Tag Archives: conversion

Of Godchildren, Detox, and RCIA

22 Jan

old-fashioned-baptism

“Three times a week Sister Aloysia came to give me a catechism lesson….”
~ Dorothy Day

My students were finding their seats, pulling notebooks out of bags, silencing their phones (praise God!). One of them, Michaela, had recently started a regular babysitting gig for a former student of mine and her young family – a young family that happens to include my godson, Dominic.

“How’s my godson doing?” I asked Mic. “Didn’t you sit for him last night?”

“Yes,” she replied. “He’s doing fine – he’s so cute!” I smiled – no argument there.

Next to Michaela sat Kat, another of my med-surg students, who piped up, “How many godchildren do you have anyway?”

I teach at an Evangelical college, so few of my students are practicing Catholics, and I’ll generally jump on opportunities like this one to do some simple catechesis. Besides, my students are accustomed to my answering straightforward questions with anecdotes and long digressions, and I didn’t want to disappoint.

“Let me tell you a story,” I said. “A friend of mine in Chicago, the man I call my godfather, used to tell me that he couldn’t remember all the godchildren he had.” It’s true. Jim, longtime resident of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and a legendary pillar of the do-gooder community there, has served as godfather for countless babies over the decades – including one of my own. “I always thought it was scandalous,” I told Kat and Mic, “because baptism and godparenting duties are so sacred and important. I used to think that I’d never forget my spiritual children should I ever have the privilege of becoming a godfather.” They nodded their understanding, and I continued.

“After I became a Catholic myself, I got my chance,” I said, “and I’ve gotten my chance again and again. Now I can’t remember the exact number any more, although I do pray for my godchildren collectively every day – sometimes by name if God brings them to mind.” I added that I’m certain my godfather does the same, and, by way of catechetical clarification, I added, “Jim’s not really my godfather by the way – I was already baptized when I became a Catholic. Really he was my sponsor when I joined the Church, but I just call him my godfather.”

“Sponsor?” Kat asked, raising an eyebrow. “You mean like AA?”

There was a weighty pause as I considered her comparison – one I’d never considered before. “Well, yes,” I finally agreed, “yes, a lot like Alcoholics Anonymous!”

I think Kat’s onto something there.

Consider: Without grace, we’re addicted to sin, aren’t we? We develop dependencies on our self-destructive behaviors, and we come to crave the evils that keep us separated from God. In fact, we routinely refer to “habits” of vice, just as we refer to “habits” of virtue – perfidy and purification as moral extensions, in opposite directions, of our human reliance on rote action.

Baptism is the drunk tank of our withdrawal from sin. It’s an ecclesial intervention to disrupt the downward slope of our unregenerate routines – a sacramental wake-up call, a liturgical splash of cold water in the face. When we receive baptism as adults (or seek full communion with the Church via the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), we’re in effect embracing the first step of AA’s famous 12-step program of recovery:We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (read: sin) – that our lives had become unmanageable.” Simultaneously, we’re also ticking off our acquiescence to the next two steps as well – namely, that we believe that a “Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and that we’re turning “our will and our lives over to the care of God.”

The overlap between Catholic conversion and Alcoholics Anonymous is all the more illuminating if you take the full communion route, for while non-Christians will require baptism when they join the Church, those who were baptized previously need only make a profession of faith and make a good first confession. With that in mind, get a load of the next four AA steps:

  1. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  2. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  3. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  4. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Sound familiar? Whether you stumbled through it as a second-grader, or sweated through it as a grown-up, you’ll remember all those elements in your own first confession.

Then there’s the last two AA steps which constitute the essence of Christian praxis – communion and witness – regardless of when we’re initiated. Step #11 starts off, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God,” and step #12 follows with a restatement of the Great Commission: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics (read: other sin-addicts) and to practice these principles in all our affairs” – that is, get out there and preach, but be sure to practice what you preach.

I know a little about this stuff because my dad was an alcoholic and he was an AA meeting regular – at least when he was sober. In fact, I seem to recall going to a meeting with him once as a teenager, but that might be wishful thinking on my part. In any case, I definitely grew up yearning for his sobriety constantly, and I came to associate his teetotalling lulls with his participation in AA programs.

And I remember he always had a sponsor.

“How does sponsorship help the newcomer?” reads an AA pamphlet. “It assures the newcomer that there is at least one person who understands the situation fully and cares – one person to turn to without embarrassment when doubts, questions, or problems linked to alcoholism arise.” For one thing, the AA sponsor is a recovering alcoholic himself – he’s been there; indeed, he is there. The sober sponsor can truly empathize with the fellow addict at the very cusp of recovery. But, even more important, the sponsor will be there long after sobriety is reached, because it’s a “continuing responsibility for helping a newcomer adjust to a way of life….”

Precisely. The same goes for the RCIA sponsor – at least, the same goes for Jim.

“The candidate should be accompanied by a sponsor,” reads the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. “If someone has had the principal part in guiding or preparing the candidate, he or she should be the sponsor” (#396). And what’s the sponsor supposed to do? The RCIA gives us a clue in paragraph #75.2: Prospective Catholics “become familiar with the Christian way of life and are helped by the example and support of sponsors….”

Jim was there for me when I had doubts, questions, and problems as I considered the outrageous claims of the Church. He was that one person I could rely on to shepherd me through controversy and qualm, and to assure me that my stumbles and scruples were not exceptional – he’d been through it all himself.

He’s continued to be there for me after 30 years. Thanks, Jim. I can only hope and pray I’ll be the same kind of sponsor/godfather for Dominic – your spiritual God-grandson.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Abbess and the Oblate: A Father’s Funeral Remembered

7 Nov

Abbey-dome-fog

“Life is the thing to worry about, if anything is, not death.”
~ Dom Hubert Van Zeller, OSB

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Christmas Movies for Annunciation Day

25 Mar

san-domenico-annunciation

Lent is a favourable time for letting Christ serve us so that we in turn may become more like him. This happens whenever we hear the word of God and receive the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.

There we become what we receive: the Body of Christ.

~ Pope Francis

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The Benefits of Bad Preaching

8 Feb

It is the essence of the Church to have a lot of low masses
and no sermons (Hilaire Belloc).

bored-congregation-1872-granger_zps80a6eeccIt’s a truism to say that the pulpit is at the center of most Protestant worship whereas the altar is at the center of the Mass, but nothing drives that point home better than a bad homily.

When my non-Catholic friends express curiosity about Catholic worship, I struggle to help them understand that Mass is first and foremost about fulfilling an obligation, and what we might get out of it is of secondary consideration. I’ll explain that liturgy is, quite literally, the “work of the people,” and it’s no secret that human work can be kind of routine and even boring sometimes. Yes, we always receive Jesus in spades at every Mass, wonder of wonders!, but our first purpose is to go and bend the knee – it’s a Commandment after all.

My Evangelical friends just don’t get this, and so I’m always happy when they join me at Mass to experience it for themselves – although I know what the fallout will often be: Scrunched up faces and raised eyebrows as they suffer through seemingly mindless ritual, rote prayers, and the occasional lousy sermon.

“Is the preaching always this bad?” they might ask.456px-Alonso_Cano_-_St._Vincent_Ferrer_Preaching_-_Google_Art_Project

“Sometimes worse,” I’ll offer gleefully. “Or, on weekdays, sometimes we luck out and get no sermon at all!”

“Then,” they’ll wonder aloud, “why go at all?”

Ah, there’s the nub, and it’s why bad homilies played a role in my conversion. As an Evangelical inquirer, I recognized very early on that the Mass was the heart of Catholic faith and practice, so I went as often as I could – daily even after a while. I endured many a bad sermon in those days, especially at the weekday liturgies, but they helped to cement the idea in me that the Mass is a numinous encounter that does not depend on clever preaching whatsoever.

Instead, it’s an encounter that is much more rich and profound and (most importantly) dependable than mere sermonizing. It’s an encounter borne of proclamation of a written Word and, more particularly, celebration of a Sacramental drama, the Eucharist. The setting might be a gorgeous cathedral with beautiful music accompanied by a well crafted and scintillating sermon, or it might be a drab suburban chapel with an off-the-cuff homily from a harried priest who spent the night at the bedside of a dying parishioner. No matter: Jesus will show up at both. Sure, we’d prefer inspirational and energetic preaching, but it’s not at all necessary.

Indeed, there’s a benefit to mediocre preaching once in a while, and it’s this: The faithful will be all the more likely to focus on what’s most important in the Mass if they aren’t distracted by the brilliant homily. “A preacher may be able to hold the attention of his listeners for a whole hour,” Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “but in this case his words become more important than the celebration of faith.”

pope_francis_01The Holy Father went on to stress that the “homily cannot be a form of entertainment,” distracting us from Jesus as he comes to us in Word and Sacrament, “yet it does need to give life and meaning to the celebration.” It’s a tricky balance, no doubt, so be on your guard if you’ve developed a taste for great preaching. A diet of superb, memorable homilies might tempt those in the pews to grow attached to the homilist, and the last thing the Church needs are personality cults, sermon groupies, and church-hopping in search of jazzy hermeneutics and/or rhetorical pyrotechnics.

How do I know that? Easy. Those are precisely the things we converts left behind when we joined the Church – and we don’t miss them at all.
______________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Confirmation, Kids, and Conversion

12 Jan

confirmation

Age of body does not determine age of soul. Even in childhood man can attain spiritual maturity…. Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood.
~ St. Thomas Aquinas

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The Romance of Closed Communion

22 Dec

thelook1

All who are not receiving Holy Communion are encouraged to express in their hearts a prayerful desire for unity with the Lord Jesus and with one another (NCCB).

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Wheaton’s Catholic Speakeasy

13 Jul

You start reading C.S. Lewis, then you’re reading
G.K. Chesterton, then you’re a Catholic.
~ Ross Douthat

 

BEWARE!

That’s what it should say outside Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center. If C.S. Lewis is a gateway drug to Catholicism, then the Wade Center’s promotion of Lewis and those who influenced him is equivalent to an evangelical opium den. At least it was for me.

Growing up in an evangelical milieu, I discovered C.S. Lewis early on by way of his Narnia tales. I can well remember the rush of wonder and delight that accompanied my exploration of that world of talking animals and moral nuance. Like so many, I ripped through all seven books one after another with hardly a pause in between, and then had to endure the vacuum created at the end when there was no more. Occasionally books will distress us because of how they end, but rarely because they end at all. The Narnia saga ranks in the latter category.cs_lewis_writing

After Narnia came Screwtape I think, and then The Great Divorce. I was in high school by the time I got around to reading the Space Trilogy, and somewhere along the way Mere Christianity. That whet my appetite for Lewis’ nonfiction, and I began dipping into more as I went off to college, particularly the wide ranging essays in God in the Dock.

What did Lewis teach me? First, a deep appreciation and anticipation of the supernatural – what Regis Martin calls the “numinous.” The numinous core of Lewis’ stories frequently even evoked a palpable response. Think of that tingly sensation you got as a kid when you faced the unknown – like when you went to summer camp for the first time, or your first mission trip overseas. It was a bit of fear, a bit of excitement, all tangled up with the sense that something important was at work. Moreover, encounters with the numinous in Lewis’ work are always mediated through encounters with things. The supernatural is never merely an abstraction in his stories – not just an idea or concept – but rather something incarnated and, consequently, something his characters bump into and trip over.

Lewis also introduced me to the idea of purgatory, and, through that, a much more profound desire for heaven. Through his stories and explanations, he showed me that Christianity went beyond avoiding sin and hell, and was ultimately about embracing a fullness of life, love, and joy. Lewis took the biblical Christianity that I’d been raised in and made it inhabitable – like that scene in the beginning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where the children first gaze upon the painting of a wild sea, and then are actually drawn into it.

That was all harmless enough as far as it went. However, the more I read Lewis, the more I wanted to know about him, and by the time I got to Wheaton College, I marion-wade-center-sidewas primed for the kind of Catholic correlations that the Wade Center seems designed to elicit.

Back then, the Center was housed in an out-of-the-way corner of the library, and I recall some of that tingly sensation as I tracked it down one day. Among other things, I’d heard that they had various Lewis artifacts, including his Oxford desk and chair and the actual Lewis family wardrobe – the very furnishing that undoubtedly influenced the genesis of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. These were only “things,” to be sure, but they serve to connect the visitor with the author himself. And this, in turn, underscores the “thinginess” featured in Lewis’ writing – a sacramental vision of connecting with the unseen through the seen, with the ethereal by way of the concrete. For Lewis, ordinary things and events were never merely incidental. Instead, they were noble vehicles of grace and truth and revelation.

Even more significant for me, however, were the other six authors spotlighted by the Center: George Macdonald and Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers and Owen Barfield, J.R.R. Tolkien and, of course, G.K. Chesterton. The Wade Center’s main focus is unquestionably C.S. Lewis, but the others are featured as well because of their influence on or relationship to Lewis. They had their differences, but altogether they had a rich, incarnational vision of what the Christian life was about.

Thus, a visit to the Wade Center allows the seeker a chance to linger in the literary presence of all seven of these great British writers and thinkers. Just to be there – among their manuscripts and letters, portraits and paraphernalia – was to drink in, as it were, their grand vision of the Christian life and to become intoxicated with their convictions about faith as an adventure. These were heady influences for a young, impressionable undergraduate, and they were equally heady when I returned years later for a day trip from my new home at the Chicago Catholic Worker.

It was a confusing time for me, and my faith was in crisis. I had firsthand knowledge that my Catholic Worker friends were living the Gospel and clearly followers of Jesus. But they were…well, Catholic, and I couldn’t bring myself to seriously entertain formally joining their ranks, despite my inclinations. There were too many unanswered questions, too many practices that didn’t make sense, and lots of doctrine that didn’t seem to square with the Bible. What to do?

So, who better to turn to than my mentors at the Wade Center, and I took the train out to Wheaton for a draught or two of their inebriating influence.

While there, I was particularly drawn to the Chesterton collection. I’d read a few of his works – The Man Who Was Thursday, for instance, and Orthodoxy – and I knew that Chesteron’s apologetics were instrumental in Lewis’ own religious NPG P1318; Gilbert Keith ('G.K.') Chesterton by Herbert Lambertconversion. Plus, there was that curiosity that Chesterton himself had become a Catholic after having embraced Anglicanism for a time, so what was that about?

The librarian – the Wheaton librarian, mind you – directed me to Chesterton’s The Catholic Church and Conversion, in which the author humbly laid out a defense of his ecclesial switch. I couldn’t read it all that day, but I read enough to convince me that I needed to track down a copy when I got back to Chicago – which I did with no little difficulty (in the days before Amazon and the internet).

There’s no way I could adequately summarize Chesterton’s masterful arguments and magnificent illustrations here, but suffice it to say he had me hooked. He didn’t attempt to defend individual Catholic doctrines or practices, but instead defended the idea that they could indeed be defended. He insisted that being a Catholic was reasonable and good. He provided example after example of the Church’s internal consistency and lucidity, and challenged the reader to test them for himself. And, finally, in the end, Chesterton made it plain that he could see no other way forward.

But if a convert is to write of conversion he must try to retrace his steps out of that shrine back into that ultimate wilderness where he once really believed that this eternal youth was only the “Old Religion.”…The difficulty was expressed to me by another convert who said, “I cannot explain why I am a Catholic; because now that I am a Catholic I cannot imagine myself as anything else.”

G.K. Chesterton’s cause for canonization is now in process, and it may well be that the interest generated by the investigation could blow the cover off of Wheaton’s underground Catholic hideaway.

In any case, if all goes well, we’ll all be visiting the Wade Center as pilgrims someday – to gaze on Chesterton’s correspondence and possibly even venerate volumes from his personal library as so many relics. Wouldn’t that be ironic? Imagine it! Wheaton College, a Catholic pilgrimage destination! C.S. Lewis, I trust, would be pleased.

_____________________________________________________

A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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