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.
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.
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
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