And it all started with someone calling me "Satan."
When I went to college I didn’t know my faith very well. I knew there were differences between Catholics and Protestants, but I was unaware that the distinctions were big enough to cause any real problems.
Pretty naive, I guess.
This all came into graphic relief during my last year at William Jewell College (a historically Baptist college). A communications major (a Catholic) was giving her senior presentation about Christian unity at Jewell. One negative example she gave was of overhearing a conversation where the Student Senate president, who was Catholic, was referred to as “Satan.”
I was stunned. That Catholic Student Senate president was me.
I was given this nasty moniker not because of the kind of person I was, but simply because I was Catholic.
In that moment I realized the Catholic-Protestant divide was no joke and there were a lot of people out there who had really big feelings about it all. Rather than being appalled, I wanted to jump in. While I didn’t understand exactly what all the fuss was about, I was put on notice.
Not to further divide, but unite.
A hope for healing, unity, and understanding between all Christians came alive in me.
Most all of my interactions with Protestants at William Jewell College were really strong. I never experienced personally the anti-Catholic bias that was referenced in this speech. Whether it was in small group settings or on retreats or serving at soup kitchens I only knew Christian unity, nothing else. Which is why it surprised me so much to hear Christian disunity expressed so blatantly.
In fact, throughout my conversion experience in college I encountered three things from Protestant Christians at William Jewell that ultimately ensured I never left the Catholic Church, and as such, have become something of a template (of course alongside this, this, and most recently this) for an approach to Christian unity these many years later.
No one spoke ill of the Catholic Church to me. It didn’t take me very long, while I was on campus, to realize that non-Catholic Christians had real questions about what Catholics believe, but I never encountered anyone going on the offensive. Sure, things came up about things like praying to saints or the authority of the Pope, but never was I made to feel ashamed of who I was as a Catholic.
No one encouraged me to leave the Catholic Church. This never came up. This hasn’t been every Catholic’s experience, but it was mine. I was in a number of strong men’s groups towards the end of college, regularly engaging other non-Catholic Christians in faith related discussions. Never once was I encouraged to “check out their Church” or reconsider mine. I’m really grateful for this because my experience as a Catholic who had awakened to Jesus, become his disciple, and desired to lead others to him would be a mission fulfilled within, rather than outside of, the Catholic Church.
The focus was on Jesus. More than anything I walked away from my relationships with other Christians at William Jewell with a greater love for Jesus. Jesus was the focus, the center, and the end-goal. This shaped the sort of Catholicism I would embrace beyond my time at William Jewell. Come to find out it was also the Christocentric Catholicism of John Paul II, Benedict XVI and our current Pope Francis.
This focus on Jesus prepared me to re-receive the gift of Jesus in the sacramental life of the Church. Receiving Jesus in the Eucharist became meaningful and eagerly desired, rather than rote and impersonal. Going to confession and knowing that my sins have been forgiven was no semi-annual afterthought, it was healing, sanity, and mercy.This all kept me Catholic.
People who loved Jesus were willing to share his love with me – no matter the crazy scary nicknames uttered about me behind my back.
Ryan O’Hara serves as the Director of Mission Resources for Saint Paul’s Outreach, a national Catholic organization that ministers to college students on campus. He is passionate about seeing students come alive in Christ, grow to spiritual maturity and become apostles to their peers. Ryan and his wife Jill live in West St Paul, MN and are parents to four young boys. He blogs on his Tumblr.