Thursday, August 12, 2010

On Becoming Catholic, Part 3: Not the End of the Journey

This is my final installment of my conversion story, "On Becoming Catholic." (Not a very original title, but I'm not one for originality.) If you haven't read the first two posts, I encourage you to click on these links first:

Part One: Baptist Beginnings

Part Two: Things That Make You Go Hmmm...

In the fall after our marriage in 1995, I joined our parish's RCIA program with my husband as my sponsor. I wasn't necessarily planning to convert, but I needed to learn everything I could about Catholicism since this was what I was eventually going to be teaching our kids. During our marriage preparation and RCIA, I discovered that the teachings of the Church that I thought were strange and even oppressive were actually put in place for our benefit. I figured out pretty quickly that the Church doesn't have any "dumb rules," as I had often heard some Catholics lament about teachings they didn't agree with. When I first began attending Mass, for example, I thought it was a little snobbish of the Church to ask those who weren't Catholic to refrain from receiving Communion. I'm a Christian, too, I reasoned; why SHOULDN'T I be allowed to partake of the Lord's Supper with everyone else? Isn't that what Communion is, a sharing of a meal among fellow Christians? I had read the little explanation of the back of the Missalette that said something about Catholics believing in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and needing to be in full communion with the Church and all, but it didn't register. I knew what Jesus said and did at the Last Supper; and when I would ask my husband about it, he seemed to feel the same way: we don't know what happened at the Last Supper (well, now we do, but it wasn't clear to either of us at the time); so I could probably receive Communion even though I wasn't Catholic, and didn't really buy into the whole transubstantiation thing. Once our priest explained it to me though, I finally got it. When we say "Amen" when presented with the Body of Christ, we are acknowledging that this is indeed the true Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus. If we do this but don't really believe it, we're lying, and abusing this beautiful gift that Christ has given us. Needless to say I refrained from Communion after that until my Confirmation. (I thought praying to the saints was kind of bizarre too, until the priests leading my RCIA classes explained that we ask the saints in Heaven to pray for us, just like we ask our friends on Earth to do the same.)

One Sunday in January or February, Father announced that on a certain date in the near future, we candidates (everyone in our group had been baptized in another Christian denomination) would be asked to make a decision: Would we or wouldn't we become full members of the Catholic Church? Father reminded us that now that we knew the Truth, we had a responsibility to either accept or reject it; or, if we weren't ready, to at least acknowledge that fact.

I think it's time for me to pause for just a moment and confess something to you. It's taken me a long time to publish this last part of my conversion story, because I really wasn't sure how to put into words the real reasons why I decided to become Catholic. I grew up hearing many testimonies from people who had been unbelievers, and some profound incident that caused them to immediately turn their lives around and accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. They dropped to their knees in fear and trembling, burst into tears, and their lives have been filled with joy ever since. On the other hand, most of the stories I've heard from Catholic converts tell of a very intellectual conversion: they knew there was something more to be learned about Catholicism, they read all kinds of books by the Church Fathers, and came to the conclusion that Catholicism was the right place for them. Neither one of these scenarios really describe my conversion. As a Protestant, I always knew God loved me, and even though I ignored Him plenty of times, I don't think I was ever so far away from Him that I needed some dramatic "wake-up call" to make me take Him back. I never really had a specific "conversion experience;" in fact, there were times when I questioned my own salvation because I'd heard other Christians (including the evangelical radio preachers I had started to listen to as a young adult) that if I could not specifically pinpoint the exact time and place that Jesus came into my heart, I was a lost soul. I can't even tell you the exact moment I believed in the Real Presence, or when I knew the Catholic Church was THE Church that Christ had established on Earth. I didn't spend hours upon hours poring over the writings of the Church Fathers; but I did listen to people like Scott Hahn, Mother Angelica, and the priests in our own parish when they spoke about the beautiful teachings of the Catholic faith. I asked lots of questions during our RCIA sessions, and the priests answered them simply and patiently, and every single answer made perfect sense. I found myself wondering why Protestants DIDN'T believe Jesus meant what he said literally in John Chapter 6: "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst... this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world." (v. 35, 50-51)

When Father presented us with this decision we had to make, I wouldn't say it was a no-brainer; no matter how much I loved this new Faith I was learning about, I knew becoming Catholic would be a life decision, and there would be no turning back. By coming into the Catholic faith, would I be abandoning the Baptist faith I knew and loved? I knew that I already believed the Catholic Church was the true church founded by Christ on the Rock of Peter our first Pope, and that the Eucharist was indeed the Body and Blood of Christ. I was beginning to understand some of the other Catholic practices as well--devotion to Our Lady and the Saints, the beauty and necessity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the concept of Baptism as a sacrament that removes original sin--but there were other things, like the Assumption, Purgatory, and the Church's rejection of artificial contraception, that I still struggled to embrace. I asked Father about this, and I'll never forget what he told me: If I believed the words of the Creed and in the Real Presence, I was ready to be a Catholic. As far as my doubts and struggles about other Church doctrine, Father's advice was to pray and ask for a better understanding of these teachings. As long as I didn't outright reject Church Dogma ("Don't go around saying that the Church is wrong on such-and-such"), it was perfectly understandable to have some questions and doubts. Receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation, regularly attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist, and taking advantage of Reconciliation, as well as daily prayer, would give me graces to help me understand and accept teachings that I struggled with. "Meanwhile," he said, "do the best you can." I knew then that I wanted to be a part of the Church that Christ founded two thousand years ago, the place where I could physically receive the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus. The fact that Jesus loves us so much that he wanted to be with us in the flesh, and we didn't have to wait until we got to Heaven to be physically present with Him, was amazing to me. I had always believed (and still do) that Jesus is always with us in a spiritual sense, if we invite Him into our hearts; but through the Eucharist He is also with us physically.

And so, on Easter Vigil 1996, I was formally received into the Catholic Church. I am so grateful that my family celebrated with me and supported my decision. My in-laws were there, and naturally they were bursting with happiness that I had chosen to join their beloved faith that they grew up with and raised their children in. (To this day my husband says he is amazed that I decided to become Catholic; he never dreamed it would be possible. Neither did I.) Even my grandmother, who was in poor health, made the five-hour trip with my parents and my brother to share the wonderful day with me. One of my most prized possessions is an olive-wood Rosary that my grandmother gave me as a confirmation gift. This would be the last time I saw my grandmother; she died two months later of a heart attack.

My journey is far from over. In the last fifteen years, through our marriage and raising our children, through the ups and downs of married life, going from working full-time to being a stay at home mom, then going back to work part-time, I have grown steadily closer to Christ through the Catholic Church. I am thankful for the wonderful priests God has made a part of my life, other Catholic moms I have become friends with over the years, the opportunities I have had to teach Religious Education and to be a part of our parish and school family. I still have a long way to go in my Faith journey; very often when it's time to pray I find myself making excuses not to sit down and have some time with God. (So many blogs to read, so little time...let's see what my Facebook friends are up to...) Shortly after becoming Catholic I bought a copy of The Catechism of the Catholic Church. I hardly ever open it. I struggle sometimes with a lack of courage when it comes to defending the Catholic faith. There are some things I do miss about being a Baptist; the wonderful hymns we used to sing (oh, my, don't get me started...if I have to hear "The Servant Song" one more time...and by the way, it's not "Joyful, Joyful, we adore YOU," it's "Joyful, Joyful, we adore THEE." If you're ever in church and the person behind you is singing Thee, Thou, and Thine, when everyone else is singing You, it's probably me. And that dumbed-down version of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"...oh, never mind. I certainly don't hold Catholicism responsible for this.) I hold a special place in my heart to all the people who helped shape me as a young Christian, and who still go to the same Baptist church where my parents go to this day. Whenever we go to my parents' for a weekend visit, I always think to myself, "THIS time we'll go to Mass AND to the Baptist church." I want to stand with Mom and Dad and all the people I worshipped with, and sing all the old hymns, and listen to the choir sing and the pastor preach. (There is a different pastor now; Reverend A. retired long ago. The current minister is a great man of God who I admire very much.) It always seems that we have such a limited amount of time when we do visit, and it's been many years since I've set foot in my old church. (In fact, more often than not we leave early on Sunday morning in order to make it back home in time to attend the Sunday evening Masses in our own parish.)

When people ask me why I became Catholic, I often find myself at a loss for words. "There were a lot of reasons," I find myself saying. I usually tell them about the beauty of the Eucharist, and how in the Catholic Church, we can be physically present with Christ and even receive Him into our bodies. I tell them that it was the Catholic Church that Christ founded, and he appointed Peter as her first Pope. I explain that the more I learned about Catholicism, the more I grew to love the Church and wanted to be a part of it. Most of the time, these answers seem satisfactory to people. They usually nod their heads, and say something like, "Hm. Okay." If they're Catholic, they'll often excitedly exclaim that the Eucharist is what they love most about being Catholic, and encourage me to keep growing in my faith. I don't usually get into deep discussions with non-Catholics about specific Catholic teachings (except for one family member, but I'm a little reluctant to blog about that at this point, because I love and respect this person so much as a human being and as a Christian, and it seems a little too personal. These conversations give me a lot to think about, though, and encourage me to delve more deeply into Church teaching--and yes, open up that dusty Catechism. Sometime I'll share my thoughts here about the similarities and differences between Catholic and Protestant beliefs.) Putting my faith journey into words (believe me, this is the short version) is just another step toward becoming a better Catholic and a better Christian.

Years ago, my motto used to be, "I'm a Christian first, and a Baptist second." Now, I don't think it's sufficient to replace the word Baptist with Catholic; I'm not "Christian first, Catholic second;" nor am I "Catholic first, Christian second." I'm a Catholic Christian. For me, the two go hand-in-hand.

(I want to thank my Twitter peep Happy Catholic for encouraging me to begin writing down my conversion story; and to Matthew Warner for writing this article and inspiring me to finally post the rest of it. I hope it was worth the wait.)


  1. IT WAS WORTH THE WAIT! Thanks for sharing such a beautiful story! It is always so reaffirming to listen to a conversion story!

  2. Thank you, Therese! I've had it on my computer unfinished for quite a while. I didn't get much done this morning, but I needed to get this published! :) Blessings!

  3. Sharon,

    I have not yet commented on your blog but I have been reading it for awhile. (I found it through Therese's blog.) Each day I would wait to see "Part 3" and today I was so excited to read it. And it was well worth the wait. Like Therese said, it is so reaffirming to read conversion stories. Thanks!

  4. I loved reading your conversion story. As a convert, I love reading where others come from. I have a short version of my story on my blog but I'll admit it isn't very exciting. Perhaps if I gave it more time to write out it would sound better.

    But anyways, thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful story of your conversion to our faith. No doubt it will provide joy and guidance to others that are struggling on their own journey....

  6. Thanks for the comments! Glad it was worth the wait, Katy; sorry it took so long! Allison, I read your conversion story--wow! I admire you for your decision to convert even though your parents were against it. I was fortunate that my paretns supported me. Little2--thanks for visiting; good luck with your blog and I hope you'll keep stopping by! :)


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