Every convert has a conversion story to tell: often it’s a very fascinating and even compelling story. Even the dullest convert has a tale to tell about himself which is filled with questions, discoveries, with intellectual adventures of sorts, and occasionally with “real life” adventures, a tale with its emotional highs and lows, one of drama and mystery and love. His tale is of a journey, if only an intellectual or moral journey, from his previous state of life and mind to his present Catholic one. I am not a convert, and so this cannot be such a story, yet still I think mine can be told as a long way of introducing myself. What is the conversion experience of a person who never formally converts (or reverts)? If the convert has a conversion story, then I might say that I have a non-Apostasy story, since I was born Catholic and have never left the Church.
I had a very uneventful childhood as a Catholic. Until high-school, my “default” position on all things Catholic was that I would consent to them without giving any though either way. If the Church taught something, then it must be true. To put it in other terms, I was somewhat “sheltered,” but I think that I was even more oblivious. Until I was in middle school, I assumed that everyone believed in God, and that people who believed in God were all some sort of Christian (this, despite having some Jewish friends!), and that most Christians were some sort of Catholic. Sundays were church days, and everyone went, even if we didn’t all go to the same church. For that matter, we didn’t always go to the same church, since we lived roughly at the parish boundary between two parishes: Saint Joseph’s to the north, and All Souls to the south. The former was a large parish and offered the only Catholic school within our rural county. At St Joseph’s, the homilies were long and boring, but they were how we showed that we were sorry for our sins from the previous week; anyhow, it was more important to know how long they took than to know what was said during these (much to my parents’ chagrin). At All Souls, the poor overworked priest kept the homilies short and sharp–he had to make Glendale (45 minutes further south) by noon for the Mass there; he allowed petitions from the congregation during the Prayers of the Faithful (it was a very small parish), and these made up in duration what the homily lacked. The important part of these prayers was that my brothers and I knew what order the elderly parishioners would say them in, and indeed we would point and mouth (almost always correctly) the petitions moments before they were spoken.
Being Catholic was important, but it was not serious. I was vaguely aware that there were some people who were Christian but not Catholic—these included my Dad’s boss at the time, most of his co-workers, and my Grandparents—but the distinction was confusing enough to me that I simply ignored it. Suffice it to say that I was half-catechized, despite my parents’ (and teachers’) best efforts to get me to learn the Faith. If my childhood was a bit idyllic, then it was also a bit slothful: to me, being Catholic meant going to Mass, occasionally going to confession (especially on those occasions when I did something very bad), and being obedient to my parents (at least in the broadest sense), and loving my neighbor. All things considered, this wasn’t very hard nor unpleasant—even if the whole go to Church, read your catechism thing seemed a bit boring to me.
It was in the eighth grade that I first went to a public school: which was a bit of a culture shock to me. I lived in a rural school-district, so I avoided some of the trauma and drama which I might have encountered in an inner-city school. Still, I was shocked by the general lack of respect among my peers, both in the student-teacher interactions and in the way they treated each other. I also was surprised to discover that I was one of the smart kids—albeit also a very naïve kid—and that most kids did not get A’s in most (let alone all) of their classes, and that this was an acceptable norm in most of their families.
It was some time between middle and high-school that I learned that many of my peers also did not go to church on either Saturdays or Sundays. I also recognized one of my class-mates at church during the Christmas Eve Mass, whom I never had seen before or sense at the church. Suddenly it made sense why we could never gets seats in our parish during Christmas and Easter. My experience for most of my high-school life was as a stranger in a strange land (it didn’t help that I transferred during my junior year), so the atheism and paganism of so many of my classmates really didn’t shake my faith much; I saw their lifestyles, and I simply was not interested.
At the same time as all this was going on, my confirmation classes were to begin. There was a two-fold effect of confirmation classes beginning. The first is that it gave me a (structured) opportunity to learn about my faith and figure out what it was that I believed—though this was often times hampered by poor catechesis. The second is that a (re)-discovered the social aspect of being a Catholic. My family had largely been attending Mass at a very small country church whose parishioner age was, on average, seventy. That average has since increased, both because the parishioners have aged and because my brothers and I—who constituted an actual percentage of total parishioners—have all since moved away. Knowing and spending significant time with fellow Catholics in large numbers was not exactly a new experience—as I mentioned before, I attended a Catholic school for a few years when I was younger—but it was no longer a familiar experience either.
In order for me to get confirmed, my family had to attend the larger parish in Roseburg, St Joseph’s, which had an regular confirmation program. There was a life teen program established at this parish—I think it was the first in the archdiocese—which also meant that suddenly after-Mass socialization was becoming the norm. Such socializing continued by way of having the same core of people go through confirmation—with the mandatory classes and retreats—together.
Unfortunately, there were a few problems with this parish. First, the priest took a strange sort of tack in which he would at times pit us against not only our friends but also our families. We did not get along so well with this priest. Second, many of my peers were even less interested in the “rituals” of being a Catholic than I was. I got the distinct impression that whereas I wanted to get confirmed and felt it my duty before God to go to Mass, they were being dragged through the program as a formality by parents who were themselves only showing up for Mass because they wanted their children to finally get confirmed. I distinctly recall being one of only two boys who wore a tie to the Confirmation Mass–most barely wore t-shirts–and that the good archbishop thanked the two of us personally. This did not endear us to the pastor of St Joseph’s, who had openly encouraged the more casual approach to dressing.
I survived confirmation, and for the first time was actually beginning to take the Faith seriously. I even read (and somewhat enjoyed) the book which my Grandma gave me as a confirmation gift: Fr Thomas Peguy’s “Catechism of the Summa Theologica.” Shortly after my confirmation, there was a wide-spread falling-out between the parish and the Pastor at St Josephs; me family was a part of the “mass”-exodus away form that parish; one result of which was that the average age at the smaller parish dropped to fifty, and there were enough parishioners between the ages of 12-16 that my brothers could get confirmed there. I have only set foot in St Joseph’s once since then, and the priest’s homily was largely a tirade against those “traitorous” parishioners who had gone elsewhere.
By God’s grace my faith survived high school intact, and I left home for college at a secular university. Unfortunately, many of the good Catholics who went with me stopped trying to be good Catholics. I knew about a half-dozen Catholics who I had gone to high-school with and who came with me to OSU. After the first month, I think about about two of us were still attending Mass regularly. Much of the Catholic community there (to say nothing of the university as a whole!) frowned on doctrinal orthodoxy, and many of those who didn’t were attending Mass at their home parishes. The local Newman center did not feel like home, and so I rarely ventured there until my senior year. In short, there was little in the way of social life inside the Catholic community around campus.
Thus, while I continued to attend Mass on Sundays, I went looking elsewhere for community. I found this in a variety of places: the dormitory, the Honors College, the Ballroom dance floor, the pro-life club (through which I met most of my few Catholic friends at OSU), an independent paper with ISI connections, the physics department: all of these provided some community, indeed there was a bit of overlap between many of these groups. However, arguably the most important of these organizations was an evangelical Protestant community with which I got involved (as the honorary Catholic member). I can fairly say that for much of my time at Oregon State, my church was St Mary’s and my community was the Campus Crusade for Christ.
A fine enough community this was, and I have many friends who were at some point involved in this organization. Actually, I think that every one of my roommates from sophomore year on was active in “Cru,” and some of my closest friends to this day are people I met during the Wednesday night praise and worship sessions. I learned quite a lot about ecumenism from my time spent with this group. Moreover, I can say that while it wasn’t the Church, it did give me some appreciation for why some Catholics leave the Church, which is the lack of authentic community at many parishes. I’ll also admit to missing the Thursday night Bible studies at our favorite pub, which were organized loosely by my roommates and I but often attended by our other friends, most of whom were Cru regulars. My experiences with Cru did indeed help to keep my Christian faith alive, for I now had a community of friends to help me weather the storm of secularism which I found on campus.
Oddly enough, it was this Protestant organization which has done the most to really strengthen my Catholicism, at least from a direct and intellectual perspective. Cru provided a combination which I had never really faced before: that of people who were dedicated and thoughtful Christian who were at the same time distinctly not Catholics–and who recognized that I was a Catholic. Actually, I was for the most part the only Catholic who regularly attended their events, which made me something of a curiosity to many of them. “Wait, you mean Catholics are Christian!” was a common response from some of them. Others had a reaction which was closer to, “Wait, you think Catholics are Christian?”
Between my curious friends and my more antagonistic ones—to say nothing of the antagonistically curious and curiously antagonistic folks in between—I was asked a lot of questions about Catholicism. This was my “crisis” moment, that is, the moment at which I had to really ask myself whether or not I believe all of the Church’s doctrinal teachings, and whether I accepted all of her dogmatic conclusions. It is the time during which I transitioned from being a passive Catholic whose faith was always there in the background to being an active one who desired to really know my faith and understand it; during which I transitioned from consenting to the doctrines of the Faith to questioning them to assenting to (and at times even asserting) them. I should note here that I struggled with a few doctrines here and there—it made me realize that I really didn’t understand my faith much at all, though here and there I was surprised to find that I knew more than I’d thought, just from listening to the readings at Mass and other sundry reasons of “hidden” catechesis. And though I struggled at times to understand or explain, I was always willing to give the Church the benefit of the doubt, to assume that maybe the reason why I couldn’t see why the Church taught such and such was because my knowledge and understanding were incomplete, and not just because the Church was wrong or making stuff up.
One additional favor which Cru did for me was that they taught a couple of short apologetics courses. These attempted to provide a defense of Christianity, and not merely from the Bible but from physical, philosophical, and historical evidence and arguments. Since I was attending a secular university which was by-and-large antithetical to orthodox Christianity, I very quickly became interested in this. And since many of my new friends were curious about–and often suspicious of and even occasionally hostile towards–Catholicism, I wondered if this branch of theology could be extended into a defense and/or explanation of Catholicism. I began with Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ” and “The Case for Faith,” but then discovered G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” and James Cardinal Gibbon’s “The Faith of Our Fathers;” I read C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” but eventually found Fr Dwight Longenecker’s “More Christianity.” And while Strobel and Lewis and Schaeffer (and even Chesterton) made the case for Christianity, Chesterton and Newman and Keating (and all the fine folks at Catholic Answers) and a host of others were helping me to see the case for Catholicism. The former showed that it was a historical fact that Christ lived and died and rose again, but the latter showed that He also established one holy Catholic and apostolic Church to guide His people and to preserve the Faith against corruption and error. The merely Christian apologists argued that Christ’s rebukes of Peter were evidence that the gospels were true; the Catholics argued that these passages showed that the Church is true.
For perhaps the second time in my life, I became intellectually interested in both Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. But unlike with the first time, where this curiosity extended to a single interesting book, the second time has stuck with me. The second time I had a sense of urgency—literally, because I was finding myself increasingly inundated by both well-meaning and antagonistic questions about my faith. If I was too slothful to ever ask these questions for myself, then God gave me the gift of friends who would ask those questions for me. And if I had previously been uninterested in finding the answers, God gave me enough spiritual patriotism to desire defenses.
It was not lacking in certain small sacrifices. I discovered that I enjoyed apologetics: which became in turn the gateway to reading more of the Church’s theology. However, like the Pevensie children in in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” I discovered that these gifts were tools, and not (merely) toys. My faith was tested in little ways—the allure of sin, the desire for the approval of my friends (who were mostly Protestants), the occasional doubt to which I alluded above. The greatest temptation I faced during all of this time was to trust too much in my new-found abilities to understand and defend—indeed, to conflate the two. It was a sort of pride, to believe that I could defend every doctrine or teaching of the Church easily, if it was actually true. This caused me to have more trouble with those doctrines which I could not easily defend—or which required greater effort to defend—so that, though I gave the Church the benefit of the doubt for certain doctrines, I also despaired of those doctrines. They were true, but I didn’t want to touch them otherwise with a ten foot pole.
There was the flip side of that coin, which was to believe that people were being dishonest if they continued to attack a doctrine after I had given a defense of it; or if they refused to drop everything and to become Catholics once I had answered some objection or other. The same might be extended, incidentally, to my interaction with people who were not Christian at all. I suppose that it had not yet occurred to me that not everybody is convinced by the same evidence. I wanted a faith which could be proved, and not merely one to which I could give honest intellectual assent.
There was also a bit of trial of patience (and charity, for that matter) during this time, especially during my senior year at Oregon State. During this year, I had four roommates, all of whom were evangelical Protestants. We also hosted a few get-togethers, which were dominated by still more evangelical Protestants. Actually, I think that there were at most three other Catholic who visited my apartment during my senior year. Of these myriad Protestants, most were quite fair-minded, and if they had ever been coldly ant-Catholic before, many eventually warmed somewhat to Catholicism. They weren’t about to convert, but they would at least acknowledge that Catholicism was in fact a form of Christianity, albeit a separate one from Protestantism; some would even grant that the two were both separate and equal.
One roommate, however, had cooled off a bit toward Catholicism. It may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that he warmed up to it enough to date a Catholic girl, a relationship which didn’t work out. He became somewhat antagonistic towards all things Catholic. I think that all four of my other roommates, as well as a handful of friends, will recall one particular incident.
One night, he breezed through the door, looked me straight in the eye, and asked, “JC, what do you think is the thing most important to Catholics which is not also found in Protestantism?”
“Well, ” I began, “I suppose that the sacraments–”
“Right,” he said, cutting me off, “specifically the Eucharist. Here’s why the Church teaching is wrong….”
Incidents like this were blessedly few, but they certainly do have a tendency to try my patience.
By the time I finished my undergrad degree, I was finally at peace knowing that I could not convert everybody–and that I did not need to. A few years later it occurred to me that I could not convert anybody. Combined, these are among the most liberating realizations a zealous apologist can have, because they means that I no longer need to blame myself, or feel as though my arguments all fail simply because they fail to convert somebody. Actually, there is something which I more-or-less missed at the time but became aware of later, which is that some (perhaps many) of my friends did undergo a sort of conversion–and a very important one–since many admitted to having previously been somewhat anti-Catholic.
I left Oregon for Texas (with a brief stop in California), where I entered graduate school. The young-adult scene in Austin is far more vibrant than in Corvallis, and not merely as a result of a difference in the two cities’ sizes. Most of my good friends in Texas are fellow Catholics, and indeed are happily orthodox in their beliefs. Thus, for the first time my faith community and my social community are largely one and the same, and I’ve finally experienced the pleasure of discussing my faith with other people who actually agree with me. I do not regret any of my friendships with Protestants, and I do admit whole-hearted gratitude from what many of them taught me (or otherwise induced me to learn). I must also admit that while it was easier to try to be a good Christian in my undergraduate days because I was surrounded by good Christian friends, it is also much easier to try to be a good Catholic now that I am surrounded predominantly by good Catholic friends. And all this is true even if I am not tempted to become an atheist or a Protestant (respectively). It is great relief to know that I can, for example, have theological discussions without getting bogged down in apologetics, much as I still do enjoy the latter. It is nice to know that I can vent my frustrations concerning (say) the irreverence of a colleague towards the pope without having to the defend papal authority.
I still see challenges and question to my faith, both from my old friends who continue to correspond with me and (in a different way) from a number of my colleagues (I work in a department dominated by atheists and agnostics). These are, however, often more a challenge against patience (and charity) than faith, in that they really haven’t caused me much doubt. Concerning most Protestants and fair-minded atheists, I find that a lot can be cleared up quite pleasantly with simple dialogue–that much of the suspicion on the former’s part and opposition on the latter’s stems not from malevolence but rather from ignorance. I may continue to face those little everyday pressures to leave the Church against which I must always be on guard; but I find that God never lets us face more than we can handle without also blessing us with His graces. He leads us not into temptation and delivers us from evil, if we but allow Him.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that the most important person in my community of friends is my lovely wife and fellow cradle Catholic, Rebecca. The tale of how we met is best saved for another day, but suffice it to say that we did meet at UT’s Catholic center–we were both a part of the pro-life ministry there–and that she has been the most supportive person in helping me to grow in the “spiritual” side of Catholicism. I can hope that I have helped her to grow in the Faith as well (she assures me that I do). We are both lay members of the Order of Preachers, and thus are able to help each other to grow in this special vocation and this part of the Catholic community together. She has been a frequent source of joy in my life.
The majority of my close friends are now Catholics, and active, faithful ones at that: so I now have a community to turn to in times of struggle who supports my Catholicism and not merely my Christianity. I am moreover blessed with the love of my wife, and the promise that so long as we two both live we shall each have each other’s support and companionship in our ongoing journey in the Faith. These are among God’s graces to help me along my faith journey, even if it never leads me far from home. I should add as one final note to this reflection. I mentioned before that some of my evangelical friends had a sort of conversion away from anti-Catholicism. However, one of these friends moved to Texas (and ultimately to Austin) ahead of me: that friend entered the Catholic Church along with his wife two years ago. The Lord moves in mysterious ways.