Pentecost Sunday – Jn 15:26-27,16:12-15

Conversion of an Atheist"

Preached by Fr Philip Heng, SJ at Church of St Ignatius – Singapore
on 27 May 2012

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to His disciples and all of us that His Holy Spirit, the Advocate, will make us His witnesses and lead us to the complete Truth.  By this Jesus means that the Holy Spirit that He will send us today will empower us with courage to live the Faith, envelop us in His protection from harm and evil and enlighten us to the Truth of the Gospel, in our daily living.

How does the Holy Spirit empower, envelop and enlighten us in our lives?  Jennifer Fulwiler a writer from Austin, Texas, a columnist for the Envoy magazine, a regular guest presenter on Radio networks who converted to Catholicism after living a life as an atheist has this (which I will summarise and adapt for this homily) to share with us.
As an atheist, this is how I lived.  I acknowledged the truth that life was meaningless, and yet I kept acting as if my own life had meaning; as if all the hope, love and joy I'd experienced was something real. I worked too much. I drank too much. I was emotionally fragile. Many of my relationships with other people were toxic. I wrapped myself in a cocoon of distractions, trying to pretend like I didn't know what I knew in the way I lived.

A year after I graduated from college, I met a guy at work named Joe. People who knew him said he was one of the smartest person they'd ever met with degrees from Yale, Columbia and Stanford universities.  So when we began dating, I was thrilled. Our life together turned out to be even better than I could have imagined: We travelled the world on whims, ate at the finest restaurants, flew first class, and threw epic parties on the roof of his loft downtown. On top of that, both of our careers were taking off, so our future held only more money and more success.
We were a perfect couple. The only thing we didn't see the same way was the issue of religion. Joe and I married in a theater in 2003, reciting vows we wrote ourselves, with me wearing a dark purple dress. The plan was that marriage would be just a stepping stone along the path we were already on. But then I discovered I was pregnant, and everything changed.

                                     Jennifer Fulwiler and her baby

One morning, as I looked at my baby in the pre-dawn light that filtered in through the window, I felt something new within me. It was something that was not despair, some unfamiliar yet welcome feeling. I peeled back the layers to find that it was doubt: Doubt of my purely materialist worldview, doubt of the truth I had believed since childhood that there is nothing transcendent about the human life.
A few months later, I stumbled across a Christian book, written by a former atheist. (To make a long story short,) I was intrigued by the fact that what happened in first-century Palestine was something so big that it still sends shockwaves down to the present day. And it all centered around the figure of Jesus Christ. As Joe once pointed out when I asked him why he considered himself a Christian, he said that Christianity is the only one of all the major world religions to be founded by a person who claimed to be God. That's an easy claim to disprove if it's not true.
I bought another Christian book, this one called Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Lewis was reasonable and obviously intelligent. I then read excerpts online from the great Christian thinkers like St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. I began to think that this religion was not opposed to reason at all -- in fact, some of the most intelligent, reasonable people in history were Christians.

I finally caved in and bought a Bible, the first I'd ever owned. Not knowing how else to approach it, I started reading at page one for the next 500 pages, and got totally confused.  Joe encouraged me to read the second part of the book, called the New Testament.  Jesus founded just one Church before he left the earth, and that he instilled it with supernatural power so that it would accurately articulate the truth about what is good -- and therefore about what is God -- for all times and places. As if that weren't crazy enough, I realised that he was talking about the Catholic Church!

I wasn't sure what to make of all this Catholic stuff, and still vehemently disagreed with the Church on some of its crazier ideas, like its opposition to abortion and contraception. But I had to admit that the more I read about Catholic theology, the more sane it seemed.


But why, then, had I had no experience of him? Then, my feelings of frustration and resentment towards God reached a head.  But, just at the right time, I happened to come across a quote from C.S. Lewis in which he pointed out: [God] shows much more of Himself to some people than to others -- not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.
Of course. I'd been walking around talking trash, watching TV shows that portrayed all types of nastiness, indulging in selfish behaviour and yet wondering why I couldn't feel the presence of the source of all goodness. I realized that, if I were serious about figuring out if God exists or not, it could not be an entirely intellectual exercise. I had to be willing to change.

I wasn't sure if I was ready to sign up for that for the long haul, but I decided to give it a shot: I committed to go a month living according to the Catholic moral code. I bought a copy of the Catholic Catechism, a summary of the Church's teachings, and studied it carefully, living my life according to what it taught, even in the cases where I wasn't sure the Church was right.

My goal with the experiment had been to discover the presence of God; instead, I discovered myself -- the real me. I had thought that cynicism, judgmentalism, and irritability were just parts of who I was, but I realized that there was a purer, better version of myself buried underneath all that filth -- what the Church would call sins -- that I had never before encountered.

I found that the rules of the Church, that I had once perceived to be a set of confining laws, were rules of love; they defined the boundaries between what is love and what is not. It had changed me, my life, and my marriage for the better. I may not have experienced God, but, by following the teachings of the Church that was supposedly founded by him, I had experienced real love.

In following the teachings about contraception to my great surprise, Joe and I discovered that the Church had incredibly reasonable defenses of its points. We looked at each other, and for the first time dared to ask: Are we going to become Catholic?!


And so I set everything else aside, and clung to the simple question: What is Truth? For weeks now, I had known on an intellectual level that I believed what the Church taught. What stalled me had not been a hesitation of whether or not it was true; it had been a hesitation of not wanting to sacrifice too much.
So, Joe and I then signed up for the RCIA formation process at our parish church . . . and, in the first statement of faith I'd ever made was to my doctors . . . I told them that I would not use contraception, because I was Catholic.

The next Spring, three days before Joe and I would be received into the Church, it was time for my First Confession. As I approached the confessional, I had no hesitation. I had an intellectual understanding that God is the source of goodness, and that therefore it's important that we take great care repent when we have done something bad. But I'd already privately confessed all these sins in my head, so I figured that telling them to the priest, who was simply standing in for Jesus, would be redundant -- after all, Jesus had already heard all this stuff.

But as soon as I heard the words coming from my mouth, everything changed. To hear all of these selfish, cowardly, hateful acts articulated with real words, for another human being to hear, was more powerful than I could have ever imagined. Tears began to flow, and, as I continued recounting every unloving thing I'd ever done, I shook and sobbed. Never could I have imagined the impact it would have on me to hear of my own sins, spoken out loud; but never could I have imagined how much it would impact me to hear the words, spoken by the priest on behalf of God, that I was forgiven. I walked away from the confessional in a daze, and slid into a pew in the silent church. I knew that my life had just changed, never to be the same again.


My brothers and sisters in Christ, the story of Jennifer, now a happy mother five children, shows us clearly how the Holy Spirit as, the Advocate, was constantly leading her and Joe her husband to the complete Truth and transforming them into powerful witnesses of what Jesus in today’s Gospel promised.  Jennifer and Joe were also clearly empowered with courage to live the Faith that was presented to them in the different challenging situations of their lives and were enveloped in the Spirit’s protection from harm and evil regardless of how gloomy and depressing they were.

Likewise, regardless of the challenges we are confronting, whether they are similar to those of Jennifer or Joe, or even whether it is making our firm commitment to participate in our Parish-wide events of the month of the Eucharist next month (June), we are each called to open our hearts to be enlightened, enveloped and empowered by the Holy Spirit of Pentecost in our daily living.  If this is possible for Jennifer and Joe, it is possible for all us believers . . . this is Jesus’ promise to us today.  It is up to us to allow the Holy Spirit to transform us . . . from sin to grace; from grace to holiness . . . and from holiness to peace and happiness for all eternity in heaven.

Fr Philip Heng,S.J.


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