It sounds so ancient. Converting to Roman Catholicism. “Going over to Rome,” as the overheated rhetoric of the ‘60s had it. Could anyone younger than 40 understand, or even care, how powerful and confident the church was before it began leaking priests, before its teachings on birth control, celibacy, homosexuality and the role of women began to feel like ancient freight?
My story does me little credit, and the church, being the church, won’t like it. But it is experience, and it counts.
In 1964 I was 21 and in love with a Catholic. Against a backdrop of politely expressed misgivings (“Mixed marriages have one strike against them,” everyone agreed), we decided to marry. I had grown up in a mildly Presbyterian household that was fuzzy on matters of faith but certain that it wanted no part of the incense-burning, statue-worshipping Roman church on the wrong side of Centre Street.
I can date my serious interest in Roman Catholicism to July of 1964 when I began, as a condition of marriage, to take the Marriage Instructions. I learned that my wife-to-be and I would be expected to try to conceive children, and that I, as a condition of marriage, had to agree to raise those children Catholic.
I delivered my ringing little reaction speech in whispers because I didn’t want to wake my wife-to-be’s widowed mother, asleep in her doorless bedroom on the other side of the screen door. Sparrows chirped in the maples above the veranda.
I am being asked to “renounce my principles,” I hissed; to “pass onto my unborn children,” or “pass onto future generations,” a religion I could not accept.
“The wine will make you drunk if you drink enough of it,” I crowed, “even if you think Father Mosquinski has turned it into the blood of Christ. Tell me this: At what moment does the wine become blood? I want to know. I really want to know.”
“They shake the bells,” she whispered.
I jumped from the swing. Triumphant.
“Yes, of course! They shake the bells!”
“If you really want to understand it,” my wife-to-be said, “you should talk to a priest.”
“Aha,” I said, exultant. “You don’t question! You just believe what they tell you. Trust it to a priest.”
We married at the steps leading up to the altar of Saint Michael’s Church. As a non-Catholic, I could advance no nearer the altar.
Time passed. We made babies, two girls to start with. I didn’t convert.
For the next seven years, my house swirled on Sunday mornings with feminine pre-Mass energy — showering, the curling and combing of hair, the choosing of clothing, powdering, kisses for me, their hasty departure. Amid the smells of perfumes and sprays, the moist warmth of the fogged bathroom, the empty and silent living room, a dog at my feet gnawing occasionally at his genitals, I sipped my beer or coffee, thumbed through my middlebrow magazines and informed myself of the world’s business.
“I’m nothing,” I would explain cheerfully when the topic of religion came up, as it did every once in a while during the ecumenical 1970s. “Nothing?” Catholics asked. “How can you be nothing?”
Lapsed Catholic, they understood, as they understood fallen Catholic, bitter, hung-up anti-clerical Catholic, nominal Catholic, Jansenist Catholic and atheistic-Catholic-carrying-scars-from-Jesuit-education. But born Catholics remain brothers and sisters in a family they cannot escape. For them, “nothing” wasn’t an option.
In my eighth year of marriage, with a nod of my head, I joined the church. I accepted the Virgin Birth, the parting of the Red Sea, the resurrection of the body, the miracles of the saints, the church’s teachings on birth control. I put aside my fading command of the plagiarized ideas of Kierkegaard, Sartre, Tillich and Niebuhr. I learned quickly that churchly discipline is a more complicated thing than non-Catholics could ever know.
Those who did not conduct married lives in the chill embrace of the church during the late ’60s and early ’70s can have no idea how complex Catholic authority was and the parameters of obedience were. My wife and I were married in 1964, and we practiced birth control off and on from 1964 until 1975, in two states and three countries, always with the tacit blessing of a parish priest — in accordance with everything except the papal pronouncements and the slick magazines’ notions of Catholic doctrine.
I became a Catholic because I wanted to share the religion of the people with whom I was sharing everything else. No better reason. Weekly, before my eyes, wine became Christ’s blood at the altar, and the white wafer placed on the end of my tongue, tasteless but for the faint suggestion of soap from the priest’s hand, was his body.
I didn’t feel secure in my complicated faith, and a phrase I kept hearing did not reassure me.
“Converts are the best Catholics.”
I heard it from priests, from nuns, from my plumber who saw me at Mass. I heard it in late-night conversations over beer with university colleagues and friends. I heard it in Indiana where I was born, in North Dakota where I lived for a while, and again in Canada where I have settled for life.
They said it as they said “nice day” when the sun was shining, or “fine, thank you,” when you asked how they were. Though it didn’t seem to come from the depths of anyone’s soul, Catholics obviously enjoyed saying it to me.
We converts, with our uncertainty about the complicated forms we had converted to, followed the rules with more gusto than they did. We were second in line at the communion rail, among the first to find the right page of the hymnal. We were glad to enunciate the Our Father while others mumbled along, a few words behind. We never failed to make our Easter duty. We followed the forms with more alacrity than anyone except the very old. That was what real Catholics meant when they said we were the best Catholics. That was all they meant.
Was I — whose instinct was to kneel while real Catholics correctly stood, to bless myself while they mindlessly and correctly struck their chests three times, to say “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church,” while they, oblivious to other possibilities, mumbled, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten . . .” — was I the best Catholic? Was I a Catholic at all?
My Catholic neighbors owned a Latinate vocabulary of words I seldom used (unction, culpability, venial, acolyte, custodial, absolve). They cherished their trepidation over first confessions, shook their heads in wonder over the sexual misinformation that celibate priests and sisters gave them when they were approaching puberty. Many Catholic men, I knew from drunken late-night conversations, had had their hands slapped with rulers by nuns in black habits, and had bizarre ways of looking at women that owed something to those hand-slappings.
So I wondered if I was a Catholic at all. But now, 20 years after I converted, I confront a different church. Nobody seems comfortable in it. I suspect I’m as much at home as anyone of my generation.
Hymns from the top 40, guitar instead of organ. Misdeeds instead of sins, a kiss of peace that among the more enthusiastic believers actually becomes physical. Lay people distribute most of the communion and do the less sacred readings of holy word. Lay people, in fact, do most everything except have a real say in matters of faith.
Father Mosquinski is long gone. He’s been replaced, at least in the university chapels I now frequent, by nice guys called Father Brian and Father John. They offer gentle words of comfort over the agony of exams, the heartbreak of Saturday night alone, while abstract Saint Francis Xavier, who seems to have three eyes, glares every which way from the side of the altar.
It is a new church that nobody seems to like much, but we should not laugh at it. It is a church that is bravely trying to renew itself while it waits for the Spirit to show it how.
Meanwhile, the body of Christ still melts on my tongue every Sunday morning, as it has these past 20 years. I have tasted that wafer when I was so full of my own accomplishments that the drama of man’s failure to be worthy of Christ’s love was lost on me. I have received communion when I carried the hot burden of my own adultery up the aisle with me, and wondered seriously if the voice of God might shout me from the church.
“We are what we pretend to be,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in Mother Night, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Although I cannot recall a moment in my 20 years when I began to believe in the Roman Catholic Church, a day came when I realized it had been some time since I’d been pretending. Unlike my born-Catholic colleagues, I don’t have the excuse of early training.
I was never sure — though I try not to think about it — about the parting of the Red Sea, the loaves and the fishes, or the heaven that the church promised. And I still smile, if I let myself, over the Virgin Birth and the church’s insistence that it be an article of faith. But I now see these as the church’s worry, not mine.
Beyond that, I came to depend upon the deep quietness of Saint Ninian’s Cathedral as a place to go and think and make the forms of prayer. I like the way the weekly re-enactment of the Last Supper has etched itself in my mind while my children have moved from toddlers to adults. I find a serenity on Sundays, sitting in my pew beneath the fifth station of the cross, surrounded by people I know better than I know any other people anywhere. I believe in the suffering of Christ and of my neighbors, believe in the transubstantiation of the communion wafer, believe in all that 2,000 years of history have claimed for the church.
“There is no God and Mary is his Mother,” Santayana said. I know what the words mean. I come to the church for peace on earth, for love and for forgiveness. If I am to be “saved,” in any sense of that complicated word, it will be here, among these alien people, in a church I came to for the worst of reasons.
When this essay was originally published, Philip Milner was on the faculty of Saint Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.