Becoming Catholic, Part 2

Christ blessing Savior World el Greco

While I was in the process of becoming Catholic twenty-nine years ago (click HERE for Part 1), I tried to make sense out of the ‘historical Jesus’ problem.

We never really discussed it in RCIA class, but it seemed important to me. So I read a bunch of books about it.

What is the ‘historical Jesus’ problem?

One the one hand: Jesus of Nazareth, a human being, like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. We have historical records about Jesus, like we have historical records about other luminaries of the ancient world. The records about Jesus have been gathered into a unique collection called the New Testament.

Human beings wrote the records we have about Jesus. And those writers had their human reasons for writing, and particular human audiences in mind, when they wrote.

History = reconstructing the past by studying written records. Nothing magic about it, or holy. It’s a field of study that we human beings must engage in, in order to understand our situation. Jesus of Nazareth, an important man of history, fits into that study.

On the other hand: The Church believes that Jesus of Nazareth is the eternal Word made flesh, the God-man. The Church believes that He is the heart of the holy and divine Scriptures, the books that reveal God Almighty to us. God Who can neither deceive nor be deceived.

The Church reverently reads the Bible as not just true, but as the key to understanding The Truth.

As a candidate for the Easter sacraments, I encountered some ideas about how to deal with this problem. And I couldn’t bring myself to accept those ideas.

For example:

Jesus as portrayed in the Bible is the Christ that Catholics believe in, and what actually happened in Palestine 2,000 years ago doesn’t matter. History is one thing, faith is another. There’s no point in struggling with an impossible task, namely making the Bible’s testimony about Jesus seem reasonable or accurate.

But hold on. Don’t Catholics believe in the actual, factual Jesus Christ?

As in: He instituted the Holy Mass, using bread and wine, with His own human hands and voice, at a particular Passover celebration, with His apostles.

And: He rose from the dead in the flesh.

Doesn’t the whole religion absolutely require that these are true facts?

I knew I had no intention of joining a Church founded on myths, even lovely myths.

illuminated-bible

In other words: critical thinking about Holy Scripture seemed absolutely necessary to me. Not just on the grounds that we are rational animals, we human beings. But also on the grounds that: Christians believe in a God-man who actually did walk the earth, talk, eat, sleep, bathe, etc.–like us. There is no Christianity without the actual, historical Jesus of Nazareth.

Here’s another idea that floated my way during my RCIA year, one that I couldn’t accept:

We ‘enlightened,’ modern people have more learning than the ancients, so we can understand the human beings who wrote the Scriptures better than they understood themselves.

We now have the skills necessary to interpret Scriptural statements that seem hard to accept; we can render them perfectly reasonable. When you can psychoanalyze the human authors, and their original intended audiences, then you can understand what they really meant.

giotto-flight
Flight Into Egypt by Giotto

For example: Matthew’s gospel says that St. Joseph took the Blessed Mother and the baby Jesus to Egypt, to escape the slaughter of the innocents ordered by King Herod.

According to the school of thought I’m talking about, a ‘naive’ pre-modern reader thinks: This means the Holy Family made a difficult journey. But an ‘educated,’ modern interpreter understands: The author traditionally known as ‘Matthew’ wrote this to tell his readers that Jesus is the new Moses. (Since Moses came from Egypt to Israel, in the Exodus, with the whole people.)

Now, Jesus certainly is the new Moses. And we could read Matthew’s gospel and know that, even without the detail about the Holy Family’s trip to Egypt.

But call me naive, I think that if the trip did not happen, then the book contains an untrue statement.

I read and re-read the gospels, and went looking for some help in the writings of St. Augustine. The following began to dawn on me:

1. Some ‘historical critics’ insist that the gospels contradict each other on certain points. But that is not true.

Finding ‘contradictions’ requires over-interpreting the significance of particular statements, as if they were meant to exclude other related facts.

But if you avoid over-interpreting gospel details like this, then the ‘contradictions’ disappear. The apparent discrepancies arise from the multiple points-of-view that the New Testament offers: multiple points-of-view on one underlying set of facts.

That underlying set of facts is no more–and no less!–complicated than our own complicated lives, with all their relationships, conversations, confidences, etc. etc.

resurrection

For example:

The gospel accounts of disciples seeing Jesus after He rose from the dead seem complicated and disjointed? How would the accounts of your friends seeing you, in different places and at different times, after you rose from the dead seem, if that happened?

How many facebook posts would be involved? Could those posts be gathered together into an easy narrative? Please. The facebook posts about your family’s last Thanksgiving dinner could hardly be gathered together into an easy, coherent narrative. Very few family Thanksgiving dinners could be.

thanksgiving-BeverlyHillbillies

2. The four gospels corroborate each other–and corroborate the Christian tradition–on the basic narrative about Jesus of Nazareth. If the written records of the first century A.D. give us anything, they give us a solid picture of this man’s life.

He traveled Palestine as an itinerant rabbi; He taught a distinct message about His identity and His significance in Jewish history that got Him crucified. His followers claimed that they had seen Him after He rose from the dead (even though it cost many of them their own lives to make that claim). They celebrated Baptism and the Eucharist at His command.

Thoroughly verifiable historical facts, these.

3. Most of the content of the gospels, however, can neither be proven to be true history, nor disproven. You can’t prove that Jesus said all the things the gospels say He said. But you can’t prove that He didn’t say them, either.

These books give the reader the intimate point-of-view of the disciple of Christ. They were written by disciples for disciples, by Christians for Christians. These books continue the experience of intimacy with Christ that the disciples had; the books allow the authors’ experience to continue now.

It is an undeniable historical fact that the original disciples had the experience of intimacy with Christ. What that experience involved can only be known by fellow believers. When you read the New Testament, as a member of the Church, you have it–the same experience as the gospel authors.

That is, the experience of communion with the triune God, on the terms that Jesus laid down in His teaching and example. (And made possible by His gifts of grace.)

I realized, twenty-nine years ago: Historical inquiry gets you right to the front door of the church, without any doubts. Or any leaps of faith.

Then the Catholic, apostolic faith gets you inside, to hear and read the gospels for what they are.

There’s nothing irrational about believing every word of the Bible, assuming we are humble enough to admit that we don’t fully understand them all.

We quickly leave the question of historical accuracy behind, however, as we enter the realm of intimacy with God that the New Testament open up to us, here and now.

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.

First and Second Regeneration and the Two Purposes of Lent

[written 3/7/20]

Gerard David Transfiguration

On two occasions during Lord Jesus’ earthly pilgrimage, the Father spoke out from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son!” 1. At Christ’s Baptism. 2. At His Transfiguration. [Spanish]

Holy Baptism. One of the seven… sacraments. The sacrament of regeneration. God generated us in the first place, in the Garden of Eden. When Satan tempted us, we fell, and we became the sinful, mortal human race that we are. Then God sent His beloved Son to re-generate us.

We enter into the re-generation process through Holy Baptism. When we get baptized into Christ, everything starts fresh. Human purity restored, an open-ended friendship with God begins.

Hopefully you know, dear reader, that Lent exists primarily as the final period of preparation for adults who will be baptized during the night before Easter. In other words, Lent means, first of all: the final stage of study and purification for non-Christian adults about to become Christians.

In the original Passover, the ancient People of God passed dry-shod through the Red Sea and marched on, toward the Promised Land. During Lent we integrate the stranger and the sojourner among us into our People, the pilgrim Church, to march forward with us.

aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas

To embrace the grace of Christian faith, a soul must search itself very deeply. Someone seeking to live the life of the Church must look within. When we do that, we discover the profound need that we all have for the Savior and Redeemer of the human race.

Our bodies get thirsty and need liquid refreshment. But our souls thirst, ultimately, for God. And only Jesus Christ offers the water that truly quenches that thirst.

We need light to guide us in this world. When the sun goes down, a lot of us have a hard time driving. But, even more so, we need interior light to understand the meaning of life, and how to attain it. Only Jesus Christ shines the inner light that guides us to true peace, to heaven.

Above all, when we face reality squarely, we immediately recognize: All of us are marching inexorably toward death. No one can stop that clock from ticking. But Jesus offers the true divine life that overcomes human mortality.

So Lent exists primarily to help students of Christianity to confront all these truths of human nature, and to understand them by the light of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching. When any human being who has learned the basic of Catholicism struggles for forty days to grasp just how deeply we need the Christ, then that soul can embrace the Christian faith with real freedom and commitment at Easter.

But Lent isn’t just for un-baptized catechumens. Lent also exists to remind us already-baptized Christians about what happened to us at the font. God regenerated us there, to live as His friends, as the children of His household. We need to reach into the depths of our souls, too, to rediscover the always-new, always-fresh presence of Christ’s truth and life. When we were baptized into Him, Jesus claimed us as His forever.

We already-baptized people, as we reach into these interior depths during Lent, usually find that we need to be re-cleansed by the baptismal water. How do we do that? By going to confession! One ancient name for the sacrament of Confession is… second Baptism.

Now, speaking of second things—what about the second time the Father declared, “This is my beloved Son!” The gospel passage we read at Holy Mass this Sunday. When the Lord’s body shone with brilliant divine light, transfigured. At that moment, the human regeneration accomplished by Christ, usually invisible to our eyes, was revealed.

St. Thomas Aquinas says that Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan River was the sacrament of our first regeneration. And Christ’s Transfiguration is the sacrament of our second regeneration. That is, our bodily resurrection. When Christ comes again, in the glory He revealed at the Transfiguration, sin and Satan and death will no longer have any power over us. We will receive unending, divine bodily life. We Catholic Christians live for nothing less than that.