As readers of this column may recall, I am not a cradle Catholic. Verily, the descendant of pointed Methodists and Calvinists, there was nothing outwardly natural about my reception into the Church a few years ago. For I look out — from over boxes of family archives that I have recently inherited — at my myriad relatives, both living and dead, and I am still the only known Catholic among them. Thanks to the archives, I am now in a better position to locate those ancestors who are turning in their graves.
I am extremely proud of many of my forebears — especially pioneers of one kind or another. And I have unambiguous admiration for many of my evangelical cousins, who continue to face down the world with the name of Jesus on their lips. Others have lapsed into that state of embarrassment where they might like to think of Jesus, but surely not aloud.
It is easier to tell the truth about people behind their backs, and I note that I’m now writing about Protestants to Catholic readers. No two are the same. Still, there must be such a thing as the Protestant “ethic,” or I wouldn’t have so much trouble shaking it off.
Here is a question I fielded from a young lady who is, in my view, an old-fashioned Protestant:
“Went this morning to the Catholic church down the road, as I do from time to time, for a moment of silent reflection, only to find people inside engaged in Hail Marys, on repeat. Just wondering how you overcame this Protestant obstacle?”
My quick answer was: “By learning how to do the Rosary.” But a slower answer was required, and the argument went something like this:
God, who generally provides everything we need, when we need it, also takes away everything we don’t need, when we don’t need it. I didn’t need privacy, and I did need the power of communal example during my own voyage into “Mary Land.”
The part that scared me most was the Rosary. I went to lengths to avoid being around when they were doing that — a subdued Angelus being better suited to my tastes. To this day, the sight of dozens of devout mantilla-wearing Catholic ladies, doing the Rosary together at the front of a church, makes me think of everything my Calvinist mother ever told me. I’m only beginning to get used to it.
Of course, by mastering the church schedule, one may always find times when it will indeed be empty, and you can pray privately. But be warned: One of the first times I did that in a Catholic church, losing myself in some private meditation, I was interrupted by a young West Indian lady, who asked if I needed “help” of any sort.
I had to catch myself from saying, “Of course not!” Or adding, “I’m a Protestant by upbringing and disposition! We don’t need help! We mind our own frigging business!”
The last and biggest obstacle to joining the Catholic Church, as G. K. Chesterton said, is that it’s full of Catholics. And, I would add, this is very humbling. For I soon realized I wasn’t joining an abstract, Protestant sort of Catholic Church — a “universal church of the mind” — but an actual flesh-and-blood institution which is, like the Mafia, a kind of extended family, with an extraordinary ability to get up close and personal. Moreover, the habit of making Confession rubs this in wonderfully, for one not only wishes to pray all alone but to sin all alone.
Catholicism is icky. So are families, incidentally. There is plenty of space within Catholicism for private prayer, and for the hermit’s pilgrimage, but there is also no escaping that mass of a billion people, all of whom become members of your family in some mystical sense, but also a social sense. Moreover, the Catholic doctrine and outlook is quite expressly skeptical of “individualism” and “private judgment.”
This is largely because it is realistic. Not that Protestants are unrealistic, for — as I recall from a small-town Canada that was much more Protestant than it is today — conformity was enforced by many external pressures to “respectability.” Paradoxically, one encounters more personal eccentricity within the Catholic communion — and rather less respectability.
For the Catholic conformity is to an inner spiritual presence — a “real presence” — that is manifested in the Mass. That strange mystical doctrine of transubstantiation is at the root of the communal bond. It is the connection between loving God and loving your neighbor — both of which we of course do very imperfectly. But it is a “both/and” proposition, not an “either/or.”
The veneration of Mary is an inevitable extension of the veneration of Christ Jesus. If there is God the Son, there must be Mother of God. And she must be Mother in the center of our collegial life.
Now, a traditional Protestant, used to affirmation, can come around to affirming that. The real difficulty is with the untraditional Protestant, who is perfectly used to the touchy-feely “care bear” kind of communal intrusiveness (we get it in the Catholic “mainstream,” too), but at sea when it comes to a communal activity that is centered in the divine. To become a Catholic, such a person almost needs to recover his Protestantism first.