A NEW Year’s Eve in the nightclubs of Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley was enough for Jonathan Hohl to do something the next day that would change his life.
He went to Mass.
It’s not something that he was used to doing but he felt compelled to go on that day, and he’s been going every Sunday since.
That was three years ago.
Jonathan’s unpleasant New Year’s Eve in the Valley when his friends were having a great time was a turning point.
“It’s perhaps not a particularly exciting story but I went out for New Year’s Eve with some friends, … and I just had such an awful time, just looking around and thinking, ‘Arrr, this isn’t a place where I necessarily fit in. There’s something missing here’,” the 23-year-old Law student said.
“And I just saw everyone else having a good time and I just remained a little bit detached from it, and I thought, ‘There’s got to be something more going on here …’
“I guess my faith was sort of a fall-back there.
“I thought, ‘Well, after having this actively terrible time in this environment, I’ll try and do the exact opposite and go to church tomorrow morning …’
“And I did, and it worked, I guess …”
Jonathan recalls that his fateful New Year’s Day was a Sunday.
Coming home from the Valley night he didn’t enjoy, he thought, “Well, New Year, I’ll walk up the hill to St Thomas’ (Camp Hill) and I’ll go to Mass there. It’s really only 100m away; it’s no significant inconvenience; I’ll at least give it a go.”
“And I went along, and I thought it was great,” he said. “I sat up the back, just listened in the whole time, and it just sort of felt good.
“There was no overwhelming, profound spiritual experience but I just thought it was … It felt better than what I’d been doing.
“So I thought, ‘Well, again, it’s not too much of an inconvenience; I’ll just keep coming along to this …’
“And so I did, and I’ve been going to Mass every weekend since.”
That wasn’t just an overnight event; it was the culmination of a long, slow build-up.
Jonathan said his faith journey “has been fairly turbulent and perhaps a bit unorthodox”.
“I’ve essentially grown up in a non-Catholic household that still pushed for me to go to a Catholic school so my faith has always been something lurking in the background – sort of like your shadow on the ground, something you don’t notice day-to-day,” he said.
“Maybe in Grade 8, I guess, I started looking a bit more into it when you sort of get those natural questions that come up, and I felt like the people around me weren’t explaining things in a way that was necessarily satisfactory, so I started entertaining a lot of doubts, as I think a lot of people at that age do.
“So I started reading the Scriptures … but, for many years, I was reading the Bible and not necessarily putting it into practice.
“I had almost a sort of book knowledge of Christianity but I wasn’t tied to the Church, I didn’t go to church and I think my day-to-day life didn’t really necessarily reflect Christian values for many, many years.
“That changed when I got into university and the doubts became even more compounded, really, because you’re in an environment, very different to a Catholic school, where your faith is actively challenged day-to-day by a lot of people who are surprised and even sometimes quite unsettled by the fact that you say that you’re a Christian.
“And so the sort of dissatisfaction I had with my own faith at this point eventually sort of compelled me to go to Mass on (that New Year’s Day).”
Jonathan had made his First Holy Communion and been confirmed many years ago but had barely been to Mass before the New Year’s Day.
In his searching though he’d done a lot of faith exploration, and was drawn to delve deeper.
“I think it’s always been an objectively good thing and it’s never taken me backwards and so I think at this point I’m quite convinced that it is the right track and that’s why I’ve become involved to this extent that I’m now helping out with this youth group (at St Thomas’, Camp Hill),” he said.
“So hopefully I’ll help other people to get on this track sooner rather than going through the ups and downs that I did before I eventually got here myself.”
After all Jonathan’s searching, he said attending Mass was the “next logical step” and that first day back at St Thomas’ filled him with “a lot of peace”.
“There was something in my life now that I should work on and that would be fulfilling if I did work on it,” he said.
“It was the classic thing they say about it ‘filling the gap’; it was that and so, even though for months, even, all I did was physically attend the Mass, sit right in the very back pew, just on my own – I didn’t talk to anyone at all – and I left straight away, I still felt like that was … good.
“And incrementally I built up – started talking to people, started getting involved, just taking up the collection, things like that, very basic stuff – until it really got to the point where I’m at now.
“But I think the sort of positive internal feedback I got the whole way through very much confirmed that it was the right thing to do.”
Jonathan said the Eucharist was what made the difference “because that was definitely the thing that was missing”.
“I had the Scripture for years beforehand; I always read the Scripture, but I feel like taking the Eucharist was something different,” he said.
“I think finally getting around to treating the whole process with the reverence and the significance that it deserved and then finally engaging in it myself, that was the sort of pinnacle when I knew that this was really the right thing.”
Even when Jonathan started going to Mass, it was months before he would receive Communion.
Until then he “just sat there and listened in”.
After a while he was yearning for more and he started praying daily, reading more Scripture and going to Confession, “which was something I had never even contemplated beforehand, but a thoroughly under-rated part of Catholicism, I think”.
Support from others at Mass has been helpful as well.
“There were some people in the parish who I would see every Sunday morning and, every now and then, we’d chat and they’d say things like, ‘I’m really proud of you for coming every week …’ – because they obviously guessed, and it was true, that I’d come from a very non-Catholic background; I’d just sort of rolled in, no idea what to expect and had stuck with it, and so that sort of encouragement was good,” Jonathan said.
“It kept me going.”
Now, Jonathan – as well as nearing the end of a Bachelor of Laws and Economics at the University of Queensland, and working as a barrister’s research assistant and doing property settlements part-time – is helping others in developing their faith.
Apart from leading St Thomas’ youth group, he’s also often fielding faith questions at uni.
“I think the best result, I guess, has been when I go to uni and I engage with my friends (there) and they have their natural questions, because university and, perhaps in particular the Law School, is not a Catholic place,” he said.
“It is extremely secular.
“And I think when people hear that I am openly Catholic, for whatever reason, they think I’m the guy to come to with questions about faith, and there are a lot of questions.”
And Jonathan’s someone who’s had a lot of experience grappling with questions, and finding answers.