Four years have now passed since I brought an end, all of a sudden, to 20 years of thinking about becoming a Catholic, and under the impression (which I retain) that I had been simply instructed to do so by Mother Mary. This was while witnessing, but not exactly participating in, a Novus Ordo Mass that was being celebrated in Brazilian Portuguese (though in Toronto, Canada).
I say "not exactly," for I was standing (and sometimes kneeling) on the steps outside the open doors of St. Anthony’s church, in the dark of rain, looking at the light blazing within; and I would not enter the church because I was dripping.
How I had come to that point is, naturally, a complicated story, and I reserve it to the memoirs I’ll never write, except to say that the idea of converting to Catholicism was at that moment very far from my mind. Instead, I was "distressing" over some personal matter with no obvious connection to the Mass. It was an old grief that had afflicted me for many, many years (some things move slowly, in human terms). Yet, in the same moment, I suddenly felt a great weight of uncharity lifted from my shoulders, and the way into the Catholic Church became clear. The claims of the Church, over which I had debated in my mind for so long, were abruptly settled.
It was as if wings had brushed over me and a small voice had uttered, in the wings, "I, Mary, patroness of broken hearts, have interceded. You have been forgiven, and can now forgive. Henceforth forgive, and you will be forgiven."
The "one holy catholic and apostolic church" became visible to me in that moment. For there it was, after 2,000 years. And there it was, despite the innumerable mistakes to which human flesh is heir; despite innumerable slips of nerve and judgment over 20 centuries; despite failed priests; despite cocks crowing a hundred billion times. Mysteriously, this institution — and in all human history, this one alone — had the ability to right itself after every catastrophe. It must therefore be divine.
A few days after the proclamation of Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum last month, I attended the first new daily morning old mass at my parish church of Holy Family here in Toronto. I would say that it completed my entry into the Church.
New Catholic as I am, and therefore free of that nostalgia that I know must act powerfully on the minds of some of the older congregants, I was struck entirely by the timelessness, the simplicity, and otherworldliness of the Mass in this form. The congregation was, to my sense, awkward and rusty and timid, and that in itself was quite wonderful. I felt, for nearly the first time, a Catholic among Catholics instead of a convert among cradle Catholics. I felt, for positively the first time, that there were no distractions to following the Mass.
It is curious how cards set up on the altar rivet one’s attention as one enters the church, and clear one’s mind. Partly it is the sight of the writing; partly it is the very frailty of the cards; partly it is what they announce, or anticipate. Even before the priest and server had entered (and this was a low mass), this sight had changed the assumptions behind the "generic altar" to which we are used. It says, The Word of the Lord. It says, We are in the presence of the Holy. It does not say, "This is our table"; it says, "This is Christ’s table."
There was a moment in the mass that I will carry in my heart to my grave. It was a moment of confusion, when almost everyone was thinking, "Do we stand or do we kneel now?" (I myself had no idea.) Almost everyone was looking around, timidly, for someone who knew. The consensus emerged, and everyone knelt — with no exceptions. It was very beautiful — this humility; this collective, sheepish moment in which we were all "children in the presence of Our Lord."
It was so utterly Catholic.