Next Sunday Morning, at the 9:30 A.M. Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ruston I will undergo the Rite of Acceptance into the Catholic Church, with the others who are leaving the stage of inquiry about the Catholic faith. I will then enter the Period of the Catechumenate. This Rite will most formally set me on the road to Easter and the time of my Confirmation at the Easter Vigil.
My understanding of the Catholic Faith is getting stronger. My sponsor for Confirmation, Josh Jordan, and his fiancée, came over to my house today. We were talking and I mentioned that I am, for one, amazed at the sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life that I am encountering after I’ve made the decision to come to the Catholic Church. I feel like it is a confirmation of the fact that I have made the right decision and that I am doing the correct thing, despite some of the challenges. I am also amazed how my thought process, and my understanding of theology and the faith, has changed and matured in the last month alone. I am a different man than I was in October and at the beginning of November. I am certainly a different man than I was a year ago.
I remember when Pope Benedict XVI came to America and hearing these words of the Pope from his homily on April 17th, 2008, at the Washington Nationals Stadium.
In the exercise of my ministry as the Successor of Peter, I have come to America to confirm you, my brothers and sisters, in the faith of the Apostles (cf. Lk 22:32). I have come to proclaim anew, as Peter proclaimed on the day of Pentecost, that Jesus Christ is Lord and Messiah, risen from the dead, seated in glory at the right hand of the Father, and established as judge of the living and the dead (cf. Acts 2:14ff.). I have come to repeat the Apostle’s urgent call to conversion and the forgiveness of sins, and to implore from the Lord a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church in this country. As we have heard throughout this Easter season, the Church was born of the Spirit’s gift of repentance and faith in the risen Lord. In every age she is impelled by the same Spirit to bring to men and women of every race, language and people (cf. Rev 5:9) the good news of our reconciliation with God in Christ.
One other statement has come to me and is generally responsible for giving me the final push that I needed to jump whole heartedly into the Tiber and swim from Canterbury to Rome. Jeffrey Steenson, a former Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and I understand may a Catholic Priest now, though I may be mistaken, gave a lecture at the 2008 Anglican Use Conference which spurred me onto my final departure from Anglicanism. In this lecture, which I wholeheartedly recommend for everyone to read, he says two things which had a profound impact on me. First he says,
told me I really ought to remain standing and take his hand, because I was still an Anglican and should not presume a relationship that, strictly speaking, did not exist.
How I wish I had listened to my heart! It troubled me for years afterward – a little thing
really, but a missed opportunity that I will always regret…On April 2, 2005, I was in my first year as an Episcopal bishop and driving across central Wisconsin for a meeting, when I heard the bulletin from Rome that John Paul II had died. This news cut me to the quick, for I had resolved those many years before, when I was still a seminary student, that I would become a Catholic while he was pope. With tears in my eyes and a heavy foot, I sped through a speeding trap. The officer put away his citation book when he heard what I was listening to on the radio. I would like to think of this as the first little miracle in John Paul’s cause for sainthood! I do not doubt that my unfulfilled resolution to be in full communion had now taken on a real measure of urgency in my own life.
The reason this struck me so hard is because I have a very strong love for Pope Benedict XVI which is similar to that which he felt for Pope John Paul II. When John Paul II died I was Episcopal but I followed the news with great interest, especially concerning the election of a new Pope. I told a friend of mine, who I was visiting at the time in Baton Rouge, that Joseph Ratzinger would be the new Pope. He laughed at me, one for the absurdity that I would be able to “know” that, and two because he knew that part of my reasoning for saying that was desire, rather than knowledge, though I was firmly convinced in my heart of hearts that he would be the next Pope. One level of this is also my great love for the nation of Germany and so it was only right of me to desire this man as the new Pope. When it was finally announced that Joseph Ratzinger was elected I called my friend right away, partly to rub it in (ha, ha). When he answered the phone he knew right away why I had called because he had just heard and was thinking of calling me. I told him, with some seriousness, that I was tempted to convert to Catholicism right then because of his election as Pope, but I did not because I still had theological questions that I needed to address, and it would have been unwise of me to convert to Catholicism for the sake of a personality and not for the truth of the faith. However, like Jeffrey Steenson, I felt as if I would not be able to let the opportunity pass for me to become Catholic while Pope Benedict XVI is exercising authority as the successor of St. Peter. He is “my Pope” as it were, and I am very thankful to know that I have been able to begin the process of becoming Catholic under the spiritual leadership of this Pope. I did not want to miss the opportunity to figuratively kiss the ring of Peter that Jeffrey Steenson literally missed the opportunity to do.
Secondly, Jeffrey Steenson pierced my heart when he said,
But this is what I should like to say to my dear friends who have put one toe into the other side of the Tiber. Listen to your conscience! The good conscience is a precious gift of faith, the Apostles regard it as the telos of all Christian acts, and it is our right by baptism. In the acrimonious Anglican wars, the liberals are acting from conscience (albeit misguided), the courageous Evangelicals are equally as clear, so why, dear friends, is your conscience so conflicted? God does not intend for it to be so but desires that we serve him with a good conscience (Acts 24:16).
When I read these words I became the man that Jeffrey Steenson was speaking too, though he didn’t know it. I was in a period when my conscience was very conflicted. My heart, as I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere, was burning within me, and longing for the Catholic Church, in a way I feel is akin to what the disciples felt on the Road to Emmaus when they walked with Christ and did not recognize him until he broke bread and then their eyes were opened. I had been going to RCIA, reading Catholic books, and researching the Church and my heart longed for the Churches embrace. My toe was in the Tiber but I was afraid to swim. Jeffrey Steenson swam the Tiber in a situation which was markedly more difficult than my situation, and in a situation which required more faith and sacrifice then what it required from me. If he could do it, and I remember reading about it when he did it, on the Anglican blogs, then why shouldn’t I dive in deep, with a good conscience, and come home to Rome? The effect of his worthy lecture was immediate on my heart and proved to be one of the final, if not the final, push I needed to get the pilgrimage of faith toward Rome underway.
The past month has been joyous and yes, there have been challenges. I am confidant that I am moving in the right direction. As gravity pulls us toward the Earth so the Spirit draws us toward the truth. I stand in awe of the Church I am entering.