Mary Takes an Agnostic by the Hand

John Nahrgang Seminarian of the Diocese of Phoenix

Though I didn't grow up Catholic, I clearly remember attending my first Mass as a kid. I had tagged along at the invitation of a hockey teammate’s mom one Sunday morning after a sleepover. There, at Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Minnetonka, Minnesota, the Blessed Virgin Mary apparently took notice of the ten-year-old boy not accustomed to kneeling in a pew. Or at least I took notice of the statue of a beautiful woman and wondered who she was. 

The summer before I entered ninth grade, my family and I decided to visit the University of Notre Dame while on the way back from a road trip to Florida. I was blown away by the beauty of the campus and again took special notice of another statue of Mary, this one atop a giant golden dome. Notre Dame became a dream and a taste of amazing opportunities after high school.

In my public high school religion was only obliquely referenced, not to mention constrained to the narrow perspective of anthropology and sociology. I considered myself an agnostic at this time, but the desire to attend Notre Dame had grown. I was ecstatic when I received word that I had been accepted. 

I began my freshman year at the University of Notre Dame in 1998 full of enthusiasm and expectations but to my surprise, I plunged into my first experience of depression halfway through the semester. Uncomfortable with some of the social life there, I withdrew and for the first time in my life became a bit of a loner. I distracted myself with video games and spent too much time on the Internet, and then despair settled in. I did meet a kind Holy Cross priest who offered me some encouragement, but for the most part I felt alone in my struggles.

Having opted for a double major in business and Spanish, a passion of mine, I “escaped” abroad for a semester in Monterrey, Mexico. It was early 2000, the great Jubilee Year declared by Pope John Paul II. My host mom was a wonderful woman with a devotion to Pope John Paul II and she frequently invited me to Mass. 

But it was Our Lady of Guadalupe who really asserted her presence in my life. I saw her everywhere. Her image was in every parish, basilica and cathedral I visited. It was also in house after house and scattered throughout downtown Monterrey. I would see it overlooking the passengers in the city bus I took to school.  Her statue greeted me when I hiked the prominent mountain near where I lived. It didn’t take me long to ask myself, “Who is this woman? Why is she so important to the Mexican people?” I hadn’t the faintest idea how these questions would affect the course of my life.

I began researching the apparition and became fascinated by the encounter between Our Lady and Juan Diego. I marveled on the effects it had on the Church and on Latin America as a whole. This research led me to look into other Marian apparitions, both confirmed and alleged. I was soon becoming acquainted with names such as Lourdes, Fatima, La Salette, Knock, Akita, Kibeho and Medjugorje. I learned about popular Marian devotions and feast days. My inquiries soon branched out into the lives of Padre Pio, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Mother Teresa. I began scouring EWTN’s website to study different aspects of Catholic doctrine. I befriended an American priest online and bombarded him with questions. I purchased a Spanish bible and read morning meditations, joined a bible study and began attending Mass frequently at the Basilica of Nuestra Señora del Roble (Our Lady of the Oak Tree) in downtown Monterrey. I seemed to be the only American in the pews but I didn’t care. My heart was beginning to burn with spiritual desires. I asked myself, “What’s happening to me?” Another question quickly followed: “Wait…is it her?  Is she doing this to me?”

Later in the semester, a three-day visit to Mexico City was arranged for our group of international students. My first priority was clear: I wanted to make the first pilgrimage of my life to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and contemplate an image created by God Himself.

The experience of attending Mass at the cavernous Basilica in Mexico City, witnessing countless Mexican faithful praying the Rosary and studying Juan Diego’s tilma was very powerful. Upon returning to Monterrey I sensed a desire to pray the Rosary. Since my host family obviously knew I wasn’t Catholic, I prayed it secretly in a shed in their backyard. After kneeling on the hard floor and clumsily working the beads for the first time, I realized that Mary had evolved from a curiosity to a fascination to something of a relationship.  But it felt natural. Not long after, I left Mexico wondering whether I would become Catholic.

Upon returning to Notre Dame, I returned to a generally depressed state but now I had something of a spiritual foundation. I felt as though there was a seismic shift going on, that I was finding a truer identity. I attended Mass more often and starting wearing the Miraculous Medal and brown scapular. 

But then Caroline re-entered my life. I had met this beautiful, brilliant and sweet girl during my freshman year in Spanish class but hadn’t asked her out because I was convinced she was out of my league. Not only was she a year older, but she was what I called a “polyglot major,” studying Spanish, French and Italian. But now that I was a junior and had a semester abroad under my belt, I felt ready to court a little. We only spoke Spanish together. How could I not fall in love? My feelings for her grew at a breakneck pace over the course of a semester. Soon the time came for that all-important discussion where the guy and the girl discover whether things are going to get really serious. If I was going to be married, it had to be to Caroline. I couldn't let her get away! I had to say something serious. And quickly, because the following semester I was going off to Chile to study while she would be preparing to graduate. Would I skip Chile to spend more time with her?  Maybe… but I definitely thought I’d convey to her in no uncertain terms that I wanted her to continue being a big part of my life. However, when we sat down at a Barnes & Noble over coffee and the talk shifted toward “the future,” I said something completely unexpected: “I may have an interest in exploring ministry in the future, even Catholic priesthood.” Caroline got a surprised and slightly sad look on her face and then asked, “But what about being a Protestant minister?  They can get married.” 

The next words out my mouth surprised me even more: “I know, but there’s something about the Catholic priesthood that attracts me on a whole different level.  I don’t know how to explain it.” Boy, did I kick myself later over that one! How in the world could I say such a thing to the girl of my dreams as a guy who wasn’t even Catholic? I let her go with a sense of loss while demanding to know from God exactly what He was up to by inspiring those incongruous words to fall out of my mouth. 

Nine months after my experience in Mexico, I was back in Latin America. God led me to a volunteer opportunity with the Missionaries of Charity, who cared for terminally ill children in the western slums of Santiago, the capital of Chile. Upon arriving my first day, there was — you guessed it — a statue of our Lady there to greet me. One afternoon as I was washing clothes in one of the wards, a sister came in to speak with a nurse. Before leaving, she turned, looked at me, and with love in her voice said, “You know John, you have the face of a priest. I bet you’ll be a priest one day.” Stunned, I tried to recover by joking, “Sister, you can’t tell me that!  I’m not even Catholic!” She replied, “With God, all things are possible.” She has long since been transferred to another country and I pray that I may be reunited with her someday so that I can let her know what path I’m on. I left Chile convinced I would one day convert to Catholicism; reflecting upon my experiences with God, Mary and the faith up to that point carried with it a kind of happy inevitability.

The remainder of my time at Notre Dame was difficult. My depression worsened. In the spring of 2002, with only a few months left to graduate, things fell apart. Thanks in large part to my mental state and then-raging corporate scandals, I had become supremely disillusioned with my Corporate Finance major. I fell behind in my classes. It felt like I didn’t have any friends and the future looked bleak. I had also “taken a break” from God during this time, which didn’t help matters. Because of the depression it was a huge battle to get out of bed to go to class. I formally withdrew from Notre Dame for “personal reasons” and returned to Minneapolis, finding a job at a downtown bank and getting some counseling. Not spiritually mature enough to persevere at prayer in the midst of personal darkness, I attended Mass only sporadically. My faith life felt like a roller coaster, but after nine months things stabilized enough to return to Notre Dame and finish my studies.

A few months after graduating, I found a job as a financial analyst at a large company but despite the new beginning I felt more despair than ever. My boss was a good man but the job was a terrible fit. I’m a people person and the nature of my work forced me into befriending endless Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. I worked in front of a computer all day in a cubicle with a phone that barely rang and few visitors. I was a miserable lump of unfulfilled humanity.

Finally, in the summer of 2005, hitting bottom, I accepted that my long “break from God” had been a very poor decision for my spiritual life. God existed and was lovingly inviting me to join His Church. I had long gotten past doctrinal concerns; it was simply time to leave my darkness and summon the will to respond to the many divine overtures of prior years by making the commitment to enroll in RCIA. At a Saturday Easter Vigil Mass in the middle of April of 2006, I was accepted into the Catholic Church at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In addition to the local bishop, my parents and hundreds of fellow new Catholics, I was mindful of the comforting presence of Our Lady of Guadalupe in a stunning mosaic. I felt an exhilarating mix of joy, peace, fellowship, fulfillment and rightness of direction. The reception of the sacraments was sublime. After seven years of attending Mass (albeit inconsistently) I could finally receive the precious Body and Blood of my Lord Jesus. 

Something else happened. I began spending time with Jesus in Eucharistic Adoration at Our Lady of Grace parish in Edina, Minnesota. And when I prayed the Rosary in His presence, I noticed God inviting me to dredge up ugly episodes and regrets from my past, especially my dark times while in college. 

It was in praying the Sorrowful Mysteries, especially the First and Fifth Mysteries, that I felt Jesus deep in my heart inviting me to give Him my pain. And so I did. I dredged up all difficult memories from the prior eight years — the most difficult years of my life. Jesus took the pain of those memories away so that I could not be plagued by them. In doing so, He taught me a lot about leaning on Him in an attitude of trust. Somehow He also helped me to acknowledge responsibility for certain decisions I made that contributed to my unhappiness, and along with this came an invitation to bring certain sins to Him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Glorious Mysteries also took on a new significance. Jesus’ victory over death, the transformation of the apostles into new men by the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Mother’s assumption all communicated a deep sense of hope to me and even a sense of victory over my depression

Over the course of about a year, I underwent a spiritual healing in this way. Jesus the Spiritual Physician acted.  My depression burned away like a cloud. Since that healing, I have not experienced any symptoms of depression.

Another thing happened. As the depression burned away, the invitation of vocation grew stronger.  Eventually, it grew in strength enough that I needed to talk to a priest about it. My parents struggled to understand what was going on with me but they also clearly perceived that I was undergoing a positive transformation. They graciously gave me their support.

I discerned initially with the Congregation of Holy Cross at my alma mater. I went on an official visit there, my first trip back to Notre Dame since graduating.  But then Mary again did something unexpected. I had stopped to pray a Rosary at the beautiful Marian grotto on campus, which is modeled after the Grotto at Lourdes, in order to ask for her guidance regarding my vocation. As I knelt there praying my beads, I felt her presence and love so strongly that it compelled me to reflect deeply upon the centrality of her role in my spiritual journey, a role so pivotal that I subsequently informed Holy Cross that I needed to also explore religious congregations with a strong Marian charism. After returning home I did some online exploring and found the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. I attended a vocations retreat with them and applied soon after. 

In the summer of 2009 I was accepted as a Marian postulant. I spent three years with the Marians, in three different stages of formation: postulancy (an introductory year where one dips his or her foot into the waters of religious life), novitiate (a year of retreat and deepening education on the meaning of religious life), and temporary vows (in which one becomes an official member). During these years I spent time at Marian houses in Steubenville, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; and western Massachusetts. These were crucial formative years for this rookie Catholic. An important lesson came to me during this time. A vocation to the priesthood or religious life is not about worthiness, because ultimately none of us is worthy of such a great gift from God, particularly the gift of actually being configured to Christ in ministerial priesthood.  A vocation is about receptivity.  It’s about openness to God’s will and responding to it, whatever it might be. 

It was also during this time that, despite my love of the Marian charism, God helped me to recognize my attraction to parish life and steady interaction with the laity. My spiritual director helped me to discern in these attractions a calling toward that other way of priesthood in the Church: diocesan priesthood. Armed with sufficient clarity on that question and mindful of a personal call toward Hispanic ministry and my parents’ imminent retirement in Arizona, I asked God to confirm an application process for the Diocese of Phoenix. He did so and I am now at peace with my new path, grateful for the love and support of my adoptive diocese, and hopeful for a wonderful future as a Catholic priest under the patronage of our Blessed Mother. I am proud to be a spiritual son of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas, Patroness of the Diocese of Phoenix and patroness of my spiritual awakening.

Caroline eventually became a Spanish professor and got married. I deeply desire her happiness in the vocation of marriage.

I am also deeply grateful for those who respond to Jesus’ request to pray that the Father send out laborers into His harvest. God can call whomever He desires. He is not constrained in any way by our personal history since He knows us intimately from time immemorial. The Holy Spirit has always and will always be more than capable of evoking desires within us that correspond to Divine Providence. We, on the other hand, are often blinded and deafened by the voice of the world, the temptations of the enemy and lowly desires born of our fallen nature. Despite all that, God can always break through!  Let us implore Him to continue doing so!    

My seminary, the Pontifical College Josephinum, has enrolled 230 men this year (2014), its highest number in nearly fifty years. The Church in the United States needs priests and priestly vocations are increasing. I would like to encourage you to continue praying for vocations to the priesthood. 

In addition, I would ask that the next time you see a young man at the parish and get the feeling that he would make a good priest, please tell him. Ask the Holy Spirit for the words to say if necessary! It’s my belief that very often young men feel God’s invitation to priesthood but quickly grow discouraged because the voice of the world is so loud. They need encouragement and God may be seeking to give it to them through you as an instrument!

Our Lady is the dawn that precedes the glorious return of her Son. This is her time. May she always inspire us to join her in beseeching the Lord to provide more laborers for His harvest!

I sometimes wonder who might have been praying for me. I wonder whose prayers obtained the grace of my conversion and the grace of my apparent vocation. A nun in a faraway convent? A priest I’ve never met?  Or maybe a woman praying alone in a church after Mass? Perhaps God will let me know someday.

Blessed Mother, Star of the New Evangelization and Mother of Vocations, pray for us!  

In 2010, while still a postulant with the Marians of the Immaculte Conception, John Nahrgang was interviewed by Marcus Grodi on EWTN's The Journey Home: