The Catholic Thing
Conversion Story Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Sunday, 21 November 2010

Ibecame a Catholic in 1973. I converted to Catholicism about thirty years later.

 In those in-between years, faith was an aspect of my identity, but not the locus of my salvation. Like most people, I didn’t think I needed saving. I was a puzzle to myself.

It was good being a Catholic though. It shook up my Methodist family in Ohio – agnostics, yet Protestant to the core. My friends, mostly Protestants, were used to the solar flares of the ongoing identity crisis of my youth and could almost admire this particularly bright and colorful eruption, except that as one pal said to me: “Brad, you do know the pope wears a dress?”

No, seriously, why’d you pope? Boldly I’d reply: Because Catholics are the only Christians who take religion seriously. Oh, I knew plenty of non-Catholics serious to the point of solemn about Christ Jesus, but most attended church maybe once a week, went to shark-like sanctuaries pared down by evolution to the essentials of respectability and fundraising, places to mark rites of passage without need of Communion or genuflection – all stiffly horizontal. There was “outreach” to the poor, although no actual touching of them.

But I’d found my way into this ancient, polyglōttos place of burning candles and statues,  of multiple daily reenactments of the Last Supper, and it is as vertical as the upright long post of the crucifix behind the altar and as horizontal as the crosspiece to which the effigy of Christ’s hands are nailed.

You want “outreach”? We’ve got plenty of that. My friends frowned, and I’d add, “But where’s your holiness?” Now they were angry.

“You simply can’t imagine,” I’d tell them, “how much Christ there is in a Catholic church.”

Sharbel Makhlouf, unpromising . . . saint

In July I went back to Ohio for a reunion, and my old classmates expressed real interest in my conversion story, because I haven’t gone off in another direction. Many of these wonderful folks were as solemn as solemn can be – as abstemious as your medieval ascetic, although for different reasons, mostly the old respectability of their parents and grandparents. And, you know, there’s something glorious in it. You want uprightness? They’ve got that.

The few other Catholics in our class are long-since lapsed (although fun-loving), and everybody was curious why as smart guy as I am is still a Catholic in this day and age, and I thought of Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Weeks later I got a forwarded email from a fundamentalist I don’t know alleging Catholic abuses that were twenty-first century versions of the Maria Monk screeds of earlier nativists. But most of my friends were happy that I’m happy; happy too that nearly all of us share belief in “God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth/And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.”

When I recited this (the Apostles’ Creed) as a kid, I was a bit disconcerted to also confess belief in “the holy catholic church,” until my father directed me to the dictionary and the small-‘c’ definition of the word. A decade or so later I was on the phone with my older brother, and after he asked me what I was up to these days (he in Chicago, I in California) and after I’d replied, springing the news of my conversion, that I was trying to be a good Catholic, he’d asked, unable at first to accept what he’d just heard:

“You mean . . . more universal? How the heck do you do that?”

I chose the title for this column, because I imagine something epic – if you can picture a Hollywood poster with giant letters carved from stone – because I like to think there’s some Odysseus in me. In all of us. Or, better: Augustine.

But it’s not the journey that matters but the destination: Salvation. I became a Catholic because of liturgy, because of beauty, because of history – all that. But I also poped because, in my experience, here was the only Christian literature and the only Christian people to employ the word Incarnation. I already knew Jesus as the Son who rose from the dead and will return – that’s all Protestant doctrine. But what was news to me was this: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” And for years and years, not a day went by when I didn’t think about that . . . and not a day when I didn’t ignore it too. The world has so often seemed a place marked off by yellow tape. We’re living in the aftermath of some calamity. Who’s to blame here? Am I? What a puzzle!

And while I was back in my old hometown I went to Mass every day in the neighborhood Catholic church I never attended as a kid. I loved it immediately (and there are plenty of R.C. churches I dislike with equal alacrity), and one morning a priest spoke about a nineteenth-century saint of whom I’d not heard, Sharbel Makhlouf, a Lebanese Marionite, who became a hermit and who was devoted to our Lady and to the Eucharist, but who as a child was thought too doltish ever to amount to anything. The priest said:

“His life proves that the human person is a mystery to be admired and not a puzzle to be solved.”

There you go. That’s why I’m a Catholic. And the conversion continues . . .

Brad Miner, a former literary editor of National Review, is senior editor of The Catholic Thing and author of The Compleat Gentleman.
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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Eric Giunta, November 22, 2010
Mr Miner, would you clarify:

"I became a Catholic in 1972. I converted to Catholicism about thirty years later."

I know this is supposed to be witty, but I don't get it. Were you born in 1972, and baptized as an infant?
written by Brad Miner, November 22, 2010
Mr. Giunta: I was in my twenties when I 'converted.' I meant to suggest that it took me much, much longer to actually, truly embrace the faith. -ABM
written by Jeff W, November 22, 2010
Brad, I understood what you meant right away as I myself have experienced the same thing. I joined the Catholic Church in 1993, but it wasn't until five to six years later that I fully embraced and understood all that I had before me with the depth and richness of our faith. I knew there was more, but it wasn't until a close friend of mine took the time to point it out to me that I woke up and became more than just a weekly occupier of a pew.
written by Ray Hunkins, November 22, 2010
Most converts, of which I am one (2003) will appreciate your thoughtful essay. There is much to learn and so little time to learn it. That challenge keeps life interesting. I do disagree with this: "it's not the journey than matters but the destination." The journey is how we get to the destination. A life well lived assures the proper destination. The journey matters!
written by Other Joe, November 22, 2010
Well written testimony. I wish the RC Church encouraged witness. We can all use a bit of bracing up from time to time. The contemporary culture is a lonely slog. We are all Eleanor Rigby now - outside of organized religion.
written by Graham Combs, November 22, 2010
To Other Joe: The Church, or at least a major media outlet of the Church -- EWTN -- has a show called The Journey Home. It is all about conversion stories. I think you would like it. I'm also a convert. After decades of being out in the cold as a pro-life lapsed Episcopalin, I needed to be where I wasn't considered a sexist or other of the ever expanding categories of 21st century bigotry. But the Church in 2010 is not in the same situation it was in 1972. This past week the parish elementary school and the church tower were vandalized with both racist and what monsignor called blasphemous grafitti. This is not the first physical attack on the parish. To be a Catholic today means to understand that you live in an increasingly hostile environment -- even, sadly, in America. Catholicism isn't for the faint of heart or weak of spine...
written by Kathy, November 23, 2010
I am a cradle Catholic who experienced my full conversion to Catholicism at age 29. Yes, I practiced with minimal effort, not truly embracing the beauty of the Faith or the reason why I worshiped. I am so glad that I finally paid attention to the Lord calling me to Him in the Eucharist. All those years of grace not fully accepted, even rejected is so sad. But, I am grateful to be forgiven for my lackadaisical attitude and to be right where He wants me now -- in His will.

Great testimony, Brad!

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