Since my reception into the Catholic Church nearly 20 years ago, I have had several encounters with Catholic converts whose beliefs or practices have caused me to ask myself: "If this person is Catholic, what is it that makes a person Catholic?" The question may seem merely academic, but the circumstances that have provoked it are quite concrete. The following cases are all based on fact, although names and details have been changed to preserve anonymity. They are, if you will, not "fiction" but "faction" -- based on fact:
Don and Rita
Don and Rita were received into the Church five years ago in an affluent suburban parish, St. Norbert's. Neither had been a practicing Christian of any kind, although there was some nominal Protestant affiliation in their childhood homes. Both in their sixties, Don is in his fourth marriage, and Rita in her second, both with adult children from earlier marriages living in other parts of the country.
Don describes the "Catholic part" of his life journey as beginning with an experience he had of God's presence one afternoon when, inexplicably, he wandered into St. Norbert's for the first time and found himself kneeling and praying in the back of the church. "Whoo, boy!" he says, laughing and shaking his head. "Wow! I've never felt anything like that in my life!"
He and his wife were received into the Church at St. Norbert's the following Easter. I asked whether they went through the RCIA class there. "No," said Don, "we're not really what you would call 'joiners', so the priest met with us a few times and that's all it took."
Further conversation revealed that neither of them appeared to be schooled in the most rudimentary facts of Church teaching. Neither ever goes to confession. Rita never goes to church. Don usually goes on Sundays, but neither has any acquaintance with the notion of "holy days of obligation" as applying to Sundays and other special days throughout the year. Any notion of Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday or Good Friday serving as important spiritual markers in their calendar is completely missing. Neither seems to have any existential appreciation of the notion of sin, let alone mortal sin. When I asked whether they had received the Sacrament of Confession, they seemed perplexed. They had met with the priest individually, they said, who asked them if they had any sins they would like to confess, but neither could think of anything. The priest had raised no questions about their irregular marital status.
Joe, a recovering alcoholic, was received into the Church 14 years ago after finding himself at an AA meeting at St. Mary's Catholic Church, a large urban parish. Raised a Pentecostal, Joe dropped out of church as a youngster after his parents divorced. He speaks fondly of his memories of church services as a youngster where people really "got into praising God" with their "hearts and voices."
When asked why he became a Catholic, Joe says without hesitation, "No other church did for me what the Catholic Church has done." When asked to explain, he replies that it got him on the path of "healing" from his alcoholism.
The chief difficulty Joe has encountered after becoming a Catholic is finding Catholics who seem to have "any understanding of Scripture" or familiarity with "how to really worship the Lord." When asked what he means, Joe explains that most Catholics don't seem to really "know Jesus," they just stand or sit in the pews "looking bored and uninvolved." They don't display the "joy of salvation," he says.
For all his appreciation of St. Mary's, Joe now attends a charismatic Catholic Church where he feels he can "really worship." They have drums, electric guitars, and the priest walks the aisles greeting everyone. "He looks right into my eyes when he greets me, you know, really making me feel personally welcome, like more than just a number."
Joe thanks God for his discovery of charismatic Catholics. They provide an environment in which he feels free to raise his arms during Mass and shout "Amen!" and speak in tongues. On the other hand, Catholic prayers such as the Rosary or Angelus or Act of Faith form no part of Joe's awareness, any more than such ideas as "apostolic tradition," "Church authority," "intercession of the saints," "indulgences," or "Purgatory." When asked about these sorts of things, or Catholic practices like making visits to the Blessed Sacrament in the church, or praying to saints, or whether he had a patron saint, he replied that he considered such notions "clutter" and "distractions." With a smile, he said he prefers to go "straight to Jesus." He considers it his mission in life to teach Catholics how to worship.
Helen was received into the Church 25 years ago in a small Southern town after converting from a Missouri-Synod Lutheran background. After finishing her doctorate in literary criticism a decade later, she began her teaching career at a large Midwestern university. She says she has had trouble finding a Catholic parish where she feels completely comfortable, because "the preaching and music is generally so bad." But she currently attends Immaculate Conception, a large suburban parish near the university where she teaches.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Helen six years ago when our family was en route from North Carolina to Iowa on a family trip. We stopped on Sunday and went to Mass with her and out to dinner afterwards. The parish was clearly affluent. What struck me, however, was how very like a Protestant church it looked. There were virtually no visible signs or symbols of Catholicism -- no holy water fonts, no crucifix (the processional "crucifix" looked like the Greek letter Tau), no tabernacle, no kneelers. There was an artificial waterfall outside a large plate-glass window at the very front of the church. Nobody genuflected. Everyone cheerfully greeted one another, shaking hands across pews. The congregation was ethnically diverse -- about a quarter each African-American, Asian, Anglo and Hispanic. The music was robust, polished and professional -- a mix of Hispanic and Gospel, with robed choir members swaying in unison to synthesizer, saxophone, and other brass winds accompaniment. The bishop was present that Sunday, although I cannot remember the occasion. But what made it Catholic? I couldn't tell.
Over lunch, I asked Helen whether she didn't miss the beautiful liturgy and music of her Missouri-Synod background -- "You know, the old red book," I said. She said she did, at times, but she now preferred the music at Immaculate Conception for its "progressive, contemporary feel," as well as its polished professionalism. The one thing that seemed to leave her dissatisfied, she said, was the preaching. "The form is generally good," she said, "engaging and well-organized." The problem was that it was "doctrinally weak." She would have preferred more "Biblical exposition" with specific "applications" to the parishioners' lives. That's where "the rubber meets the road," she said, in their "existential situation."
A couple of years ago, after sending Helen some emails expressing my enthusiasm for the "Tridentine" Mass we discovered after moving to Detroit, I managed to provoke her into attending one for herself. The results were disappointing for both of us. She said that the whole panoply of pomp, processions, vestments, incense, and Latin left her cold. Not only was the whole thing "utterly unintelligible," but, she said, it struck her as "elitist" and "smacked of pride." The important thing in a church service, in her opinion, at least, was "to understand what's being said." She asked: "Where's the Gospel if it can't be understood?" She quoted St. Paul, "I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a [foreign] tongue" (I Corinthians 14:19). "Correct me if I'm wrong," said Helen, "but I can't help wondering whether Pope Benedict's decision to grant greater liberty to the old Latin Mass isn't a step backward, really. What's important is to make the Gospel accessible, to transmit it in a medium that's transparent, that communicates to people where they are today, not to obscure it by wrapping it up in unintelligible archaic forms."