On November 16, I celebrated the tenth anniversary of my reception into the Catholic Church. In view of that landmark, I would like to offer some reflections on my experience as a Catholic. It has been a wonderful ten years, full of joys, sorrow, and even some surprises. Above all, it has taught me the value of hope.
I joined the Catholic Church (by God’s grace) because I wanted to be in relationship to Jesus Christ. My Christian experience before then was emotionally rich, spiritually and intellectually stimulating, but years of study had taught me that it was also fraught with difficulty. Key elements of my Protestant Christian identity could not be reconciled with Scripture, history, or logic. Catholicism, by contrast, had none of these problems. I saw that if I were to continue as a Christian – to be faithful to the teaching and example of Christ – it was Catholicism or nothing. I became a Catholic because it was literally the only way for me to be a rationally fulfilled, faithful Christian.
But my motives for conversion were not purely negative. I also began to see the intrinsic beauty and goodness of the Catholic Church. One of those good things, and one of my first great surprises, was the incredible sense of belonging, of connectedness that I received. As a non-Catholic, I had grown accustomed to interpreting Christian history through the narrow lens of a small denomination. Inevitably, this meant separating myself from the vast majority of what had always and everywhere counted as Christian. All the great accomplishments and contributions of Christianity to human culture belonged to “them” and not to “us.” But when I joined the Church, I suddenly saw myself as part of this vast and glorious history – not just some rarified version teased from history – but the actual, flesh and blood, real history of Christianity down through the centuries. It was (and still is) an exhilarating realization.
Nowhere did this realization come to me with greater force than in my first Holy Communion. St. Paul says, “We, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.” (1 Corinthians 10:17) When I went forward to receive communion for the first time I said to myself, “My God! I’m receiving communion in a Catholic Church. I really am a Catholic!” I had already come to accept the Church’s teaching on the nature of the Eucharist. But I was delighted by the sense of connectedness it gave me – to be sacramentally one with all the great saints throughout time.
Another great surprise was my experience of reconciliation. I already understood and accepted the doctrine. But nothing could have prepared me for the sheer awe and joy of hearing those words for the first time: “Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Once again, I was struck by that sense of connectedness and belonging. Reconciliation comes through the ministry of the Church, that Church to which I now belong.
In my life, only a few words have ever rivaled those words of absolution. The other life-changing words are “I do, and “Daddy.” And here, again, I was in for surprises. Sometime after I was received into the Church, a good and holy priest advised me to have my marriage convalidated in the Catholic Church. At the time, canon law was ambiguous on whether this was necessary, but my wife and I decided we would rather have more grace than less and agreed to follow this priest’s advice. We spoke those words – “I do” – again, and this time before a minister of God’s Church. I could never have anticipated the grace and blessings that followed for my marriage and family.
I would love to tell you about more of the surprises I have had as a Catholic. I would especially like to talk about the blessing I have received from Catholic philosophy – especially St. Thomas – and how this has increased my faith in the reasonableness of Christianity. But space requires me to be brief. I shall say, instead, that ten years have taught me that the Catholic faith works and it works because it is true. At the end of the day, our motive for Catholic faith and life is supernatural transformation – to partake in the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:4) In my ten years as a Catholic, I have witnessed this kind of transformation in the lives of my family and friends.
I know that some people have left the church. Many criticize it. Many cannot believe that a society so human, so riddled with sinners, could possibly be from God. I understand that line of reasoning. But I find another point of view. How can something so human, so full of sinners, so many personal missteps – how can it do so much good? How can it be so beautiful? How can it continue to change lives so meaningfully? It can only be from God.
When you belong to the Catholic Church, you know that you are hooked up to the divinely ordained source of supernatural life. You have tangible assurance that God loves you and is at work in you. You can say with St. Paul, “Being confident of this very thing, that he, who hath begun a good work in you, will perfect it unto the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)