Sometimes I ask myself why I became a Catholic. What series of events coalesced to lead me into the Church?
One of those, I am sure – though it may appear paradoxical – is that I grew up a Methodist. That is no put-down of what is often today empty, mainline Protestantism. Rather, the Methodists of my youth were the finest Christians I have ever known. They taught me to love the Lord and to be serious about helping others.
There was no anti-Catholicism among those folks in North Carolina. Instead, they viewed Catholics as “true Christians,” as they themselves were. Given my love and affection for those people, if they had been hostile to Catholicism, it would have been a real obstacle for me. Instead, I was open to being moved by the Holy Spirit as He guided me, as an adult, into the Church.
Among those fine Methodists were my parents. No one ever had better ones. I was blessed with a happy, Christian home.
While my dad passed four years ago, my mom only passed earlier this year. She was quite a lady, full of zest, faith, and good works. Her favorite saying was, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” And she did just that, perhaps most especially during her final two years, when she was bed-ridden due to a stroke.
I loved her and I miss her. And here, the second reason I am a Catholic comes in. I am a Catholic because I am not a fool, and it seems to me only a fool would spurn the gifts God gives through the Church.
Among those gifts are what some call “pious practices.” While those who do not understand mock them as little better than superstitions, the reality is that such things as “saying the rosary” truly touch us in our humanity, in our reality as incarnate beings, as flesh and spirit. They are not simply mental prayers; they are physical prayers. By saying words aloud, by touching beads, by moving our hands, our physical nature is involved in the prayer, and thus, our spiritual and our physical natures unite in supplication to the Lord.
The rosary was a gift to St. Dominic from the one who is the greatest gift of all to Catholics, the Blessed Virgin Mary. In order that we might pray more effectually, she gave us prayers that bring us closer to her and to her Son. Then we are truly in touch with the real power of the universe. And this is no pious nonsense – the only reason we do not all say prayers five times a day to Mecca is because the faith of those who said the rosary was answered in the defeat of the Sultan’s forces at Lepanto in 1571. That is what we commemorate in the Feast of the Holy Rosary each October. Through our prayer, the power of God can enter into this world.
Catholicism, unlike gnostic forms of Christianity, is about realistic joy, and not the mindless or naïve joy that is being peddled in our popular culture. Catholic joy is rooted in reality. And the reality is that we all suffer and die – on the way, we pray, to eternal life.
When our loved ones die, we miss them, not only emotionally, but physically. That is, we long to hold their hands, to embrace them. It may seem there is no longer any way to fulfill that longing. After all, their physical presence is gone.
One of Catholicism’s gifts, however – at least to me – is a place where I can go to be with those whom I love but who have departed: the graveside. There, while the spirit has departed, the body remains, awaiting the resurrection. There I can be in a kind of physical proximity to the person who has died.
Two weeks ago, I visited the grave of my mother for the first time since her funeral. A friend and I prayed aloud a rosary for my lady and for the repose of her soul.
Standing in the dirt and grass over the grave, with the rosary in my hand, praying as Our Lady taught us, seemed truer to reality than any prayer had before. I felt consoled, yes, but more importantly, I felt connected to the ultimate realities – to God, to His mother, to mine, to the life beyond the grave, and to the incarnate life to come in the resurrection of the just.
I thank the Catholic Church for giving us a faith that touches – and transforms – physical reality. I thank the Church for a faith that, during Lent, leads us to deny our physical selves so we can more deeply connect to God, but a faith that then leads us, in the Triduum, to the very messy and unpleasant physical reality of pain and suffering and death, a reality that would be a horror but for the One Who redeemed it by dying for us, and for our beloved dead.