June 10, 2022

Hindsight—and restored sight—help new Catholic see purpose in God’s timing

Gayle Blackburn poses with her twin grandsons Vincent, left, and Carmine Gioconda, after the Easter Vigil Mass at which all three received the sacrament of confirmation on April 16 at St. Malachy Church in Brownsburg. Blackburn also received the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. (Submitted photo)

Gayle Blackburn poses with her twin grandsons Vincent, left, and Carmine Gioconda, after the Easter Vigil Mass at which all three received the sacrament of confirmation on April 16 at St. Malachy Church in Brownsburg. Blackburn also received the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles chronicling the journey of four people who were received into the full communion of the Church at the Easter Vigil Mass on April 16. See a list of all the new Catholics in the archdiocese here.)

By Natalie Hoefer

Gayle Blackburn believes there is purpose in God’s timing.

Take for instance the timing of her becoming Catholic this year at the age of 69, despite her attraction to the faith at an early age.

Blackburn notes that had she become Catholic earlier she would have missed the joy of preparing for the sacrament of confirmation with her twin grandsons at St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg.

And had Blackburn become Catholic at some other time in some other parish, she might have missed out on her “personal miracle”—the restoration of her sight in a virtual blink after a prayer experience at the parish last fall.

These happy incidents of God’s timing are part of Blackburn’s lifelong journey to being received into the full communion of the Church during the Easter Vigil Mass at St. Malachy Church on April 16.

That journey began with a strong foundation of faith in her early years.

‘This was the one’

Blackburn, who calls her parents “very devout Christians,” was raised as a Baptist in Akron, Ohio.

“We went to church every Sunday and Wednesday—they were very staunch in getting us to church,” she recalls.

But Blackburn found the faith to be “fear-based.”

“I just couldn’t believe that things had to be like that,” she says.

She recalls being “always drawn to the Catholic faith” since her youth when she would go to Mass with a friend.

“I loved the different things that were done during Mass,” says Blackburn. “They seemed so sacred to me and so fulfilling.”

She considered Catholicism and even married a Catholic man. But her faith path wasn’t entirely clear to her until her daughter, Chrissy Gioconda, was married in the Church 25 years ago.

“That’s when I really fell in love with the religion,” says Blackburn. “I felt closer to God during the Mass. I hadn’t felt that way before.

“All of the spiritual things that go on and the rituals, those are all very meaningful, every single one of them, from standing and listening to the readings then back to your knees and praying, the Eucharist and how it’s prepared. It resonated with me. It became very clear to me that [Catholicism] was my spiritual path.”

While she “really wanted to become Catholic,” the frequent moving for her husband’s job prevented her from completing the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA).

“We moved so much,” she says. “I wasn’t anywhere long enough to complete instruction.”

That situation changed three years ago. After a divorce, Blackburn moved in with Gioconda and her family at their home near Brownsburg. It wasn’t long after joining them for Mass at St. Malachy that she knew “this was the one.”

Father Sean Danda, the parish’s pastor, “is absolutely the most powerful speaker,” she says. “His homilies sometimes bring me to tears. I knew this was where I was going to finally” become Catholic.

‘He asked me what I could see’

Blackburn started RCIA at the parish last fall. She did so with one challenge, a challenge she had lived with for 40 years: legal blindness in both eyes.

“It’s hereditary blindness,” she explains. “I started going blind when I was 28. I have huge glasses that helped.”

After Mass one Sunday last fall, the parish’s RCIA director Nathanael Rea pulled Blackburn aside and led her to a small room where several people were gathered.

“He said they would like to pray over me” regarding her eyesight, she recalls. “He asked me what I could see. I said, ‘A little out of this one, but not much out of this one.’ ”

Blackburn sat down and closed her eyes. The people laid their hands upon her and began to pray.

“I heard a lot of amens and alleluias and words of praise,” she says.

When they were done, someone told Blackburn to open her eyes and tell him if she could see anything.

“To my surprise, I could read words on a sign farther than I could before in one of my eyes. I have better than 20/20 vision in my left eye now,” she says, tearing up at the memory.

“I just can’t even describe the feeling. I just couldn’t believe what had happened. I thought maybe [the healing] would happen over time, but it happened right away. That was life changing.”

Blackburn still needs cataract surgery on her right eye, but she no longer needs the large, thick glasses, just simple ones for reading.

More importantly, her plan of living on her own is more feasible now.

“I was planning on finding a place of my own anyway, but it would have taken a lot of modifications and help, and it’s scary,” she says. “I could’ve done it, but now I feel much more comfortable moving out on my own.”

The date of her healing was on Oct. 24, 2021. The Gospel reading that day was from Mark: “Jesus said to [Bartimaeus] in reply, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man replied to him, ‘Master, I want to see.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go your way; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way” (Mk 10:51-52).

‘I started crying, I was so happy’

In light of her restored vision, perhaps it’s no surprise that one of Blackburn’s favorite moments of the Easter Vigil Mass on April 16 was at the beginning.

“When they dimmed the lights and the candles were lit, going from darkness to light was very powerful,” she says.

She was also touched upon receiving all three sacraments of initiation.

“You can feel a cleansing, a change after you’re baptized,” says Blackburn, who had not previously been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Her 14-year-old twin grandsons, Vincent and Carmine Gioconda, joined her in receiving the sacrament of confirmation.

“That was the most special thing ever,” she gushes. “Every Sunday we went to Mass and [RCIA] class, and we’d talk about it after.”

Blackburn says receiving her first Communion gave her “chills.”

“It was amazing—the sanctity of that and understanding that every little, tiny morsel is God and Jesus. To realize what that is is very profound. If you think about it, if you pray about it, if you’re really earnest about it, it can be life changing. You can feel whole again, transformed.”

Her journey to that transformation was decades in the making. But Blackburn sees it all as part of God’s timing and purpose—and not because of her physical healing.

“It took me a long time to get here,” she says. “But I think the purpose was so I could walk the steps with my grandsons. It was so touching to see both of them being confirmed and that I was a part of that. I started crying, I was so happy—to see that and know that we all did it together.

“How many grandparents get to do that?” †

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