[… continued from this post]
I didn’t leap right into Catholicism when I finally gave up on Mormonism. I still didn’t have a “testimony” or conviction that Jesus was who he claimed he was. As I said, I was definitely a theist by this point: I was intellectually convinced that God must exist, and believed that I had had experiences of him. I knew that my life, my peace of mind and level of happiness, had changed dramatically since I made the decision to “surrender” to him: basically to believe that a power higher than myself existed, and that I must conform to his will rather than expect him to conform to mine.
But I hadn’t had the same kind of experience with Jesus in particular, nor was I persuaded that he was God, worked miracles, founded a Church, etc. But that being said, since the Christian religions were apparently right about God’s existence, what he was like and what he expected of us, I considered it probable that they were right about Jesus too. I figured it was just a matter of time, prayer and study before I would come to believe in him.
As it happened my girlfriend moved back to her home state, and about six months later I flew out to visit her, and decided to stay there. She found me a job where she worked, and I moved into an apartment with a friend and co-worker.
This friend, whom I will call Luke, was a devout Protestant convert, a former Catholic in fact. He introduced me to the pastor of his little storefront church, and I attended weeknight prayer services with them. Around the same time a Baptist minister came knocking on our door, inviting us to attend his church. Luke of course invited him in and let him pray with us and give us his hard sell. We attended his church once and no more.
But Luke and this pastor, both, upon learning that I was not committed to any particular church, but came from a Catholic family, took it on themselves to try to make sure I didn’t go the Catholic route. They made all the standard anti-Catholic arguments based on various Bible verses. Some of them I found rather convincing and others I was skeptical of. But mainly I felt that I was too ignorant either to accept their arguments at face value, or to refute them.
Once again came Mom to the rescue: Upon telling her of these experiences, in no time I received a big fat envelope stuffed with pro-Catholic, and anti-Fundamentalist, tracts, articles, and books. Many of them were from a fledgling organization called Catholic Answers, which gave talks and sold tapes and sent out a periodic newsletter written by its founder, Karl Keating.
At this point it might seem like it was a shoo-in that I would become Catholic. But in reality it was no more likely than that I would join any other church. At the time I was not inclined to just fall into my family’s religion by default. First of all because I lacked any faith in Christ as I said, and without that becoming Catholic is pretty pointless. But for other reasons as well. Recall that I was not raised in the faith, and most of my aunts and uncles, as well as my parents and older sisters, had abandoned it by the time I became religiously aware. My mom came back to it, but by that time I had no attachment to it, and it was almost as foreign to me as any Protestant church. And sorry to say, I didn’t put so much faith in my mom’s opinion as to assume that she knew what she was talking about in religious matters. Finally, although I keep mentioning the “savor” of my mom’s and my grandparents’ Catholicism, that was something I don’t think I was fully conscious of at the time, and only gave a name to in hindsight, after all these events had transpired (including the ones related below) and I perceived the common thread running through them.
Anyway, the stuff written by Keating was so doggone reasonable that it won me over immediately. And while it poked fun at the Baptists and other anti-Catholic Protestants, it did so in a way that was clearly calculated to be humorous rather than insulting and hostile. This was in stark contrast to the vitriolic tone of the anti-Catholic materials and people with whom I had come into contact. By comparison, the Protestants came across as simpleminded and often rather nasty.
Not only were Keating and his compatriots reasonable and charitable, but to all appearances they had the facts on their side. Rhetorically speaking, they seemed to give the anti-Catholics a sound spanking. It was men against boys, there was just no contest.
In the meantime I continued going to Mass on occasion, and one day the priest announced that there would be a week-long Lenten mission. For those who don’t know, a Lenten mission is a week set aside during Lent when a parish invites a visiting preacher or preachers to give a sort of “retreat”, although it usually takes place in the evenings during the work week. The idea I think is to “wake people up” spiritually, by letting them hear from someone besides their own pastor, someone who is known to be especially effective at preaching.
The ones preaching at my parish’s Lenten mission were five or six members of a branch of the Franciscan religious order, who lived in poverty in one of the poorest sections of a major U.S. city. They ran a shelter and home in which they helped those who were homeless or had problems with drugs or alcohol.
I attended the mission. They preached, and one of them played music and sang, and in short, I was blown away. At the time I had not heard of the “odor of sanctity” that is sometimes experienced upon the opening of the tomb of a saint. But looking back on it, I’m convinced that that’s what I experienced when these guys preached. It may sound weird to someone who’s never known it, but even at the time I felt like I could feel and smell the holiness.
In reality it wasn’t a single sensation, but a mingling of mental, spiritual and physical things. It was the old savor in spades: The peace I experienced when I knelt and surrendered to God’s will, the transformation in my mom, the beauty and mystery of the religious items in my grandparents’ house, the sublimity of the liturgy, all rolled into one.
Shortly after the mission I approached the pastor of the parish and asked how to be received into the Church. But I didn’t decide to become Catholic because of one emotional experience. There were also the intellectual stimulation and satisfaction, the reasonableness of Catholic versus Protestant doctrines, the way the Faith made sense of the scriptures. For example I had heard that Jesus died for our sins, and that we are saved by believing in that sacrifice — but what exactly does that mean?
The Catholic faith was the only one which still had sacrifices, and therefore could point to them and say, “There! That is sacrifice”, and explain how we appropriate Christ’s sacrifice and make it our own (through the Mass) in order to participate in it and be saved by it, and could show that this was precisely what Christians had done from the very beginning; thus explaining what was meant by the term “Christ our Passover” (1 Cor. 5:7), which seemed like a key to the Old Testament with its sacrifices, and what was meant by saying that the Old had been fulfilled by the New, and why Christ is portrayed in the Book of Revelation as “a Lamb, looking as though it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6), yet alive and standing before the throne of the Father, having entered the true Tabernacle (Heb. 9:24), where “he lives forever to make intercession for us” (Heb. 7:25).
There were also all the good and holy and intelligent people who had wholeheartedly embraced the faith, some of whom I had met, and some of whom lived in the past, century upon century of them, stacks and stacks of books written containing countless gems of wisdom, beauty and eloquence, not to mention sublime music, art and architecture, an endless banquet for mind and soul. There was simply nothing to compare to it.
(Of course I’m leaving out details because I’m trying to tell a story spanning years in as short a space as possible. I am happy to discuss any part of this in more detail if anyone wishes.)
Within a year or two I had received instruction, made my Confession and received my first Communion and Confirmation. Since then my experience has been like Cardinal Newman’s (though I don’t claim to be like him in any other way):
From the time that I became a Catholic, of course I have no further history of my religious opinions to narrate. In saying this, I do not mean to say that my mind has been idle, or that I have given up thinking on theological subjects; but that I have had no variations to record, and have had no anxiety of heart whatever. I have been in perfect peace and contentment; I never have had one doubt. I was not conscious to myself, on my conversion, of any change, intellectual or moral, wrought in my mind. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of Revelation, or of more self-command; I had not more fervour; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.
John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua, p. 238.