A recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Saxum Holy Land Dialogues led me to think carefully about the question of whether today, given the crisis and confusion in the Church, if I were an eager “C.S. Lewis” Protestant – as I once was – I would become a Catholic, here and now, again.
In part, it was because the young professionals I accompanied in Saxum YPS wanted to hear about my earlier conversion to Catholicism as a grad student, so I was compelled to re-examine my motives. In part, it was because a pilgrimage offers something like the fullest possible means to embrace Christianity for a Protestant.
I prayed in Gethsemane and stood atop Golgotha. I read the Beatitudes in my Greek New Testament, while looking out over the Sea of Tiberias. I sang Adeste Fideles in fellowship with other believers in the grotto of Bethlehem. But doing all that, what would I still lack, if I were a Protestant as before? So I took an inventory for myself, and here is my tally.
First, I’d lack the Canon of the Mass. This may seem a strange item to place first. Yet I remember clearly that, as a Protestant, it was difficult to find proper expressions of worship. Almost always, the language used was merely emotional, or merely human, or lacking some essential element.
Whatever the gripes of some Catholics about the Novus Ordo, it remains true that each of the four versions of the Canon of the Mass gives wonderful expression to the essential truths of our faith, and the nature of Christian fellowship, in the context of giving God due worship. These prayers express quite suitably what one looks for and esteems in the Holy Land sites.
Second, I’d lack the Eucharist. Pilgrims are aware that a pilgrimage obliterates separation in place. “Here” (hic, in Latin) becomes the operative word. Here the Word became flesh. Here the precursor of the Lord was born. Here Mary placed the infant Jesus in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. That is, after all, why one makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
But the Eucharist obliterates, as well, differences in time. Our group celebrated Mass in the chapel of the Cenacle. At that liturgy, it was not simply here but also now that the bread became his body and the wine became his blood. And those things, similarly, happen now at every Catholic Mass.
Third, I’d lack the Apostolic Succession. In saying this, I do not mean merely the commonplace point, very true, that Catholics remain under Peter, and Andrew and James, and the other apostles, just as the first Christians were. We therefore live under the form of government that Jesus intended and established. I mean additionally that the Apostolic Succession – with its consistent teaching over time – and the Eucharist are the types of continuity that God clearly cares about.
This point is worth dwelling upon. When you visit a site in the Holy Land, you often find there, today, a Church. And the guide will say something like this: “This church dates to the early 20th century, on a site where archeologists have discovered signs of pilgrimage dating back to the 1st century AD. The Romans built a pagan temple over it. Under Constantine, a basilica was built there, which was destroyed by the Moors. The Crusaders recaptured the place and built a church, which was destroyed by Saladin. The Franciscans sought from the Sultan and gained approval to build a new church there.” And so on.
No holy site has been immune to such revolutions of destruction, rebuilding, and change of control. The identity of a place of pilgrimage seems incredibly left open to chance. Sometimes even a miracle is necessary, such as in Helena’s discovery of the True Cross. God’s providence in these matters looks genuinely puzzling.
And yet, in contrast, God has clearly taken great care that two things be preserved over time, the Apostolic Succession, together with continuity of teaching, and the celebration of the Eucharist, as originally instituted.
“The fullest possible means to embrace Christianity” for a Protestant is, as it were, left up to chance. But these other things, which a Protestant does not possess, are not left up to chance. (One must count Scripture among the latter – because the Bible does not verify its own canon, or carry along with itself its true interpretation.)
Fourth, I’d lack miracles. As pilgrims, we stood beside the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus created bread and fish to feed the multitude. We saw the pools in Jerusalem of Siloam, where the blind man received his sight, and Bethesda, where the man sick for thirty-eight years was healed. I remember puzzling as a Protestant why there were no longer any miracles.
Many hold that an “Age of Miracles” was necessary only at the beginning, so that Christianity could spread rapidly. (Doesn’t it need to be spread now?) But we Catholics live and move and have our being among miracles. We all know stories of miracles among our friends. We expect miracles. There is a Siloam and a Bethesda for any canonization. The Eucharist is a daily miracle.
Fifth, and finally, I’d lack my mother as a Christian, Mary. When I converted, I did so in spite of “the Marian doctrines,” not because of them. But I see now that my heart was impoverished then, as well as my faith. A Protestant pilgrim might well wonder why the sites involving Mary, such as her home in Nazareth, where the angel appeared to her, are just as ancient as those involving Jesus and the Apostles. Why did Christians from the start sense that she was so central?
But then reflection on the Word becoming flesh should dispel that wonder, and clarify the connection between Mary, and truth’s insertion into place and time.
These realities abide. Yes, if I were a “C.S. Lewis” Christian, I’d become a Catholic again, today, by the grace of God, in a heartbeat.
*Image: The Conversion of St. Paul by Caravaggio, c. 1600 [Odescalchi Balbi Collection, Rome]
Below: A photo by Professor Pakaluk at the Mount of Beatitudes