It took me fifty years to find my way home (to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church), though only twenty-three to get pointed in the right general direction. This is my tenth year “inside,” corresponding thus to my sixtieth biological. My question for today: What takes people so long?
One begins, naturally, by answering for oneself. But I can’t coherently answer. Starting just after my Christian conversion, then moving forward patiently through memory, I recall many occasions when the idea of being received into the Catholic Church occurred to me. Several of these were somewhat dramatic.
But the drama was for quitting something else. It came to nothing in each case.
To start, as a sudden Christian convert, in England back in 1976, I actually first went looking for a Catholic priest, for it seemed to me then that the Church of Rome must offer Christianity, par excellence. Without invidiously naming names or places, I was sharply turned off, however. I was given a “Dutch catechism” to read, and other hints that the Church, then and in England, had gone New Age Marxist. Perhaps papism was dead.
A literary type, familiar with T.S. Eliot, and to some degree also with, e.g., Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker, Jeremy Taylor, and Tracts for the Times, I soon found myself soused in High Anglicanism. The liturgy was impressive, the people seemed to take their faith seriously, and they called themselves “catholic.”
As a King James Bible reader, too – even though I’d long been reading it “as literature” rather than as Scripture; and similarly the Book of Common Prayer – I was “conditioned” by the poetry in them.
I know this marks me out as an “aesthete.” But in my experience, whether or not it is acknowledged, the beauty of language, music, gesture, architecture, and art play an important, often-crucial role in drawing people to the Church. Such things testify to the Gloria. They tell us God is large, not small; that the argument of the soul is not with something shallow, mean, and strident.
But even at the level of “mere reason,” the argument for the authority of the Catholic Church was unanswerable. It wasn’t a syllogism, or other formula. It was too obvious for that.
For in the view over twenty centuries of Christian history, how could “Rome” not be Christ’s Church? The question had only to be asked to see the answer. Of course, she was in every generation flawed, as every institution involving humans. But on this scale of history, the agitprop of a Luther or a Calvin became a farce. These were obsessions from some narrow place and time.
The welcoming arms of St. Peter’s at sunset
One may see this, and yet not act. For years I avoided reading Newman – for instance – because I knew he would rub my nose in this reality. I knew I couldn’t stand up to him. Ditto with so many other saints and scholars of the Church. They would endanger my comfortable Protestant affiliation. Yet I did not consider myself Protestant; and was consistently well disposed towards the Roman fold.
Here’s the thing. I cannot explain to myself, today, why it took me so long to become a Catholic. I want to know, because if I could understand it, I could help so many other people who are making my old mistake. I would know what to say to them, beyond what I have written above.
Partly it may be an eccentricity, but I have long been nearly allergic to most uses of the word, “new.” I can cope with New Testament, but an expression like “the new evangelization” leaves me cold. Further, I suspect this holds true for many others, who have long stood at the periphery of the true Catholic faith. Naturally attracted to the Catholic Church myself, I was discouraged by attempts to present something “new” in it, by many of its (arguably) well-meaning representatives.
For two generations now, it has seemed to me, the attempt to repackage the faith in a more attractive way to a contemporary audience has been, quite obviously, self-defeating. For me, at least, the very attraction of the Church, and the best argument against the competition, was that it remained the opposite of “new.” People like me – admittedly, a reactionary – are drawn to the Church not by the scent of fashion, but instead by the promise of “Eternity.”
They are sick, sick at heart, with the spirit of innovation. It is the very thing they are trying to escape, as they approach the divine. The secular environments from which they are escaping are rancid with the “new and improved.” They have tired of salesmanship. More than tired: they are repelled by the slick and shiny. Christ, to them, is the opposite of that.
Though mostly free of liturgical learning and sophistication, I have noticed that the younger Catholics attending the Latin Mass, high or low, are riveted by its solemnity. I have seen this in many subtle but unmistakable facts. For instance, small children their parents had not tried very hard to control at Novus Ordo Masses, are now carefully controlled; and the children themselves seem to attune to the atmosphere of reverence.
Some come because they’ve made the Old Mass a hobbyhorse. Some of those seem ever to be egging for a fight; and as a person of my age, I think that I understand why. For mostly, those are older people, with accumulated grievances. As I look to the future I consider instead the people arriving after the grievances, who only hunger and thirst.
“Old” wouldn’t necessarily appeal to them, either. They might not be reactionaries like me, or rather, might not yet realize that they are. I would not even say Eternity is “uncool.” It is right off the scale from what is available in the world, and you wouldn’t be drawn towards the Catholic Church if you weren’t tipping off that scale yourself.