People who knew St. Augustine probably had similar thoughts. But his mother — St. Monica, whose feast we celebrate Aug. 27, the day before her son’s feast — proved the model of persistent prayer for his conversion. Although she prayed only that her fast-living child would become a Catholic, her prayers earned a bonus when he became a priest.
God’s Augustinian “extras” always remain possible for moms — and dads — who take up the Monica mantle. Not all of their offspring come to their senses, but more than a few do.
Father Wendell, for example, easily relates to Augustine. Raised in a strong, practicing Catholic family and an altar boy until he could drive, he went to a Catholic high school where he excelled in sports and was an honors student. Several hundred people accepted the invitation to his graduation party.
Popular and successful in virtually every endeavor he undertook, he did credit God for giving him his gifts and talents. But “I become arrogant, self-centered and prideful,” he says.
Off to a nominally Catholic college he went — to major in partying.
“I stopped practicing my faith altogether,” he remembers. After graduation he skied all winter, swam all summer and lived the footloose life year-round.
All the while his mother, Pat Wendell, constantly prayed for him and reminded him that he was loved. Like Monica, she kept asking her son to get his life in order. When he didn’t, she says, she prayed harder.
By age 30, Rick had moved back to Wisconsin. He owned his own homebuilding company and he had money, cars, clothing and dates. He fell in love with an acquaintance. He wasn’t practicing his faith, yet he planned a showy cathedral wedding.
A funny thing happened on the way to the altar.
One day a relatively minor construction accident landed Rick Wendell in the hospital for some stitches. He had an adverse reaction to an anesthetic. His heart and breathing stopped and, for two hours, he teetered on the thin line between life and death.
“I was brain-dead, unresponsive to all coma stimuli,” he recounts. “My eyes were fixed. They were switching off doing CPR and preparing to ship me to an organ-harvest center.” All the while his mother pleaded with God.
“Please give him back to me 100%, or not at all,” Pat Wendell recalls praying. “That’s when he saw the Lord in heaven and was reaching for him. He woke up the next day and they could find nothing wrong with him.”
The physicians expressed their astonishment.
Shortly after, mother and son went on pilgrimage to Medjugorje.
“On that pilgrimage, in a moment of grace, I was shown my life and my sinfulness — not just what I had done, but the effect of it,” says Father Wendell. “I had a several-hour lifetime sacramental confession. When the priest laid his hands on my head for absolution, this penetrating heat came out of his hands. I experienced a deep sense of forgiveness.”
The next morning, he says, thinking back as though still amazed by the turn of events, was the feast of Corpus Christi.
Next he had an experience as real to him, he says, as anything that ever happened in his life: He felt Jesus telling him he wanted him to become a priest.
“I can relate to Augustine: who said, Lord, make me holy, but not yet,” says Father Wendell. Despite his human trepidation, he trusted God and entered the seminary. In 2006 he was ordained by Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan.
“My mom loved me when I was probably unlikable, let alone unlovable,” adds Father Wendell. “She kept asking God to love me and be merciful to me. And he has been. I can proclaim it powerfully from the rooftops because I’ve experienced it. I never knew I would be this fulfilled and this happy.”
Today he believes, as Sts. Augustine and Paul, that “the only good in me is Christ in me.”
“Isn’t the story really: Prayer changes things?” says Father Wendell. “If we keep praying for people, especially those we love the most, and consign them to the will of God, then God can do and use whatever is necessary to accomplish his will in their life. I needed a Louisville Slugger in the forehead.”
Incidentally, Pat Wendell never prayed all those years for her son to become a priest — just a faithful Christian. Still, she affirms: “I thank the Lord for putting all the pieces in the right places.”Light of the Liturgy
The prodigal story doesn’t always include an Augustinian wild phase. Take Father Steve Mattson at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in East Lansing, Mich., ordained in 2005.
When he was a teen, his devout family left the Catholic faith for an evangelical-Protestant fellowship. There he became an elder and thought about Protestant ministry. Fourteen years later his mother, Jan Mattson, returned to the Catholic Church. She well remembers the first Sunday back in full communion.
“It was the feast of St. Monica,” she says. “Our priest spoke of her and I was in tears. Little did we know what God was going to be doing in Steve’s life.”
Her husband also returned.
Longing for her sons to have the fullness of the faith and the richness of the Catholic Church again, she prayed and gave them materials. Steve began reading the Catechism, poring through apologetics books, and took up his parents’ invitation to Mass.
“The church I belonged to had great ‘production’ values,” he says. “And here was this priest from Pakistan with a thick accent and a church with speakers like tin cans. But, with the liturgy, I was drawn to worship in a way I hadn’t in a decade.”
Soon he went to confession, reconciled with the Church and had a deep encounter with the mercy of God. Then, before the Blessed Sacrament, he heard Jesus call him to the priesthood.
“I left my home parish on the feast of St. Monica and arrived at the seminary on the feast of St. Augustine,” Father Mattson points out. “It did seem a sign of God’s great love.”Homeward Bound
Two of Father Mattson’s brothers also returned to full communion with the Catholic Church, and the wife of one converted. Today he uses St. Monica to encourage mothers whose children have wandered from the faith, especially those who feel they somehow failed.
“There is a great consolation these mothers feel when they know they have an ally in heaven who is praying with them,” says Father Mattson. “[When they] commend their sons and daughters to God the Father and our Blessed Mother, and invoke the intercession of St. Monica, there’s a sense of peace that comes over them. The anxiety the evil one wants them to have is alleviated.”
“You have to maintain the prayers and not get discouraged, because the answer is not right around the corner,” counsels Resurrectionist Father C. Frank Phillips, pastor of St. John Cantius Church in Chicago and founder of the St. Monica Sodality. He reminds people of the long years Augustine’s mother prayed for him.
To support people’s hope, he points out that the St. Monica Sodality (online at Cantius.org) has more than 3,000 members worldwide praying for each other’s intentions and relatives.
Meanwhile, Jan Mattson shares what she has learned.
“No matter what situation parents see in their children, let the children know they’re unconditionally loved,” she urges. “Entrust them to the Lord, pray, then sacrifice. Pray they would be open to truth and God’s will.”
That wise way worked for St. Monica — and countless other Catholic parents concerned about spiritually adrift children.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.