Years ago, I read an interview with Marcus Grodi of the Coming Home Network. I searched through Google in vain for that interview. I will have to give you the highlights to the best of my recollection. If something strikes you as wrong, blame me and not Mr. Grodi.
In the interview, Mr. Grodi spoke of the difficulty of converts in acclimating to the Church. He gave the analogy of an American moving to France. It would be relatively simple, he said, for the American to go to France, become a citizen, and start making a life for himself in France. He could learn the language, the laws, the customs, the culture, incorporating them into his new life. But, said Mr. Grodi, it would be a long time before a Frenchman mistook the American expatriate for a fellow Frenchman.
That observation has stuck with me over the years, and I have seen it play out in the lives of many converts—some from Protestantism to Catholicism, yes; but others from secularism, from a lapsed observance of Catholicism, or from various sinful ways of living. All of them have, in one way or another, moved from a non-Catholic way of life to devout Catholic observance. And many of them still carry with them heavy baggage from their former lives that identifies them to the cradle Catholics as converts. Let’s look at a few examples.
Back when J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was the subject of major Christian debate, I noticed that many of those who were denouncing the series as occult work unfit for Christian consumption had themselves been involved in the occult, to various extents, at one point or another in their lives. One writer noted this of herself in her essay denouncing the series and pointed to it as a qualification for expertise in the matter. Her argument basically ran like this: “We have been there! We know it, and we are warning you against it! We have a special sensitivity and you should listen to us because of it.” She did not consider that her very sensitivity to occult activity might make her incapable of objective analysis of magical elements in children’s fantasy literature.
In another case, a convert from Evangelicalism looked about the Church he entered and saw a desperate need for a Catholic apostolate to families. He stepped up to singlehandedly create such an apostolate for Catholics. It has been of enormous service to the Church in the United States for many years now and is laudable in many respects. Because there were not Catholic family apostolates already in place to guide him, he modeled his apostolate on a prominent conservative Evangelical apostolate to families.
But there are significant differences in Catholic and Evangelical understandings of marriage and the family. For example, there is a range of permitted opinion by the Church in the areas of “husband headship” and appropriate discipline for children. This convert, though, tends to present only the common conservative Evangelical view on these issues as acceptable and has gone so far as to label other permitted opinions to be unacceptable. It is possible that he simply does not realize that his thought on these subjects evidently remains heavily influenced by his former Evangelicalism.
By far the most dangerous area in which a past life can carry over into a convert’s new life is in the realm of chastity. Chastity speakers who are converts from a previous life of sexual sin sometimes experience trouble in maintaining delicacy in talking about sex. Even chastity speakers who lived lives of sexual purity before marriage can lose their filter. I have listened to presentations in which chastity speakers have told intimate details about the sexual sins of their spouses and have been appalled at how little discretion is shown. I suspect that if someone else spoke about one of these chastity speakers’ spouses in the same way the chastity speaker sometimes does, the chastity speaker would feel compelled to defend the spouse’s honor—with fists, if necessary.
(Nota bene: These chastity speakers could take a lesson from St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who once mentioned to a fellow Carmelite sister that she sometimes wished she could have come to Carmel after a life as a woman of the streets. St. Thérèse explained that she would love to have experienced such an incredible gift of God’s mercy in bringing her to conversion, and she would not have minded being despised by others for her former life. St. Thérèse‘s sister was shocked. “But what would you say when people asked for details?” the sister asked. St. Thérèse smiled and said, “I would say that I had confessed everything and that my confessor had bound me to silence for life concerning the details.”)
As a convert myself, I too have my own areas of pre-conversion baggage and I realize that I might not see all of it. My family was nominally Christian during my childhood, so I have a secular background. I struggle with cynicism when I hear Christians talking about their conversations with God. My family went to church a handful of times during my childhood, and so sometimes I struggle with fulfilling my Catholic obligations. I’ve had to work for years since my conversion to offload political viewpoints that at times conflicted with ordinary Catholic teaching.
How can we shed baggage we cling to? Here are a few suggestions:
Avoid rhetorical questions. Many people don’t really want answers to their questions. They ask a question they believe they already know the answer to and won’t accept being told otherwise. “Is the Harry Potter series evil?” can be one such question, especially when a negative answer is responded to with a list of people who have said the series is evil and whom the questioner prefers to believe. Ask a question only if you are prepared to learn.
Never trust your “gut reaction.” When I first became an apologist at Catholic Answers, something I had to do was to “unlearn” what I thought I knew. For example, I thought that a married woman who uses a contraceptive drug for a legitimate medical purpose necessarily had to also abstain from marital relations while taking the drug. Turns out, that just isn’t so. It took me awhile to fully understand the reasoning behind this, and at first I just had to give the answer I was told was correct, trusting those who gave the answer to me over and above my own instinct. It became somewhat amusing when I was denounced on the Internet for providing an answer I had trouble accepting myself. Eventually though, repeating the correct answer often enough in some way dissolved my own intellectual obstacles to accepting it as true. Be willing to trust those worthy of your trust. Be willing to accept the hard sayings. As St. Augustine said, “Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”
Resist becoming an expert. Oftentimes when Catholics hear that I come from a Seventh-Day Adventist background, they ask me all their Adventist questions, they want me to convert their Adventist friends, or they want me to write a book on Seventh-Day Adventism from a Catholic perspective. I have to explain two things: One, I was never really an Adventist myself. (My parents were nominal Adventists when I was a child, but I was baptized Catholic as an adult.) And, two, I am not an expert in Seventh-Day Adventism. I can answer some of the basic questions people ask and research the answers to more specialized questions, but I do not have any expertise in the subject.
Likewise, if you are a convert, whether it be from dabbling in occult activity, or from a Protestant denomination, or from a life of serious sin, or from secularism, do not assume that your conversion makes you an expert qualified to teach others on the subject. In fact, it may be that your objectivity has been compromised to such an extent that it would be better for you to direct inquirers to others who can answer their concerns.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan once told a story of when he was a young priest doing post-graduate study at the Catholic University of America. Whenever he went home to St. Louis, he would visit a Dominican parish in Ohio. On one visit, he noticed that one of the friars had few personal possessions.
“Your room is so plain. Where do you keep the rest of your stuff?”
“This is it,” he replied.
“But it is so simple,” I countered.
“Well, if I walk down to your room all you’ve got is your suitcase!”
“Well, sure, but, after all, I’m just passing through.”
Never will I forget his reply: “Aren’t we all?”
As a young priest, Cardinal Dolan only had one small suitcase. Think how much more baggage you are carrying through life, and how much more free you might be on your life’s journey if you can leave behind unnecessary baggage.