Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Welcome aboard the shipwreck: what converts don't know

Malcolm Muggeridge's Canadian-born daughter-in-law, Anne Roche Muggeridge, distraught over the disastrous aftermath of Vatican II, wrote about converts she knew:
I now know a substantial number of recent converts . . . (in counter-revolutionary groups they usually outnumber "cradle Catholics") and am much edified by their purity and ardour. Seven of them are my godchildren, and I must confess that some of us, to our shame, earnestly tried to delay them, on the grounds of the growing disorder in the Catholic Church. They forced their way past us anyway, thank God; though the priest I brought them to for instruction and I could not resist saying, when they had their first shocking confrontation with revolutionary priests and nuns over their children's education: "Well, you can't say we didn't warn you!" The point is, these converts remind one of what one asks of the Church of God, as the old baptism question went; the answer being, "Faith!" They come, like St. Peter, because they have found that for them there is nowhere else to go to hear "the words of eternal life." They come because at the highest level of Catholic teaching, the doctrine of the faith, though much embattled, remains uncompromised and is as fearlessly proclaimed by John Paul II as by Peter, Paul, Ignatius, or Augustine. (The Desolate City: Revolution in the Catholic Church [1986; Rev. ed., San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990])
Notwithstanding the hearty 'Amen!' many of us would offer to that wonderful coda, Muggeridge's earlier reticence does have a point. Otherwise she wouldn't have mentioned it. We all know this. Inviting somebody to join the Church is a glorious thing, when you have the spiritual sight to behold the mystery of the mystical Body of Christ and the visible shape the unseen spiritual battle in the heavenlies assumes in the Church Militant on earth. But it's not exactly like being invited to join the Baptist or Presbyterian or Lutheran church down the street. There are human dimensions to every earthly organization, of course, and we expect that -- the foibles and failures and corruptions of human character that should never surprise us because they are the condition of our fallen nature. But there's a big difference.

When you're invited to join a Protestant church, it isn't the monumental thing that joining the Catholic Church is. It's more a matter of finding the most convenient lobby in which to hang your hat on Sunday morning. It's a warm and cozy thing. It's not a spiritual earthquake. Your eternal salvation may not hang in the balance. But when you invite someone to become a Catholic, you're inviting him not only to board the Ark of Salvation. You're inviting him to come aboard a shipwreck. You're inviting him to join an association at the parish level whose collective acquaintance with Scripture is piecemeal, whose knowledge of Tradition is negligible, whose hymns are embarrassing, whose religious art has become ugly, whose churches look more like U.N. meditation chapels than sanctuaries, whose ethics are slipshod and often dissident, and whose aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities are so far from being sublime that they often look ridiculous. Tell me this isn't true, and I'll tell you you've been living in a cocoon. You've probably read about the well-known journalist, Rod Dreher, who has recently left the Catholic Church for less troubling, more comfortable accommodations in Eastern Orthdoxy. Some blame him for apostasy, but there seems more than enough blame to go around here.

When you invite someone to become a Catholic, you're inviting him to come aboard a ship being fought over by major factions -- Commonweal Catholics, Garabandal Catholics, Neuhaus-Weigel Catholics, Mel Gibson Catholics, Joan Chittister Catholics, Mary Daly Catholics, Charlie Curran Catholics, Byzantine Catholics, Bruskowitz Catholics, Mahoney Catholics, etc. It's sometimes hard to see what, if anything, holds them together. Furthermore, you're inviting him into an RCIA program that isn't likely to prepare him or inform him for what he'll face. Certainly not theologically. Certainly not historically. Chances are he'll meet many welcoming people, be offered a lot of coffee and doughnuts, and, at the end of it all, be given a religious medallion or pin of some kind and be told: "Welcome to the Church!" Chances are, he'll be in some parish where the Introit, sooner or later, will be "Gather Us In" and people will reach out during the Our Father to hold hands with him; and next thing you know, he'll be asked to become an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. He'll be flattered and honored for the moment. But he won't be in a position, probably, to realize that in these ways he's being swept up unwittingly into patterns of institutionalized abuse and into factions of an historical battle of ecclesial politics of greater proportion than any parish or diocese or national church. He won't realize right away that he's in the middle of a shipwreck, and that many of the saboteurs are key players among the ship's own crew. Appearances can be deceiving, because he'll see that the ship is very much afloat; and above deck, anyway, things may often give the newcomer the appearance of some semblance of order and stability. But what he doesn't see is the wreck of the ship that lies beneath the deck or the factions among the crew members arguing over how to repair the damage, over whose ship it is, and who should be in charge. The Barque of St. Peter may not be going down anytime soon, but an awful lot of individuals have fallen through the wreckage into the churning seas below.

When you welcome a convert into the Church, you receive a newcomer into the heart and heat of spiritual battle. There is joy, yes; but it should never be a mere chummy sort of ebullience like that of one Rotary club member welcoming a new member into the club. It should be a profound joy accompanied by a solemn recognition of the deep and dangerous realities at stake in the undertaking. This is war. There are few heroes. There are many casualties. The Catholic Church is ineluctably at the center of this war. This is what we should expect. It's how Christ said it would be. This is reality. Welcome to the Church!


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