Saturday, May 27, 2006

Twenty years today

On May 27th 1986 - twenty years ago today - I was received into the Catholic Church, confirmed and received Holy Communion for the first time.

I was an odd convert. Before asking to be received into the Church I knew no Catholics. In fact, I had never knowingly met a Catholic. Of course in reality I must have done - with hindsight there were a handful of Catholics in my school class, identifiable in that they (along with the Jewish girls) did not attend religious assemblies or classes - but their religious allegiance never impinged on my consciousness. I had never attended Mass, or visited a Catholic Church as anything other than a tourist. I had read no theology or Catholic apologetics. I was raised in a devoutly Methodist family. Yet I knew that the Catholic Church was where I should be. Why? A mix of impressions, from a very young age. As a child, falling in love with the national Marian shrines (both Anglican and Catholic) at England's Nazareth, Walsingham. My beloved great-uncle - who was in all essentials a grandfather to me - was the Methodist minister of the nearest town, and when we visited we often spent time at Walsingham. Discovering the beauty of liturgy through attending occasional Church of England services. As a teenager, a holiday in Malta where the sense of holiness in the Catholic Churches there made a deep impression. Returning with a rosary and trying to work out how to use it. Ideas from an odd selection of books, ranging from Elinor Brent Dyer's Chalet School series to Maria von Trapp. An attraction to the Catholic Middle Ages. A sense that the Catholic Church was somehow "further up and further in". The clincher? The visit of Pope John Paul II to the United Kingdom in 1982.

As a teenager I became first a lapsed Methodist, then a lapsed Christian - at best agnostic. Gradually faith returned: first a kind of vague deism, then a conviction that Jesus was who he claimed to be. I realised with much the same sense of horrified inevitability that C.S.Lewis describes in his conversion story, Surprised by Joy, that if Christianity was true then I had to act on it. If I was going to join a Church it must be a liturgical one. Which? Church of England or Catholic? I knew the answer. I was also petrified. It took three years to be brave enough to walk through the doors of a Catholic Church, hear Mass and ask to be received. Heck, those Catholics might eat me! On more than one occasion I walked the streets trying to pluck up the courage to ask to speak to a priest. Finally, on the First Sunday of Advent 1985 I attended my first Mass and knew without doubt that I had come home. After a few months of instruction from the elderly Irish parish priest I was received. No RCIA then, just the simple approach of working through the old Penny Catechism.

So here I am, twenty years later.Still home. Still filled with gratitude for the treasure I found; riches beyond anything I imagined when I first walked through the door. The depth of spirituality and sanctity that is the heritage of all Catholics (more than that - of all Christians, though many may be aware of it only partially or not at all) never fails to astound me. Today I know more. I have acquired a fair smattering of dogma, Scripture, apologetics and theology, though I have done little more than scratch the surface of all there is to learn. I have made friends with saints from all centuries. I have grown in appreciation of the great gift the Church gives us in the Sacraments, especially the privilege of receiving Our Lord in the Blessed Eucharist. I know myself to be part of the People of God. I have heard Mass in various countries and languages, and have gloried in the familiarity of the form and sense of unity with my fellow Catholics even while the words are strange. I have grown in appreciation of the Mass, whether said in the quiet of a monastery, with liturgical fervour in a packed Oratory, or in the mild chaos of a parish Church attended by many young families. I love being able to spend time on my knees before the Blessed Sacrament in the peace and quiet of an empty Church (would that I did it more often!). I have become a Catholic mother, bringing up my daughters in my adopted Faith, always faintly surprised that I have a family of cradle Catholics. I have rejoiced in their baptisms and First Communions. I have mourned the loss of Pope John Paul II, surely by any standards one of the greatest men of the twentieth century. I have discovered the jewels of the English Catholic Church, ranging from the martyrs of penal times to those literary greats of the twentieth century, G.K.Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. So many riches. So much to be thankful for.



Anonymous said...

What a lovely story! I, too, rejoice and marvel that I was given the grace to receive the Blessed Sacrament along with my family of fellow converts and one cradleboy. I used to ponder the effect of the Eucharist in utero on this baby who is now nearly 7. I am still occasionally caught grinning foolishly on the way to church, I am just so HAPPY to be going!!

Kindred Spirit

Karen E. said...

Beautiful! Thanks for sharing the story of your conversion. I rejoice with you, and I too continue to marvel at the riches of the Catholic Church!

Anonymous said...

That was really interesting, thanks for sharing your story. I too find liturgy beautiful.

The aspect of Catholicism I struggle to understand is the Marian teachings. I don't mean that to sound critical, it's just it's what I have the hardest time understanding. I have read a little recently and come to a bit more understanding of what Mary means to the Catholic faith and her role.

I too was raised a Christian but lapsed as a teenager. I might share my own story on my blog soon. It's just finding the time and impetus to do it.