“I think more should be written about conversion within the Church. It is a more difficult subject than conversion without.” — Flannery O’Connor
By the time I was received into the Catholic Church 15 years ago I had already read a number of stories of conversions to the faith—Newman’s Apologia, Avery Dulles’ A Testimonial to Grace, Scott Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home, and many others in essay or book form. I still love reading conversion stories, not just from people whose background is like mine (Evangelical and Calvinist), but from a wide variety of religious, philosophical, and cultural backgrounds. Each one reminds me yet again that, in Chesterton’s words, “The Church is a house with a hundred gates; and no two men enter at exactly the same angle.” Yet entering from a hundred gates they all find a welcome since, as Hilaire Belloc put it, the Church is “the natural home of the Human Spirit.”
But conversion stories, with their dramatic conclusions, may by their very genre leave an incomplete impression. The convert has found the gate and entered and is now at home. The story is now over. There is nothing more to be done. In the case of some lives, that may be true. If you enter the Church on your deathbed, there isn’t much to be done but pray and wait for the end—after that a bit of roasting in purgatory, but that’s passive. For most of us who enter the Church, our conversion is not the end of this life, but more like a new beginning. While it is a home, it is also like the stable in Bethlehem: it is bigger on the inside than the out. This discovery is both exhilarating and frightening in equal measures. It requires that the Catholic convert always be a convert, not just in the sense of having that past action a part of his identity, but also that conversion is a lifelong activity. Flannery O’Connor wrote to a friend, “You don’t join the Catholic Church. You become a Catholic.” That process, I’ve discovered, involves more than just the sacraments of initiation and a good first confession. It has its own joys and challenges.
“It felt like being submerged into the ocean.” Former Episcopalian R. R. Reno used this image to explain to a friend what his experience of conversion was. He meant that, like the ocean and unlike his Protestant denomination, he found ultimately that the Catholic Church was beyond any theological theory and needed no theological theory to prop it up. It is, as Reno puts it, “the mother of theologies.” The Church partakes in the infinite mystery of Christ and is thus beyond our comprehension. While many converts can say this, the actual experience of it is something different.
The Church’s very oceanic vastness means that even inside one can be tempted to look at only one small corner of it and label it “Catholicism.” Some converts become obsessed with Church architecture or a particular spin on Catholic social teaching or a Marian devotion or a particular aspect of the liturgy. One of the convert clergymen at Newman’s Birmingham Oratory was so enamored of the Church’s music of choice that he wrote a book on it. Upon reading the manuscript Newman protested that Father Formby seemed to say Christ died on the Cross for Gregorian chant. Newman observed that this was not theologically accurate.
My obsession was apologetics itself. When I first came into the Church I consumed Catholic apologetic literature in great chunks—most of it geared toward answering Protestant objections to the faith. I don’t regret that. As I said, I still read it and now I even write some of it. But not nearly as much anymore. At a certain point I realized that my own view of Catholicism had a tendency to be restricted by the types of questions that I used to ask. If I were not to be stuck in a kind of intellectual and spiritual bubble I would have to continue looking at Christ from different perspectives. I would have to learn my Creed not just from the negative point of view.
Looking more deeply from other perspectives allowed me also to see and appreciate other believers—and even non-believers—in a different light. When you come into the Church from somewhere else, particularly if friends and family from somewhere else have given you trouble about it, it is easy to become harsh and impatient about others’ not seeing what you see. It is altogether too easy to become wrapped up in what non-Catholics haven’t got and not be thankful for what they do have. This doesn’t mean squishy ecumenism, but a generosity of the sort Newman demonstrated in a letter to an Evangelical Anglican:
I believe what you do—but I believe more. I rejoice to think that you with all your heart and soul believe our Lord Jesus Christ to be the Saviour of the world, and of every soul who comes to him for salvation; and the sole Saviour. I wish you believed the whole counsel of God. But in this bad time, when there are so many unbelievers, I rejoice to think that you are not one of them.
I have learned too often that, as Renaissance writer Thomas Browne put it, “The cause of truth may suffer in the weakness of my patronage.”
But there is suffering for the convert, too. I envy my friend Alicia, who told me that after she became a Catholic her immediate family followed suit. None of my family has followed me. While my parents came to see me received into the Church, the picture taken afterwards looks more like a funeral scene than a celebration. Several years afterward my mother commented to me as I helped her with dishes while visiting, “Well, I guess you haven’t denied Christ.” Good, but not quite what I’d hoped. I blame myself as a bad Catholic, but I note that Blessed Newman himself did not have a family member become a Catholic for 20 years after his conversion. She was only a second cousin.
The trial of alienation from one’s family and indeed some friends can be tough on converts. It is doubly tough when one has a hard time adjusting to ordinary life as a Catholic. If the Church is like an ocean, it’s easy to fear being tangled in the weeds as you’re submerged. Twentieth-century convert Karl Stern wrote that because the Catholic Church is a “church of the multitude,” the “outsider, approaching her, faces a thick layer of mediocrity.” For those who have read their way into the Church, this can be a shock. Given the widespread failure of catechesis in the post-Vatican II era (Mark Shea has aptly described CCD as “Cut, Color, and Draw”), the level of ignorance among cradle Catholics can be rather high. I occasionally wanted to shake the rather casual Catholics I’ve met—What are you people doing? Don’t you realize what you have here? Just as converts can be unduly harsh with their former co-religionists, they can also be unduly prideful with cradle Catholics.
Converts from small, tightly-knit “evangelical catholic” congregations can find this mediocrity off-putting. Actual Catholicity of the “Here Comes Everybody” variety is much more daunting than hanging out in your small continuing Anglican or Lutheran parish where everybody has an opinion on blue vestments in the Sarum Rite and whether to retain the filioque in the Creed out of ecumenical considerations. My mid-sized Latin Rite parish has more people at one of its two daily Masses than there are at most Episcopal Sunday services. They ain’t all Father Rutler. Often they’re not even that friendly.
Learning to see through the thick mediocrity in the Church of the Multitudes is one thing that can take a little bit of time and a lot of humility. Converts are often garrulously fluent about their faith in a way that impresses cradle Catholics. And yet what I’ve come to see is how often I’ve misjudged Catholics because they don’t talk about their faith in the same way I do. I don’t mean to suggest that many Catholics couldn’t benefit from a more thorough intellectual grounding in their faith. They could. But what I’ve discovered so often to my shame is a quiet consistency of life, worship, and behavior that makes my own seem paltry. Newman preached late in his life, “Perfection does not lie in heroic deeds, or in great fervor, or in anything extraordinary—many, even good men, are unequal—but in consistency. This is what old Catholics have when good, in opposition to converts.” The Imitation of Christ’s admonition that it is better to feel compunction than be able to define it has often hit me square between my tearless eyes.
The fact is, conversion to Catholicism does not remove one’s flaws in one fell swoop. Many converts experience a sort of reversal after the wonder and awe of becoming a Catholic has worn off. The intense feelings dissipate and the colors of the marvelous pageantry of tradition and the closeness to Christ and his Spirit seem to have worn off. The sharp attention one paid at Mass dulls. (“I’m thinking about work now, not the Heavenly presentation of the eternal Son to the Father in the power of the Spirit.”) One discovers that in examining one’s conscience and going to confession that one still struggles with the same old temptations. And for many of us who did not grow up in liturgical settings, our very inability to get the hang of Catholic liturgical life can seem like evidence that we really don’t belong. (Am I the only one who secretly rejoices in the new translations of the Roman Missal not just because they are better but because it means my own verbal stumbling through the liturgy is no longer markedly different from anybody else’s?)
This doubt can be made worse when converts feel like they don’t have a distinct role in the Church. Finding a particular way of contributing to the life of the Catholic Church can be difficult. I remember feeling like I should be doing something as soon as I converted. But what? The fact is, often the best thing for a convert is to simply learn to live as a Catholic. Doing “nothing” is often the best strategy for the Catholic immediately after reception. A Catholic convert can get used to the liturgy, experiment with new devotions, meet Catholics who’ve been around the Church for a longer time, look into aspects of Catholic faith that weren’t of immediate concern when one was converting. In doing this kind of “nothing” the convert can cultivate the kind of consistent life of worship and prayer that will prepare him or her for a time when the Mass isn’t new and the excitement of conversion has wound down. It is in developing that kind of consistency that one can be sure that God is preparing the convert to do something. Maybe not something dramatic or large-scale. After the extraordinary journey to the Catholic Church, the Lord may be calling us to live a life of utterly ordinary service. Doing something as a Catholic doesn’t mean making the big splash but, as St. Therese of Lisieux put it, “Doing little things with love.”
Do not mistake me. I have never doubted my decision to become a Catholic. The convert diplomat and novelist Maurice Baring remarked that the only decision in his life he was absolutely sure of was becoming a Catholic. Along with marrying my wife, Cathy, I think the same for myself. If I had any regret about the decision, it would be the same one given by Alec Guinness: that I hadn’t done so earlier.
But if Newman was right that the Church needs to be ready for converts and converts for the Church, then I think it important to talk not only about the joys of conversion, but the inevitable sorrows and challenges that can follow such a move. Newman wrote to a convert friend Lord Feilding that there even in the midst of the joys of the convert’s life there can be an accompanying “pain and dreariness” as well. “But no one made a sacrifice without effect. God does not forget what we do for Him—and whatever trouble you may have now, it will be repaid a hundred fold.”