Our Making Disciples seminar in Boise went exceptionally well and the 48 attendees came away energized and full of ideas about how to implement the new approach to evangelization that they had learned. What a great group to work with! We were especially blessed to spend time with old friends in Boise that I hadn't seen in 7 or 8 years.
One of the stories I shared in Boise was from a young woman who first wrote me a month ago. Michelle (not her real name) is in her 20's and lives in a historically Catholic urban area. She entered the Church at Easter from a non-religious background, and had been Catholic exactly two weeks when she first wrote me.
Her question? Why were the Catholics on her RCIA team so uncomfortable actually talking about God and their faith?
"My RCIA leader is great, and the people on the team are good hearted-- but some can get uncomfortable actually talking about God and their faith. There is a lot of talk about living out Jesus' mission by doing good in the world, loving others, reaching out to people. A lot about how other people will encounter Jesus in us through all of the love and outreach. This is all wonderful stuff and I don't want to put down any of these people in my parish or the real work that they do. But it's not what I want to hear about. If my ultimate goal was only to reach out to others, I wouldn't have had to join the Church.
I want to know how these doctors and teachers and food pantry volunteers actually talk about Jesus and about their Catholic faith while they are doing this work. I want to know how their personal life of faith intersects with the work they do each day. Do the people they work with know they are Catholics? Do they offer to pray with the folks they help? Invite them to Mass?
In the past when I've tried to ask people questions about their individual faith and practices, I've gotten some defensive replies. I talked to my RCIA leader about it and she said that some people are just more reserved than others and not at a place where they are comfortable speaking about their faith. She also said I shouldn't assume that people don't have a strong faith or a relationship with Jesus, just because they can't talk about it. I guess that this means I was coming across as attacking people's personal faith.
I have no religious background and had no religious training as a child, and that I've always lived in an area where most of the people are culturally Catholic. So it's not like I grew up with people handing out tracts and praying in school- that's not where this is coming from. If anything, it comes from my own first hand knowledge that people who keep religion out of the "rest of their lives" don't give a neutral impression of their faith, they give a negative impression of their faith."
I am surprised to hear that life-long Catholics would be stunned by the idea that adults without a religious faith talk about God. The friends I have who aren't part of some church talk about God more than anyone else. That's why it's a negative thing to keep your faith private. All the "unchurched" (I've never heard that word before) are having these intense conversations and if you don't participate and they know you are part of a church, they assume that you are ashamed or unsure of your own faith. I know I have to pray a lot more about talking to these people at the meeting next week. I don't feel I can keep quiet about it. I don't understand what about the question "Do your co-workers know you are Catholic" is so touchy.
It's just when it comes to everyday life, and talking to other people, and how come no one is worried about all their friends and family who've left the church, that it turns into community service and Jesus by osmosis.
Even the priest in my parish who baptized and confirmed me has never really asked why I decided to convert. Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, only once or twice have I had a confirmed Catholic really want to know why. They ask but they want an answer that is socially acceptable, like "my grandmother was Catholic" or "because the parish community is so welcoming." The minute that I say anything less rational, they get a little freaked out.
In Making Disciples, we talk about the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Catholic culture where the tacit working assumption is that personal relationship with God is extreme and something that “normal” Catholics don’t talk about. In fact, the Pew US Religious Landscape Survey found that Catholics are less likely to talk about God with other people than atheists.
So what was the “less rational” reason for Michelle’s journey into the Church that “freaked” the cradle Catholics around her out?
Most people assume that it is because my husband and his family are Catholic. In reality, they are practicing Catholics to varying degrees, and most of the exposure to Catholics and the Church that I experienced through them was bad.
I became aware of God's presence in my life because one day I said a prayer, in total unbelief, out of desperation. I was alone in my kitchen, crying, and I felt like an idiot. I promised that if God would help me through what was going on in my life at the time, I'd do whatever He wanted me to do with my life. A few days later I forgot about it.
Then one day, maybe three years after that, life was great, I was walking home one night, and I felt something that I really can't describe. It was peaceful but at the same time I was strongly reminded that I'd made a promise and had been given twice what I'd asked for. That was in the fall of 2008. After that I spent almost all of my free time and energy trying to figure out what it was, exactly, that God wanted of me, so that I could do it.
After all of that happened, the process of being drawn to the Catholic Church happened very fast and it seemed like the entire world was trying to tell me where I needed to be, my dreams, the people around me... Some of the decision was intellectual. I'm an intellectual person. I made a list of things that I felt would help me make a decision and then I sat there with my list in hand, reading as much as I could about different denominations and faiths. I crossed some of them out right away. When I got to the documents of the Catholic Church I was just blown away. It sounds geeky I know, but I went to the Vatican website and read the Code of Canon Law and was totally overwhelmed by how beautiful it is. I was in tears. All I could think was, how much it means to these people that they are in charge of souls.
The other thing that happened was that I had an encounter with the Blessed Virgin. I used to relax myself with this meditation- I would picture a scene from my childhood when I needed an adult and no one came to help me, and then I would imagine myself, as a grown woman, coming in and being the "mother" and taking care of the childhood version of myself. There were a few of these scenes. One of them involved being bullied by some other kids. The way that the mediation was supposed to go (and had always gone before) was that the adult version of me would come in and chastise the other kids. One day I was in the middle of this meditation and I sort of lost control of it. Instead of my adult self walking in, another woman came in, all covered in light, and didn't say anything to the other kids. She took my hand and brought me away. When I came out of it I had a very clear picture of the things in my heart that were keeping me from accepting the call to join the Church. After that there was really no question.
Michelle’s story is a familiar one. The stories we hear over and over from new Catholics from non-Catholic backgrounds can be summed up as 1) their motivation for entering was a) personal mystical experience and/or b) reading; 2) their experience of cradle Catholics was little or no help in the process; and 3) cradle Catholics regard the mystical side of the convert’s journey as “extreme”. There are many exceptions but Michelle’s experience is remarkably common. Michelle continues:
I've found that cradle Catholics assume that I will be judgmental of all of their relatives who have stopped practicing, and of them, if they aren't or haven't always been "perfect" Catholics. The implication is that I had an extreme experience so the obligations and practices of the faith are somehow easier for me and I can't possibly understand how it could be complicated for someone else.
Sure, I just invited all of my extended Jewish family, my secular liberal circle of friends, and my gay sibling to Easter Vigil to see me baptized, so no, what would I possibly know about it being complicated?
Michelle has been talking to some of the other newly baptized Catholics in her parish and found out that she is not alone in her experience:
So.... I have been talking to a couple of them and it seems that I'm not alone in some of my frustrations-- feeling a bit like we got a "soft-sell" on the faith, or that other members of the team were standoffish when talking about personal faith and prayer. I think I am also not alone in having some pretty intense spiritual experiences before coming to the church.
The other thing I'm hearing from them is the same fear of judgment that I hear from lifelong Catholics, only in reverse. I said before, many people born Catholic assume that as someone who converted "out of nowhere," I will hold them to an impossibly high standard and be judgmental.
But what I hear from some of the other people in my RCIA class (especially the ones in their early 20s, is that they fear that people in the parish will judge them on their old lives, if they as new converts ask any questions that will make the older Catholics uncomfortable. So, the scripture facilitator who thinks that the passion and death of Christ is "not her thing"-- if you call her on it, she might remind you of how you used to volunteer with a pro-choice group. The thing is that these new converts are remorseful for all the non Christian things they used to do. They don't want anyone to tell them it's okay that they used to volunteer for a pro-choice group. But they also don't want it used against them. These are young people holding themselves to a higher standard for the first time ever and they just want to know that there are other people around with similar standards and motivations.
I get the part about the higher standard but I have never felt afraid of being judged on my "old life" by anyone in the parish, and I am a prime candidate for being judged on my old life. It seems to me that there is just a lot of fear and vulnerability on both sides that is not coming from a true place.
The irony is that the majority of older Catholics are most unlikely to judge these new converts on the morality of their former lives but new Catholics don’t know that. In fact, most Catholics are so terrified of seeming to “judge” anyone that even raising the topic of faith at all with another person is distasteful because it seems to verge on “judgment” to us.
How would you respond to someone like Michelle?