this: “...thank you for letting me get to know her”.
Seriously? Fr. Lopez was thanking us? We were and are so grateful to him!
Never knowing how much time Carol had, arrangements for her baptism were made. Dean flew to Atlanta, and on August 23, 2013 in the chapel at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Fr. Lopez baptized Carol, confirmed her, and gave her First Holy Communion. It was the first of only three masses she would ever attend as a Catholic.
|A beautiful picture of newly-baptized Carol with Fr. Lopez and my husband Dean, her son.|
Fittingly, Fr. Lopez's arm is around Carol.
I honestly have no words for this blessing that God gave to Carol and to us.
The morning after her baptism, Dean took her to Sunday mass in the main church, which was physically difficult for her. From then on, parishioners at the cathedral brought her Communion at home.
A month later, she bravely traveled to Phoenix with her son Jason and his family to attend my older daughter’s wedding. The dream that she would receive Holy Communion with our family at the Nuptial Mass of her granddaughter came true. My own mother, herself a convert, told me that she wept when she saw Carol receive. It was the last mass Carol would ever attend.
|September 28, 2013|
After the wedding, Carol stayed with us for three days. We talked about the Faith, as we had on the phone for many hours over the past months, and she asked me to teach her how to pray the Rosary. She asked, too, if we could watch more of the religious videos that we had at the house. To my shame, I said "Sure!" but I went upstairs "for a bit" and got caught up on the computer. She waited for me, my children told me later, and I failed her, again. By the time I came back down, she was asleep on the couch. She left the next morning, and it was the last time I would ever see her.
Dean went out to visit her a few more times in the year before her death, and my second daughter and her new husband were able to stop in Atlanta to see Carol while en route to their Charleston home after their wedding last June, a wedding that Carol was unable to attend.
By early December 2014, Carol’s health took a turn. We called Fr. Lopez, and he drove over an hour to see her and administer the Last Rites on December 4th. As Dean made arrangements to fly out, I emailed Fr. Lopez to ask more about the Anointing, and to ask if she had viaticum (one's last Eucharist, “food for the journey”). Carol's beloved priest gave us a response we cherish:
Hi...no Communion as she was not eating anything...but Apostolic Blessing, Absolution and Sacrament of the Sick...she became very alert and her charming self for all those things...and then slipped back into a deep sleep. I also got to give her a kiss and tell her I loved her...which I indeed do...she is ready to go home to God...As both a daughter of Israel and a daughter of the Church she is doubly blessed...take care, love and prayers, Father Lopez
Carol died in the wee hours of December 6th, just four days shy of her 68th birthday. She was at peace.
We laid Carol to rest on December 17, with Fr. Lopez presiding over her funeral mass in the lovely little chapel where she had been been baptized just 15 months earlier. It was so beautiful, from beginning to end, and though tears were shed by many, there was also so much joy in our hearts. A life that began in pain and abuse and rejection and suffering had ended in peace, joy, and glory. I still don’t have the words to describe it. I keep calling it a miracle.
God hit me with a spiritual 2x4 in all of this, and a chasm as wide as the universe existed between what I had erroneously thought and what was actually true.
What I had always thought: I had a lot to teach Carol. She was a like a frivolous little girl, no knowledge of or desire for anything profound, so many idiosyncrasies and bad habits, no real purpose, no love for God, on the wrong side of every moral issue, had been a mess-up her whole life and in all areas. Yes, she was someone who might well be hopeless. (And yes, I am cringing in shame as I type those words.)
What was actually true: Carol had a lot to teach me. She worked out her sanctity on earth in her 15 months as a Catholic, in the crucible of suffering and poverty and isolation. God plucked her out of obscurity, and made her, in short order, not only a better Catholic than I have ever been, but quite likely a true saint. She was exactly as Jesus asks His disciples to be: Docile, meek, accepting, loving, childlike. She was not the silly little girl, I was. I looked down on her in condescension for a quarter century, and now she looks down on me from eternity, but in love.
He has scattered the proud in their conceit... and has lifted up the lowly.
I am ashamed, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I have learned my lesson. Every single person to whom I have felt superior, every sinner who seemed so far beyond hope in my eyes, those are the very people that may very well make it to Heaven before me. God save me from my pride!
Never in a million years did I think I would look to my mother-in-law as my spiritual role model, that I would ask for her intercession, that I would try to imitate her holiness. Never, never, never, never! It was simply impossible!
With God, all things are possible.
And as Pope Francis has said time and again: God loves to surprise us!
Looking back, I am in awe. She must have suffered greatly (she was down to about 68 pounds when she died), but she didn't become bitter, she didn't lament and wail at her fate. In fact, her humor and spirits remained intact. How did we not notice? She didn't complain. She accepted and went forward. She laughed and giggled and kept a keen sense of humor. The day before she died, in between deep sleeps and with trouble talking, she was laughing and made a joke. The woman's spirit was indomitable, and docile. How did we not notice?
I have reason to believe that Carol, who was newly baptized, had little to atone for in those 15 months as a Catholic. Remember, baptism makes one a new creation. Every sin that Carol had committed in the 66 years before her baptism into the Body of Christ was washed clean away, including any temporal punishment for those sins. She had nothing of the old Carol for which to atone. And in her 15 months as a Catholic, she was earnest and sincere. She had no desire to sin, and she conformed her life and beliefs to that of the Church. Her suffering was real, and yet she bore it with docility and peace and good humor till the end. This is what sanctity looks like. Indeed, Fr. Lopez said as much in his funeral homily, and in an email the day she died:
...I have always thought one of the signs of true holiness is a combination of humor and courage...those two things were clear in Carol...
Oh, and the surprises and amusing ways of God! Here we had a Jewish woman who adored Christmas all of her life. So much so that her son Jason spoke at length of her love of Christmas in the words of remembrance he gave before her funeral. For decades, Carol relished her Christmas trees and Christmas pins and Christmas lights. They delighted her. And Carol had even gifted our family with a Nativity set years before she had given a thought to being a Christian. This lovely woman who was born during the Advent season also died in the Advent season. And as God's amazing Providence would have it, she died on the Feast of St. Nicholas! Which is as fitting as her very name...Carol.
And there was a final blessing. When Carol was watching the Fr. Barron Catholicism series that started it all, she took an interest in Episode 8, which highlights four saints. I really thought she would connect with St. Edith Stein, the Jewish convert nun who died at Auschwitz, but instead, she was particularly drawn to St. Katharine Drexel. I found this surprising then, but now I realize God was in the details again: Just after Christmas, we held a memorial mass at our parish in Phoenix for those who could not get to Carol's Atlanta funeral. The memorial mass was in none other than the beautiful St. Katharine Drexel Chapel at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church! St. Katharine's own private altar stands as the altar of repose in that very chapel. Carol's presence, along with St. Katharine's, was felt very keenly that day.
Carol, I love you, I miss you, I am sorry for the many times and ways I failed you, and I cannot wait to see you again.
|Carol Sue Goldstein Miller|
December 10, 1946 - December 6, 2014
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