A reader very graciously writes:
8 years ago, I was trapped between my heart’s recognition of Christ in the Eucharist and my deep desire to be united to the Church and my intellectual integrity which would not allow me to give my “Amen” to everything the Church teaches when I certainly did not know, understand, and hold as truth each individual precept. As I began to learn more about the Church, I was as dismayed as I was impressed by the vast Tradition, because in my mind, I was personally responsible before Christ to individually discern and to accept or reject each doctrine. Thankfully, God brought many intelligent, caring Catholics into my life to help explain some concepts to me… each small revelation was a gift, bringing hope. I was so broken over the brokenness of the church, and I was too far already for things to ever be the same. I was a non-denominational community youth worker with Youth For Christ/Youth Unlimited at the time, working in several churches and with several pastors and having my youthful idealism which felt united to all that called themselves Christian regardless of doctrine… I was being confronted by the true brokenness of the church for the first time… I used to go to daily mass before heading to college, and cry at the consecration for the brokenness of the church… I wanted to be united to the Lord in the Eucharist, but I was SO STUCK. Then one day I wandered into Jacob’s Well, the local Christian book store, owned by one of the board members of YFC who I understood to be a bit anti-Catholic. He had recently been bringing in a few things for a “Catholic Interest” shelf though, so I took a glance, and there was your book, By What Authority… just one copy. Though it crossed my mind that I didn’t want to have to explain my purchase, I wanted that book, it was like it was there just for me! So I bought it… And there it was, my answer from God. YES. Of course. The teaching authority of Christ… yes OF COURSE! I don’t know and understand everything in scripture, but I can give my Amen by faith, and take the rest of my life to understand it. If indeed the Tradition is Divinely Inspired, God Breathed… I can become Catholic! NOW! Ahhhhh…. the weight of the world slipped off of my shoulders, I went to the wonderful, kind and patient priest the next day and told him I would come into the Church at Easter, a couple weeks later (I had fulfilled the RCIA requirements). Because of the sensitivity of the issue based on my job, and because I didn’t want my boyfriend, who happened to be Catholic to think any of this had ANYTHING to do with him (because it didn’t, I was “denomination blind” remember), I had kept this whole journey a secret from all but a few lovely Catholics that had literally no connection to anyone in my life. So it came as a pretty big shock to everyone to hear I was joining the Church. But thanks to your book, which was so clear and concise, it was so easy for me to explain myself, and stand tall in my decision. My boss and beloved mentor gave me some anti-Catholic literature, and I was able to quickly and easily refute it’s entire premise. It was plain to see that my heart’s integrity and my mind’s integrity was intact, that I was fully convicted and convinced… and the day I came into the Church, over 20 evangelical friends, co workers, and pastors were there to support me. It was one of the happiest days of my life. Perhaps the most happy.Later that year I was engaged to my husband. We’ve been married 6.5 years and have two beautiful daughters (and it’s a secret still, but another child is given us too!)… and I am so in love with my Catholic faith. I love to learn more and more about it- the liturgical year, the saints, the history, the orders, the sacramentals, the devotions, the prayers… to test and purify my thoughts by taking in the great writings of the doctors, the saints, the popes, the councils… Where would I be without my Holy Mother? (Yes, and my Mother Mary as well!)
And I know that all things are possible with God, and He could have found another way to help me. But I wanted you to know how mightily, how beautifully, how simply He used your writing to free me to come into His Church… to come to Him. Without a doubt, through your writing you have become one of the most influential people in my life, and I think of you with the utmost gratitude and affection. May God bless you and your family, and may He continue to use your writing to bring souls to Himself.
That said, work like this is not without its perils: the chief of them being that when you are so closely bound up with the central religious experience of somebody’s life and they heap praise on you for it, you can start believing that you “converted” somebody. You can stop referrring the gratitude of good people to God and start slyly referring it to yourself. That is a dangerous lie, one of the most dangerous you can tell yourself. As I said some time back:
We humans are like children watching Dad work under the hood of the car on the big mysterious engine of the human heart that we are not even tall enough to see. Periodically, Jesus emerges from under the hood, hands us a wrench and says “Hold this.” We do so, Jesus does some more fiddling under the hood, and then tells us to pump the gas, turn the key and start ‘er up. Vroom! goes the engine and our friends and playmates in our kindergarten class of discipleship say, “Wow! He helped his Dad fix the car!” If we are fools, we listen to our friends. If we are monumental fools, we believe the banana oil about how our words or deeds “convert” people or “brought them into the Church.” If we are wise, we listen to St. Paul:
For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely men? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. (1 Cor 2:4-6)
No mere creature has ever “converted” another to faith in Christ. Not the Blessed Virgin. Not St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Apollos, [insert favorite apologetic subculture teacher here], nor most especially me, who mostly spends my time creating obstacles to people’s faith by being an annoying and sometimes scandalous sinner. It’s impossible for one human to change another human’s heart. The best we humans can do is, by grace, furnish occasions for people to open themselves to the Holy Spirit’s working. God, in sheer grace, lets us hold a wrench, turn a key, or do some other act that cooperates with his grace at work in the lives of our neighbors. Sometimes, as a result, people will feel grateful to the human being who helped them on the way to Christ, as I am, for instance, grateful to such people as Chesterton or the sundry Christians in my life who have been agents of grace for me. I owe them a debt I can never repay. But it is absolute folly to credit any human being with giving you the grace of conversion. God gave you that and generously lets us creatures hold a wrench and bask in a bit of his reflected glory. The moment we creatures either give to others or demand for ourselves the divine honor of having “converted” somebody is the moment we are engaging in the sin of idolatry.
Bottom line: I’m thrilled and grateful to God for the gift he gave me of participating in the stuff he’s doing in the world. But I try to always remember that the key word in that sentence is “gift”. So to my reader: Glory to God through our Lord Jesus Christ and thank you for your kind words. May He continue till the day of Christ Jesus the good work he has begun in you and bring you and all you love into the light of his Presence both now and forever! Amen!