“Something strange is happening….” ~ Bp. Melito of Sardis
This past Holy Saturday I had the privilege of sponsoring my friend Chris as he made a profession of faith and became a Catholic—Deo gratias! What a joy to stand with him, attest to his readiness, announce his new name—“Monsignor, this is Thomas Aquinas”—and then celebrate with him afterwards.
And he was hardly nervous—way less nervous than I was 31 years ago as I awaited the same watershed moment. For those coming home to the Catholic Church, there’s a daunting realization that nothing will ever be the same after Holy Saturday—that life will get harder, not easier—and yet for some of us, there’s also a fear that something will mess it up. “What if I say the wrong thing and it doesn’t take,” is how my mind raced. “What if I’m not properly disposed—or that my Presbyterian baptism wasn’t valid?” I wanted to be a Catholic so bad that I couldn’t believe it was actually going to happen.
Even so, it did happen, despite my scruples and paranoia—again, praise God! The Easter Vigil is always glorious, especially for converts—those joining the Church that night as well as those who’d already done so, whether the previous year or even decades before. The rising action of the liturgy and multiple readings, the darkness and fire, the bells, oils, and dousings—the entire Holy Saturday mystique conjures up our first enthusiasms for Christ and his Church, which in turn remind us why we made such a reckless break with our relatively sedate trajectories and safer worlds.
Yet even that foolhardy conversio—that radical turning around which leads to new passions, new futures, new living through dying—is often accompanied, in the best circumstances, by delicate connections to pre-Catholic histories and experience. They won’t be tethers that hold back, but rather echoes that signify continuity. Our Easter conversions do not extinguish our past selves, but rather baptize and elevate them.
For me, there were two such echoes when I joined the Church. One was my friend Kevin, who was a student at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute at the time, whereas I was in Uptown, part of a Catholic Worker extended community. I was so glad Kevin agreed to attend the Easter Vigil—to support me as a longtime pal, despite his evangelical reservations.
He came up on the subway and sat in the way back—it was standing room only that night at St. Thomas of Canterbury. Kevin and I didn’t get to talk that night—he left to catch a late train downtown as soon as the liturgy ended—but I know it constituted one of the more bizarre worship experience of his life. As if the Easter Vigil liturgy itself wasn’t strange enough for a Moody student (let alone seeing an old youth-group buddy become a Catholic), the rich cultural diversity of St. Thomas was on full display that night: Readings, hymns, and preaching in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese; a congregation that included immigrants from Korea and Cambodia, Brazil and Eritrea; and representatives from every conceivable socioeconomic and ideological stripe, anarchists and John Birchers, retired professionals and homeless vets. Kevin’s presence in that highly charged and holy setting embodied a true bridge between my old life as a suburban evangelical and this (evidently) wild, unpredictable Catholic life I was embracing, and it gave me great comfort.
The other echo happened earlier in the day. Following my midday visit to St. Peter’s in the Loop to make my first confession, I anxiously watched the clock, anticipating the evening’s climactic events, going over the profession of faith repeatedly, and checking in with my sponsor, Jim—“What am I forgetting?” Then, a knock at the door—the FTD guy with a bouquet. “Congratulations,” read the card. “Love, Mom and Dad.” It was a long-distance gesture, an affectionate embrace from my folks in Colorado—most particularly my mom. She’d been raised in a Masonic, anti-Catholic home, and I knew she was worried sick about her crazed, do-gooder son joining the big Popish cult. Still, in the end, her mom-ishness overcame her Masonic prejudices, and she sent me flowers—a clear signal that she wanted to love what I loved to the degree that she could.
Such were the echoes that connected me to my pre-Catholic life back when I was received, but what about now? Easter compels us forward—are backward glances still appropriate?
It’s an idea that came up as I was driving to Mass the other day, listening to Van Morrison on the stereo. “We’ll walk down the avenue and we’ll smile,” he was singing. “And we’ll say, ‘Baby, ain’t it all worthwhile?’ when the healing has begun.” That’s the song’s title—“And the Healing Has Begun”—and it’s from his 1979 Into the Music album. It’s bright and cheerful with a buoyant violin accompaniment, and all the restorative references seemed apropos to the Octave.
Yeah, sure, I know the song is not exactly about spiritual matters, particularly in light of its later, more lascivious images, but its jubilant tone is hard to resist, and I hummed along as I drove—then this line popped up: “I want you to put on your pretty summer dress,” the singer requests. “You can wear your Easter bonnet and all the rest.” OK, bonnets, joy, healing—maybe it is an Easter song, or at least I made it one for myself that afternoon.
A few bars later came a jarring moment, however, when Morrison gleefully tossed out an odd declaration: “I can’t stand myself.” Wait—what? But he kept right on going with his jaunty melody and veiled seductions, and I was left scratching my head. “‘Can’t stand yourself? Where’s the healing in that?”
At Mass, Fr. Lapp seemed to pick up on the same theme in his homily. “The Easter feasting continues, and that’s as it should be,” he said. “But in the midst of it, the Lord is still calling us to repentance and conversion.” It’s like Peter in last Friday’s Gospel, out on his boat following the Resurrection—returning to his fishing occupation, a pre-Jesus safe zone. Suddenly, the Lord appears and calls out advice from the shore: “Cast your net on the other side!”—an acknowledgement, in part, of this occupational echo. The Apostle perks up and swims back in to face his Savior, leaving the fish, but dragging his past with him. This is the same Peter—the “Rock”—who denied Jesus three times, betraying him despite an oath not to. I can just see him rushing to the Master to be close, and yet hanging his head in shame—wouldn’t you?
Anyway, that’s me for sure—that’s me! It’s the painful part of Holy Saturday every year, for I know better—I’ve studied the Faith, I’ve received the Sacraments, and I know how I’m supposed to conform my life to Christ, but I still don’t. There’s Easter celebration, no doubt, but an awkwardness, a disgrace: “I’ve been a Catholic 31 years, and I’m still … this?” Like Van, “I can’t stand myself;” like Peter, I rush to the Lord, then hold back, abased.
There’s more to that seaside Gospel, however, and it comes later this Eastertide. We see the risen Lord simultaneously eliciting Peter’s repentance and enveloping him in healing. “Do you love me?” he asks three times, and three times a sign of trust, “Feed my sheep.” In the end, Jesus points ahead: “And when he had said this, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”
So, Easter looks forward and backward—it’s not static, nor is anything else static associated with this resurrected Messiah. “The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise,” goes the ancient Easter Vigil homily. It’s a look back, but then, ahead: “I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven.” He’s always on the move, saving indiscriminately, past, present, future—everything in his path.
We dare not duck.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared April 2, 2016 on the author’s blog “God-Haunted Lunatic.” The image above is a detail from “Christ and St. Peter at the Sea of Galilee,” painted by Scarsellino, c. 1585-90.