This is a question I’ve asked myself a lot, in many different circumstances, throughout my life as a cradle Catholic.
Love and reverence for the Body of Christ in the Eucharist is one of the many great gifts my mother gave me growing up and is still a foundational part of my faith today. One of my earliest memories of Mass is of my mother pointing at the host during consecration and whispering to me, “Look Sophie! There’s a glimpse of heaven!” I didn’t understand what she meant at the time, but on some level, I’ve been pondering that mystery in my heart ever since.
Why am I Catholic? In the end, the answer always comes back down to that real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. God Himself does not just instruct us and show us the way to truth and love, but He also feeds us for the journey. As crazy as it sounds, I really, truly believe that Christ’s precious body is right there in a vulnerable piece of wafer. This belief is a radical mystery, a beautiful life-giving paradox that changes everything.
It means God is not just some far-off figure from a history book who came once and then left again or an intangible spirit on the wind that may or may not blow into my life. It means that He is present with us in the mess of our lives right here and now. It means that this material world is good because He created it, because He became a physical being in the form of Jesus, and most of all because He still remains here with us in in the form of the holy bread and wine today.
When I was younger, I used to think sometimes that if I could just find the right words to explain my faith, I could help others find faith of their own. It’s taken me 30 years to realize, though, that ultimately faith is a gift and not something you can get by simply thinking or reading enough. At the heart of the Catholic faith is a relationship that has to be experienced to be understood; that relationship is why I am a Catholic.
As a cradle Catholic, I started out with the same sort of surface-level faith practice as many cultural Catholics: going to church because that’s what you do on Sunday; making my first Holy Communion and getting confirmed because I was the right age to do so; having a loose understanding of a handful of Bible stories and the basic knowledge of when to sit, stand, and kneel at Mass.
I attended religious education for public school kids on a weekly basis through eighth grade, so I knew things about Jesus and the Church, but these things were just unapplied book-knowledge, for the most part. Because I have always been an over-achiever, I made sure I was doing the “right” thing and checking off all the Catholic boxes, but what I was doing was more about my self-image of perfection than anything I could actually call faith. I achieved Catholicism, but I don’t know that I believed in it.
Even attending a Catholic high school didn’t break the surface for me because studying the Catholic faith was still just a grade to be made — as an A-student, theology was no different from English or calculus. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my high school and am very grateful to have had a Catholic education, but it was still just that — an intellectual education. My head was pretty Catholic, but my heart was off chasing the next passion-project.
Until I met Jesus.
I met him as a living person — not in a vision, not from a voice speaking from the clouds, not because I was on mind-altering drugs. I was on a weekend retreat with about 100 teens from various schools, and I had just gone to confession. I entered a small room where we could finish praying our penance before returning to the main room with everyone. The Eucharist was on display for adoration in that room and I found its pull almost magnetic. Having just encountered the healing grace of confession, I was suddenly and completely overwhelmed. In a flood of tears, I realized just how many moving parts had to fall into place in such unlikely ways even for me to be there, in that place, at that moment, and the immensity of it all washed over me: Jesus, whom I felt deep in my soul was fully present — in person — before me in the Eucharist, loved me.
Since that time, the Lord (and His mom and their friends) won’t leave me alone. Many people talk about searching for God, for truth, for meaning — but I’m so bad at the search that the Lord just keeps pursuing me, calling me back.
I’m really good at over-thinking, questioning, and doubting God, but He has never stopped His pursuit. I’ve stumbled into wicked stuff, I’ve back-slid into vice-ridden habits, and I’ve rationalized every missed mark until it didn’t even resemble sin anymore — but I could never actually move out of God’s way.
I can identify with Peter attempting to walk on water — he sank into the water as soon as he lost a little faith and then was instantly pulled out of the water as soon as he called out to the Lord (Matthew 14:22-33). I have been yanked out of the sea so many times — not because there’s something so great about me, but because there’s something so great about Him.
So even though scandal and deep-rooted evil shakes the Catholic Church to its core at times (and my heart breaks for the ways people have been hurt by wicked people and the way some leaders have failed us), the Catholic Church is still the rescue vehicle that Jesus uses to chase me down every time I fall or lose my way. Again, I identify with Peter — in a challenging time, he asks the Lord, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).
God’s after me, I tell you. In the end, what choice do I have? Where else can I go?
If you stop and ask God to show you how He’s been pursuing you, too, don’t be surprised to realize all the little ways that you’ve overlooked: God works in the ordinary more than the extraordinary. As ordinary as, perhaps, reading about someone else’s faith journey.