Child’s faith leads to family’s conversion

Maddox receive his first Holy Communion as a Catholic.(ALESSANDRA KUTZ)

Editor’s note: Last names omitted to protect the privacy of minors.

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS | Maddox has had a heart for God since he was 5 years old, according to his Confirmation sponsor and neighbor, Silvia. It wasn’t until he stepped into St. Joseph Parish in Orlando, seeking to sign off a Cub Scout requirement at age 11, that he recognized where God had been leading him his entire youth. “From the moment I walked in, I got a feeling. I just knew this is where I belonged. I sat through the service and got this feeling, which is hard to describe. It was warm. At that moment, I knew. It took a little while, but here I am,” said Maddox with a confidence far beyond his years.

Slowly, his attendance piqued the interest of his mother, Monica. Almost two years later she was welcomed into the Church with her three youngest boys. The following year, her husband, Josh, and Maddox celebrated their Sacraments. “I give it up to Maddox. He’s been a great example of a disciple, leading us this way – first his mother, then his brothers, then me. It’s been really special,” said Josh. Their eldest son, Ethan, has chosen not to become Catholic, but Josh is certain he is on his own path, led by Christ.

Maddox’s parents were both raised in faithful homes. Josh, celebrated a rich devotion to Judaism and Monica grew up Episcopalian- a compromise between her parents. Her father was a Baptist pastor and her mother was Catholic. In the spirit of unity, they chose to find common ground in the Episcopalian church. But when it came to their own children, Josh and Monica found it more difficult to achieve faith balance. Josh recalled, “Before we were married, my intention was to raise the kids Jewish. We discussed that and ultimately she wasn’t comfortable with it.” They agreed to the foundational belief of a loving God and Creator and shared that love with their children.

Silvia remembers taking Monica to a few Ash Wednesday services, but when Maddox started attending Mass weekly, Monica joined him. Silvia’s family eventually began attending Annunciation Parish in Altamonte Springs. “When she (Monica) went, she fell in love just as I did,” said Maddox. “So, she decided she wanted to become Catholic. It snowballed from there.” Monica also wanted her three youngest (of their five boys) to be Baptized, but Josh would have to agree. “I decided, it was better for them to be raised with some faith, than with no faith at all—even if it wasn’t the one I would choose for them,” said Josh. “So, I was open to them being raised Christian so they had a faith community and knew what that was like.”

Josh was painfully adamant about his intentions. That Christmas, they were at Silvia’s celebrating their “Cuban Christmas Eve”. Josh noted, “My intention at the beginning was I would participate with the family, but I had no intention of becoming Catholic—and I said that multiple times.”

Maddox laughed chiming in as he told his version of the story. “Christmas of 2018, he was cutting the roast pork and said, ‘Alright. I’ve made the decision that you all can become Catholic, but let it be known that, even though I may be coming to Church, I have no intentions of becoming Catholic.’ And here we are, dad.”  Silvia noted he repeated the statement several times, to the point of making her normally calm husband, Pablo, so irritated, he said, “We get it!”

Reflecting on the family’s journey, Silvia recalled, “When Monica started coming (to Mass at Annunciation) and wasn’t Catholic, we used to joke that the homily was called ‘Conversations with Monica’. It didn’t matter if he (Pastor Father Stephen Parkes) was talking about hot dogs; he was talking to her.” Silvia is still most stunned, however, with Josh’s conversion. “I still wake up some mornings and think I’m living in an alternate universe,” she said jovially. “I never thought it would happen, in a million years.”

She admitted she had a premonition of sorts almost three years ago. She was attending an event at Annunciation with friends and stayed for Mass one Saturday night. “I was sitting in the second row, on the right, and I was praying. A flash in my mind’s eye was of Josh sitting on the altar steps with a grin on his face. I kind of shook it off and thought, yeah, okay!”

Mass began and the parishioners were asked to introduce themselves to those around them. In front of her was Clarence and behind her was Angel. The fact that these two names were the main characters of her favorite movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, was not lost on her. She felt God saying, “You’ll see.”

Like Maddox and Monica, Josh acknowledged the first thing to open his heart to the process “was going to the church (Annunciation) and feeling so welcome there. Feeling at home and at peace there.” He said, “I have gone to many churches as a kid and with friends, and I never felt as welcomed as I did when I went to Annunciation. That was the first part of the process for me.” Father Parkes’ opening phrase welcoming those visiting from any other faith background, immediately put him at ease. “I felt it was a place where I could, not just be myself, but I could be at peace.”

In April of 2019, Monica, Finnigan (11), Liam (9), Holden (4), were welcomed into the Church at the Easter Vigil. Josh found watching his wife and children receive the Sacraments profoundly moving. When Maddox chose to go through Inquiry the following month, Josh joined him “to see how it goes.” “I took the process seriously and tried to let it be a journey… It was really powerful for me… Lent in 2019 and 2020 were very meaningful for me, and that was part of the process in 2019 that made me feel I should consider going on this journey.”

“(Inquiry) was a big contender in supporting my initiation of becoming Catholic and allowing my father to understand, and influencing his decision to also become Catholic,” explained Maddox. The two continued with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in the fall. “The table discussions and all the people leading the groups were great,” recalled Josh fondly. “We really missed it when COVID came.”

One night in RCIA, Josh had his second “aha moment”. In an episode of the podcast, Hope in Turmoil (Diocese of Orlando YouTube, Episode 24) Josh explained. As they studied Scripture with Lectio Divina, they were looking at the Old and New Testaments. The story of Joseph resounded. Mary gave her Fiat, “but Joseph had to go along with the plan,” Josh realized. “I saw it as a transition” from the Jewish law to its fulfillment, he noted. “It was a transition of love that Joseph made. He could have said no. He chose love over the law.” Josh chose him as his saint name.

As the final day approached, stories of a worldwide pandemic began overpowering news outlets. In mid-March, Maddox and Josh learned their Sacraments would be delayed, but the two learned to surrender to God’s Will in the waiting. “Because Lent was so powerful for me in 2019 and 2020, there was a little bit of disappointment because it would have been such a crowning event at Easter Vigil,” Josh admitted. “But on the other hand, the waiting just became part of the process too, and made it more meaningful. It was a recognition that this was going to happen in God’s time – that He had a plan. It was an extension of the process and the journey.”

Maddox agreed, “I realized all this waiting would make it that much sweeter. I realized that God wouldn’t have it any other way. He planned it this way.”

For Josh and Maddox, the crowning moment arrived June 19, the Feast of Sacred Heart. Allowing only 20 candidates to receive Sacraments at one time, to comply with social distancing requirements, the setting was intimate. As he prepared to be Baptized, Josh was ready, already facing the bowl filled with holy water as he answered the question: “What do you ask of God’s church?” “I just had this grin on my face from ear to ear,” recalled Josh. “Having Father Parkes, who I feel so connected to and trust in his guidance, was really special.”

Josh added, “It was almost like a wedding. We were being celebrated and welcomed into the Church. It felt like this great peace and attachment and recognition that I had accepted Jesus and I could rely on Him for anything for the rest of my life.”

Maddox, who had desired the sacraments for so long, and whose journey of faith enfolded his family, was exhilarated. “The entire process was so moving. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” stated the 14-year old. “Whenever I think of it, I get a smile on my face because it’s so satisfying and it brings so much joy to me.” He recounted receiving Holy Communion for the first time, then turning to see his father receive. “He was literally glowing.”

The following day, Finnegan and Liam would receive First Holy Communion. It was to be an epic Father’s Day weekend. A father, coming to the Father with his children.

As Silvia, Maddox’s sponsor (and Monica’s the previous year), stood witnessing the moment, words escaped her. She belittles her role of accompaniment. “It wasn’t me. It couldn’t have been me,” she said trying to hold back the tears. Like most faithful disciples, she got out of the way and let God work through her.

Looking back on the Rite of Election (in February), she recounted how Bishop John Noonan told each candidate, “God bless you” and said their name as he blessed them. When he looked at Maddox, “He put his hand on his shoulder and said, “Thank you, Maddox.” “He didn’t say that to anybody else,” Silvia emphasized. “I looked at Maddox and said, ‘Did you hear that? That’s in persona Christi. (God) is speaking through him.”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic, July 15, 2020