Tuesday, 13 November 2012

What is Truth? Or, Why I Converted to Catholicism

I have been meaning to write my conversion story for quite awhile, but every time I get started I end up getting distracted part way through, and finding that what I’ve written doesn’t really capture what I’m trying to say. How does one even begin to describe such an event?

I became a confirmed member of the Roman Catholic Church in 2003, at the Easter Vigil. I have always been grateful that I converted and joined the Church before I met David. People already struggled to figure out why I would become Catholic, and if he had been on the scene I do not doubt that he would have been mentioned by some as one of the reasons. People have often said it was no surprise, given my love of “old things” and “tradition/ritual” that I converted, and find this irksome enough – to also have a boy chucked into the mix would be too much! Not that I can fault people for not really understanding my conversion. For a long time it was difficult to articulate, and in many ways it still is, because conversion meant breaking with the denominations & religious history of most of my family and many of my friends. It is hard to know just what to say. If “old things” and “tradition” were the motivations behind my faith I would have joined the Mennonite church or perhaps the Orthodox. Those are my family’s historical churches. Joining the Catholic Church felt like a betrayal of the sufferings my ancestors had undergone for their faith. It was not a step I took lightly.

The first, and major, push towards my conversion was the ecumenical movement. Instead of churches relating to each other as “us and them”, they were suddenly co-operating in various events and programs. This gave me the opportunity to attend various Christian events with Catholics, form friendships, and learn about the Church from actual Catholics instead of from people who more often than not were speaking the same misinformation that had been circulating since the Reformation.

The reason that ecumenicism was such a major factor in my conversion, however, isn’t just because it let me get to know the Catholic Church for what she is. Instead, it’s because in seeking to break down barriers between Christians, it called into question aspects of the theology I had grown up believing. Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, it was at this point that I began to realise that sola scriptura couldn’t work. Sola scriptura made perfect sense when it was “us & them”, because “us” obviously had it right and “them” obviously had it wrong. Now that we were all getting along, I couldn’t understand why the theological differences that had once been a barrier to Christian unity could seemingly cease to matter. If Christianity was fragmented into numerous denominations because of people’s differing interpretations of scripture, than surely to get it wrong was to place our immortal souls in danger of hell. To suddenly make light of these differences, to attempt to reunify the body of Christ without establishing whose Truth we were going to follow, struck me as impossibility. And if there was no such thing as absolute truth, if scripture interpretation depended solely on what the individual thought, then why did anything matter? For example, some churches believe that Baptism is necessary for salvation, and others do not. How do you reconcile that? One side has got to give in and admit that they are wrong. At this point it became obvious to me that crying Sola Scriptura! wasn’t justification enough. I found myself becoming dissatisfied with my experience of evangelical Christianity. It seemed really out of touch with the day-to-day reality I was living in. My faith was drying up and I felt that what I was supposed to believe had no real foundation.

Various circumstances came together to convince me that spending a year at a Mennonite Bible College would be the best thing for me (and it was). I was given a wonderful year in which to work through my conflicting feelings about Christianity. I was taking classes that were letting me explore my faith, but at the same time I was meeting people who had the same feelings that I did about how fake the practice of our faith seemed. I hardly went to church that year because I just couldn’t handle how empty it seemed, but I also knew that I wasn’t ready to give up on Christianity. It was now a matter of searching for a denomination whose beliefs I could accept.

That school-year ended, and I decided to direct my studies down a more academic path by attending university and studying medieval history. The only Christians friends I had in my new city were Catholic, and they invited me to Mass at the university chaplaincy. It was there that I noticed one could sign up for RCIA (catechism) classes and I decided to give it a shot. I didn’t think that I could be Catholic, but I knew that I couldn’t reject that denomination without learning about its basic beliefs.

RCIA classes started breaking down many of the myths I’d grown up believing about Catholicism, but they hadn’t yet solved my dilemma. Like Pilate, my question over those years was really “what is truth?” I knew that Catholics would have a Catholic bias, so RCIA wasn’t going to be enough to convince me that they had any more claim to truth than anyone else. Then came a university course that surveyed medieval history. It just so happened that the prof (not Catholic) happened to believe that medieval history involved a heavy, heavy dose of church history. And it was this secular course that convinced me once and for all that I could not be a Protestant. I would have to hold true to a church that had a long historical claim to Christianity, a church that could trace its theology back to the apostles without ignoring everything between “the dark ages” and the Reformation. I was left with a very limited selection (for practical reasons as much as anything else) – the main two being Catholic or Orthodox, and from there it was an easy decision. I knew about Catholicism, Catholic churches were accessible (there are less Orthodox churches than Catholic where I’m from), and I was already enrolled in RCIA classes. Provided my RCIA classes didn’t expose any deep, dark Catholic secrets I knew what I would have to do.

To even reach the point of this decision took several years, as you can see. To commit to the decision gave me many sleepless nights. I felt immense guilt & worry over leaving the faith of my family. To change from an Anabaptist to a papist was not a simple shift. Fortunately my parents took the news well (some people were really put-out that they associated with me after my conversion).

I’ll have been Catholic for ten years this coming Easter. I used to wonder if I could really be Catholic for such a long period of time. If I were only drawn to the Church for liturgy & ritual, the answer would be a resounding NO. Were the Christ not in the Church, the liturgy would be empty and the sameness of each Mass would quickly become boring and stifling. It is the very presence of the Holy Trinity in my life as a Catholic that keeps my faith alive and growing. I experience God through His divine grace in the sacraments. I visit Jesus each week at Mass. I witness the working of the Holy Spirit through the ages when I read/discuss Catechism (Tradition!). I have found the answer to my question of what is truth.

The year I converted -- after a Mass that formed part of the confirmation process

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