When my family and I came into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2019, we were no strangers to the overall contours of the Catholic thing. We had been High Church Anglicans, and our main obstacle was papal authority. By God’s grace, we were finally set free to live in obedience to Christ by acknowledging “the sacred primacy of the Pope and his infallible Magisterium” (Lumen Gentium, 18).
But the big doctrinal issues are one thing, and everyday living as Catholics is sometimes quite another. There are so many gifts in the Catholic Church that my family and I did not fully appreciate before we climbed aboard the barque of St. Peter. As we enjoy them now, our lives are so much richer than we could have ever imagined when we stood on the edge of the Tiber, contemplating a swim. Here are five gifts I particularly appreciate—practices that animate the lives of the mature Catholics I seek to emulate.
- Going to Confession: When I came into the Church, of course I knew Confession would be a part of my life, but I did not anticipate how indispensable it would become. Believe it or not, in my previous life as an Anglican, we had something like it. Over the centuries, reconciliation rites crept back into official use among Anglicans, but only among those who wanted them. “All may, none must, some should” was the slogan. I tried it a few times, and it was a mess—self-conscious rambling that made me feel worse instead of better about my sins. In contrast, experiencing the real deal in the Catholic Church has been pure joy. There is no burden I have ever taken into the confessional that has not been completely lifted by the time I stood up to leave. There is just no feeling on earth like knowing my sin is completely dealt with—once and for all on the cross, and every time I examine my conscience and submit to Christ’s reconciling grace. If anyone is curious about Catholicism but hung up about Confession, or if any Catholics reading this have stayed away from Confession for any number of reasons, please take it from this “convert” that it is much more than a requirement. Confession is a precious balm to every soul that longs for God’s healing. The seasoned Catholics I know do it as often as they can. I want to be like them.
- Offering up suffering: A few months after I came into full communion, a man told me very casually that his wife, a former Protestant, had been given the grace to become Catholic because a priest who was dying of cancer had offered up his suffering for her conversion. At the time, I was still getting over my liberal Protestant divinity school training that drilled into our heads never to make meaning out of suffering. We could only ever acknowledge pain as an aberration from utopian self-actualization. But after that first conversation, I began hearing more and more stories from fellow Catholics who had no time for the nonsense I had learned. They may never have read St. John of the Cross, but their piety was entirely cruciform: Christ suffered to the end for us, so our suffering with him merits grace—not only for ourselves but for others whom Christ loves. It does not mean that evil makes sense per se; but like everything else in the Christian life, Christ can use our pain, freely offered to him, to beat down Satan and bring the kingdom of heaven closer to us. We don’t have to flagellate ourselves either. Suffering is guaranteed to come our way, and Catholics have a particular perspective on how to deal with it when it does. We need to embrace it and share its redemptive potential with a hurting world.
- Expecting Miracles: It was the theological integrity of Catholicism that ultimately made the Church irresistible to me, but since coming into full communion with the Church, my soul has really been nourished by seeing and learning the supernatural piety of my fellow churchmen. They expect miracles, and they see them. My children have led the way in our family with total faith in and enthusiasm for the miraculous apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Fatima, along with the graces we receive through our devotion to them. I now perk up for stories about healings achieved by evoking the prayers of particular saints. I’m all in for St. Padre Pio’s bilocation and stigmata. The regular liquefication of St. Januarius’ blood is totally awesome. As a Catholic, I’ve come to realize that the miracle switch was not turned off at the end of the apostolic age, at the end of the Middle Ages, or with the arrival of modern medicine and technology. God’s inexplicable intervention in the lives of his creatures is the norm, and I encourage Catholics to lead the way in pointing this out to the rest of the world.
- Praying with confidence: This one builds on the last one. The default mode of most pious Catholics I have come to know is to believe prayer works, even if we don’t understand exactly how. Say an Ave, and something happens to reality. Say a whole Rosary, and even more happens. I’m ashamed to say I always overthought this fact before I came into full communion with the Catholic Church. I used to think my prayers were successful only if they made me more peaceful, moral, or faithful. But I did not expect my words to move the unmoved mover. Only after I stepped into the Catholic Church with both feet did I realize how thoroughly unbiblical and out of line with Christian tradition my self-centered, therapeutic view of prayer was. For six months after leaving my Anglican ministry and becoming Catholic, I was unemployed. Family and friends stepped up to help; but I woke up at 3:00 a.m. most mornings worrying about so much more. A priest suggested I start praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. I did, and amazing things started happening. Perhaps most dramatically, a total stranger walked up to me at Mass and put a $1,000 check in my hand. My family and I were rather late in appreciating the devotional practice of praying novenas, and we are still getting used to the discipline they entail, but we are blown away and encouraged by the results people have reported to us from their own experience of praying them. Jesus says our faith can move mountains. Until I became Catholic, I never really lived as if it was true. Let’s do it!
- Cherishing Life: This courts controversy, but it is important. Before I entered into full communion with Catholicism, I held various vaguely “pro-life” views on abortion, but I had no real sense of a deeper and more consistent life ethic. As Catholics, my family and I now experience the liberating joy of being among people who choose to see life for what it is—God’s gift, from conception to natural death. To be truly “pro-life” is to acknowledge that our lives are not our own, and that there is no part of anyone’s life that lies outside of God’s providence. We can do no other than work for laws and institutions—even to march and pray in the public square—to protect the dignity of every human being. I don’t want to be a jerk to nonbelievers, nor to seem holier-than-thou to my fellow Catholics, but I do not see much sense in treating abortion, birth control, capital punishment, and euthanasia (to name just the big four) as particularly complicated issues. Catholics are against them! As someone who, as a former Protestant, once had little choice but to treat my own convictions merely as deeply felt opinions that were best kept secret, I encourage my fellow Catholics to stand up very simply for a truth that is much bigger than any of us. (But again, the most mature Catholics I know do all of this without compromising an inch of basic decency and respect for people who think differently.)
All five of these points of encouragement remain aspirational for me. Pray for me and for everyone serious about entering in full communion or simply growing in their Catholic faith, as we continue to explore all the treasure chests of grace in our big Catholic home. As Han Solo says in The Force Awakens, “It’s real. All of it.”