New Catholics have strong Christian roots

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There is a Latin phrase, via media, or, middle road, used by the Church of England to describe its balancing act between Catholicism and Protestant denominations after the Reformation.

John and Joan Fittz use the term to describe their evolution from the Episcopal Church to Catholicism. The movement from Protestantism to Catholicism was a slow, intellectual process.

John,70, was born in Atlanta, but spent his childhood in Japan where his father was transferred for work. He grew up in a devout Baptist family, attending military chapel Sunday school. On Saturday nights, his father led a Gospel Hour and a youth group meeting on Sunday night.

He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., in 1966 with a degree in electrical engineering. An engineering degree from a prestigious university would have opened doors to lucrative career options for the young man, but instead he chose a life of Christian ministry with Campus Crusade for Christ. It was a non-paying position with a dependence on donors and supporters for daily living expenses.

Joan Fittz, 69, was born in Detroit, and is also from a devout Protestant family. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in education and taught school for a year before joining the Campus Crusade for Christ human resources office in San Bernardino, Calif., where John was directing a student project. The two met, fell in love and married in 1970.

Both eventually went on to earn MBAs from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at the Hartford campus.

In 1980, they went on a summer ministry trip, in the region south of Krakow, Poland.

As they arrived in Poland from Czechoslovakia, they were looking around the train station for a way to exchange their money. A man approached them.

"Do you speak English?" he asked.

The man wanted to practice his English. He was a teacher, and a Catholic. The man, Zbigniev, took them to the Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa,to see an icon called the Black Madonna, which is in a monastery in Częstochowa. The visit had a lasting and profound effect on both.

The couple spent 10 weeks evangelizing in Poland, but on the flight back to the United States, they had an epiphany.

"Do you think it's time that we left Campus Crusade and found real jobs?" Joan asked.

With two children, there were financial needs that had to be addressed. Living from hand-to-mouth was becoming difficult.

They decided to make the break from Campus Crusade, but it was a gradual process.

In 1981, John found a job as a project engineer for a nuclear power plant in Connecticut. Joan became the director of a nursery school in 1985. The couple now had a steady income, and was still active in Christian ministries.

In 1986, the couple joined Trinity Episcopal Church in Tariffville, Conn. John played the organ and directed the music ministry at the church. He also was active in the Episcopal group Oblates of the Community of Jesus. Joan also became more active in her church through a series of chance events.

In 1996, she was sitting in church listening to a visiting Nigerian bishop preach.

"I believe God is calling someone here to serve the church," the bishop said.

Joan took this as an invitation.

"God is talking to me," she said.

In 1998, John's niece was married in St. Nicholas Anglican Church in Kent, England, and the couple attended. On a tour of the Church of St. Martin in Canterbury, the oldest church in England, Joan felt a call from God.

"I felt drawn to the altar," said Joan. "I had great joy in that place."

It was then she decided to study to be an Episcopal deacon. She started her studies in 1999, and was ordained in 2003.

But throughout their Episcopal life, there was a draw to the Catholic faith. They had many Catholic friends.

"They're influence was profound," said John. "They were devoted Catholic people."

The couple read authors like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Merton, St. Augustine, Thomas à Kempis, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and St. Teresa of Avila. Joan took St. Teresa's name as her confirmation name.

"She was passionate, a warrior," Joan said.

John was moved by John Paul II starting with his seminal visit to Poland in 1980 and adopted his name as his confirmation name.

The Catholic influence on the couple had an effect.

Joan said she wanted both of them to join the Catholic Church; John was less enthusiastic.

Pope Francis' ecumenism, especially his meeting with evangelist Kenneth Copeland in 2014, had a big effect on the couple. That summer, the deal was sealed, and the couple quietly began taking Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes in a Catholic church in a neighboring town.

John soon retired from his engineering job and informed Trinity that they were moving to Virginia. On Christmas Day 2014, they packed the last of their belongings and went to live near their daughter and grandchildren in Ashburn.

Joan had done research on parishes in the area and came upon Holy Trinity.

It was much larger than the Protestant churches they were used to - 13,000 parishioners compared to 4,000 at Trinity Episcopal Church - but they enjoyed the inclusiveness of the parish and continued RCIA studies until they were brought into the Catholic Church this year during the Easter Vigil.

The two are active in the parish, attending Mass almost every day and serving as lectors.

They do have some regrets, however. Some people from Trinity Church have a hard time grasping their conversion.

Their families also are not enthusiastic about their new faith.

Their wish is that they can plant a seed in the hearts of their relatives to accept the real Christianity in the Catholic Church.

John and Joan realize that as they enter the "youth of old age" they are early in their new faith.

"We have a lot to learn," said Joan, "but we love to learn it."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015