On the Threshold of the Church
Though my father died years ago, I see his face a lot these days as I explain to him in imaginary conversations why I am about to enter the Catholic Church. In my mind, he looks disappointed as he mistakenly regards this step as some rejection of the loving, devoted guidance he and my mother gave all their children. It is that imaginary face, not to mention that of my mother — who is alive, well and baffled over my decision — that has prompted me to ask, on the eve of my reception into the Church this Easter: What am I leaving behind by leaving Protestantism?
As an energetic, young evangelical pastor in an overwhelmingly Catholic state (Rhode Island), my father was never shy about proclaiming his belief that popes, purgatory, confessions, rosaries and other aspects of the Catholic faith turned the Christian life into a frantic obstacle course, requiring frightened souls to jump through a series of fiery hoops to win heaven. He was a man of great love, and love for truth, and I like to think that the latter never diminished the former. He was always more sweet on Christ than sour on the Catholic Church, as evidenced by the fact that his daily religious radio program and weekly newspaper column won him a considerable following among Catholics as well as Protestants.
My parents encouraged their children to pursue true and honest answers to whatever questions arose. Our house was full of books, our dinnertime full of debate and discussion about theology, politics and, most religiously, about the Red Sox-Orioles rivalry. (A native New Englander, my father had converted to Baltimore fandom after finding unendurable the Sox’ chronic self-destructiveness.) Neither parent trusted a complacent or unquestioning faith, and I've often thought that their respective pursuits of God's own heart must have contributed to their attraction to each other. The legacy they have left is not a Protestant faith but the Christian faith — and with it a sense of obligation to find out where that faith is most fully realized.
Last month, my RCIAclass (for adults entering the Church) went to Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston for the Rites of Election and Calling to Continuing Conversion. In a stirring ceremony, Cardinal Bernard Law formally welcomed more than 1,000 converts and catechumens to full communion with the Church. When he turned his attention specifically to the candidates who had already been baptized, but outside of the Catholic Church, the cardinal gave us a brief but impassioned defense of the primacy of Peter and his successors as vicars of Christ. And he addressed the question I had been asking for months.
“What are you leaving?” he asked rhetorically. “Nothing. You bring it all with you. We thank God for those churches that taught you to love him and that taught you to love and know the Scripture. Bring that with you. We need that.”
I was reminded from his remarks that, from the Catholic perspective, the Reformation was a one-sided fight and that the “separated brethren” are welcome to lay down their theological arms any time and rejoin the apostolic community.
In the Boston Archdiocese, candidates are accepted into full communion with the Church on the second week of Easter, not at the Easter Vigil. The vigil is reserved for baptizing those completely new to the Christian faith. When I first learned this, I felt a pang of petulant disappointment. Why should only catechumens get to take part in the dramatic, unforgettable Easter Vigil ceremonies? Why should we candidates have to wait a week longer than they for our first Communion? Cardinal Law's remarks made me realize we weren't being left out of the Vigil; rather we were being invited to join the whole Church in welcoming those who are new to the faith.
By entering the Church, we candidates are climbing from wind-tossed rafts back onto the deck of a great ocean liner which moves with protected confidence and comfort to its final destination. It is a ship we climbed off of at some point in history. By contrast, the catechumens are thrown life-savers from the stern of that same ocean liner and pulled from the roiling waters of the world. Candidates are returned to the Church; catechumens are rescued into the faith.
The sense that I was returning to the Catholic Church, rather than newly joining, came to me very strongly just a few days after the cardinal's welcoming ceremony. While traveling on business, I had the opportunity to attend Mass at St. Peter Claver Church in New Orleans. This African-American church in a desperately poor part of town provided a great mix of vibrant gospel music, fiery preaching and a friendly, familylike congregation. For the reading of the Gospel, actors played the parts of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. The congregation sang the Our Father with great enthusiasm. Later, when the parishioners began to file forward for Communion, the choir sang the dramatic black gospel hymn “I Don't Know Why (Jesus Loved Me)” by Andrae Crouch.
I couldn't help but think of my parents. Growing up, my favorite record album was Andrae Crouch and the Disciples'Live at Carnegie Hall. Dad had gotten the record as a demo copy at the radio station. I listened to that album, which opens with “I Don't Know Why,” hundreds of times as a kid and hundreds more since. Some years, Andrae Crouch at Carnegie Hall was all the church I got. Hearing that hymn in a warm, packed church where people said “Amen” during the homily and spontaneously rose to their feet during songs resembled more the church services of my youth than the formal Catholic Masses I have experienced back in Cambridge.
Yet this was also a very Catholic Mass; absolute reverence was shown for the form and sanctity of the liturgy — evidence that an “expressive” or “popular” style of worship doesn't require tampering with liturgical truth. In that service, past and present coalesced in the soulful, familiar strains of “I Don't Know Why” and the profound, now-familiar petition of the Eucharistic Prayer.
What am I leaving behind? Not the primary lessons my Protestant parents taught: to restlessly search for what's true, to have the spiritual and intellectual courage to admit when one is wrong. I remember my father telling me once that real courage is marked not by an ability to fight but by the willingness to admit wrong and to say “I'm sorry.” I'm leaving behind a Reformation fight that should have been settled centuries ago. The rest, as the good cardinal says, is coming with me.
David Gordon, a former Newsweek editor, writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
- April 16-22, 2000