Later, I found a way to return the favor. It became clear that the younger parishioners, many of whom were working toward their own advanced degrees, had appointed Phillip the alpha of their pack. Broadly speaking, guys wanted to play John to his Jesus; women wanted to play Clare to his Francis. Rather than shrug off his mantle or flaunt it, Phillip wore it casually, like a prince to the manner born. From the respect of his peers, he derived a pleasure that struck me as both healthy and well earned.

It happened that during Mass Phillip's friends sat together en banc at one end of the chapel. Custom encouraged sponsors and candidates to sit together. In some roundabout way, Phillip gave me to understand that he preferred to join his crew, but that some caste rule would prevent me from following. Just as obliquely, I hastened and blessed his departure. For me, it was a moral awakening. If being a Christian, living the Golden Rule, could as easily mean making small concessions to another's comfort as, say, dying at the hands of Brazilian loggers, it seemed for the first time like an attainable goal.

A year later, when I was tapped to sponsor a candidate of my own, I felt flummoxed. My candidate, a hearty, athletic, all-American college senior whom I'll call Chip, could have been any of the Beach Boys except Brian Wilson. As far as I could tell, he needed no help on his faith journey; for him, it was as smooth and as much fun as a trip down a half-pipe. Since he had no immediate plans to marry a Catholic, and didn't seem overly troubled about the meaning of life, I couldn't imagine what he was doing there.

Chip told a story about finding a rosary on his doorstep the morning after a painful breakup. He took it as a sign. That seemed a bit thin as conversion experiences went, so I silently resolved to spare him the hard sell, should he defect to Mammon over Spring Break.

But, immediately after Christmas came the night of the dead cats. Chip, having spent the holidays out of state with his family, arrived to find that both of his cats had clawed their way into a box of laundry detergent and poisoned themselves. Late the same evening, after an hour on the phone with his parents failed to soften his self-reproach, Chip called me, asking for Sister Lucia's number. I didn't know it, but I did know approximately where she lived. Assuring Chip I could recognize Sister's apartment complex from the street, I suggested we meet in the church parking lot, and drive on from there in Chip's pickup.

When I look back on that night, I can't help thinking of those conquistadores who lost themselves in the Sonora Desert searching for mythical cities made of gold. My knowledge of Sister's whereabouts turned out to be much more approximate than I'd reckoned on. Chip and I ended up combing four nearby apartment complexes, all of them nearly pitch black. When I failed to recognize any door as Sister's, we took to pounding on the doors that looked least likely to have trigger-happy meth dealers hiding behind them—a hard call to make in that type of neighborhood. After a while, it became apparent that the search was hopeless, but just as apparent that the search was therapeutic. There's nothing like a pulse-quickening snipe hunt through the ghetto to sweep remorse and bereavement into the far corner of a man's mind.

Finally, we called off the search. Chip, looking somewhat less distraught, spent the night at a friend's. I went home and e-mailed Sister, advising her Chip would need some emergency grief counseling. Not only did she provide it, she arranged for our pastor to bless Chip's apartment. For me, the whole experience was a blessing twice over. Not only I get the satisfaction of feeling useful to Chip—no small thing, since I'd already decided I was no use at all to him—he reminded me that faith holds comforts I'd never imagined.

On the night of my baptism, Phillip and I saluted each other with gifts. He gave me a hand-painted icon of Jesus dragging Adam and Eve from their graves; I gave us both a fifth of Ketel One and a case of Franziskaner. (The idea was to honor my patron saint, but there's no beer named for the Salesians.) Since I'd learned to appreciate Byzantine art while studying in Russia, and he'd learned to drink while studying in England, we had ourselves an evening that justified the next morning.

On the Palm Sunday before Chip's baptism, I told him, "We have a tradition around here. The sponsor buys the candidate a piece of religious artwork, and the candidate buys booze for the after-party." "Cool," said Chip. Since he was about to earn his bachelor's in construction management, I got him a cross of San Damiano—get it? "Rebuild My house"? After what I assume were some discreet inquiries, Chip stocked his refrigerator with Hoegaarden and Grey Goose.

But that night, like a tomb sentry, I nodded off early, stretching out on Chip's couch after only a drink or two. The next morning I slipped out quietly, trusting Chip to dispose of the remaining libations. Probably, the true Christian should never expect to see his account paid forward in full.