Waiting to Convert
The Church is a house with a hundred gates;
and no two men enter at exactly the same angle.
“Nana,” I solemnly announced. “I have something to tell you.”
My grandmother fidgeted in her TV chair. “What is it, Ricky?”
I had come to New Jersey for a visit, and soon I’d be returning to Chicago. Nana was my mom’s mom, and I dearly loved her, but I knew I needed to come clean. After all, I was going over to the enemy.
“Nana,” I replied (followed by a dramatic pause)…. “I’ve decided to become a Catholic.
For a moment, the only sound was from the golf game we’d been watching – the putt, the quiet applause, the announcer’s voiceover. Then Nana asked, “Isn’t your girlfriend a Catholic?”
“Oh, then, that’s alright,” she said. “As long as you don’t become a priest.”
Apparently, time and experience had muted the anti-Catholic prejudices she’d been raised on, and the Church had become simply an alternative form of Christianity – an alien form, exotic even, yet tolerable. Tolerable, that is, as long as you didn’t take it too seriously, and I’m pretty sure that my answer to her question satisfied her on that score: becoming a Catholic was acceptable if it was merely related to romance. I assure you that was hardly the case, but it seemed prudent to leave it alone and go back to Jack Nicklaus on the tube.
At any rate, I joined the Church the next spring.
But what if she’d balked? What if she’d reacted with alarm at my announcement, thrown up her arms in despair, and began weeping disconsolately? Or what if she insisted I reconsider – that I go speak with her Presbyterian pastor or a Protestant apologist or anybody that might talk me out of such a foolhardy direction?
Yes, what if.
Becoming a Catholic is a huge deal for evangelical Protestants, and it frequently leads to disrupted relationships – family, friends, co-workers, you name it. Nonetheless, once you’re convinced that the Catholicism is true, and you start craving the Sacraments, and it’s so hard to not receive the Eucharist, you’re raring to go – full speed ahead! It is, in fact, imperative to act on those convictions, for to suppress or dismiss them is really a rejection of God and the ordinary means of salvation he wants us to have. “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter it,” Vatican II taught us, “could not be saved.”
Note, however, that the Council Fathers did not include the word “immediately” in that statement. To delay entry into the Church is not the same thing as a refusal, and there can be cause to wait – actually, more than one cause.
Like parents, for instance. I’ve known many Protestant converts to Catholicism who’ve wrestled with the timing of their reception into the Church on account of parents’ objections. And even if one’s parents are deceased, or living parents offer no resistance, there might be other family reasons to delay a Catholic conversion: Would it adversely affect the marital bond? How would it impact the religious formation of the children?
You’d think that Jesus already addressed these kinds of reservations in a definitive manner: “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters,” he taught, “he cannot be my disciple.” On the other hand, he also affirmed the obligations of the Fourth Commandment (“Honor your father and mother”) and the essential mutuality that undergirds the marital covenant, so taking these relationships into account when considering the timing of a conversion is both prudent and just. Difficult as it might be to wait, it makes sense to hold off until the time is right. “There’s no rush,” I was told when I wrestled with these questions. “The Church isn’t going anywhere.” It’s true.
So, when it comes to converting to Catholicism, there may be grounds for putting it off. Yet, such is clearly not the case when we’re talking about converting in Catholicism. “Christ's call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians,” the Catechism explains. “This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church.” God does the heavy lifting here, and whatever sanctification we experience as we stumble along in faith is accomplished through his grace. Nonetheless, we have our part to do: contrition, namely, and “to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first” (CCC 1428).
Hence, a first conversion is only the beginning. It’s less a final curtain on somebody’s Christian story than it is the opening act. The subsequent second, lifelong conversion is when the drama really gets going and we witness the spectacular work of the Divine in us, from the inside out. “Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life,” the Catechism teaches us, and since it’s total, it’s not always going to be pleasant. “This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart).”
Is it any wonder, then, that the tradition got started in the Church’s earliest days of putting off that initial conversion? Perhaps the most famous example is the Emperor Constantine, who received baptism on his deathbed, but there have been plenty of others. They simply did the math – first conversion requires ongoing and arduous second conversion – and they decided to play the odds.
You and I, however, don’t have that luxury – we’re already in! Our second conversions are well under way, and we’re bound to avail ourselves of God’s mercy and grace as we trudge ahead on the road to sainthood. We grumble, we recoil, we equivocate, we relapse – and still we inch ahead, God willing, still we lean into eternity. “Do not defer your purpose till ‘tonight’ or ‘tomorrow’ or ‘later, when I have finished what I have to do just now,’” writes Tito Colliander. “No, this moment, the instant you make your resolution, you will show by your action that you have now begun a new life. Arise, therefore, without fear and say: Lord, let me begin now.”
In other words, let’s not wait – ‘see you on the way!