The most transformative thing that’s happened to me happened over the past three years: I “reverted” to Catholicism, which is to say I was raised Catholic, I left the church just before college, and now I’m enthusiastically back.
Apparently this is a pretty normal pattern. There are lucky people who are raised Catholic and stay Catholic their whole lives, and then there are a significant number of Catholics who leave for a few years and return, as well as those who leave and never come back.
Perhaps you’ll let me indulge in some autobiography today: because for how vehement I was about being a “recovering Catholic” throughout college, I know I have some friends and family curious about what made me come home. And even if you aren’t curious about me, perhaps you’ve experienced some of these roadblocks in your life and I can help you see them in a new way.
If we’re being honest…
Now, the title focuses on why I came back. But if I’m being accurate, this list is more about examples of where I went wrong in my spiritual life. None of it really captures the “why” of my beliefs, and I’m not sure anything ever could. There’s definitely an element of reversion that is a gift from God where one day you didn’t believe and the next day BAM you can’t escape it.
So if I’m being accurate, this post is more about the roadblocks to my reversion and how I overcame them. I hope that it can help someone out there who is struggling with a pull to the faith but feeling repulsed by their current state of mind (which is totally normal — when your old life is about to die, it has a funny way of trying to defend itself).
So, here are the main points, so you can skip to what interests you most, but if I may be so bold, I recommend rolling right through from the beginning:
- I left because of hypocrites, I came back because I’m a hypocrite
- I thought God left me, turns out I left God
- I can’t be the authority in everything
- The Church stands up for the truth
- The Church stands up for real love
- It’s the one true church
Now, I don’t pretend to be a theologian. This list is very specific to me and the way my faith life has played out. If you want to play “theology v. theology,” I highly recommend you check out Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire website and podcast and send your question to someone who will be able to answer it very well.
This isn’t meant to be a monologue on why everyone should be Catholic, but it is a testimony to why I am Catholic now, and why I’m so grateful for that. The more I give up on what my culture wants me to do and embrace what God wants me to do, the more peaceful my home, the quieter my mind, and the more love I feel for others.
So, without further disclaimers, here’s my explanation of why I reverted to Catholicism, or, how God blasted through my secular roadblocks to help me be Catholic again:
I left because of hypocrites, I came back because I’m a hypocrite
When I was a teenager, I was very logical. If enough people said one thing and did another, I tended to discredit the whole bunch. And that’s just what was happening in my church: people I knew from school would do unmentionable things all weekend, and then come to mass and read the bible to the whole church. After a while, this was paired with Catholics who lie, who cheat, who disrespect women, and who generally don’t love other people very much. So I discarded the whole bunch.
Here’s what I didn’t understand: the church is a gathering of sinners. It should be the least surprising thing possible that people you meet in church are doing bad things. But the whole point is we’re there because we’re doing bad things and tormented by them and trying not to do them.
As Pope Francis said, “The Eucharist… is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
Now, the problem comes when people think that coming to church is all they need to do to meet their spiritual needs. Or people who are doing bad things and denying that they’re bad things. People who stop there — who don’t read about their faith, study the bible, and actually change themselves to be the new man in the new way (not just the old man in the old way or the old man in the new way) — are Catholic in name only, and that’s disappointing to me, but (again) it’s between them and God.
Here’s another example. If you live in a house where everyone eats crappy food and everyone is getting sick, that doesn’t mean there isn’t good food in the fridge. It means the people in the house are making bad decisions. Coming back to Catholicism was my way of opening the fridge and seeing what’s in there to eat.
(I have to give props here to inspirational speaker Matthew Kelly who helped me see this process and understand that other people failing to be Catholic doesn’t mean Catholicism isn’t true, just that it’s hard).
And it comes back full circle: I need the Catholic Church because I still make bad decisions. I am rude, I am selfish, and I am prideful about way too many things. Bringing all of this back to Jesus at mass, at confession, and in my relationship with my husband is changing me into something newer and better, and it’s precisely because I need to change that I need the Church to love me at my worst and encourage me to make better decisions.
Rediscover Catholicism by Matthew Kelly
I thought God left me, turns out I left God
Bad things happen, and it’s one of the main arguments against God’s existence (that either he can’t stop bad things so he’s not all-powerful, or he lets them happen so he’s not loving). That’s an argument for the theologians, but the resolution in my life was a turning point for me early this year.
It’s easy to say “Where was God when X happened to me?” But when I look at the moments in my life that made me feel abandoned by God, it was startling to see that the better question was, “Where did I put God in my life when X happened to me?”
The moments when I was most unhappy and felt the most alone were the moments when I had made a “God” of a relationship, a career, health, or fertility. I ignored all the red flags, all the abuse, and all the boundary violations and put that one thing above all others. And all these things aren’t strong enough (or real enough) to provide any real happiness. So when I put everything into them, and they broke down, of course I felt like I was abandoned and alone. Because I chose things that would abandon me and leave me alone rather than choosing God, who never would, and God’s plan for my life, which never could.
Now, when I am tempted to find my happiness in money or my marriage or in feeling good, I know to zip my attention back to God, who is constant through all these ups and downs. That makes the downs less painful and the highs even higher because I am closer to the true thing.
“Our hearts are restless til they rest in thee.”
I’m not perfect with this, and I still tend to set up “false idols” for myself, but understanding this process helped me understand the context of my failed relationships, careers, and illnesses in a very peaceful way — and draw my attention back to God. This also doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen to people who are faithful. But it does mean that I can accept bad things as important pieces of my spiritual journey when I put all my faith in God.
Strange Gods by Elizabeth Scalia
I can’t be the authority on everything
Our culture has major issues with authority. We’re come to expect corruption and wide scale disrespect whenever we give away power. So the solution is to pull the power into ourselves as individuals:
I make decisions for me and my family. I don’t accept anything unless I understand it. I understand things my way, and no one can take that from me.
But we still ask for authority in matters of health (you’d hire a doctor before you performed surgery on yourself), law (you’d hire a lawyer before defending yourself), and more. So there’s a place for authority, it’s just that our culture right now does not want authority in the realm of spirituality. And furthermore, there’s a truth or a “best way” to do some things, even if we all don’t individually know it or act upon it.
Here’s an example from my faith life. It used to really, really bug me that people were Catholic or Christian and had never read the bible. It’s like, “What are you even doing? How could you possibly believe stuff in a book you’ve never read?”
But then I became Catholic again without having read the bible (technically going to mass for 20 years took me through the whole bible, but you know what I mean). And I realized it’s totally normal to believe something and live by it and not know everything about it: we do it with the physical sciences all the time!
I mean, who can explain the mathematical side of gravity without making it a lifelong specialization? Or space? And yet we all know — we feel and live out — the truth of scientific principles long before we understand them or can name them.
My faith is the same way. I don’t know every theological twist and turn of our history or of how God works. But I am pulled down toward this truth with everything I learn. When I learn something new, it reveals a new twist or turn I already know to be true. It’s a process of revelation, not just education, because the truth is already there.
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
The Catholic Church lends me that authority. By committing myself to its principles and actively engaging with books and homilies and other Catholics, I stand on its foundation. I sit surrounded by thousands of years of scholars and I sit with a context to the bible that gives me clear instructions as to how to live my life, if I’ll only submit to them. How to be happiest and most fulfilled by god — not how to be richest, most beautiful, and most famous the way this world encourages us to be.
If I limited my participation in the world and my beliefs to only what I could verify by my own authority, I’d be living in a relativistic, permissive, and enabling world… a world very much like this one.
The church stands up for the truth
For way too many people, something being old means it’s out of date and dusty. But I feel the opposite way about the Catholic Church. It’s the one true constant over the past 2000 years. It’s straight from the mouth of God and the hands of Jesus. It has universal truths that were, are, and will remain true — and it’s the only one brave enough to stand for them — to encourage people to be healed from modern misconceptions — forever.
Here’s the quote that nails it:
“I don’t need a church to tell me I’m wrong where I already know I’m wrong. I need a church to tell me I’m wrong where I think I’m right.” – G.K. Chesterton
Before I reverted, I drank the secular koolaid about a good many political, spiritual, sexual, and physical lies. And you know what? It made me absolutely miserable. It made me want more money, want more physical pleasure, and it made me question my worth and value and status on a daily basis. When things were going well, I wanted things to be better. When things were going poorly, I felt wronged and stressed and depressed.
And that’s the rub. Nothing this world sells us is good for our soul. It’s all here to distract us from what’s really important… unless you’re willing to set aside what you think is right and listen to a genuine argument from the Catholic Church about why it’s wrong.
Too often we reject the entire Church because there’s one or two pieces of the puzzle that don’t fit for us. Instead, I started with a piece that I agreed with (such as one bible verse or song that was very powerful, or one Catholic book that resonated with me) and followed it to the end, and eventually I found a path to understand all the things I disagreed with. When I’ve taken the time to read a book about a topic I disagree with the Church about, I find that the truth of it unfolds over me and permanently changes me.
I still understand where the liberal and worldly views on different topics (Love is love, a woman’s body is her own, sex is your own business, etc), but I now also see beyond them into the deeper meanings of our actions based on God’s plan for human happiness. It was a slow process of the truth opening my eyes, not a sudden switch to a party platform. And (to borrow from my metaphor about the sciences in an earlier point) if you had friends who didn’t believe in gravity and so were jumping off cliffs, wouldn’t you be compelled to say something?
Introduction to the Theology of the Body by Christopher West
The church stands up for real love
Is it loving to give an alcoholic alcohol or a sex addict sex? Can you disagree with someone and not hate them? These are all themes on the same chord to me. We seem to live in a world where friends have to agree or they’re enemies and love means giving people what they want, not helping them want the right thing. But the Catholic Church is one of the only places I’ve found where we can hate the sin but still love the sinner. And where we provide a path of support and empowerment to bring God’s vision for our desires into real life.
Does this play out in headlines? Of course not. Pope Francis says something loving and our media turns it into something enabling, or he says something loving and they turn it into Mein Kampf. There’s no middle ground for people who are trying to manipulate you.
To Catholics, love means working to understand God and living according to his will. When we do that, we will experience love and peace beyond imagining. And that plays out in how the Church is supposed to treat people who disagree with it: with love and compassion and a path to understanding where we’re coming from. Again, no individual church or churchgoer is perfect at this all the time, and sometimes they do the exact opposite of what they’re supposed to do. But that doesn’t mean the Catechism of the Church or what the Catholic Church stands for is wrong — just that every individual in the church is a sinner. And again, that’s the point.
It’s the one true church
When I found myself believing in God and Jesus, I knew I would be coming home to the Catholic Church. This isn’t a cultish fanatacism, it’s historical fact. The Catholic Church was the church founded by Jesus. When you go for a denomination (Lutheran, Baptist, Church of England) you are signing up for a religion that was created by a man (in some cases a priest) who disagreed with the Catholic Church.
Now, I totally get the impulse to rebel against a power that’s making bad decisions. There are bad and worse decisions peppering the church’s history (including but not limited to the most evil action imaginable, a priest abusing his place in a community and his place on this earth by harming children and other priests covering it up — this part of our history still makes me nauseous and I can’t imagine the damage this does to a person’s ability to trust or believe in God).
But I’ll have you consider this: when teachers abuse children, we don’t shut down schools. When the American government makes bad decisions, we don’t give up on democracy. The evils within the Catholic church are here because it is made of humans, and humans are sinners. The evils are not here because the Catholic Church in any way condones this behavior or thinks it’s defensible.
The path to recovery is not abandonment. The path to recovery (as outlined in the Bible and by modern day psychological best practices) is to acknowledge the error, ask for forgiveness, and move forward with every intention to not commit the error again. And, to quote many Catholic writers, there’s nothing wrong with the Catholic Church that can’t be fixed by what’s right with the Catholic Church.
As for denominations, I am no one to say that someone who has grown up in a faith tradition with their family, friends, and community won’t be saved by Jesus. As I understand it, each of these traditions hold a piece of the truth that may well be enough to get them to heaven (and each carries some piece of falsehood which may well be enough to prevent that). But I do know that the Catholic Church is the only church with the full message and full truth of Jesus — and that without each of those pieces, I wouldn’t be able to become the saint I want to be. So, in that way, “lucky are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb,” (the Eucharist in mass) and if you disagree, that’s between you and God.
So, there you have it, my own 3000 word rant that summarizes where I’ve been these past six months. Am I perfect at that all the time? Definitely not. But that’s the point: I have a plan of action to get there, and 2000 years of tradition to help me do it.
If you have any arguments to share with me, again, I highly encourage you to take them to a priest or someone more qualified to walk you through the Catholic perspective (and if you end up with an unhelpful priest, keep in mind that we’re all doing our best with what we’ve got… and go find an awesome priest to speak with). Even if I can’t answer all your questions myself, I would love hear from you about where you are in your faith journey or if you’ve had similar experiences with conversion or reversion!