Why am I Catholic? I think it’s an important question to ask oneself in our culture today. With so many seeming restrictions and unpopular doctrines, why would someone freely choose to profess all the Catholic Church believes and to reassert those beliefs each Sunday by taking the Eucharist? Wouldn’t it be easier to be a Methodist, or a Unitarian, or just label myself a secular humanist and call it a day? Well . . . that has not been my experience.
Instead of telling you why I’m Catholic, I’ll start by telling you how I almost didn’t become Catholic—or even Christian—at all.
A mentor of sorts
When I was twenty-one, I decided it was not a bad idea to stop drinking. Most people start drinking at twenty-one, or are supposed to, but being the stubbornly unique person I am, I was putting my drink down.
After a brief conversation with a counselor on the Kansas State University campus, I was connected, somewhat indirectly, with a mentor of sorts. Mike was about thirty years old, he worked with Big Brothers, among other organizations, and he was sober. Furthermore, he had been sober for a number of years, end on end, through a war and then through years back home recalibrating to civilian life. Also, he was a Christian of the Evangelical variety, which is the tradition in which I’d been raised.
He offered to take me to church, and I obliged. We went twice; I didn’t make a habit of it. From early 2007 to around 2010 when he left Manhattan, (Kansas, where the university is located,) he showed me the way of sobriety as best he knew how. And even though, the year I stopped drinking, God was the farthest thing from my mind, Mike showed me that the way toward God was the only way he knew to sobriety. Thankfully, I paid attention.
During this time I was also attending Mass with my wife, Susan, whenever we visited her family in Garden City. I would sit in the pew at St. Dominic’s and recite the bits and pieces I happened to agree with. This meant most of the first paragraph of the Nicene Creed and then the bit about the Holy Spirit. Three years alcohol-free had convinced me that there was something out there and that that something had the ability to inhabit you, to enable you to do things you couldn’t do on your own—if only you would let it. When I didn’t agree with what was being said or wasn’t following along with the hymns or Scripture, I was staring at the great, wooden crucifix behind the altar.
Shortly after Mike moved and, more or less, stopped being a regular resource for me, I felt a sudden call to read the Bible.
I did what every Christian tells you not to do: I started at Genesis 1:1 and read my way through. Shortly before I got to the New Testament, I then did what every Catholic tells you definitely not to do: I started reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church right through via a daily e-mail message.
My plan was to read he Gospel according to Matthew with a head full of orthodoxy. Just as I had experienced after reading The Brothers Karamazov and The Master and Margarita, I’d have a spiritual experience of sorts, and I would believe. I’d read about Christ suffering and dying for us, and then I’d finally be able to say the Creed in full.
I read Matthew. I read the end of Matthew. And instead of breaking down in tears, overwhelmed by his glory, I turned the page, checking to make sure that it was indeed the end of Matthew . . .
Susan and I decided to spend my sixth sobriety birthday visiting friends in St. Louis. Near Topeka our “check battery” light came on. We continued on to Kansas City, where we checked a few auto places, still committed to making it to our friends’ place in Missouri. We learned that the problem was the alternator. Melvin, the name of our two-door Pontiac, had taken us as far as he could go. He lasted exactly until we parked at a nearby hotel before all of the dashboard lights winked out. I called our insurance company and scheduled a tow truck for the next morning. Our friends agreed to meet us in K.C.
The next morning was exactly what I’d been waiting for. It was bitterly cold in that powerless car while I waited the forty-five minutes for the tow truck to arrive. This might not sound desirable to you, but I had just arrived to the last few chapters of Mark, and this time I was determined to have my transformative experience. If I could just be cold enough, tired enough, miserable enough, I’d certainly be able to share in Christ’s suffering and become in that moment a true believer.
Yet again, the story shot right through to the Crucifixion and before I knew it, Jesus was returning again to the apostles.
“But you just left!” I protested, no more a Christian than the moment I’d trudged so hopefully down to the car.
At the repair shop, I launched into Luke’s Gospel while I waited. I’ll spare you the suspense: nothing happened at the end of Luke, nor John, nor Acts, nor Romans. By the time Easter Vigil rolled around, I was making my way through the epistles of Paul and was beginning to wonder if this conversion business was going to happen for me at all.
We returned to Garden City for Easter. Instead of attending Easter Vigil, Susan decided to stay home and watch her sister Betsy’s kids. I headed off to Mass without her—my first Mass without Susan since wandering into a campus church back in my college days.
The Mass began with the blessing of a fire outside, a fire from which they lit a huge candle. Once inside, everyone began lighting his or her own candle from it. Right away this Mass felt different. I’d just read about the apostles, about how they’d been given certain gifts—to heal and forgive, to teach and discern—the biggest of which was the privilege to spread Christ’s message of salvation and pass on his authority from person to person. As the congregation in front of me literally shared their light, person to person, from one original flame, the impact of what the apostles had accomplished through Christ Jesus resonated with me in a new way.
Inside the church the lights were dimmed, but I found my in-laws at their regular pew and, candles in hand, we went through Scripture readings and songs. For each reading we sang a hymn and a psalm as we moved through the Old Testament in near-darkness.
When we got to Isaiah, something opened up inside of me. It was my revelation, coming to me from a direction I hadn’t anticipated at all. I saw myself talking with Mike all those years ago. I watched him share with me a message of hope that slowly but surely transformed me from a drunken mess into the brother, son, and husband I had become.
Then I saw someone else talking with Mike, sharing the love of God, saving his life so that he could in turn save the lives of others. The tape played backward from there, until it covered the entire history of Western civilization, across the myriad institutions of social reform and education, organizations and denominations, all of which had found their source in the Catholic Church, all the way back to Rome and the apostolic succession, a series of bishops leading directly back to Peter, until I stood—in my mind’s eye—at that final moment, the first moment of this history: Christ ransoming himself so that selfish, drunken me wouldn’t have to die from this affliction.
All my resentments and resistance toward Jesus and his teachings came crashing down like an imploded skyscraper as I surrendered myself for the first time to the risen Lord. Luckily the lights were still off, because I couldn’t stop crying.
Easter bunny’s good timing
There’s a line in George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic that seems especially appropriate: “Easter changes everything. It did for Peter.” To that I can only add, “And it certainly did for me.” The next day, we celebrated Easter at Betsy’s house. In my basket, the Easter bunny left me a bright -reen Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“The e-mails switched from the adult Catechism to the YouCat,” Betsy explained. “I know you were enjoying the original.”
I thanked her. She had no idea how perfect the Easter bunny’s timing was.
Later, as we were doing dishes, I said to her, as if it were something I’d just heard for the first time: “So Jesus died for our sins.”
“Yeah,” she said, sounding nonchalant but looking confused. She must have been thinking, Where has this boy been?
After being a top student for years, I suddenly felt like the slow kid in class. Though I’d heard it a million times, this simple fact had never really meant anything to me. And now it meant everything.
Outside the children poked around the yard for Easter eggs, searching for the little pieces of treasure hidden everywhere they looked.
You may conclude that I joined the Church because of my wife and her family. This is fair. However, one of the biggest reasons I came to love and want to become part of her family was their faith. They attended Mass, sang in the choir, read and discussed Scripture, and above all they prayed together. I grew spiritually by osmosis just being around them—as I had around Mike—and that’s why it comes as no shock to me that so many people who marry into the Faith end up converting. To see it lived close up has a profound effect.
So that’s my story—and I’m sticking to it! Over the next few months I investigated my questions through the proper channels. Susan and I attended a conference on Natural Family Planning (NFP) at the invitation of her former priest. A few months into charting, I came across this passage in Ephesians: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her. . . . So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (5:25-28).
So, to put it slightly different, Christ had died for his bride. Before NFP what had I sacrificed for mine? I realized only after beginning to practice the Church’s teachings just how perfectly they complement one another, and only then did I begin loving Susan—and myself—the way God had intended in the beginning.
My questions about Mary and the saints and sola scriptura were all addressed logically and patiently through RCIA. I still had my doubts, mostly in the form of a generalized hesitation, but when I stood up in front of the congregation of Saint Thomas More parish on Easter Vigil 2014, I was certain that I wanted to be a Catholic. I was baptized, confirmed, and welcomed to Eucharist that evening for the first time. Other than a morning daily Mass when I’d eaten my cereal too late, I have not missed the chance to partake daily in Communion since.
There is a line I read recently in the biography of a Catholic American poet, Joyce Kilmer, that talks about his late conversion. The writer, Robert Cortes Holliday, describes the conversion as a revelation of something that was there all along: “It was clear to him that he did not become but had always been a Catholic, though he had not earlier realized it.”
I wouldn’t say that I have always been a Catholic, but I can tell you that, after twenty-eight years of searching and yearning and feeling lost, I finally feel like I’ve found my way home.