While recently reading part of Matthew Kelley’s book, Rediscovering Catholicism, I was greatly impacted by his insistence on the necessity of the individual Catholic being an authentic witness to Christ. What good is just another book or cd, or even dvd, when the heart of the person is not in the game? This emphasis struck me to the core and helped me recall my own mindset before taking the step out into the world of the Church.
As a young person in the USA, especially in the South, I dealt with a vast multitude of religious and social ideals, political agendas, and denominational struggles. Who was right? Where was God to be found? What was the purpose of all the disagreement? When would we find peace? Why couldn’t the different parties speak with one another kindly and in consideration? And how did the early Church win the world?
Raised as a Southern Baptist, I learned to look at the world through forgiving, though at times hostile, eyes. I was quick to see the inconsistencies in individual people’s views; how could a man claim to serve Christ but not serve the poor? To my childlike mind the words of the Savior were simple, clear, and obvious. There was not much interpretation needed to understand the basics of the Gospel (cf. Jas.1.27). Why, then, did the faith of Christ appear so convoluted to me as a young adult? How did His seemingly simple Gospel, obvious to a five year old, take on a dark and somber tone? Who was willing to give up the world to follow a man who had very little offer? This is where Jesus takes the lead and begins to reveal the Wisdom of God.
I remember vividly the first “witnesses to the Gospel” that crossed my path. They were not ideal Catholics but they shared certain qualities that were lacking elsewhere, certain convictions in their core being that drew me in. My first real encounter was with a family that lived in my neighborhood. They had something around five children and, even though I cannot say they were a particularly ideal Catholic family, they impressed me by one thing – the mystery and reverence of their religion. I recall, only a few times, hearing that word “Mass” rolling off their tongues, and always thinking to myself “what is that?” It seemed important, just by the way they said it; something in the tone of voice spoke of a grand mystery – of the sorrow of death, light of resurrection, and the glory and harmony of a heaven unlike our world of confusion. There was some sense of order and peace in what they spoke about. If only I could know more! If only their witness extended to the home, how many might have left the world to follow Christ?
Years later I attended a Southern Baptist college. By this time I had decided to abandon the faith of my parents entirely. Preachers had preached to me about the damnation of my soul, missionaries had begged for money (themselves living on foreign soil in mansions laden with gold), and only one thought was burnt into my brain beyond removal – you’re too open minded and interested in RELIGION. RELIGION is the devil’s attack on the true faith of God, the freedom of the Gospel.
During my time at school I became acquainted with other ways of thinking, different from those of my childhood. Especially interesting to me were the thoughts and writings of the Buddhists and Hindus. There was something unique about the manner in which the Eastern thinkers saw the world; they had something of a childlike view of things, prioritizing the realization of awe over the knowledge of why. This awakening within my being played an enormous part in my later conversion to the Catholic faith, renewing the childlike and pure perspective the Kingdom of God requires of every believer in Christ.
One of my professors in college helped to solidify this learning. Somehow we started to speak about meditation, which we both practiced, and this delighted my heart but also spawned new questions. I asked him, “Why are you not a Buddhist, or something other than a Christian, if you are meditating and studying the Eastern thinkers?” His response was, to my Baptist ears, absurd. Apparently these crazy Catholics (of which he was one) thought it wasn’t sinful to study other faiths – something absolutely alien to my religious background. I exclaimed, “You mean you aren’t afraid to be ‘misled’ or ‘tricked by the devil’ in your studies?” To this he laughed and pulled out a Catechism. My eyes opened wide and my mind thought… “Hmm, perhaps this is what the Catholics have replaced the Bible with?”
At this point in my life, even after having rejected my upbringing, there were only two ways of looking at things, the Baptist way (which I mistakenly interpreted as the Christian way) and the wrong way. I rejected Christianity unjustly, having only experienced a small and young sect of Christianity. As a youth I was programmed by countless sermons, tapes, revival meetings, and Gospel songs to interpret the Scriptures only one way, to think of Jesus only one way (as Derek Webb says, as a “white, middle class Republican”), and to see life as what happens between “salvation” and death.
My professor then showed me the following Catechism reference, “The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as ‘a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life'” (CCC 843). To this he added that he believed the Catholic Church to be the One True Church, but also found assistance in understanding his own faith through other viewpoints; what a conversation!
I then asked why he was so convinced of the Catholic faith and his answer, though simple, was profound. “Because, the Catholic Church is One,” he said, “the only Church that has no denominations, branches, or disparate communities. The Catholic Church is United”. What power I sensed in his deep conviction. This only further impressed his case upon me, as I was already influenced by his personality; he was hard working, believed in true self-improvement, had a sense of honor and duty, and expected more out of his students than other teachers; on top of this he was personable and gentle. Even without being the best Catholic he was a wonderful image of Jesus to anyone who met him, and his Catholic faith was doubtlessly to blame for his mannerisms.
Sadly, this same teacher came under condemnation from the school (including several other Catholic teachers as well) when the institution hired a new president. This new big-whig convert was Southern Baptist to his very marrow, even naming one of his children after the Anabaptist movement (Ana – Baptist, first and middle names). He was quick to implement new regulations in the college, especially in regards to relations with other faiths. One of these new moves was to require any and all staff to sign the Baptist Faith and Message a distinctively non-Catholic article in several manners (especially in denying Jesus’ words in John 6 about the Eucharist which are not even cited in the work). My professor was eventually removed from his position and asked to leave, after taking a year of Baptist faith classes to keep his job.
Though there were many other people similar to the one I listed above, the one quality they all displayed was transparency. All of the Catholics I met were, fortunately, not afraid to speak the truth, to share who they really were, to face up to the reality of daily life and struggle; they were not obsessed with escapism through fantastical doctrines such as assurance of salvation or the rapture. They were authentic witnesses to Christ who, even when not perfectly practicing their faith, were rooted deeply in the Apostolic teaching of the One True Holy and Catholic Church.
So, the challenge for each of us today is this: Are we living as authentic witnesses to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith in such a manner as to be a light to the world? Let me, a convert myself, ask each and every one of you to please seriously consider this question in your own life, in the lives of those around you, and in your community; “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18.8).