Eleven years ago, I swam the Tiber and became a member of Christ’s Church. This past Easter, my younger brother did the same — which means I’m no longer the only Catholic in my natal family.
I wanted to celebrate, but nothing seemed quite adequate to the occasion. Should I look for a fatted calf to kill? Fill my house with Easter lilies? Stage a performance of Handel’s Messiah? God’s grace works in such remarkable ways, and I can’t wait to see what he has planned for my brother in his life as a Catholic. (His patron is St. Thomas More, if you’d like to say a prayer for him.)
Adult conversion is, in many ways, a beautiful thing. But it can also be lonely, as well as confusing and anxiety-ridden. Faith ought to be a source of strength and healing; however, for converts, the faith itself represents a kind of rupture in the path of our lives. So it’s normal for it to take some time to ease into the Catholic Tradition, such that it truly feels like our own. In those early days, I suspect most of us go through phases when we feel profoundly alienated and confused by a sense that we’re mere posers, going through the motions.
Most converts have relatively few connections to Catholic communities. So, initially at least, there’s nothing particularly natural about practicing the faith. It’s neither a habit nor a social expectation, and the motions still feel forced. It can be a struggle to figure out what these new commitments will actually mean for the rest of our lives.
For me, the actual sacramental entry into the Church felt disappointingly humdrum. I felt gloomy and anxious; there were none of the euphoric feelings I would have hoped for in “coming home.” It’s only in retrospect that I can see my conversion as the beginning of a new kind of life. Before it, I was meandering through the world like a Saturday-morning shopper in a flea market. I was just looking for something that might catch my eye. Conversion was the point when God stopped my meandering and put me “into service.”
In myriad ways, my entrance into the Catholic Church really does seem, now, like the beginning of my life. It was only after several years, however, that I gained this kind of perspective on how my life had changed.
Because the Catholic Church is enormous and very old, it’s easy to get lost inside. As a child growing up in the Mormon church, I saw how new converts were usually welcomed, “fellowshipped” and immediately given a job. That tends not to happen in our Catholic parishes. I felt like an interloper for years after my conversion, and my occasional efforts to get involved mostly served as reminders of how little I understood Catholic parish life. People sometimes tell new converts, “Welcome home,” but it doesn’t really feel like home, especially if you have powerful memories of another faith.
Nevertheless, converts are much-needed in the Church. They have a special role, whether or not their co-religionists immediately appreciate this. In the spirit of welcoming this Easter’s new converts, here are some general reflections on the ways converts can enrich the Church. I hope it will be helpful for neophytes and older converts and also for cradle Catholics thinking about how best to capture the energies of converts within their parishes.
Converts have the honor of choosing the faith in the fullness of our maturity. Catholicism is a deliberate identity for us, and this opens some doors in our evangelical labors.
Right from the start, people take our convictions seriously. They may even expect us to be zealots, because our life history so clearly sends the message, “I’m here by choice.” Occasionally, semi-practicing Catholics get a bit snide or patronizing about my “convert zeal.” (“Oh, you really do all that holy-day-of-obligation stuff, huh? Well, I suppose you’re a convert.”)
Even so, a decade into my Catholic life, no one has ever expressed surprise that I’m still faithfully practicing. It’s affirming, in a way, that virtually everyone seems to expect me to persevere, whether or not they approve.
We get lots of opportunities for evangelism. People, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, are always asking converts to explain why we did it. Over time, I developed a whole set of answers, appropriate to different occasions. To the snarky, mocking enquirer, I might say, “I was hoping to be on the Supreme Court someday, and Catholicism seems to be a prerequisite.” (If that were really true, I’d probably want to think about going to law school. But I don’t like to discuss my conversion with people who are just looking to make fun. Don’t cast your pearls before swine.)
To a sincere questioner, however, I might say something about apostolic succession or the growing hunger I felt for participation in the Church’s sacramental life.
When older Catholics ask about my conversion, they’re often looking for the consolation of being reminded that the faith can still attract, even in a hostile and secularized culture.
It’s heartbreaking when my telling is followed by a regretful, “I wish my grandchildren saw this as you do.” Many people carry this pain. But I’m grateful, at least, for the opportunity to encourage others and pray for their departed loved ones. We all need to be reminded occasionally that God’s grace has the power to penetrate any heart.
Because I was raised in the Mormon faith, I get a fair number of enquiries of roughly the form: “Why, after escaping from one oppressively patriarchal and authoritarian faith, would you immediately go running to another one?”
That’s a great opening for talking about authority and truth. I ask: Suppose there were an authority out there that reliably promoted the truth, cared about your personal well-being and wanted to unlock your human potential to a degree you can’t even understand? Wouldn’t you want to stay close to such a loving and benevolent “authority”? Our Mother Church is the least despotic authority imaginable — and also the most humane.
Converts have always provided additional salt to the Body of Christ. They help to “baptize” external influences that were part of their lives pre-conversion. The awkwardness we experience early in our Catholic lives may prove productive later on, as we figure out how to reconcile our older convictions and projects with our newer Catholic commitments.
Converts tend to have a keen appreciation for how much faith can do in our lives, since we have actual memories of before and after. That may make it easier to embrace the role of “useful oddity,” an outside-the-box thinker who is nevertheless fully committed to the faith. Our ties to older communities (whether Protestants, Jews, Mormons or what have you) may also prove fruitful in the longer run — although that can be hard to believe at the initial point of conversion.
In speaking to converts, I tell them that, as an individual, conversion will enrich your life in innumerable ways, but also fracture it. The process of leaving a childhood faith tends to be painful and disorienting, even when friends and family “take it well.” (Very often, of course, they don’t.)
Few of your new co-religionists will have the resources to understand that sense of loss; to them, your religious history is just a personal oddity. I remember thinking years ago that being a convert was a bit like being the child of divorce. My life was fractured in a way that could never wholly be mended, and yet it was the thing I loved that stood at the center of that fracturing. That was painful.
In that spirit, most converts are excited and grateful when we consider how our own children can inherit the faith in a more natural and organic way. Watching my young children reciting their Catholic prayers, I occasionally get misty-eyed thinking how beautiful it is for them to have those memories and that sense of rootedness from childhood onwards.
Like so many things in life, conversion is a gift, a blessing and, also, at times, a burden. But regardless of how we come into the faith, our life in Christ is an epic adventure for which we should be grateful. Having made sacrifices to obtain this “pearl of great price,” converts tend to recognize its value, and our very lives become a special kind of witness to the power of grace.
As I tell converts: You can never be certain how that witness may be strengthening your brethren. Reflect on that in the lonely moments, when it’s unclear to you why God wanted you in this particular faith. Be assured, he does.
Welcome home, neophytes. We need you. Your life begins now.
Rachel Lu, Ph.D.,
teaches philosophy at the
University of St. Thomas
in St. Paul, Minnesota.
St. Peter Catholic Church’s tabernacle in the Diocese of Madison, Wis.,
via St. Peter Catholic Church Facebook