This past Easter, my family and I officially entered the Catholic Church. It has been a long journey getting here. I would like to take a few moments now to look back at the process. Hopefully, what I share will be of some benefit to those of you who might be considering such a step yourself.
For the sake of simplicity, let us say there are three significant groups who really do not care for the Catholic Church. The first kind are the secularists and a fair number of mainline Protestants, who see the Catholic Church as an oppressive, patriarchal organization that is the primary obstacle in the way of the great society. The Church refuses to change its doctrines to match the mainstream's growing wisdom, and they keep trying to save all the babies.
The second kind are the serious Protestants, usually of an Evangelical, Charismatic, or Reformed persuasion. They see the Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon, a false teacher leading people to Hell with its doctrines. Some of these Protestants are kind enough to think well of individual Catholics, so long as they don't take some of the weirder stuff seriously. They will also partner with Catholics in the pro-life movement, though they may think Catholics are strange and irresponsible for having so many babies.
The third kind are a fairly large subset of Catholics themselves. They like calling themselves Catholic, but they, like the secularists, wish the Church would get with the times. They disagree with a number of doctrines of the Church, but rather than leave for a Protestant denomination, they stay and try to turn the Catholic Church into one. They really wish the Church would stop caring so much about the babies.
I list those groups to make clear that deciding to join the Catholic Church is a decision that may be met with opposition. The secularists will think you are joining the enemy of progress, the serious Protestants will think you are risking your soul, and the dissenting Catholics will be concerned that you might actually take the whole Catholic thing seriously.
Now, many of these people will be acting in good faith, so it is best not to take their objections personally. Just understand that you might not have a large cheering squad lining your road to Rome. However, the Catholic teaching on the communion of the saints means you will have a large cheering squad interceding on your behalf in Heaven. As the writer of Hebrews said, “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
I used the King James for the quote above, even though it's a Protestant version, because it's awesome. See, you can keep all the good Protestant stuff, even if you make the jump.
So, what about the Catholic Church is an area of difficulty for you? At the very beginning, long ago during the Bush Jr. presidency, I had some of the usual Protestant objections. I thought the devotion to Mary and the other saints was idolatry, I thought there was too much emphasis on works, I thought the Church had complicated the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ with the addition of numerous man-made rules and regulations.
However, all it really took was letting the Catholic Church explain itself. I am not going to rehash every argument here, but I encourage you to do some research. The book Surprised by Truth, edited by Patrick Madrid, was one of the first things I read, and I highly recommend it. It is a collection of conversion stories, just a few pages each, all written by converts far more articulate and knowledgeable than myself. The Catholic Answers website, at www.catholic.com, also has a wealth of information.
Getting past those early difficulties proved fairly easy. I did encounter a second set of problems, however, that took a great deal more time and prayer to resolve. When I was growing up, I had this image of the Catholic Church as this glorious medieval institution, filled with ceremony, Latin, incense, stained glass, and towering churches of stone. Interestingly enough, if this image was still authentic, I would probably have entered the Church much earlier.
However, some changes had occurred in the Catholic Church that had rendered the image in my head obsolete. The Second Vatican Council had closed about fifteen years before I was born, but since the finer points of Catholic councils are not a widely discussed topic in the Free Methodist Church, I had never learned of the changes. The Council itself is still widely debated, with some saying it was a great step forward, others saying it was a catastrophe, and yet others saying it has simply been misunderstood.
I am not an expert theologian, but here is what I understand to have happened. In the aftermath of the Council, the Mass was changed, churches were remodeled (or “wreckovated,” some would call it) to have a more open modern look, and the Church began to have a more ecumenical attitude toward non-Catholics. Latin fell into disuse, the old high altars were torn down or ignored, sentimental modern hymns came into fashion, and priests stopped talking so much about Hell and damnation. Millions of Catholics managed to reach adulthood without knowing even the basics of the Catholic faith.
Now, it would be a mistake to say all was moonlight and roses before Vatican II, and it would be another mistake to say everything since has been a disaster. However, as a prospective convert, I looked at this chaos and I was deeply concerned. I began to consider Eastern Orthodoxy, another ancient Church, though one without a Vatican II. There is so much beauty there, and they profess so much of the same faith that the Catholic Church does.
And yet, I became Catholic rather than Orthodox in the end. I became convinced that the ministry of the pope, the successor of Peter, was vitally important, and the Catholic Church seemed to be doing a better job of holding the line on some key moral issues. The failure of so many in the Catholic Church to live up to its doctrines did not take away from the truth of the doctrines themselves.
It is important to consider the whole history of the Church. Progressives and traditionalists will both often point to Vatican II as a rupture with the past. The progressives may say the Church before was repressive and strict, but now a new day has dawned and soon we will be just like the Episcopalians. The traditionalists may say everything before was marvelous, but now the “conciliar Church” has lost its way, and true Catholics must set out on their own. However, I urge you to keep the big picture in mind. This is not the first crisis the Church has seen. The Church in AD 2013 is the same Church it was in AD 1962, AD 962, and AD 33.
Hope is considered one of the three theological virtues by the Catholic Church, the other two virtues being faith and charity. When I consider the state of the Catholic Church today, I hold onto hope. There is something wild and glorious about hope, even in the midst of trouble. Hope should be the natural state of the Christian, for Christ is the victor, and we are under His care.
So, do not rush off to join the sedevacantists. Instead, work to restore the Church. Be passionate about the faith, and share it with others. Read the writings of the saints. Learn about what was and what may be again.
You may find yourself in an RCIA program, if you actively pursue entrance into the Church. The quality of these will vary immensely, with some being completely orthodox and some not so much. If your instructors start telling you that grave moral evils are simply a matter of conscience, or that two thousand years of theology will be changed any day now, do not be led astray. Getting to the day of judgment and saying, “My RCIA instructor lied to me” is like a soldier saying, “My recruiter lied to me,” when it turns out Fire Support Specialist is not a fireman. Do the research.
Feel free to visit multiple parishes in your area. In a perfect world, every parish would be orthodox, and the same faith would be preached everywhere. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Even choosing based on aesthetics is not wrong, though beauty and truth tend to exist together.
Pray without ceasing. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Radiate the joy of Christ.