My friend Gina does not mince words. She asked a very pertinent question in the combox a few weeks ago. She was commenting on the lack of support many converts experience from Catholics ensconced in the pews. “What’s wrong with people??” she wondered plaintively.
Catholics who were blessed by God with being Baptized early in life, as infants, owe God the obligation to help others who are searching for Him and His Church. Holy Mother Church is really a warm and loving place, but I know it can be frightening to those for whom it is an entirely foreign experience. Those who are already Catholic should be God’s welcoming committee!
Well, nothing to argue with there. As a convert myself, I can second that emotion; I think a lot of converts can. Many Catholics who would never dream of missing Mass would also never dream of getting involved in the process of helping converts enter the Church. Perhaps it’s from a sense of inadequacy; they fear that they might say or do the wrong thing, that they might not have all the answers (who knows what a convert might ask??), that they just wouldn’t be up to snuff as a sponsor. Believe me, folks, you wouldn’t be the first sponsor or RCIA team member not to have all the answers. To your surprise, you might find that you are more orthodox and knowledgeable than some of the people who routinely serve in those capacities. If you wait till you have all the answers, we converts will have to wait till we get to Heaven to ask you….
I do think that I have part of the answer to the question Gina posed – what’s wrong with people (meaning “you and me”) is that we remain largely unconverted ourselves; hence, our lack of interest in bothering about the conversion of others. We live our lives in the state that Wilbur Rees so memorably described:
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
So we get our $3 worth of God at Mass on Sunday, and we go forth to forget about the Lord for another six days. We congratulate ourselves on being members of the Church Jesus established, and we consider our spiritual condition to be pretty decent, all things considered. The Church has staff and procedures for helping those in various kinds of need, material and spiritual – thank God we belong to such a Church! We pew-sitters don’t need to worry about helping converts – the parish has got that all taken care of!
The dopeyness of this approach to Catholicism was brought home to me by Patrick Madrid’s “conversion story” in the epic Surprised by Truth series (best convert stories ever!!) The funny thing is, Patrick Madrid isn’t a convert to Catholicism, nor is he a revert. He was baptized and raised Catholic, and never left the Church. I was a little put out when I first discovered his putative “conversion story” in the book – seriously, what place does a “I never actually converted to Catholicism” story have in a book about Catholic converts?? After reading it, though, I felt it was one of the best conversion stories in the collection. The short version of Patrick’s tale is that God brought him to the realization that
I had allowed the “muscles” of my interior life – prayer, mortification, and recollection – to atrophy and wither. My spiritual “arteries” – which carry the love of Christ as the lifeblood of the soul – had hardened and constricted as a result of the lukewarm, halfhearted complacency into which I had settled. I think my situation wasn’t unlike that of many Catholics. We who are born into the Faith easily take it for granted, and we make the fatal mistake of assuming that conversion is for Protestants or Mormons or atheists who, being outside the Church, make their way into it. Many Catholics – I being a good example – lull themselves into a state of comfortable, “do not disturb” spiritual incapacitation. They make no real or consistent effort to grasp Christ with all their might and to work daily at keeping and strengthening that grasp, as His grace enables. Simply being Catholic isn’t enough. What is required by Christ is love, and true love means effort, work, and time spent in prayer – things that so often fall by the wayside in the daily lives of many Catholics. We call him Lord in our prayers, but so often we don’t live our lives as if He really is. Membership in the Church, even a strong conviction about things Catholic, is in itself no guarantee of a real friendship with Christ.
Conversion isn’t just for converts.
This Sunday the catechumens and candidates will undergo the First Scrutiny. The theme of the readings is Christ as the Living Water, as we read the story of the Samaritan women who meets Jesus at the well. In this story, the woman’s life is revealed to her by her encounter with Jesus. She faces for the first time the truth about herself, and she is converted. This story is not presented so that those scruffy catechumens will finally face the truth about their lives; it is presented so that each one of us will face the Truth, and change. As Articles 141 and 143 of the RCIA put it:
The Scrutinies, which are solemnly celebrated on Sundays and reinforced by an exorcism, are rites for self-searching and repentance and have above all a spiritual purpose. The Scrutinies are meant to uncover, then heal all that is weak, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong and good. For the Scrutinies are celebrated in order to deliver the elect from the power of sin and Satan, to protect them against temptation, and to give them strength in Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life. These rites, therefore, should complete the conversion of the elect and deepen their resolve to hold fast to Christ and to carry out their decision to love God above all.
Really, really listen these next three Sundays to the message of the Scrutinies as the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, and Mary, Martha and Lazarus all come face-to-face with God enfleshed. May we all, catechumens, candidates and cradle Catholics, be converted and carry out our decision to love God above all. And I’ve got a great idea on how to carry that decision out – should the Spirit so move, don’t hesitate to invite a convert to lunch!!
On the memorial of St. Darerca of Ireland
Deo omnis gloria!