Becoming Catholic

Dalgren Chapel
Dahlgren Chapel, Georgetown University

First week of Lent. The Purim moon comes in one week; the next full moon after that means… Easter.

Twenty-nine Lents ago, on the sunny afternoon of the first Sunday of the season, I found myself at a ceremony in St. Matthew’s cathedral, on Rhode Island Avenue, in Washington DC.

I was dead tired. I could hardly keep my eyes open during the sermon.

I was always tired on Sundays in 1992 and 1993. I spent every Saturday night waiting tables at a 24-hour cafe, just up the street from the cathedral.

Actually, that Sunday I had already been in the cathedral, for 7am Mass. I went every Sunday morning, after my shift ended. I never got there quite on time, but it didn’t matter. I was there simply to kneel and pray quietly in the back. I wasn’t Catholic yet, anyway.

That was why I was in the cathedral that particular Sunday afternoon. The ceremony was the “Rite of Election,” presided over by the bishop. The pews were filled with candidates for the Sacraments of Initiation, to be given all over the archdiocese, at Easter.

I was one of the candidates. I was going to join the Catholic Church.

Strictly speaking, the Rite of Election ceremony did not pertain to me. I was already baptized, as a Protestant. I was a Christian already. But most of our group came to St. Matthew’s anyway, that Sunday afternoon, for fellowship’s sake with the one unbaptized person among us.

The whole thing was something called “RCIA.” Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. (These days, I think, the preferred term is actually OCIA, Order of Chrisitian Initiation… But a pox on the acronyms.)

In our assigned pew that afternoon in St. Matthew’s:

The affable Georgetown Jesuit priest in charge of the campus RCIA program. The kind woman who helped Father, and who actually knew all our names. And the candidates–at least the ones who were able to make that particular ceremony. The fiancee of a grad student (the lone un-baptized member of the group). A couple undergrads. The high-school-senior daughter of a professor. A bookkeeper at the GU finance office. And sleepy me–a local waiter, suicide-prevention-hotline worker, and college drop-out, who had stumbled into this particular group through a friend studying at Georgetown.

We had a regular RCIA routine, of course, and it reflected the Lord’s-day schedule of the Georgetown undergrads: Church on Sunday evening, rather than morning.

Each Sunday we RCIA students made our way to Dahlgren Chapel on the Georgetown campus in time for the 7:30pm Sunday Mass. We sat together in a pew near the front of the chapel. After the sermon, the Jesuit celebrating the Mass would call us up in front of the altar, give us a good word, and dismiss us for our little ‘class.’

We would sidle out into a parlor in the old School of Business next door to sit with the woman who helped Father (the lovely Mary Patricia Barth Fourqurean, who I pray the Lord will bless forever, for her bottomless kindness to us) and the seminarian detailed to minister to us. They would lead a discussion of the readings we had just heard at Mass.

We each had pocket-sized Catholic Bibles. I kept mine on my person at all times. I read it on the subway on the way from my Capitol-Hill apartment to RCIA, and on the way home, and in the morning, and in the evenings. I read it whenever I could.

One homework assignment I had: to obtain a baptismal certificate.

New York Avenue Presbyterian church
New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C.

In October 1970, my parents carried me to New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Rev. George Docherty, a semi-famous Scotsman, baptized me.

I called the church office there, and the secretary agreed to prepare a certificate for me to pick up. When I came by to get the envelope, I asked if I could visit the church, and I prayed a little bit there.

I handed the envelope with the certificate to Mary Pat the following Sunday evening.

The Holy Roman Catholic Church recognized this Presbyterian baptism. No plans to re-baptize me. I found this intriguing.

I mean, I understood that Baptism is for life. You don’t do it multiple times. It marks you, invisibly yet definitively, somehow. That part resonated with how being baptized had affected my life so far. I hadn’t shown up for RCIA in order to forsake the religion I learned in childhood.

I loved Jesus Christ from the time when I was old enough to understand the gospel readings that we heard on Sundays. I loved Him because of those readings. I pictured the Lord in my mind’s eye as I listened, and I loved Him. Jesus, as the four canonical gospels, read aloud in church, present Him: He was already my Lord, and Sundays in our family church growing up involved communing with Him, no doubt.

The Roman Catholic Church regarded my Protestant baptism as somehow theirs, as an act of The Church, the one and only Church. That comforted and captivated me.

All that said, when I showed up at the Catholic doorstep, I had never been to confession; the “Confirmation” I had received bore little resemblance to the sacrament of the Church, and therefore certainly did not count; and the Holy Communions I had taken thus far in my life involved bread and wine only.

…Now, the fact is, the Georgetown University “RCIA team” never really taught us much of anything. But I did not notice that. I was reading so much on my own.

In addition to the gospels, I read a helpful little book called Catholic & Christian by Alan Schreck. (An RCIA staple nationwide.) And I plowed through John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

Card Newman
John Henry Newman

Newman was a clergyman of the Protestant Church of England who entered the Roman Catholic Church in mid-life. He explained himself in his Apologia.

One big part of the book outlines an ancient Church controversy. In minute detail, Newman shows how the authority of the papacy held the Church together and kept Her true to Christ. I found it all thoroughly compelling.

I also read a middle-English poem called The Pearl.

The speaker of the poem falls asleep and has a vision of his daughter, who had died, across a river. He speaks with her about her death and redemption. She answers by summarizing some of Christ’s parables, and then the speaker sees the city of heaven as described in Revelation.

All the details of all the images in the poem have meaning, referring to Scripture somehow. Reading it opened up entirely new vistas in my mind. There’s more than just what meets the eye–in the Church, in the Bible, in everything.

brunelleschi_crucifix

All my reading aside, though, I showed up for RCIA for two main reasons:

1. The crucifix.

In the Protestant church I grew up in, crucifixes were unheard of. I was taught to think of a crucifix–with the body of Christ hanging on it–as something grotesque.

But I had a total change of heart on that when I was 22. Something drew me to contemplate Christ crucified. I meditated for many hours on His suffering in the flesh, on the cross.

Especially His spreading out of His arms to receive the nails. That gesture came to mean everything to me, as a sign of love, and as an instruction on the meaning of life.

Spreading out His arms, He abandoned Himself to love, to death, to the Father. And to the human race that was killing Him cruelly and mercilessly.

His doing this made life make sense to me. This is what it means to be a living human being: to give yourself to God and to your neighbor, unto death, like Jesus did at that moment.

And He opened His arms to give Himself to the Father, who was–and remains–totally invisible to the human eye. Jesus did that with complete trust.

The trust of Christ in the invisible Father shows us: On the other side of everything visible, on the other side of the sky, there is unfailing love. He cares, the One Who made the heavens and the earth. He knows, and He cares.

The Father gazes with tenderness at everything. And He governs it all with a shepherd’s heart, leading us to the pasture that we most deeply desire, but cannot even properly imagine.

When the Lord Jesus spread out His arms to receive His cruel death with a peaceful embrace, He taught us to trust the invisible heaven, the Kingdom of the Father.

tabernacle

2. Jesus’ quiet act of embracing death with trust: it was a religious sacrifice. Somehow I grasped that, even though no one had ever taught me to understand it that way. And that sacrifice was the sacrifice of the Catholic Holy Mass.

That’s the second reason I was sitting in St. Matthew’s on the first Sunday of Lent, 1993: I had shown up for RCIA in the first place because some supernatural force had moved me to believe in the Real Presence. To believe in it with everything I had. Jesus is present on the altar after the consecration at a Mass; His own words at the Last Supper tell us so. I believed it.

Again, the Christianity I grew up with had taught me different. We had communion every Sunday, but nothing about the ceremony communicated the idea of religious sacrifice, or that the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ were on the altar.

The way everyone at a Catholic Mass knelt down together–I knew that was where I belonged. Kneeling among the Catholics, with faith in something that the human eye cannot see.

That faith came to me as a pure gift. To know that a priest, ordained by a bishop who had himself been ordained through a chain going back to the Apostles–believing that such a priest can offer to God the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Thanks to that inner force (which to this day I do not understand), I  already believed with all my heart in the Catholic priesthood and the Real Presence when I first showed up for RCIA. It’s the reason I showed up. It’s the reason I went to St. Matthew’s after I knocked-off work every Sunday morning that year. I wanted to kneel in Jesus’ presence.

I never even thought about going to Holy Communion in those days. I knew I wasn’t supposed to receive–that is, until I officially entered the Church at Easter. No problem. I just wanted to be in church and love Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

confessional…No one on the RCIA team ever really tried to teach us how to go to confession. But we did go, at a penance service in Dalgren chapel, with multiple priests, during Lent. I had never seen the Jesuit I went to, and I have never seen him since.

I was altogether at a loss about what to do, what to say, how to say it, etc. But I did feel great sorrow for my many sins. I had neglected God, and I had violated a bunch of His clear commandments. Since I had attained the use of reason and became responsible for my actions, I had been a pretty thoroughgoing arrogant prick a lot of the time. I knew I was a lost soul who had been found, praise the Lord.

I remember the penance that Father gave me to do. “Pray for the rest of us.” Ok.

…My mother had deep suspicions about my new affiliation with the organization that her hero, Martin Luther, had so vociferously criticized. She managed, however, to tolerate with kindness my eccentric youthful turn to Rome.

My brother could not even discuss the matter, he was so infuriated by it. Did it mean I would now vote Republican?

My friends, for the most part, thought I had lost my mind or been drugged by aliens. That is, except for a couple of them. One of them said to the others, “Look, Mark has always been obsessed with God.” Another was himself in the throes of becoming an observant, pious Jew, even though his family and all their Jewish friends never darkened the door of a synagogue. (He came to the Mass when I was received into the Church.)

My Episcopalian father gave me the money to order a nice, tailored suit for the Easter Vigil.

Rosary Prayers

I don’t recommend this, but: A year or so earlier I had dated a woman I worked with, who was 18 years older than me. After a couple months, the romance turned into a friendship. She herself had converted to Catholicism as a young adult, because of a previous boyfriend.

She became my RCIA “sponsor.” She gave me a tiger-eye rosary-bead set that she made a special trip to buy, at the gift shop of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

I taught myself how to say the Hail Mary, and the other Rosary prayers, on the subway.

Another ex-girlfriend tried to talk me out of going through with the Catholicism thing. She bought me a copy of Jason Berry’s Lead Us Not Into Temptation.

The book was hot off the presses that year. It exposed the cover-up of clerical sexual abuse in a number of American Catholic dioceses. It was the first major work on that subject. Berry’s investigations led the way, and he has since become a hero of mine. I should have paid a lot closer attention to his findings, twenty-nine years ago.

I did not agree then, however, with Berry’s thesis. Namely, that Catholic sexual morality is the root of the problem. I still don’t agree with that. And, yes I was young and naive in 1993, but: I could see that the attractive young woman who gave me the book had an ulterior motive. She didn’t like the idea of me becoming Catholic because she wanted me to violate Catholic sexual morality. With her.

…Holy Saturday came, and then turned, literally, into a dark and stormy night. We had rehearsed for the opening ceremony of the Vigil, with the Easter fire, in the courtyard outside the chapel. But we had to scrap our plans because of the pelting rain. We candidates stood inside, looking out, while Father, stooped under a golf umbrella buffeted by the wind, lit the Paschal candle.

…To be continued, later in Lent.

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