A year in: Some observations from a Catholic toddler

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As of today it’s been one year year since I entered the Catholic Church. I am still a baby Catholic. I’m still in diapers. There is so much to learn. My motto is, “Once a Catholic, eventually a Catholic.” Slowly, but surely I’m becoming more Catholic. I figured after one year I would take a look back and describe a bit of what I have seen and see today. I will begin with a little history.

As I have described elsewhere, my background is a mix of Baptist/Evangelical/Reformed. I was born into a Christian family, and being a Christian has always been a part of me. But anti-Catholic sentiment runs deep for many with my kind of background, and while I struggled with my “version” of Christianity, I also had to struggle with Catholicism before I could enter the Church. It took me about seven years of struggling before I finally took the plunge on September 29, 2013 at the 10:30 AM Mass, where, before all those present, I said the words: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” Naturally, this was a big deal for me. But did that make me Catholic? Well, yes, it did. But also it did not. I still have so much to learn, to incorporate into my life, that I feel like a door has been opened to a wondrous, overwhelming world, a world that amazes me, but I still have only just stepped across the threshold.

What has this year been like? First, my three children all entered the Church at Easter. This was a great joy for me. The two eldest were baptized, confirmed, and had their first communion. The youngest was baptized and will go through the more typical Catholic “process” of first communion later, and then confirmation when he is older. My wife has not entered the Church, and is currently not making plans to do so. Life has been rather overwhelming for her the past couple of years, and adding “one more thing” is a lot to ask, especially since the issues and questions that were burning in my heart, and what led me to the Church, are not yet burning in her’s. It is critical for each of us to go where the Spirit leads us, and the Spirit has not yet led my wife to the Church in the same way He has for me. I am not worried. We are all in God’s hands. But it is sometimes difficult for me.

Becoming Catholic has not solved all my problems. I did not expect it to. I’ve been a Christian too long to have that kind of perspective. Nor has being Catholic changed my life all that much. I’ve been a follower of Christ my whole life, and becoming Catholic came about because following Christ is a big deal to me. And I still fail to be a good disciple as a Catholic as I was as a Protestant. But, being Catholic has pointed my life in a somewhat different direction. There is a different focus in Catholicism than in Protestantism. If it is possible to sum up that focus, I should say that in Catholicism I find a greater connection with the Church as a whole body through time and space, a greater emphasis on pursuing holiness, an equal value placed on doctrine and living rightly, a genuine though struggling unity in diversity, and a stronger sense of the cultic in worship. All of this comes about, I think, because of the Real Presence, a more biblical anthropology, and a full embracing of the historical Church and a typological understanding of Scripture.

So what have I observed, learned, and/or confirmed, in this past year? Below is my list, in no particular order:

  • Catholics are sinners. I knew this long before I became a Catholic, probably since I was a youth and first became aware of the prevalence of sin. Regardless, a new convert can’t help but be excited to have “arrived”, drop one’s bags, and look around. Lo and behold, a bunch of sinners. Thank God I will not be alone. And a good reason to never stop praying.
  • Catholicism is richer than Protestantism. Some of my greatest loves were instilled in me by my Protestant training. I love God, the Bible, Truth, prayer, and the Christian worldview. However, the more I learn about Catholicism, the more it looks like a feast compared to the simple meal of Protestantism. I don’t think this can be explained very well to a Protestant. One has to come to the feast ready to eat to understand.
  • Everyday Catholicism has the potential to be a lot more beautiful than it typically is. I hear all the time that one of the great evangelical tools the Catholic Church has is the rich beauty of its treasures. True, but one has to mostly look to the past for those. Where is the great modern emphasis on beauty? There isn’t much, sadly. This is a product of modernity. The first culprit is the Mass. There is an inherent beauty in the Mass because of what it is and accomplishes, but I believe we are called to make it beautiful as well. Creating a beautiful Mass is an act of worship. I fear most churches don’t place much emphasis on beauty.
  • The stereotypical “guitars and bongos” are stereotypical for a reason. What is typical will eventually become stereotypical. I had heard of the awful guitars and bongos masses, and then I walked into my local parish church (the one we go to now) and there were guitars and bongos. The reality is, however, our music team is good, and I like what they do. I do have issues with some of the music choices, though.
  • I “discovered” the Divine Office. Years ago I began praying the rosary. I have not been consistent, but praying it was part of my journey into the Church. I should pray it more. However, in the past year I have been praying the Psalms most mornings. I use the Christian Prayer breviary. I love it. Nourishment to my soul.
  • They will want you to join groups. I almost joined the Secular Franciscans. They are a great group. However, once you join it’s for life (though there is a lengthy process to enter). Truth is, on becoming Catholic, I wanted to get more involved, and I didn’t know what was available, and so I was encouraged by my RCIA director, who is also a member of the Franciscans, to join up. But I came to realize that my interests are elsewhere, at least for now. I also realized I just don’t have the time for those things right now. Perhaps a book club would be better now. Perhaps Communion and Liberation. I can say that I’m a bit surprised that I’m now on the Pastoral Council. I think they want someone who is young (!! I’m nearly 50, so that says something of the average age of the council) and someone who brings a different perspective (a convert).
  • I will get to confession more often. This is an area of failure for me at the moment. I would like to go every two weeks, but alas…
  • Catholicism is a land of factions. Coming from factious Protestantland, I love the unity of the Catholic Church, and yet… there still is a lot of disunity within the Church. There is political disunity, theological disunity (within limits, or course), disunity of praxis, etc. However, I love that Catholics still come together for Mass, around the communion table, still accept the magisterium and pope (even if some grumble), and are committed to remain Catholic in some manner. There are a host of issues in all this, and plenty of Catholics are not truly Christian it would seem, but, in general, schism is looked down on. This is a point of hope.
  • Priests need our prayer. I see priests as being rather amazing. A priest is not like a Protestant minister, who is more like an entrepreneur building his business, pushing his brand, selling his product. No, priests are more like servants, and I can see the joy and weariness in their eyes. I do not envy priests. They have a lot to do, and they have to deal with all the ugliness of sinful parishioners. They are also targets for spiritual warfare. Pray for your priest.
  • Parishes need volunteers. I can’t think of any typical parish that is not underfunded and understaffed. Show up on on Sunday and Mass will happen, and all will seem fine; the church is still there, Mass still goes on, no problems, right? There is so much that goes on behind the scenes, and so many activities and projects that need to get done. Most of this is done by volunteers.
  • A local parish church is a good place to be. There is always the temptation to find the hippest, most happening church to attend. This is much easier for Protestants since, at least, they usually have such a church somewhere in your geography. Catholics maybe not so much, but there may be the big downtown church that’s further away than your dumpy little church down the street from your house. Go to the dumpy church. Become a part of your parish. Pray for your priest. Volunteer where you can. Don’t judge those around you. Take the advice of J.R.R. Tolkien.
  • Protestant friends and family don’t know how to respond. In some corners a Protestant who converts will face harsh and vitriolic responses from their Protestant family and friends, even outright rejection and shunning. This happens. But more often there is silence. One converts and friends and family say nothing; they don’t bring it up, don’t ask questions, seem generally incurious. Perhaps they don’t want to know, or care to know, or are afraid to know. Perhaps they just don’t want to open what they think is a Pandora’s box of issues and think it’s best to stay quiet. They are probably right. Whatever the reason, it is interesting. But pray for them. Pray that you would have something to say for why you are Catholic. Pray they let their curiosity, however small, get the better of them and they start wondering a bit more.
  • Conversion stories are still important. I read a lot of conversion stories prior to entering the Church. These helped me sort out issues, answer questions, and generally provided me support. But after coming into the Church I still find them important. Testimonials remind us of what is good and right about the choices we have made. We really never stop converting.
  • Many modern Catholic hymns suck. I am not critiquing modern Catholic hymns from a Protestant perspective. I don’t like modern Protestant hymns either. But the Catholic ones are worse for some reason. I have written on this site more than once about music, so I won’t go into it much here. But one observation: Why do so many of the boomers seem to like these hymns, even singing some of the worst ones from memory, joyfully singing them? I don’t think it’s a matter of me not being able to appreciate them. I think they are bad now, and have always been bad. To like them is to be broken in some way (broken sensibilities, broken idea of authentic worship, broken idea of beauty, I don’t really know). Is the “me generation” predisposed to like this stuff? When people criticize the post-Vatican II Church, do they mean a church caught in a boomer-vortex? Is it just a matter of time, then, before we can get on with something better?
  • Many Catholics dress like slobs for Mass. I came into the Church primarily because of the Real Presence at Mass. A great deal of my conversion came through reading, and not going to Mass. I was surprised, therefore, at how unimpressed with the Real Presence many Catholics seem to be. We are made to honor God, when we don’t it damages us, makes us less than we are. Again, this goes back to the “freedoms” originally embraced by the boomer generation (and now embedded into our modern psyches) that were supposed to strip away all that was “inauthentic” and embrace something more “authentic” than traditions and conformity ever could. Are we more authentic wearing graphic t-shirts and shorts to church rather than dressing up? What have we lost?
  • Catholic Church web sites are generally bad. Catholicism suffers from poor marketing. Sometimes I think this is a good thing – it’s good for churches not to get too caught up in flashy marketing. Still, one way to tell potential visitors to your church (seekers looking for a parish) that this parish is basically for the elderly only is by having a web 1.0 website. This may sound harsh, but how one’s church presents itself to the world includes how it makes itself known to inquirers, and these days it’s through modern communication technologies. The young (and now middle-aged) have been using the latest communications technologies with ease for years now. To some degree, remember, the medium is the message. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that a web site should be beautiful. Most I’ve seen are not.
  • A lot of parishes are run by, and cater mostly to, the elderly. Perhaps this is because the elderly might have more wisdom than the young, and thus value volunteering in their parishes. It also means that parishes will often have the kind of look and feel most liked by the older generation and not so much by the young. Perhaps the best solution is for a church to seem timeless. I’m not sure how that would look or feel, however. And my parish would never survive if not for the generous and loving care offered by its elderly members. Pray for them too.
  • There are Catholics everywhere, but you wouldn’t know it. For years I only knew Protestants. I couldn’t tell you of anyone I knew who might be Catholic. Now that I am Catholic I keep running into people everywhere who are. I think Catholics tend to be rather silent about their faith. I don’t think they should be.
  • Catholic culture is both like and unlike Protestant culture. Duh. But it is interesting to see some of the same kinds of light-weight, vague, feel-good theology promoted by Catholic parishioners as is by most average Protestants. There is also plenty of love for chintzy and smarmy art, bad Christian movies, and mediocre pop-Jesus music. On the other hand, one finds individuals in both “camps” that seek the finer things, stand for beauty, strive from truth and goodness, and live their lives in service to others. In my experience there are more possibilities for the finer things from within Catholicism because it has no trouble drawing on all of Church history.

Truth is, I didn’t want to end up at my parish. I was hoping for a larger church where I could be a bit more anonymous. I also wanted a church near a university with theological classes and a good college ministry that I could get involved with. I didn’t want a neighborhood parish with “ordinary” people. I didn’t want a parish with a bad web site, bongos, modern architecture, etc., etc. I look back on all that and realize I was foolish. We should be careful in making these kinds of distinctions. Still, I want to encourage beauty in my parish.

And I am more glad than ever I made the journey into the Church.

Arvo Pärt: Sanctus and Agnus Dei from the Berliner Messe

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.

English trans:
Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God of hosts
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.

Agnus Dei
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi
dona nobis pacem.

English trans:
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins
of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins
of the world, grant us peace.

Whatever is good… Seeking true worship, whether or not “traditional”

In recently writing on Beauty and the Catholic Mass, and consequently calling for more Beauty and less ugliness, more aesthetic excellence and less mediocrity, one might assume I have a preference for the traditional over the contemporary. Certainly many of the voices today that criticize contemporary Catholicism, and especially the more typical Novus Ordo liturgical practices, do so from a traditionalist framework. I do not blame them. Over centuries the Catholic Church incrementally built up a beautiful Mass that has largely been dismantled in the few years since the 1960’s. What replaced the traditional Mass has been a mixed bag, and not a few serious wrong turns. A few Catholics have rediscovered the traditional Mass and are championing its re-establishment as the Mass of preference and practice.

I am not yet prepared to be a champion of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass to the exclusion of the Norvus Ordo. But I do have sympathies with the traditionalist turn up to a point. As a classical Christian homeschooler who’s children are studying Latin, and as a Christian who sees the deep anti-human roots of modernity, I tend to look at the pre-Modern, even casting a glance back to the Middle Ages, and of course the early Church, with great affection and a strange kind of nostalgia (strange for not actually having lived during those times). I also prefer a Mass that has, as its primary focus, the worship of God, and thus is ordered that way. There is something about the old, and the Latin, that evokes the right kinds of feelings of worship. Plus, there is something good about linking our own experiences to the historical Church and not only to the present Church, however global and wonderful that is.

But, here’s the issue for me: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are not confined to a particular language or form. (I’m sure someone, somewhere out there is calling any Mass with a post-1569 style and form heretical – let alone post-1969.) I get that the stumbles and problems of the Novus Ordo Mass, and much of contemporary Catholic culture (at least in the U.S.), point to many deeper issues. And I do struggle with the sometimes poor aesthetics of the Masses I attend. However, we are not confined to reversing these problems to only “going back” to a more traditional, and supposedly more holy, era – which is probably a false, even though popular, idea. I believe the true solution is, rather, to place the right kind of emphasis on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Perhaps doing so will, in fact, lead us to a more traditional Liturgy. Perhaps doing so will have us all chanting, and praying in Latin, and smelling incense. Honestly I would love that. (I would also love walking in the door of a Romanesque style church, the interior lit only by candles, with a choir chanting from the choir loft. But I also want the place heated in winter and cool in summer, with good plumbing, and a sound system that allows me to hear the homily.) But we must not put the cart before the horse. I am convinced that a Novus Ordo Mass (or a somewhat altered version) can, in fact, be a Mass of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty if the Church so wills it to be so and acts accordingly.

The issue, as I see it, is that the Church (meaning the majority membership of the Mystical Body), especially in the west, became captivated (by degree) with the modern tendency to love a “truth” that is relative, a “goodness” that is so personal that it cannot be judged, and a “beauty” that is ugly. And this shift became popular and easy in a world that thought it was being profound, serious, and more authentic as it laughed at their parent’s generation for being uncool and out of touch (perhaps it was). In other words, many of the issues that have troubled the Catholic church over the last 50 years have not been issues arising from the Second Vatican Council, but have been Baby-boomer issues – that particularly unique generation that has been, and sometimes continues to be, somewhat of a blight on the earth (and not the only generation to do so – my own being a blight as well). The so-called (and falsely attributed) Spirit of Vatican II was, rather, the spirit of the age, blowing its way through the souls of the west and elsewhere. Everyone was affected. Modern Protestantism is just as much a result of this wind (I know this from experience).

The answer, however, is not to define a specific way of acting, dressing, speaking, eating, buying, walking, praying, etc. We must not adopt another form, yeah even a “costume” (however traditional), in order to become holy. We must not allow ourselves to believe a traditional Latin Mass makes us any more holy than a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a pair of leather chaps makes a middle aged CPA a Hell’s Angel on a Saturday afternoon ride with his friends. The only true answer is to turn toward God and to truly embrace Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. If that leads us to a more traditional Mass, or leads one to the Divine Office, or leads one to learning prayers in Latin, then it will be a true turn because it is born out of a turn towards God. If it leads us in another, perhaps non-traditional, direction, that will also be a true turn. The issue is how we stand before God, our reasons in worship, how we instill in our bodies the nature of worship, and the state of our hearts.

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.