I fought Catholicism.
Oh, I fought it long and hard.
Let me explain.
When I was young, I was raised in a loving, devoted Lutheran (E.L.C.A.) family. We regularly attended church, read Bible stories, prayed before meals and bedtime, and discussed the role of faith in everyday life. To this day, I have fond memories of the edifice of faith inspired by God and sustained by my family.
Now, I had no reason not to like Catholics. Or so I thought. After all, I had friends who went to Mass, attended “C.C.D (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine)” and had a priest, whereas I went to church services, Sunday school and had a pastor. My Catholic friends spent more time on Mary and the Saints, mentioned the pope periodically and went to Confession. But beyond this, we could still climb trees, tease girls and play baseball together.
However, it was during my last year of college that this all started to change. This was when I met the love of my life, Cari (those are dreamy italics). She was beautiful. She was bright. She was loving.
She was Catholic.
Okay, okay. No big deal. Right?
You see, when we realized we were falling in love and excited to spend our lives together, we recognized that we needed to figure out how and where we would practice our faith. God played a significant role in both of our lives, so where we got married, how we raised our children and who our faith community would be was extremely important.
This was the beginning of my big, fat fight against Catholicism.
It was at this point that all of these mysterious, latent, but fierce objections began pouring out of me. My open-minded, loving approach to my wife’s faith inexplicably but routinely devolved into clench-jawed, sanctimonious criticism of any and all things Catholic.
And so the accusations, thinly-veiled as earnest questions, would roll out…
Why am I not welcome at the Communion table? What’s with all the pomp and circumstance of the Church hierarchy? Who says I have to confess to a priest? Why, if we get married in the Catholic Church, do we need to sign a paper committing to raise our children Catholic? What’s with the exaltation (if not idolatry) of Mary and the Saints? What about…? How come…? And one thing more…
On and on, I would rattle.
My solution? Simple.
“Cari, why don’t you change? Why don’t you simply stop being Catholic?” We should be Lutheran. Or, to show I am in a compromising mood, how about Episcopalian? Seems to strike a balance from a liturgical standpoint. Or how about non-denominational? Now that’s compromise! Seems inoffensive to both of us, right?
And yet Cari, quite simply and quietly, replied, “But Tod, I’m Catholic. That is just who I am.”
Fume. Fume. Fuss. Mutter.
So… being in love and reaching a stalemate, we did what seemed most logical. We kicked the can down the road. Our short-term compromise? We would alternate Sundays between the Catholic and Lutheran church for the time being, get married in the Catholic Church, and move forward together from there.
However, what happened over the following 14 years was something I could never have anticipated.
Week in and week out, slowly but surely, the beauty and reverence of the Mass warmed me and soon overwhelmed me. The centrality of the Eucharist drew me deeper into its Mystery. Encountering Mary and the saints in their truest forms as brothers and sisters, a cloud of witnesses, models and advocates serving and worshiping Christ profoundly broadened my sense of the Body of Christ. And then there were G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh and Hilaire Belloc, Romano Guardini and Pope Benedict XVI who made me see the intellectual and mysterious, the beautiful and the jarring sides of Catholicism. Indescribable art, soaring architecture, sublime music, wonders of nature all pointed faithfully, unerringly to Christ in ways I had never considered. And conversations with my priest, my Catholic friends and my wife took on a new tone, a new earnestness, a new faith.
And before long, we were attending Mass every weekend. Because it felt right to me.
When British journalist and Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton reflected on his own spiritual journey in the early 20th century, it is striking how he could have been describing mine:
“The moment men cease to pull against [the Catholic Church] they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it. But when that affection has passed a certain point it begins to take on the tragic and menacing grandeur of a great love affair.”
In time, one misgiving after another (in spite of my dogged attempts to the contrary) simply, gracefully, miraculously… fell away. A conversion, quite unlike Saul being knocked off his horse and onto his keister, was unfolding. Instead, my conversion was more akin to a portrait painted with a thousand brushstrokes whose very visage became apparent only as it neared completion. And all along, I was late to realize, this was not my doing. It was God’s.
On April 3, 2010 at Easter Vigil, my big, fat fight against Catholicism came to an end when I entered fully into the Faith. Without doubt, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, my conversion was a blessed defeat.
When G.K. Chesterton, one of the greatest influences in my conversion, became Catholic in 1922, he looked fully into the eyes of Fr. Thomas Walker and beamed, “I have spent the happiest hour of my life.”
And then he went home and penned this poem,
After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white.
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead
The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.
As my fight with the Catholic Church gloriously ended, I too realized:
“My name is Lazarus and I live.”