There was a moment in 2020 when Katie Prejean McGrady stood in her backyard, shaking her fist at heaven. The young wife, mother, speaker, podcast host, and author of books, such as “Lent: One Day at a Time for Catholic Teens,” had devoted her life to helping young people accept and experience the love of God. But the level of hardships she and her family were experiencing, beyond the pandemic, had gotten overwhelming, leaving Katie frustrated and angry at the God she served – and she let Him know it.
What she came to understand in the aftermath of that episode is that it’s okay to rage at God sometimes. He loves us through it all. And if we look at life with that idea in mind, we can see signs of divine light even in times of darkness.
As we discussed on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below), Katie grew up attending daily Mass with her sister and parents, and participating in her church’s youth group. That involvement led her to embrace her faith more deeply as she got older. She became a high school teacher for five years and, before the pandemic, was an in-demand speaker who joyfully and humorously shared her love of God and lived experience of faith with audiences around the country.
In fact, it was Katie’s joy in practicing her faith as a child that led her grandmother to convert to Catholicism. Katie recalled that her grandmother, who suffered with dementia for several years, died this past June. Her grandfather gave Katie her grandmother’s Bible, which was well-worn and filled with notes.
“As I start to look at them,” Katie said, “I realized that they were notes about all of us: her grandkids, my grandfather, her children. She had dementia, so she had begun forgetting things. She realized it, so she started writing things down so that she could go back and read them. And I mean, beautiful things about all of us. How much she loved us and what she’d noticed about us, just the most affirming things…So this little note [read], ‘I love my Catholic faith because of my two granddaughters, Katie and Laura.’ It was such a touching reminder that oftentimes when we evangelize, we have this perspective of: I have this information as the adult or the teacher or the catechist, and I’m going to give it to this young person, and they’re going to be grateful that I gave it to them. [But] a lot of times it happens in a very organic, sometimes reverse kind of way, where it’s kids who love Jesus, and their love of Jesus inspires somebody else to want to know a little bit more about Him.”
Katie herself learned more about Jesus during the hardships that 2020 brought. Two months after her grandmother’s funeral, Katie, her husband Tommy, and their three-year-old Rose returned to her grandfather’s house because they had to evacuate their Louisiana home due to Hurricane Laura barreling toward them. And, oh yeah, Katie was nine months pregnant at the time. The storm destroyed much of their town, so three weeks later, Katie gave birth in a different hospital than she had planned – though, thankfully, baby Clare was healthy.
Three weeks later, the McGradys returned home, only to have to evacuate again 72 hours later due to another hurricane. When they came back after that one, they discovered more damage to their home.
That was the point when Katie felt fed up. She recalled, “[I was] looking around and shaking my fist at the sky going, ‘What did we do to deserve this? We’ve been nothing but faithful. We have gone where You’ve asked us to go, we have done what You’ve asked us to do, we have been open to life, we have been generous with what we have, and You’re still going to come and topple the town and destroy our schools!'”
Then, somewhat unexpectedly, Katie felt the presence of God, reminding her that He is always faithful, even when His goodness is hard to see.
“He will hand us things that we certainly can’t handle on our own,” Katie explained, “but that’s an even deeper and more challenging invitation to continue to trust. I can’t say that I’ve always done that well…And I can’t say that there haven’t been plenty of moments in prayer where I have raged and screamed and cried…So I’m a work in progress in figuring that out.”
The other lesson from this experience, however, is that raging at God doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Katie observed, “I think [God] would rather us tell Him how we feel than hide it. If I know my daughter is upset, I don’t want her to run off and hide in her bedroom. I want her to sit there and tell me: I’m sad, I’m frustrated, I’m lonely. Those are things that I need her to identify so that I can help her feel her feelings and then feel better. The same thing is true of God. God wants to know [if] I’m upset, I’m confused, I’m angry. He wants to know those things. Don’t be afraid to tell Him.”
Despite the times of darkness, Katie is able to look back at the events of this past year and find God’s presence as well. It is most evident in her experiences with her grandfather, who had been living alone for more than a year, since her grandmother had to move into an assisted living facility. “Loneliness hits you hard after you’ve spent 50 plus years of your life with the same person day in and day out,” Katie noted.
Suddenly, during the McGrady’s evacuation, her grandfather had a fuller house than he’d had in ages! There was Katie, her husband, her daughter, three dogs, and Katie’s parents. Katie said, “There was so much life in that house for those eight weeks! Every morning, he would wake up – and he and my daughter, who are 80 years apart, would sit on the back porch with his gigantic boxer dog, Ella, and eat an oatmeal cream pie for breakfast…They became best buds…I got to bring my newborn daughter into the house where my grandparents lived. And it’s not what I had planned…But instead, I’m in my grandfather’s house. And he was so attentive and loving…There was still so much joy in being there. So the circumstances were awful, but every day we got to fill his house with joy.”
Katie and her family are continuing to bring him that joy by visiting him every 10 days, and FaceTiming with the kids on other days.
Now, as Lent 2021 approaches, Katie is trying to help young people nurture their own relationships with God by helping them have a spiritually fruitful Lent instead of just enduring a season of reluctant obligation. She and her husband Tommy co-wrote a short book of reflections called “Lent: One Day at a Time for Catholic Teens.”
Based on her experiences as a high school teacher, Katie said, “Young people just see Lent as a checklist: no candy, no soda, maybe no Netflix, if they’re super spiritual…But how can we get them to pray to the Lord, to actually think about what’s going on in their journey of faith, maybe ways that they can more deeply invest in their personal, spiritual journey?”
The entries consist of a daily reflection, challenge, and prayer that would take no more than five minutes – and allow the reader to apply the Lenten insights learned directly to his or her life. They can be practiced alone, in a small group, or with parents.
Katie hopes that the spiritual journey that teens begin during Lent continues afterward. She said, “My hope is that a young person says, ‘I like reading the Bible now. I like actually talking to Jesus first thing in the morning.’ There’s a few challenges in there about helping out around the house, making everybody’s bed, doing the dishes for your mom, or sitting down with your sibling and phone free time, like playing a board game with them. Hopefully those things would continue.”
In the end, Katie also offers a bigger view of evangelization: “In the grand scheme of things, we set these lofty goals for churches and programs and youth ministry and conferences. And I hope those continue because that’s how I pay my bills. But I also want people to recognize that loving the people right in front of you, right around you…that oftentimes is the most important witness you’ll ever give.”
(To listen to my full interview with Katie Prejean McGrady, click on the podcast link):