Read Part 4 here
Read Part 5 here
Note: You can also click on the "Becoming Catholic" icon above to see the entire series
There are so many places I could go from the places in my journey I've already covered. I could go into the primacy of Peter and his seat, I could talk about the Catholic teaching on justification, or any number of other Catholic doctrines. Studying these things changed and shaped my view of the Christian faith and were deeply transformative along the journey. And no doubt about it, these issues are substantial when it comes to matters of the Christian faith.
I could explain to you even more of what I learned, but I'm not sure that is the most beneficial. If you really are curious, I could point you in the direction of resources that were helpful for me and not at all to difficult to digest and understand, or send you the drafts that I've written on these things (I'm not quite done with the one on Peter and his seat, and it's already at five pages single-spaced. Yikes). As much as these things changed me, I'm not sure I want to write essays aimed at proving some Catholic doctrine or another. You can get better material than I can produce elsewhere.
So for now, I thought I'd focus on some of the key things that drew me to the Church. These things, beyond assenting to them intellectually, pulled me and drew me in. These are the things that appealed to me. I'll be doing a fair amount of comparison with my experience as a Protestant. Keep in mind that when I speak of my experience of evangelical/Protestant Christianity, that's what it is limited to -- my experience. Depending on variations in background, denomination, and so on, someone else may claim a very different experience. If that's the case, that person is free to write his/her own blog post about it. Amen.
Where I had grown up with only two ritual practices (baptism and communion), there are seven sacraments in the Catholic church. In truth, I'm not sure I ever heard these referred to as "sacraments" in the Protestant tradition in which I was raised. In addition to baptism and communion (or, the Eucharist), Catholics have the sacraments of confession (also called "reconciliation"), marriage, holy orders, confirmation, and anointing of the sick. Each of these could have a rather lengthy blog post about its significance, so I'll just touch on how some of these sacraments drew me.
What's a sacrament?
I'm so glad you asked! The following definitions are from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):
“Christ now acts through the sacraments he instituted to communicate his grace. The sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify.” (CCC 1084)
“Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.” (CCC 1127)
Engaging the Senses
I was baptized when I was 14 years old, so it was not necessary for me to be baptized again. The Catholic church recognizes baptisms from other Christian churches that employ the trinitarian form (i.e., "In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"). It was affirmed to me repeatedly that I was already one with the Church in my baptism.
Eucharist (Holy Communion)
Oh, how I love the Eucharist!! This one really could take up volumes. Without getting into the finer theological points of it, I grew up in a church that believed communion is a memorial meal: a remembrance of the death of Christ (depending on the Protestant tradition in which one worships, there are variations on this belief). I think the most we ever had communion was once a month. Catholics believe in the real presence; that is, once consecrated, that the bread and wine become by the power of the Holy Spirit the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. Catholic believers everywhere are united in sharing the body and the blood, able to take in and assimilate Christ's body in a physical way.
This may sound odd or even sacrilegious to some -- I know it did to me the first time I heard of such a thing. But read Christ's discourse with the disciples in John 6; observe the behavior of those who leave, offended at His command to eat His flesh and drink his blood (the Greek word for "eat" in this passage literally means to gnaw on, or to chew). It's interesting to me that many who insist on reading the Bible literally make a particular exception for this passage. Considering the response of those present, it seems certain to me that Christ was, in fact, speaking literally.
Confession (or, Reconciliation)
This one, believe it or not, was a tremendous draw for me. I know that a common objection is Why can't you just go to Jesus? A man can't forgive your sins! And the truth is, a man in his own authority cannot forgive your sins. But in John 20, after His resurrection, Christ meets the disciples and breathes the Holy Spirit on them, giving them His authority to forgive or retain a person's sins. I've gone to confession. I've spilled my guts to the priest. I knew he wasn't going to hear anything from me that he hadn't heard already. And he nodded in understanding, and spoke the words of absolution over me. Remember the definition of the sacrament: it's a perceptible word or action that signifies and communicates the particular grace that is signified by the action taking place. In other words, the priest was, with the authority of Christ, communicating the grace of forgiven sin.
These were sins I had acknowledged in prayer and with contrition before Christ in private many times. But it was unbelievably freeing and healing to experience the hands of the priest cover me, affirming my sins are forgiven. I walked out of that place with a lighter step and such tremendous peace and joy. I heard the words aloud, I saw hands raised in blessing. I got to experience it in a very real and very present way.
I've already touched on this in describing what draws me about the sacraments, but one thing that really drew me was how all of one's senses are used in the Catholic church. In my experiences as an evangelical, much of my experience was distanced from anything tangible or concrete. Prayers of confession were silent; I always trusted I was forgiven, but I never heard an audible voice affirming that trust. I took communion when it was offered, but it was just supposed to draw me toward humility and to help me remember Christ's sacrifice -- something I had never seen or experienced. Conversion meant "asking Jesus into your heart and accepting Him as your personal Lord and savior." It was evident in these moments that the Spirit was moving deeply, no doubt. But I longed for something with which to engage, something I could touch, taste, and feel.
As a Catholic, I get to experience and worship Christ with all my senses. When I see Him hanging on the crucifix in the chapel, I'm reminded of His suffering and sacrifice on our behalf, and I'm reminded of the consequences of my sin -- I put Him there, but still He allows me to identify all my suffering with His; it is not without purpose. I sing and respond during the Mass, and I hear the priest speak the words of consecration that Saint Paul wrote, straight from 1 Corinthians 11. I use my body: I stand when the gospel is read, and I kneel when the Eucharist is being consecrated. During the high days, I smell the incense, our prayers rising to heaven. Each time I enter the chapel, I bless myself with the holy water, which serves to remind me of my baptismal promises: to reject Satan, all His empty promises, and to affirm my belief in God and His church. During the Eucharist, I receive in my own body the flesh and blood of Christ, which in taste and appearance are like bread and wine. In confession, I confess my sins and hear the words of absolution from the priest, who is acting in persona Christi. In other words, my physical reality becomes saturated with graces that are otherwise intangible. I can hear Christ, see Him, feel Him, taste Him, and smell Him in the Mass.
History & Apostolic Succession
More than just possessing a love of history, I longed for a church with history: a body that had its rootedness in tradition, and in the ways and teachings of the apostles. I grew up in non-denominational Christian churches. I learned to love Jesus there, I memorized Bible verses, and I participated as fully as I could. I never questioned the power of Jesus, nor the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Bible was read, the Bible was taught, and everyone I knew sought to honor Christ. We did community outreaches, we sponsored orphans, we fed the poor. There were so many things the communities of which I was a part did well.
But as I got older, I recognized that there were things missing from my experience of church that were in the Bible: the breaking of bread for as often as we met together, anointing the sick, or any kind of confession of sins (you know: to another human being ... out loud, like it says in James 5). Sometimes I got the impression sin wasn't really that big a deal because hey, Jesus is a nice guy and He's going to forgive you anyway. And it really troubled me that my church taught something a little differently than my friend's churches, like the significance and importance of baptism, for example. I thought the view my church taught made the most sense, but how did I know it was really the right one?
The need for real God-given authority became evident when in my post-college years, this church experienced something I never thought I'd see. One of the associate pastors was fired (the man who baptized me and my siblings), and in a way that violated the church's own constitution. The leaders responsible tried to backpedal and cover it up by asking for this pastor's resignation after the fact, but the damage had already been done. We knew what had happened. When confronted with this information, the leadership of the church proceeded to chastise my parents in their own home, fire my Dad from his part-time landscaping job there (this was accomplished by a note in his last paycheck), and we were told that if we didn't apologize for saying that we knew what was going on and that it was wrong, we would not be welcome at that church again. In good conscience, this is not something we were able to do.
This is the church I was born into. This is the church where my family had poured out blood, sweat, and tears for the twenty-some years we had been there. And what could we do? We had no recourse, no court of appeal. It was one of the most hurtful things we ever experienced as a family. And after it happened to us, we met many others who had experienced similar trauma at the hands of other Christian churches. Though I had no idea what it would look like at the time, I recognized that some kind of authority was necessary, someone to whom teachers and leaders in the church were accountable.
I'd be lying if I said that the men and women whom the Church recognizes as saints weren't a draw. I have often heard, Why can't you just look to Christ? and that is true. We can look to Christ (and we should look to Him) as our chief example. But I have something in common with these men and women we call saints: they were not the incarnate Son of God. They were like me. They were ordinary people who lived extraordinarily holy lives in the face of many challenges, in the face of opposition, in the face of tyranny. Some of them were martyred, some of them helped give shape to many of the foundational doctrines of our faith. All were faithful to the risen Christ. And the truth is, through this "great cloud of witnesses" we can see the power of Christ working through rather humble and ordinary folk.
Saint Agatha is the woman I chose as my confirmation saint (click on the link to read a brief article about her). I chose her because like her, I want to profess my faith unflinchingly even in the face of opposition and ridicule. God forbid I should ever face the torture and mutilation she did on account of her faith, but I certainly hope that regardless of the circumstances, I might stand firm and faithful to the end as she did.
Not rushing through Good Friday
I was really looking forward to my first Good Friday as a Catholic. In the evangelical/Protestant churches I attended, there would be a Good Friday service, and I would always go. The service would include reflections on Christ's suffering and sacrifice, sometimes a graphic description or representation of what Christ endured. Inevitably, the service would end with a reminder of Easter Sunday.
While I knew Sunday was coming and what that meant, I often felt a loss at not being able to properly mourn what Jesus suffered -- I felt rushed into Sunday before Friday was even over. Yes, we all know He rose on Sunday. Yes, we know He was victorious over sin and death. Believe me, I want to run toward that empty tomb as much as anyone! But please, in the name of all that is holy, allow me this one day to mourn what my sin did to Jesus. Let me feel it, let me mourn Him, let me sit with this for awhile. Let me feel the weight of what my sin cost Him.
This year, I finally got that experience. When we walked into the chapel, the glass etching of the risen Christ that marks the entrance was covered in black cloth. The altar was bare of its customary linens. The crucifix at the opposite end of the chapel was draped in a large red cloth. And the font of holy water was empty.
The service was a couple hours long, in which the priest and a couple of other readers took turns reading the entire story of the Passion from the book of John. Near the start of the service, I prayed for tears, for the grace to be able to mourn truly the loss of my Savior. Never has a prayer of mine been answered so quickly!! Somewhere in the midst of the reading, I started crying. Just a tear streaming down here and there, until I was sniffling and stifling sobs, until the backs of my hands were wet and salty.
Near the end of the service, the priest and the deacon went to the back of the chapel to remove the red draping from the crucifix. One arm of the cross was exposed, and then the next, and then the whole covering was removed. We were all invited to meditate on what it meant to venerate (i.e., show reverence for) the cross. Everyone took turns coming forward, some kneeling, some standing, some bowing their heads as they whispered their prayers to Jesus. I had no idea what I would do when I got there, I was so overcome. But when when our turn arrived, I knelt down in front of that cross, bowed my head, touched those pierced feet and wept. I just wept. We weren't there long, but I got a chance to tell Jesus how sorry I was, just to look at Him and say thank you, to grieve the death He died and the shame He suffered on my behalf.
The experience was emotional and cathartic, but also something more. In a very substantial way, I was able to grieve my Lord, able to recognize the gravity of sin, and able to experience the most overwhelming and infinite love of a God who gave His Son as a ransom for sinners. I was in every way, on holy ground.
And you know what? That made Easter something I could really celebrate.
Note: I've decided to wrap up this series with my next post, in which I'll address some of the common questions/misconceptions I've confronted and do my level best to explain (as succinctly as possible) the answers to those things. Thanks to all of you who have hung in here with me and read my insanely long posts! You honor me, and I am humbled.