The Wonder, Anguish, and Joy: The Call to Conversion

If you are Catholic, or if someone you know is Catholic, you/he/she is probably a cradle Catholic. You were baptized as an infant and had a Catholic upbringing.

Not every Catholic can claim this popular back story.

Many of us are adult converts who have completed the Rites of Initiation. Some of us, who either are preparing to convert, cannot access the Sacraments, or die before Baptism, are Catholic by baptismal desire. While they cannot receive the Sacraments yet and are not official members of the Church, they are as good as Catholic otherwise because they think and live as Catholics do.

Adult Catholics might convert because a spouse is Catholic (a very common reason) or for some other reason. Still others have been raised Catholic by culture and received some faith formation but have not been baptized.

All of these people are served by the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program. I am one of them.

I can say, without reservation, that participating in RCIA is perhaps one of the best decisions I have ever made. I can also say that it wasn’t easy. If you’re an adult arrival, whether or not you have completed the conversion process, it can be isolating. ‘Roman Catholic’ is not just a religious identity, but a culture as well. Thus, if you do not speak Catholicese (they even have their own sign language), it can be intimidating walking into Mass for the first time alone. Don’t be surprised if someone starts telling insider stories about Sister Maureen’s Catechism class from St. Elizabeth Seton’s High School back in the day. Don’t be surprised when someone asks you if you remember your little sister’s baptism and if you still have the dress.

Don’t be surprised, either, if you get blank stares when you tell them the awful truth that you were not born into the club. Roman Catholicism is a way of life, and without the head start, it’s like being on a new planet and the natives are totally clueless about you and you them.

I would never say that you shouldn’t be friends with a cradle Catholic, because they can be a source of guidance. Many have left the Church and come back and have struggles and doubts in common with you. Others are just good people that are worth keeping in your life.

Just be prepared to feel isolated at times in a parish full of natives and only a handful of immigrants. If possible, make connections with other converts, inside and outside of RCIA. Make friends with people who have been converts for a while and with those who, like you, are starting out. There is nothing wrong with cradle Catholics, but you likely won’t have a common religious experience with them and having someone share the wonder, anguish, and joy of conversion is essential to your growth as a Catholic.

What is it that converts share with each other that makes them unique additions to the Body of Christ? The complex hodgepodge of events and emotions that accompany conversion are challenging to delineate and I’m not sure there are words to appropriately convey what happens inside. I will attempt to describe the  experience of conversion to the best of my ability.

Wonder

Something brought you here to the Catholic Church. That in itself makes you unique. People who are raised Catholic do not choose to be Catholic, although they can choose later whether and how to continue. There comes a point where being Catholic becomes an obligation, an expectation, or a habit. They may not believe or not be convinced of their beliefs. Others are 100% sincere but have nonetheless stop growing in their faith once they leave Catholic school or receive Confirmation. They are comfortable once they know the basics. Of course, this is not true of all cradle Catholics. I know this firsthand. That said, when you have been doing something your entire life, it’s a common trap to fall into.

Converts both fully understand and actively desire participation in the Catholic faith. They are knowledgeable about it, moreso than many cradle Catholics. We share our stories about why we came, ask questions, express doubts, and have higher-level theological discussions about what this all means.

When you first feel God’s  presence in your life and that subtle message you felt somewhere that the Catholic Church is your true home, there is a real sense of wonder. Catholicism has centuries of history and intellectual tradition that fill your mind to bursting, and to know that it has survived for this long and that you are a part of this grand scheme is indeed special. There is the sense that you were chosen to be part of this special Body of Christ. Against all odds, with all these other options available to you, and with plenty of pressure within and without to not follow through, you’re *here.* No matter how often you felt like ditching the whole thing, you came back when it mattered most and you are more committed than before. It is at that point you learn that you are being watched over and that your life has a purpose. You begin to see better the reasons why things happen and the seamless way that God makes Himself known in the smallest details of everyday life. Nothing dramatic really happens. It’s just something that you know implicitly and that dawns on you. That’s actually a pitfall of being a convert. You have all these expectations that end up unfulfilled 0r that don’t turn out exactly as you planned, and it’s way too tempting to think that if you don’t see the light and hear the Hallelujah chorus, nothing has changed and your journey was for naught. See this not as a setback, but an opportunity to test your faith and overcome. You will be glad you did.

Anguish

Watch an evangelical message movie and the final conversion scene is a beautiful sunlit day with smiles all around. It usually happens with one proclamation: I believe in the Risen Lord. In reality, conversion for people is more painful than this. Prepare for the doubts: Do I believe this? Do I want to do this? What’s going to happen to me? Sooner or later, you can count on beating yourself up for having these doubts and you’ll think that these doubts are signs that your special journey was not meant to be. Days will come when you just want to curl up in a ball and make this all to go away. There is too much information, too much reflection, too many revelations, memories, and issues of the day to be concerned about. You want to go back to the comforting world you knew before, only to realize that this experience has fundamentally changed the way you look at the world and yourself and that you CAN’T go back.

Consider this: A person who gets married and then divorced is NOT a bachelor. He cannot go back to before he had gotten married and have the same attitudes and behaviors regarding love, priorities, and family life. He does not have the same expectations or desires in finding new love and establishing a new life and a family as someone who is doing this all for the first time and without baggage. So it is with conversion. After worshiping in a new way and seeing  old concepts with new lenses, it’s hard to go back to the self-assured person you were before when you thought you had all the answers.

Trust me when I say this it’s scary-no, terrifying-to realize that when you come out of the water and receive the Chrism, this is it. Now, whenever you need to prove your identity to the government, you will now have a baptismal certificate to show for it. Whenever you fill out a form, you will be checking off Roman Catholic where before, you may have put no affiliation or Baptist. These events can be profoundly disorienting and I cried more than once about doing these things. That’s when you realize that this isn’t a dream that you will wake up from. All these little real life reminders are here that you are not the person you once were.

By the way, if you have a fear of crying, lose it. Expect to cry.

What to Expect in Your Existing Relationships

Conversion changes existing relationships, in both positive and negative ways. There is no way around that.

Here is a list of problems you will likely encounter as a result of your conversion:

  • People leaving or becoming less attached to you because of your faith
  • People mocking or not respecting your conversion
  • People casting doubt on your conversion and dissuading you from it
  • People revealing information about you to other religious that is personal and unflattering, i.e. an old attachment to pornography
  • People feeling abandoned by you
Not everyone is open to faith, or faiths other than their own, so don’t be shocked if some of your friends abandon you. It’s one of those sad but true tests of who your real friends are and you’ll need the assistance of God, your priest, and other converts more than ever. An additional strategy that is employed by people hostile to your conversion is casting doubt on your sincerity. The purpose is to bring you back to where they want you because they cannot handle the changes ahead. Frequently asked questions include “You realize you can’t be gay and Catholic, right?” or “Seriously, it looks cool at first, but you’ll get bored and get over it.” This is a backhand way of telling you that they see alterations in your worldview and priorities, and it could be an indication of their fear of impending abandonment, which I will discuss next.
Because conversion entails new friends and commitments, old friends fear being abandoned by you. They’re afraid that you will no longer have anything in common with them or that you will disapprove of them and their lifestyles. Remember, and emphasize to your friends, that you will be essentially the same person you always were. You will still love going to the ocean and having Snickers benders with your friends on Saturday. You will still love watching documentaries and talking about chemistry. You will still enjoy your animals, drawing, and a day on the town. Whether or not you agree with how they conduct their affairs, friends are here to understand and help. Friends take the time to overlook your flaws and see where you shine. None of this will change with conversion, and as a Christian, your commitment to your friends will be renewed. The Christian message centers around the themes of everlasting love, contrition, and liberty, all of which are conducive to meaningful relationships.
Later on, when you become more comfortable with your faith identity, the possibility exists for your old friends to meet your fellow religious. This can be problematic because uninitiated friends are not always aware of what constitutes appropriate conduct in your religious setting and, as I mentioned earlier, they are liable to broach subjects that are best left elsewhere, like that one time you spent an entire night together looking for gay porn. Let your friends know ahead of time what appropriate conduct is and if they reveal something to others that you did not want to share, keep it simple. Say that this is who you were at one point and that it doesn’t reflect on who you are now. Share more only if you want to and if you think that person will understand.
Did I Ask You?
Religion is personal and sensitive and it’s up to you who you share it with. One of the most awkward parts of being a convert is finding out that people I have known for years in other settings are also Catholic. Some converts appreciate the familiarity, but others, like me, find it invasive. Maybe someday I will have a relationship with this person, but right now, this person has access to a part of me that I’m not ready to grant access to. They have seen me cry at Mass. They have overheard me debating Church teaching or discussing something painful that affects my faith. Worst of all, it’s someone that I have no good reason to be close to and am better off staying away from, like a supervisor or a relative. Because you are members of the same parish or religion, and because they already have met you, these people tend to be curious about what brings you hear and expect answers from you. Don’t be afraid to say, “It’s a long story. I’ll talk about it later,” and move on. None of these people mean to harm you, but you have a right to your private business too.
Two, more minor, issues  I have had with meeting Catholics from outside my parish both have to do with people butting in. Mass is for God. While I am in Church, I like to focus on God. Therefore, I tend not to socialize except maybe after Mass and only if we’re discussing religion. Meeting people from work or school after Mass invites more casual conversation like, “Did you do your homework yet? I didn’t,” and then you get held up for ten minutes listening to this person’s to-do list for the week. Meanwhile, you want to talk to Father and can’t find him. Another aggravating tendency that some familiar cradle Catholics have is the tendency, to put it bluntly, to assume that you’re a total idiot. Mention an article you read on the EWTN website about the debate over women’s ordination, and your fellow Catholic will likely blurt out the oh-so-arcane bit of Catholicism 101 that is “You know women can’t be priets here, right?”
Really? No WAY!
This is when you say thank you for your concern, but I am aware of this and I am receiving excellent guidance through my priest, my sponsor, and the RCIA program.
The Good News
Conversion is supposed to be life-affirming and, well, fun! The impact of conversion on relationships doesn’t have to be all negative! Stable, positive friendships will withstand the changes wrought by conversion and can even be deepened by the process. Good friends will be as excited about your journey as you are. They want you to be happy and to fulfill your potential. Conversion brings up heavy topics that you might not have brought up before, like thoughts about the spiritual realm, what love is about, hopes, fears, and what you want out of life. Memories will come to light that would have been hidden before. There’s so much to explore, and if  at all possible, I encourage you to explore them together. Who knows? They could decide to convert. If they don’t, they have learned something and have been comforted anyway.

Joy

Joy should be the easiest part of this discussion because what’s not to be joyful about? You got what you wanted, you are saved, you were accepted into the club, and you get all the perks. In actuality, it is the hardest part because what you’re really describing is the beginning of a new journey, not the grand prize that comes at the end and, as a mentioned earlier, there is no shining light or Hallelujah chorus.

Funny. Humans have an elaborate vocabulary for our misery, but we can never seem to adequately express the good in life.

Anyway, the best, and most ironic, part of the joy of conversion is that you’re NOT a new person. You’re not born again, as some would say. Rather you are the same you, but you’re not the old you. You are a happier, more powerful, more open and bountiful you with gifts of the Holy Spirit that are now coming to fruition. Rather than becoming a new person, you are becoming the person you were always meant to be. You were made in God’s image, exactly the way you were meant to be, and RCIA is like an adolescence and the conversion your passage to adulthood.

That’s the way it happened with me. When I decided to convert and started attending Mass, nothing had really changed. I was still watching horror films, surfing the net, going to school, and doing all the things normal people do. I still liked them and cared about them as much as ever. Something was different, though, and the changes were subtle. With each passing day, I was less anxious with the trials before me and before the world. Almost reflexively, you start thinking more and more through the lens of faith. In the back of your mind, you will start asking questions about whether this is right; whether this can enrich or challenge your faith; whether this has meaning that is applicable to your faith; and how you can use something to bring others in to your faith. It happens anywhere and everywhere.

Everyone has days when they don’t understand it or don’t want to do it, and you will have a lot of those days. I can almost guarantee it. Yet every time you walk past a Church or look on your calendar and make plans for Sunday, you will feel a tug, ever so slight, like a friend pulling on your hand asking again and again, “Come on! Come to Church with me!” It does not physically happen that way, but the sensation of longing very much feels like a real physical tug. Respond to this tug. He is your friend and He is waiting.

In any case, you will experience joy, which might manifest itself in the following ways:

  • A new understanding and appreciation of other people and their worldviews
  • Feeling motivated to try news things/old things you have always wanted to do
  • Feeling like you can do anything
  • Thinking less about the what-ifs in life or being more proactive about them
  • Not being as fazed by life’s problems when they do occur
  • Living more in the now
  • Feeling more generous than you used to
  • Taking more joy in little things
  • Being friends with people you never would have approached before
Joy can manifest in many ways, and the aforementioned are only a few of them. That joy may not be understood by others, but on the other hand, other people’s opinions won’t bother you as much.:)
Some of the items of my list of joys involve the sense that you have power, and this power is the power of God. Within you, you have faith in God and His forgiveness. You have the power of Jesus’ example. Then you have the power vested in you by the Holy Spirit and His gifts, bestowed upon you when you received your Confirmation. These attributes give you power over your life and over doubts and even over Satan himself. St. Therese of Lisieux said that holiness is not about doing great things, but doing little things greatly.
It is the joy that comes with knowing you are NEVER alone, the greatest joy of them all.
Father L, my first priest, was delivering a homily one Sunday morning in which he told the story of a Holocaust survivor. He thought his entire family had perished and one day, he got a letter in the mail from his family. It said, “We’re alive. We love you. We’re waiting.”
On days when you feel that faith, goodness, or life as you know it has perished,
remember this.
God is alive in the world today. He loves you. He’s waiting.

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