When I was ten years old we actually found ourselves living next to a convent. Members of a German order, the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary, built a religious house next to ours. Improbably enough in view of the above, my parents came to adore them. At considerable physical risk to himself, Dad would every year climb his own pine trees and chop off branches of them, so that they could be used as Christmas trees at the convent.
More and more my parents’ theoretical opposition to Catholicism became modified by such considerations as "Oh, of course, when we say Catholics are the enemies of free thought, we don’t mean you." The sheer goodness-in-action (this is the least cumbersome description I can come up with) of the Schoenstatt Sisters modified not only my parents’ prejudices, but mine. Nevertheless my father certainly, and my mother probably, would have thought it grotesque in those days to believe that the nuns’ goodness had anything to do with their faith. No, somehow the nuns were good despite their faith. They presented to my father the same unlikely spectacle as an improbably obliging communist, or an improbably obliging telephone-vandal.
When the possibility of converting to Catholicism became a real one, it was the immensity of the whole package that daunted me, rather than specific teachings. I therefore spent little time agonizing over the Assumption of Mary, justification by works as well as faith, the reverencing of statues, and other such concepts that traditionally irk the non-Catholic mind.
Rather, such anguish as I felt came from entirely the other direction. However dimly and inadequately, I had learnt enough Catholic history and Catholic dogma to know that either Catholicism was the greatest racket in human history, or it was what it said itself that it was. Such studying burned the phrase "By what authority?" into my mind like acid. If the papacy was just an imposture, or an exercise in power mania, then how was doctrine to be transmitted from generation to generation? If the whole Catholic enchilada was a swindle, then why should its enemies have bestirred themselves to hate it so much? Why do they do so still?
Yet in addition, I must confess that the example of certain openly bad Catholics — out of charity I will say little about them, and nothing about the bad female Catholics — kept me out of the Catholic Church for years, as efficiently as if they had been wielding dog-whips in the nave. It is a terrible thing to have wrestled one’s way into a position where Catholicism seems at least plausible, only to discover that armies of one’s future co-religionists regard Catholicism (more especially, of course, Catholic teaching on sexual morals) with shrill contempt. They seem to enjoy all the benefits of Catholic life, and none of the inconveniences.
Another factor I have not yet mentioned: frequent bouts of mental illness. For years these convinced me that Catholicism would have the same impact on my soul which a lighted match would have on a gunpowder factory. Had I known that the opposite was true (and that my Catholicism has been more important than anything else in blunting the sharpest edge of illness), I would never have hesitated for so long.
Making the acquaintance of genuine lay Catholics was an eye-opener. Yet it meant less to me than two interlinked family tragedies in 1993-1994.
Shortly before Christmas 1993, my mother — who for decades had drunk heavily, smoked compulsively, and eaten hardly at all — suffered a massive stroke. At first she was not expected to live. Gradually, the truth emerged: the stroke, while not powerful enough to have killed her, had robbed her of all speech and nearly all movement.