Wednesday, January 25, 2012
St. Paul and Me: My Conversion Story
In honor of the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, this is the short version of my own “conversion” experience. I’m running out of feast day, but here it is anyway.
After a long and shady history, I, a baptized-but-fallen-away-Episcopalian-turned-born-again-Christian, ended up marrying Jerry, a cradle Catholic. I went to Mass with him regularly at first, but attended services at my Pentecostal church as well. Eventually, I grew weary of the Catholic Mass, and just stuck with my Pentecostal church. On Sundays, then, we went our separate ways.
In the years since I had met Jerry and had attended Mass with him, I had become more and more anti-Catholic. I’m not sure why, exactly, but I was convinced that the Catholic Church had some things backwards, or inside out, or downright wrong.
So when the first paperback version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church came out, I purchased one and began to read it. I thought this was my ticket to proving that the Church was just plain wrong about many doctrinal issues. I looked up various subjects in the index to see what errors the Church was making. To my surprise, everything I read made sense, seemed to fit into what I considered to be correct Christian thinking, and was beautifully written, too. Finding nothing with which to disagree, I quietly put the book on the shelf, not wanting to even entertain the gnawing thought in the back of my mind that perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to be Catholic.
Along the line, I met Liz. It was t-ball that brought us together. Her son and Ruthie were the same age, and were on the same t-ball team. The kids were young enough that when we took them to the practices, most parents simply stayed to watch. Liz and I soon became fast friends as we discussed our major life issues while watching the t-ball practice (and even the games) out of the corners of our eyes.
Liz was a Catholic by marriage: her husband, Pat, was a “cradle Catholic”, and she converted when they decided to get married. By the time I met her, she was 9 years into her Catholic faith, but was expressing some doubts about it. She said she wanted to know more about her faith than she had been taught in RCIA, and I encouraged her to read the Catechism. I was still anti-Catholic, but I wanted her to find out for herself what was wrong with Catholicism.
Ha! It didn’t quite turn out that way.
Liz and I continued to dialogue about religion – about Catholic beliefs, about charismatic practices, about her doubts and my skepticism, about the faith that we both had in God. Finally, Liz came across a tape which she handed on to me: “The Mass Explained” by Fr. Larry Richards. I listened to it carefully. He began the talk by practically shouting, “I love the Mass!” and I thought, “Good for you, buddy.” But he went on to address every concern I had with the Mass, and finally he came to that point about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist…
Now, I had been to Mass with Jerry many times. I’m sure he at one point said something to me about the Real Presence, but I have no recollection of it. Then it came up one day in a conversation with Liz, and it was like a lightning bolt: Catholics actually believe that Jesus is truly present in that little wafer? But there was no skepticism in my reaction; it was simply a revelation to me. And my immediate response was to say that I had no problem with Catholics holding that belief; whether it was true or not, I felt, we should all treat “communion” as if it were truly and really Jesus.
I had read a couple of things defending the Real Presence, but nothing that really convinced me of its scriptural validity. But here came Fr. Larry Richards, defending that belief with John Chapter 6. The light bulb came on for me then. I knew the passage; I was a “Bible” Christian, after all! Finally, I realized how much sense it made. The few times that passage had come up in conversation with other Protestants, their immediate qualification of it was that “of course, he’s speaking symbolically.” This had never made sense to me, especially coming from a denomination that emphasized a fundamentalist, literalistic interpretation of the Bible. “This is my body,” Jesus said. And they said he was speaking symbolically. Why? Why was it that every other passage of Scripture was interpreted literally except for this one?
As I listened to that tape, I found myself getting excited. My whole Christian walk had been about getting closer to Jesus. How much closer could one get than to ingest him into one’s body? I immediately felt an intense desire for the Eucharist. I thought that maybe I could become Catholic.
I quickly dismissed the notion. There was all that stuff about Mary. I could just never get past that! And the music…to have to listen to that stuff every week would be torture (I was right about that!).
But the nagging thought grew; I had to have Jesus. Aha! I had the answer: I would continue to attend my church, but when we had communion (once a month), I would believe that it was really the body and blood of Jesus. A split second later, my inner voice was saying, “No, that just won’t work.”
The thought of becoming Catholic was pushed away…for about 2 weeks. Then I listened to the tape again. I don’t really know why I listened to it again; it’s very unlike me to listen to the same thing twice. But listen to it I did, and finally, it was clear to me that I had to become Catholic. I had to have the Eucharist.
That evening, Jerry and I sat watching the news after Ruthie had gone to bed. I was trying to figure out how to tell him about my decision. I felt humbled; I’d been so anti-Catholic, and it turned out the Church was right after all! And I’d said “No way!” to the idea of becoming Catholic from the beginning. Even now, I was resisting the idea; it was only the fact of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist that was drawing me in.
Finally, I made the leap. “Honey,” I blurted, “I need to talk to you about something.”
He heard something in my voice I wasn’t aware of, because he turned to me instantly with a look of concern. “What is it?” he asked, muting the TV.
It was still hard to get the words out.
“I think I can do this Catholic thing,” I said. Jerry's jaw hit the floor.
The rest is history.
I was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 2002.