When Bethany’s boyfriend left their hometown to attend a Catholic school, she found that the nature of their conversations changed. She was raised Christian, but became curious as they discussed popes and Mary and sacraments. This is the story of where that curiosity led her.
My journey to becoming Catholic began in my freshman year of college.
I was away from home for the first time, flush with excitement at the adventure of a new city, new friends, and new academic rigors. After attending public school my whole life, I was at a Christian college where my professors — who awed me with their intelligence — brought up issues of faith and spirituality in class and challenged us to more deeply understand what we believed and why. I had been raised in a solid Christian home and had been active in youth group and other church events, but I was starting to see a whole new “level” of the Christian faith I hadn’t encountered: serious thinking from Church fathers and others who were wrestling with how to understand and describe God’s relationship with us.
At the same time, I was in a long-distance relationship with a boy from my hometown who was attending a Catholic college many hours away. During high school, our group of friends had for the most part been Christian, and in a non-Christian setting it was enough to share our faith in Jesus; I hadn’t given any thought to the differences between different Christian denominations. But all of a sudden, he was immersed in a very Catholic environment. During our phone calls, he started bringing up the pope and the sacraments and apparitions and all of these things I was clueless about.
So partly to be able to talk with him about this strange “Catholic stuff,” and partly because I wanted to explore and understand everything in that searching-for-the-meaning-of-life way, I started enthusiastically studying, thinking about, and praying about faith in general — and Catholicism in particular.
Two things immediately appealed to me. First, the fact that the Catholic Church has been around literally from the time of Jesus in a way no other Christian group has. As a Protestant, it could be confusing about which church group believes what, or which was founded by whom or broke away from where. The unity of Catholicism over time was very attractive to me.
And second, the Eucharist. Receiving communion in my Protestant church had always been a special time for me. When the minister would say “the body of Christ,” I’d often think “if only it were true!” I was drawn to the fact that Catholics really believed that Christ was present in the bread and wine — that they were more than a symbol.
A few months into my freshman year, I decided to attend Mass to see what the Catholic faith looked like in practice. At first, I was so disoriented! I couldn’t keep up with when to stand, kneel, sit, say this, or sing that. It was pretty confusing. But I found the atmosphere both reverent and joyful, and I loved seeing all the little kids after spending the week only with adults.
I also noticed how much Scripture there was in the Mass: words from the prayers and responses (the “Holy, holy, holy” and “Lamb of God,” for example) jumped out at me. Contrary to my expectation, there was as much Scripture — perhaps even more — than in most Protestant churches I had attended.
I kept attending Mass until things became more familiar and I could start to participate more. I also kept reading, reading, reading and talking (probably ad nauseum) with friends about this or that Catholic doctrine. It was on my mind all the time.
At this point I was thinking, “Okay, even if Catholics were right about the Eucharist being Jesus’ body and blood, and not just a symbol — what about everything else? Purgatory and Borgia popes and veneration of Mary and statues and what-have-you Catholic ‘baggage’?” Not to mention I barely knew any Catholics in real life.
But by the time my sophomore year rolled around, my interest in Catholicism hadn’t waned. Not completely convinced yet, I decided to try the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), so I signed up for the weekly meetings at my local parish. It turns out that because I had read and discussed so much already, there actually weren’t many new insights the class taught me.
But in the end, that wasn’t really the point for me. The point was that I finally met real-life Catholics who believed their faith and saw its fruits in their lives. RCIA gave me the Catholic community I didn’t have up until that point. Most of the volunteers were retirees, and I loved hearing how their faith had helped them throughout their lives.
Partway through the year, our RCIA class attended the parish’s “40 hours” devotion, where the Eucharist is exposed and adored for 40 hours straight, and a visiting priest gives several homilies. This was all brand new to me. I will never forget how that evening, sitting in the pew and looking at the white circle in a gold display on the altar (the consecrated host in the monstrance), I was given a very specific gift of faith. That is Jesus — I just knew.
I just knew. I believed — this was the convicting moment I had been waiting for. I even remember what the priest spoke about that night: St. Augustine’s statement that when we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, we “become what we receive.” Oh boy, did I want that!
It’s not as if all my doubts and questions melted away in that moment. But the conviction that yes, hallelujah, the Church is right about the Eucharist, made me trust Her in all the other areas I wasn’t sure about yet. I had passed the point of no return. As Peter said to Jesus: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”
One area I was still unsure about was confession. Protestants don’t have this sacrament nor a common practice of confessing sins to each other. Leading up to the Easter Vigil, when I was going to be confirmed as a Catholic, our RCIA class attended the parish Lenten confession night. I felt so nervous in line, and kept reading Jesus’ words to Peter, “Whatever sins you forgive are forgiven,” to psyche myself up to actually share several years’ worth of personal sins and failings with a total stranger — like, out loud.
What a kind priest my first confessor was! As I started to go into great detail about a particular sin, he gently stopped me, “That’s probably enough,” with a suppressed smile. And what joy I felt coming out of confession! G.K. Chesterton’s remark rang in my mind: leaving confession, one is like a bright, brand-newborn baby again. How light I felt.
I professed my Catholic faith at the Easter Vigil, with my family and some friends present, as well as my confirmation sponsor Maurita, one of the retiree volunteers in RCIA who had taken me under her wing. There were no fireworks, no light from heaven, but a deep, steady sense that yes, this is it — I am home.
Conversion is an ongoing process for all of us. Every person must answer the still, small voice within that nudges us too clearly to ignore. Whenever I give it any thought, I am always grateful to have all the support the Catholic Church gives me on my stumbling way toward heaven: the sacraments, the saints interceding for me, the Mass itself to orient my heart to God.
I’m very grateful for the heritage of my Protestant background. But for me, the way of my heart opened to the ancient faith of Rome, and I am so very glad I said “yes.”