By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
OSKALOOSA — Recently, while attending Mass with his wife, Ellen, Gary Greene saw a young couple with three children walk into the church. It reminded Gary of his own family of five — or rather, what could have been had he embraced his wife’s Catholic faith earlier in their 49-year marriage.
“I don’t know why I waited so long,” he said.
Gary, 69, is currently enrolled in Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) classes at St. Mary Parish in Oskaloosa and looks forward to receiving the sacraments of the Eucharist and his confirmation at the parish’s upcoming Easter Vigil Mass.
While many Catholics enter the church as infants or in early adulthood, it’s not unheard of for people to join the church later on. The Cente for Applied Research in the Apostolate states that 15 percent of adults who enter the church do so after the age of 50. At St. Mary’s this year, all three RCIA participants fit into that category.
St. Mary’s pastor, Father John Spiegel, said the Bible showcases people joining the faith at all stages of life, for a variety of reasons. In his experience, he finds that people tend to reflect more on life, death and faith as they get older. “A person might be ready to commit where before they weren’t. Maybe they weren’t attending to that call in their life but now they are. Maybe they see something of value (in the faith) that they didn’t see before. They see the effect it has on others and what it brings to their life and they think, ‘Maybe it’s something I should be doing.’”
Until recently, faith wasn’t a priority for Gary Greene. He was baptized in his mother’s Protestant church, but she died when Gary was 12. Gary’s father didn’t attend church, so young Gary didn’t, either.
He fell in love with Ellen in high school and they married soon after. Regarding conversion, “I never said I wouldn’t, but I never said I would,” Gary recalled.
Gary attended Mass with Ellen and their three children for special occasions such as a baptism, a first Communion or a confirmation. Aside from that, Ellen took the children to Mass by herself.
After almost 50 years of marriage, Ellen assumed Gary would never convert. She was utterly surprised when he accepted an invitation to an informational conversational meeting about RCIA at St. Mary’s. “It caught me off guard,” she said.
Gary said he accepted the “no-pressure” invitation for a number of reasons. As he gets older, he thinks about his desire to stay by his wife’s side, even after death. He doesn’t want to risk not being able to spend eternity with her, he said.
Donna DeJoode, St. Mary’s religious education director, notes that Gary has an air of joy about him, and he hopes to inspire his children and grandchildren through his conversion. Some are more engaged in the church than others. “He desires for them to have what he is receiving through his relationship with God and the church.”
For Gary’s classmate, Glenn Knox, it was family objection rather than a lack of interest that kept him from becoming a member of the Catholic Church until now. While Knox, 63, attended Mass with his wife, Susan, for the better part of 40 years, he didn’t want to disappoint his mother, a Jehovah’s Witness. When his mother passed away, he felt free to fully commit to the Catholic Church. “I felt that the restrictions had been lifted and decided it was finally time to become a member of the bigger family.”
It’s a decision that brings him peace as he gets older. “In my golden years, I have come to realize that my future in the here-after might be in jeopardy. While I consider myself a good person, I never figured I was going to go to Hell, but I didn’t figure I had met the obligations to reach Heaven.”
Donna said the three 50-plus RCIA participants have been great support for each other as they prepare for confirmation. “It speaks to the need for lifelong learning and faith development. It is never too late (unless you’re dead). We are never done learning and growing in our faith. It’s a journey for which we should never give up, even as we age.”
In Gary’s words, “It was just time.”