In the modern Jewish tradition, converts to Judaism are often called Jews by Choice, which indicates that they were not born to Jewish families but chose to become Jews. A few years ago, I listened to a roundtable discussion on conversion to Judaism by Jewish converts. One gentleman participated in the discussion only very reluctantly and after concerted effort by the organizer to persuade him to attend at all. His ordinary practice was to refrain from mentioning to anyone that he was a convert to Judaism, to such an extent that he had a ready response for whenever a fellow Jew would remark that his surname did not “sound Jewish.” In the years since his conversion, he had experienced some prejudice for being a convert from his co-religionists, and solved the problem by no longer mentioning his conversion.
Not long ago, I remembered this story when I once again experienced prejudice directed at me by cradle Catholics for being a convert to Catholicism. I had published an essay on the brown scapular. That essay, in which I sought to clear up common misunderstandings about the brown scapular and thereby promote a healthy devotion to it, opened this way:
Soon after becoming a Catholic, I started collecting “Catholicana” to hang about my neck. Eventually I was wearing a brown scapular, a crucifix, and a “dog tag” chain with twenty or more holy medals. No joke, people could always tell when I was approaching by the clinking of my medals. I liked to think of that necklace as my “cloud of witnesses.” One day the chain broke, and I never replaced it. The only sacramental I continued to wear was my brown scapular.
The blog post was well received, for the most part, but some of those who objected could not limit themselves to disagreeing with the assertions I made (which would have been entirely fair), but chose to focus on my mention of being a convert. Here is a small sampling of comments that came in:
Is everyone [who] works for Catholic Answers a convert? . . . At Catholic Answers it often seems like a competition you have to be more Catholic than anyone. I think it would be a good idea if you left that at the door when you came in.
(Nota bene: No, not everyone who works for Catholic Answers is a convert. Some are converts, some are cradle Catholics.)
Another gentleman made his point more succinctly:
You can always tell a convert, but you can’t [tell] ’em much!
I started to sympathize with the Jewish convert who resolved to never again mention his status as a Jew by Choice.
The prodigal’s return
To some extent, I feel some sympathy for the exasperation sometimes felt by cradle Catholics, who have been Catholic all their lives, toward converts to the faith. No one makes a big deal over the cradle Catholics’ lifelong devotion to their faith, their efforts to grow in understanding of it, and their steadfastness in handing down to their own children the spiritual heritage they willingly accepted from their parents.
For the convert however, especially those converts of some stature in their previous churches or other religious traditions, celebrations break out at the announcement of his decision to become Catholic. Radio shows and television shows call to book appearances so that he can share his testimony. Sometimes there are book deals or opportunities to take his story on the road to conferences and other Catholic events.
There can also be resentment when converts become teachers of the faith. Who do these upstarts think they are, anyway, to think they can explain to the cradle Catholics a religious tradition to which converts have only recently committed themselves (and some of them after a lifetime of believing and propagating anti-Catholicism!)?
Perhaps cradle Catholic discontent at the fuss made over converts begins to sound like Christ’s parable of the two brothers (cf. Luke 15:11–32), in which the younger son is welcomed home by his father after leaving home and squandering the inheritance he demanded from his father (Luke 15:12). Not only that, but the prodigal is given a lavish celebration in honor of his return—much to the annoyance and resentment of his elder brother, who complains to his father that his father never seemed to care much about his own loyalty (Luke 15:29–30).
But although the elder brother does not seem to be a sympathetic character in this parable, mainly because of his churlish refusal to join the celebration or even to acknowledge his brother as his brother (Luke 15:27–28, 30), it is only just to acknowledge that his reasons for why he is angry are not entirely unsympathetic. And if his younger brother then went on to teach his elder brother how to be a better son to their father, we can only imagine that the elder brother would not be an eager student.
The loyal son’s failing
Personally, I always gravitated to the elder brother in this parable, and for a long time did not understand why, even granted the father’s undeniable love for his first son (Luke 15:31), the elder son appears to be the villain of this piece. When I read the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth by Benedict XVI, a piece to this puzzle snapped into place. The Pope Emeritus made this observation about the elder son, bringing to light a hidden agenda:
The older brother knows nothing of the inner transformations and wanderings experienced by the younger brother, of his journey into distant parts, of his fall and his new self-discovery. He sees only injustice. And this betrays the fact that he too had secretly dreamed of a freedom without limits, that his obedience has made him inwardly bitter, and that he has no awareness of the grace of being at home, of the true freedom that he enjoys as a son. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31) [pp. 208–209].
The elder son’s failing is that he subconsciously wanted what the younger son had—the presumed freedom to do whatever he wished, and then to come back home with no noticeable consequences. And not just no consequences, but a welcome-home party, new clothes, jewelry, and the reinstatement of his status as a son.
Is it possible that some cradle Catholics can subconsciously envy converts’ “adventures,” wishing that they too had an exciting story of faith to tell and longing for a captive audience to pat them on the back and treat them as returning heroes?
If so, then perhaps it is worth noting that conversion is rarely exciting or adventurous while it is occurring. Converts usually have to deal with serious hardships during their conversion process, and some of those hardships (such as dealing with non-Catholic family members) can continue to be a cross for converts to carry for years to come. There is in fact a great grace to be recognized in having received the faith as a family heritage; to having been raised within a Catholic culture (even if that culture is limited to one’s own family); to never having had to wonder where your spiritual home is or if it even exists.
Everyone’s a convert
We can’t neglect to recognize though that no one, not even those raised Catholic all their lives, is “born Catholic.” Each and every Catholic is a convert, including those brought into the faith by their parents soon after their birth. And each and every Catholic, no matter how long they have been a Catholic, either is or will have to become a Catholic by Choice. As I wrote last year in a blog post about conversion:
I firmly believe that, sooner or later, each and every convert to the Catholic faith—whether that person chose to become Catholic as an adult or was brought into the faith as a baby by his parents—is going to have to face the scandal that the Church is not what he believed it to be when he signed up. The test will be whether he will persevere because he knows it to be the Church Christ founded, or whether he will fall away because he decides it is merely a human institution that has disappointed him.
For every St. Augustine, who comes to the Catholic faith as an adult after decades of wanderlust through various spiritual traditions, there will always be a St. Francis of Assisi, raised Catholic from infancy but who experiences a dramatic “conversion” of heart and soul that alters the course of the rest of his life. For every St. Kateri Tekakwitha, who defied her pagan family and their tribe’s entire way of life to seek out baptism from the Jesuit missionaries, there will always be a St. Clare of Assisi, who defied her Catholic family and their plans for her to seek out the vocation to which God called her.
All in the family
Sometimes tensions can rise between cradle Catholics and converts, but both sides should keep one thing in mind: We’re all one family. Maybe not always a happy family, maybe occasionally unhappy in our own way (à la Anna Karenina), but family. At the reception for those newly received into the Church on Easter Vigil 1996, the priest who baptized and confirmed me that night made a point of gesturing to the crowd in the social hall and then telling me, “You’re just as much a Catholic now as everyone here.”
I never forgot that remark, and I think it applies to all who profess the Catholic faith. No matter how we came into the Church, no matter how well or how poorly we practice the faith, no matter the challenges we face in living out our faith, we are all Catholics—no more, no less. No Catholic should be hesitant to tell his story, to share how he came to faith, whether it was within the family that raised him or after a journey outside the Church. Every testimony is valuable because it is the unique story of how Christ has worked in that person’s life.
Before he was elected Pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was once asked, “How many ways are there to God?” The then-prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, commonly believed to have been a modern “grand inquisitor,” responded:
As many as there are people. For even within the same faith each man’s way is an entirely personal one (Salt of the Earth, p. 32).