March 26, 2016. Easter Vigil Mass. The service, begun in darkness and fire, became flooded with light as we collectively moved through the liturgy and into the joy of our Savior’s resurrection. I was called to the altar, along with several others receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation on that night. I, despite years of anti-Catholic misconceptions and beliefs, now boldly acknowledged my assent to the teachings of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I bowed, and my head was anointed with oil. We turned to face the congregation. I looked out at the crowd of thousands gathered at the Cathedral of St. Paul, and was overwhelmed by the beauty of the service, the Cathedral, the Church. My restless journey had ended. I was finally home, connected to earliest Christians through the Church Jesus himself founded. The congregation stood, and clapped, and celebrated with us. The Communion of Saints had never before been as tangible to me as it was in that moment.
Now, one year later, I am celebrating my first anniversary as a Catholic, and have been able to take some time to reflect on my experience. Many who are brought up in the Catholic Church receive the Sacrament of Confirmation during while they are teenagers. When I received the Sacrament, I was a former anti-Catholic adult converting from a multi-denominational Protestant background.
An Appreciation of Beauty as a Convert
It would be inaccurate to begin by describing my first year as a Catholic as anything other than overwhelmingly beautiful. I am filled with gratitude as I have had time to dig into some of the layers of Church teaching on many issues. Everything in Catholicism is so cohesive, so connected. There are no gaps in logic. There are no compromises on Truth. There is such a direct connection to the faith the earliest Christians practiced. My marriage has grown as my husband and I have learned and embraced Theology of The Body. My heart has been at rest trusting in the authority of the Church to correctly interpret challenging Scriptures and to speak on difficult issues. I love that I could dig deeply into this faith for my entire life long, and still never reach the end of it. How like our own infinite God… His Church would likewise be filled with depth and infinite beauty and mystery. The Catholic Church has, without question, brought my Christian faith to life.
The Finesse of Evangelism
When I first became convinced of the Truth of the Catholic Church and mustered up the courage to start telling people of my conclusion, particularly my friends from Protestant churches, I found I had some misconceptions as to how those conversations would go, and as to how the sharing of my faith would be received as I continued to grow stronger in my convictions.
At first, I thought most people would take the news well. While this was true in some cases, in others, the conversation was difficult. Sometimes, it was really difficult. I learned issues surrounding the Protestant/Catholic divide bring up a lot of emotions in people on both sides. I’ve learned to be gentler. I’ve learned to be ready when someone asks a genuine question. I’ve also learned it’s important to discern when someone is not asking a genuine question but is intending to prove a point. And I’m still learning when it is good to engage, and when it is best to not.
I also thought most people would genuinely be interested in hearing how and why I was converting … they would want to hear my journey. Sometimes this happened, but mostly it didn’t. I found a lot of times, people wanted to share their opinions on the decision I was making, without first seeking to truly understand what had led me there in the first place. I’ve learned to get better at listening to those people, without feeling like I need to prove myself.
I’ve learned there isn’t a point in trying to force truth. I’ve heard it said that unless people are asking the right questions, the answers are irrelevant. I naively thought curiosity would be sparked in those who were interested in listening to my story if I just explained to them, for example, the logical inconsistencies between there being absolute Truth and the acceptance of individual interpretation of Scripture. That through my witness our next cycle of RCIA would contain at least a few friends of mine that genuinely wanted to learn more about the Catholic Church. I was so overwhelmed by Truth, I couldn’t understand why anyone hearing Catholicism accurately explained wouldn’t feel the same way. It surprised me then, but doesn’t now; things didn’t quite happen like I initially thought. My prayer continues to be more people would start to ask the right questions and I will be ready to lovingly share Truth and to trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest.
Now, I am still more than willing to talk to anyone who is genuinely curious about my Catholic faith. Part of the reason I write is to share that information with others in a gracious and loving way. But I also am focused on living my own faith with integrity. No one is going to care about Catholic stuff if they can’t see Jesus in my own faith walk. Talking to people is a good, and necessary, witness. So is living an authentically Catholic life.
As beautiful as this first year has been, and as grateful as I am for the gift of The Church, I also must acknowledge that my first year as a Catholic also contained some periods of intense loneliness. I left a congregation which was very skilled at connecting those who attended. I had been a member of a small group and had been a part of some ministry teams. I got to know people by spending time together after church on Sundays, eating donuts and sipping coffee. And our leaving to become Catholic caused strain on many of those relationships. My husband and I spent several months reconciling ourselves to the fact that we had lost some friends. We felt misunderstood. And we felt lonely for a while, and in need of friendship.
In addition, as a new Catholic, it was sometimes difficult to navigate my way through our new parish. The people there are lovely, but there wasn’t the same level of opportunity to get connected with the same speed as I had been used to. It takes time in many Catholic parishes to get to know people. It takes boldness to introduce yourself or show up at something when you don’t know anyone there. My husband and I have gotten better at this, and we are now feeling like we are finally getting to know several people in our parish and in the larger local Catholic community. But, it’s taken the better part of this first year to get there.
And now, too, there is a new kind of loneliness. Living as a Catholic, there are many times when I am acutely aware that I am an “other.” That I am not in the majority. When the sufficiency of the Bible Alone is assumed in casual conversation with my Protestant friends, I feel the pain of the Reformation deeply. When I am at a gathering and contraception is discussed casually or joked about, I, too, feel alone. In these uncomfortable moments, I am not sure what would or would not be helpful to say, and loneliness takes on a new form.
As beautiful as my first year as a Catholic has been, it’s also been difficult. That’s just been my reality. And I’m okay with that, for a few reasons. A big one is that throughout everything, the Eucharist has been an amazing comfort. Regardless of how alone I have felt at any point during my conversion journey, I know that I am able to meet my Savior in Mass each weekend, and receive Him, body, blood, soul, and divinity into myself. There is part of me that wishes the transition would have been easier. And I think there is more that local parishes can do to help those new to the faith feel welcome. But there is no substitute for Jesus. And there is no substitute for the fullness of Truth found in the Catholic faith.
Knowing The Church
I also have had one significant surprise this first year. My previous exposure to Catholics had been mostly through members of my husband’s family, and a few other friends and family members sprinkled throughout the years. These people I know live their faith out with passion, and grace, and love. My most intimate relationships with Catholics were people committed to living out their faith. They were part of the reason I took a second look at the Catholic Church as an adult. I was surprised to learn, however, that this isn’t how all Catholics are. That for all the beauty and Truth in the Church, “Cultural Catholicism” is pervasive. There are far too many individuals and families that attend Mass each weekend, but whose faith isn’t a priority the rest of the week. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. I myself lived as a “Cultural Protestant” for several years before the beauty of Catholicism jolted my spiritual walk back to life.
In one sense, I admire the easy acceptance of people who have lived their lives as Catholics, because for me understanding the Catholic faith was so hard won. I had to look into everything as deeply as I could, especially at first, because otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to convert. But for all that we have access to as Catholics, especially the graces of the Sacraments, I am certain that Cultural Catholicism is far too prevalent in our world today. It has saddened me to learn that there are times when I understand the faith more than some who have grown up in the Church. Indeed, attending Mass is a vital component, but in itself, it is not sufficient. Filling a pew without engaging our hearts and minds means little. We are missing much of the beauty and the fullness of the Truth if we are not engaged in personal study, or if we are not taking advantage of all the Sacraments available to us, or if we are not in the community with others. Catholicism isn’t meant to be lived in isolation. And as Catholics, it is so vital that we know our faith, especially with how much the Catholic Church is misunderstood by others. It is imperative that we take advantage of the tools and gifts available to us from both the past and the present, that we may truly live it out.
As Easter Approaches
Even now, as I remember my own Confirmation, I am praying for those who are themselves preparing to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation at Easter Vigil this year. And I ask others to join me in prayer as well, as each person coming into the Church has taken their own deeply personal, and sometimes difficult journey. They, like I, have found in the Catholic Church a “pearl of great price,” (Matthew 13:45-46) and have possibly sacrificed much to become Catholic. Pray that they would find a home not only in the larger global Church but also within their home parish. That they would find connection, meaningful relationships, and would take advantage of opportunities to grow in their faith outside of Mass.
I also encourage those of us already in full communion with the Catholic Church to note those who are new to us in Mass each weekend. To introduce ourselves and offer to help newcomers get connected. I also encourage us all to linger a bit once Mass has ended. To say hello to someone we don’t know. To consider starting a small group. There is no need for us to feel lonely in our own parishes. We can, and must, do better.
Let us also pray for those discerning the call to full communion with the Holy Catholic Church at any stage. Those who are near to Confirmation, and those who are ever so far from it. I am a living testament that conversion is possible for anyone.
And, finally, having lived on both sides of the Reformation, I know from experience that the chasm is deep. Let us not cease in praying for unity among all Christians. That we may someday soon become one, so that the world may believe (see John 17:21). Amen.