Coming into the Church – A Year Later

He came into the Church on the 24th of April, a Saturday: Augustine, in 387, and I, last year. My entrance was not exactly a world-historical happening; it’s just that my friends treated it in that way. To my astonishment, they flew into Washington from Cleveland, Charlotte, Boston, and yes even from the People’s Republic of Amherst, Mass. Michael Novak acted as my sponsor, Michael Uhlmann and Daniel Robinson did the readings. And Fr. Arne Panula, who had drawn me in, after years of my holding back, offered the most memorable homily. (Bob Royal thought the event worth a report in the Catholic Thing, and with his lead I added my own – “Finalmente: Coming into the Church”).

There must have been about eighty-five friends who filled that lovely chapel at the Catholic Information Center, and the real completion came as we saw our friends coming up, one by one, to take communion. And wherever I’ve been at Mass, this has ever been the most affecting moment for me: in truth, I just love to see the faces of the people, of all ages and backgrounds, as they come up to receive the body of Christ. That sight has been, for me, sweet and confirming.   And a year later, I still leave the Church, at the close of Mass, in a curiously buoyant state, with the sense that I must look like Charles Ryder at the end of Brideshead Revisited, after he has absorbed deep, serial disappointments (“You’re looking unusually cheerful today [Ryder]”).

Almost twenty years earlier, at a pro-life dinner in Boston, Cardinal Law remarked that when Richard Neuhaus came over to the Church, he thought I was coming, too. I told him that the entourage gathered in First Things thought that Richard was arranging “a group rate” for his friends. The Cardinal stayed kindly in touch, waiting. Jude Dougherty, an old friend at Catholic University, would ask me what I’m waiting for – what was holding me back? I told him that I wasn’t sure I’d be a good enough Catholic, and the Church did not need another wobbly Catholic. Jude said, “I don’t know any ‘good Catholic’; I know only Catholics trying to be better Catholics.” I’ve taken that as one of my enduring instructions – I have to keep trying to be the Catholic I should be.

My wife and I just had a lunch on Saturday with Fr. Panula to celebrate the anniversary, and to look ahead to the things I must do. In the past year I’ve spoken at the John XXIII Seminary outside of Boston, a seminary for older men, often professionals, often widowers, who have decided late in life to enter the priesthood. I’ve spoken at gatherings of young Catholics in Washington, and quite recently, to a large gathering at the Basilica at Belmont Abbey in North Carolina. Why so many people have been interested in hearing what they call “my story” has been a source of mild astonishment to me. Yet, they come. But for Fr. Panula, I may be the source of a persisting embarrassment. When my doc, Charlie Cavagnaro, surprises me with the news of a feast day, he asks, “Who instructed you?” But I figure that even Father, bearing responsibility for my deficits, needs material for confession.

The Hebrew Scriptures foretell the Messiah (Saint Luke by El Greco, c. 1605)

One of the most confirming themes for me, recurring through the year, may be seen in these readings brought together one day in Mass:

  • From Kings 1: “Elisha the son of Shaphat, …was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he was with the twelfth.” He wished to follow Elijah, but he begged for time to kiss his father and mother and say good-by. But Elijah put him off. And so, Elisha “took a yoke of oxen and slaughtered them and boiled their flesh, using the oxen’s equipment, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and followed Elijah, and became his servant.” 
  • In Luke 9: A man said he wished to follow Jesus, but he needed first to bury his father, and another wished to bid his parents farewell. To the first Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.” And to the second: “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  

It seems quite apparent that Jesus was drawing on the account of Elisha and Elijah. It became unmistakable at every turn, and even at his death, that Jesus was drawing on the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. I said a year ago that I was not leaving the Jewish people, and that sense of things has been strengthened in the course of the year. Michael Novak used to say that, “when you’re Catholic, you’re at least Jewish,” and if anything I’ve felt even more Jewish as the Masses have drawn me back again and again to the parts of Jewish teaching I had long forgotten.  

It is one of those oddities, as I’ve remarked, that the Jewish atheist is not thought to have left the Jewish people, but the Jewish Catholic has somehow defected. Yet here I am, a year later, settled ever more surely in the Church, and still with the God of Israel, and with the Son who brought the teaching, enhanced, to a wider world.  

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.