A Lapsed Southern Baptist Catholic Patriarch

My grandfather was a child of the Second Vatican Council.

The problem is, he was born and died outside the faith, before the council.

One of the theological hallmarks of Vatican II was that while at the same time it confirmed the primacy of the Catholic Church and its unique role in the universal salvation epic that is mankind, it also recognized there were other religious traditions that, though outside complete communion with Rome, still adhered to certain divinely guided truths.

Vatican II encourages all Catholics to recognize the truth in these other religious traditions and to even celebrate intersections of agreement. Our family was blessed with just such a confluence.

Our grandfather, E.J. Taylor, not only looked like Jefferson Davis, but I think it's safe to assume that he shared much of the late president of the Confederacy's views on civics.

Our grandfather was a man of his time and a man of his region. Having been born and raised as a Southern farmer, he himself had a grandfather and a number of uncles who, though never having seen a slave in their lives, enthusiastically participated in the Civil War as proud members of a Benton County Arkansas regiment of the Confederate armed forces.

Our grandfather worked a small farm in the northern part of Arkansas almost all of his working life. It was very minimal when it came to everyday luxuries.

There was no electricity, and a springhouse built over a creek on the property was the closest they ever came to refrigeration. Instead of a tractor to pull various types of farm implements, our grandfather relied on Beck and Kate, his team of mules.

Now, I know what you're thinking. How does this relic-of-another-time-and-place Southern Baptist Arkansas farmer fit into the scheme of a big Irish Catholic family growing up in Southern California? Well for one, without his contribution to our familiar equation, namely our mother, there wouldn't be a big Irish Catholic family to grow up in Southern California. But this man, our grandfather, was so much more than just a distant progenitor who is owed some kind of automatic reverence for that role alone.

My older brothers and sisters and older cousins, via the luck of their birth draws, had our grandfather much longer than I did. He passed away when I was a first-grader.

But the impression he made on me lingers.

It's funny what we remember. I've never given up the image of sitting on my grandfather's lap, transfixed as he gracefully unfolded his pocket knife, cut off a chaw from the small brick of chewing tobacco he kept in his shirt pocket and slipped it into his elegant mouth. I remember watching him in his garage while he worked on some wood-carving project. I remember following him around his backyard — it seemed so big to me then — as he put every minute of his retirement to good use, grafting trees, practicing his horticultural craft and just plain keeping busy.

When farming got just too hard, our grandparents were brought out West by their grown children. We lived only a block away from the tiny little two-bedroom house our grandparents lived in. Luckily for me, preschool hadn't been invented and my parents didn't believe in kindergarten. So there I was, 5 years old, and the world was mine.

Well, sort of. At least I was an emancipated enough 5-year-old to be available to accompany my mother on trips over to grandpa's house. He was a man of incredible discipline with the kind of work ethic that could inspire.

Everybody towered over me then, but my grandfather, more than 6 feet tall, had an especially grand stature in my young eyes.

My slightly older eyes have seen something else in the retrospect of time, though. It now sees how this tall, dignified and noble Arkansas farmer, who rarely darkened the doors of the Southern Baptist tradition he was born unto and who, as far as I know, never even stepped foot in a Catholic church, played a crucial and integral role in my Catholic faith and the Catholic faith of my brothers and sisters.

If our mom, who converted to the faith, took to it so naturally, it might be because of the example of Christian charity that surrounded her in the form of her Southern Baptist parents E.J. and Rose Taylor.

These were not churchgoing folk, but at the same time they held fast to Christian templates of thought and action. No other member of our mother's family, not her parents, not her brothers and sisters, made a journey into the Church. But at the same time, these were some of the most Christian people my brothers and sisters ever met.

It was always kind of foreign to us, going over there for Christmas knowing they hadn't been to church, but the love and generosity they showed us was impossible to overlook. They were completely imperfect people who had that special internal spiritual compass that pointed toward the truth even if, for reasons known to God alone, they were not able to bring it fully forward in the way we, as Catholics, believe.

In some ways, our grandfather was Vatican II before there even was a Vatican II.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks directly to our beautiful Southern Baptist family when it says those who “seek God with a sincere heart and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience … may achieve eternal salvation” (No. 847).

What a comfort to us, the grandchildren and nieces and nephews of these wonderful people, to know that the Church's salvation road map detoured through the Ozark Mountains. Our lapsed Southern Baptist grandparents as well as our equally non-Catholic aunts and uncles were the definition of “sincere hearts” that the Church teaches through her Catechism and the Taylor family taught through their example.

Los Angeles writer Robert Brennan will continue this series in future issues.