As a Catholic convert in the media, I get letters from many young, smart, skeptical, “postmodern” people seeking religious advice. Many want to become Catholic, but know almost nothing about the Faith. We are called to evangelize, and in the hope that this might be useful to others, here is a stripped-down version of the “Consumer’s Guide to Catholicism” I fling at my own correspondents:
1. You asked, so I will answer: Yes, you should become a Catholic, right away. Find a church—to my mind, the more traditional, the better. Take a deep breath before you go in, and pray: “Lord, I believe. Help Thou mine unbelief.” Then remember: “With God, all things are possible.”
2. Even if the first priest you go to makes you cringe, put up with it. Work your way into the Church around him, if necessary. It is Christ you are looking for. No matter what happens, if you love Him, He will save you.
3. Don’t worry the small stuff to death.
4. Get a crucifix, the kind “with the little man on it.” The kind that shows Him suffering; the kind that strikes you as rather tasteless at first, as if it might drip on your shoe. There is something peculiarly Catholic about getting a crucifix even before you go out to buy a Catholic edition of the Bible. Kneel. Cross yourself.
5. Get a daily prayer manual from some Catholic bookstore—anyone at all, to start with. From there, I think the best Catholic things to read are the classics, such as St. Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life. There are thousands of such devotional guides, written through all the centuries. You will soon find several that speak to you directly. The Catholic Church has been around for 2,000 years, and it’s amazing how you accumulate stuff in that sort of time.
6. It is the depth and breadth of Catholicism that first overwhelm the (usually lapsed) Protestant visitor. There are Catholics of every ethnicity and faction; the hierarchy is vast and truly planetary; there are countless monastic orders; everything is historically layered. You’ll never be able to picture the whole thing. Don’t worry—it persists. God is taking care of it.
7. The Church exists for sinners. If we didn’t sin, we wouldn’t need the Church. Individual Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and others are often better people than we are. We know it.
8. The Catholic Church is sacramental. The Mass is the center of everything. The mystery of the Body of Christ presented in the Mass is the focus and pivot of the Church’s life. Nothing else.
9. Unfortunately, in the last couple of generations, the Church’s liturgy has taken quite a beating. This will take a few generations to fix, and will require some divine intervention. Be patient. These things sort themselves out over time. In the meantime, if you can ever find a Latin Mass, go there.
10. Buy CDs of Palestrina and other old Church composers. Follow their settings to the Latin words of the Mass. The cultural heritage of the Church is fabulous beyond imagining. The same goes for Catholic art—all 20 centuries of it. And have you checked out the cathedrals?
11. Get a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It’s a big, thick thing. A stitched hardcover copy makes sense: It should get a lot of use, like a dictionary. Browse the index; what Catholics believe is all laid out with rational precision, and the answer to pretty much any question you have on a matter of doctrine you will quickly find there.
12. Finally, as Chesterton reminds us, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Don’t panic about getting anything wrong; you’re new here. So am I. And they’ll probably let us stay.