LINCOLN, Neb. — In 2008, Stacy Thomlison joined a Holy Land pilgrimage led by Scott Hahn, and she fell in love with the Catholic faith.
The experience ultimately led the registered nurse to leave her “dream job” and boyfriend in New York, enter the Church and join the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus) as a missionary at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
“As I walked where Jesus had walked, God really grabbed my heart, and he said, I want you back, and I want all of you,” Thomlison, 31, recalled.
“The world tells you that money, fame and power will make you happy, and I had all of that in New York and felt empty inside. Working for Focus, my heart is now full with joy and a priceless peace.”
Three years after moving to Lincoln to work with students at the University of Nebraska, Thomlison is one of five Nebraska plaintiffs in a legal challenge to the Obama-U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) contraception mandate filed by the state’s attorney general.
In a coordinated action, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning was one of seven state attorneys general to file suit seeking to overturn the mandate.
“Why make a fuss about the mandate?” Thomlison asked rhetorically during an interview with the Register. “For the first time we will be asked to directly pay for things Catholics find intrinsically evil.”
During her three-year stint as a missionary, Thomlison has encouraged Catholics and other students to make hard, courageous choices in an undergraduate social environment that can penalize distinctively Christian behavior. Thus, her work formed the foundation for her choice to accept the consequences of her own decision to publicly oppose a federal mandate that the Obama administration has relentlessly promoted to young women.
In campus groups, Focus student leaders commit themselves to “chastity, sobriety and excellence in their studies.”
“We teach them the dignity of being women — that they are worthy to be waited for. It has been amazing to watch these women come alive,” said Thomlison, with characteristic exuberance.
“One student I met as a freshman said she wasn’t interested in making these commitments. ‘I love to party, and I like to drink. I know if I said Yes to being a leader I’d have to stop that,’ she told me.”
But the student continued to show up for the Focus meetings, and one day she came back to Thomlison ready to make those commitments, later expressing her joy in the sense of peace she had found.
“Over time, this student was visibly changed. She told me, ‘I thought pursuing the things I wanted was freedom, but I was anxious, stressed and fell behind in my school work. Now that I have submitted myself to Jesus Christ and follow his commandments, I’ve never felt more free. Freedom is having the strength to do what I know is right,’” Thomlison recalled.
More recently, her public role as a plaintiff in the state’s legal challenge to the mandate has led students to engage in impromptu conversations about the law and Catholic teaching on contraception. They also learn that the young missionary is prepared to make sacrifices to put her religious and moral beliefs first.
The controversial federal law was authorized under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signed by President Barack Obama in March 2010. And under other circumstances, Thomlison said, she would welcome the health bill’s protections for patients with pre-existing conditions. The Focus missionary has Crohn’s disease, and she has been hospitalized in the past to treat her condition.
But she won’t endorse any law authorizing policies that threaten the free exercise of religious institutions or coerce individuals to violate their deeply held moral beliefs.
“The new health bill has many good things, but I’m not willing to trade my religious freedom for ‘good things’ that come with a price I can’t pay. People who support the mandate don’t know what they are trading in exchange for what the law will provide,” she said.
Thomlison’s battle with Crohn’s has shaped her path to the Church in ways that only now make sense to her.
The daughter of Jevovah’s Witnesses, her life fell apart when her parents divorced: “I thought, Okay, this is the real world now, not a fairy tale,” she said, noting a period in her life when she drifted away from her childhood faith.
Then, at 13, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Two years later, an emergency medical team struggled to stop excessive bleeding from the ulcerated colon that threatened to take her life.
“I was lying in a hospital bed, and thought, Nobody on this earth can help me. I’m alone.”
Faced with her mortality, the teenager grappled with the truth that God must be real. “I thought, God is real, but is he the God of Christians, or did the Muslims have it right? That moment in the hospital, when I thought I was going to die, was my Gospel moment. I realized I needed a Savior.”
Today, she reflects: “Everybody is about pain-avoidance, yet it was from the suffering that my soul was saved. When you think about eternity, suffering is put in perspective.”
Curtis Martin, the president and founder of the Denver-based Focus ministry, shares Thomlison’s appreciation for the spiritual impact of suffering and hard times. And while he did not welcome the HHS mandate fight, he thinks it will strengthen the faithful.
Martin said his particular concern right now is protecting the rights of individual Catholics running their own businesses.
“Within our lifetime, being Catholic was good for business; now it is becoming more and more politically incorrect,” he suggested.
That said, Martin noted that the young people he serves are stepping up to the challenge of defending the “first freedom.”
“Young people today tend to be pro-life, and they are open to truth claims in ways that surprise their parents. This generation is also enamored with tolerance and freedom, and they don’t understand why Catholics are being singled out,” observed Martin.
The Focus president said he was worried about the mandate’s impact on the future of Catholic health care and social agencies.
“This is a precarious economic time in our culture, and, yet, institutions like Catholic Charities, which cares for so many people and does so more efficiently than others, could unravel,” he said, adding, “The president has yet to explain why this is a compelling case.”
Credit to the Shepherd
Mysteriously, Stacy Thomlison isn’t the only one in her birth family to join the Catholic Church. Her brother, Father Steve Thomlison, a priest in the Diocese of Lincoln, paved the way for her and introduced her to a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program in the city.
“My sister, like everyone, has been searching. Her heart has been restless, as St. Augustine said, until it rested in the Sacred Heart. Now she is resting more deeply, and her joy has grown and become more vibrant,” he said.
His sister’s journey to faith, he added, served as a reminder that “whenever we encounter these difficulties, the Lord is able to do great things with them.”
On a personal level, Father Thomlison said he was shaken by the approval of the HHS mandate: “I felt disbelief that this could happen in the United States — where we have constitutional freedoms that prohibit such things.”
But he, too, has also experienced “a real sense of urgency. “We are not looking for a fight with the Obama administration, nor will we shrink from the defense of our constitutional freedom,” he said.
Father Thomlison credited Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, who leads the Diocese of Lincoln, as the “good shepherd” who has provided inspirational leadership during an unpredictable time.
No surprise, he said, that of the five plaintiffs involved in the Nebraska legal challenge, “four are from the Diocese of Lincoln. None of that would be possible without the bishop’s discussion of this very real threat to our religious freedom and the great consequences of leaving this unchallenged.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.