Sensing and answering the call to convert to Catholicism is a tremendous decision on many levels. It can be one of the most freeing, elating, and exciting events in one's life. After perhaps years of struggle, many nights of worry; after wrestling with your conscience for weeks or months and learning all you can about the Church, "coming home" can be a great relief. But that relief is often tempered by a very real cost. The decision to convert is seldom free of heartache, misunderstanding, and strained or broken relationships. This doesn't mean that we delay our conversion or, God-forbid, deny it. But as a fairly recent convert, I thought it might be good to offer some reflections on the challenges you may face as a new convert.
1. The Relief of Resolution
Often the first thing you feel is relief. You've finally made the decision! There is a sense of the weight of indecision coming off your back, the hound of heaven has chased you down. You have your own moment of standing in the presence of God and truly offering yourself again to Him. There is a sense in which the "Yes" to convert is a great act of faith — you do not know where the path will lead you. You're just convinced that this is the path you are meant to travel. Now you are relieved to answer the call.
2. Disappointment that not Everyone Shares Your Relief (though some will)
Once the news of your decision begins to spread, you will likely find that not everyone is as thrilled as you are. Some will perhaps understand your "need for a change", but they will question the timing, direction and perhaps even the sanity of the decision you have made. It can be disappointing. You have spent considerable time and effort and prayer reaching this decision and you have experienced the relief of your own "fiat" — your own "yes" to God. But for some people your decision will be strange or worse…which leads to #3.
3. Anti-Catholic Sentiments
One well-intentioned person in my congregation heard of my family's decision to convert and said, "We're sorry to see you go. We're even more sorry you're going to be Catholic." In #2 your sanity may be questioned; here, in #3, among more anti-Catholic minds, your salvation is questioned. Comments like, "How can you buy into a church that worships Mary?", "So now you're not going to share Communion with anyone else?", "Why would you submit to allow a priest to stand between you and God?" are common…and you may experience worse comments.
4. Distancing of Relationships
Following #3, you may find a distancing of relationships. This can be rather painful, though not completely surprising. In some ways, had you become a Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran or just about anything BUT Catholic, they could deal more positively with it. In becoming Catholic you not only are embracing something very foreign to many people, you are also implicitly rejecting many of their beliefs. You are rejecting the notions of the Reformation — things like private interpretation (the "Jesus and me" mentality), independent congregationalism, and the idea that all you need is "faith" (see Luke 6:46, James 2:20-24). You are also rejecting "Doctrine by Democracy" — the modern idea that humans are able to vote amendments into the faith. By stepping out, you are also stepping away. And there may be no shortage of those who step away as well. But with these there will also be some wonderful gifts…
5. Excitement of a New Adventure
You will likely find a sense of adventure in this transition. As God called Abram to leave behind all he knew in Haran to head to the land the Lord was providing, so you will sense that your conversion is a new adventure. There's so much to learn and so much to experience that many people often sense that they have begun an exciting adventure with God. For some the paralysis of indecision has stunted their spiritual life and now they discover a new land awaits them.
6. Deepening of the Spiritual Life
Therefore this new adventure will often lead to a deepening of the spiritual life. This may manifest itself in different ways in various converts, but obedience has its rewards. The obedience to the call of God often results in a newfound sense of God's presence and a real sense of God's approval. It is not unusual for Bible study and the reading of spiritual books to nourish you like never before. Mass begins to take on a new life (see #7). You will begin to know the benefits and blessings of that "yes" to God.
7. Love of the Eucharist
It is not unusual to discover a deepening love for the Eucharist. And this makes good sense. You have discovered the true bread of heaven, you are now receiving the Lord in a new and wonderful and unique way. Even though as an Episcopal Priest I had celebrated at many Eucharists, the feeling of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ as a Catholic was, and still is, completely different. (My Episcopal friends look at me sideways when I say that — but it's true!) The spiritual graces of the Sacrament are real and life-giving in a way I have never before experienced. Love of the Eucharist, of the Lord's presence, will also be needed to sustain you through your transition (and on from there of course!)
8. Love of the Church
Another common experience among converts is a deepening love of the Church. As a Protestant, you generally see the Church, particularly the Catholic Church as an "institution". For many people, that term has become negatively associated with power, oppression, domination, and restrictions. As a convert, you may discover that this was and is a false idea of the Church. Instead you may find a growing understanding of what it means that the Church is the "Bride of Christ". You may realize how incredible it is to see this "institution" that has stood the test of time and maintained the faith and unflinchingly proclaimed it to the world. You may come to a new appreciation of this great ship of faith and wonder, "Why didn't I see this before?"
9. Continued Sense of Relief
As many of these things come to pass, there will be times of stress, confusion, and questions. Yet, there will most likely be a continued abiding sense of relief and quiet confidence that yes, you have made the right decision. There may be no lightening bolts, but the presence of the Lord will sustain you and continue to bless your resolution to be obedient.
10. A Steep Learning Curve
Finally, I think many converts experience a steep learning curve. Even though Anglicanism has many similarities to Catholicism, I was (am) amazed at how much there is to learn. The Mass takes some getting used to, the verbiage may take some repetition, the personalities of Catholic history may require some study. There is much to learn for the convert. But it is not without reward. We have to take time to learn our way around our new home. This is part of the adventure!
Not everyone will experience all these, but they are some of the things that I experienced (and continue to experience) as a part of my conversion. The graces given by God to the obedient servant provide more than enough strength to meet these challenges. No, it's not all "Alleluias" and signs of peace. It might be helpful to be aware of some of the challenges you may face. It also might be good for you to know you are not alone in facing your challenges.
This passage from Sirach is a good one for all of us converts to bear in mind and cling to when facing our own twists and turns on the road Home to Rome: "My son, when you come to serve the LORD, prepare yourself for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast, undisturbed in time of adversity. Cling to him, forsake him not; thus will your future be great. Accept whatever befalls you, in crushing misfortune be patient; For in fire gold is tested, and worthy men in the crucible of humiliation. Trust God and he will help you; make straight your ways and hope in him." Sirach 2:1-6, NAB