Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Enemy Among Us is Me-- Or So I Have Been Told

I am a Catholic Convert. Or at least I used to be.

As far as American Catholics are concerned, especially in the South where I have lived all my life, it makes a big difference what religious group or denomination a new convert belonged to before he or she became Catholic. 

In my case I had been a member of a very Fundamentalist Charismatic Protestant Church. 

A substantial number of people who convert to Catholicism do so because they are planning to marry or have already married someone who is a Catholic, but I am not one of those people.  I came into the Catholic Church all alone as an unmarried person. 

I didn't find out until after I became Catholic that my former faith community-- where I first was encouraged to pray with enthusiasm and worship the Lord Jesus with all my heart-- was considered to be “the enemy.”

When I joined the “Church Founded by Jesus Christ” I had honestly expected that the both the priests and the laypeople would have a greater sense than other Christians of the need for the fractured parts of the Body of Christ to be brought back together in love and unity, seeing as how they had (allegedly) been taught that the Church was meant to be “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.”1 I thought that Catholics believed baptized Christians in other denominations were their “separated brethren” whom the Church loved and wanted.2

Boy, was I in for a shock!

Catholics and Fundamentalists in Alabama do not trust one another when it comes to matters of faith, and in my experience Cradle Catholics in particular are quickest to announce that their side of the ongoing conflict is completely “justified.” For over twenty years one person after another in the Catholic Church has recounted to me how painfully they believe they suffer as a result of living and working among Baptists and Pentecostals, and how firmly they are convinced that they are constantly under siege.

I have even witnessed priests encouraging and fomenting this sense of paranoia and persecution as if it were an official teaching of the Catholic Church. For example, shortly after I became Catholic I attended a special lecture for “Young Adults” by Rev. Philip N. O'Kennedy at a parish in the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama to teach them how to respond to Fundamentalists.

O'Kennedy began his lecture with a spirited narration of his encounter with a young Baptist coed during the time he was assigned to campus ministry at the University of Montevallo. He described how the girl went to great efforts to catch up with him, climbing up a grassy hill so that she could engage him in conversation. When she finally reached him, she asked the priest simply whether he had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ-- a question normally asked as an introduction to evangelization.

At this point O'Kennedy didn't speak kindly with the girl and encourage her to be strong in her faith in Jesus. He didn't even smile at her-- a grown man, a Minister of the Gospel, talking to a college girl who was probably only about nineteen years old.

Instead he caused a scene, raising his voice angrily and castigating her for her boldness. He said to her: “I know what you are and I know what you are trying to do!” He berated the girl and yelled at her to leave him alone.

From the way he told the story, I could see that O'Kennedy was clearly proud of the way he had abused this young woman. He then proceeded to advise the young adult Catholics there assembled to follow his example and be wary of their neighbors (lest they attempt to do something horrible like invite them to a non-denominational prayer meeting). As far as Phil O'Kennedy was concerned, local Protestants were intent on stealing everyone away from the Catholic Church and the only proper response was fear and loathing.

I regularly attended Mass for well over fifteen years at different parishes in the South. When Cradle Catholics learned that I was a convert from a Fundamentalist Charismatic Church, their reactions in general were less than warm and loving. Rather, they were somewhat demanding-- I found that I was almost universally expected to do one of two things:
  1. That I should always immediately express some sort of contrition for ever having been a member of a Fundamentalist Church (after all, can any good thing come from those places?3), or
  2. That I must entertain them with witty stories about my conversion, and that those stories were supposed to explain that the Christians with whom I used to pray and worship were monstrously bad.

There were many times when I was told by other parishioners that they didn't believe I was ever going to be a “real” Catholic because of my Protestant background.

I learned eventually to try to keep my conversion a secret in my own Church. But that wasn't always easy.

When I would ask people that I thought were my friends if I could sit with them in Church they would often question why I didn't sit with my family or say that they were too busy with their own families to include me. Then I would have to explain: I am a C-O-N-V-E-R-T.  By definition that means my relatives are not Catholic.  In fact they are not churchgoers in any faith. They were less than enthusiastic about my conversion to Catholicism and I have never been able to convince any of them to come with me to Mass. Not even for Christmas or Easter.

Sometimes I just couldn't bear the thought of sitting all alone at Mass again.  But the reality is that I was considered unwelcome, and that message was made clear, both by priests and laypeople.

820 "Christ bestowed unity on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time." Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her. This is why Jesus himself prayed at the hour of his Passion, and does not cease praying to his Father, for the unity of his disciples: "That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, . . . so that the world may know that you have sent me." The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit.  (emphasis added)
821 Certain things are required in order to respond adequately to this call:
- a permanent renewal of the Church in greater fidelity to her vocation; such renewal is the driving-force of the movement toward unity;
- conversion of heart as the faithful "try to live holier lives according to the Gospel"; for it is the unfaithfulness of the members to Christ's gift which causes divisions;
- prayer in common, because "change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name 'spiritual ecumenism;"'
-fraternal knowledge of each other;
- ecumenical formation of the faithful and especially of priests;
- dialogue among theologians and meetings among Christians of the different churches and communities;
- collaboration among Christians in various areas of service to mankind. "Human service" is the idiomatic phrase.
822 Concern for achieving unity "involves the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike." But we must realize "that this holy objective - the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ - transcends human powers and gifts." That is why we place all our hope "in the prayer of Christ for the Church, in the love of the Father for us, and in the power of the Holy Spirit." (emphasis added)
Catechism of the Catholic Church,, Part I, §2, Ch. 3, Art. 9, 3, Ref. #820-822.
The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. For there are many who honor Sacred Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and a pattern of life, and who show a sincere zeal. They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and Saviour. They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are united with Christ. They also recognize and accept other sacraments within their own Churches or ecclesiastical communities. Many of them rejoice in the episcopate, celebrate the Holy Eucharist and cultivate devotion toward the Virgin Mother of God. They also share with us in prayer and other spiritual benefits. Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power. Some indeed He has strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood. In all of Christ's disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one shepherd, and He prompts them to pursue this end. Mother Church never ceases to pray, hope and work that this may come about. (emphasis added)
Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, Chapter II § 15 ¶ 1.
John 1:46


Bryan Atchison said... @ January 2, 2011 at 8:41 AM

The situation you describe reminds me of the suspicion faced by the conversos, Jews in Spain who converted to Christianity amid persecution around 1492, when Spain expelled those who remained Jews. Members of a Christian society added sorrow upon sorrow by applying duress to get people to convert and then hounding those who did convert with the suspicion that their conversions were not sincere. In addition to general sorrow that all of the conversos faced, I can imagine conversos who sincerely converted and then reeled at their treatment by their new spiritual family. I am glad that your conversion came in a very different historical situation, one of freedom, but I sorrow at the suspicion you describe, evidence of an enduring harmful tendency in human nature.

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