Editor's note: This is the third installment in a series tracing David Gordon's journey “home to Rome” from evangelical Protestantism.
With Lent fast approaching, so too is the day when I am “fully incorporated into the society of the Church,” as the Catechism says. For the last 18 months, I have tried to ignore how very far away Easter 2000 has seemed. When I first sat down with my priest, Father Jim, to discuss joining RCIA(the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), I was disappointed to learn how long the process is. I had made my decision. Why couldn't I step right in?
RCIA, answered the patient priest, is not only a way for converts to warm up to the Church; it is an opportunity for the Church to warm up to converts — a practice begun in the days of the Roman Empire when Christians had reason to fear strangers eager to join the outlawed fellowship. Besides, he continued, one should take time to grow familiar — this is family, remember? — with Catholic culture, habits and rituals. Months of reflection and conversion would only make entrance into the Church all the more satisfying, he promised.
“But you see, Father, I'm already converted,” I said. “I've been baptized.” Conversion, he replied, is a process that only ends in heaven. The idea of conversion as a way of life rather than a singular event struck an odd note in my Protestant ears. So did the argument that it would be wiser to give ancient custom precedence over my individual and impatient ambitions. Nevertheless, I trusted him and had already become convinced of the Church's authority — even on doctrines and practices I didn't fully understand.
That conversation echoed in my mind recently when I read Pope John Paul II's Lenten message on the Vatican's Web site, http://www.vatican.va The H.oly Father writes that “the time of Lent is the culminating point of the journey of conversion and reconciliation which the Jubilee, the year of the Lord's favor, offers to all the faithful.” Those words suggest in a very rich way that during our catechesis, we in RCIA have been engaged not so much in an extraordinary episode of Catholic life but rather in what should be the routine life of faith, namely conversion and reconciliation. Citing Ephesians 3:9, the Pope continues: “Lent helps Christians to enter more deeply into this ‘mystery hidden for ages.’”
There's that very Catholic emphasis on “mystery” again. In the evangelical tradition I grew up in, which is rooted in Methodism, mystery is eschewed. Salvation is secured through a series of clearly defined steps (hence the “method”); it's treated as a certainty, not a great hope. The preacher's cry at the end of an evangelistic sermon is “You can know for sure tonight …” — and this assurance applies to any number of things. You're saved, you're sanctified, you'll go to heaven if you die. Mystery is equated with uncertainty, and uncertainty is taken as proof that you're not saved, sanctified, going to heaven, etc. Small wonder that the Catholic eucharistic memorial, in which “Christ is really and mysteriously made present," as the Catechism puts it, is dismissed as hocuspocus.
I suppose this is why I could not consider joining the Church until I had begun to experience the mystery of the Eucharist. The Real Presence is a hard teaching, and I will not pretend even now to have grasped it with any intellectual confidence. I accept the truth of it, however, because I trust the testimony of those saints who have gone before me. I trust the magisterium of the Church, which is protected by the promise of Christ to Peter.
And then there's my own experience. When I lived on Beacon Hill in Boston two years ago, my schedule afforded me a generous amount of free time at midday. Having already begun an inquiry into the Catholic faith, I made a habit of walking down the hill for daily noontime Mass at St. Joseph's, an old parish church tucked behind the sprawling Massachusetts General Hospital. The church had once served the bustling and bawdy West End neighborhood of Irish and Italian immigrants that urban “renewal” bulldozed away in the 1960s.
An odd mix of characters attended those noon Masses — blue-suited men from nearby Government Center with their “power” neckties of reds and yellows, nurses in white uniforms and sneakers, hoary men and women from retirement high-rises, visitors with great mournful faces sitting vigil for hospitalized loved ones.
Mass itself was rather businesslike as the priests said their prayers and dispensed the Sacrament with what seemed to be a passionless efficiency. More than once, my Protestant mind noted disapprovingly what dry, habitual worship these Catholics practiced.
Yet in observing the Mass day after day, I began to understand what the late Catholic writer Andre Dubus called “the wonder and necessity of ritual.” In Dubus' masterful tale, A Father's Story, the crusty narrator acknowledges that the Eucharist has become his lifeblood: “[T]here is, as I take the Host from Father Paul and place it on my tongue and return to the pew, a feeling that I am thankful I have not lost in the forty-eight years since my first Communion. At its center is excitement; spreading out from it is the peace of certainty. Or the certainty of peace.”
Even as a spectator, I began to experience that same peace when Communion was distributed. One day, I was even surprised by tears. I hadn't cried in 10 years about anything, though those years had provided ample reason to weep.
The tears were sweet and subdued. My unbelief was being helped, and I was grateful to witness what I knew was the sensory presence of Christ. The tears continued for many days thereafter; I kept expecting them to go away, yet each time the Host was distributed, my eyes would fill up. Before long, that peaceful feeling was accompanied by a desire to receive the Host myself. Like Zaccheus in his tree, I had enjoyed the spectator's view.
Now it was time to come down and encounter him in the flesh. It was then that I signed up for RCIA.
In his Lenten message, John Paul writes, “For Christians, time is marked by an expectation of the eternal wedding feast, anticipated daily at the eucharistic table.”
As Lent approaches and I head into the homestretch of my journey to the Church, I have tried to imagine that first Communion. What will it be like to finally partake of the Body and Blood?
My sponsor recently challenged me to imagine something greater: what it will be like to partake of him the day after first Communion. And the next day, and the one after that, and so on, until mere habit is transformed into a wondrous and necessary ritual. That, he assures me, is what Catholic life is all about. I can hardly wait.
David Gordon, a former Newsweek editor, writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.