Twenty years ago this month, I was received into the Catholic Church. The late Archbishop Thomas Donellan of Atlanta had given Rev. Richard Lopez permission to perform my confirmation privately. Father Lopez chose the chapel at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the cancer home run by the Hawthorne Dominican sisters, where, some years earlier, Flannery O’Connor had sought to recover from the lupus that eventually took her life.
At the time, I thought of confirmation as the end of a journey that started in earnest with my acceptance of Jesus Christ twelve years earlier at a Southern Baptist Church in Texas. Silly me! In truth, it was the continuation of a journey that is, literally, unending.
If I ever write a book about my conversion, it’ll begin with this sentence: “This is a story of a convert who has never stopped converting.”
Rereading the short essay I wrote about my conversion for Homiletic and Pastoral Review in April 1989, I’m struck by the celebrative tone of a Protestant convert still giddy from dis-covering the stores of Catholic wisdom.
While I remain very much an enthusiast—especially on the subject of St. Thomas Aquinas and his great interpreters—the occasion of my 20th birthday as a Catholic inclines my mind toward another issue: how the Church flourishes in spite of its conflicts, quarrels, and imperfect practitioners.
I’m not sure why I expected life among Catholics to be peaceful. Maybe I felt so privileged to be a Catholic I assumed everyone else felt the same. I wasn’t prepared for the many cradle Catholics I met who bore the faith of their parents like a mill¬stone. Everything distinctive about the faith—priesthood, pope, sacraments, Mass, morality—was viewed back-ward, as an obstacle, rather than a guide to happiness.
I’ve often found that our clergy fail to counter this attitude with boldness. Instead of arguing creatively for the advantages of Catholic teaching over other worldviews, they grant the premise that the faith is needlessly restrictive and look for ways to make it more fashionable. The disastrous result has been chronicled too many times in these pages to need repeating.
Pope John Paul II, of course, has ceded nothing in the debate. Instead of adopting fashion, he has done the hard work of revealing the beauty and discursive power of the Catholic tradition—something that was supposed to be impossible in the present age.
His teaching is now infusing the minds of seminarians around the world. As they enter parishes, they’re bringing a renewed and inspiring vision of what it means to be a Catholic in the modern world.
I also was surprised, and still am, by all the fighting among so-called conservative or orthodox Catholic groups. Hardly a season passes without an attack by one group or leader on another, and the complaint is usually the same: Someone is not “Catholic” enough and must be exposed.
The “Protestant principle” is at work here. Once a group defines itself as “pure” or “true” Catholic, it must continue to root out the defects of others to justify its identity. Inevitably, these groups grow smaller and smaller, because few believers can be found who measure up completely. In short order, the only “true Catholics” will be meeting in someone’s basement.
Something is being done about this. The Catholic Leadership Conference founded four years ago is comprised of leaders from more than 125 organizations who meet yearly in Philadelphia to find ways to collaborate. It’s harder to see horns on the head of your fellow Catholics who you’ve gotten to know face-to-face.
Father Lopez taught me during my two years of instruction (yes, it took me longer) that the Church was in the grip of the Holy Spirit. Over the years, I’ve found myself going back to that simple teaching. We who serve the Church are not the ones who do the work—He does. And the Spirit works best when we get out of the way.
The best advice I’ve received in recent years is to “let the Spirit blow through your work.” Many things make this difficult, pride most of all. Yet if we’re to be lifted up into the life of God, we cannot lift ourselves.
This is the reason why Catholic converts don’t need their arms twisted—the Church has invisible and visible resources enough to bring them home. And this is why after 20 years in the often tumultuous life of the Church, this convert thanks God for the graces of his journey, which are surely beyond his ability to count.