One of the questions I get most often when people hear I’m a convert is, “Why did you choose to become Catholic?” I’ve been asked this question by Jews, Baptists, Mormons, atheists, and even Jehovah’s Witnesses. The person who asks the question never says the rest of it, which is, “Why did you choose to become a Catholic INSTEAD of what I am?” These are people of genuine faith, who believe they have found and are living by The Truth. So naturally they want to understand how someone educated and sane could believe so differently.
It’s always a hard question to answer, because I’m sensitive to that unspoken part. I don’t want to insinuate–even accidentally–that they are less intelligent, less holy, or inferior to me as a Catholic. I usually give the “safe” answer, and talk about how my husband and I were drawn continuously to Jesus in the Eucharist. But part of me always yearns to say what G.K. Chesterton said so beautifully:
The difficulty of explaining “why I am Catholic” is that there are 10,000
reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.
I never wanted to be a Catholic. I never even wanted to be a Christian. When my husband convinced me to join him on a quest through major and minor religions nearly 15 years ago, I did it mostly to humor him. I had lived as an avowed atheist for more than a decade and couldn’t imagine that The Truth even existed, much less it could be found. Especially when I couldn’t even accept that God was real.
Fortunately, God literally changed my mind about Him with a thunderbolt. One day, I was reading an article about the human genome project (I was a technical writer), when I was drawn to look at my own hand. What had before been a clever machine of flesh and bone was suddenly revealed to me as a pure miracle of creation. It was truly that instant; one second I was an atheist, and the next I was a believer. I knew with absolute certainty that only an intelligent designer–God–could have created something as incredible as me!
But accepting God’s existence didn’t solve anything; in fact, it created new problems. I’ve had friends who are Deists, who believe God created the universe (including humanity) and then left it alone…much like a clockmaker might create a masterful clock he sets into motion and then ignores. To me, it was simply unthinkable that God would create the glorious universe–including all the amazing people such as my husband–and then just walk away. I realized that the beauty that had brought tears to my eyes even as an atheist could only be interpreted as the uniquely personal stamp of a loving God who delighted in His creation. If God created the majestic earth, gave us the joy of music, and gave me the mind to appreciate it, then it made no sense that he’d create all that just to turn His back on it.
So my agnostic husband and I started questioning the people who claimed to know something about God: the believers. All believers. Every time we encountered someone of faith, we invited them to dinner and then respectfully grilled them on their beliefs. We visited their churches and temples, went to services with them, and read ad nauseum about what and why they believed and how they lived out their beliefs.
We were initially most attracted to Buddhism, no doubt because its adoption by prominent Hollywood celebrities made it a “cool” religion. But despite our best efforts, we just couldn’t accept that Buddhism was true. For one, we found it too morally fuzzy. We had both come around to the pro-life position a few years earlier; even as an atheist I could see it was a human rights issue. So we were disturbed to hear a Buddhist woman who claimed to respect all life describe assisting in an abortion.
When we talked to Buddhists about morality, their answers were relativistic: “It’s only wrong if it’s wrong for YOU.” This never set well with us; either abortion is wrong in all cases because it takes a human life or it’s never wrong. The idea of basing the morality of an action on whether I want it to be right or wrong just seemed ridiculously self-serving. We shuddered to imagine a world where people get to decide for themselves whether lying, stealing, or killing are right or wrong.
There also was the problem of access. When the local Buddhist temple brought in a Buddhist master for a few days, the temple charged several hundred dollars for a guided retreat. While the temple likely would not have turned away a person who couldn’t afford to pay, the wisdom of their living saints ordinarily came with a hefty price tag. My husband simply couldn’t accept this. “So the poor get Truth at the charity of the wealthy?” he asked. This became an insurmountable barrier to him.
For me, it was what Buddhism said was our ultimate destiny that proved the real stumbling block. The end goal of Buddhism is extermination of the self, to annihilate your consciousness by entering “Nirvana.” You’re reincarnated again and again until you learn to eliminate all desire from your soul, at which point your “consciousness” diffuses and becomes one with the universe. Unlike in Christianity, where the goal is union with God (but you are still, in essence, an individual named Susan or Richard), Buddhism’s goal is to destroy the self.
When I considered the people I loved, I found it terrifying to think that what makes them who they truly are–the soul–would just disappear. As atheist convert Jeff Miller (the Curt Jester) said in his conversion story, “Facing death, I found that I did not really believe that if I had been killed that my existence would have winked out of the universe. The soul is not just some metaphysical idea.” Even for myself, I could never understand how spiritual extermination was a palatable goal.
So we stopped going to Buddhist temples and asking Buddhists to dinner. And it was nice, because I could now serve meat to our guests again. But it was actually a Mormon who made us realize Jesus of Nazareth was the key. One night we had dinner with a faithful Mormon family. The father spoke about Jesus so tenderly that his love for Him was almost palpable.
I can only describe what happened to both my husband and I at that dinner as “Love testified to The Truth.” We knew that Jesus was not just real, but that He was–inexplicably–ALIVE and that this man had a relationship with Him. It was like reading about Abraham Lincoln your whole life and finding out he was actually still alive. And that there were people among you who were friends with him!
While we were strongly attracted to the Church of Latter Day Saints because of its emphasis on family values and strong sense of community, we’d done enough research to know we did not accept Joseph Smith’s claim to divine authority. So we went looking for Jesus in the only other place we’d seen His friends congregate: Protestant churches.
Why not the Catholic churches? Because most Catholics we knew believed more in Luke Skywalker than Jesus. Even those who participated externally in the faith, such as the coworker who went to Mass each week and never failed to show up with her annual ashen cross, told me she didn’t need to believe “all that stuff about Jesus” to be Catholic. “I just like the idea that God came down to live with us,” she said. “But I don’t care whether it actually happened.”
We knew just two young Catholics who practiced their faith, but their quiet reverence was eclipsed by the Protestants we knew, who unabashedly talked about their love for Jesus and whose churches were vibrant and welcoming. When you showed up at their services, they were on you like white on rice and never failed to invite you to their spiritual family. We’d attended several Catholic Masses to learn more about Catholicism, but we’d never once been approached by a welcoming Catholic. In fact, when we’d asked one priest if he’d meet with us to answer questions about the faith, he gruffly told us, “Call the diocese.” Catholics seemed to worship more as individuals, even in Mass.
I’ll never forget our first Easter in a Christian church. We attended Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia, an on-fire congregation that has since left the Episcopal Church. The line to get in wrapped around the block, with so many children you’d swear there was an orphanage on grounds. In front of us, a little boy played with action figures. Not of wrestlers or superheros, but of Jesus and the apostles. When the priest entered the church and processed down the aisle shouting, “Christ is risen!” the place erupted with so much excitement you felt like you were at a rock concert. These were people truly joyful to be Christian.
But for us, it wasn’t just about which group of believers impressed us. After all, we had been most impressed by the Mormons, but the teachings of Mormonism were a showstopper. The same thing happened with Protestantism. We’d call up churches and ask the pastor to meet for lunch. We’d meet, interview him about the church’s beliefs, then attend services the following Sunday. And we just could not accept that everyone gets to discern for himself what the truth is in the Bible. Everyone claimed their church was “Biblically-based,” yet every one taught something different. Even within the same traditions: Episcopalian Pastor A told us that abortion was always wrong while Episcopalian Pastor B told us it was sometimes acceptable. So remarriage is wrong in this church but not in that church? Women can be priests here but not there?
The more we read about Christian history, the more we realized that Protestant churches had changed “The Truth” to whatever was culturally acceptable at the time. Far from being immutable, Protestantism teachings were only true for as long as the congregants said they were. And if Truth really existed, we intuitively knew it wasn’t decided by committee.
That’s when we began seriously researching the teachings of the Catholic Church and discovered that the teachings of Catholicism today are the same as taught by the earliest Christians. We read that early Catholics—people who lived just a century or two after Jesus—believed in the Eucharist as the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus. They believed in infant baptism. They believed in Confession. Purgatory. Hell. They were against abortion and yes, even contraception. That the Bible canon was compiled because the books supported the oral traditions of the Church and not the other way around.
For us, it was the historical consistency of the Catholic Church—that the teachings are the same today as they were in the first centuries after Christ—that led us to it despite the poor experiences we’d had with individual Catholics. We believed firmly in objective truth: that was what morally true thousands of years ago for humanity is still true today. If the nature of marriage and sex made contraception wrong 2,000 years ago, then it’s still wrong, because the essential nature of sex and marriage is the same.
So Catholicism is true after all. Crap.
It’s one thing to intellectually accept a religious institution has divine authority. It’s another thing to live that out. We’d decided at the beginning of our quest, though, that if we ever found Truth, we intended to live by it. Integrity, for some strange reason, was critically important to us both. If Buddhism was true, then we’d shave our heads and wear robes to work. If Mormonism was true, we’d give up coffee and Coke and wear sacred underwear. Probably even move to Utah.
But then there was Catholicism…and we realized that being faithful to Catholic teachings was the hardest path to follow as far as religions go. The bar is set very, very high for a person who wants to be a genuine Catholic—it’s not that there are so many rules about what you can’t do, but the call to holiness in Catholicism demands more of you spiritually than any other faith. C.S. Lewis called this the “weight of glory.” Were we ready to never tell a lie again? To avoid gossiping? To attend Mass every weekend after years of sleeping in? To eschew contraception for NFP even when we didn’t want to abstain?
We realized that if we believed the Church spoke with the voice of Christ—and we did—then we had to submit to all her teachings, not just the ones we found convenient or easy. We realized that if we decided, for example, the Church was wrong about remarriage, then we were undermining the Real Presence. If the Church is wrong about contraception, then how can we have faith it’s right about baptism taking away sin or about God or even heaven? We had rejected, over and over, faiths that taught we could define morality on our own. But with that Truth facing us, it was a frightening prospect to submit our whole lives to it.
In the end, we did. We became Catholic together, surrendering our wills to the Church because we knew it was the same as surrendering them to Christ. That alone made it possible for us to accept all the teachings of Catholicism. And all along this hard road to sanctification, we’ve relied on our love for Him–and more importantly, His love for us–to live out the gift of faith He gave us.
Some people are amazed we were so resolute in our search for truth. But really, we did not choose Him–He chose us. Like Aslan in The Horse and His Boy, Jesus was there the entire time, nudging us this way and that, ensuring we had the grace to find the truth, accept it, and live by it.
Thank you, Jesus, for loving me even in my sin and for calling me home to You. What a gift it is to be Catholic!