“Not much brand loyalty”

Last night I attended our Catholic campus ministry’s weekly gathering, to hear a talk by a priest, Father Matthew, who’d been a Protestant convert. He’d spent time as a Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and had even applied for a Lutheran seminary. Describing himself, he said that he guessed he “didn’t have much brand loyalty.” He left me with a lot of food for thought. He seemed to have a good foundation in philosophy, and since he had a good view of both sides of the divide, I wished I could have talked to him longer.

He described himself as a skeptic toward the supernatural, especially toward Marian apparitions and other forms of private revelation. And it struck me how different this was from where I’m coming from. Here was a Catholic parish priest, in a small, conservative, Southern town, admitting to a room full of Catholics that there were things in his faith that he had a hard time swallowing; that his faith waxed and waned; that he even struggled sometimes with doubts about the very Mass he was celebrating. And nobody in the room batted an eye. No one criticized him or expressed disappointment or disapproval. Having doubts and questioning seemed perfectly acceptable and understandable, even for a priest. I would never have expected such acceptance or understanding from an evangelical crowd. He said that the great thing about the Catholic Church and its tradition is that every doubt has already been dealt with by somebody. The reality and efficacy of the Eucharist, he said, had nothing to do with his faith or his weakness, and everything to do with Christ.

Regarding Mary: When he encountered stories of Marian apparitions, the first thing he asked was, do they improve the life of the person? Someone in the audience asked how he dealt with the Marian dogmata in coming to the Catholic Church. He said that with regard to Mary, and to so much in the Catholic faith, you can’t really appreciate it until you’re in the middle of it. It all came down, for him, to his faith in the Eucharist and in Christ’s Real Presence; and when he believed that and longed for that, there came a point at which he had to take a jump; and then everything else followed. He said if you go deep with a belief and struggle with it, it will often end up being among your favorite things in the Church. And in my journey so far, I can certainly say that that has been my experience with Mary. He said he didn’t really know and understand the humanity of Christ until he got to know his mother.

He said that one of the greatest things that drew him to Catholicism was its appreciation for the material aspects of faith. Evangelical and fundamentalist traditions are mostly concerned with a set of beliefs that will get souls into heaven; but Catholicism values things that will bring us closer to God in the here and now, in the material world — beautiful things, such as art and architecture; intellectual things, such as history, tradition, theology. The Catholic faith is wonderfully broad — there is so much you can “do” in terms of spirituality; so many different traditions — but you can’t do everything, or you’ll never find any depth in anything. He himself has followed the Benedictine tradition. It’s a “convert’s danger,” he said, to want to dabble in so many different traditions; but he recommended that if we found something that bore fruit for us, to stick with it and go deep with it. (I know this will be a problem for me — but for now I’m going to enjoy dabbling.)

Regarding his lack of “brand loyalty”: he said that “cradle Catholics” have a deep, emotional connection to the Church, but that as a convert, he didn’t. He said that above all, his was an intellectual attachment, a conviction that the Catholic Church was the true Church of Christ, the oldest and first and the bearer of apostolic succession. “I still choose it because it’s the best among alternatives; but it’s not perfect.” For my part, I believe I will feel much more of an emotional attachment — I already do. I’ve felt an orphan for so long, and admired my Mother Church, and passionately defended her to Protestant critics, even long before I dreamed of making this journey.

Above all, he said, he became a priest because he fell in love with the Mass and wanted to enjoy it as often as possible. “Everybody who goes through RCIA wants to be pope,” he said. And I must confess that this has occurred to me.

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