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Confessions of a Convert

This year called forth multiple reflections on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. For me, 2017 has also been a year of personal commemoration: it’s seven years since I returned to Catholicism. An evening conversation with a Dominican priest turned into a somewhat impulsive dive into the sacrament of penance (I hadn’t confessed since I was seven). But just as remembering the Reformation has been cause for both self-examination and mourning, so has the anniversary of my reversion. Loss and Gain, the title of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman’s philosophical novel about an Oxford student’s conversion to Catholicism, describes what I felt.

The vast majority of Catholic conversion testimonials focus on everything one gains in entering the Church founded by Jesus. That is right and good – the Church is not only something He established millennia ago, it is where He continues to reside. Moreover, since it is truly universal, it encompasses all that is good, true, and beautiful. All the same, it may be helpful to other potential converts, as well as those who will encounter them, to describe what is lost as well.

            Community: I was part of a small Christian community aligned with the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). My PCA congregation had about 150 worshippers on any given Sunday. I knew practically every family, and they knew me. We talked, sometimes for hours, after church. I had been to many of their homes. When a family welcomed a new child into the world, it was announced at church, and the deacons had little trouble securing meals to help the family with the transition. Two long Sunday services, Bible studies, and various weekday/weekend social functions . . . your life intimately revolved around a small group of people. This was a real blessing, involving openness to others, sacrifice, and deep love. It’s hard to hide your faults and failures in such a community; when you are loved even when those sins are known, the Gospel comes to life.

By contrast, at my first Mass after returning to the Church, there was no invitation to any post-Mass social function. No announcement regarding a young adult group or Bible study. No one at the parish knew that I was a first-time attendee. I was anonymous. Though I slowly did find various Catholic social groups, Sunday Mass typically remained one hour a week sitting alone, left alone. The Catholic parish I attended for the first years after my conversion was just a quarter-mile from the fire station where my Presbyterian congregation held services. Isolated in my new parish, it was tempting not to drive back up the road.

            A Shared Culture: As a Reformed Christian, I was part of a small, parochial world. There were only about 330,000 other members of the denomination across the United States – and maybe a few million more across the country who would label themselves “Reformed” or “Calvinist.” Paradoxically, this had the effect of deepening bonds in our little Calvinist “ghetto.” We read the same books, sang the same hymns, and spoke the same language. We also shared a common theological heritage with our “saints,” men largely unknown outside our little world – J. Gresham Machen, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Robert Lewis Dabney. We took deep pride in our Reformed culture. Indeed, we needed to. A Christian community that small requires a deep pool of shared cultural wealth to survive.

Communion of the Apostles by J.J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

When I left Presbyterianism, I left nearly all of that behind. Catholic parishes didn’t sing the hymns I knew, didn’t read the books that had so deeply formed me, and were uninterested in what, if any, my little world of Christianity had to offer. To be clear: I knew most of my theological training was inaccurate or incomplete, and that the Reformed “saints” dimmed in comparison to the holiness or brilliance of a St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis de Sales, or St. Therese of Lisieux.

Yet in many respects I had to start all over again, learning to sing Salve Regina in Latin, developing a knowledge and appreciation for the different cultural, liturgical, and theological strands that existed within the Church, and finding something in Catholicism I could call my own. Seven years later, I most certainly have, and undoubtedly have more pride and loyalty to the Catholic Church and its wonderfully diverse cultural manifestations than I ever did to Calvinism. But I had to do all this almost wholly on my own.

            People: I left behind the couple hundred fellow Presbyterians with whom I had developed a deep spiritual relationship. Months after I converted, a Calvinist girl I had once seriously dated – and had hoped to marry – told me that if I returned, she would marry me. Talk about spiritual warfare! I said no (after a few sleepless nights!). Many of my other, non-romantic relationships with former co-religionists thankfully persist. Yet those friendships are sadly incomplete now, we are separated by an inability to commune through the most universal elements of Catholic Christianity: the Eucharist and union with the Apostolic episcopate.

These wounds are real and are why I ultimately write here what I have. We will soon be celebrating Christmas and I already know what’s on the top of my wish list: the reunion of all Christians, especially my separated Calvinist brethren. When I entered the Catholic Church, I gained Christ, and everything He has graciously bequeathed to His mystical body. Yet I lost the communion of some of my deepest friends, ones I hope and pray will someday join me in Rome.

Their separation (and that of all Protestants), is indeed a loss and should invigorate all of us to help them find not only the true Apostolic heritage but also in the source and summit of everything they themselves yearn for: communion with Christ in the Eucharist. It is there that we may find what He so earnestly prayed for in John 17: that we may all be one – a good thing for us too to pray for in this Advent season.

Casey Chalk is the author of The Obscurity of Scripture and The Persecuted. He is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.