Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
I am a "double-jump" convert to the Catholic Faith. I was raised Nothing-in-Particular (with a cloudy pagan regard for "the spiritual" and a deep disdain of "organized religion"). Then, at the age of 20, I had a sort of classic "born again" experience after an encounter with the living God revealed in Jesus Christ. Looking around me, I found that the people who had introduced me to Jesus were the non-denominational Evangelicals and charismatics on my dorm floor at the University of Washington. Therefore, putting two and two together, I concluded that this was the Christian community God had given me and that it was my task to learn from them, love them, and receive the love of God through them.
So learn from them I did. I became a member of this community (which eventually coalesced into a small church in North Seattle) and I learned the basics of the Christian faith-trust, prayer, love, good works, fellowship, discipleship, Scripture study-in this place. I regard this time with them as my personal "Old Testament": that period of preparation for the full reception of Christ which was to come when I became a Catholic.
I think the "Old Testament" metaphor for my time as an Evangelical is apt because I don't believe for a moment that it was an accident God introduced me to his Son through Evangelicalism any more than I believe it an accident that the whole history of Israel was the preparation for the Advent of Christ. Again and again, I found that things in my own Evangelical background anticipated the teaching of the Catholic Church and the Christ who is fully revealed there just as the teaching of the Old Testament anticipated the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Christ. So I am deeply grateful for my time as an Evangelical and regard the good things God gave me through that Tradition as very properly Catholic.
At the same time, there is a peculiar ambiguity about my Evangelical background, for just as the first Christians (Jews all) had to undergo a certain "paradigm shift" in order to see that the Old Testament was really pointing to Christ, so as an Evangelical, I found that there were often things I had to either unlearn or, more accurately, learn to see in a new way in order to comprehend Catholic life, teaching and worship.
As an example, Catholic theology is, for Evangelicals, positively bestrewn with great ideas that are couched in frightening language. To pick one such idea at random, take the notion of "merit." Here is a term which, to the Evangelical ear, sounds disturbingly like it confirms all the fears of a Protestant heart: "Catholics get their salvation the old-fashioned way, they earrrrrrrrn it!" Yet, upon doing research about this troubling term I discovered (courtesy of Hans Urs von Balthasar) that "merit" is simply a term which expresses what Evangelicals today mean by "fruitfulness under the influence of grace". This sort of confusion is a constant factor for Evangelicals approaching the Church, and I began to make a little list of "cognates" that could make Catholic theology intelligible to me in my "native tongue" of Evangelicalism. Such ideas range from minor to major cognates like:
Apostolate = Ministry
Temporal punishment = the discipline of the Lord
Venial sin = stumbling
Mortal sin = backsliding
Formation = discipleship
Indulgence = gift of mercy
I mention this because such subtle differences in language show that conversion involves much more than a change of theology. It involves a change of culture and a change of community as well. Mastering such subtleties is as necessary to survival as a Catholic as making a good first confession.
Which brings me to the main subject: namely "If I were entering the Church this Easter, what kind of parish support would really help?"
My entry into the Church was, to be frank, hindered by two really bad experiences of catechesis. The first was simply the experience of catechists who were afraid to catechize. In my first RCIA, the priest and deacon were soooooo solicitous of my "feelings" and so hesitant to tell me what the Church believed, lest they offend whatever Protestant, secular, up-to-date sense of Baby Boomer entitlement I might imperiously assert, that it was like pulling teeth to get them to tell me what the Church taught. Much time was spent assuring me that the Old Testament was (and I quote) "like a Paul Bunyan story" and that pretty much anything I felt like doing was subject to my conscience (and apparently to nothing else). Meanwhile, I was trying to squeeze from them some hints about what the Church's doctrine was so that I might be able to decide whether or not I could believe it. It was intensely frustrating.
Shortly after this, a friend told me of another RCIA she thought was very good. I enrolled in this and found the other extreme: an instructor who read from a catechism. Period. That's all he did: read from a catechism. If you asked him a question when the text puzzled you, his upper lip became sweaty, his eyes darted around the room like a trapped animal's and he... re-read the passage he'd just read and said (in a pleading voice) "There. Now do you understand?"
Somewhere in between these two extremes (I wished) was an RCIA that could present the living Tradition of the Church in a way that was faithful to what the Church teaches and yet was capable of expressing that teaching in a way that is "translatable" to contemporary jargon when necessary. As it happened, (and this was the reason I found myself inventing things like the list above), I was compelled to form a "study group" along with several other convert wannabes in order to find out what the Church taught and get my questions and objections answered so I could make an intelligent decision. I then approached a priest and asked if he could consider receiving me into the Church, or putting me back into RCIA or whatever he thought best. In the end, I was received in Advent of 1987, which I did not know was unusual.
What this all adds up to is a heartfelt desire to see the Church at the parish level get its act together catechetically. With the advent of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the content of catechesis is well covered and I think every RCIA would be well served to model its teaching on it. At the same time, I would also like to see
- RCIA split into a two-track system (one for Christians from other traditions and one for the unbaptized) since the two groups have substantially different approaches to the Church and the former group is, in fact, already in a form of union with the Church.
- RCIA incorporate something like a survey of the gifts and talents of the candidates with an eye to plugging them into some form of service in the community. It's not enough to just get information about the Faith. You have to become part of the community and use your gifts in a way that matters.
- Further, I'd love to see Mystagogia—the period of education in the faith after Easter—be much more heavily emphasized. Too often, new Catholics are just left flopping like gaffed salmon on the shore of the great Catholic ocean after Easter, as though baptism was the end, rather than the beginning, of the Christian story.
- Finally, I'd love to see the office (yes, it's actually an office in the Church) of godparent be taken seriously by giving godparents training in what the Church teaches and in what their office actually entails. At present, godparenting is sort of like being a best man or maid of honor: you stand up, you mime some sort of ceremony, you give the guest of honor a tie clip or a toast, and that's it. I would like godparents (and in fact the whole community) to take seriously the task of helping the newly baptized not only learn the Faith but find their place in the community. That has the potential to be a deeply thrilling cooperative effort!
I offer all these ramblings, not in a critical spirit, nor in ingratitude for the enormous gift of the Church, but out of a desire to see us Catholics take full possession of the "riches of his inheritance in the saints". The Catholic Church is sitting on top of the richest vein of spiritual treasure in the universe. I want to see us mine it for all its worth and a good place to start is at the beginning, with those who are entering the Church!