When I converted to Catholicism, I didn't realize I had to become a certain 'type' of Catholic

Robie Macauley with Arthur Koestler and Flannery O'Connor at Amana Colonies in Iowa, 9 Oct 1947. (Cmacauley photo/English Wikipedia) Robie Macauley with Arthur Koestler and Flannery O'Connor at Amana Colonies in Iowa, 9 Oct 1947. (Cmacauley photo/English Wikipedia)

In the years following my baptism as a teenager, I had a lot to learn in order to pass for a Roman Catholic follower of Christ—prayers, motions, habits of mind. I had to cultivate friendships with saints, acquire rosaries and read Flannery O’Connor. I had to figure out what to say when people asked why I believed in God. But it wasn’t long before I noticed that merely being Catholic would be insufficient. One has to be a particular kind of Catholic.

As much as my newfound co-religionists were Catholic, I discovered, they were also Irish Catholic or Mexican Catholic or Italian Catholic or some mix of those, along with various allegiances to Vatican II or the Latin Mass. Partisans of each subcategory derived a substantial sense of what it meant to be Catholic from the strategies that their immigrant forebears had adopted to gain a foothold in the American middle class. Sometimes these inheritances struck me as treasures I could share, sometimes as closed doors I would never be able to open.

I had no such Catholic inheritance to draw from. Half my family is Jewish, and the other half has been proudly Protestant for centuries. Sometimes I felt angry. Like Jesus before the money changers’ carefully laid tables, I wanted to rattle all the self-satisfied, inaccessible Catholic traditions out of the pure and holy church I was trying to join. “Your church is not the church!” I wanted to say. Then I got rattled myself.

I took my first trip to Central America a few months after my baptism. The first stop in Guatemala was a city with an old colonial chapel at the top of a hill. One morning, alone, I climbed the long, cracked stairs to reach it and, inside, sat in a pew to rehearse some prayer I had recently memorized. Indigenous families came and went, and I tried not to let them distract me, but they did.

That’s when I noticed that they were not just lighting candles and crossing themselves. One or two at a time, they would go behind the ancient altar and come out the other side. Finally I stood up and walked over to that altar, then slowly made my way behind it. There I saw: The whole backside of the altar was covered in wax and chicken feathers.

This church, I realized, was at least two different churches at once. I had been trying to pray in the colonial one, with the prayers, motions and habits of mind I had been learning back home. But there was also an indigenous church there, with another set of prayers, motions and habits of mind entirely—yet somehow the same building, the same God, the same universal church.

Perhaps the convert’s chronic discomfort makes it easier for me to see the false comforts people wrap around their Catholicism. There are those who denounce “cafeteria Catholicism” while coddling their own narrow subset of Catholic tradition, much of it borrowed from the American evangelicalism around them. There are the cradle Catholics who have decided they know the church well enough to reject it—on the basis, usually, of only what they gleaned in adolescence from some poor priest too overworked to take their good, hard questions seriously. There are the innovators who demand that their billion fellow Catholics immediately adopt the well-meaning social experiments that happen to be underway in their corners of the world. The church is so, so much bigger than any of these.

Yet we need our little churches. I don’t think I could really call my faith my own until I found the mentorship of a band of marginal, war-resisting Manhattan Jesuits. With our shared, narrow commitments and living room Masses, we could go deep. But on Sundays I went to my neighborhood cathedral, whose pastor offered the opening prayer at Donald J. Trump’s convention. There I would pray and mingle and make friends with souls from all over the world—never entirely easily. That unease disclosed the miracle in God’s unhesitating embrace of us all.

For those who feel lost in the church, frustrated by it and tempted to leave, the best advice my experience can offer is this: Find a tribe, a band, a micro-church, however small it needs to be to feel like home—then challenge it relentlessly and habitually in the mystery of the universal whole.

Lisa Weber
3 months ago
Good article! The Catholic Church is a big tent and you have to find a comfortable corner in it.
ed gleason
3 months ago
Yes, a big Church! This is my story to those who say it was in the good ole days when the "tribe' Catholics really knew the Church . In 1940, I, an eight-year-old, sat with the entire blue-collar, under educated Bronx Irish at a family gathering, The O'Briens had a large cross in the dining room with a large INRI . I asked what did it mean. None of the crowd knew so they asked aunt Lizzy, a daily communicant, to come in from the kitchen. She said "Iron Nails Ran IN" And they all marvelled at her grasp of the true religion. We have 'found the comfortable corner ' at a great multicultural parish in San Francisco with this ministry. http://thegubbioproject.org days and hours
Anne Chapman
3 months ago
There are the cradle Catholics who have decided they know the church well enough to reject it—on the basis, usually, of only what they gleaned in adolescence from some poor priest too overworked to take their good, hard questions seriously. This trivializes the decisions of millions of cradle Catholics who have made the very hard decision to leave the church of their birth, to leave their "tribe". It is not easy. Perhaps some left because of a poor, over-worked priest who couldn't answer their questions as teen-agers. But many of us, maybe most of us, finally had to leave as a matter of conscience. I grew up in the Latin mass, pre-Vatican II church, memorizing the Baltimore catechism. Mosst of my Catholic friends from that generation, many eduated from K-16 and graduate school in Catholic educational institutions, have left the church. Some left as young adults, more of us left as the years went by. The focus is on the millenial "nones". If they looked at the numbers, they may be surprised to learn of the number of boomer "nones". I was formed by Catholicism, and much of that formation was good (it included, among other things, undergrad and graduate studies at Jesuit unviersities). But as the years went by, it was harder and harder for me to stay - yes, I dissented from many teachings and was told countless times that I was not a "real" Catholic. But that is not the reason I left. I came to believe that many of these teachings are rooted in ancient prejudices and beliefs, yet have not been relegated to the historical archives. Many of these teachings have caused very real and tangible harm to millions, directly or indirectly. Since lay Catholics have no voice in this church (as often pointed out - the church is not a democracy) they have no say in the definition of teachings, no voice in governance. They are reduced to perpetual childhood as far as the church is concerned. Women are second-class members of the church, with even less chance of having their "feminine genius" - insights and understandings - heard by the male celibates and considered when defining teachings. Much of the harm that has been done and is still being done can be traced to the fact that no feminine understanding is heard. This is a denial of God, who is not a man, nor a woman, but is both masculine and feminine in nature (God made them male and female in God's image). We left because we cannot stay and not feel that we are enabling dysfunction, enabling the harm to innocent people caused by this dysfunction. Not because we were poorly catechized, but because, as adults, we studied and learned and reflected and prayed. Another question - if one needs to find a micro-church, a 'tribe" in order to stay Catholic, what does that say about the "universal" church?
Nathan Schneider
3 months ago

Anne, thanks for this moving comment. I'm not sure how else to say it, but precisely for the reasons you detail here, I don't think yours is the kind of experience I was talking about in the article. I described a certain experience tha doesn't appear to be yours. I absolutely, humbly recognize the good, good reasons that people part ways with the church, and I recognize too that a lot of what has enabled me to stay, in my weakness, is having been guided to wonderful, nourishing tribes within the church, and having been spared the worst abuses. The privilege that comes with being a white, straight man is part of that as well, and I hope that I can use that privilege to help create more space in the church who may have a harder time remaining.

I don't think it's a major problem that we might need to inhabit tribes within the broader church. This is the case in any large society—just as there are many ways to be an American, or a European, or a fan of a certain band. The problem, I think, is when some group of people comes along and claims that their way is the only any universal way.

Henry George
3 months ago
Anne, I think the Jesuits failed in their duty to deepen your faith. I have no problem with "tribes" within the Church. Some people are extroverts and love to sing at Church, some people are introverts and my like beautiful singing as long as they are not required to sing 7 songs at each Mass and preferably someone else sang it. Sometimes I attend a "Hispanic" Mass, sometime I attend a Pre-Vatican II Mass, I tend to avoid "Folk Masses" but I have been to some that moved me greatly. I happen to believe, as does the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, that God choose when and where Jesus would be incarnated. As such I am not willing to say that we should just discard the "Ancient Traditions" because they don't meet our "Modern" Tastes that we call Needs. You are and have been all your life free to disagree with your Priest/Bishop or Pope. No one can deny you the Eucharist and the other Sacraments because you disagree. There is a very deep feminine understanding of God in the Catholic and Orthodox Church. It is almost wholly lacking in Protestant Churches that remain wholly attached to Reformation Theology. Your reading of Genesis is a bit tendentious but understandable given your life circumstances.
Bruce Snowden
3 months ago
Hello Nathan and other Folk, - I can think lots of of reasons to leave the Catholic Church, reasons too, to close the book on Organized Religions, without losing belief in God. There is one reason however, why I remain Catholic - the Eucharist, the Real Presence of Jesus Christ under the Appearances of Bread and Wine, "Transubstantiation" according to Aquinas, a teaching which caught the attention of Albert Einstein who called it "intriguing." If it is true that the Catholic Church has the real and entire Jesus in Person, why look anywhere else to find Him? I've discovered that Faith in the Real Presence is muscular - the more you exercise that muscle through study and prayer, especially quiet, wordless prayer, the stronger that muscle becomes, strong enough to "move mountains" just as Jesus said, mountains of doubt. So because I already have Jesus, whole and entire, alive and listening, helpful too, I'm going nowhere else, as I've found all that I need, more than I need, really! I hang out with the Eucharistic "tribe" a "tribe" that can exist nowhere else if severed from Apostolic Succession. If not absolutely true, God, have I been deceived along with uncountable billions!
MAUREEN O'RIORDAN LUNDY
3 months ago
Thank you, the best of both worlds!

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