In the early 1990s, as a young graphic designer and artist-wannabe living in Portland, Oregon, I began to encounter—more and more often and in ever confounding ways—things and thoughts Catholic in nature. Looking back, it’s as if I repeatedly was going down mysterious trails that kept leading me to the Catholic Church. My love for the writings of T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Flannery O’Connor, for instance, increasingly challenged me to think more deeply about the Incarnation and a sacramental understanding of reality. Reading Herbert Schlossberg’s fascinating Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture pushed me to start reading Chesterton in earnest; I zipped through The Man Who Was Thursday, Orthodoxy, and The Everlasting Man in short order. Reading Chesterton marked a momentous turning point, without doubt, for doing so teased forth the flame of joy and mystery about faith and orthodoxy that had been slowly building during my time at Bible college.
Other moments stand out: An out-of-the-blue phone call from a former Bible college classmate (now an atheist philosopher) introduced me to Walker Percy, whose fiction and non-fiction alike put me on my heels and had me seeing modernity in a new light. Somewhere along the way I stumbled upon Russell Kirk. And then there were the early Church Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, Thomas Howard, Peter Kreeft, and many others. I vividly recall standing in a bookstore in Portland reading the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch and realizing—it sounds quite funny now—that whatever the Apostolic Fathers were, they certainly weren’t Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, or Protestants of any sort. St. Ignatius’ condemnation of the Docetists for their refusal to confess “the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ” was especially riveting; I recognized the implicit gnosticism of my Fundamentalist upbringing, which was both anti-sacramental and anti-“Romanist”.
But the decisive moment, when the many varied and fascinating pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place, came with reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. After having lived in Portland for four years—the final year after getting married in 1994—Heather and I moved to her home town of Eugene, two hours south. Shortly before doing so, I paid another visit (one of countless visits) to Powells, the “the largest used and new bookstore in the world” (located just a few blocks from where I worked for three years). Browsing in the Christianity section, I came came across a copy of a book entitled Catholicism and Fundamentalism. It looked interesting, but I hesitated and then began to put it back on the shelf. A young man standing a little ways away glanced at me and offered, “That’s a really good book. I recommend it.”
“Which are you?” I asked.
He smiled. “I used to be a Fundamentalist,” he said, “but I’m now Catholic. I’m getting some books on the Trappists; I’m thinking of entering a monastery.”
I retrieved Karl Keating’s book and we spoke for a couple of moments. He then asked, “Do you have a copy of the new Catechism?” No, I did not. He took one off the shelf and handed it to me.
While I probably bought a few more books that day, those two stand out. As I told Karl years later, his book saved me a lot of time and came in handy when I eventually got into conversations and, yes, arguments, with friends and family members.
The Catechism, however, would have an even more profound effect. As an Evangelical, I didn’t know where to start when it came to studying Catholic dogma and doctrine, practice and spirituality. The Catechism, which was given to the Church on October 11, 1992, by St. Pope John Paul II (and had just been published in the spring of 1995 in English by Doubleday/Image), was an invaluable single volume—not just because it was one book, but because the structure, approach, and footnotes opened door after door, leading further and deeper into the strange and wonderful mystery called “Catholicism”.
Over the years I’ve met many former Protestants (and certainly a few former agnostics and atheists) who credit the Catechism for helping them on the way to entering the Church. Several of them—some of them now close friends—have simply said, “I read the Catechism from cover to cover, and I was ready to enter the Church.” After I purchased it, I began looking up specific topics: Mary, the Eucharist, Church authority, and salvation. Time after time, the citations would lead to documents that I also read; it was like “Choose Your Own Adventure” in Catholic theology and spirituality, but always with the same focus and ending: the divine life of the Triune God.
For me, the two most significant passages of the Catechism are the very first paragraph and, secondly, the most shocking paragraph. The opening paragraph states:
God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life. (CCC, 1)
This is, I think, about as perfect and succinct statement of Catholic faith as one can find in a single paragraph, touching on the nature and work of God, the purpose of creation and our existence, the divine call to become members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the singular and sacrificial mission of the Son, and the empowering work of the Holy Spirit. It highlights a key topic—the nature of salvation—that is fleshed out in many places, but in especially striking terms in paragraph 460:
The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature”: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”
The quotes, as strange as they might sound to some Catholics, are from St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, and St. Thomas Aquinas (I eventually chose the latter to be my patron saint when my wife and I entered the Church in 1997). And this topic of partaking in the divine nature—called theosis in the Eastern churches—intrigued me so much that I ended up co-editing (with the wonderful Fr. David Vincent Meconi, S.J.) an entire book on the topic, contributing chapters on the New Testament and—you guessed it—the theme of deification in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also note, with deep appreciation, the wisdom and teaching prowess of Dr. Mark Lowery, whose Fundamental Theology course in my MTS program was a deep and challenging study of the Catechism. Dr. Lowery, a man of tremendous intellect and holiness (and fabulous humor), showed time and time again that reading and studying the Catechism, Church doctrine and dogma, and theology are not ultimately about knowing things or facts but about knowing the living Christ, the Incarnate Word, the Redeemer and Savior. True theology is an act of worship and prayer; far from being dry or dull (or rigid!), it is an encounter with the Triune God, who creates, draws close, calls, loves, and invites. The Catechism is a tremendous gift that contemplates, explains, and shares the greatest Gift of all.