While most people my age are leaving the churches of their childhood or declaring themselves “spiritual but not religious,” I decided, during my freshman year of college, to join a centuries-old hierarchical church. When I tell people about my choice to become Catholic four years ago, reactions vary from shocked facial expressions to genuine congratulations to complete disgust—even from people raised in the church. But there is one question nearly everyone asks me when I tell them I decided to join the Catholic Church when I was 19: “Why?”
It is a question I am not sure I have a satisfying answer to. I was recently out at a bar with friends from my graduate school and mentioned my conversion. A stranger who overheard this leaned over the crowded table to ask me what drew me to the Catholic Church. I laughed at the question, a bit taken aback that this man did not realize how personal the question was. I joked that “I was jealous of all the kids in my neighborhood that had first Communion parties growing up!”
If I had given this stranger a real answer, however, I would have had to tell him a drawn-out story of how God slowly worked in my life to pull me toward experiencing him in the Eucharist.
There is one question nearly everyone asks me when I tell them I decided to join the Catholic Church when I was 19: “Why?”
I realized after this experience at the bar that, even though I have spent almost four years explaining my conversion to people, I cannot put a pin in what made me decide to become Catholic. Most converts I follow online or know in real life have an elevator speech on why they became Catholic. They studied the church fathers or read John chapter six or prayed in the adoration chapel.
My Catholicism just sort of “happened.” I had grown up in a mostly non-religious household with a father who had left his Catholic upbringing behind him and a mother who grew up attending a nondenominational church. My first exposure to Catholicism was probably through attending Irish dance lessons as a child, where nearly everyone was raised receiving the sacraments. After occasionally going to youth group with Catholic friends in high school, I decided to look into some Catholic colleges. I enrolled at Loyola University Chicago and there heard about the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults through campus ministry.
I cannot even remember why I decided to take a flier or attend the first class when I was already overwhelmed by my recent move away from home and starting college. I think I was looking for a way to feel like I belonged in a community, and the Catholic Church felt like a comfortable place for me to begin searching for fellowship. Though I grew up around Catholics, I did not know too much about their faith besides the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But I had seen examples of strong, large Catholic families who seemed to be connected with each other and their wider community. They were inspiring to me with their many devotions, weekly Mass attendance and commitment to service and justice. I decided to test the waters in the church that I admired from the outside even though I did not have the apologetics to back me up. I converted.
Most converts I know have an elevator speech on why they became Catholic. My Catholicism just sort of “happened.”
Four years pass and a man at a bar asks about my conversion. I reflected upon the entire process. Then I did what a lot of millennials would do to process complicated feelings. I tweeted about it.
I opened my phone and began typing about how I was feeling insecure about my conversion. I felt like I did not know enough about the teachings of the church to call myself Catholic. Four years in, I had made countless Catholic friends and dove into books and podcasts by and for Catholics, and while I thought these resources would comfort me, they left me unsettled. I did not understand half of the content I was reading, and my understanding of church history was limited to the last 60 years or so. I felt like a fraud.
Here is a VERY niche tweet: for the past year I have been feeling VERY insecure about becoming catholic bc every other catholic convert is super smart and converted after reading church fathers or something else and I just kinda yeeted myself into the baptismal font u know— Reilly (@reillycosgrove) February 21, 2019
I thought to myself: “Why am I tweeting this? No one is going to relate to my Catholic imposter-syndrome.” But I decided to send it off anyway, planning to possibly delete it later. To my surprise, the next day when I checked Twitter, more than 1,000 people had interacted with the tweet.
In the days that followed, I received responses from Catholics all over the world expressing similar sentiments of insecurity in their knowledge and understanding of church teaching. I also received many recommendations of how I might learn more about the church, stories of conversions and reversions, and defenses of the faith. These responses were overwhelming, and I could not figure out why so many Catholics wanted to reach out to talk to me about my conversion.
I felt like I did not know enough about the teachings of the church to call myself Catholic.
We live in a time where the Catholic Church always seems to be tied up in scandal. Well-known Catholics with podcasts, radio shows and large social media followings tend to use their academic background to defend the church. But Catholics who do not hold degrees in theology can find it difficult to explain why they hold onto faith.
So, why am I Catholic? I still have not read any of the church fathers, and I do not even own a copy of the Catechism. If I am being honest, I think the only explanation for my Catholicism is that the Holy Spirit called me to it. When I started my R.C.I.A. classes and began attending Mass, it just felt right. I could not learn everything a theologian or historian would know about the church in my eight months of R.C.I.A. But I had learned enough to know that I could trust the church and that her teachings are true.
If God knows every aspect of my being, he knows that I go with my gut and make decisions with my heart. If someone had tried to convert me with readings from philosophers and historians, I probably would never have joined R.C.I.A. The intellectual path to faith works for some but not for everyone. While some are called to holiness through working in ministry or studying the teachings of the church, we are all given our own paths to sainthood, and we are all needed in the church.
The day of my baptism, my R.C.I.A. group spent much of the day at Loyola’s chapel, Madonna della Strada. We had a rehearsal for the Easter vigil Mass where we practiced carrying the gifts up the marble floors of the long nave and receiving the sacraments. The sunlight was beaming through the stained glass windows and reflecting on the gold-plated stations of the cross, making the chapel feel warm and inviting.
But the actual vigil Mass began outside in the dark April evening. I sat in the first row of the chapel with family and friends of all faith backgrounds, including my non-Catholic parents, who had come to support me. Yet I still felt alone and scared. The church felt cold.
Then the lights came on and the choir began to sing, and I was overcome with a feeling of peace. Even though we had practiced the liturgy of baptism in the morning, when we got to the back of Madonna Della Strada in front of the large baptismal font, I almost stepped in too early. Luckily, a Jesuit scholastic grabbed me by the collar and pulled me back. He encouraged me to get in the font once the water had been properly blessed. I see my near “accidental baptism” as a symbol for my entire conversion. I saw the water, and I just wanted to jump on in.