Special note: If you have time to read only one story today, please choose to read my mother-in-law's conversion story over mine. It's much more important:
Finally, after much procrastination, I have updated and shortened my old reversion story. Cradle Catholics born in or after the 1960s: What follows may sound quite familiar to you.
I was robbed.
I am a "Generation X" Catholic, raised and catechized in the tumultuous aftermath of Vatican II. My peers and I were victims of "renewal" and experimentation gone awry, and the results have been catastrophic for my generation. Today, the overwhelming majority of adult Catholics don't have even an elemental understanding of their Faith, and as a direct result of that ignorance, millions have left the Church.
As for me, I never actually left the Catholic Church (though I considered it), but for most of my young adulthood, I was not in the Catholic Church, even as I considered myself "devout".
I was born in the late 1960s into a practicing Catholic family, the daughter of an Arab immigrant and a small-town Ohio girl. My older sister and I were taught by our parents to love our Faith.
|My family, 1967.|
In my first year of life, I was clearly already contemplating higher truths.
We always attended Sunday Mass and holy days (including my mom, who did not officially become a Catholic until I was three), and though my sister and I attended public schools, we were enrolled in weekly CCD classes (i.e., religious education) at our parish every year. By the time I began CCD in the 1970s, the Baltimore Catechism was out, and “experiencing Christ” was in. My parents trusted that our classes would teach us the Faith, but sadly, that never happened.
The volunteer CCD teachers probably tried their best with the vacuous new materials they were given, and I can see that a couple of them must have been alarmed at the “new and improved” methods and wanted to sneak in the fundamentals. For example, one year a teacher made us memorize the Ten Commandments; another year (high school?) I heard the word transubstantiation for the first and last time. Aside from these rare moments, I assure you that little substantive information was imparted to us youngsters. The countless, tedious hours I spent in religious education were missed opportunities.
We colored, we cut and pasted, and we were shown a lot of cartoon slide shows depicting Jesus and His parables. I don’t remember anything particularly Catholic about the presentations, aside from a brief foray into the sacraments when it was time for First Communion or Confirmation. (But if you’d have asked me to explain what a sacrament was, I couldn’t have done it.)
|My First Holy Communion, 1975.|
The girl next to me was in a blue dress,
as tradition had already started to decline.
We weren’t taught any Catholic prayers, although we all knew the Our Father from Mass attendance, and in my case from nightly prayers. I learned the Hail Mary along the way somehow, but for many years I knew only the first half. We never discussed the lives of the saints, nor were their names ever mentioned. I remember sitting at Mass wondering who this “Paul” fellow was who wrote all those letters!
I can tell you in three phrases the content of a decade of catechesis: God is good, Jesus loves you, and love your neighbor. Now this is good and true, don’t get me wrong, but it’s only half the gospel. And sometimes half the truth is more treacherous than an outright lie.
Thankfully, I was raised before the last vestiges of Catholic tradition could be stamped out, and some of the more pious and beautiful hymns were still often included in the Mass. Songs like The Church’s One Foundation, Immaculate Mary, and At That First Eucharist were powerful to a child, and they have stuck with me to this day. The dramatic, colorful Bible storybooks I read at home also presented a lasting image of a mighty God and his glorious Son. These sublime melodies and bold images, combined with my parents’ faith and the common themes of my religious education, did instill some important truths in my heart: I never wavered in my belief in God Almighty and in the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of His Son. Now, just who or what the Holy Spirit was or did was anybody’s guess, although I did recognize that the Holy Spirit was one of the Persons of the Trinity – whatever that meant. (I believe this particular bit of knowledge came from the repetition of another traditional hymn, which spoke of “God in three Persons, Blessed Trinity.”)
To give you an idea what all of those years of religious formation amounted to, here’s a short list of terms that, for my first 28 years, had no meaning to me because I had never heard of them:
Sacred Tradition; Magisterium; Sanctifying Grace; Scapular; Benediction; Act of Contrition; Sacramentals; The “Glory Be”; Apostolic Succession; Four Last Things; Indulgences; Eucharistic Adoration; Four Marks of the Church; Corporal & Spiritual Works of Mercy; Joyful/Sorrowful/Glorious Mysteries
I’d bet that the average American Catholic would not be able to identify or explain most of the above. And to follow are some terms that may sound familiar to those born after Vatican II, but that are not understood correctly and/or believed:
Purgatory; Communion of Saints; Infallibility; Transubstantiation; Mortal/Venial Sin; Immaculate Conception; Incarnation
In addition to the doctrinal ignorance, the moral attitudes of Catholics I knew in my teens and twenties reflected the fact that my generation was unfamiliar with the Catholic call to personal holiness: Confession? Ha, ha, I’ll get there one of these years (wink, wink). No premarital sex? Are you kidding? (One Catholic friend did go so far as to find a “compassionate” priest who consented to give her absolution before she moved in with a man!) Active homosexuality? A lifestyle choice. Contraception? It’s the responsible thing. Abortion? Sad, and we don’t like it, but it’s a woman’s private decision – too bad her partner didn’t use a condom. Anyway, who are Catholics to say we have the truth? There are many paths to God and a mature spirituality admits that everyone can be right!
The culture we live in is merciless when it comes into contact with a poorly catechized Catholic. American society today is designed to destroy one's faith, as objective truth and moral absolutes are rejected concepts. When modern, "enlightened" catechesis echoes the messages of the culture, and when those charged with informing the Catholic conscience take an "experiential" rather than informative approach, what can you expect? You can expect the outcome we have: Catholics who believe "conscience" means "opinion" and who place subjective feelings and personal experience above objective Truth. In fact, the prevailing philosophy today is that there is no one "truth", because truth is whatever anyone says it is: “You have your truth, I have mine.” (Kind of puts the lie to Christ's definitive statement, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life", doesn't it? What were those silly martyrs dying for?)
Like every other Catholic I knew, morally I pulled away from adherence to the Faith during high school, and after enrolling in a Catholic university across the country (Boston College), I started skipping Mass regularly as well. Thousands of Catholics partied hard during those four years that I was on that Jesuit campus, but I don’t remember anyone ever going to confession or even mentioning it. I myself had not gone to confession since grade school.
|Fall 1985. I wasn't the biggest partier on campus, |
but since I went to one of the biggest party
schools in New England, that's not saying much!
So how is it that a Catholic who went to Mass every Sunday growing up and went through all the proper catechism programs at her church could continue on mostly unconcerned while carrying several serious sins on her soul? I do not offer the following as an excuse, but only to give context. My generation of Catholics grew up with a keen understanding of God’s infinite love for us. We knew that His mercy could not be exhausted, not matter how badly we behaved, but at the same time, we heard almost nothing about God’s justice. I guess no one wanted to hurt our feelings with Church teaching -- for example, that by willfully persisting in serious sin, we could separate ourselves permanently from God, condemning ourselves to an eternity in hell.
The God presented to us was a God who hardly needs to be worshipped, since He’s our pal, our equal. No need to fear Him or stand in awe, no difficult obligations on our part – we need only feel the warm fuzzies He showers upon us, until we die and He takes us instantly to Heaven. I myself was guilty of presuming on God’s mercy, and I thought that because of my “deep faith” I could continue in one or another serious sin. I knew I was doing wrong, but I was too lazy and comfortable to change, and I just knew that God, my buddy, would look the other way.
But what would we say of any other father who asks no obedience and forgives every transgression automatically with no requirement for an apology or recompense? We would call him a wimp, a pushover, a sap, a fool. After all, good and loving parents don't ignore or reward bad behavior and disobedience. Rather, they set down boundaries that a child, for his own good, must not cross. Should that child choose to persist in disobedience and wrong-doing, good parents don't expand the boundaries to encompass his bad behavior, they hold firm and hope for his repentance precisely because they desire his happiness and success. They do not cease to love him, even as they let him experience the consequences of his poor choices. Such it is with God and sinful man. He loves us infinitely, but He cannot force us to love and obey Him against our free will. None of this was explained to post-Vatican II Catholics.
Shortly after I graduated college, I became engaged to Dean Miller, a nice agnostic Jewish boy. My identity as a Catholic was strong enough that I had come to the relationship with certain non-negotiables: I would never get married outside the Church, and any children of mine would be baptized and raised Catholic. Dean respectfully agreed to my conditions, and we were married a year later by my childhood priest.
|The happy (if religiously confused) couple, July 1990.|
Over the next four years, Dean and I welcomed three beautiful babies, and even though my conscience often gnawed at me, I continued to skip Mass. When I did go, I “church hopped”, trying to find a parish that didn’t annoy me with endlessly lame attempts to make the Mass hip and entertaining. All of the hand-holding, applauding, trite songs, and political correctness were a monumental turn-off for me. There was no reverence, no awe, no transcendence -- nothing in these Masses to snap me to attention and focus my mind and heart heavenward. I wasn’t “getting anything out of it.” (Of course, I did not fully comprehend that one doesn’t go to Mass to “get something out of it”, but to worship God in and through the Holy Sacrifice on the altar.)
The only moral challenges I heard from the pulpit were calls to help the poor, or admonitions against racism and sexism. But it was obvious to me that every good atheist/secularist out there was saying the same thing. So why bother being a Christian? Why get out of bed on Sunday morning and go to Mass when I could turn on any news program or TV show and get the same message? Americans generally are sensitive to those types of social justice issues, since we're immersed in a culture that never ceases to speak out on such things. What is rarely heard, what we need to hear, is the need for personal morality -- for repentance, for conversion, for holiness! We also need to know doctrinal truths: Why are we Catholic? What do we believe? Why does it matter anyway?
Spiritually confused and doctrinally unmoored, I continued to try to find meaning in the Mass, but found myself too often driven to distraction as I read the words of Sacred Scripture in a missalette while the lector read a distorted (and illicit) "inclusive language" version of the same readings. My intelligence was insulted as words like "brothers" and "men" were purged from both liturgy and song (apparently the “enlightened” liturgy committees decided that I as a woman was either too stupid or too fragile to understand that such words include me, too). I once sat through an Easter Mass where the priest donned a bunny suit for a homily/skit, and balloons were tied to the pews. And I sat with my mouth hanging open as I heard one priest use that morning's gospel reading to condone homosexual acts.
I never did disagree with the universal Church's stand on controversial issues such as homosexuality or abortion, and I had even heard, almost by accident, some of the Church's arguments against artificial contraception -- arguments that made sense to me. Of course, I excused myself from actually having to go along with this teaching. I did plan to learn Natural Family Planning one day, sure, but certainly not now, in my young married years. After all, “God understands”.
Despite my personal moral laxity, I knew intellectually that being a Christian is exactly the opposite of what the “feel good” culture was selling. I knew that following Christ is all about the Cross -- about sacrificial love and putting God’s will ahead of our own. As I saw it, the Catholic Church in America seemed too eager to fit right in with the culture, and instead of the Church influencing and changing the world, the world was influencing the Church. I knew enough about Christ’s message to recognize that a serious gulf existed between what the Pope and the Bible were saying and what American Catholics were hearing. At some point, the American Church and the world became almost indistinguishable in my eyes.
Meanwhile, I had begun to have religious discussions with a fellow young mother and friend, Kim Manning, with whom I also co-wrote a regular editorial column for our local paper. Kim had been a lapsed Episcopalian turned New Age feminist, and we’d never seriously talked religion until her dramatic conversion back to Christianity (read her story here). Because of my core belief in an objective right and wrong, I was attracted to what she was telling me about her experiences at a nearby Bible church. These evangelicals stood firm on moral issues and were not afraid of offending anyone by proclaiming Christian morality. Her church seemed a refreshing possibility, as I was raising children in an increasingly relativistic society, and I yearned for community support. I was not surprised to hear that a good portion of her church’s congregation consisted of young ex-Catholics who, like me, were raising families.
This is a good place to debunk a popular myth. One of the classic lines from dissenting Catholics is this: "Young people are leaving the Church because it refuses to get with the times and approve birth control, abortion, masturbation, gay marriage, women priests [and so on].” I tell you, this is rubbish. I do not dispute that there are many Catholics who have left the Church with these reasons on their lips, but these reasons mask the real problem: They either lost their faith or they never really had it. The need here is not for accommodation, but for conversion.
And for all of the young Catholics who leave the Church because it is not politically correct enough for them, there are others who are leaving for opposite reasons; namely, they feel the Church has become too liberal, too morally lax, too reflective of the secular culture. These Catholics are filling the pews of fundamentalist and evangelical churches seeking solid ground amidst the quicksand. They are searching for Jesus Christ and a high standard of Christian morality, and they don't believe they can find either in the Catholic Church. (Ironically, by leaving the Catholic Church, they are actually walking away from the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and leaving the faith that holds the highest and most difficult moral code of them all.)
|My first three babies, December 1994, right before my life (and theirs) changed forever.|
By February 1995, I just wanted out. I was ready to send out a trial balloon to my mom, to see how she would react to my inclination to leave Catholicism. Because my mother had been raised a Protestant, I thought she would be easier to talk to than my father. I nervously asked: "How would you feel if I left the Catholic Church for a Bible church?" She answered with the words that would not only change my life, but countless other lives as well: "Find out what you're leaving before you leave it."
Mom then proceeded to give me some of the reasons she had left Protestantism. For instance, she said it never made sense to her that Protestants place all their belief in the Bible alone. The question for her became, which Bible? There were so many different translations, and everyone had a different view on which version was authoritative. She was also wary of non-denominational churches in general, and she talked about "the cult of the personality," or the tendency for the congregation to rally around a well-liked, dynamic pastor who usually had a new and brilliant interpretation of Scripture. He would be the reason that they came, and if he left, the congregation would leave with him.
Everything she said made sense to me, and that evening my thoughts of leaving Catholicism were at least neutralized. The final blow came a couple of weeks later when my mom handed me a book. It was the kind of book I had never seen before. The kind of book I never knew existed. It was a book of Catholic apologetics. It was Karl Keating's Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on "Romanism" by "Bible Christians".
Some people may roll their eyes in disbelief when I say that I never knew such a book existed. I don't blame them -- even I cannot believe that it never occurred to me that someone out there might find it necessary, useful, even noble to defend the Catholic Faith! It seems so silly to me now. How could I have been ready to jump the Barque of Peter into a Bible church without even investigating the doctrinal issues involved? Why did it never even cross my mind that a Church of 2,000 years might be able to present an argument on her behalf? Maybe it's because in my lifetime as a Catholic, I had never heard anyone defend the Faith.
But once that book was placed in my hands, it was all over. I was excited, amazed, impressed that someone had taken the time to spell out the differences between Protestants and Catholics not only with precision and clarity, but also with a profound love for the Church. It only took reading a few pages of this wonderful book to keep me Catholic and set me on a path of knowledge that has led my soul to burn for the Faith. It is a passion that has not waned in almost 20 years now, and I still pinch myself, knowing that I have only dipped my little toe into the vast and glorious ocean that is Catholicism.
I was home for good, but over the next several months, Kim and I engaged in a series of friendly but extremely intense debates, basically replaying the Reformation. We went head to head on issues such as papal authority, the priesthood, the Real Presence, Mary, infused vs. imputed righteousness, eternal security, and even the implications of the Inquisition. We gave special attention to the two doctrines that separate Protestants and Catholics: sola scriptura (the Reformers’ belief that the Bible is a Christian’s only authority) and sola fide (the Reformers’ belief that we are saved by our faith alone). At times it was like the blind leading the blind, but we each used the best apologetics we could find from our respective sides.
|Kim Manning and I in the mid-1990s,|
when we were "Generation X" editorial writers for The Arizona Republic.
Meanwhile, my husband Dean was being sucked into all this “God talk” whether he liked it or not (I was so excited about what I was learning that I discussed it with him when he let me). Kim and I had “discovered” the Old Testament prophesies which so clearly vindicate Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, and I excitedly pointed out these passages to my dear Jewish husband, who was shocked. I’ll never forget the night when he reluctantly admitted that it appeared Jesus might actually be the Son of God.
Both Dean and Kim had opened their hearts and had one overriding principle: They were searching for objective Truth. They didn’t come to conclusions based on what was comfortable or what “felt” right. Seeking and then submitting to Truth is never easy, but it is what God asks of us, even at the cost of our comfort, our security, sometimes our very lives.
In Kim’s quest for Truth at any price, she kept praying and studying, even after we agreed to suspend our debate. She gave Catholics one last chance to prove themselves by reading Patrick Madrid’s now legendary book, Surprised by Truth, in which eleven converts, many of them Protestant ministers, give their reasons for becoming Catholic. In three nights that she called the darkest of her life (she did not want to leave Protestant Christianity), she was shown the biblical and historical truth of Catholicism. Six months later, at great personal cost but with great joy, Kim did what was previously inconceivable to her: She received the sacraments of the Church. Within a year, her husband announced his own intention to become Catholic, and with great joy and all gratitude to God, I can report my own husband’s profound conversion as well. I watched Dean receive the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil Mass 1997, on my 30th birthday -- as both his wife and his RCIA teacher!
|Dean at the moment of his Baptism|
|With my newly Christian husband!|
(His soul was as bright and illuminated as my blouse!)
|Some of the more tangible fruits of our conversions of heart!|
Yet how easily I could have lost it all! How easily my friends and contemporaries have lost or could lose a Faith they’ve never really understood. Feel-good, inoffensive, nebulous catechesis doesn't provide an even minimal foundation of faith, and a faith so unfortified cannot withstand even the smallest challenge.
So, just what did I learn on my own that I never learned in religious ed? Almost everything, but here are some of the biggies that shocked me: I learned that after Christ’s ascension into Heaven, He did not leave us floating out here alone on Earth with just a Book to try to interpret individually until He comes again (and since the vast majority of humanity was illiterate, why would He?). I learned that the Catholic Church is the one Church explicitly founded by Jesus Christ on the rock of Peter, the first pope, and that the New Testament was written, copied, protected, canonized and handed down by Catholic Church, and she alone has the authority to interpret it. I learned that as Christ promised, the Holy Spirit has been protecting and guiding the successors of Peter and the Apostles for all these 20+ centuries. I learned that, because of this supernatural protection, the teaching authority (Magisterium) of the Church cannot err when speaking on matters of faith and morals -- the Church does not, has not, and will not change doctrinal teachings because she cannot. The Deposit of Faith has remained pure and intact since public revelation ended with the death of St. John, the last Apostle. I learned that the Church has always rightly claimed to be the protector of Christ’s Truth, with the authority to proclaim, explain and apply that revealed Truth to the world. I learned that since the inception of Christianity, submission to the Church has meant submission to Christ.
I learned that the crown jewel of Christianity, the Eucharist, is clearly evident in the New Testament, and was brilliantly prefigured in the Old Testament millennia prior. It’s no wonder, then, that the earliest Christians and all of the Church Fathers were staunch believers in the Real Presence (and were thoroughly Catholic in the rest of their doctrine as well). I learned that the sacraments of the Church were instituted by Christ and are direct channels of God’s grace into our souls, the surest links between Heaven and Earth. I learned that God did not make it difficult for man to find the Truth, provided that he honestly seek the Truth.
The thing that shocked me most of all? Everything I mentioned above can be known biblically, historically, and through an exercise of reason. Catholicism is not a religion of “blind faith”. Yet I and my Catholic contemporaries were never told any of this.
As I said at the beginning: I was robbed and my peers were robbed. The loss is incalculable, as how do you count the cost of even a single lost soul? As for blame, well, there’s enough blame to go around, and I am fully aware of my own culpability in all of this. I could have asked more questions, and I could have sought to do God’s will as best I understood it, but in too many instances I did not. I have had long discussions with my parents, and they have willingly accepted their share of the blame as well. But the biggest subverters of the Faith are those dissenting Catholics in positions of power within the Church, be they individual bishops, priests, deacons, nuns, theologians, professors, university presidents, catechetical directors, liturgists, or reporters. They have witnessed two generations of Catholics raised up in complete ignorance of the Faith, they see wide-scale rebellion and disdain for authentic Church teaching and authority, and yet they continue to water down, ignore, or defy those teachings and that authority themselves, often openly encouraging more dissent.
I am not so naïve or despairing to believe that even wide-scale apostasy or ignorance among American Catholics at every level will destroy the universal Church, which is the Bride of Christ. We know from Jesus Himself that the gates of Hell shall never prevail against her. So even though we needn’t be concerned with the Church’s survival, we should all concern ourselves with the Church’s primary mission on earth: the salvation of souls. Too many souls have been allowed to slip out of the Church due to catechetical neglect or sabotage, and it’s time to turn things around.
The first step is to throw ourselves at the mercy of God, begging forgiveness for the mess we’ve made in His Church and His world. Second, we must pray for the conversion of those within our Church who seek to undermine the very Faith they claim to profess. Third, each Catholic must take it upon himself to learn the Faith and then commit to a life of proclaiming the Truth to others – this is the “new evangelization” by the laity advocated by Blessed John Paul II (and I am pleased to see so many of today’s Catholic youth heeding that call).
Finally, how about a Catholics’ Bill of Rights, to be handed out to every new Christian along with his baptismal candle? Maybe it could go something like this:
- You have a right to your Catholic heritage.
- You have the right to hear the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth, by having the Faith of the Apostles transmitted to you unfiltered and undefiled.
- You have a right to be catechized by an instructor who must first be required to profess his loyalty and obedience to Rome, and who humbly submits to all the teachings of Christ through His Church. Anything less is not only nonsensical but scandalous, and might lead you away from the Church.
- You have the right to expect Catholic orthodoxy in all Catholic classrooms and institutions, and you have the right never to hear radical feminism, pantheism, or secular humanism taught as if it had anything remotely to do with Catholicism.
- You have the right to remain Catholic. If you give up that right, it will be your free will choice and not the result of poor or scandalous catechesis. In other words, you have the right to know what you’re leaving before you leave it.
While I lament that I never knew my own Faith until I was 28 years old, I know that I cherish it so dearly precisely because I almost lost it. I know that God’s ways are not man’s ways, and I am forever grateful that He chose this way to lead me back home. I pray that He might lead all other lost Catholics home as well.
|(AFP/ Getty Images)|