The following is part of an ongoing series by Dr. Norman McCrummen. We’ll be publishing another one of his reasons every week, so stay tuned! Read previous installments: Introduction – First Reason – Second Reason – Third Reason – Fourth Reason – Fifth Reason – Sixth Reason – Seventh Reason – Eighth Reason – Ninth Reason – Tenth Reason
I am Catholic because of the life and witness of Catholic friends. For twelve years I worked with three Catholic women — Sallie Connell, Ginny Thompson, and Nena Smith — who were on the staff of the church where I served as pastor. Their faith was expressed with graciousness and patience. They were unfailingly encouraging and helpful. They rarely spoke of their being Catholic unless questioned. As the years went by I asked more often, though by far most of my words were expressions of admiration rather than an inquiry into theology. They had an enormous influence on my thinking though they didn’t know it at the time.
Through an ecumenical Bible study in Mobile, I met quite a number of Catholic men who befriended me with a winsome sincerity so different from suspicious Protestants driven to learn where I was on the liberal-moderate-conservative spectrum. From far left to far right, Protestant colleagues and strangers had their antennae up to determine which label to put on me. The procedure was usually done with guarded civility and was much more often practiced by pastors than lay people. It wasn’t long after my ordination that I found myself thanking God for the laity who were free of such theological pretention and simply strove to go deeper in faith and understanding, to know Jesus and the Scriptures more intimately, and to demonstrate their gratitude through acts of compassion and sacrifice.
As the shift in my denomination toward rejection of orthodoxy became an increasing menace, I discovered that denominational politics were unavoidable, distasteful and sad. At the same time it was an unexpected grace to acquire Catholic friends whose faith was orthodox and who were not engaged in fierce debates with pastors and friends on subjects that were anathema to the teachings of Christ and the Apostles.
Another subject altogether is the one-upmanship that one finds, at least a pastor finds, among Protestant denominations, as though competition is simply “a given” within that world. That discussion is for another time, and its reality doesn’t negate the peace and love which also exist among many Protestant pastors of good will and different denominations. But God alone knows how often I heard a Protestant denigrate another Protestant denomination because of differences.
I soon noted that my new Catholic friends had a piety that I admired, a piety I doubt they were aware of. In contrast, I had often found among my Protestant colleagues in ministry a determination not to come across as pious. I don’t mean piety expressed in a showy, superior manner. I mean simply the piety of a grateful Christian who isn’t awkward being Christian in a secular culture. I discovered that my Catholic friends were unafraid to convey their faith through acts of piety, and I loved it. They possessed an impressive humility. They weren’t quick to give pat answers or to make sure that everyone knew how spiritually savvy they were or how perfectly in step they were with secular culture. I found their sincere and unpretentious practice of faith refreshing. Interestingly enough, their piety reminded me of the unpretentious piety of several of my parents’ Baptist friends of my childhood: an expression of faith that was as natural as breathing and talking. Imagine: With the exception of my years in Waycross, Georgia, rarely did I encounter such sweetness of faith in my adult years (such as I knew as a boy) until I entered the Catholic world in my sixties. To be sure, I did encounter it, but not often.
By the time I retired in 2011, I had no small number of Catholic friends, so many, in fact, that at my retirement reception one parishioner said to me, “I’ve never seen so many Catholics under a Protestant roof.” At my tenth anniversary reception in 2009, a statue of Saint Francis was presented to me. I didn’t realize until that moment how frequent my references had been to him whose faith and courage I had long admired. What a portent the gift of that statue was, but one that nevertheless veiled the future.
After I announced in May 2011 that I would retire in June, I received an invitation from five Catholic friends — Pete Peters, Jack and Mike O’Neill, Jack Zukley, and Peter Martin — to attend on Tuesday mornings the Men of Saint Joseph, a group formed at Saint Ignatius Parish for the purpose of studying the Gospel lesson for the Sunday following their meeting. I accepted, and at my first meeting was pulled into an eager search for the riches of the Gospel. Three months later, Pete Peters invited me to Adoration in the chapel at Saint Ignatius. It was there in the worship of Jesus that I realized I was Catholic. Immediately afterwards I told the pastor of Saint Ignatius, Father Bry Shields, a friend of mine for several years, that I was Catholic. “We need to talk” was his reply.
When we remember the intimate friends Jesus had, a circle whose names any student of the New Testament can name, we sense how important friendships were to Him. After almost seven decades of life, I can say without reservation that friends are not icing on the cake. They, with our families, are the cake, for what would life be without them? (Jesus, of course, being the supreme Friend, and by grace, our Brother.)
It was by God’s providence that my Catholic friends played a role in my decision to accept what God was asking of me. They were placed in my life to fulfill a role they were unaware of, a role which would make a difficult transition so much smoother. I don’t fail to thank God for them, nor do I forget the power of an invitation. Where would I be today had not friends invited me to the Men of Saint Joseph, and one friend having invited me to Adoration?