I’m a first-time RCIA sponsor at my parish – God help it and me – and this was the week that the catechumens and candidates stood up and told us their stories of conversion, reversion or completion.
Several tales had to do with marrying a Catholic spouse and eventually wanting to be part of the whole experience. I got a couple of thoughts out of that.
One: Catholics marrying non-Catholics appears to sometimes function on a practical level as a kind of unofficial apostolate. It’s not the Church’s first choice for Her people, but it happens. What I was glad to hear is that the Catholic spouse followed through on raising the children in the Faith.
Two: I was dismayed to hear two people say that the Church (referring to my parish, but I think it’s widespread) makes it easy to attend for years or decades and not be Catholic. It worked out eventually for these folks – undoubtedly thanks to the Holy Spirit, working through inspiration and persistent pastoral prodding – but it didn’t strike me as a happy revelation.
A few were people who started Catholic, wandered off the reservation either through apathy, being too busy or just not being motivated to go through confirmation. Thank the Good Lord, they wandered back.
Others were baptized in other Christian communities, or not baptized at all, but found their way to Catholicism, each by a different and sometimes circuitous route.
Each year, when new people come into the Church, I’m struck afresh by how staggeringly unlikely it must seem to non-Catholics that anyone in today’s secular, sophisticated world would, willingly and as an adult, commit themselves to the most organized of organized religions.
It’s especially amazing when you consider the Church doesn’t want you to have an abortion if you like, or to have consequence-free sex with anyone you like, under any circumstances you like or in whatever way you like.
That’s a mind-blower even for more liberal Christians who are getting rather wobbly on some or all of the above.
The deacon running the class recalled the story of Saul, whose life as a Christian-persecuting Zealot came to a screeching halt on the road to Damascus in one moment of spiritual insight followed by three days of physical blindness.
The deacon raised an interesting point – that when Christ appeared to Saul, He didn’t ask why he was persecuting His followers or His Disciples or even His Church.
He said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (emphasis mine)
When Saul asked who the voice was, the reply was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Christ left us His teachings but not a Bible written by His own hand. He didn’t leave us a new tablet of commandments carved in stone. He certainly didn’t leave us a Book of Mormon inscribed on golden plates (or any of the words in it, for that matter).
All the Gospels tell us about are some words He wrote with a finger in the sand.
Instead, Jesus was the Word of God made flesh, and it was flesh that He left us after the Resurrection – a living Church of Apostles and disciples, with Peter as its head. And so it has been, from then until now. Christ and His Church are One.
For centuries, many people, if they were Christians, had little choice but to be part of the Catholic Church. But today, there’s a bewildering multitude of Christian and quasi-Christian traditions, with about as many interpretations of what it means to be Christian as there are members in them.
Some of them are spiritually demanding; others don’t even require a belief in Christ’s divinity. Each one takes the Word and then adds to or subtracts from it, elevates some portions and undervalues others, or builds whole belief systems around fragments of Scripture or the preaching of charismatic individuals.
In their own ways, many of them are beautiful and carry elements of Truth. To be honest, a lot of these people, even those belonging to heretical traditions, live more Christian lives than many Catholics.
So, why go to all the trouble and bother to be Catholic? Surely there are easier ways to love Christ. Surely, a truly Christian life can be led without ever crossing the Tiber.
It may look like that – and many of these souls no doubt are bathed in God’s grace as much or even more so than professed Catholics – but as Jesus pointed out to Saul (who later relinquished his Hebrew name for his Roman one, Paul), Christ and His Church are One.
To love Christ but not His Church, to love his Word but not His Church, to follow Him but not into His Church, is to divide what cannot be divided.
When I reverted to the Church, I did so without talking to other Catholics, lay or religious. I preferred to go to the original sources to learn the Faith – to my Catholic Study Bible, the Catechism, EWTN, the Early Church Fathers and Doctors of the Church.
That was great as far as it went – and it probably saved me from having to unlearn a lot of the apostasy and heresy afloat among my fellow poorly catechized Catholics – but at some point, being a Catholic can’t be just an intellectual exercise or a solo journey.
Christ didn’t just leave words, He IS the Word, and His Church isn’t just dusty documents, beautiful buildings or even attending Mass, getting the Eucharist and getting out of there. It’s alive in the body, blood and soul of every baptized Catholic.
Imagine Paul, full of new zeal and love for Christ, going on to meet some actual Christians. I bet plenty of them were irritating, ill-informed, stubborn, idiosyncratic, cranky or pushy. I suspect he tore his hair out, swallowed more than a few curses, stomped down some very uncharitable thoughts and kept his eyes fixed on Christ in order not to smack one of the Lord’s beloved children upside the head.
We know that he even reprimanded Peter at one point in Antioch, so imagine what else must have gone on.
So, as daunting a thought as it may be, to live in the fullness of Christ’s teachings is to be in His Church, and to be in His Church is to eventually be with your fellow Catholics.
Each one of us is on the Road to Damascus every moment of our lives, being surprised by Christ, blinded so we can see, converting and reconverting. It’s a journey He always meant us to share with the rest of the family.
To love Christ is to love His Church, and to let it love you back. And don’t smack anyone. Mother’s watching.