It Begins with Light: A Londoner’s Conversion to Catholicism
I’m not a Cradle Catholic. I’m a convert. Actually, a fairly recent convert: I was received into the Church on Easter Vigil, 2013. I’m sure I wouldn’t have made it to this point without the help and kindness of others, not least The Fellowship of The King’s Rosaria Marie. She, and the Editor, invited me to give some thoughts on my conversion, and on going through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. I’m sure my story isn’t particularly spectacular or unique but I glad to share it.
Many years before beginning the RCIA, even, I had a great admiration for Catholicism. The world seems obsessed with defining the limits of human life and human nature ever-narrower. Catholicism, by contrast, takes the absolute position that all human life is sacred, from conception until death. It doesn’t compromise. Even though I found belief in God’s existence a difficult thing to come by back then, that absolute position seemed like the most humane to take. Of course, God’s existence underpins the position’s humanity. Accepting that was, for me, the first positive inference I could draw about the divine life.
I moved on to reading quite a bit, especially popular works of atheist advocacy like The God Delusion. By and large, these had two effects on me. The first was an emotional resistance to what I saw as much of modern atheism’s mean, smug superiority, but I did my best to look past the rhetoric to the reasoning. The second effect, though, was that I found the reasoning faulty: science becomes scientism, and faith is placed in methods inapplicable to consideration of Almighty God. Now, even when my faith is weak, my reason never completely discounts that there is a Supreme Being that loves His Creation.
I finally contacted my parish priest about being received into the Church, and I began the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. I wasn’t the only person undertaking the Rite that year. The people with me were varied in their backgrounds: some were baptised, others not; some lived locally, some travelled to the meetings; one man, who with his wife had taken in and raised his young grandson after the death of the boy’s parents, was in the odd situation of being sponsored by him! Something we all came to understand was that there were many reasons for being there. None of those reasons were necessarily any better or worse than another. For those of us who completed the Rite, the end result was the same, and of a shared value.
It doesn’t all come from a textbook. Catholic Christianity is a practical, lived thing; one can know all about the Faith and not be a Christian. One has to engage with other people, and work on a relationship with God. I’ve never had a problem learning things from a text, which is why this active engagement was (and is) so important to me. The RCIA will explain the Mass, but you’re never left in any doubt that you must also go to Mass. Quite a few practising Catholics attend the meetings: so as to refresh their own knowledge; but also to provide invaluable guidance on how to live the life we read about. Explaining a Christian mystery like the Trinity, for example, is one thing; encouraging the prayer and humility necessary to begin appreciating a mystery is quite another, and is far better conveyed in active discussion.
After being inducted into the Order of Catechumens and later being presented to the Bishop of my diocese at the Rite of Election, Holy Saturday came and we were all received into the Church. I have to admit, over six months of attending Mass (including Mass on Christmas Eve!) didn’t really prepare me for the Easter Vigil. I suppose it’s a feature of modern life, that Christmas seems to take precedence over Easter but, as my priest says, it’s the Cross that gives everything else its meaning. And the Vigil reminds you of everything: it begins with light, and the sharing of light. The readings take us through God’s covenant and the signs and prophecies that precede the coming of Christ. It was, for me, the culmination of the entire Rite (which, of course, it was) but, of course, it was also the culmination of the year for everyone present.
And there were some things that made sense to me then. Everyone present was asked to renew their baptismal vows; I’d been told that making the sign of the Cross was to recall those vows, and now that I saw those vows come to the forefront of the minds of everyone at the Mass I realised their impact and importance, and of the sign of the Cross too. Everything at the Vigil was almost overwhelming, but also somehow comfortable, and natural, and seemed to me to be how it was all meant to be. I won’t pretend that everything presented itself in my mind at the time in a perfectly structured, reasoned way… not least because, when it was the turn of the Candidates and Catechumens to be received, I was rooted to the spot in terror and more-or-less unable to speak (which my priest took in very good humour). It’s easy to know that one of Jesus’ repeated exhortations in the Gospels is Not to Be Afraid. It’s certainly something I have to learn.
So: what have I learned; and what have I gained? I haven’t gained any sort of sense that everything’s fine in the world, and that so long as we all love one another we’re all going to Heaven, and that I feel wonderfully happy and liberated all the time. A priest described that all to me as “warm fuzzy feelings”; a simple, sentimental, emotional reaction to one’s situation. Catholicism isn’t so shallow. It teaches that the greatest expression of love is humble obedience. Equally, “doing what one thinks is right” isn’t the same as acting according to one’s conscience. This is just as shallow. One’s conscience has to be well-formed to be of any use, and that formation of conscience comes from never-ending reflection and prayer, and a lifelong effort to conform your will to His. Catholicism doesn’t offer any easy comfort, either. Seeing the death of one’s friends and loved ones, for instance, the only certainty isn’t that their soul is where you want it to be, but rather that the judgement will be perfectly just and merciful.
In short, all the canards that detractors present as Catholicism’s false platitudes are actually false themselves. If I’ve taken anything away from the RCIA, it’s the sheer enormity of what lies ahead. Salvation is the narrow gate. The sneaking suspicion that I always had about what I thought I knew – that I actually knew very little about the truth – turns out to have been right. I have an enormous amount to unlearn and re-consider. And I have to spend the rest of my lifetime taking the small beginnings of a conscience and correctly exercising it.
I already know that I will fail more times than I’ll succeed, and this brings me to the greatest thing I’ve learned about the faith: Catholicism’s detractors will always say that Catholics are obsessed with Sin; the truth is, Catholics know they’re the recipients of forgiveness. It’s that forgiveness, and the growing appreciation I have for doing what is truly Right, that makes me happy to have become a Catholic.