I Can See Myself Being Catholic

A few months ago I went to a really interesting young adult event hosted by the Diocese I work in where a former atheist talked about his conversion story from atheism to Catholicism. Not only was the speaker delightfully British (!) he was wonderfully engaging, humble and it was really helpful to get the perspective of someone not raised with any religion in the home.

I was very happy I attended for a number of reasons, but most notably because he said something that stuck with me about how he did not have a definitive moment of conversion. His story wasn’t Pauline with a dramatic conversion where everything changed, which I think is along the lines of what most people imagine when they hear the word conversion. Instead, he mentioned being a university student and a philosophy major and through becoming friends with Dominican friars (something I could relate to from my time in Virginia!) he could “see himself becoming Catholic.” Beyond doctrine and orthodoxy he was drawn in by fellowship, ordinary dinner conversation and prayerful peace and joy exuded by the friars themselves. Before he was drawn into a religion and a deeper relationship with God he was drawn into a group of Catholic friends united in their love for God and neighbor and the common destination of Heaven.

The speaker couldn’t point to one specific instance of conversion, rather it was a series of little moments over time that softened his heart and disposed it toward religion. He essentially went from “religion is for the ignorant” to “maybe it’s not so bad there might be something to Christianity” to “I could see myself becoming Catholic” until finally “I believe God is calling me and I want to become Catholic.”

As I was thinking of this I spoke to a dear friend of mine who is also in the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) program. He was raised Catholic but had fallen out of practice and never received the final Sacrament of Initiation (Confirmation). He said something similar to my former atheist speaker where when talking about his motivations to the group he mentioned first his relationship with myself and my family. Not that we did anything special and walk around with a light from heaven brushing our shoulders, we simply live our faith intentionally and from that extremely ordinary witness my friend could “see himself becoming Catholic” and is now in the process of doing just that.

It’s powerful testimony and useful to anyone involved in the New Evangelization to see how the Church that attracted the two new members I mentioned in this article saw not a mere institution but a living body of Christ.

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He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands

So I spend a fair amount of time on social media partially for myself and partially to promote this blog and I follow a lot of Catholic media personalities and groups.

And while I am all for some awesome Catholic culture brimming with youth on fire with the New Evangelization, I confess I think there are some places where it looks a little too much like the mainstream culture. Shiny graphics, websites, talented speakers, large followings… This is a primarily good thing and a lot of work and talent goes into these pages, events, conferences, etc. However, it has one bad thing in common with the culture and that is that it’s hands off. While a post, a Tweet, or a link to a thought-provoking reflection could all have positive benefits, in my opinion it is missing the clincher, the thing that I really think would solidify its efforts to truly evangelize the common man: ordinary Catholic people.

I understand that the goal of evangelization is to have a broad reach but it should be more than a marketing campaign attempting to sell you an enthusiastic cultural Catholicism complete with people you can follow, pages you can like, and (most likely) a rosary of some kind. Marketing has its place, I do a lot of it at my job and in my personal life, but I’ve always viewed it with a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to religion because it leaves you in danger of building a brand instead of a kingdom.

In fact, the most effective evangelization I’ve ever participated in was a downtown area with a large group of ordinary Catholic people of all different ages. There was some singing with basic instrumental accompaniment, some conversation, lots of laughter, and yes, some people were passing out rosaries. But there was something special that made us attractive to passersby and that was our camaraderie. Ordinary friendship infused with the love of God. And it was effective because people actually started opening up to us and wanted to be a part of what was happening.

It actually surprised me. I had braced myself for hostility and the very real possibility that we might be asked to leave because the area I was living in at the time was highly intellectual and extremely agnostic/atheistic. I honestly thought people might even protest our presence because the event was sponsored by the visiting Dominican brothers from their House of Studies in Washington D.C. and they were there in full habit. However, the longer I was there the more I realized that people are more hungry for love than they admit. Nothing fancy, not a cause, just simple, genuine love that expresses itself not in grand gestures but by listening, caring, and most of all just being there for the other person.

And I tell you what I met a lot of people that night. I invited one guy to sing with me and he actually accepted the invitation. Another guy had just lost his mother who had apparently prayed the rosary devoutly and he took one to help him with the grieving process because he had not been practicing his faith without her. It absolutely astounded me how much people wanted to share, and it struck me how few outlets there are for that in our modern world where life is so undervalued and lived in pieces instead of in full.

But before you think the night was quiet and solemn, I should confess that for our final song my sassy Dominican friend chose “He’s got the world in His Hands” and for each verse of, “He’s got _____, in His Hands”  he had us fill in the blank with a name of a person either in our group or that we had met, and eventually it extended to strangers, and then one guy called his girlfriend so we sang to his raised cell phone (I can’t imagine being on the receiving end of that call).

But those words the world throws around like “good vibes”, “togetherness”, and “peace” are a secularization of what is not secular. It is an incomplete imitation of a deeper reality that transcends the purely material world they operate in and it stems from a desire to experience what I experienced that night: a profound moment of discovering God in one’s neighbors, a recognition of their humanity that comes paradoxically because the stranger is not merely human but has the spark of the Divine. And once you catch that spark it becomes a flame and before you know it the Holy Spirit is alive in everyone present and hearts start to change as everyone remembers who they really are and where they really came from even if they can’t quite articulate it yet.

And it kills me that sometimes Christians get so overloaded with causes and movements and the stress of trying to make people cultural Christians that we forget the simplicity and power of Jesus, the One who had all the power of the world at His feet and chose to be a servant, to be there for people wherever they happened to be in life because He loved them. This happy servitude really rocks the very foundations of the world because it defies the worldly hallmarks of power, politics, domination, progress and everything that revolves around the self and instead chooses a life of love which revolves around others.

And when we saw this mystery unfold downtown that night and watched everything come together we believed like little children that He’s Got the Whole World in His hands because we saw the world transform into a playground and strangers transform into a family and the only thing that matched our awe was our joy.

And I can hardly imagine what the world would be like if this began to extend beyond my tiny downtown area. All I know is I’d very much like to see it.

 

Unorthodox Orthodoxy

As many of you know, several of my best posts are based on my responses to things people say to me, either in person or in some online forum. This is one such instance.

As usual, it began innocently enough with a woman commenting that many people who use the Catholic handle (like this blog for example) do not deserve the title because they are not truly worthy of all the title entails. The definition of orthodox, just to put us all on the same page, is: “conforming to what is generally or traditionally accepted as right or true; established and approved.” So for Catholics this is primarily Church approved Canon and Doctrine.

I’m open to critique, because if I were perfect I’d be ready for heaven and since that day is not yet here I’m sure there’s still much room for improvement. Perhaps one such imperfection is my sass because this woman struck a particular nerve with me through her condescension and I just gave in to my urge to say something. It just really bothers me when people tell others they are not worthy of something because it subtly implies that they are worthy of it (or at least in their “humble” efforts to be worthy they are better than those who don’t try at all/fail in their eyes). So I responded to this woman, “on the other hand many are too proud of their orthodoxy.” This woman proceeded to correct my response by replying, “orthodoxy precludes pride” which, unfortunately for her, completely proved my point (perhaps unintentionally, but still).

I honestly wish that her claim were more true. Because doctrinally, what she said is sound. Practicing Catholics do accept an orthodoxy that rejects pride in all forms, but I have met so many who practice orthodoxy, it seems, not for the love of God but for the love of men, for status in their Catholic and/or intellectual circles.  And this is a tragedy.

Because I’ve met two types of orthodox people in my day. The first kind is usually the model of humility that is fostered by a deep prayer life. They would be the last to mention their holiness and there is usually no need to because it goes without saying. The second is the type that is always eager to showcase their knowledge of their faith and quick to judge others who do not meet their standards of what a good, orthodox faith entails. Call it Club Pharisee, because these people tend to move in groups and be somewhat proud of their exclusivity. 

And this is an extremely sore point  for me with my faith, not just with Catholicism but with Christians in general, and it played no small role in prompting me to write both The Religion Crisis and The Finest Thing I’ve Ever Known. Because true Christianity, true orthodoxy, is not an exclusive club, it is a way of life and judging others has no place in it. If you must judge anything let it be the action, not the person, because if you walked a mile in their shoes you might have done the same, if not more. The grace of God to walk the difficult path of heavenly perfection and keep true to orthodox doctrine is a generous gift, not an accomplishment. And when you presume to judge others based on your opinions of whether or not they are as orthodox or well informed as your own self you take credit for God’s work in you in a most abominable way. And I honestly think that if you kept this up you would lose God’s grace just as much as if you were caught in sin,  because you become, as Jesus said, a “whitewashed sepulcher” a good looking grave, because while it may seem like you uphold the law there is no love in your heart, because nothing drives out love faster than pride. I know this from experience.

And the whole point of orthodoxy for me is not to have it as a checklist that I measure my worth by. It is instead a key to figuring out how to have more of God in my soul because having God in my soul is the only thing that has ever satisfied my annoyingly restless heart. Because my God is love, perfect love. And if you manage to have perfect orthodoxy without also having love what is the point? It’s just a barren branch without any fruit on it because it’s still just you, and the point of religion is to have God in you. 

And it frustrates me when I see this in the Christian ranks. I moved to Pittsburgh from a lovable but extremely elitist town in Virginia where I saw people being seduced by this temptation everywhere. The temptation to strive for knowledge and the accolades that come from having it while forgetting that the purpose of all knowledge is to enlighten us to the truth, a truth that came to life through love Himself.

Because the truth of the gospel, the rich mysteries of the Church, were not made as a merely mental exercise, a truth to be discovered by and shared among only the worthy. The truth of the gospel was meant to be lived and shared indiscriminately due to the very nature of what it is you’re receiving. The gospel is a tremendous gift meant to give us true joy and lasting love, a life with deeper roots, higher thoughts, wider hearts, and bigger smiles because through it we encounter God in our lives, and there is nothing more we need.

And I get tired of churches looking the same as the world. The same cliques, the same judgments, the same excuses, the same buffet tables. I want churches to look different. Because saints always look different from their times and we are all called to be saints.(After all, saints are just born sinners with the audacity to declare that they will not die that way.) I’m not saying that we should abandon all doctrine and declare free love. I’m a firm believer in absolute truth which I believe is revealed through the Catholic Church and its doctrine. We don’t have to agree on that, in fact a fair amount of people who read this blog probably don’t. But in a world where everyone likes to sit comfortably and discuss what’s wrong with other people, I wish they would focus instead on doing two simple things: 1) receiving the love of God 2) sharing the love of God. Because while these things are straightforward they are not always easy. And by letting God love us, we become the change we wish to see in the world, because heaven comes alive in us and, hopefully, when others see it they remember who they are and want to have it too. 

Because a friend of mine who happened to catch my exchange with this woman told me “she (the commentator) wouldn’t like me very much” because he also uses a Catholic handle and figured that he too would not be orthodox or worthy enough. And this almost perfectly sums up how many millennials feel about the Christian religion. Just a meeting of Club Pharisee with a lot of boring doctrines that exclude people and can’t compete with the exciting modern world of today with the falsely welcoming embrace of the hazy universalism that is non-judgmental spirituality. And this is a shame because from my own study (which I admittedly wish I had more time for) I can confirm that God does not feel that way about a single one of His children. God is love and love is never about being worthy. Love is a gift, a free gift from a free choice, and Club Pharisee is a bad representation of what I believe is in God’s heart. But how would you know that if you weren’t raised in faith like me? And how would you know that if your only experiences with the Church went like that?… But try and be better than me and have patience with members of Club Pharisee, because it’s a very human fault and they’re learning as they go just as you are.

But I guess if I could change one thing it would be a counter to all the perfectionism of the world and the haughtiness of Club Pharisee. And my way of doing that would be to admit to you that I chose the Catholic handle not because this blog is about Catholicism, has millions of footnotes leading you to Catholic doctrine, or even because I’m worthy of the title. I choose this handle because I am Catholic, it is so much a part of me that it colors how I experience the world, and I am as Catholic listening to my new Pentatonix album (amazing) as I am when I’m sitting at mass (also amazing). To admit that I think the love of God is so profoundly beautiful that you can experience whether you are a champ at kneeling or whether you slouch like I do. To admit that truly following Christ is hard and that it won’t always win you friends or a big fancy house in the suburbs (no matter what Joel Osteen says) but that you can do it anyway by His grace and the people He places in your life at just the right time. To admit even that I am far from a perfect person and that often I find myself in awe of God’s patience with me as I struggle to overcome the same flaws over and over again.

But most of all to admit that, while I hope you’ve enjoyed my blog, there is only one thing I ever wanted it to be: honest. And part of that truth is that I love you tremendously, even if we’ve never met. Because I know God loves you tremendously too in both your strengths and in your weaknesses. And if you believe nothing else I ever write believe that, because reflecting on that simple truth can change your life. It certainly changed mine.

So here’s to love and humility, even if it means a slightly unorthodox orthodoxy.