It was late on Christmas Eve, 1989. I was a thirty-year old father of two with one mission: to finish assembling the toys that Santa Claus would get credit for the next morning. I finished fumbling with the final nut and locking washer, arranged everything under the tree, and plopped down on the couch to check the news. It had been a tumultuous few months. Two days earlier the people of Romania had overthrown their dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. The Berlin Wall had come down in November. The Soviet empire was collapsing. The United States was at war again, this time in Panama.
As I paged through the channels, my eye was caught by the midnight Mass from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Two English-speaking television hosts were translating the Mass and offering interesting commentary on the ceremony and the setting. St. Peter’s was resplendent, with its soaring apses, vaults and domes, its impressive statuary, all the shimmering blues, reds and golds reflected in stone and brass. Although raised a Protestant, I had attended a Catholic college and had been in a few Catholic churches before. But I had never seen anything quite as beautiful.
I watched for a while as the Mass inched forward. No one seemed to be in that much of a rush. The color commentator explained that the First Reading, offered this night in Tagalog, was from the Old Testament. He explained the tradition of the Responsorial Psalm, and that a selection from the Psalms is featured in every Liturgy. He went on to explain the significance of the Second Reading, which was offered that evening in Polish, and then the place of honor accorded to the reading from the Gospel, when the entire congregation stands. Although I was the son of an Evangelical minister, I had attended a few masses in my time, but I had never heard anything quite as beautiful.
Pope John Paul II, the still-young pope who seemed to somehow be at the center of the epochal changes happening in the world that winter, gave a stirring homily in Italian, translated faithfully by the English-language host. At one point the Pope said that God, who knows man better than man knows himself, also knows that the human heart is restless until it rests in him. The translator indicated that the pope was paraphrasing St. Augustine’s words, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” As a philosophy major, I had read St. Augustine’s Confessions, but I hadn’t encountered these words, at least not in a context that made them seem so beautiful.
Finally, as the altar was being prepared for the Eucharist, the commentator noted the black twisting columns of Bernini’s baldachin, the canopy that stands over the altar. “The columns look like incense rising into the nostrils of God,” he said. It was a striking image. And then he noted rather nonchalantly that the altar itself was positioned directly over the tomb of St. Peter, several stories below. I sat stunned … stunned by beauty, by language, stunned by history and painfully aware of my own waywardness. Despite having grown up in a God-saturated home, I had abandoned the practice of the faith. More to the point, I had abandoned the notion that the truth was discoverable, that history was explicable, that an authentic Christian tradition existed. And yet there I sat that Christmas Eve, watching an ancient liturgy unfold in an ancient place, conducted by an ancient community that claimed divine origin, and my heart was restless. My beautiful wife, three year-old son and new baby daughter lay sleeping in their beds but I was suddenly troubled. Where was I leading them? What would I teach them? In that moment I knew two things. First, as a father I needed to give definitive answers to those questions. I needed to decide what I believed and then start living it. Second, I would have to start by confronting the claims of the Catholic Church.
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Eight years would pass until I stood before the altar at St. Brendan Church in Riverside, Rhode Island, and received Confirmation and First Communion. For me those were years of discovery and discontent. Long before I asked for reception into the Church we had started attending Mass in order to provide some basic religious context for our kids, but I continued to struggle. I read deeply in history, theology, and philosophy. I read primary works by the Apostolic Fathers, the Greek Fathers, the Latin Fathers, the Desert Fathers, and the medieval Catholic saints, including Aquinas, Bonaventure, Anselm, and Bernard of Clairvaux.
I also read the Protestant divines, from Luther and Calvin to Barth and Bultmann. I read apologetic literature ancient and modern and from every point of view; biographies; the histories of creeds and movements. I read the entire New Testament and much of it several times, as well as countless commentaries, from Matthew Henry on the Reformed side to Haydock on the Catholic. I painstakingly worked through all the issues, including sola scriptura, sola fide, justification and sanctification, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, the development of doctrine, and on and on. I filled my head with more knowledge than I thought possible, and although I came to the conclusion that the Catholic Church possessed the only internally consistent system of belief and practice, I was still on the fence. I needed an internal witness. I needed an experience of God in the Church.
Not surprisingly, that experience came one day at Mass. I had remained very independent, even defiant in my thinking, and so I frequently received Communion illicitly. I’m a baptized Christian, I told myself. Receiving Communion isn’t about the rules of membership. It’s about me and Jesus. But on this day my attention was unusually focused on the consecration of the host. Almost against my will I found myself praying, “Lord, if you are really there, on that altar – not just symbolically, but truly, bodily – then show me.” As the Liturgy of the Eucharist proceeded, I felt a growing peace wash over me, a deep emotional confirmation that I was indeed in the physical presence of the risen Christ. By the time the words “Lord, I am not worthy …” were spoken, I truly believed them for the first time. I would not receive again until my First Communion at the Easter Vigil two years hence, but from that moment I was bound for full reconciliation with the Church.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once exclaimed, “Beauty will save the world.” That’s probably true, although it’s not likely that I’ll be around to see it. But I know with certainty that beauty saved me: the beauty of Christ in his Church, in her liturgy and scriptures, her saints, in her care for the poor, her history and tradition, and in her art; and yes, even in her brokenness and humiliation. It was the best and least expected Christmas gift I have ever received, praise be to God!
Adapted from the introduction to the author’s book, Forty Days, Forty Graces.