People come to the Catholic Church by various routes. Some converts have no prior acquaintance with God, and some have been Christians ever since they can remember, or even before that. Some of the Protestant persuasion have experienced a gradual disillusionment with the Reformation tenets of sola fide and sola Scriptura, coming to the reluctant realization that the Bible teaches neither doctrine. For some, conversion is a long, slow process, for others it is accompanied by gut-wrenching, life-changing choices, and for still others conversion comes like a bolt out of the blue. I was a Baptist reading up on Catholicism so that I could explain to myself and others exactly where the Catholic Church went off the tracks. In a process that lasted less than 5 minutes, I realized to my horror that the standard Protestant explanations for Jesus’ “eat My Flesh/drink My Blood” discourse in John 6 amounted to nothing more than a stratagem contrived to allow the offspring of the Reformation to remain respectably estranged from the Church that Jesus Himself established. I looked up from my Bible and said to myself, “I have got to start attending a church that believes in the Real Presence” – probably a new world’s record for Protestant-to-Catholic conversion.
It doesn’t matter how it happened – one way or another, you were granted the grace to believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church teaches, believes and proclaims to be revealed by God. You were granted insight into the necessity of an authoritative Church. So, you want to convert to Catholicism?
It may be harder than it needs to be….
Mind you, I’m not complaining about the long period of initiation that converts undergo. Coming from an Evangelical background, I found that refreshing. The Protestant denominations I was familiar with basically urged folks to throw caution to the winds and make a practically instantaneous “decision for Christ,” lest the moment pass and be lost forever. In our fervor, it never occurred to us that we might in some cases be doing more harm than good in indiscriminately urging everyone to immediate conversion. It was when one member of our RCIA group opted not to continue because he could not in good conscience inscribe his name in the Book of the Elect that I, for the first time in my life, understood what Jesus was talking about in Luke 14:28-32.
For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.
No one on the RCIA team twisted the man’s arm or otherwise tried to coerce him as I might have done in a Protestant context, which shocked me at the time, but not now. I trust they prayed for him. It was 11 years ago, and I still pray for him.
No, I have nothing against the duration of the preparation that converts are put through. My gripe concerns the isolation converts often experience during that preparation. You’ve probably noticed that the catechumens are “sent forth” after the Liturgy of the Word while the rest of us celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the priest usually dismisses them with words like, “Be assured of our loving support and prayers for you.” Let’s home in on the word “support.” Catholics seem to have gotten the idea in their heads that converts are in some kind of “quarantine” with a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door. Who knows what goes on in RCIA? Best just leave those folks to incubate till Easter. After they’ve hatched, we can treat them the way we treat everybody else….
Except that some converts may not be there when Easter rolls around…. Many folks, particularly former Evangelicals, are appalled at the lack of fellowship in Catholic parishes – at least, the lack of fellowship that they experience. I know when I went through RCIA we remained pretty much segregated from the parish-at-large. I knew the RCIA team, and I knew my fellow candidates and catechumens. I knew the priest and the parish secretary. That was pretty much it. After 7 months in RCIA, that was a pretty skinny list of Catholics to whom I could turn with any questions or concerns should problems arise.
I do believe that there is really only one reason to become Catholic – because the Catholic Church is the church Jesus established, and her doctrine faithfully reflects His teaching. The fact that becoming Catholic put a crimp in my social life didn’t affect my decision to enter the Church one way or the other, but I have heard stories of people who decided that they simply could not persevere in an atmosphere that seemingly offered no social support whatsoever. When you leave a Protestant church where everyone knows you on a first-name basis and worries about you if you don’t show up to the Wednesday night service, and begin attending a Catholic parish where (seemingly) no one knows or cares if you ever come back again, well… it’s hard. In some cases, it may be the straw that breaks the convert’s back.
So whose problem is this? Well, actually, it’s yours. As a Catholic you are called upon to make welcome those seeking entrance into the Church. RCIA is fine for many purposes, but absolutely nothing can stand in for Christian charity and hospitality. Blogger Joseph Moore (he of “Yard Sale of the Mind” fame) recently made several practical suggestions for helping converts settle into parish life in what he called the ‘things I could just do’ category. As a convert I feel that any one of these would be grand. Joseph’s ideas are below; my comments are in italics:
– A regular Sunday afternoon tea for the RCIA candidates (and anyone else who wants to come), where discussions can be less formal? Also allow the candidates to get to know some people and find someone(s) they feel comfortable talking with. Invite some solid Catholics from the parish. Could do it at my house, for example.
(This sounds like the perfect combination to me – anything that might encourage the average parishioner to interact with those seeking to enter the Church would be a real blessing! His point about finding “someone they feel comfortable talking with” is very important. It’s wonderful when converts “click” with their sponsor, but that doesn’t always happen. Converts may have questions or concerns that go unaddressed because they simply don’t know an approachable Catholic willing to lend an ear.)
– Monthly pot luck dinners? Same concept, but a bit more work.
(We had potluck dinners in RCIA. They were very nice, but the attendees were the RCIA team and the converts. I believe the priest came to one once. A good time was had by all, but participation by other members of the parish would have opened up a whole new world to us.)
– Field trips. How about we take everybody over to some other parishes or the seminary or the Dominican School of Philosophy or the local Carmelite Monastery? Meet some Catholics doing their thing, see some faith in action.
(I would have loved this – anything to better acquaint myself with Catholic practice. In RCIA I just felt that I was in a box for such an extended period of time, almost like a shut-in.)
Joseph’s final suggestion concerned “deschooling RCIA.” Now, as someone who did very well in school, thank you, I have never been personally opposed to being taught in a classroom setting. That said, I couldn’t possibly agree more with this idea. Our RCIA consisted of a weekly lesson on a theological topic, at least at first. It later devolved into a quasi-Protestant “what did the homily mean to you?” session. I realize not everyone is into self-study, but I felt that I could have educated myself on theological topics much more effectively than by sitting through the one-size-fits-all lessons side-by-side with catechumens who had never had any previous Christian education. Although I would have loved watching Fr. Barron’s “Catholicism” as a general introduction, or perhaps the new “Symbolon” series, neither would have addressed my real problem. What I really could have used more of was simply being invited into the lives of faithful Catholics who modeled a relationship with Christ. What I was really in need of was an older Catholic sister in the Lord willing to do what family members do best – walk alongside me, thereby teaching me how to walk by myself. What I needed was a friend or two.
And that could be you – you could be the one a convert in your parish is waiting for. It’s not too late to say hi. Introduce yourself. Express an interest. Invite them over. Share your time. Offer them a ride. Tell them you’re praying for them. Let them know you’re there.
On the memorial of St. Paul Le-Bao Tinh
Deo omnis gloria!