Published on August 7th, 2013 | by Brianna Heldt16
Yes, I really did say that. Twelve-ish years ago, my then-boyfriend (but now-husband) and I were sitting in a booth at a popular restaurant in the college town where we lived. On a date. Discussing theology, which I clearly knew very little about but was enough of a nerd to enjoy discussing on a date.
I’d grown up evangelical and he a Lutheran, although he didn’t identify as a Lutheran any longer. We’d met one another at the evangelical church we were both attending, but it turned out he didn’t believe everything they taught. It was interesting, I’d grant him that, but I was positively certain that some of his ideas about faith were just remnants of his clearly faulty religious upbringing. Means of grace? More than a symbol? What did that even mean? Real Christians who loved Jesus and read the Bible weren’t all caught up in that superstitious sacrament nonsense. We were all about relationship–with Jesus and with one another. We studied the Bible and sang emotionally-charged praise music in our services, as opposed to reciting stuffy creeds and ancient liturgical responses. We identified as “Christians”, not as members of a particular denomination that practiced semi-closed communion.
Now my boyfriend was smart and cute and obviously loved God, so I could forgive him for being baptized as an infant and for continuing to believe that communion was more than just a symbol. But I made it very clear that I never wanted anything to do with all of that. I liked my faith just the way it was.
Until of course I started reading the Bible through his Lutheran-ish eyes, and certain passages jumped out at me that hadn’t before–and my mind began to change. Slowly. Five years into our marriage and we decided we ought to join a reformed church that did indeed include those stodgy creeds and mysterious sacramental beliefs. My husband was really happy, but it felt awkward to me at first. I didn’t know when I was supposed to sit or stand, I didn’t know when I was supposed to talk, I felt conspicuous going up to receive communion and it would be years still before I felt comfortable having my children baptized. But there were things I loved about it too, and what kept me going was that I believed–really believed–that it was far closer to the truth than my former roots-less, “we don’t need any sort of historical anchor” evangelicalism.
Of course as time went on, I felt as if something was still “off”. While our particular church acknowledged certain historical tenets of the faith, it wasn’t necessarily consistent. And when I went hunting for information on the historical Christian position on contraception, I was stunned to discover that Protestants broke rank with Roman Catholics long ago–and not for any good reason. I discovered that Martin Luther looked a whole lot more like a modern Catholic than a modern Lutheran. I discovered the wisdom and beauty in Catholic teaching, and that this teaching has existed from the time of the apostles themselves. I discovered the saints, and read books like Mother Theresa’s Come Be My Light–one of my all-time favorites.
I came to respect the Catholic Church.
And then I fell in love with the Catholic Church.
But still I felt I could never be Catholic. Too much baggage, too much extra stuff, too much seemingly-arbitrary tradition. I was, I suppose, comfortable being a Protestant with Catholic books on my nightstand. So I kept reading and kept studying, and would occasionally take my kids to daily Mass in spite of not being able to receive the Eucharist. In hindsight I believe it was Jesus I saw there, and Jesus that kept me coming back for more. I just couldn’t let it go. I sensed that the Catholic faith was true, but wanted to be convinced otherwise because conversion seemed a most terrifying thing.
Eventually though my husband and I reached the point where we both looked up from our respective apologetics books and acknowledged that yes, the claims made by this oldest of institutions on earth were true. And that we must indeed convert. And I was filled with dread and hope all at once, but mostly dread because it’s no small feat to leave behind years of thinking one way about God for an entirely new way. It’s hard to tell your church and family and friends that you’re becoming, of all things, Catholic. It’s difficult to admit, even to yourself, that you had been wrong. In a word, it’s complicated.
Of course I didn’t realize it then, but the hardest part was well over by the time we made the final decision to convert. My head and heart, once so thoroughly evangelical that I’d sworn I’d never be a Lutheran, much less a Catholic, had come to accept a historical and sacramental understanding of the faith. It is a huge paradigm shift that does not come easily. But when it does? All of a sudden the Bible fits together in a more cohesive way. Natural law explains so much of the world and of the human experience. Faith becomes, well, easier in a sense–it is straightforward, user-friendly, and devoid of hand-wringing over the questions Protestants love to ask like what is the purpose of life and what are Christians supposed to be doing?
That is certainly not to say that following the truth where it led and becoming Catholic magically made all of my problems, questions and doubts disappear. Far from it, actually. Jesus tells us the world will hate us because it first hated Him, and Saint Paul says we will face trials of all kinds for the sake of the gospel. Part of identifying with Christ is to pick up our cross, and nobody knows that more than Catholics. I will most likely never face martyrdom as Saint Stephen did, but I’ve had some friendships change as the result of my conversion because all of a sudden my “traditional” values and belief in the existence of objective truth were on display. Doubtful I’ll ever be imprisoned for my faith like countless holy men and women who’ve gone before, but it was really uncomfortable leaving our reformed church and announcing to people that we were hitching our wagon to Rome. Because I knew that no one understood. I knew people thought ill of us. I knew our reputation would now include things like “statue worshippers” and “trying to earn their way to Heaven.” I knew that some would no longer consider us Christians, period, while others would write us off as intolerant bigots of the worst kind.
And, I still get nervous when I go to Confession. I still have to work at believing that what appear to be bread and wine are actually the body and blood of my Lord Jesus Christ, and I still don’t know most of the prayers in Latin. I’m clumsy at Lent and Advent. I grow anxious when a Protestant finds out I’m Catholic. I’m still a work in progress, but the beautiful thing about a conversion to Catholicism is that it is a lifelong conversion, not a one-time choice like a Protestant altar call. Holiness, virtue, and bringing your intellect and heart under the authority of God take time and perhaps above all, perseverance. I have had an authentic faith from childhood, but it has been moving along a continuum–I have always thirsted for truth and loved Jesus, but I have only been a Catholic for a little under two years now. Reaching the place where I was open to what the Catholic Church might have to say took time and effort, and as I look back I’m glad I didn’t give up. I’m glad I continued reading papal encyclicals and Cormac Burke and the Catechism and Mother Theresa–even when I couldn’t fully embrace them. I’m thankful I kept slipping into daily Mass from time to time–even when I couldn’t receive and wasn’t sure I even wanted to. Jesus was drawing my heart to the fullness of the faith, and little by little I got to the place where I found myself alone at a Kimberly Hahn talk, telling her all about how my husband and I were planning to convert.
If you’d heard me talking to my boyfriend at the restaurant all those years ago about my issues with infant baptism, you’d have thought me an unlikely candidate to become Catholic. But here I am today, a Catholic convert who is more in love with Jesus–and His Church–than ever before, with eight baptized children and some Mary statues and crucifixes scattered throughout my house. I still have to pinch myself sometimes because it all seems so unreal, but in the most wonderful way possible. Change, renewal, redemption, and truth are beautiful things, and I love that God sometimes works in the most quiet and subtle of ways. And my journey is far from over, and I kind of love that too.