Surprised by a sacrament

  • Written by Kevin Birnbaum
  • Published in NW Stories
Ron and Kayren Ohnhaus in Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Bremerton. Photo: Stephen Brashear Ron and Kayren Ohnhaus in Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Bremerton. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Ron and Kayren Ohnhaus really didn’t want to go to confession — then they did

Standing outside the confessional clutching his stack of 3-by-5 cards, Ron Ohnhaus felt like he was back in high school waiting for a wrestling match — nervous and clammy, but trying to get pumped up for the ordeal ahead.

To be honest, he wasn’t happy about having to confess nearly 50 years’ worth of sins to another person. He wished they would just let him join the Catholic Church and receive the Eucharist without having to dredge up the darker chapters of his life.

Ah, well. Ron entered the booth, knelt down and began telling the priest his sins. “I was very nervous and I was shaking just having to bring this stuff up and to tell somebody again,” he recalled. It took him a while to get through all his note cards, but finally he finished.

He was not prepared for what happened next.

Ron had grown up in a “troubled, dysfunctional home” with a string of alcoholic father figures. He was baptized in a Christian church at the age of 12, but didn’t considered himself a Christian. When he was 17, his girlfriend got pregnant. They quickly married, and in December of 1969 Ron joined the Navy to support his new family.

Toward the end of his eight-year stint as a sailor, Ron’s own alcoholism became a “major problem,” he said. His wife left him in 1980, taking their son and daughter with her. (The marriage was later annulled.) Ron was left “floundering” until he started seriously attending AA meetings the next year. (He hasn’t had a drink since Sept. 30, 1981.) Inspired by a televangelist, he “started a relationship with God” in 1983 and began attending a Nazarene church.

At a retreat in 1991, he met Kayren. She had been baptized Presbyterian as an infant, and had been a serious Christian since childhood. Ron and Kayren were married the next fall. For the next 20 years, they devoted themselves to their Protestant congregations, which they loved.

The Catholic Church wasn’t even on the Ohnhauses’ radar until they attended a funeral Mass at Bremerton’s Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in 2009. “I was very confused and slightly uncomfortable,” Kayren said. “We’re standing up, we’re sitting down, people are reading things, there’s a pageant going down the aisle, there’s all kinds of incense.”

But when the priest consecrated the Eucharist, Kayren “absolutely felt something wonderful and special.” She didn’t understand the sensation. She knew nothing of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation — that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ — and understood Communion as merely a symbol of Christ’s presence.

This was different, and Ron felt it too. It was powerful and intriguing enough that they grabbed a brochure for the parish’s RCIA program.

Two years later, they finally decided to check the classes out — but they had “no intention of becoming Catholic,” Kayren emphasized. “Of course we couldn’t be Catholic, right? Because you worship Mary, you think the pope is perfect, and it would be a cold day in you-know-where before I confessed my sins to a man, because he’s not qualified to forgive them” — only God is.

Ron was also skeptical, and wasn’t shy about “making some noise” if he didn’t understand or agree with what the RCIA instructors were teaching. But one by one, Ron and Kayren had their questions and misconceptions cleared up, and they began to see how all the pieces of the Catholic faith fit together like a puzzle.

But confession remained a stumbling block for them. One day, Kayren recalled, Father Derek Lappe was teaching about the sacrament of reconciliation. “And I thought, OK, here we go, this is going to be the reason I can’t be Catholic, because no matter how nice he is, no matter how smart he is, I can’t confess to him because … he can’t forgive me.”

As if on cue, Father Lappe said, “And you all know it’s not me who forgives you, right? Because I’m a man, and I’m not qualified,” Kayren recalled. She let out a squeak as he explained that it is God, working through the priest in the sacrament, who forgives sins.

By December of 2011, Ron and Kayren were convinced that they should become Catholic, and they were hungry for the Eucharist — “I was dying for it,” Ron said. They were onboard theologically, but the prospect of actually making their first confessions — covering everything from their baptisms to the present — loomed as a rather unpleasant obstacle.

“It meant all the darkness of my alcoholism had to be brought up again and confessed to somebody,” Ron said. “The real truth of the matter is, I was scared to do that again.”

As part of his 12-step program, Ron had already conducted an intensive moral inventory and confessed his wrongdoings to another person. He wasn’t eager to repeat the process, and he doubted the sacrament of reconciliation had anything new to offer him.

But he knew the rules, so one day in February of 2012 he got up his courage and entered the confessional. He nervously told Father Lappe all the sins he had written down on his 3-by-5 cards, and then …

“And then he prayed the prayer of absolution, and — I can feel right now as I’m talking about it — the grace just flooded into me, into my spirit, into my being,” Ron said. “I could feel something that I had never experienced in doing this in the AA program with another human being. Something way different was happening that was supernatural.”

Absolved of his sins, Ron left the confessional, fell to his knees and thanked God for this “beautiful experience.”

“I didn’t expect the immense grace and love and forgiveness of God that I experienced going through that sacrament,” he said.

“He was three feet off the ground for a good three weeks, maybe a month,” Kayren recalled. Acquaintances kept asking, “What happened to Ron? He seems so happy.”

Kayren had a similar experience with her first confession a few weeks later. “I really didn’t want to do it,” she said, but she did. “I just remember afterwards feeling so loved and forgiven and close to God, close to Jesus. It was just this warm, wonderful embrace.”

Ron and Kayren were received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 2012. They continue to practice the sacrament of reconciliation monthly.

“It’s certainly not something that I will look forward to like a party or a movie,” Kayren said, “but it’s something that I look forward to [because] I know I will be better afterwards, be better for having done. And that’s what I want to do. I want to be closer to Jesus, and I get a better understanding of his grace and mercy there. I get a better understanding of who I am — that I am loved by the creator of the world.

“It’s phenomenal that this is available to us and that the whole world isn’t just flocking,” she continued. “I mean, I’m surprised you can get into a confessional, honestly. But that’s our world — we have waitlists for restaurants and nightclubs, and empty confession lines. And that’s why we’re so unhappy.”

Read more stories from local Catholics on the sacrament of reconciliation.