Our local parish has a salutary custom of celebrating the progress of catechumens in a much more public way throughout Lent than any parish to which I have previously belonged. Growing up, I remember perhaps one appearance of catechumens during the season prior to the Easter Vigil; here, it seems that every Sunday during Lent there is some prayer or ceremony acknowledging their presence. Inasmuch as there is an old custom of sending catechumens from the church prior to the more solemn part of the sacred mysteries, it seems fitting that in the Novus Ordo this custom should be acknowledged, albeit in a somewhat different form, at the corresponding place in the Mass (between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist).
Besides the keeping up of old customs, the practice has other benefits: everything from reminding parishioners to pray for and support the catechumens, to easing the catechumens themselves into the ways of parish. Most of the benefits accrue to the catechumens, which is as it should be. But one benefit to the parishioners is the witness of the converts-in-the-making.
In many ways, catechumens and new converts are in need of support and education in the faith. Even if they come in with the Scriptural acumen of Scott Hahn, there’s a lot in terms of custom and culture that they don’t know and are eager to learn. (One of my favorite stories along these lines involved a newly converted family that followed the custom from their Protestant roots of praying an impromptu blessing before meals. This continued until one day they had another family over, cradle Catholics, who later delicately suggested that they learn the standard Catholic table blessing. “Not that there’s anything wrong with praying from the heart!” said one cradle Catholic. “But your kids will feel less awkward if they know prayer everyone else knows.”)
As much as converts need the minutiae of Catholic culture, Catholics need the converts’ zeal. The ways in which it is absorbed vary; but one of the more significant considerations is rarely discussed: the fact that conversion is itself a proof for the existence of God.
I don’t mean to suggest that cradle Catholics like myself are in danger of apostatizing at any moment without the presence of converts. There is after all the supernatural virtue of faith, which can do its work quite independently of human thoughts—but it always behooves us to try to get those thoughts in order too. Nor do I intend, in the intellectual order, to throw shade on traditional proofs like Aquinas’s Five Ways, three or four of which I find quite compelling (and I’m sure my failure to appreciate the others is a failure in me, not in Aquinas!).
But there is nevertheless value in multiplying reasons to believe. Human beings are weak, and come with varied mental and emotional quirks. Sometimes, we may be inclined to accept this reason for belief, while that one (previously convincing) pales. Certainly this fact, which my neighbor finds utterly persuasive, may leave me cold; while my rationale for belief is incomprehensible to him. Peter Kreeft in one of his masterful apologetic works lists a number of proofs for the existence of God, precisely because he recognizes that some of them work for some people and some for others. My personal favorite, which I do find utterly convincing most days of the week, is not in the form of a logical argument at all: “Bach exists. Therefore God exists.” As Kreeft observes, you either get this one or you don’t.
Very well, you say; Bach, Aquinas—I see all that, or at least I’ve heard people use arguments like that before. But how is a convert a proof for God’s existence?
Here I am emphatically not speaking of spiritual experiences. Those are moving things indeed, whether personal or secondhand. But it is possible to dismiss such things as emotional outbursts, or at least to feel some nagging suspicion of them as not quite up to snuff on the evidentiary scale. In particular, anyone suffering from dryness (practically a congenital disease among longtime faithful Catholics) may be unmoved by accounts of the convert’s deep encounters with God. The same holds true for intellectual arguments: if the argument that converted the convert is not already convincing to the cradle Catholic, there is no particular reason why learning that this newbie espouses it would alter that perspective.
No, it isn’t the particulars of conversion which make conversions inspiring and encouraging for those already in the Church. It is the mere fact of conversion itself.
Consider, if you will, the idea of change. The world is an eminently changeable place. The old Greek of Athens Heraclitus left behind the axiom that a man cannot step in the same river twice; the new geeks of Apple and Google release updates at a rate that frustrates peace-loving people like me who just want our email to look familiar, dangnabbit! Babies change at an incredible pace; people grow up and grow old; bodies alter after even a few hours without water or a few minutes in the hot sun.
But getting someone to change their habits, the way they think and act and react, is difficult. Addictions, obviously, are one example of this fact. But even in the area of ordinary human interaction, change is rare. A wise person (probably several) once (probably often) told me that one should not expect to change one’s boy- or girlfriend; if one was thinking seriously about marrying this person, one had to be willing to accept that they wouldn’t change a wit. Their personality, warts and all, had better be acceptable, because there was no way they were going to make more efforts to improve themselves after marriage than beforehand. Another example: my father, having raised ten children, has observed that the nature of a child’s temper tantrums as a toddler is a good predictor of how stormy their teen years will be. Quieter, sulkier toddlers tend to turn into teens who hide in their rooms. Louder toddlers inclined to stage public protests show the same tendency ten years later. The basic individual reaction to hormonally-charged growth (mental and physical) remains uniform over the years.
On the level of opinion this is true too. Children may rebel against their parents’ politics, but tend to return to them as they themselves grow older. Actual changes of political perspective are relatively rare (hence perhaps the common line that “I didn’t leave my party, my party left me”). People just don’t change their minds very often, very easily, or very well.
This is what makes conversion interesting. It would be one thing if all converts sported an entire personality change, or showed indications of strong emotional upheaval, or could point to miraculous visions like that of St. Paul. Some converts do, of course. But a great many converts don’t have dramatic stories. A great many of them, whatever their internal upheaval, seem to simply and quietly move from unbelief to belief. They may (hopefully, they do) become more considerate of their friends and family and coworkers. But aside from that, and an odd new habit of prayer, they remain, at least externally, the same people they were before.
This is, on the human level, really quite inexplicable. Why should someone change, in so important an area, when there is no evidence of psychological upheaval in their general behavior?
The answer, of course, is grace. “With men this is impossible: but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26); “blessed are your eyes, because they see” (Matt. 13:16). They have seen something that they did not see before, something to which human eyes, the fleshly eye or the eye of the mind alike, are blind. There has been a intervention in their behavior, an intervention from a realm outside those with which we are accustomed to dealing. And everyone else, even when they don’t see it, can see the convert seeing and, seeing that he sees, may “understand with their heart, and be converted, and [God may] heal them” (Matt. 16:15).