Sarianna Althoff, worship director for St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Hudson, plays part of an original song about the Eucharist, “More of You,” she is submitting for the National Eucharistic Revival Musical Competition. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)
Catholic Herald Staff
This Easter, Sari Althoff will celebrate one year of “coming home” to the Catholic Church. It’s been a busy first year for the native of the Twin Cities who now lives in Hudson with her husband, Ben. In some ways, however, it has been only a new chapter in a story that began more than eight years ago. Better said, it’s a new song in an album of the praise and worship story of her life.
Althoff was raised in a devout and active Evangelical family; music and praising God in song was “central” to how she prayed and worshipped. Her father even wrote a number of songs.
When she met her would-be-husband at UW-River Falls, where Althoff double-majored in speech therapy and music, they quickly realized their religious practice was something they both felt strongly about. Cradle Catholic Ben said his was the true church, and Sari knew well the stereotypical prejudices against that church – worshipping Mary, idolizing saints and making religion too legalistic.
The couple was determined to explore and learn together because, as Althoff described herself, she doesn’t do anything halfway.
It would be eight years in all that the young woman worked through questions, grappled with some anger, wrestled with what she didn’t understand, prayed and talked to people on both sides. During this time, they graduated (2016) and got married (2018). They moved to Hudson, where Ben is employed as a project manager for a translation company.
During their dating period, the couple discerned which church they would attend together by spending six months at an Evangelical church and then six months at St. Patrick’s. Sari admits the decision was clear. The Catholic Church had something – namely a rich liturgy beyond music and show – that she had felt was missing even before meeting Ben.
Although she still wasn’t ready to take a concrete step toward becoming Catholic, Althoff did express a desire to participate in St. Patrick’s music ministry as an essential part of her personal participation in faith and worship.
The music itself played a role in bringing her closer to a decision to explore the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
“How the music is done in Catholic Churches is so different. I grew up with five songs and then the music was done. Here, it’s all interspersed,” she said. “The liturgy is beautiful! How you’re praising God with word and song, even singing prayers.
“It really encompasses the five senses and envelops you,” she added, referring to the Eucharist and the smells of incense.
Even so, when invited to consider beginning RCIA, she felt she wasn’t ready. Explaining things to her family was a big hurdle. She knew they didn’t doubt her character and her sincerity, but she wanted to feel that she could 100 percent know everything and be able to explain and answer their questions.
It was key for Althoff that her husband never pressured her. Their marriage was solid without both being Catholic, but a point came where she did experience a shift in courage and confidence.
“It takes bravery to say one ‘yes,’” she said. “But that can lead you to so many more beautiful things … For eight years, I felt I had to be 100 percent sure on everything. Then I realized, no, I just need to be willing to say ‘yes’ to the journey. And I was ready for that.”
After going through the RCIA program, Althoff was received into the church last year at Easter. She was accompanied by Ben and another music ministry friend as her sponsors. Even her family, though not completely understanding her choice, supported and celebrated her decision.
Althoff recounted and expressed her conversion journey in the way that most naturally came to her – in song. New to songwriting, she was nervous but shared it with her pastor, Fr. John Gerritts. He was moved and asked her to sing the song for all the parish Masses one weekend last October.
Reflecting on the Sunday Gospel, Fr. Gerritts’ homily touched on faith. As he invited Mass-goers to ask God to increase their faith, Althoff began to accompany his spoken words on the piano. “Lord, increase my faith – my faith is weak.”
He paused, and Althoff played a few more measures, then sang, “What does it mean to become whole? To notice an emptiness inside my soul? Admitting I don’t know wrong from right, to trust these words to be my guide…”
As she continued playing in the background, Fr. Gerritts continued preaching about honesty in faith, honesty in prayer, before stopping so Althoff could sing the entire piece.
The lyrics reflect the experience of discovering a guiding compass amidst distractions of life and the movement of being led home.
The refrain comes in, “To say ‘yes’ to this journey means saying yes to Christ. With surrender comes the promise of new life. To say ‘yes’ to this family, I know I’m not alone. I rejoice at his voice, welcome home.”
After the song, Fr. Gerritts noted how opening just a crack of honesty to God can lead to an influx of his grace and bring about marvelous change. “For Sari, it was about bringing her into the Catholic Church. Just imagine what it can do you for you, for me…
“Faith is a gift to us from God. It is him entering into our lives. It’s not about quantifying it, it’s not necessarily about what we give to him but about giving to him that honesty in our prayer life.” That is where he can really open us and transform us, increase our hunger and thirst for him and his will.
In January, Althoff began working for St. Patrick’s as the worship director. Not long after starting, she heard about a contest related to the National Eucharistic Revival the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has put in motion.
Through a musical composition competition, Catholic composers, poets and songwriters are invited to take part in the renewal of Eucharistic zeal.
Award-winning submissions will be featured at the 2024 National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis and used in revival events across the country.
Althoff realized immediately she had something to work with. A week after becoming Catholic, she was struck by the experience of receiving her first Communion at the Easter Vigil.
“I want more” were the words stuck in her head. She vividly and emotionally recalled how, as nervous and distracted and excited as she was during that Mass, when Fr. John offered her the Eucharist for the first time, she walked back to her seat thinking, “I want more.” She wanted to get right back in line and go to Communion again.
She worked with that core idea and some lines of melody came right away, then developed it into an entire song and since has added voices, guitars and drums.
Although the song has not been performed publicly – and needs to stay that way per the contest rules – Althoff did play it for the interview. She talked about the power of music and lyrics and how ingrained they can become, even transcending age and dementia. She also mentioned how powerful an experience it has been showing her heart and making herself vulnerable through songwriting and music sharing.
“It’s been a beautiful process to share with others and see a collaboration come together and help this song reach more people,” she said. “It’s not just about me anymore, it’s about the message and how it can touch people.”
With hands open wide, I come to you. A yearning deep inside to be made new…
Here in awe, I await a gift divine. I want more of you…
As you fill me with your life I shine a holy light – in this moment I behold a miracle.
“More of You” ends with the words: With an open heart I pray to want more of you every day.
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