Becoming a Catholic can be a difficult row to hoe. The process of conversion is a complex one that involves almost every aspect of a person’s life. When people experience internal struggles of faith, marital discord because of possible conversion, the alienation of family members, or the loss of employment, the inherent obstacles of conversion hit them right in the face.
Yet, those who come as adults to the Catholic Church from another background do not have proprietary rights on the title of convert. The word “convert” derives from the Latin verb convertere and literally means “to turn to be with” (con = with, vertere = turn). It expresses the same meaning as the Greek word metanoia, the word used in the New Testament regularly translated as “repentance.” Converts are people who have changed their life and have moved closer to God through faith and repentance. Conversion in the Catholic sense is a lifelong process of repentance (metanoia), faith, and good works that yields a profound internal change of heart, ultimately leading to final union with God. In the final analysis, becoming Catholic is not about changing churches or adopting a new religion; it is a movement from Here to Eternity.
Whether one is a cradle Catholic or from outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church, conversion involves a process of change in one’s worldview that reaches to the core of one’s being. It is not for the faint of heart. Hidden beneath the process of conversion lie other more subtle obstacles that can be easily missed by those drawn to the Church. In their enthusiasm for a new-found faith or expression of the faith, potential converts can sometimes miss what a deep conversion really consists of. In this and following months, I would like to point to five areas that are both stumbling blocks and stepping stones for converts to the Catholic Faith.
From Now to Then
Many people who grow up in the West imbibe a philosophy of life that devalues history. It is not just that they do not know history — though historical ignorance in our school systems is horrifying — they often do not even think that the knowledge of history is valuable. Sometimes, the resistance to historical wisdom is submerged under misconceptions and distortions of history.
Becoming Catholic inevitably involves coming to appreciate and embrace the value of the history of the Church and the desire to be rooted in history. Of course, such a desire tends to be fostered in those who read the Bible because Scripture is dripping with a strong sense of the historical. The Old Testament constantly recounts the history of Israel so that the ancient people of God will see themselves as heirs of God’s gifts and actors in God’s ongoing project of salvation. The New Testament, too, repeatedly draws its readers back to the central events of salvation in the Paschal Mystery of Christ, His suffering, death, and resurrection. Recall how Paul reminds the Romans that their baptisms united them with the Christ in His death and resurrection (Rom 6:1ff) and how he reminds the Corinthians that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) is a proclamation of the historical death of Christ (1 Cor 11:26).
So it is not surprising that those who are immersed in the biblical history and who have cultivated a sense of history within themselves find Catholicism easier to embrace. By contrast, those who are stuck in the Now of the Present find it difficult to move out of themselves and into the historical wisdom of the past.
Those who are willing to learn from biblical history often begin asking about the intervening time between the New Testament Church and their own day. They find themselves asking questions about the early centuries of Christian worship, piety, and doctrine which naturally leads to exploring the faith of the early Church Fathers. Contact with the writings of the Church Fathers raises the question of continuity and discontinuity. Which church, if any, stands in the closest relation to the faith of earlier generations? Some churches seem cut off from the past while others are seeking to be in union with the past. Nowhere is this difference more evident than in those mainline Protestant churches which have jettisoned cardinal doctrines and morals of past generations in favor of the current secular moral values. The abandonment of traditional Christian positions has driven historic believers to the margins. These believers, perceiving themselves on the outside of their own churches, have regularly asked where one might find a church faithful to the Christian past.
The desire to be in communion with the generations of Christians that have gone before is more than nostalgia. Continuity with the past is ultimately about participation in God’s ongoing salvation of the human race. Those believers who become historically sensitized discover the centrality of the Church Fathers as a natural way to extend the biblical truths of salvation history. As salvation history in the Bible is more than historical fact, so that same biblical story is being lived out in the present day because the original events contain an eternal significance and meaning. Abraham’s faith is as potent today as when he first heard God’s promise. Peter’s faith (cf. Matt 16:16-17) is still as relevant now as he when uttered that first profession of faith. Mary’s fiat (“Let it be done to me according to your word” Lk 1:38) resounds down to our time as something worthy of escaping the lips of any believer. Paul’s assurance that the Church is built on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20) reverberates still today as an indispensable bulwark of faith. To the historically aware believer, the past is a way of participating in God’s plan of salvation.
Swimming in or Jumping over the Stream?
Cardinal John Henry Newman, perhaps the most prominent English convert in the nineteenth century, employed the metaphor of a stream to describe the issue of history. Should one attempt to live in the stream of tradition flowing down through history from the original Church to our day? Or, should one attempt to jump over the stream of tradition intervening between early Christianity and reestablish a supposedly pristine Christianity based on one’s own perceptions of the New Testament? The history of Protestantism is chock full of attempts to circumvent intervening Christian history in favor of reestablishing an imagined Church.
One of the most significant in the United States was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). It was predicated on the belief that the Church had gone off the rails at the Council of Nicaea by its affirmation of the Trinity. Though less radical and severe, thousands of other such movements sprang up in the history of Protestantism with the same desire to leap over established church traditions and to get back to “the New Testament church.” The Restoration Movement of the nineteenth century, sometimes called the Stone-Campbell movement after its most prominent founders, reacted against what its founders perceived as the deadness of mainline Protestant churches with their minimal celebration of the sacraments. One of its hallmarks was the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper in imitation of the churches of the New Testament. Of course, the Catholic Church had been celebrating the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) weekly for nineteen hundred years but this fact was either unknown to the founders of the Restoration movement or dismissed as irrelevant. These leaders rightly saw the centrality of the Eucharist in the worship of the early Church and its loss in the Protestantism of their day. What the Stone-Campbell movement missed, however, was that their own purely symbolist views of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were not the views of the early Church.
The American religious soil may have been fertile ground for upstart religious movements but the water that nourished those innovative attempts flowed steadily from the Reformation itself. The original Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Cramner etc.) desired to be truly catholic — I think because they had grown up in a Catholic culture — but it did not take their followers long to splinter. By the mid-seventeenth century, Protestantism had witnessed hundreds of small sects of competing churches in England alone.
By contrast, the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century was involved in a reformation and restoration project of its own. Even at the time of the Lutheran and Calvinist reformations there were many within the Church who called and worked for reform. Desiderius Erasmus, Sts. Charles Borromeo, Robert Bellarmine, and Philip Neri all in their own way sought reforms within the Church. All these attempts and many more took a path very different from the Protestant Reformers. Their projects were one of realigning church structures according to their true inner meaning, a meaning that could be found in the previous history of the Church. Instead of jumping over the stream of tradition, they plumbed the depths of those traditions to place themselves and the Church squarely in the stream of the Church’s best traditions. Their project was not one of jettisoning Tradition but of understanding it and developing it to live in continuity with those who had founded the Church (i.e. the Apostles) and with those who in the past had lived in conformity with those founders.
Today, the choice ultimately becomes whether to live the Christian life in continuity with the foundations of Truth or to live as if the history of the Church is irrelevant. In the next installment we will explore how such a choice plays into the issue of private judgment versus corporate Truth.