Three years ago, Dan Merry of Harvey, a Vietnam veteran, was riding his Harley-Davidson down Manhattan Boulevard, and life was good.
Merry had bought the sleek $30,000 anniversary edition Road King with the nest egg he had built up as a college fund for his three children. As it turned out, he didn’t have to dipt into his savings to pay for their college because as a disabled veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, his children went to college for free.
After finishing a game of pool, Merry offered to give a ride home to an African-American man. As they rode down the street, the driver of a pickup truck lowered his window and shouted out a racial epithet: “What are you doing bringing that (guy) into a white neighborhood?”
“The guy on my bike freaked and jarred me,” Merry said. “From what I’m told, I lost control of my motorcycle and went face first into a post and broke every bone in my face.”
Merry, who sustained damage to the frontal lobe of his brain, was in a coma and nearly died. His passenger walked away with only a broken finger. Merry has almost no recollection of the horrific crash, but he remembers one thing very distinctly.
“I had this visitation,” said Merry, who until that time was an avowed agnostic. “I didn’t know what it was. But I was given a choice of going into the white light or going back to be with my loving wife (Lil), my three children and seven grandchildren. The fact that I’m sitting here telling you this story now is obvious as to what my response was. I should have died. But when God wants your attention, he’ll get it.”
Not everyone among the 352 soon-to-be-Catholics inside St. Louis Cathedral Feb. 26 for the Rite of Election ceremony with Archbishop Gregory Aymond had such a Damascus Road experience, but Merry, 57, did and loves to tell his story.
Because of the accident, he cannot see out of his right eye, and his left leg is weaker than his right, so much so that he made sure to hold the arm of his sponsor, Harry Moore, while descending the sanctuary steps to return to his pew with the rest of the RCIA group from St. Martha Church.
After recovering from his injuries, Merry said he had a decision to make.
“This experience gave me an inspiration in faith that I never had before in my life,” Merry said. “I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe that he died on the cross for our sins and that God is the creator of the universe and the Father of Jesus Christ. This all became crystal clear. The clarity couldn’t have been more clear.”
The ceremony at St. Louis Cathedral brought together 154 catechumens – persons who have yet to be baptized – and 198 candidates – those who have been baptized previously and are seeking to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.
They will formally enter the church at the Easter Vigil in their respective parishes.
Growing strong branches
Using the analogy of the “family tree,” Archbishop Aymond said the local church was rejoicing because “new branches are being added to our tree.”
“You have heard God’s invitation, his call, in your hearts, and you have responded,” Archbishop Aymond said. “Please know that we promise to pray with you and for you. We’ll never understand fully the mystery of God’s call. But we thank God for those he has used in your life to make this call known and heard.”
Another catechumen, Ryan Bylsma of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Belle Chasse, said he was eagerly anticipating the Easter Vigil because of what it will mean to him and his wife Carolyn and their two children.
Bylsma, 32, is a civil engineer for the Navy, but he said his life had reached “rock bottom” more than a year ago. “I was going to see my mentor, and he had been talking to me about religion and my faith,” Bylsma said. “It just happened to be that day that I locked my keys in my truck. It was raining and it was dark.”
But Bylsma didn’t want to break his appointment, so he started walking the two miles to his mentor’s office.
“Out of this driveway pulled a taxi cab,” Bylsma said. “He stopped and asked if I needed a ride. I said, ‘Yeah, but I locked my wallet in my truck.’ He said, ‘That’s all right. I’ll take you wherever you need to go.’
“Because I was at such a low point in my life, I kind of felt like God had sent him there to just pick me up and bring me along. Ever since that point, I’ve just felt his presence.”
Bylsma started attending Mass each week with his wife and children and then began RCIA instruction last summer.
“I had secretly hoped for this for many years,” Carolyn Bylsma said. “I enjoy sitting in church with my whole family. I feel complete now that we have him with us.”
The prospect of entering the church at the Easter Vigil is almost too much for Bylsma to comprehend.
“Since I started going to church every Sunday, the readings always seem to be speaking to me directly,” Bylsma said. “I can’t even think of what the Easter Vigil is going to be like. I think it’s just going to be like the waves crashing over me.”
Lea Barras, who will enter the church at Immaculate Conception Parish in Marrero, said she spent many years investigating churches before deciding to become Catholic.
“I have grandchildren going to Catholic school,” Barras said. “I want to be able to answer them if they ask me questions. I have the sweetest RCIA teacher you’d ever want to know – Jeannie Bergeron. She teaches us, and I raise my hand a lot – a lot.”
The Rite of Election also was held Feb. 28 at St. Peter Church in Covington for 102 persons on the northshore.