Twenty years ago last summer I joined the Catholic Church. I came by way of Methodism with a brief stop in Episcopalianism. The catalyst in the final move to Rome was, as in most of our big decisions, a person, in my case an uncoercive but inspiring husband. This was not a surprising route. On the contrary, I always have taken it as commonplace. In the beginning I was interested in cases similar to mine. But converts are all around us, ordinarily because they married into the church. After the novelty of my experience waned and I became an assimilated Catholic, I paid little attention to conversions. For most of two decades, then, I took my own conversion and that of others pretty much for granted. The thought of conversion rested somewhere on a back burner of my mind.
Last summer, however, I realized I was reaching a twenty-year anniversary. A liturgical woman who cherishes the celebration of anniversaries, I began to re-think the circumstances of my own conversion. As if on cue, I suddenly met a series of people who were converts. Consequently, I have lately recovered my early consciousness of the impact of conversion.
If most converts eventually do submerge into the general Catholic population, they nonetheless once had some kind of encounter, however undramatic, on the road to Damascus. Much as that large moment may have dimmed over time, it still marks them. Because they want to be, these people are where they are. No one has chosen their place for them.
In recent months I have met diverse converts — mostly in their twenties and thirties — such as a couple from Oklahoma, formerly Baptist and Methodist, intellectual types; a priest from Northern Kentucky, now head of the religion department at a Catholic high school; and a young man named Tracy Simmons, whose conversion is detailed in Sheldon Vanauken’s newest book, Under the Mercy. (Vanauken himself is a convert.) Always before me, too, are my brother and sister-in-law, now in their late thirties and coming respectively from Methodism and the Disciples of Christ, who joined the Catholic Church five years ago.
The two decades since my entrance into the church have spanned the post-Vatican II revolution. The years since my college graduation on June 7, 1963, have paralleled, as well, a revolution in American culture.
In June of 1963 Vatican II was underway, but I did not know that. I think I hardly knew it had begun at all. A sexual revolution was beginning, but I did not know that either. Back, I wonder what I did know. Not much, I think. I barely knew that in the fall I would be going to graduate school. I most certainly had no inkling that in two more summers I would become a Catholic. Yet I might have predicted at least a shift. I was already skirting the edges of Anglicanism. I wonder now how long I would have hung about the fringes before making a move. It is hard to say. But how I did love the Book of Common Prayer! And how much at home I felt in that familiar Englishness of the Episcopal liturgy, a common reaction beautifully described by Vanauken. The little Episcopal church in Greencastle, Indiana, had a soothing, English charm that I fondly recall as an oasis of comfort and beauty in the sterility of the collegiate secularity that was the norm for the mid-60s.
The religious revival that swept many campuses in the 1980s would then have seemed incredible. And though the hippies had begun to entrench themselves on the larger campuses, as yet I knew little of them. I would confront them in my graduate school winter of 1963-1964 at Indiana University, where I would see a Big Ten campus gone to seed in a depressing, bleak grayness, while in some Bloomington basement Emily Harris and her husband were building bombs. DePauw University, however, in 1963 had so far been brushed only lightly with the hippie malaise. The prevailing state of mind there was a conventional skepticism: nothing taken so seriously as to stake everything on it, but a de-fanged agnosticism that conveniently postponed answers to ultimate questions. In this atmosphere of bland liberalism the only religious orthodoxy was a do-good commitment to the welfare state in the spirit of the late Protestant social gospel.
The graduates of 1963 were a curious combination of naiveté and misplaced optimism and idealism. They planned either for graduate school leading to the Ph.D. and academia or, as a token of allegiance to their hero, President Kennedy, for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps. I do not recall that Kennedy’s Catholicism was ever noted at DePauw. It must have been of no concern to anyone. Although the picture has reversed now at my old school, and Catholics are the single largest denomination on campus, a Catholic in my era was a rarity. Not that Catholics would have been ostracized. DePauw students were good, well-mannered Midwesterners who would have considered it rude and undemocratic to question anyone’s choice of church.
Even though I did not fit the general picture of the DePauw mind of 1963, neither was I in a propitious atmosphere to become a future convert to Rome. All the same, some things happened during the DePauw years that made that time a seedbed for my future receptivity to the church. Small things, really — simply a series of accidents that meant that my education at DePauw was to be a little off the beaten track of the average 1963 graduate.
I arrived at DePauw with as little adverse baggage from my past as it is possible to have. I had nothing to explain away, overcome, or work around. Of course, I had no realization of this freedom from encumbrance. Only many years later did I realize how fortunate is the person whose ancestors have saddled him with nothing for which to apologize. We had had enough, but not too much — which can sometimes be as embarrassing as not enough. My ancestors were the same on both sides: all English, all` here for generations. There was a small dose of German, but that only added to the solidity. By the 1830s all branches of the family had arrived from New England, New Jersey and Virginia and were pioneering in Indiana and Illinois. No one left the Midwest. Since the Reformation there had been no Catholic in this family tree. There was one exception — a great-aunt, long since dead.
I grew up with four adults and a little brother. Three generations in a small house provides its own brand of low- key, tolerable friction, a fairly constant undertone of minor bickering. Yet friction never had the last word in that house. Love did — and I got plenty of that from a family that in its praise and affection was naturally demonstrative and effusive. Four quite different adult personalities produced a hybrid household that was never dull. By my mid-teens I was already well aware that these parents and grandparents were handing on to me a rich mix of ways of being in the world.
My father has been a life-long student, as were many of his farming ancestors in Illinois. That he and my mother got themselves through college at all during the Depression was something of a miracle. For my father, formal schooling barely nicked the surface. If he has not been hunting, target shooting, or working in his yard, I have rarely seen him without something in his hand to read. He funneled books to me as far back as memory goes, and almost any interest I have ever had — even dallied in — began long ago with him: history, political philosophy, literature, art, music, even religion and birds. His Ciceronian devotion to duty and principle and his iron-clad integrity were a tougher model to follow; but they were there for us to aim for. His wisdom and vision, his philosophical turn of mind, were far more influential in my education than anything I ever learned in school.
My mother plainly and simply laid on me the veneer of civilized behavior. Her years of sweetness, patience, gentleness and fun-loving good humor had gradually tamed the barbarian in me. She had just waited it out until I grew past the violent temper tantrums, the angry stomping, and the instinctive turn to be overly serious and somewhat anti-social. Around that mysterious time of thirteen, I found that I no longer had to struggle so hard to remember my mother’s admonishment, “Now, smile at the people, Anne.” My mother’s effect has been subtle and long-reaching. I bear more of her stamp than either she or I would have anticipated.
Not even I could have taken myself too seriously with such a grandmother as her mother. My grandmother superbly filled her role. Earthy, homey, clever, wise, intuitive to the nth degree, she was an entertainer, a comedienne, a hostess, a cheerleader, even a costume designer. Whatever we wanted her to be at the moment, she was. My grandfather, like my mother, was a balance wheel. He was charming, humorous, handsome, gentle, kind, a bit shy. He was unruffled and courtly. From him I learned what real chivalry in a man can be. It was his older sister who had been our family’s one Catholic.
Finally, my brother, six years younger than I, was the subject of all my doting affection. Probably because I was older, I never felt the slightest twinge of jealousy. I loved him devotedly, no strings attached. I rejoiced in him. When he married his pretty blonde wife, I felt the same kind of affection for her. Thus one of the great joys of my life — and one of my great surprises, too — was their decision to enter the Catholic Church.
My grandparents were believers but not church-goers. Although my grandmother had been active in her Methodist Church when her children were young, she no longer seemed to feel any urgency to attend. So far as I know, my grandfather, though he approved of others going to church, never was much for church himself.
My parents were Methodist regulars but not pillars. Attending church has always been an enjoyable experience for my mother. Even more than the service she likes the fellowship, which, of course, in the beginning was the hallmark of Methodism. She likes, as well, the music and the formal prayers. For the sake of simply being in church — a quiet time with the Lord and with familiar faces — she can sit through some dismal sermons. For my father, on the other hand, a bad sermon is the occasion for misery. He has never been in tune with the Methodist Church in general; he has always lamented its lack of content. Now that the Methodist Church has followed political ideology almost to the point of no return, my parents are without much external spiritual nourishment.
Even as a little girl I could see the Achilles heel of mainline Protestantism. It took no intelligence to see it; it was all too clear: One cannot live on Sunday school. One needs more — but there is no more. To liven up Sundays, when I entered eighth grade I taught Sunday school to first- graders. That someone so young could be permitted to teach was probably a mark of the lack of concern for the integrity of the doctrine.
In matters of faith I spent my high school years in a stage of silent, semi-rebellion. Assuredly, I believed in God; not to believe that would have been unthinkable. I prayed some, I recall, but not often. I began to think I was a Unitarian. God was easy, but who was Jesus Christ? Though my parents must have known what I was thinking, they never reprimanded me. Religion in our family was something private. It was supposed to be there, yet it was something seldom discussed — even, I think, between husband and wife. And after all I see now that my father, with his serious view of the spiritual life, has always been in the throes of his own spiritual journey. My mother, however, who is steadfast in and out, just believes. She sees no point in soul-searching.
All through these growing-up years my knowledge of Catholicism would not have filled a thimble. The Roman church simply was not in my world. I only knew two Catholic families, nice people who went to mass at six o’clock on Sunday mornings and whose living room wall bore an odd, frightening picture of Jesus with an exposed, glowing heart. I knew there were such things as crucifixes and rosaries, and I knew Catholic people liked to listen to “Ava Maria” at weddings and funerals. I rather fancied crucifixes myself. A white plastic crucifix had once come in the mail along with a request for a donation. I had appropriated the crucifix, tied it on a string and wore it secretly around my neck. (Or I thought it was a secret. Knowing now what parents know, I doubt it.) Never having sent the requested donation, however, I felt guilty on two counts — for clandestine superstition compounded with thievery — so I quit wearing the crucifix.
If I had any fixed thoughts at all as to what the Catholic Church represented, I think now that I, like the world from which I came, viewed it as a kind of peasant religion, a superstitious mixture of saints, the Virgin Mary, popes and statues. It was not a religion for thinking people. It would do for Europeans, perhaps; it was their inheritance. But it was not appropriate for Americans who valued their freedom.
When I was ready for college, it was not the style in my coed public high school of 2,000 to look far afield. Though I wrote to Eastern schools for catalogues, I selected DePauw. My plan was to major in political science. Maybe I would teach school someday or work for a newspaper. At any rate, once I was at DePauw my plans derailed. Only forty miles from home but nonetheless out of my family cocoon, I went into spasms of homesickness. What was more, I hated political science; that is, I hated what was being taught as political science. I loved political philosophy, but that was apparently something I would have to study on my own.
Something happened that first semester, however, that did turn out to be interesting. One Sunday evening I received a visit from an Indianapolis man who was the Midwest representative for a new organization called the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (now the Intercollegiate Studies Institute). ISI was an educational organization led by E. Victor Milione to foster ideas of limited, constitutional government, free market economics, and the spiritual and moral values of Judaeo-Christian civilization. Would my friends and I help put together an ISI chapter at DePauw? For me that was the beginning of access to writers who would otherwise have been lost to me. Iii the space of four years at DePauw, I heard ISI lectures by Russell Kirk, Stephen Tonsor, Gerhart Niemeyer, William Buckley, Richard Weaver, Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Frank Meyer, Brent Bozell, Stanton Evans, David Collier, Peter Stanlis and more. This was the first wave of ISI lecturers.
Conservatism (no one ever agreed on the right name for it) was in those days the distinct minority view. That made it all the more attractive. There was an excitement to thinking of oneself as one of a beleaguered, elite minority, to be reading books and magazines few other people on campus read. Yet I was not into anything unfamiliar. The books were simply extensions of the ideas my father had been passing on to me for some time. And the books were the ones he was reading, too. Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, the classic; Burke’ s Reflections; Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom; Stanlis’s works on Burke; Gottfried Dietze’s In Defense of Property and America’s Political Dilemma; Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, The Ethics of Rhetoric and, a little later, Visions of Order; and, finally, the journal Modern Age, founded by Russell Kirk, David Collier and Henry Regnery.
ISI, although it staunchly defended the necessity of a free economy to maintain political liberty, at the same time emphasized the necessity of a moral content to freedom. The essential interconnection between economic, political and moral-spiritual freedom always struck me as self-evident. That a capitalist economy and limited, constitutional government required each other, that this partnership could not survive without a moral-spiritual core, came in the category of first principle.
There was even more to it than that. To the feminine mind this sort of conservative philosophy — what I then called free market economics and “Burkean-Kirkean” politics, with its heavy cultural emphasis — is powerfully attractive. The prominence in such a philosophy of the transmission of values from one generation to another — in other words, the transmission of civilization itself — makes this kind of conservatism nearly irresistible to feminine maternal instincts, no matter how in potentia that maternalism may still be in a girl. In our conversations about what I would “do” with my life, my father and I sometimes talked about a woman’s particular mission to pass on moral and spiritual values. And my mother was a daily living example of doing just that. It seemed to me a splendid vocation; I knew that whatever I would “do,” I wanted to do that above all else. Consequently, the brand of conservatism I had inherited and reinforced with reading and talking to people was strongly laced with moral and spiritual currents. It came as naturally as breathing to view all big questions as inherently moral and religious questions.
There was another, far more subtle, attraction of the ISI school of thought. I noticed that many of these conservative writers were Catholics. If they were not all formally Catholics — and of course they were not — many of them were the closest thing to it. At first the pull was toward what seemed the exotic. But then, I think, the attraction came to be toward the sane. I slowly became aware, as well, that there was an actual tradition of Catholic thought. I had taken it for granted that Catholicism embraced great chunks of superstition that its precepts and practice grew out of rote. Now I began to see for the first time that there might be such a thing as a Catholic mind.
In the meantime I had put myself in a position in which I was bound to learn at least something about that mind. I had returned to my old love, history. I fell in love with ancient history, then the Middle Ages, then the Renaissance and early modern Europe. Enrolled in an independent study program in history, I was out of the constriction of a lot of lectures and into what still stand out as two of the happiest, most productive years in my life. Our little band of professors and students in that program came as close as anything in my experience to a community of scholars.
It happened, too, that my favorite historical periods were golden ages of the church — the High Middle Ages and the Baroque — and thus I had at least some exposure to many of the greatest names of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Early in my senior year I was wondering what I would choose as a topic for my thesis. Sometime that fall the Austrian writer, lecturer and long-time contributor to National Review, Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, gave a lecture at DePauw under ISI auspices. In conversation, he spoke of the old Catholic Church in Holland, which still existed as a descendant of the Jansenist heresy of the seventeenth century. Nothing like a good heresy struggle to stir the blood, so it was Jansenism I chose. That senior year was spent doing senior things, I think; yet it was my months with Antoine Arnauld, Pascal, the nuns of Port Royal, Richelieu, Louis XIV, and the Jesuits that most enthralled me. As I threaded my way through what were to me the most delicious thickets of the political intrigues of Gallicanism and monarchical absolutism, wrapped together with Pelagianism and Jansenism, I discovered, rather to my surprise, that in the end I sided with the pope and the Jesuits.
Those months were my introduction, as well, to a captivating author: Ronald Knox and his landmark book Enthusiasm. Msgr. Knox, sympathetically but critically as he described enthusiasts, convinced me that I did not want to be one, that the high road lay instead with the intellect as the underpinning of faith. I was to meet Msgr. Knox again; in the meantime, however, he clarified something else: I certainly did not want to be what was now synonymous in my mind with an enthusiast, that is, a Methodist.
I had been for a while in my Episcopal phase, where I lingered altogether about a year and a half. No doubt I required that intermediate step. It taught me the tremendous difference between the Christian churches with a sacramental, liturgical tradition — Roman, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran — and those in which the sermon is all — Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Evangelical, Congregational. Whether one’s inclination toward one or the other depends more on disposition or on conviction I could not have said at that point. Nonetheless, having one experienced the sacramental, liturgical type of religion, I could not have returned to what seemed the emptiness of the other.
I would like to think the clean-cut appeal of truth Would have drawn me as surely as night follows day to the Catholic Church. But I am not at all sure that would have happened. Not only am I innately cautious and wedded to the familiar, but I am not an intellectual and have never aspired to be. In the end abstractions do not capture me; beloved people do. Ideas, undoubtedly, do move me; and I love people all the more because of their ideas. I never recall being moved by anyone who had ugly ideas. All the same, I admit that on my own I may well not have succumbed to the truth of the church. It was only because a person, a man I loved, thought the church was true that I began to think seriously of making myself part of it.
Just a month after my graduation I met Bill Burleigh. Are these life-determining, momentous but chancy encounters providential? I rather think they are. A tiny hitch in plans, a miss by an hour or even minutes, and these occurrences might not go off at all. If these split-second events never did take place, who are the countless people who would not be at all?
On that July evening I was not thinking nearly so far ahead. I had a summer job reporting for The Indianapolis Star and an offer from them of a permanent job. I had an offer of some minor editorship with Regnery publishers in Chicago. I had an acceptance to the Indiana University graduate school for the M.A. program in history. Actually, though, I did not want to do any of those things. Each one struck me as a bit dreary.
The young man sitting next to me that evening was not dreary. He had the nicest brown eyes. Half a dozen years older than I, he seemed a great deal more mature than the college boys I was used to. Before the end of an hour I had caught his essence. I was right; to this day I have never met a more mature and integrated man. He had the air of some time ago having worked out the hard questions and of having committed himself in quiet but no uncertain terms. He had an intellectual toughness, a principled moral stance that was partly the result of character, partly the result of his Catholic, Jesuit education. He leavened that strong mind with a large splash of humor and an even greater dash of poetry. He was smart; he was poetic; but most of all he was a good man. So, naturally, I loved him.
It was no small thing, however, to consider what would be a mixed marriage; and for us there was no thought of a trial marriage or of a divorce. I myself had to undergo a year and a half of mental preparation. From the first date one of the things I loved best about Bill was his honest, unapologetic, manly, even soldierly devotion to his faith. If it meant so much to him, it must be something. I realized later that what I was seeing in him was the mark the Jesuits so often stamped on their graduates from the fifties. Like so many of that era, he had a faith that had been examined, tried, tested and then finally embraced with courage.
The Jesuits may have passed on, as well, a little of their caginess. Or perhaps it was simply the Bill Burleigh diplomacy. At any rate, this man was underplaying his hand. He only explained if I asked; but of course he knew I would ask. He chose the books carefully. Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, which I devoured. The staple of everyone’s conversion. Some more Merton — when I asked for it. A little Newman. A deft, wide swing to avoid humdrum priests and wretched homilies. Introduction to the Benedictine monks at St. Meinrad, a look at the Trappist Abbey at Gethsemani. Masses at historic St. Mary’s parish in downtown Indianapolis, where Msgr. Victor Goossens pulled out all stops in his liturgy and employed a concert organist.
On my own I ran across a particularly significant book. Here was Ronald Knox again — a little Image paperback entitled The Belief of Catholics. Knox was the best thing I read all year at Indiana University. Glued to the text until the final sentence, I accepted everything Knox had to say about the faith, save one thing. I could not swallow his strange Catholic devotion to Mary. Some Protestant notions died hard with me. Some never have died; they retain their old puritanical vigor, such as my revulsion toward the detestably servile and germy antique Catholic custom of kneeling before bishops and kissing their rings. The suspicion that Catholics somehow worship Mary as a deity was deeply ingrained not only in me but, I think, in Protestants generally. And to look upon a human being as a god was a scandalous violation of the First Commandment. Thus the poetic homage Knox paid to Mary simply puzzled me. Reading his assertion that “when a Catholic ceases to honour her, he ceases to be a Catholic,” I reacted with the thought, “I can take everything but this.”
Knox was right that Marian devotion is distinctively Catholic. To make that leap from Methodism to allegiance to Mary was a far greater venture into an alien world than I could manage. A dozen years after I had become a Catholic, I still could not bring myself to that transition. The Blessed Mother, however, has in abundance the feminine virtue of patience. As long as she needs to wait, she waits. Eventually it was the great medievalist Henry Adams, himself a religious skeptic but still a believer in the feminine principle in history, who led me to ask just who Mary is and what she means. I learned that the Virgin’s gentle tenderness is more than a match for the dynamo. Even so, it was again years before the rosary became more than a clump of beads in a drawer. Letting Mary into a once-Protestant life seemed to me an enormous break with my history. How surprised I was to find later that once she enters one’s life, she changes everything.
In the early period of my consideration of the church, however, the Marian question was not something I thought much about. More of a hurdle for me then was whether u Catholic could also be a thoughtful American loyal to the best principles of the American political tradition. There was a strong socialistic cast to Catholic social teaching, I thought, harmful to the beneficial American alliance of political, economic and moral-spiritual freedom. But, then, there was in mainline Protestantism an equally strong and even more naive enthusiasm for the welfare state. I could not imagine myself in a church that would seriously try to destroy the American political tradition, which, for all its limitations, had nonetheless in its few centuries made a precious contribution to Western civilization. Here I looked to the Catholics of the ISI connection for assurance. Judging from their writings, I thought there was no doubt in their minds that the Catholic and American traditions, properly understood, were not only a compatible but a healthy mix.
All the same, if I was ready to marry a Catholic, I was not yet ready to be one. There was no guarantee I ever would be ready, but neither of us found difficulty with the conditions of a mixed marriage. I was comfortable signing the paper promising to rear future children in the Catholic faith. By this time I thought the Catholic Church was more deserving of respect than any other.
Our wedding, November 28, 1964, in St. Mary’s Church was a festive, candle-lit, rose-bedecked affair. Everyone beamed; no one cried. The next day, the first of our honeymoon and the first Sunday of Advent, marked the first official occasion of the English mass. Though I thought little of it at the time, it meant that our entire married life would be coterminous with the post-Vatican II period. It meant that my first-hand exposure to the church, for good or ill, was altogether of the “new “age.
During subsequent years I have regretted that one-sided experience. First, it has meant that I have no direct knowledge of the rich intellectual revival that came to fruition in the fifties. Second, it has meant that the last two decades have been spent pasting and patching, attempting to read a fraction of the great stockpile I missed, imagining myself in a milieu in which my husband actually lived. It has meant that many gaps simply will not be filled. There will not be time, and I am reconciled to that. On the other hand, being only a post-Vatican II product, I escaped some barnacles. Some of the more nonsensical folklore, like the patent-leather-shoe jokes, did not burden me. We sometimes forget that the intellectual wealth of the revival did not permeate the whole Catholic spectrum. Beyond the limits of that revival there was undeniably an insular, narrow-minded anti-intellectualism that I am grateful I did not inherit.
Being a child by adoption does eliminate some of the less savory genes in the family tree. Thus converts to Catholicism in America can sometimes be at an advantage. In a pluralistic society their range of vision is likely to be broader than that of people with a single-faith background. If they were once Protestants, they know not only how a Protestant thinks but also how he feels in his faith. Such knowledge carries practical importance for judging on what Catholics and Protestants can agree and what they must decide is non-negotiable.
Further, converts know what drew them to the church. Having taken what ordinarily has been a major step, they have a firm idea of why they took it. For that reason, what they now have is precious to them; they count on keeping it. It may be that they are more conscious of what they have than cradle Catholics, that they are more awake. Besides that, they may have a clearer notion both of what they could do without and of what is essential to their faith. Having once presumably judged what was essential, converts have something to say to the church at large about essentials.
Once married, I was on the way to Rome. But I had not arrived. Then in the summer of 1965 I decided to push on to my destination. The destination by then seemed natural and fitting. I loved this man; plainly, I did not want to be outside the deepest part of his life. No intellectual, spiritual torment for me; I simply no longer cared to be on the outside looking in. Moreover, the Catholic view of marriage compelled me as much as anything about the faith. I wanted to be even more bound to that idea and to my husband than I already was. I was not absolutely sure I was headed for the truth, but then I knew well enough that absolute intellectual sureness does not come in this life. If I waited for certainty of mind, I might never find it. Certainty is possible, but it is of another order than mind; it is more in the order of presence.
What was drawing me into the church, far outweighing any doubts of its authenticity, was a yearning for the sacramental life of the church. The sacramental, liturgical life seemed exactly suited to human nature. It seemed the perfect way for God to give his life to us. I was not a unique convert; I am sure of that. Most other converts, I think, would agree that even more compelling than their intellectual search for truth, which is never altogether resolved, is the ever growing desire to receive the grace of God’s love through the sacraments. When that desire for divine life can no longer be put off, then they cast aside doubts and commit their lives.
What came after that quiet Saturday in July, 1965, when I put my life on the line, has been a twenty-year surprise. St. Paul and St. Augustine said that first we believe then we understand. These years have been the simple affirmation of that statement. They are another chapter in the story of one journey in faith — which, after all, is the only notable journey any of us has.
It has not at times been easy. I have sometimes been homesick for the way I began. How often, for example, my ears bombarded by some of the worst post-Vatican II carousel music, have I longed for the lofty hymns of Charles Wesley. I have watched, too, with dismay as the church has lurched from one fad to another. I have watched with more than dismay as the church hierarchy has become ever more entangled in ideology.
Somehow, though, converts often can tolerate more than other Catholics. For the gift of the Eucharist, penance, and the other sacraments, they can stand stupidity, error, outlandishness, even outright evil. They stand it because they know how it was when they had no Eucharist and they were starving. They stand it because, no matter what, they will never give up what they have. Misguided bishops, ideologues of all stripes, guitar-strumming liturgists are but straws in the wind. Though they can be annoyances, they are really beside the point. In spite of them the life of the church goes on.
Statistics of Catholics, both lay and religious, who in the last two decades have departed the ranks are, as we all know, distressingly high. The procession out the church doors has been startling. And yet, there has been at the same time a small but steady movement into the church. Not a mighty army, to be sure, but still a sign of life. These immigrants into the church obviously do not see a dying church; they see that the life in the church is still worth having. They no doubt see illness, but then this is not paradise; this is the world. If we become gloomy over the state of the church, if we are tempted to think of ours as the worst of times, we may do well to ask why, even if this be the worst of times, there is nevertheless the little faithful, hopeful remnant who are coming in rather than going out.
Looking back on my own conversion, I never considered my move as one from error to truth but from less to more. I thought of my conversion as a progression to ever more fullness. Compared to what I had, the Catholic Church offered greater fullness of being. It still does.