Today we continue in an occasional series that takes a walk through the meandering path that has led from the youth connected to Christianity by the thinnest of threads to the enthusiastic Catholic who writes this blog. In case you missed Part 1 (in which I drifted out of and back into life as a Lutheran), you can catch up here.
Being a Lutheran in my late 20s was comfortable. It was what I had been born into, what most of my extended family was, it was just normal. Lutherans (at least the variety from the upper Midwest) are reserved people who don’t make a big show about their faith. They just do what they are expected to do in the way of helping out with things and occasionally bringing a covered dish to a picnic or social.
At that stage of my life, Catholics were kind of exotic to me. Not completely so, as I had at least some contact with them to know that they were normal people. My childhood best friend’s family was Catholic, as were the grandparents that I visited about once a year with my father. But I did know that they were different. There was stuff they actually had to do.
Many a childhood Saturday afternoon of goofing around was ruined when my friend’s mother told him that he had to get ready for confession. And Mass every week? Wow. And why did they have to call it “Mass?” Everybody knew that it was a “church service”. All of the rules just seemed too much for me. Fortunately, I belonged to a church where everything was optional. Sure, certain things were encouraged (like going on Sundays) and other things were discouraged (like getting drunk or cussing) but it was all kind of up to you on how strict you were going to be about it all.
I was introduced to the future Mrs. JPC through some mutual friends. She had assumed from my Irish last name that I was Catholic, and it surprised her a bit when she learned that I wasn’t. I liked her quite a lot and we spent more and more time together, but in matters of faith I kept my elbows out to make sure that she knew that I expected to retain my own identity. I knew all about Catholics. They were decent people, but when it came to matters of faith, they somehow found a way to switch off their brains so as not to be smacked in the head by some of the outright nutty things that their church taught them. An infallible pope? Oh, come the hell on – just look at all of the nasty stuff they were involved in during the middle ages.
After we became engaged, the “Catholic thing” started to stare me in the face. I would usually go to Mass with her, but insisted that she sometimes attend my church with me. And she did. I also remember that the biggest argument we had before our wedding day was whether we were going to have the full Catholic Mass for our wedding. I was quite against it, being incensed that I would not be allowed to receive communion at my own wedding. It did not strike me as the least bit odd or ironic that I had grown up in a Lutheran tradition that would have refused her communion had we gotten married there instead. Sure the Missouri Synod Lutherans claimed to practice closed communion too, but how many of them would really enforce it for a wedding?
We went around and around on this, but for the first time in our relationship, she simply would not give in. I was underwhelmed by the reasons she gave, but this fell in line with my experience with Catholics generally – there were all these rules to follow, but when you pressed one of them on why, they couldn’t come up with much of an answer. In the end, I came to two conclusions. First, I had to admit to myself that she was more deeply committed to her faith than I was to mine, even if she might not have been able to articulate chapter and verse to back it up. And second, if it was that important to her, I guess I would have to go along with her. After all, she had never fought me on anything else in any serious way. I decided that if it was this important to her, I would have to respect her on this. So a full Mass it would be.
The wedding was to be in a grand old downtown Church – St. John the Evangelist. Those of you who watch televised NFL games might have seen the occasional shot of the exterior, as it was directly across the street from the old RCA Dome where the Colts played their home games until a few years ago. It was a popular spot for Catholic weddings because of its old-school beauty, but that wasn’t her reason for choosing it over her local parish. Her grandparents had been married there, and she wanted to honor their memories by being married at the same altar. But there was one problem. The priest there at the time was quite a stickler for doing things in a certain way. I had originally intended for my minister to have a role in the ceremony, but as time went on and his permitted role was trimmed farther and farther back, it was he who tactfully suggested “perhaps things might be smoother for you if I did not take part.”
In the end, we made it through the ceremony and began married life. Because she was insistent on attending Mass each Sunday (or at least on Saturday evening), the only way for me to get “equal Lutheran time” was to go to my own church a second time each weekend. As a guy who had worked up to attending on my own perhaps 65% of the time, this was an entirely unsatisfactory solution. I could see where this was going, and I didn’t particularly like it.
I had, however, grown up in a home that had fractured over several things (in addition to matters of religion) and I had to acknowledge that anything that made us a single, undivided family would eventually pay dividends. And several months into our marriage, when an announcement got made after Mass about some classes for those who might be interested in learning more about the Catholic faith, I announced that I would sign up – on one condition: that she would come to the classes with me. There would be some important things to discuss, and I wanted us to be on the same page as far as information and such. As a good Catholic bride who wanted to bring her husband into the fold, she agreed.
I don’t remember too many specifics of those RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) classes, but one thing stuck with me – something that I had never before considered. The man teaching two nights of Catholic history was the long-time history teacher at the Catholic high school where my wife had attended. He pointed out that the Catholic Church was the only institution that could directly trace its entire two thousand year history directly back to Christ and his original apostles. His point was that no purely human institution could have possibly done this. He related that Napoleon was said to have boasted to one of the Popes of his time “I have the power to destroy the Catholic Church.” That pope was said to have replied something like “Popes and Bishops and Priests have been trying to do the same thing for 1,800 years. If we couldn’t do it, I do not believe that you will be able to either.”
This resonated with me for some reason. As did the explanation that the Pope was the Bishop of Rome which, being the center of the world at that time, resulted in a kind of primacy among the rest of the Bishops. And when he stated flat out that no Pope had ever reversed or been reversed by another Pope on matters of doctrine, I was intrigued. I had never heard this before – could it really be true? As the classes went along, I concluded (as a good Lutheran attorney could) that enough of the really big stuff had been explained, and that I saw no deal breakers in the way of going forward with becoming Catholic. And with that great display of religious fervor, so I did. I will say that what little I learned about the long, continual history of the Church appealed to my tastes for the traditional, and there was something cool about becoming part of the oldest continually operating organization in the known world.
What kind of a Catholic did I become, you might ask? My reply would be the kind that could go to Mass, follow most of the rules, yet not pay attention to any of the things that still offended my lingering Lutheran sensibilities. After all, we were twenty years past Vatican II, which had jettisoned most of the old-time strictness, and the pace of those kinds of desirable modernizations would no doubt continue. I would be kind of a “Lutheran-Catholic”, who could be reasonable about what I believed and how I might choose to practice those beliefs. Hardly a resounding conversion, but I was in the door. I had no idea that getting in the door was only a start.
To be continued . . . .