By Sylvia Stuen-Parker
IT took the insight of three strangers to spark Jan Heath’s journey of renewed Catholic faith.
Despite her Catholic upbringing and Mercy Sisters’ education, Jan’s commitment to the Church soon faded due to her priorities as an 18-year-old.
“There was travel, there was my job, there were boyfriends. Lots of things took away my focus from attending Mass on Sunday and what I found was that once you stop going to Mass one Sunday, it’s really easy not to go the next, and the next, and the next. And that’s how I lived for the next fourteen years,” Jan said.
“God was very much in the backseat of my life.”
This arrangement suited Jan fine until an encounter with a painter, who asked for an opportunity to share his relationship with God, signified the beginning of her spiritual regeneration.
“He just shared his story with me … quite gently and left without seeing any results for what he’d shared,” she said.
Two weeks later, a five-minute consultation with an interior decorator turned into a five-hour conversation about Jan’s repressed faith, initiated by the line, “How do you and God get on, Mrs Heath?”
The decorator described how she had found the person of Jesus in her life.
“She also left without seeing any results for her sharing with me, but their stories were beginning to seep into a deep part of me that I really didn’t even know existed,” Jan said.
This change of heart was brought to a head during a coffee date with a new neighbour.
Before Jan had even taken her seat, she was asked, “Are you saved?”
Instinctively, she fretted, “religious nuts for neighbours … I can’t wait to get out of here.”
But as the woman continued to share the significance of Christianity in her own life, “so began a great battle in my (Jan’s) mind.”
On one hand, she was haunted by a recollection from her upbringing that skipping Sunday Mass was a “mortal sin”.
“So if for 14 years, multiplied by 52 Sundays a year, that was so many mortal sins that I’d had it, really; God would never take me back and neither would the Church,” she said.
However, another part of Jan reflected on the words of these strangers, “who talked about this God who loved me so much that he sent his only son to die for my sins”.
Jan’s internal conflict persisted for four months until she decided to seek the sacrament of Reconciliation at Strathpine parish.
Jan said to the priest, “Father, I have put God in the backseat of my life for 14 years and I don’t want him there any longer. I want him in the driving seat.”
“And this priest got up, and he came over to me, and he placed his hands on my head, and he said, ‘Welcome home’,” she said.
These two words were the catalyst for Jan’s extraordinary journey of renewed faith.
“It wasn’t easy at first. I came back to this community and came back to Mass, but there were things to be sorted out,” she said.
“But all the time I could feel God’s love guiding me, preparing the way for me, for conversations that we had to have.
“It really began a dream in me that I could do for somebody else what those three people had done for me.
“God has honoured that dream.”
Jan’s faith flourished in the Our Lady of the Way Parish community in Petrie where she joined Bible studies and prayer groups.
“Eventually, God had enough faith in me to entrust me with ministries,” she said.
“I discovered that I had spiritual gifts that I didn’t know anything about and the real me began to emerge.”
Jan was involved in 28 short-term missions to developing countries before she began her own ministry, Evangelisation Resources Down Under.
“I introduced Little Rock Scripture Studies to Australia, and … we’ve now delivered 120,000 scripture-based resources to Catholics around Australia and beyond,” she said.
“I’m eternally grateful to those people who were prepared to share their faith and enabled me to hear those words, ‘Welcome home’.”
This story was taken from the Catholic Returning Home Program from the DVD Stories of Returning Catholics.
Sylvia Stuen-Parker is a student at St Ritaís College, Clayfield, and an intern at The Catholic Leader.