One of my favorite childhood heroes was an Ottoman tough guy who, alas, could not fly, but could leap at least 20 feet into the air or jump off the castle walls onto a group of cowardly crusaders. He would give these despicable soldiers a good beating and save the girl. After the movie, all the neighborhood kids would join together to play the game where some of us would play the part of the amazing Ottoman heroes, while the younger ones would have to content with being evil Byzantine soldiers. We even jumped off the second floor of the unfinished and unprotected construction site to prove who was the bravest. Once, I landed awkwardly and hurt my knee. Don’t tell my mother. Being a hero is hard.
On occasion, during school field trips, we would come across an old Christian painting, an icon or a picture of Blessed Mother. We would then be promptly reminded how Ottomans and Muslims brought the true religion to these polytheists who believed in three gods: Father, Son and Mother. Mary was confusing, but not as confusing as the Blessed Trinity.
When I became an atheist at the ripe old age of 13, everything I ever heard about Christ went out the door — not that I knew anything about Him anyway. After all, science was in charge of satisfying the longings of my heart, while as a communist I strived to bring justice and freedom to the world by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Everyone who had more than me was rich. My definitions were very flexible and somewhat fickle.
While I went about life mocking all things religious, the Lord had other plans for me. Of course, back then becoming a Catholic was unthinkable. There was no way I was going to wear those goofy tabards and raid defenseless villages. I was too busy conjuring up a revolution, after which all my friends and I would take our places in the perfect world order where everyone lived happily ever after.
Even after I became Christian through the good and selfless work of Protestants, the Catholic Church remained a symbol of what went wrong with Christianity. Worshiping Mary and the saints, praying for the dead and those crazy outdated vestments were just not my thing. Whatever my thing was.
To my absolute horror, however, a friend of mine became a Papist. It was as if one of my best childhood friends wanted to play the Byzantine soldier willingly and every day. I was so mad at him for joining the enemy that I went to the only Catholic Church I knew in Istanbul. Crucified Christ hung from the ceiling. Ugh. “Get Him off the cross already,” I grumbled. “He is risen.” See, at the ripe old age of 26, I knew all there was to know about the Catholic Church.
I imagine a bunch of angels and saints sitting around in heaven and watching me being silly.
“Pass the popcorn, this is where she thinks she can pick up a book by Cardinal Ratzinger and refute it,” St. Thecla says.
“I know!” My guardian angel replies. “She won’t be able to get past the introduction.”
If anything, becoming Catholic taught me humility. Well, a little bit.
Ten years in the Catholic Church came upon me like a thief. A friend of mine was getting baptized and she asked me to be her sponsor for this truly momentous occasion. I was on my knees during the Easter Vigil Mass, thinking about why risen Christ looked like He was giving high fives to the congregation as he flew off the cross. See, I developed a brand-new appreciation for the crucifix during the last decade, and I want to see one in every Catholic church now. My pious prayerfulness was interrupted when I realized that it had been 10 years since my own confirmation.
More than 10 years since I stalked the poor old French priest so that he would talk to me about becoming Catholic. Everyone around me was appalled that I would be willing to submit myself to the authority of the “anti-Christ” (as the Pope was considered in my circles). The anti-Catholic movies of my childhood were replaced with a bunch of anti-Catholic separated brethren.
Despite everything, after two years of RCIA in two different countries (apparently I am a very slow learner), I was confirmed along with bunch of British. Life became even more confusing.
Even after all these years, the prejudices of my childhood and the pride of belonging to a nation that conquered so much land and ruled for centuries show up occasionally. The other day, someone asked Robert Spencer if he was Turkish, and Spencer replied, “No, I am not!” Then he told the inquirer that he was a Greek from occupied Anatolia. I laughed. Then, I felt bad for laughing. It’s the life of a Catholic — we are all kind of stuck in between, or at least we should be.
But above everything, I am Catholic. I have put on the tabard. It’s too late.
This doesn’t mean that being Catholic comes natural to me. Christ is weird and said a lot of weird things. His Church is weird and does a lot of weird things. Like many, now I am used to the otherworldly beauty.
Undoubtedly, the Holy Eucharist is the best and weirdest gift Christ left us. Surely, eating His Flesh cost Him many followers, well actually it is still costing Him, but the fact that our entire worship is directed toward that moment when we can gnaw on His Body puts everything else in perspective.
Then there is Mary, Mother of God, Queen of Angels and Star of the Sea. But, we are often told that Catholic Church is anti-woman. Awesome saints like St. Catherine of Siena or St. Joan of Arc must be only slightly Catholic. I grew up Muslim, was an atheist for a decade, then was baptized by Protestants, but I have never felt so loved and accepted as a woman as I do in the Catholic Church. Somebody, tell the Papists that they are doing the anti-woman thing wrong.
“Now, before you can be confirmed, you need to go to confession,” the priest told me. “Here is a complete stranger, tell him your sins, don’t worry he is not allowed to tell anyone. Then, he will forgive your sins and your soul be squeaky clean.”
“Ooookk,” I said. I went in. I talked to a complete stranger. I cried. He absolved my sins. I never saw him again. It worked. Guess what? It works every time when a contrite soul shows up and asks for forgiveness. Now, hubby and I chase an unsuspecting priest every month to get our souls scrubbed down. The best stain remover. Ever.
St. Anthony works for us. He probably has a saintly toothbrush in my bathroom, because either the kids or I constantly lose things. Sure, he didn’t think he would be working for our disorganized family when he wrestled with demons, but we appreciate the help when he finds my kid’s zombie toy. Also, guardian angels are working over time around here. Keeping boys alive through toddlerhood require a lot of work. Our Lady is called upon often when I attempt to write something charitable but miserably fail at it, or when I really feel like yelling at all the people but need help to get over the grouch. The Communion of saints is surely weird, but it is even weirder to think that death can separate those who follow a Man that walked around with five wounds on His glorified body. Put your money where your mouth is, and ask St. Teresa to pray for you when you have a headache.
“Upon this rock I will build my church,” Christ said. Son of God is talking. What could go wrong? Two millennia later: crusades, reformations, good popes, bad popes, a lot of bad leaders, a lot of awesome leaders, levitating saints, bilocating saints and many other good and bad things happened. It is weird —and miraculous— that the Catholic Church is still standing. If it were merely a human institution, by now it would have become a hefty tome in libraries to be read only by history buffs. The fact that despite all the sin and the mismanagement, the Church is alive and kicking attests to her connection to heaven. Christ, after all, seems to be able to keep His promise. That’s why I trust the magisterium of the Catholic Church.
After all these years, I started to slowly scratch the surface of what 2,000 years of theology and wisdom can offer. Surely, many days I sigh, roll my eyes and get mad at something someone in the Church did, but I never question my decision to become part of the universal church.
The smell of incense is familiar and comforting now. A well-made beautiful vestment reminds me that the Lord is worth our best. My ever-rebellious heart is only ever willing to kneel before the Holy Eucharist who can only come to us through the apostolic succession. From the outside, my perception of what Catholic believed was narrow and misinformed, but from the inside the beauty, the depth and the richness make the bride of Christ an endless wonder.
If you are having doubts about joining the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church, embrace the weird, and come on in. It’s bigger on the inside.