The Bishop's Bulletin

I almost left the Church: The Good Shepherd brought me back home

By Pauline Lev

We all have a story

Every Christian who walks the path of the disciple has a story to tell. We live in a culture hostile in many ways to a life following Jesus. It takes a conscious, active choice to follow Him.

Our journey from pre-evangelization to discipleship takes us deeper and deeper into his sheepfold, into the kingdom of God and the Catholic Church. Jesus invites us to the sheepfold of his Church, and he never stops inviting us to enter more and more deeply into his love and his mercy. A disciple is always learning and growing.

Each person’s story of this journey is different. Some people’s stories are slow-moving, and it might be hard for them to pinpoint the actual moment when they chose to enter for themselves and stay in the sheepfold of the Church. Others have a flashier story—more like being hit over the head with a two-by-four—and their “yes” turned their life upside down.

The common thread in all our stories is that Jesus calls us to himself with an attraction that makes us choose: him or the world. And then he gives us the grace we need to swim against the strong current of our culture.

Jordan Friske and Arianne Dennison’s stories of how they entered the sheepfold are probably relatable to most of us. There were challenges and suffering, but ultimately growth, lasting joy and peace when they chose to follow the Good Shepherd.

Jordan’s story

Jordan Friske grew up in Castlewood in a solid Catholic home. They went to Mass as a family, prayed together and spoke of the faith often. When he was 14, his dad passed away in a farm accident. It was a difficult time for him as he and his dad were very close.

When Jordan went to college, his faith life really slipped away from him.

“I was a practicing Catholic in college in that I would still go to Mass every Sunday, but really my one hour a week on Sunday was different from how I was living my life apart from that,” Jordan says.

He didn’t tell anyone about his drift away from the faith except for his mom. She was understanding.

“She never came down on me really hard, because she knew that it was something that I had to go through. I was 23 at the time, and I had to learn a lot on my own,” Jordan says.

His relationship with the Catholic Church became even rockier when he and his girlfriend at the time began talking about marriage. As a Protestant, she was not open to the Catholic Church, and they began to go to different churches and services to see what they both liked. Jordan felt at the time like it really didn’t matter which church they went to. Even so, he wanted to keep attending Mass as well as go to a service with his girlfriend. The more this went on, the more she was upset by her perception that other churches were not “good enough” for him.

“I just didn’t have any knowledge to answer any of those questions [she was asking] and answer why. I felt very uninformed, discouraged and frustrated with my lack of knowledge,” Jordan says.

A month after his engagement, his mom encouraged him to go to a Matthew Kelly event in Rapid City. It was there his heart was touched and he clearly heard the invitation of Jesus to dive back into his faith.

“That was the time when I was able to hear the teachings of the faith and reasons to be Catholic apart from my catechesis growing up in school and your regular 10-minute homily,” Jordan says. “That was where the fire was really lit.”

Jordan started to seek out information and dive more into his faith. His mom supplied him with Lighthouse Catholic Media CDs and books, and he listened to Catholic radio. He also started to live more of a Catholic life. During Lent, he started going to adoration every week.

“I remember sneaking out of my room [to go to adoration] so my roommates wouldn’t see because I was a little embarrassed about it. I didn’t want to tell them, ‘I’m doing this thing where I’m just sitting in an empty church, just me and Jesus,’” Jordan laughs. “But I was trying. I was there and I was making the effort.”

His reversion to the faith was not without its suffering. “It was a combination of joy that I had this, but also sadness then because I wasn’t sure where it would take me with my fiancée,” Jordan says. It was not long after that his relationship with his fiancée became more strained and hit a crossroads, and they called off their engagement.

After graduating college in the spring of 2013, Jordan moved to California for a new job. “After [I moved] it was kind of like I was on a perpetual silent retreat. I was in a one-bedroom apartment, and I would go to my job and I would come home and read,” Jordan says. “Eventually, I knew I couldn’t do that forever. I needed to get a social life. I knew that I wanted to have friends that would help me to be accountable in my faith and share the same faith and the same passion for my faith as I did.”

Jordan found friendship and accountability with friends he met at St. Mark’s Parish in San Marcos, California. These friends started a men’s group called the Sheenists (after Blessed Archbishop Sheen). “That was the accountability I never had,” Jordan says.

Emily and Jordan Friske with daughters Josie and Addie

He also started a chapter of St. Paul Street Evangelization with a friend. In August of 2014, they visited St. Stephen Parish in Valley Center, California, to share about the work they were doing, and it was then that he met his future wife, Emily.

Jordan and Emily were married in November of 2016 and now have two little girls.

“Marriage has been the biggest blessing and the biggest challenge. I didn’t realize how selfish I was until I got married. And especially when we had kids,” Jordan says. They reside in Valley Center and are members at St. Stephen.

When he thinks back about his life before his return to the sheepfold of the Church, he wonders what kind of person, what kind of father and husband, he would have been without his relationship with Jesus and the Church.

“[Before] I would try to find my approval and joy and pleasure from the world, and now I know that the world has it all backwards, and we will never be truly happy trying to keep up with what our culture tells us will make us happy,” Jordan explains. “I am at peace, I have joy and true happiness walking with the Church on this path to virtue and holiness. I have a faith that would never leave me.”

Keeping this faith has not been without its challenges for Jordan and Emily. An unexpected challenge to their marriage arose when one of their children nearly died due to a pool accident.

“Hard things happen. I know now that you don’t leave or rebel. I would always still have that peace and joy at the end of the day. I might question why this would happen, but ultimately, I know that God knows what is best for me and my family. The suffering is in your life temporarily for a greater good.”

Arianne’s story

Arianne Dennison grew up in Sioux Falls and attended Catholic school. Her family attended Mass each Sunday and her mother frequently talked about Jesus and prayed with Arianne and her siblings.

When Arianne was in high school, her parents divorced and her mom almost died from a brain aneurysm. At that point, they stopped going to Mass consistently, although Arianne and her siblings continued in their education at O’Gorman. She started hanging out with different friends, tried different activities and lost touch with the strong Catholic friends she had before. When she went to college, she distanced herself even more from the Catholic Church.

“I knew this entire time that Jesus was calling me, but I would just shove it down and ignore it. I didn’t want someone to call me higher because I didn’t want to deal with the person I was being, because I didn’t like the person I was being,” Arianne says.

She struggled with anxiety and depression. “When I was with my friends, I’m sure it seemed from the outside we were so happy and so joyful and having so much fun. But at the end of the day when I was by myself in my room relaxing or trying to be quiet, I just couldn’t,” Arianne says. “If you don’t truly know that you are loved by someone for who you are without all of the noise, then you’re never going to be who you’re supposed to be, you’re never going to be able to sit in peace and happiness and experience true joy.”

By this time, Arianne’s sister had left the Church and joined a non-denominational church. In Arianne’s sophomore year, her sister invited her to a non-denominational retreat. “I don’t know how or why, but I said yes,” Arianne says.

While on retreat, “there was a band playing up on stage, and so many people down on their knees.” It moved her, but she felt like something was missing.

“In that moment when I closed my eyes, in an instant I was back in the Holy Spirit chapel in adoration, during a Search retreat,” Arianne says. “That was probably the only time I’d ever experienced adoration. I was sitting there in the chapel staring at the Blessed Sacrament, and for the first time in a long time I felt this huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. And here I was at this non-denominational retreat, and Jesus brought me back to that moment.”

From that day, she knew she wanted to return to the Catholic faith.

By her junior year, she moved into the Newman Center where a few other students lived as well, and she started spiritual direction with Father Jeffrey Norfolk. Her old friends and boyfriend did not understand the changes she was making in her life, and she stopped getting invited to hang out with them.

“That should be heartbreaking, losing all your friends,” Arianne says. “And I know that Jesus had me wrapped in his heart, covered in his blood, because I didn’t have heartbreak from it. It hurt, but it was almost like a relief. I didn’t have any other excuse not to run to Jesus with everything.”

Arianne continued to grow stronger in her faith. Father Norfolk, friends she made at the Newman Center, and the FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionaries on campus made big differences in her life.

Arianne and Casson Dennison with their children Lucy and Casson Peter

After she graduated from college, she served as a FOCUS missionary for two years, during which she married her husband, Casson. The couple now lives in Dell Rapids and has two young children. Arianne has been a stay-at-home mom since serving with FOCUS.

Family life has challenged Arianne and Casson to find new ways to live and share their faith with their children. “My husband and I know that we need to be poured into by Jesus in order to love each other authentically and our kids authentically,” Arianne says.

They go to Sunday Mass at St. Mary Parish in Dell Rapids as a family, and the couple attends daily Mass and adoration as often as they can. They also go to confession regularly together.

Arianne is immensely grateful for being fully in the sheepfold of the Catholic Church. “I just know from the bottom of my heart that I would be discontent and dissatisfied [if I was not Catholic]. If I hadn’t gotten back into my faith, I would have been searching for the rest of my life for something that I wouldn’t have given a chance to.”

The stories we’re waiting on

It’s wonderful and encouraging to hear stories of those who have responded positively to God’s call in their life. But sometimes it can be painful, too, when we think of those we love who have chosen to reject God’s invitation. We are still waiting and praying that there will be more to their story.

C.S. Lewis likens winning someone back to the faith to a divorced man trying to win back his estranged wife. There is cynicism, woundedness and misunderstanding.

Father Patrick Grode, chaplain at the Pius XII Newman Center at SDSU in Brookings

Father Patrick Grode, chaplain of Pius XII Newman Center at SDSU, says, “It’s very important to listen carefully” to our loved ones who have left the faith. “We need to resist the urge to be defensive. We have to be aware that a person who feels wronged doesn’t need to be reasoned with, they need to be cared for.”

This can be challenging because it’s hard to listen to someone who is hurt and angry. We also need to remember we have power in prayer, even if we cannot engage our loved ones in conversation about their choices to leave the faith. Arianne had an aunt who prayed for her daily before her reversion.

“Having her witness and her silent prayers, I really believe they were a huge part of what changed my life,” Arianne says.

Pope St. Paul VI said, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” We must continue our own growth and deepening of our relationship with Jesus in order to be this living witness of Jesus’ love.

“From what I have seen, many fallen-away Catholics fall in love with Jesus because someone else shared, from the depths of their own experience, why Jesus is loveable,” says Father Grode.

In the final installment of the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, as the characters enter into Aslan’s country, one of them cries out, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”

Our land is the Good Shepherd’s sheepfold; our place of belonging is the Catholic Church. This journey of discipleship is an adventure following our God as he continuously calls us “further up and further in.” May we follow his voice wherever it leads us. It is only in following his still, small voice that we will find true joy, peace and fulfillment.