What I Mean When I Say ‘Amen’

I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.

Jerónimo Jacinto de Espinosa, “La Obra Representa Alegóricamente la Adoración de la Sagrada Eucaristía”, c. 1650
Jerónimo Jacinto de Espinosa, “La Obra Representa Alegóricamente la Adoración de la Sagrada Eucaristía”, c. 1650 (photo: Public Domain)

Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children.
Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign… (Dt 6.6-8).

“Amen” means “so be it” (CCC 2856) or “I believe.” It’s what we say at the end of every prayer and, significantly, it’s what we say when we present ourselves for Holy Communion. The Eucharist is elevated before our eyes, and our “Amen” is a verbal assent that we both believe it’s Christ (“I believe”) and that we want to become Christ by consuming him (“so be it”).

For me, that “Amen” has another meaning. It’s a daily hearkening back to my adult conversion.

When I became a Catholic, there were plenty of people who said it wouldn’t last. “Give it ten or fifteen years or so,” said one scoffer in particular. “We’ll see how enthusiastic you are about the Church then.

She was a cradle Catholic, baptized and raised Catholic, educated Catholic, and doing Catholic – engaged in the works of mercy, for example, and living simply among the poor. In fact, she was the kind of person that attracted me to Catholicism in the first place. There was nothing abstract about her faith, nothing merely theoretical. It was action and agitation and out there all the time – word matched by deed, and the deeds kept coming, boom, boom, boom! Yet she was abrasive and hypercritical and disgusted that the Church hadn’t yet come around to her perspective on various issues.

With naysayers like that dominating my circle of Catholic acquaintances, you can appreciate that I approached the Easter Vigil with much anxiety and trepidation. It was already gut-wrenching enough to be detaching from my evangelical roots by boarding the bark of Peter. It definitely didn’t help matters that my immediate Catholic role models, many of them lifers, seemed on the verge of abandoning ship.

“What the heck am I doing?” I asked myself. “Maybe I should listen to those guys.” The critics clearly had the upper hand on account of my relatively limited understanding of Catholicism, its teachings, history, and ethos. This was the twilight period in catechetics – after Vatican II and before the appearance of the Catechism – and I’d been done my best to cobble together a makeshift crash course in the Faith. While some of it was sound (conciliar documents, Fr. John Hardon, GKC), some of it was pretty darn spotty – like the Dutch Catechism I came across at one point and Fr. Richard McBrien’s deceptively titled Catholicism. Consequently, my vision of what it was all about was a bit uneven, teetering and shaky. “Maybe I should wait a year,” I winced. “Maybe I should wait until I figure it out some more.”

Fortunately, God had provided me with a solid sponsor, himself a convert, and he set me straight. “You won’t figure it out,” Jim told me, “not next year, not ever. It’s not something you figure out.

He was so right, and I should’ve known as much because of my Easter Vigil prep. It consisted of single line I had to commit to memory, a single line that I’d be called on to repeat during the liturgy: The Profession of Faith that all baptized Christians have to make prior to being received into the Church. Right after the Holy Saturday congregation recites the Nicene Creed, all eyes are fixed on the nutty freelance believers up front who are about to throw in their lot with the lame and lovely Church of Rome. Here’s what they’ll say – here’s what I said over 30 years ago – straight from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults:

I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God (491).

Note that there’s no reference there to adequate understanding or theological comprehension. Everybody present knows at some level that the folks pronouncing those words have no clue what they’re getting themselves into. Still, we urge them on and congratulate them afterwards. Isn’t that odd? Shouldn’t there be some kind of pre-test, some kind of RCIA board exam?

Nope. Joining the Church is pure will borne of love. “I haven’t figured it all out,” I effectively added as a mental addendum when I first made that Profession, “but I’m convinced it’s all true and I want to be a part of it. Jesus is here, I know it, he’s in the sacraments, he’s in the Church, and I want in.”

I still want in, after all these years.

And that’s what I mean when I say “Amen” at Holy Communion, when I’m face to face with love incarnate, with him who incessantly, irritatingly demands that I become a saint. “Amen” is my daily RCIA Profession of Faith in capsule form. “Amen” is embrace, despite doubt; it’s abandonment to Providence, despite trenchant misgivings; it’s even enduring enthusiasm, despite falling short time and time again.

I suppose it’s no surprise that the enthusiasm has fluctuated over the decades, and I’m probably not the only convert who marks each Easter Vigil anniversary by lamenting paltry progress in the spiritual life. I suppose that means I have to grant that my scoffing friend from long ago was more prophetic than I gave her credit for, but her prescience was nonetheless misguided. She mistakenly assumed that waning enthusiasm would be associated with a waning faith.

Far from it.

Rather than emotions and enthusiasms, rather than figuring things out, the Faith is primarily about conviction and follow-through; about keeping at it despite all odds; about dogged persistence in deferring to God’s weird ways and making room for grace to inscrutably build on moth-eaten nature. “There is no reason why there should not be, even in the weakest of us,” writes Dom Hubert van Zeller, “that rock-constant quality which a friend would call single-minded idealism and an enemy obstinacy.”

I’m reminded of that scene in “The Rookie” (2002), where Jimmy Morris (Dennis Quaid), a minor-league ballplayer who aspires to the big leagues, is about to throw in the towel. His wife asks him on the phone: “Do you still love it? Just think about that, OK?” He’s is thinking about that when he comes upon a Little League game and pauses to watch. When he makes eye contact with a smiling outfielder, Morris catches a mirror-like glimpse of his forgotten youthful passion for the sport. It’s enough – he does still love it. A rejuvenated Morris enters the locker room the next day and approaches another player. “You know what we get to do today, Brooks?” he asks. “We get to play baseball.”

Similarly, when I say my “Amen” to Jesus at Communion, it’s like signing up to be a Catholic all over again. Every “Amen” can be a new beginning and a fresh start. It’s a recurring opportunity to “see if you believe everything you say you believe,” in the words of St. Augustine (CCC 1064). If we do, regardless of our struggles and circumstances, it’s cause to “rejoice in your faith each day.”