I don’t remember my first Christmas as a child, but I vividly recall my first as a Roman Catholic man. I grew up in Ohio, in a mostly Protestant neighborhood, Colonial Hills, in a suburb of 10,000 called Worthington (my father was a professor at nearby Ohio State), and, during a time of much roiling unrest, went to college at Ohio University (“Harvard on the Hocking,” we joked), where I abandoned my Methodism for paganism. The less said about that the better.
But just a few years out of college — I was living in California at the time — I wandered into St. James Church in Redondo Beach, because I’d just finished reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, and I was curious to get a look at the Zen master’s spiritual home. The less said about Fr. Merton the better.
I’d read up on Catholicism and found myself attracted to the Church philosophically, but still being a self-styled rebel I was put off by the institution, by Rome. (Although I’d loved Rome and St. Peter’s when I’d spent a summer in Europe while still in college.) Then a strange thing happened. Although it was a Friday afternoon, there was a Mass just beginning at St. James when I walked in that first time, and what I saw floored me. There were fewer than fifty people in the pews — mostly women — but they were white and black, Latino and Asian, young and old, rich and poor and in-between, and very much not like the parishioners I’d seen at the Worthington United Methodist Episcopal Church, who — God bless them — were the die-stamped, middle-class folks against whom my rebellion, such as it was, had sparked.
Almost before I knew what was happening, albeit several weeks later, I found myself at the rectory door telling an Irish priest, Fr. Hugh Crowe, “I want to be Catholic.” And he showed me how.
Then I returned home to Ohio. My mother was — to put it mildly — stunned to learn I’d converted to Catholicism. She hadn’t been inside a church of any kind in decades, and she’d given up God for gin. The less said about that is definitely better. But it was coming on Christmas, and late on the evening of December 24, I drove to St. Michael’s Church in Worthington for midnight Mass, and the sanctuary was packed, and although the people kneeling to pray and standing to sing that night weren’t as diverse a group as I’d seen in So Cal, I knew I’d come home. “Yells, bells, and smells,” as a priest friend liked to joke — the chants of the liturgy, the tinkling angelus, the odor of burning candles and incense. How on earth, I wondered, had this become my home? How had the sinister Vatican become a shining beacon in my storm-tossed journey?
Why are so many people staring at me? And they were staring, because it’s a smallish town, and I was known there — known for my reckless, muscular profanity — and it was some spectacle: the pagan with tears in his eyes. O holy night!
The young priest who gave me communion didn’t know me and wouldn’t have cared in any case, but it struck me then and there that some bishop had laid hands on him at ordination, who’d been consecrated by another bishop, archbishop, or cardinal, who in turn and in the turning and turning of time had knelt before Peter who had stood with Jesus and become the rock that became the Church, and now I was a part of it. And I thought: I haven’t done this. I hadn’t come to this Christmas, because I’d chosen the Roman Catholic Church over Methodism or Zen or because the history was so compelling or because the theology was more exciting or because the pews were filled with sinners like me. I was there because Christ had called me. I was an invited guest, and for just about the first time in my life I’d had the good sense to accept an act of grace.
After Mass, I stood on the steps of St. Michael’s and turned my face up to receive the snowflakes falling from the dark Christmas sky. An old friend came up and put her hand on my shoulder.
“I’d been speaking to D- the other day,” she said, “and he told me you were home, and he said you were Catholic. I thought he meant you’d really gone off the deep end and become . . . ‘universal.’”
“Oh . . . I’ve gone off the deep end, alright.” And I laughed because my older brother had said the same thing when I told him of my conversion.
So, my friend and I walked across the street, High Street, and went into the Vogue Lounge and had a couple of late-night cocktails. Further on up the street, the Methodist church was dark, and nobody there was toasting the baby Jesus.