I was converted by Haitian Eucharistic hymns.
Of course, there is a good deal more to the story than that, but the statement is nonetheless true – especially if one considers the conversion process (which never really ends) to contain many conversions, big and small, along the way. And my first conversion in relation to the Catholic Church was the gradual realization that something bigger than I knew was going on in the liturgy, and particularly in the Eucharist. It was the hymnody that first drew me to that Catholic parish in rural Haiti starting on its feast day (which I’ve written about here), and after several months of singing those communion hymns about the real and living presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I found to my surprise that I believed them.
This realization came to a head on the feast of Corpus Christi, which in the francophone world is known as “Fête Dieu.” More literally (and somewhat awkwardly), this can translate as “God Day,” a moniker that had me confused until I heard the priest say that it was the feast of the body and blood of Christ. That day, I participated in a Eucharistic procession before I had even heard the term. The town’s many Catholic households had decorated their cactus fences with colorful drapes, and certain houses along the way had altars set up for adoration. As we alternately processed through town and knelt before the Blessed Sacrament, we sang literally every Eucharistic hymn in the book. I found the whole thing very moving as I pondered this vast mystery I was discovering, brought out in these songs mostly composed by Haitian priests and containing some pretty substantial sacramental theology. I remember in a particular moment, when we had stopped at one of the decorated houses, being newly struck by a line I had heard before about being gathered by Christ into one family and one race. Outside of that context, this may sound like a bit of a cliché, but in a place where my own racial distinction was being called to my attention multiple times a day, it meant something – especially as it was consistent with my experience of the liturgy and even outside it among those who were being fed by it: I was human there; I was a member of the Body; I was (at least in that hour) one of them.
Even after experiencing a graduate-level mystagogy in which I encountered all kinds of heavy-duty Eucharistic theology from Karl Rahner to Thomas Aquinas to the earliest liturgies of the ancient Church, I am all the more amazed by the well-developed and well-rounded sacramentality I still see in those Haitian communion hymns that first introduced me to Christ in the Eucharist. Maybe because I find certain things easier to believe when sung, these songs that were substantial enough to speak to my rational mind also proved to be an accessible in-road to a sacramental theology that was new to me. I couldn’t have found a better catechesis if I’d tried.