Shortly after I was received into the Catholic Church, a dear friend presented me with a copy of G.K. Chesterton’s The Catholic Church and Conversion. While reading this magnificent little book on a retreat a few months after my confirmation, I thanked God for His guidance to the Catholic Church from the earliest years of my childhood. I’ve often told my friends that although I lived for a long time on the outside of the sacramental life, my conversion to the Catholic Church began when I was about seven years old. I was raised in an old Presbyterian establishment. I was blessed in this upbringing, and I learned many things that have stood me in good stead. But as Chesterton puts it, all children everywhere are born wanting to be Catholics; their natural tactile and imaginative impulses, which ought to be molded into the fruition of integrated worship in the Mass, have to be trained out of them by means of deliberate restraint in Protestant households. I think it’s true; thuribles and light streaming through stained glass, and kindly images like family photographs, and the solemn genuflection before the Presence are just the sorts of things that children think are terribly important. And, as is often the case with children, natural impulses for liturgical worship and the material means of grace reflect the kind of profound truth that Aquinas carefully explains in his Summa Theologiae: the human person’s faith is united to his body; thus, Christ’s provision of the material sacraments is the greatest sort of gift for our faith. Humanity acquires intellectual knowledge through the senses; therefore, sensible signs are aptly used to signify spiritual things. A sacrament is a sign that the senses can grasp; and only then can the human mind adequately apprehend what the sensible sign conveys. The child’s grasping little fingers, eager for something real to hold onto, also bears profound witness to the opening words of 1 John 1: “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched- this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” As the Gospel writer puts it, the Word became flesh, to dwell among us; and, contrary to what I was taught while growing up, the Incarnate God was not thereafter reduced to a mere text or confession.
I remember suffering from two real needs in my childhood formation as a Presbyterian. First, I had no way of making sense of a very real, childlike yearning to be near to Jesus — materially and really. I had a vivid imagination as a child, and I thought of Jesus, of His Passion and suffering, of His promised return in glory, of His tenderness for little children. If someone had only explained to me when I was about four that Jesus really entered the presence of His people at their invocation, as He always promised, such that you could touch Him, I’d have bought it in a second. It’s what I was always waiting for.
Secondly, combined with this yearning, was something perhaps a bit more universal — the need for steady and authoritative answers and explanations, along with the desire for moral guidance grounded in this very Jesus who I was learning to love and who I wanted to love fully. It occurred to me very early on that there was something deprived and undignified about the Protestant scramble to rustle through the pages of the Bible that we honored to construe a self-solved solution to a perplexity at a moment’s notice. The world was an enormous, quick, and variegated place to me as a child, a world always struggling too much with its own wounds to offer guidance, and my parents and I — like all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve — needed a steady place in which we could be taught and healed.
And then there is another thing; the child’s capacity to imagine life in the new creation. St. Paul imagines this new creation in a profound way in Romans, where he speaks of a royal community grounded not in secular modes of community-making, but in something indissoluble, which leads the rest of the world to glory. I recall that as children this kind of proposal made a great deal of undomesticated sense to us, largely from our story books; we wanted to take dominion in a real way, and to live in a grand community of allegiance, waiting together for the Emperor Beyond the Sea, in sworn allegiance to King Peter. While we were given texts to honor and a pantheon of early modern secular heroes, what we really wanted was to be kings and queens in God’s coming Kingdom. And perhaps that is why, as a teenager, I once broke into tears when I crossed St. Peter’s Square in Rome with a group of well-meaning Protestants who were full of derision in that place, because I somehow knew (regardless of whether or not I agreed with some of their derision at the time) that the occasion of their accusation was the work of the evil one, who hates the Church’s place in that Kingdom, and wishes to break her into a thousand pieces. But that Kingdom, and the Christians who populate it, are supposed to be one. Chesterton explains it this way in his book The Catholic Church and Conversion: whatever happiness you find in your own piece of the Church, there is still no denying the reality of the thing that you have broken.
My journey towards the Catholic Church continued as I began to study history in high school and college, and I came to see that throughout the story of the universe, God has providentially elected particular people and places. And Jesus elected Peter, who went to Rome. I came to understand that if Christians take Scripture seriously, we ought not overlook those critical moments which the Gospel writers emphasize with the gravity that the Holy Spirit required. There is something deliberate in Luke’s hushed reminder to the reader considering Pentecost: “and the mother of Jesus was there.” And in much the same, understated way, I found great significance in the spotlight which the biblical authors turn on Jesus’s exclusive statements to Peter: “I have prayed for you… care for your brethren… I will give to you the keys of my kingdom…feed my sheep.”
As a teenager, when I read Heny Sienkiewicz’s beautiful novel about the early Church entitled Quo Vadis, I began to take the beautiful story of St. Peter very seriously. The story goes like this. When St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles who is so venerated in the Protestant tradition, turned to Rome never to turn away again, his final missionary journey made great sense. He was a Roman, a proclaimer of the Gospel to the uncircumcised, and to those who had never worshiped in that Temple and Land in which God had chosen to meet His people. As Galatians reminds us, Paul had already followed apostolic protocol when he submitted the content of his proclamation to Peter and James, the heads of the Church in Jerusalem. And it made sense that Christ’s politically transformative Church, as the international institution of the King of Kings, should be established in Rome, the capital of worldly commerce and military power. But then something strange happens, as Scripture tells us; Peter also leaves Jerusalem and turns his face to Rome for one final journey. He left Jerusalem, the holy place of the Jews, for the cosmopolitan center of paganism. Tradition holds that, in Rome, Peter led a church of martyrs, and died with them in Nero’s circus, near the Vatican Hill where he was buried. Word spread. The grandchildren of the apostles and the friends whom they evangelized would make their pilgrimages of prayer not to the old sites in Jerusalem, but to the grave site of Jesus’s elected leader of His disciples, in commemoration of the personal relationships that are a hallmark of Christianity. Thus, in God’s providence, one of the holiest places in the new creation would emerge with the prayers of new Christians, who were led by the chosen successors of Jesus’s chosen successor, in the very center of the crumbling Roman empire, from which roads ran to the far corners of the earth for the discipling of the nations, as Jesus had commanded. Later, as a graduate student studying theology, I learned that the leaders of the early Church found the profoundest providence for the discernment of truth and the ordering of all of life in this unfolding of events. As one of the earliest Church Fathers put it less than a hundred years after Jesus’ resurrection, the true Church was to be identified with reference to St. Peter:
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the (true) Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; we do this, I say, by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul…Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the one Church. (Adversus Heresies III, Irenaeus of Lyons, AD 115-190)
It is in these ways that Rome began to seem to me to be the place to be, even though I decided in my early twenties to align myself with the semblance of sacramental life which is maintained in Episcopalian communities. There I began to understand that in one way or another, all Christians have always looked to Rome for normative guidance, if only to define what they have chosen to reject. There is more to be said on this point in our broken world, since much of the faith and practices of Rome remain available with great grace, even in schism from Rome. Rome understands that these features of grace persist to lead the Father’s children home. These graces, which always tend towards unity, may lead beyond Protestantism because Protestantism can ring hollow. These graces may lead beyond Anglicanism and Episcopalianism because one wishes to avoid guilt by association. And, in my case, I began to see that they led well beyond the relativism offered by my culture as an alternative to all serious commitments.
As a Catholic, I have found that this last point seems to provoke the people who like to dogmatically proclaim that they will refuse to dogmatize mystery, that the Church is presumptuous to define her teachings, and that the sorrowful brokenness of the Reformation hatched from the scholastic egg that Rome laid. I have always wondered about these assertions. The good people who make them might be merely upholding the value of their personal preferences for describing the mysteries of the faith — at which point any pretense to be catholically minded or even potentially obedient to God’s established authority structure in the world must fall by the wayside. Or, these good people may be making a very different sort of claim — namely, that the refusal to “dogmatize” the Christian mysteries in certain traditions is somehow evidence of the endorsement of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Rome, on the other hand, dogmatizes. She always has. As I’ve come to appreciate, Rome has an older and gentler pastoral tradition of responding to the human heart, which always seeks understanding when it has fallen in love. As Anselm explained it at the dawn of the Scholastic era, fides quaerens intellectum, the faith of God’s children seeks understanding, with the kind of hunger and thirst which a true spiritual father provides. It has always seemed to me that Rome’s dogmatizing is her response to her child martyrs; people should know what they are willing to die for.
I am grateful that in addition to making progress in my understanding of the intellectual justification for life in the Catholic Church, I also began to experience more and more of the common calling to love Christ and His Church. While living as a Protestant, I had always suffered from chronic Catholic envy. And I learned from Protestant friends and pastors how to live with it: I had to nestle close in a tightly guarded local Christian community. Ideally, this would be a community that was safely enclosed from the rest of the same denominational community, which too often had succumbed in some way to the prevailing trends of our times. All the while, I was still expected to speak of the visibly one, holy, and catholic church. I glibly appropriated whatever I liked of the gifts of the Church, perhaps in manicured retreat centers, or in Dominican scholarship, or in a paperbacked catechism, or in the attentions of a Catholic spiritual director, or with a pope-blessed rosary, but I freely indulged in all these gifts without any real commitment to the unifying Spirit and the the vicar of Christ who had extended them. And while the zealous Protestant life involved a quest for personal holiness that was nothing less than Quixotic, I discovered soon enough in my graduate studies that to live this way is to live like a Donatist.
The Donatists have always fascinated me. They were the most pious of people, enamored with holiness, purity, and perseverance, which is a wonderful thing to be. But St. Augustine fought them to the end, as schismatics. The Donatists, a group of proto-Protestants, left the Catholic Church in the fourth century because the Catholics believed that grace extended to sinners, and the Donatists thought they could do better. These former Catholics would take their Catholic priests, and their Catholic sacraments, and their Catholic doctrine, and they would form their own “catholic” communion in separation from the original community.
I entertained similar ideas before I became a Catholic. How dare the Catholic Church insist on union with a visible head and exclude all others, I would ask. The Head of the Church is Jesus, period, and all that remains is for each individual Christian to offer worship and witness to Him, I would argue. But I have since learned that the Church invites and provides for a deeper and quieter listening to the Holy Spirit’s instruction in the whole narrative of God’s people. And when we pause to think about it, we see that God has always given a human mediator. In, by, and for Christ His Son, the Father made Adam to be the head of his garden and his wife and all the creatures. God positioned Noah to lead the new creation, Abraham to capitulate a chosen nation, Joshua and the prophets to guide them, Mary to reverse the rebellion of Eve forever, and Peter to lead his brothers by standing in for the One who will return. The headship of someone elected, prepared, and chosen seems to be the order of things. And gradually I came to understand that the Church has one Head, Jesus Christ her Lord, and accordingly, she should have one earthly leader. For those of us who love getting the glorious Gospel right, it is a matter of symmetry.
When it finally came time for me to enter the Catholic Church, there were a few select passages from St. Augustine’s writings On Baptism against the Donatists that provided the clincher. As a Protestant, I had firmly relied on the possibility that Protestant appropriations of Catholic life were adequate for the justification that comes from faith; but I found that St. Augustine’s rhetoric summarized a good deal of what might be said in conversations among many contemporary Christians when he reminds us all that even the greatest faith will be of no profit without the charity that God has given to bind His people together in one:
“But I have the sacrament,” you will say. You say the truth; the sacrament is divine; you have baptism, and that I confess. But what says the apostle? “If I should know all mysteries, and have prophecy and all faith, so that I could remove mountains;” in case you should say this, “I believe; enough for me.” But what says James? “The devils believe and tremble.” Faith is mighty, but without charity it profits nothing. The devils confessed Christ. Accordingly it was from believing, but not from loving, they said, “What have we to do with You?” They had faith, but not charity; hence they were devils. Boast not of faith; so far you are on a level with the devils. Say not to Christ, What have I to do with You? For Christ’s unity speaks to you. Come, learn peace, return… You have been baptized without; have fruit, and return to the ark.” Homilies on John VI.21.
Augustine sounds a bit like an angry prophet railing against sin in these texts, but I was most struck by the fact that in having written to the Donatists, St. Augustine continues to speak to the educated elite, the holiest of the holy, the enclave of those who had survived persecution with fortitude, the ones who think that their cultivated spirituality is too good for the Church, and that they are bound to preserve a remnant of spotless doctrine and practice for Christ apart from the poor, faltering, stumbling Catholics. And certainly these may be virtuous impulses. But it is here that St. Augustine’s work spoke most poignantly to me, quietly reminding me that in God’s grace it is the weak who will inherit, it is the children who will enter, and it is the humble who God will find pure in spirit; and that the Catholic Church is the place where God will make humble hearts for Himself if they wish to be united with Him in His Body, in love.
And then, by God’s grace, I came to the final realization that to undersand and love the Catholic Church was not enough, and that I was called to become a Catholic because I need to be Catholic. Like all persons, I was made by my Creator for the delight and for joy which comes from Him and all that He has given; and He has given His Church as a place in which I am happy, in the same way that we are meant to be happy in our families and in our friendships.
Sometimes, when people tell me that they cannot understand why anyone would want to be a part of such an antiquated, structured, and hierarchical institution like the Catholic Church, I feel as though I’ve been asked to justify the reasons why a person would need a home or a family. Certainly the silly case can be made (as our culture often insists) that people don’t need homes or families, that individual autonomy and exploration is more valuable and important than anything else, that self-sufficient self-discovery is adequate for human flourishing. But it’s all a lie.
I know personally that the myth of flourishing in self-sufficiency is a lie, because like many of my generation, I am a young woman who has lived alone in the lonely modern American city. But more than that, I grew up on a ranch in Texas, and I know (as a lot more of our developing world knows) of coming home late at night through the country. It’s a simple thing. Under the vast Texas skies, which darken quickly, the drive from the little town on the edge of nowhere takes you through a lonely front gate, away from the main road and then down dark, deep roads that take up the better part of hours. There are no lights around, no means of communication with anyone, no links to safety and companionship. The shadows hang over the road, and they are sinister, and you are all alone and very fragile in the night. But then you finally round a bend in the road, and you see the glimmer of your own home, the solid island of warmth and safety, where there is a fire burning, and dinner being made, and games being played, and a father praying for the peace and safety of the children that he will tuck into their beds when the time comes. There is no feeling quite like that sight of your home down the road.
I feel that way about the Catholic Church. People often say that to become Catholic after trying something else feels just like “coming home,” and I really think there is no better way to describe it. While the world is full of other sorts of way stations and mission outposts and even comfortable inns, where one can find a warming fire and a nourishing table, these are only places on the way. That’s the way I felt this time last year, just before I was received into the Church. I had loved the temporary ecclesial lodgings I had enjoyed, but up ahead, I could see the permanent place where I was supposed to live, and it felt a little bit like heading towards home; only this Church, with its papal father and interceding mother, and army of spiritual fathers, brothers, and sisters was also the sort that was not just for me and my interests. It was this home that could be a home for the homeless and fatherless, wherein all people of every shape, size, and culture could grow and be nourished, and which, in its integral unity, could show the rest of the world how to live.
Blessed Duns Scotus once wrote that our habits should be postulated not only so that power might act rightly, but so that we might act promptly, and with delight. This is a good summary of my experience of becoming a Catholic. I know that here I am being formed, however slowly, by an absolutely trustworthy authority that has its subsistence in Jesus. There are no longer any hesitations having to do with the need to carefully pick and choose from a myriad of theological interpretations, or of aligning myself with a trustworthy authority; rather, there is a new ability to live spontaneously and to share well-defined truth readily.
I remember asking a Catholic campus ministry worker a few years ago whether I would really make sense as a Catholic. I explained to her in some detail the apparent problems; I loved the aspects of Reformed theologies that trace their origin to Nominalist Catholics, as I still do. I was a bit of a charismatic. I was certainly an evangelical. I wanted a safe and universal church into which I could lead others in good conscience. I wanted to protect the poor as well as the unborn in and through a community that was unified enough to take on the perishing nations of the world and all their illnesses. I wanted to study the Christian faith seriously, and to live fully in the same community that had originally embraced the Scriptures. I wanted to worship beautifully, whether I was in Congo or Dallas, in the world’s first missionary community that could still address my personal constant state of culture shock from always traveling too much. Could I remain myself and still be a Catholic, I wondered? I remember the response that I got: the true Church is broad; she encompasses every culture, and she alone can embrace every person.
And it’s true. The human person is a vast estate, and the Catholic Church is the only situation in the world that’s big enough to hold her in such a way so that she can really grow, without hesitation, without unneeded anxieties and enclosure, and without compromise.