I was raised to be a Bad Catholic. Before I elaborate, I want to be completely clear about two things: I have never doubted the sincerity of my parents’ and grandparents’ faith, and I have never for a moment, not one single moment, doubted their profound love for me and for all their children and grandchildren. Those two gifts have been instrumental in forming me in faith.
A Little Bit Catholic
We were that family. The ones who showed up at Easter and Christmas. The ones who barely squeaked their kids through First Communion. We said grace at Thanksgiving and sometimes at other special meals, especially when they were served in my paternal grandparents’ formal dining room. We went to Mass so rarely, I didn’t understand most of what was going on.
But if you had asked, we’d have told you that we were Catholic. We had our Advent wreath; we put out a Nativity scene with our Christmas tree, and we owned a beautiful leather-bound — and mostly unread — Douay-Rheims Bible.
I had a surprisingly profound faith for someone as ignorant as my little self. The general existence of God, though rarely discussed, was not in question.
My best friend’s family attended church every Sunday; they didn’t catechize me, but they would be my lifelong Christian role models. My friend and I went to church camp together for several years. There, I learned Christian folk songs and the practice of grabbing my pocket New Testament and heading into the solitude of nature to be alone with God. In these moments, I truly felt the presence of God.
In junior high, my closest friends were observant Jews, and I was utterly mystified that some people didn’t eat bacon cheeseburgers, not ever, because of their faith. Even though I knew that Judaism and Christianity were different, I could not have articulated what that difference was, beyond superficial practicalities like the merits of spreading your presents over eight days or getting them all in one Christmas-morning extravaganza.
Mixed into all this was something of the Catholic faith. I was old enough to prepare for First Holy Communion, and I had a love of the Eucharist. Don’t ask me how or why. It was just the grace of God. I knew almost nothing about my faith; we almost never went to Mass, but I knew God was there in the consecrated Host, and I felt His presence powerfully when I received communion.
When I was in high school, we moved from the DC area, where I’d grown up, to a small town in South Carolina, just down the road from my maternal grandfather’s family farm. The move was for my father’s job, and my mom pounced. She’d been trying for some time to get us to church regularly, and now she claimed cultural insight. She explained that, in the South, it was professional and social suicide to not attend church every Sunday. If we wanted Dad to succeed at his new job, we would go to church and be seen.
I thought she was being a hypocrite, and much later I confronted her with that. She explained that she had felt it was the only way she could convince my dad to go to church regularly, and so she’d done what she had to do.
Although I doubted my parents’ methods, I did not doubt the basic sincerity of their belief in God. Her ploy did manage to get us into the pews every week though. Only my younger sister and I were home by then, and the first few weeks of going to church were rough. We didn’t know basic manners, like not passing notes or not opening an interesting novel, if we happened to get bored during the homily. But our pastor was kind, encouraging, and diligent in helping families get caught up on their sacraments. I learned some basic Catholic stuff. I came to love Catholic culture and the various practices of our faith. By my senior year, I was a leader in the youth group, enthusiastic about sharing the faith with others, and I even won the Knights of Columbus award for being the parish’s outstanding graduate.
If you’d seen me the week before I started college, you wouldn’t have guessed I was on the verge of walking away from it all.
A Little Bit Worldly
My senior year of high school, I seriously considered whether I had a vocation to the religious life. I read books from the parish library about life as a consecrated Sister. Ultimately, I decided not to pursue that path.
Meanwhile though, I showed up at college and all that Good Catholic Girl superpower evaporated quickly. There were several factors in my rapid abandonment of the Catholic faith.
Theologically, I was no match for the secular pressures. My professors were kind, well-meaning, smart people, many of whom considered it their duty to assist us in shaking off the remnants of our childhood beliefs. I had only a cursory knowledge of the faith and wasn’t even aware that Church history and apologetics existed, let alone that there were rational proofs for the truth of the faith.
This pressure to leave faith behind was subtle, yet appealing. I was eager to be sophisticated and knowledgeable, and my secular professors were the most educated people I’d ever met. In contrast, the few students I knew who were serious about their Christian faith generally came off as country bumpkins. Then there were the evangelical missionaries who showed disregard for my beliefs and questions but wanted me to instantly embrace their script for conversion.
Finally, ceasing to be Catholic was easy. It was easier to go along with what my agnostic friends were doing than to stand up for the remnants of my faith. It was easier to be off camping in the mountains every weekend than to get to Mass on Sundays. It was easier to justify doing what I felt like doing rather than cling to basic Church practices.
Throughout my undergrad years, I wrestled with religion, still occasionally turning to the practice of the faith in certain moments. However, when I eventually planned my wedding, I did not seek to hold the ceremony in our beautiful, historic hometown parish because I knew that it would be hypocritical for me to pretend to believe in a faith that was no longer mine.
We ended up having a civil wedding presided over by a family friend. In our quest for wedding venues, we had begun attending the local Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation, which theo- logically was the closest match for me, but eventually we stopped attending there, as well. We asked my husband’s ardently Baptist grandfather to give the invocation. I was okay with a little bit of Jesus, and his grandparents provided more than a little of that.
By the time I finished graduate school, I was vocally NOT Christian. In interviewing for jobs, for example, there were cities I simply didn’t want to relocate to because they had a reputation for being too Evangelical, too religious right. Even though I was still strongly anti-abortion, I didn’t like what I viewed as an unnecessarily restrictive, anti-feminist moral outlook that dominated the Christian South.
Likewise, I rejected any religious outlook that wasn’t pluralistic and open to harmonizing all religions. Because of my family’s deep, steadfast love for us children, it was easy for me to believe that God was loving, even if I was increasingly vague on who this “God” actually was. My spirituality was becoming a mix of monotheism infused with certain Native American and Buddhist beliefs and practices.
My long-standing love of the Eucharist, though largely neglected and ignored, had not, however, gone away.
There is one incident from my college years which, at the time, I did not view as part of my spiritual trajectory but was, in fact, a pivotal moment for me. My senior year, I started studying accounting, and in one of the introductory classes, our professor had us do an exercise on thinking through dif- ferent ways of reporting a given expense. He presented a scenario and three possible options — methods A, B, or C. We were divided into three groups, each with the task of defending its appointed method.
My group was supposed to defend method C. But in studying the problem, I could clearly see that method B was the better choice. I figured that I’d make the strongest case possible for method C, but my professor would in the end show us why B was the more accurate way to report that financial transaction.
I came to class prepared, and initially the debate unfolded as expected. Group A presented, my professor asked a few questions, and the group conceded that method A would give a false representation of the transaction. Group B presented, and with my professor’s probing, this was found to be a good method.
Then it was our turn.
I made my defense of Method C, which I knew very well was wrong. My professor asked questions that were designed to show that B, rather than C, was the better method.
I argued doggedly, convincingly. And to my horror, my professor was persuaded. On the outside, I was calmly victorious. Inside, I was appalled that this expert in the subject had been talked into the wrong answer by some kid taking a first-year accounting class.
This was my first serious reckoning with the immense reality of objective truth.
A Wealthy Aunt, a Baptist Boss, and an Evangelical Friend
My grandmother’s aunt had managed to become wealthy through a combination of Depression-era frugality and a dash of good luck. Every year, she escaped the cold, gray late winter in the city by renting a block of four condos in a small town in rural Florida for the entire month of March. She and her bachelor son, a retired golf pro, would stay in one of the condos, and various guests would be invited for a week’s stay in the other three units. When my grandmother went down for her week, I was invited to go along for my spring break.
Three of the other guests, who were invited each year, were an auxiliary bishop and two priests from my aunt’s home diocese, all of whom were golf buddies of our cousin. When our week coincided with theirs, they’d work on us all. They said Mass every afternoon before we’d all go out for the early-bird special at the local restaurant, and their conversation at supper would naturally touch on some Catholic topic. This was nothing confrontational; they just took it for granted that we aspired to be sincere and diligent in our practice of the faith. One of the priests was Father Declan, whose animated and perceptive personality made him one of my favorite guests; he encouraged me to read the Bible, and I recall that by the same time the following year, I could be found on the docks behind the apartment build- ing doing just that.
When Catholicism reached out to meet me, it was like an old, familiar friend, but then, I would return to college and move on. As I finished graduate school and started working, I longed for ways to express myself spiritually. I wanted to sing songs to God like we did in Girl Scouts when I was a child. I wanted more prayer in my life. I wanted to talk about God. All of this I attempted clumsily. But the great turning point in my conversion came on a trip to Texas.
My husband invited me on a business trip to San Antonio. It’s a good city for a history buff, and I toured the historic mission churches. One of these was still an active parish. Even though I no longer considered myself Catholic, I approached the parish building with respectful reverence.
I knew that, if the sanctuary lamp was lit (and I could see that it was), then the Eucharist was present in the tabernacle. I was accustomed to sensing the presence of the Eucharist within the tabernacle when I entered a Catholic parish.
I took this for granted; it was a simple fact, happening without fail. But that day, stepping into the silence of that ancient stone church, I felt nothing. I visually confirmed: the lantern was lit; God was there. It was I who had lost my ability to sense Him.
I knew in that moment that I had done something horribly wrong. I had considered myself a spiritual person, but now I was shaken to the core. How had I drifted so far from God, and what could be done about it?
It was on a subsequent trip, one dark night, when I was driving home alone, coming down the mountains of southwest Virginia, that I found myself feeling that separation and absence so painfully. I wept openly at the desolation of my situation. I cried out to God and begged Him to let me know Him again.
I immersed myself in the study of religions. I learned all I could about Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism… and even a little about Christianity. During this time, God was working all angles. My husband had also been raised Bad Catholic and had not been religious when we met. But he was now asking serious spiritual questions. We had a new friend, Susan, who was studying at the local Evangelical seminary in preparation for the mission field, and suddenly it seemed like she was always around, fielding every spiritual question we had. Her answers were straight-up, unapologetic Christianity, although she didn’t pressure us to convert.
This was true friendship. She was vulnerable and open with us, sharing her own personal struggles, and we relied on each other for friendship and support.
Because I was seeking a way to express my faith, I would suggest to Jon that we start looking at churches. He didn’t want to go back to the UU, and he didn’t want to look at non-Christian religions, either. His rationale was that we lived in a Christian culture, so rather than practicing a religion that was foreign to the place where we lived, we should find something local.
It took a few tries, but eventually I got my husband out the door on a Sunday morning. Susan was more than ready to suggest congregations to visit.
In the summer of 1998, I was working as an accountant at a local manufacturing firm. The company had gone through some changes, and my new supervisor, Tim, was an active, personable Baptist, not much older than Jon and me. Every month, our department had a meeting with the point-person for our chief client, a guy named Alan — who happened to also be a Baptist deacon and friends with Tim. Since he was my boss, Tim could not openly evangelize me. Alan, on the other hand, was the customer. He could say whatever he wanted — and I welcomed the good-natured banter about religion.
A Little Bit Non-Denominational, a Little Bit Catholic
One August morning, Jon and I got lost on our way to visiting the latest church Susan had suggested, and we ended up dropping in at this intriguing non-denominational congregation. The service was enthusiastic, joy-filled, and seeker-sensitive. My husband and I looked at each other part way through the praise and worship, and we knew we had found where we needed to be. We could feel the Holy Spirit moving. We started attending every Sunday morning and Wednesday night and quickly became actively involved.
There was no moment of conversion around the choice. We just landed there and considered ourselves home.
All that fall, if someone asked me whether I was a Christian, I would insist that I was. To my secular friends, however, I downplayed any mention of Christianity and emphasized that I went to a non-denominational church. I wasn’t going to lie, but I would have wanted secular friends to assume that “non-denominational” meant I was a universalist, believing anything goes.
But there was nothing vague about this congregation. It was unabashedly Evangelical, and I belted out the hymns enthusiastically and studied my Bible diligently. But I also began to se- cretly pray every worship service for the answer to the crucial question: Jesus, are you real?
Jon was not interested in Catholicism, because he felt betrayed by the tepid Catholic catechesis he had received as a child. On Sunday nights, I began attending Mass by myself and even made friends with another young Catholic woman whose husband also didn’t come.
This created a conflict — I was Evangelical Protestant in the morning and Catholic at night — so I began haunting the library and the local Christian bookstores, reading everything I could about the differences between Catholics and Protestants.
In February 1999, my prayer, Jesus, are you real? was answered.
Because I am introverted, I was hoping this question would be answered the same way it had been posed in San Antonio: Let me have a private moment of spiritual revelation in some tucked-away chapel, perhaps one with ancient stone walls and a beam of sunlight streaming through the stained glass. Nope. It all happened at that monthly pricing meeting with our client’s finance guy and deacon-on-the-side, Alan.
Our two companies shared a building, and that Tuesday morning I walked over to his office with religion on my mind. I had harmonized and synthesized Catholic and Evangelical concepts of salvation, and I wanted to talk about that during our habitual chit-chat before we got down to business. “Alan, I want to — “
He stopped me. “Nope — we’re not getting into theology.” He pulled his Bible from a bookshelf. “Sit down. Let’s look at this.” What was happening? Alan, prompted by the Holy Spirit, felt called to share the “Roman Road” with me. It’s a series of Bible verses from the Book of Romans — he had them each highlighted in his Bible — that lays out the need for salvation and how to accept Jesus as your Savior.
He pointed to verse after verse and had me read each one.
It was very plain. I didn’t like it one bit. I wanted a sophisticated, private, intellectual Jesus. This was just plain old country- bumpkin Jesus. But it was God.
“Let’s go to the cafeteria,” he said, looking for a quiet place to make the final pitch for me to accept Jesus. I followed him.
I did not want to convert this way, but on the walk to the cafeteria, the air was thick with the Spirit. And I knew internally that this was my one chance. I could either accept Jesus then and there, or I could risk dying and going to Hell, no more chances. I did what I had to do.
There were others in the cafeteria, so we ended up going outside to the picnic tables. Alan led me through The Sinner’s Prayer, a basic confession of Christian repentance and acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Alan congratulated me. Tim, my boss, was of course elated when he heard what had happened. But two other things occurred that Alan and Tim couldn’t have predicted.
The first is that upon saying that prayer, my lifelong fear of death vanished. The reality of eternal life welled up within me. I was filled with light. The second is that, as I was walking back into the building, I was suddenly filled with an overpowering need to attend a Catholic Mass.
I went straight to my cubicle, pulled out the Yellow Pages and looked up Mass times. If it had been possible, I would have left work immediately. That’s how strong this pull was. As it happened, the next available Mass in the city was 8:30 the next morning. Well, okay, guess I’m going to be late to work. I wasn’t worried because my office was good about letting us flex our hours when needed. Frankly, I didn’t care. I had to go.
That Mass was unlike any Mass I had ever attended. Now understand, this was a basic daily Mass. I knew all the words. I could recite all the prayers in my head along with the priest as he said them. But I didn’t really know the prayers.
All those years I’d been censoring Jesus. I’d take whatever was being prayed and translate it in my mind to a generic spirituality that was empty of the demands of Christianity.
Beyond Generic Jesus
That morning, I heard the Gospel as though for the first time. My ears suddenly opened; the words of the Mass were dripping with the Gospel start to finish. Suddenly, the possibility of not being Catholic was unthinkable. This was home.
It was a visiting priest, Fr. Jim LeBlanc, who celebrated the Mass that Wednesday morning. On Saturday, I sought him out at his home parish to hear my confession, and I ended up staying for the vigil Mass. I joined his parish, and that Spring I attended daily Mass there on my lunch break whenever possible, in addition to Saturday evenings.
Father Jim answered my questions about the faith, and he helped Jon and me find the path to sacramental marriage through convalidation; he also introduced us to Church teaching on contraception and Natural Family Planning.
I won’t say all this was easy on our marriage. It would be many long years before my husband returned to the Catholic faith. Some nights my efforts at evangelizing my husband were downright stormy. Jon believed in a form of the Real Presence long before his final conversion, a belief he based on the fact that the Bible said it plainly, end of story.
God also used our divergent conversions to catechize me. I hadn’t read my way into the Church. My conversion was deeply spiritual, not intellectually theological.
But because of the theological disagreements in our marriage, I read Catholic apologetics extensively after my conversion.
The debate in that accounting class years earlier had been part of the larger trend toward critical thinking, the practice of learning to justify something. Truth itself was a nebulous concept with very little firm foundation. My conversion, however, had been a spiritual answer to a logical question of objective truth.
Now, my mind was opened to rational thinking. I began to see my way through arguments, dodging false dichotomies and other fallacies to pick out the thread of truth. That took time.
I studied apologetics and learned about the rational evidence for the truth of the Catholic faith. I joined a forum on Natural Family Planning (NFP). Well-meaning Evangelical friends also gave me opportunities to explain and defend the Catholic faith as they attempted to steer me away from what they considered a dangerous and false path.
However doubtful they were of Catholicism, because of the way my conversion had happened, my Evangelical friends were unable to deny that my Christianity was real.
I had left Christ behind, as so many “Bad Catholics” do. I found Christ among the Evangelicals. But Christ called me back to the Mass, where I could receive all of Him. Thanks be to God, He is there in the Eucharist, and my ability to sense His Presence has been restored.