On April 29, 2007, five years ago this Sunday, I was publicly received into the Catholic Church at St. Joseph’s Parish in Bellmead, Texas. My wife, Frankie, stood beside me, as we both faced Fr. Timothy Vaverek, who presided over the brief ceremony between the homily and the recitation of the Creed at Sunday Mass. Frankie was received as a candidate, since, unlike me, she had not been baptized and confirmed as a youngster.
Frankie could not wait to become Catholic, and she thought it a bit unfair that we reverts had a loophole: All I had to do was partake in the Sacrament of Confession. Fortunately for her, Fr. Timothy gave her a private crash-course RCIA, which culminated in her reception the following August.
When I went to confession on April 28 at St. Jerome’s in Waco, it was the first time in over thirty years that I had partaken in the sacrament. My younger brother, James, emailed me earlier that week and volunteered to assist me in recollecting my sins.
When I entered the confessional, I sat face-to-face with Fr. Rakshaganathan Selvaraj (or “Fr. Raj”). I closed my eyes, made the sign of the cross, and said, “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned. It has been over thirty years since my last confession. I’m not sure I can remember all of my sins.” Fr. Raj, in his thick Indian accent, replied, “That is alright. God knows them all.” “I was afraid of that,” I quipped.
Fr. Raj then heard my confession and granted me absolution. My penance, if I remember correctly, consisted of one “Our Father” and one “Hail Mary.” When I told this to Frankie, she thought the priest had let me off easy. She was right. She knew my sins.
After we had decided to become Catholic, we sought counsel from trusted friends. For I was, at the time, President of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), an academic association of Protestant biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers, historians, and ministers that in 2007 had a membership approaching 4500. This is why we initially decided to postpone our entry into the Church until after my presidency had ended in November 2007.
Our Protestant friends thought this wise, and recommended we keep our intentions private until after November. Our Catholic friends looked at it a bit differently. They were concerned that news would leak out and cause scandal. So they suggested that I just make an announcement of what we intended to do post-presidency. Not knowing which counsel was wiser, we prayed about it.
Descent of the Holy Spirit by Gustave Doré, 1865
Two weeks after we made that petition my wife and I were having breakfast with my parents in Washington, D.C. We were there for the wedding of my cousin, Jimmy Sclafani. My cell phone rang. It was my sixteen-year-old nephew, Dean, eldest son of my brother James. Dean asked me to be his Confirmation sponsor. Several months earlier his aunts, uncles, and grandparents were asked by his mother Kimberly to compose letters to Dean, explaining why he should receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.
Although when I wrote my letter I was a Protestant (though one clearly moving in the direction of Rome but not quite there yet), I saw Confirmation as a way by which a Catholic publicly announces his allegiance to Jesus Christ. I saw my task as serious business. Several years earlier, when Dean was twelve, he was struggling with issues about God’s existence and the overall rationality of Christian belief. I knew I had to write a letter that appealed to both his heart and his mind.
I began by telling him that Jesus Christ was the smartest man who ever lived. I then went on to explain the scope of his influence and that of his disciples – in literature, art, the sciences, law, medicine, philosophy, theology, and politics. I told Dean that by placing his trust in Christ he was entering an intellectually and spiritually rich tradition unparalleled in human history.
When he called me that morning he said that it was my letter that had finally convinced him to receive the sacrament. I took the phone away from my ear, turned to Frankie and said, “I think our prayer has been answered.” Dean’s confirmation was only four weeks away, and I could not be his sponsor unless I was in full communion with the Church. A week later, on April 28, I entered the confessional. The next day I was publicly received into the Church.
That evening I wrote a letter to the other members of the ETS executive committee, telling them what I had done. Nevertheless, I assured them that I could remain as ETS president since there was nothing in the society’s statement of belief with which a Catholic could not agree. It was naïve to believe that this was possible. Within a week I resigned, realizing that I could not remain as ETS president without causing scandal.
When I was elected ETS president in November 2006, I could not have imagined that I would return to the Church fewer than six months later. To be sure, I had moved closer to Catholicism over the prior decade, but there still remained a few issues that were impediments, and I was confident that they would remain so. I was mistaken. Within months, obstacles dissipated at an alarming speed. The scales fell from my eyes.
Then I confessed, I could do no other.