My friend Dave Deavel…

…has a really fine piece up about the hidden dangers of conversion stories.

Recently, Rod Dreher linked to one of those “The Pope is on his last legs and is about to die a broken man, whereupon the Church will hold the Third Vatican Council and the new dawn will break” pieces that the MSM always does when the pope shows signs of age (these were perennial favorites during the last decade or so of JPII’s papacy). In the course of it, Rod mentioned in one of his comboxes a conversation he’d had with somebody who thought I held the Church (by which he apparently meant the hierarchy) in high esteem and put the Church on a pedestal.

News to me. I’ve always agreed with Belloc when he said the Church was “An institute run with such knavish imbecility that if it were not the work of God it would not last a fortnight.” I have a high view of the Holy Spirit, not of the hierarchy, not of the members of the Church and emphatically not of that member who greets me in the mirror each morning.

People assume that since I write about the Catholic faith and say, with conviction, that I believe all that the Church believes, teaches and proclaims is revealed by God, I must therefore do fist pumps and whoop with glee everytime a Leah Libresco comes along and announces they have come to faith. I am, of course, delighted at their faith in the Blessed Trinity and their union with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. But I am *highly* reluctant and resistant to treating converts as notches in the Church’s belt or as scalps collected. I’ve seen too many converts bail on the Church in anger and disappointment like the seed that falls on the path, or in the thorns, or into the bird’s mouth.

This boastful approach to converts is, I think, sinful, vulgar, and dangerous and Dave Deavel gets at some of why that is. Conversion is a trial, both because fellow Catholics can wound the convert deeply and because the convert suffers from the same thing George McClellan did at Antietam: though he brings overwhelmingly superior forces in the form of the Church’s tradition, philosophy, history and sacraments, he also brings himself. And speaking as one who is quite a jerk, I can tell you “Jerk” outweighs “Better Arguments and Sacraments” for most normal people.

Consequently, when people like Leah come along and are naturally full of the first flush of enthusiasm for the faith, I rejoice, but I also issue a note of caution: you have *not* found the Perfect Church and you have not now “arrived” at the platform where you can look down on your past. You have merely found Christ’s Church: a hospital for sinners and an asylum for lunatics before it is a shining paradise of saints in glory. Baptism is not the end, but the beginning of the New Life. The goal is Heaven, not entry into the Church. So set your hopes on Jesus and his saints, not on us oddballs, slobs, factory rejects, broken jerks and ignorant clods. The treasure is there. But it is emphatically in jars of clay. And I speak as the biggest cracked pot of them all. But then, O convert, so are you. That’s why every act of worship begins with the Confiteor and not with “I thank you, O Lord, that I am not like other men”. Now begins the long haul, which won’t be over till you draw your last breath.

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  • Tim

    I thought I read somewhere that technically everyone in the Church is a convert, even cradle Catholics, since we don’t enter the faith until baptism. (If that’s wrong, please let me know). So I guess every Christian’s story is a “conversion story”.

  • Anthony

    Maybe we should get converts like Leah to sign a disclaimer stating all of this. 😉

  • Anthony

    @Tim all of us do require conversion since we’re all sinners and we once convert daily. However the proper noun “convert” is generally reserved for adults who make the conscious choice to become Catholic as opposed to we cradle Catholics who thankfully had Parents do the choosing for us.

  • Ronald King

    Very well stated, Mark.

  • Sal

    Caryll Houselander writes in The Reed of God about the fragility of the new life in Christ, comparing it to the delicacy of seedlings. And of the damage done by the enthusiasts who want to claim that new life for their own agenda, sometimes crushing it to death in the process.
    This is a very real concern of mine for Ms. Libresco. I remember that influx of former Protestant pastor converts back in the ‘nineties who were rushed onto the sawdust trail before they barely had time to get acclimated. Prayers continue for her.

  • John

    Mark, that last paragraph was so well written I got choked up. Now, don’t get too proud of yourself, but…. you sir, have a gift. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    Mark, I ditto what John wrote above: I had to blink a bunch of times reading the final paragraph, because it kept getting blurry due to tears welling up. Beautiful, man!

  • Ted Seeber

    I thought that’s what the doctrine of purgatory is for. But seriously, on another blog where they were criticizing Leah, somebody wondered specifically about how the Church could accept a bisexual pre-marital fornicator into their midst, and charged Leah with converting to a religion she didn’t believe. I responded that she’d fit in perfectly- and used exactly the same hospital for sinners analogy.

    • ivan_the_mad

      Seriously??? Somebody wondered that atrocious, uncharitable, specious thought aloud??? I can’t … I don’t … argh! Good response, Ted.

      • Ted Seeber

        I find the atheist blogs to be places that wake me up and raise my blood pressure. I usually post a few carefully worded responses to the worst of the errors, then leave them to their own thoughts.

        • Rosemarie


          As I’ve said before, I’d rather a sinner be in the Church with access to the Sacraments than outside her and cut off from the graces that flow through her. I’m a sinner, too, after all – and Mother Church is willing to clasp me to her bosom. What right have I to try to push other sinners out of her arms? Besides, if Leah is going to be baptized she will receive a full remission of past sins, plus more graces from the other Sacraments to help her resist sin.

        • Really? I’m glad you’ve decided to make this policy.

  • bob cratchit

    How do I share this? Is there a way to email this to a friend?

    • Ted Seeber

      Click on the envelope icon next to the word “Share” at the bottom of the article. Also available in the same box are Facebook, Twitter, and under the multishare button a wide variety of other places you can share.

      • bob cratchit

        I don’t see it…(the envelope). Maybe my employer has a firewall that prevents it.

  • Ted Seeber

    For your penance of spreading useless rumors about the papacy, I’d sentence you both to read _Crossing the Threshold of Hope_

    Crossposting this back to Mark Shea’s blog as well. It’s a great “How the Sausage Was Made” book, and it put the doctrine of infallibility into perspective for me.

    • Ted Seeber

      Er, I cut and pasted. Meant sharing this to Rod Dreher’s blog as well. Still, damn good book as far as “How the Sausage Is Made” type questions. It’s ghostwritten from interviews, but it also includes a chapter on Bl. Pope John Paul II’s personal thoughts about the assassination attempt.

  • MattyD

    Wow, brilliant piece, Mark. Love it.

  • The problem with the Perfect Church is, the minute you join it, it no longer is.