February 28, 2014

Coming home: Young adult Catholic returns to the Church after journey of heartbreak and separation

Michael Walterman, left, said Father Gerald Kirkhoff, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Indianapolis, played an integral role in making him feel welcome when he returned to the Catholic Church. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Michael Walterman, left, said Father Gerald Kirkhoff, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Indianapolis, played an integral role in making him feel welcome when he returned to the Catholic Church. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

(Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series about people who have left the Church and/or lost their faith in God, only to rediscover later the meaning that God and the Church have in their lives.)

By John Shaughnessy

Michael Walterman will always remember his 18th birthday for two life-changing reasons.

First, it was the day when one of his best friends committed suicide.

And, because of that death, it was also the day when he turned his back on God.

“I wanted no part of a God who would allow these types of things to happen,” Walterman recalls. “I couldn’t understand. I basically gave up on God.”

A few moments later, Walterman adds, “Years later, I would discover that God never gave up on me.”

Those two polar-opposite revelations hint at the profound, deeply personal story of Walterman’s return to faith over the past 15 years. (Related story: New retreat hopes to help people who have ‘Lost Sight of God’)

Now 33, Walterman wants to share the details of that story, hoping it will inspire other young people who have left the Church and separated from God to take another look at their faith.

It’s a story marked by two devastating realities in his life—the suicide of one of his best friends and the heartbreak of what happened to Walterman’s mother.

A mother’s illness, a mother’s plea

After the suicide of his friend, Walterman stopped going to Mass and gave up on his plans to receive the sacrament of confirmation.

“After abandoning God, things became increasingly difficult for me,” he says. “I went to college, but with more trouble than success. I felt overconfident in my intelligence, thinking that alone would earn a degree, not giving much time to my studies. I also battled depression for many years.”

Dropping out of college, he saw “a cycle of depression, loneliness and separation from God” continue for a few years until his mother sat down with him one night and told him that he needed God in his life.

“She was crying for me and made me promise that I would start going to Mass again at least once a month,” he says. “I obliged her and said that I would. But I didn’t keep my promise—at least not until she got sick.

“A few years ago, on Mother’s Day, my mom sat my brothers and I down and told us she had kidney cancer.”

In the months that followed, his mother’s condition declined in an unexpected way. While her cancer treatments seemed to be working, she started to “lose the fight to early onset dementia,” Walterman notes.

The family had to admit her to a nursing home for in-patient care.

“While my family and I went through this nightmare, I started thinking more and more that I should go back to Mass,” he notes. “By this point, I realized I really did believe in God after all, and he was good—ironic, considering a lot of people in my position would have blamed God for such heartache. But I did not. In fact, my faith started to grow. But I didn’t quite have the strength to go back to church just yet.

“I guess I was afraid that maybe I wouldn’t belong anymore or it wouldn’t feel right. I’m not sure. I just didn’t have the courage yet. That is until one morning when I experienced something. It was the most amazing moment of my life.”

‘Like seeing an old friend’

On a Sunday morning a few years ago, Walterman believes that God spoke to him, telling him, “Mike, it’s time to go back to church.”

Walterman acknowledges that many people would say he’s “crazy” to think he heard the voice of God, but he also insists, “I truly believe that God was speaking to me.”

Living in the Garfield Park area on the south side of Indianapolis at the time, he knew that Good Shepherd Church was nearby so he headed there for the Mass at 9 a.m. He was surprised and appreciated that several parishioners greeted him—a stranger—warmly as he sat near the back of the church. He was also surprised by how he felt being part of the celebration of the Mass.

“Despite a few minor differences in the liturgy since the last time I had been to Mass over a decade before, it seemed very familiar, like seeing an old friend after many years. It was a big step for me. After Mass, I felt like a new person, filled with joy and relief and hope.”

He later met with Father Gerald Kirkhoff, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish. He shared his story about his friend’s suicide, his falling away from God and the Church, his mother’s illness and his call from God.

“He was very compassionate and welcomed me back with unconditional love,” Walterman says. “Despite my mother’s sickness, I was as happy as I had been in years. I could feel something changing in me for the better.”

He decided to prepare to receive the sacrament of confirmation at Easter that year. He just hoped that his mother could be there.

A key to heaven

When Walterman received the sacrament of confirmation at the Easter Vigil Mass at Good Shepherd, he was surrounded by his father, brothers, other relatives and friends.

“It was one of the happiest days of my life,” he recalls. “I am grateful I was able to share that moment with the people closest to me, but it was bittersweet as my mother was too ill to attend.

“In the weeks leading up to Easter, her condition was worsening steadily. But there were still plenty of times when she would be coherent and alert when I would visit her. I would bring her figurines of angels and tell her all about going back to Mass and going through confirmation.”

Walterman believes those moments helped his mother find “a little peace in knowing that my soul was healing.”

He also believes that one of the reasons God led him to return to the Church was to give him strength and faith during his mother’s illness. He says he needed that strength and faith when his mother died on May 13, 2013—the day after Mother’s Day—of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

“At her funeral, I put a trinket in her blouse pocket. It was a little key—St. Peter’s key to the gates of heaven, though she did not need it. I put it there as a reminder that she was my key to heaven. I don’t claim to know or understand God’s plan, but I do know that if it weren’t for her, I would have never found my faith again.”

‘You are never too far gone for God’

Since his return to the Catholic faith, Walterman has found a new direction and a renewed hope in his life. He has finished his apprenticeship as a carpenter, and he has earned a degree in construction technology.

“I feel like a whole person for the first time since I was a child. I am closer to God, and I am finally able to give my heart over to him. I know he has many more good things in store for me.”

Now a member of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis, Walterman looks back on the transformation of his life during the past 15 years. He sees it as a story of faith, joy and renewal that he hopes will benefit other young adults who have left the Church and separated from God.

“I feel that if God could change my heart and bring me back to the Church, then he could do it for anyone. If you are depressed or lost or lonely or confused or hopeless, just remember that even if you have lost your faith in God, he still has faith in you.

“You are never too far gone for God to find you.”

(Have you returned to the Church after being away from it for some time? If so, The Criterion would like to share your story of what led you to come back to the Church, and what it has meant to you. Please send your story to assistant editor John Shaughnessy by e-mail at jshaughnessy@archindy.org or by mail in care of The Criterion, 1400 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46202. Please include a daytime phone number where you can be reached.)

Local site Links: