Catholics on Purpose
Amy Vossen Vukelic is a Catholic with Purpose
As long as she can remember, Amy has had a smile that lights up the room and makes people feel comfortable. She offers it generously as a gift that God has given her to share with others. Amy has also been Catholic on purpose for almost as long as she can remember. Even when she was in college she recalls that she chose theological studies as her major without ever having taken a course in it. She simply presumed that it was the most practical use of her money, since she was bound to use knowledge about God, daily, and for the rest of her life.
How does she do it? It might just be a bunch of good habits that she has developed over time with the support of her husband Paul. But each day, she speaks with God, asks her questions, and listens for God's response. She consciously notices God's handiwork all around her. And then she sees her job as simply saying an emphatic YES to whatever God asks of her. "I tell anyone who asks, that I have no idea what difference my YES makes in the world." But, living life out of gratefulness, allows Amy to stay patient even during the long spaces between her questions and God's answers.
Often her YES is made on behalf of people who are the least, the last and the lost of our society. In every situation, she wants to know who is the least, or who has the least, whether it is in her family, in a newspaper story, at a store, or in a restaurant. She considers how her action or inaction impacts those who are most vulnerable and poor. She tries to make choices on their behalf and each of her choices is driven by a prayerful assurance and gratitude for God's concern for them. Amy credits her husband and friends for much of her progress.
One of her favorite activities is leading Children's Liturgy of the Word at St. Joseph University Parish. It seems quite straightforward to her. Amy listens to God's Word and ask herself how that Word speaks to her present situation. She loves how children share her excitement about God and living for the good of others. To Amy, children see so clearly, and keep things so simple. Amy tries to be equally honest. Just a few years ago, she remembers feeling bad that she did not work prayers into her bedtime routine. She thought hard about it and discovered why. She simply told God, "I spend all day talking with you.....and I just need a break!"
Amy is becoming increasingly more public in her witness. She struggles to know when to speak up. "I feel vulnerable before I speak up and spend time encouraging myself before I do. Most recently my faith has challenged me, as a white person, to examine racism in our culture, both as a United States citizen and a member of the Catholic Church. I sincerely believe that we need to explicitly explore and study history from an inclusive timeline, and begin to understand our responsibility as people of faith to use our power, and to relinquish our power, to work for equality."
In her first year as the Director of Faith Formation at St. Rose of Lima Parish she struggled to believe in her gifts. Then, she discovered the words of Marianne Williamson which were made famous at the presidential inauguration of Nelson Mandella in South Africa. If one shrinks from their call, thinking: "Who am I to be great?" God's response will be: "Who are you NOT to be great?" We must realize that "playing small" does not bring honor to God. Quite the contrary, we only show disrespect to God by focusing on our weakness. God created us for greatness and Amy is still getting comfortable with that purpose in her life. Amy enjoys sharing this message with others.
Amy is still learning to accept opportunities for greatness in a spirit of humility. "To think that my gifts, skills, and energy might be needed by others! In that moment, I choose to honor the gifts that were given to me, and find others who have different gifts, so we can work together." Amy wants nothing more than for all of us to be open to the greatness that God intends for us.
Christie is a Catholic with Purpose
If asked about her past, Christie would reply, "I used to be such an introvert, always happy to talk to someone if they started the conversation first. Now I will just go up to anyone and talk to them. I have become an intentional Catholic. Now, I am known for going around and handing out Light House CD's. My friends tease me because I always have them on hand."
Christie credits her mother for the depth of her faith. Her mother has been praying for her to find "good friends" for as long as she can remember but she never quite understood what that meant. Christie grew up a practicing Catholic. She went to World Youth Day in Denver and she even went on retreats. "While in college, I began to go to church less and less. My faith was always important to me, but I was not living it, day to day.
I was married in the Catholic Church and when we had children, we had them baptized, because that's just what you do." Christie was going through the motions. She went to church when it fit into the schedule, but her faith life had become something that she pulled out of her pocket on Sunday and then tucked away the rest of the week. Her friends at the time were all "Catholics" by name but they were not living out their faith any more than she was.
When she and her family moved to Buffalo in 2007, they joined St. Gregory the Great in Williamsville but stayed at the margins, until the spring of 2010 when Christie lost her brother to an overdose. All of a sudden having the right house, the right car, the right clothes were not so important to her anymore. In the fall of 2010, a mom on a baseball field and she started talking. After a few games the woman invited her and her husband to attend a gathering of married couples and gave her a LightHouse CD. This was a game changer for her.
Christie made a commitment to get involved in the parish and to step out of her comfort zone. She started listening to all the LightHouse CD's that she could get her hands on (www.lighthousecatholicmedia.org). Christie joined the MOMS group at her parish and she started forming beautiful friendships. The parish that had seemed so large before, became her family's second home. She started reading the daily readings and meditations each day, and over a few months her prayer life started to evolve, but she still felt restless.
One day her mother agreed to come to her MOMS group to share a witness about the sacrament of reconciliation and Christie was asked to introduce her. "I kept wondering, how can I introduce her when I haven't been to confession myself? I shared my fear with a Mom over a cup of coffee and she encouraged me to go to confession. She shared her own story on coming back to the Sacrament. I was scared to go. I had not been to confession since high school, and even back then I went out of obligation, never understanding the Sacrament.
Christie recalls, "I became fully alive in my faith that day. It was like a light switch turned on inside me. That morning at our MOMS group, I shared my own story with our MOMS group, and a few women shared with me after their own fear of going. That day I felt that tug in my heart to reach out to fallen away Catholics."
Christie accepted a friend's invitation to attend a Light House sponsored event. At that conference she witnessed what the "New Evangelization" meant first hand. "It was so much more than these amazing speakers on CD's. It was about reaching the lost. At that conference I felt God tugging at my heart in a powerful way. On the flight home, my friend Annie Esposito and I, spread Light House CD's and books all around the plane. That was my first experience with spreading faith seeds."
When she came home from that conference, she was a Catholic with purpose. The Lighthouse and Dynamic Catholic resources made it easy for her to evangelize. "Everyday God places people in our lives. There are always opportunities to share faith if we listen. It could be on the baseball field, in a doctor's office or even at Wegman's." The song "Give Me Your Eyes" by Brandon Heath helps Christie to see the people all around her in a new way. She and Annie have partnered to do evangelization weekends in other parishes. Her favorite part is hearing the faith stories of people afterward.
There is so much power in a simple invitation. "I just hand them a CD or a book and let the Holy Spirit take over. Stepping out of our comfort zone is a challenge for all of us. I am inspired by the words of St. Catherine of Siena "If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire." Christie invites us all to consider this question: "Where is God calling you to use your gifts?" Christie was in customer service all her adult life. Now she is a customer service rep for Jesus. "I want to give back what has been given to me."
Adam Strusienski is Catholic on Purpose
As he stood facing hundreds of teens at the annual diocesan youth convention, the question that must have been going through most of their minds was, "What could make this kid want to commit suicide?" No one can really predict such things but a year earlier, Adam was less than fifteen years old, living in an aging neighborhood in Cheektowaga near the city line, with four brothers, both parents working hard and money tight. He was interested in sports but overweight and pre-diabetic. Adam endured a daily gauntlet of insults and disregard from his peers. What did the audience witness that night? A young man - strong in his faith and Catholic on purpose.
Adam radiates a quiet self-assurance. One might describe him as a young man of 16, going on 26. He is active in sports, doing well in school, and in training as a boxer. He just made the school tennis team and he is aspiring to be chef. His girlfriend would describe him as hardworking and caring for others. He has many friends. He leads the parish youth group and is now a member of the diocesan youth board. Talking to Adam today, one would scarcely imagine that not so long ago this young man, voiced a final challenge to God, daring God to stop him in his plan for suicide. As Adam recalls it, "God didn't leave me, as much as I drifted away from God". The mistake that Adam made was to believe what others said about him. Ironically, it is the late Rev. Joe Moreno who Adam credits with pulling him back from the brink of suicide.
Now Adam recognizes the intervention of countless others in his life. While visiting with Adam, this observer witnessed his father remind Adam that he loved him, in person and over the phone, no less than five times in less than one hour. But it was the night that Adam's father called the rectory for help, that Fr. Joe Moreno responded without hesitation. That night, Fr. Joe just listened. After a few more conversations, Fr. Moreno invited Adam to see the light that is always peeking through the darkness. Fr. Joe continued to encourage him and the parish outreach program at St. Lawrence Parish paid the cost of his counseling. Fr. Joe was a messenger of God to Adam. He was the answer to his prayers.
With the help of his parents and friends, Adam addressed his depression. He attended some youth events at neighboring parishes and joined with his friends to do service for Holy Week as part of a diocesan sponsored program, Young Christians at Work. He applied the skills acquired at another diocesan sponsored program, Christian Leadership Institute, to work with friends at his parish. He addressed his anger and his weight problem by taking up boxing. While many challenges remained, Adam felt a supportive church surrounding him and giving him assurance of God's desire for his life.
Through it all, Adam became aware of his influence on others. Now he goes to church, even when it is inconvenient, because he knows the impact that he has on his younger brother William. Adam stays in touch with his friends on Facebook. Friends ask for his advice and that is when Adam prays the most. "When a friend starts sharing their problems with me, I pray that God will give him the right words to say." And Adam asks God to use him as His messenger.
Adam has chosen to be intentional about his faith. He knows that he has an opportunity to help others and he is encouraged in this one-to-one ministry. When asked what it means to be a Catholic on purpose, Adam replied "I see my challenge as helping people to find their way to God. I know that it's right because of how I feel inside and because of all the support that I receive from others." He adds, "In school, some still consider me weird, but once most of them get to know me, they say that I'm a good friend to have."
Adam converses with people on Facebook, whether or not they are religious. He sometimes offers to pray for people and once he recalls having prayed with someone on the spot. To one friend Adam wrote, "Do you want to pray?" The friend replied "Yes". Adam proceeded to lead prayer through Facebook message window and his friend joined in. Adam recalls posting to troubled friends who consider themselves atheists, "I know that you don't believe in this stuff, but try to pray." He has also used the social media to invite friends to consider being Catholic.
Adam prays more than ever now, but now his prayers are usually for others. When he does get overwhelmed he prays in such simple words as, "God tighten your grip on me". One of the blessings that Adam has received from joining forces with God is that he has developed a sort of spiritual Teflon. "What people say about me just doesn't seem to stick anymore. It just goes in one ear and out the other." Adam has mobilized his friends to reinvigorate a struggling parish youth group. Adam seems most happy just to help out at home or in school. Now when Adam speaks, whether it is to hundreds or just to one trusted friend, he speaks as a Catholic on purpose.
Betty is Catholic on Purpose
People who get to know Betty would never guess that she does this ministry, because she has always been a very quiet person. She now credits this courage to her relationship with the Lord which grew noticeably after making a Cursillo retreat. In that experience she saw what the Spirit could do; and that realized that "it wasn't me doing it". She was amazed at what the Spirit could do through others and through her.
Betty was introduced to this ministry by her husband. "When our children were young, I was busy being a Mom. I didn't feel called to the ministry, and I didn't think that I had anything to offer. How could I relate to men who came from such different backgrounds than my own? I got involved when I felt God calling me. After my children grew up, I felt a need to nurture others. At that point, the differences between me and an inmate disappeared. I only saw what we had in common; we were both struggling and journeying. I felt like I could encourage them, show them that someone cared, and who isn't hungry for that?"
Betty believes that she is tremendously blessed by this ministry. "I am part of a wonderful community. I see men go from being lonely and hopeless to believing that they are lovable and forgiven. The men inside teach me about the importance of forgiveness. They teach me to find a blessing in every day; they are able to do that even in very difficult circumstances." When asked about her level of success she replied,
"I don't worry about succeeding; I only do what God is calling me to do, playing my small part. It's God's work; the outcome is in God's hands. I do feel I'm successful, though, when a man says this ministry saved his life, when a man says that for the first time he feels unburdened, when a man who seems so tough, who lived on the streets, cries and says that he never felt love before."
Prayer is a big part of ministry for Betty. "This ministry brings me to my knees all the time, and if it doesn't, then I'm doing what I want rather than what God is leading me to do. The men inside need someone to listen to them, and I pray each time before I go in that I would be that listener. I pray that God would give me the words they need to hear, to encourage them, and to help them minister to each other."
Betty and her husband have brought some others to this ministry. "I can tell people that they will witness miracles and see men's lives change. They would be able to love those whom the world has cast off. Doesn't this all sound like what Jesus calls us to do? This is easy to sell. Anyone who has a heart for people, who can see what we have in common, who can love and not judge, who has compassion for those who feel forgotten, who is humble and depends on the Lord can do this." When people approach her interested in stepping out in faith, Betty replies, "It can be frightening the first time you hear those gates close behind you. If you feel the Lord calling you to this ministry, and you have some fear, that's okay; it will melt away when you realize how Jesus is alive, inside those walls.
Stan is Catholic on Purpose
He does these things because, even though he had the advantages of growing up with devout parents and the presence of good priests and religious women in his life, for a time he rejected their example. But God never let go of Stan, even after he made three abortion referrals which affected him for years afterward. At the time, Stan gave in without resistance to three women who came to him to obtain referrals for abortions. He was not a bad person, he simply lacked the conviction to offer these women an alternative to abortion and a reason to hope. He failed to help them find a way to give life, rather than take it away. In fact, despite his profession as a healer, Stan possessed no power to heal or console one of the women who returned to him afterward seeking answers and hope. He is now convinced by the effects he saw by the abortions on the women, that abortion hurts women and will never be a solution to anything. As Stan notes, abortion seeks to separate sex and life. It is all too often a cover-up for sexual sin or sexual violence. Stan says the critical factor for his weakness when it came to giving the abortion referrals was his own sexual sins. They go together.
Stan carried his sin, even denying it to himself, for fifteen years. Although one would not have known it by looking at him, it was there, poisoning his heart. His moral failures had stripped him of his power to stand up for his convictions in some other matters, because down deep, part of him was badly wounded. But God gave Stan an opportunity for healing when his parish opened a Eucharistic Adoration chapel. Over the course of two years, weekly prayer brought him closer to God. It made him look honestly at his life. And God changed him. Stan found forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession, and new inspiration and purpose in serving women and unborn children like those he once gave up on.
Now he prays daily. He frequents Mass and goes to Confession regularly. He joined his parish Respect Life committee, and he is now active in pro-woman, pro-life work. He is intentional about his faith and it has given him new energy and peace. His work in the pro-life community has been a great opportunity to be in transformative relationships with many other Christians, both Catholics and non-Catholics. He notes that "People are constantly being drawn in by the Spirit. Everyone of good will is welcome." Stan sees the Holy Spirit reuniting the Church of Christ around the sanctity of life.
"God is not finished with me. I have bad days. I get tired. I say things and do things that I regret. At times I fail to love. But my foundation is no longer built on sand." God is good to Stan and carries him in the tough times. God stretches him and comforts him. Sometimes God even seems to grow silent for a time. "Sometimes my prayer energy fades. But if I get into trouble it makes me pray wholeheartedly. A little desperation can be good for anyone's prayer life!" Of course, God does help out, "but in His way and in His good time, not mine. I may not like it, but so what? My vision is pretty limited. God is the one who sees clearly."
Stan is open to what God has in store for him. In all things he starts by being a good husband, father and physician. He helps a friend who now leads the local 40 Days for Life campaign. "Beyond that, I do not know what is coming. My task is to put one foot in front of the other and listen for God's directions." Stan sees his job, not to make a world of difference, but to be a faithful and loving person in small ways wherever God puts him. The rest is up to God. "I can't change anything except perhaps, by His grace, myself." Stan is sure that God's grace is working through him to 'do all things'. "Mary wraps me in her mantle, reminds me to say "yes" to God, draws me closer to Jesus. Jesus leads me, teaches me, feeds me with Himself, gives me strength through the Holy Spirit to take up my cross each day on my journey to the Father." Sound simple? It is not. But it may start simply. Perhaps all we need to do is confront our own lack of hope, be faithful to our Church, surrender to Jesus and let his Spirit fill the holes in our heart, the way He did it for Stan.