The Bumpy Path to Rome

Scenes from the life of a struggling convert

What does it mean to “turn Catholic,” as they say here in my tiny Midwest parish? What happens when someone in her late forties tries to “be Catholic,” having been reared a Unitarian and spent most of her adulthood as an Episcopalian? These are questions that I, as a convert, struggle with daily. They are also questions that, approached thoughtfully, might tell us something about the larger Catholic experience.

Sadly, though, convert stories in the popular Catholic press tell only half the story. I’ve read dozens of these stories in my award-winning diocesan magazine, my Catholic newspaper, and on Web sites such as Coming Home. Typically, the convert story begins with a Soul in Torment (often precipitated by melodramatic personal events) who meets a Catholic or happens to attend Mass. The torment subsides, sometimes gradually-as in the story of the fundamentalist youth minister who comes to believe that the church is the true repository of divine authority-and sometimes all at once, as in the story of the agnostic wanderer who happens on a charismatic meeting in a Catholic Church and suddenly talks in tongues.

Convert stories build on events which, in retrospect, seem to prove that God himself has led the convert to the church. “I didn’t know it then, but...” is a common construction of the convert story. The happy tale closes with the Soul Tormented No More at the altar of First Communion, whence he presumably lives happily ever after.

Lest I be accused of cynicism, I admit I once tried to write my own convert story when my Unitarian parents, still on the lam from the rigid Christianity of their youth, said they couldn’t understand what in heck led me to the Catholics. My story was no more revealing of what it’s like to “be Catholic” than any other I had read, probably because most convert stories are a defense of the conversion experience, and hence an idealized version of it.

Perhaps that idealization is why so many cradle Catholics say that we converts are “more Catholic than the pope.” We sometimes seem that way. And-now I am being cynical-perhaps that’s why the popular Catholic press loves us and our stories. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

In truth, though, every convert may end up at that happy altar of First Communion, but his subsequent journey of faith is complicated, varied, and often filled with struggles. We are Mother Church’s step-children, and our super-Catholic attitudes that amuse or annoy cradle Catholics are both an effort to fit into the new family and (sotto voce) to atone for the yearning we sometime feel for our old families.

For although I call myself a Catholic, my faith was formed and informed outside the church, and what I know and believe about God will always (to use my inner Unitarian’s favorite word) transcend church teaching in some ways. This leads to what my inner Anglican calls my “Protestant moments,” those times when my new and old faiths clash, and I must struggle to “be Catholic.” Ironically, those Protestant moments, with God’s grace, can take us converts deeper into our new faith. Those are the struggles I want to find in the convert stories, but never do. So I offer my own (complete with soundtrack) as a start.

Scene 1: A priest from southern India is making a donations appeal in our little parish. We are just one stop on his grueling round of visits to other little parishes where he will be lucky to get $30 or $40 per Mass.

The priest’s accent is thick, and he falters in his memorized patter about the church’s attempts to overcome poverty and prejudice. He doesn’t even sound like he believes it anymore. Yet I am reminded of the lives of so many saintly people I heard about in my Unitarian Sunday school-Fr. Damien of the Lepers, St. Francis, Mohandas Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King-willing to be tired out and even die for the sake of the Mystery of Supreme Love. And here is this priest, tired and uninspiring, offering us a chance to share that Mystery.

O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother; where pity dwells, the peace of God is there; to worship rightly is to love each other, each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.

I search my wallet for something extra, but I’ve only got a fiver and my checkbook is at home. I look for a scrap of paper and a pencil to at least write something encouraging, but none is at hand. It occurs to me to make a petition, and without thinking it goes directly to Albert Schweitzer. I wonder whether anybody has ever before sat in this pew and sent a petition on behalf of a tired Indian Catholic priest to that good German Lutheran doctor who worked among the sick and poor in Africa. But my faith, formed and informed in the basement meetings of my Unitarian Fellowship, tells me that the Eternal Someone has heard my petition.

Scene 2: I am trying to sing a “Gloria” that has no predictable melody or pauses in which to breathe between lines. As a result, I am becoming crabby and unfocused in my devotion. It’s not as if I am vocally challenged; I can sing “Crying” with Roy Orbison on the radio and hit all the notes. But the “Gloria” is beyond me-and probably beyond Roy, were he still with us.

I call on St. Jerome, patron saint of the perpetually grumpy, for help.

“Accept the gift and the spirit in which it is given,” advises St. Jerome. “See the effort not the result.”

“Okay,” I say, “but it’s hard.”

“I know,” St. Jerome replies wearily.

As I try to sing, my mind runs to the lovely high-church Anglican liturgy, where the songs were always singable, where the kiss of peace was passed decorously by offering a reverently murmured “the Lord’s peace” with the merest of touches-none of this running up and down the aisle and hugging.

“You could really concentrate on God in a service like that,” I think longingly.

“And completely ignore the people of God,” St. Jerome snaps astringently.

Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Scene 3: Our son, eight, is a reluctant churchgoer, so we allow him a clipboard, pencil, and paper to keep him occupied. One Sunday, I notice he has written “SURVEY” in large letters at the top of his paper. Underneath there is just one question: “Do you like church?” Next to the question, he has firmly written, “NO,” and is about to hand his clipboard to a nearby child. Fortunately, I intercept the survey.

Our son also despises CCD, and getting him there is a struggle. However, one evening, he comes home and announces enthusiastically, “I choose purgatory!”

“I’d like to end up in maybe the upper part of it,” he adds hopefully.

The CCD teacher has explained that God does not send you to heaven or hell; you send yourself there by your choices. Purgatory is the first Catholic teaching that has made any sense to my son, who has spent a fair amount of time in the principal’s office on account of his choices at recess. He understands that detention is both atonement and a learning process. You go there because people don’t want you to end up in juvenile hall. Purgatory seems comfortable and familiar to him. People are nice there and explain things patiently.

My inner Anglican has examined the scriptural evidence that supports the existence of purgatory and, frankly, finds it a bit thin. But it’s a doctrine that has always made sense to me, and clearly to my son, in spite of that.

The “I choose purgatory” attitude bespeaks a certain amount of humility and realism about the human condition that is underscored throughout Scripture. We know that none of us is good enough to get into heaven “as is.”

Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

Purgatory, to my son and me, promises that the tiniest morsel of repentance is enough to squeak us into paradise, though not without first requiring us to atone and learn that our joy may be the greater in heaven.

I think we all choose purgatory. And I think that attitude is a large part of what makes us Catholics.

Scene 4: At age forty-seven, while having some relatively routine surgery, I ask my gynecologist to perform a tubal li-gation. Several miscarriages and one midlife pregnancy have taken a physical and emotional toll. I am not anxious to repeat these experiences.

Now, everybody knows that the church is against artificial methods of avoiding pregnancy, but I surmise from cradle-Catholic friends that the church takes extenuating circumstances like age and health into account. But, some months after the tubal, I consult the Catechism and discover there is no “escape clause.” For women in late middle age who do not want to become pregnant there is, implicitly, NFP or abstinence. Voluntary sterilization is a “grave sin.”

My inner Anglican argues that I have not sought the tubal to commit any sins, so the action is morally neutral. My inner Unitarian, however, says that it’s hypocritical to take Communion having broken a rule so central to the church’s teaching about sexual morality and advises me to try to better understand the church’s position on birth control.

At the end of a year, I understand the logic and reason behind Humanae vitae, but I’m still light years away from buying it. Moreover, I have discovered there are several lifelong Catholics of my acquaintance who have had tubals and are still taking Communion.

My inner Unitarian opines that therein lies a critical difference between convert and cradle Catholic. Cradle Catholics may not always agree with the church, but it’s their spiritual home, and they are content with being “Catholic enough.” Converts have difficulty finding that line between “Catholic enough” and apostasy. And it’s no use talking to lifelong Catholics about it because most of them are busy arguing among themselves about where that line actually is.

My inner Episcopalian is somewhat taken aback at the bitterness and extent of the arguing that goes on in the church. While there have certainly been arguments in the Anglican Communion (most recently over the appointment of openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson), the typical Protestant response to argument is to look for a denomination that’s a better “match” for one’s personal beliefs. Perhaps I should leave the church if I can’t fall in with its teachings.

Scene 5: My impasse with the church over birth control has, ironically, left me in one of those spiritual crises central to the popular convert stories I find so unsatisfying. And, to fall back on the parlance of those stories, “it wasn’t just coincidence” that I begin reading St. Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue of the Soul.

Knowledge of God, says St. Catherine, starts with self-knowledge, “for we are in God and God is in us, just as a fish is in the sea and the sea is in the fish.”

“What self-knowledge have you gained in the church?” St. Catherine asks. “What have you learned about God?”

“I’ve learned I can’t follow the ‘rules’ no matter how hard I try, because some of them I just don’t believe in or understand. I promised at my Catholic confirmation to uphold church teaching. I haven’t done that. I am a failure as a Catholic, but at least I’m not a hypocrite,” I say.

“Ahem,” replies St. Catherine. “What you actually promised was to uphold those teachings ‘with God’s help.’ You’ve been working like a fish out of the sea.”

Scene 6: One afternoon in the grocery story, I am dismayed to see one of my former RCIA leaders pushing through the sea of carts. She knows I’ve slacked off on going to Mass. I don’t really want to talk to her, but there’s no way to avoid her. So we stop and chat about safe topics for several minutes. Then she asks how I’m doing. Really doing.

I say more than I intended, but she isn’t shocked. She nods and suggests a book for me to read. She tells me that many women have made the same decision I made after consulting with their priests.

Consulting with their priests. Now why hadn’t I thought of that?

“Because you’re still thinking partly like a Protestant?” suggests St. Catherine hovering near the cake mixes. “Didn’t you become a Catholic to float in the sea supported by the Body of Christ? And here is a member of the Body of Christ come to help you.”

Throw out the lifeline across the dark wave; there is a brother (er, sister) whom someone should save.

I continue to hang on to the lifeline my Catholic friend gave me in the supermarket aisle, thinking about what it means to be Catholic and feeling that I have not made a very good one so far. I continue to hang back, still fearful that I haven’t done things the right way. Wondering what I really believe. And yet my faith, formed and informed both outside and inside the church, tells me that God sees all, knows all, and forgives all so long as we are taking even the very tiniest of steps toward the kingdom. “Choose purgatory,” my son would say. In the end for us converts there is no “being Catholic,” there is only “trying to be Catholic.”

My brand-new inner Catholic says that, for now, that’s enough. 

Published in the 2005-01-14 issue: 

Jean Hughes Raber teaches journalism at Michigan State University.

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