The Catholic Thing
Knuckleballs, Grace, and the Church Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Sunday, 16 September 2012

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New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey is my favorite baseball player. When it’s his turn to ascend the mound, I feel drawn to watch by an interior force whose origins I do not understand. Perhaps it is his compelling personal journey that includes overcoming a broken home, abuse at age eight, and years of minor league struggles until he established himself as an all-star. Perhaps it is his command of baseball’s most beguiling and seldom used pitch, the knuckleball. Perhaps it is his noticeable grit and class on the field. Or perhaps it is his profound Christian faith, which has molded him into the pitcher and man he is today.

This last quality permeates his recent autobiography, Wherever I Wind Up, a moving and self-cathartic retelling of his childhood and baseball odyssey. Throughout his struggles – especially when he reached his life’s nadir – it was his faith in Jesus Christ that gave him hope and set him back on the narrow path to life.

As a Catholic, I was struck not by the means of Dickey’s conversion, which came through the influence of a school friend who invited him to meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It was the logistics: when he inquired how to become a Christian, he was told to “just invite Him into your life” and profess faith in Christ. And this Dickey did, with his friend and his friend’s mother, inside their home. The next step, he was told, was to learn and study the Bible.

In no way do I doubt Dickey’s faith, sincerity, or commitment. I admire it. Yet his experience as he describes it lacks a key element. He made a personal pledge between himself and Christ to whom others led him, but the moment of grace was for him alone: no exterior authentication, no incorporation into something greater than the self. In other words, what was missing from his experience was baptism and the Catholic Church.

For Catholics baptism is certainly a direct and personal encounter with God, even if the baptismal promises are made on our behalf as infants. But this encounter takes place through the Church, the means through which God communicates His grace and brings us into communion with Him. The Scriptures are clear: God did not will to save individuals qua individuals, but a people – His people. His covenant with Israel foreshadowed the new and eternal covenant in Christ that is open to all who respond to His invitation. Our individual “I” must become part of the greater ecclesial “I” of the Bride of Christ.


Through baptism we are formally incorporated into the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, of which, as St. Paul tells us, there are many members, but all are united and given a purpose by Christ the Head. We each have a unique vocation through which we work out our salvation “in fear and trembling.” Yet our seemingly singular paths are all bound together by God’s providence, and they lead us to a shared end: heaven’s Communion of Saints, which is precisely that – a communion of the blessed together with God.

There is a second aspect of Dickey’s faith journey that attests to the splendor of Catholic teaching: the drama of sin and redemption. As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, Dickey was tormented by guilt and shame throughout adulthood until he confronted his past in his early thirties. Before he reached this moment, his past compounded his pain over his personal failings all the more. As he worked through his difficulties, he attests to becoming a better human being through constant self-examination.

For Catholics self-examination takes on supernatural import when done in the context of sacramental confession. The time honored practice of the examination of conscience allows us to assess the graces we have received and the sins we have committed within the context of God’s abiding love and mercy. When we confess, we humbly place the results of our exam before God, who, through the ministry of the priest, grants us pardon and peace. Through the Church our self-examination becomes the means of self-transcendence on the road to the Communion of Saints.

The Catholic journey is not one of a solitary pilgrim, but of solidarity with all the members of the Body of Christ, including those who have gone before us. This solidarity is spiritual, known by faith in Christ who prayed that we would be one as He and the Father are one. This oneness is not an earthly or political goal, but a supernatural reality made possible by God’s grace communicated through the Church who points us to our ultimate goal.

In his book Dickey states that part of the difficulty in learning the knuckleball is the paucity of coaches who can teach it. As a result, knuckleballers are a small and tight fraternity. Dickey did not have success with this finicky pitch until he received instruction from several fraternity members over a few years.

In the same manner, the individual alone in his room with his Bible has never been part of Catholic living. We each have a unique vocation, but included within it is the call to communion with God in Christ. Only in the community that is the Catholic Church do we find the fullness of grace to reach this communion, one that is shared by the Communion of Saints.  

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an adjunct professor of theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 16, 2012
As Cardinal Henri de Lubac said of the centrality of the Church, "the church is not instrumental to God’s purpose of redeeming the world, rather the world is instrumental to God’s purpose of fashioning a body and bride for his Son."
written by Grump, September 16, 2012
So there is no salvation unless you're a Catholic? Please explain why someone who "accepts" Christ and is baptized by a non-Catholic Church will not receive "the fullness of grace?" Does this portend second-rate accommodations in heaven if a non-Catholic even has the hope of getting there? No sarcasm intended.
written by Jack,CT, September 16, 2012
To Grump,
Many Non" Catholics will see the face of
our Lord despite what some may feel, it is not a
one size fits all world.
written by Robert Royal, September 16, 2012
Grump: The Church has never said, even in ancient times, that only visible members of the Church will be saved. The "virtuous pagans" might make it if circumstances warranted. But what the Church has insisted on is that the Church is the mystical body of Christ and the way God intends for us to reach salvation. You can maybe get by outside, but you're taking a chance not because some pope says so, but because God says so.
written by Ernest Miller, September 16, 2012
@Grump...One possible answer you might consider is realized by the promised salvation of the "obedient, practicing" Jews according to the laws of God's old Testament Covenant juxtaposed to the "disinclined" Jews at the time of Jesus and the founding of His Church. Old Testament Jews were certainly not Catholic, but promised and likely will receive salvation nonetheless; however, Jews who rejected Jesus teachings and the Good News were neither Catholic nor offered any alternative salvation opportunity. Therefore, it is not correct to assume nor does it logically follow that non-Catholics are not offered salvation, but rather to conclude that when one becomes aware of The Church yet repudiates or declines Its teachings [they] will not be offered a separate path to or unique mechanism for salvation. True, they are non-Catholic but non-Catholic by choice. The operating theology at play here is about faith, acceptance, knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and attendant graces of the Holy Spirit. Like the earlier Jews, the danger of losing salvation is not in being non-Catholic (for there are many such good souls) but rather sinning against the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Theologically more significant, is to contemplate: why; the only plausible answer for one to unilaterally reject the Holy Spirit is for one to be held captive by grievous sin, e.g., pride or material avarice, and hence unworthy if not reconciled. Jesus' promise or covenant for salvation is through Him with the graces and sacraments of His Church. You are likely familiar with the numerous biblical citations, so no need to list them. Invariably and in support of the aforementioned theological premise of sin blinding the soul, Christian converts to the Catholic faith refer to and give credit to the Holy Spirit for their conversion experience. Far fewer converts credit their own reasoning (see Dante). That said, St. Therese of Avila describes Heaven in a vision as a diamond-like castle with many rooms, some rooms closer to God, others further. Like a ballpark, one might interpret her vision as portending second rate accommodations, as you suggest in your query. Perhaps the best choice for us all is to ask the Holy Spirit to show us the way to box seating.
written by Grump, September 16, 2012
Based on the responses above, it appears that heaven has a class system just like on earth. Some will get better "rooms" than others. As for me, I don't need a mansion. A small place with a good view would be just fine with me. Thanks, Robert, et al for your responses, though somewhat ambiguous much appreciated.
written by Jacob R, September 17, 2012
I would go further..Most of the lifelong Catholics who hang out at church like it's a social club have never been part of Catholic living either. (There are converts who experience more "Catholic living" in a day than those others do in their whole lives!)

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