A four-word question, but not answered so briefly. Before coming to an answer, I think we should first look at the questions included in the initial one. Why be Christian? Why belief in a higher power? Why the step away from atheism/agnosticism towards a belief which, by all appearances, makes life so much harder? Questions that I hope to answer in the following paragraphs, and so formulate an ultimate answer to the question: why am I Catholic? And perhaps some readers may then start to think of another question about themselves: why am I not Catholic?
First, I’d like to clear up some misunderstandings, that crop up every now and then: No, I do not have faith out of fear. I don’t have faith because a book tells me so. I do not have faith because it is the easiest solution. I do not have faith because it is what my parents taught me. I do not think I am a better person than those who have a different or no faith. I do not fear science or find it suspicious. And, lastly, I am also not a dangerous fundamentalist because I have faith and write about faith topics.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get started. And the best way to do that is to tell you my conversion story. You see, for years, I styled myself as an atheist or agnostic (it depended on my mood half the time), so I haven’t been Catholic for very long. How did that happen?
My conversion story
Although it can probably be traced further back to, say, my attendance of Christian schools, my conversion proper began in Advent of 2005, when I asked a Catholic friend if I could join her to weekday Mass. I asked her out of curiosity. I have always been interested in history – old churches have been favourite places to visit for years – and knew a little bit about the externals of Catholic worship: the altars, the priest and the rituals, although that knowledge was really not much. So, out of curiosity I accompanied her, only to find I understood very little of that first Mass: the readings were fine, but you shouldn’t have asked me when to stand, sit or kneel, let alone tell you why.
But somewhere, something triggered me. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that was, but it led me to go more often. I was still a student at the time, but there were lunch breaks where I’d go to Mass instead of sit in the university cafeteria. Why did I continue going? I think that an important aspect was that I felt welcome. In a very basic way: I felt welcomed by the parish community, the few dozen faithful who attended weekday Mass, and later the parish priest and other Catholics from beyond my parish as well. These were not people who were removed from the world of every day, who were ‘aloof’ or something. No, they had jobs, they had families, they had their lives in the city where I lived as well. They were regular people from all walks of life, at home in the down-to-earth north of the Netherlands. They didn’t pretend, they said things as they saw it, but for some reason they all believed in the God that we learned about at Mass, in the words from the Bible and the homily, and who played His part in these people’s lives. He fitted in their lives, or they in His…
As this went on for a while, into the new year of 2006, the sees of question I had ask myself were sown: who am I to say that all these people, who are obviously smart and educated, are wrong? Isn’t it terribly egotistical to pretend that I have the answers, somehow gleaned from my own thought and experience, and these people have, at some point, all been deluded and have been able to keep up that delusion, often for years and decades? What of, for example, the parish priest, an art historian who has been sharing the Word of God with people, administered the sacrament for 25 years and counting? Has he, with his life of study and ministry, simply been deluding himself? What of the lady from a Protestant background, daughter of a minister, who is at home in the Catholic Church? Can she be said to be delusional, after making the unlikely and undoubtedly difficult choice to become Catholic? To simply say that, yes, these people are delusional is presumptuous, even arrogant.
In the meantime, as these thoughts were slowly forming in my head, I also found I needed to ask myself what these steps I had already taken meant. Was it just a nice diversion, a matter of satisfying curiosity, meeting new people? It wasn’t, because much that I heard, during the Masses, but also in conversations with Catholics, seemed to fit in very well with my own ideas about things. Things like the importance of love, of responsibility for one’s own actions, but also what a, at the time, hypothetical relationship between God and people should be like. What the Church taught about these topics was essentially what I had formulated for myself as well, even before I started attending Masses. The cold, hard society we live in did not hold the answer to a satisfactory life, I had long thought. The Church, as I now learned, agreed with me on that.
The ball that got rolling, happily rolled on. I met people in the diocesan youth platform, got involved with the fledgling student parish (where I even found myself as a lector a few times) and eventually mustered the courage to speak to my parish priest about my journey of discovery. We met in his office regularly and just spoke about whatever topic was at hand. I started reading books, found answers to my question and essentially felt at home in this new world, almost. I even met the bishop fairly soon.
About a year after my first Mass experience, towards the end of 2006, I told my parish priest that I wanted to start to process towards Baptism. Happy as he was to hear this, he agreed that we would work towards a Baptism as Easter of 2007, but made a point of telling me that there was no obligation on my part: if I decided I wanted to wait a while longer, that was entirely possible. So we started: our weekly meetings changed tone a bit, as the priest gave me specific reading material and things to consider, and over time we started meeting in groups with other people who would also receive the sacraments of Baptism and/or Confirmation at Easter. In the end, our group counted some nine people, seven of whom would be baptised. The other had been baptised in another church community, so they would only need to be confirmed.
I asked the friend I had first accompanied to Mass to be my godmother, and on 7 April 2007, I was baptised, confirmed and received my first Communion at the cathedral of Sts. Joseph and Martin in Groningen. Bishop (now Cardinal) Wim Eijk performed the ceremony.
Things did not end with those sacraments. In fact, as my parish priest soon told, they were only starting. My conversion is ongoing, as I keep on learning and practicing my faith. I’ll likely keep doing so for the rest of my life, and that’s good thing. You’re never done learning and growing.
But why catholic? Why not another branch of Christianity, or another faith altogether? That’s a difficult question to answer, because any answer involves more than just logical deduction. There is also a sense of conviction and trust – faith, indeed.
In my school days, as I wrote above, I had been introduced to the Christian faith, and particularly the Protestant branch of it. Although that did give me a working knowledge of the Bible and the basics of Christianity, there was no result in the form of a living faith in my life. As far as I can tell, I considered myself an atheist when I began secondary school, although that didn’t stop me from being interested in some elements of the religious education classes I took (which, by the way, are more akin to social studies than true religious education in this country), or from taking part in the annual Easter and Christmas celebrations at school (it’s where I got my interest in theatre from). Even an occasional attendance at Protestant services did not lead to any form of conversion. In fact, they left me with an image of Christianity as dry and dour. How different from my initial impressions of Catholic Christianity!
Here, the faith is not presented as a matter of words and thought, but of the entire human person; body and soul, head and heart. And that means that all those human elements play a part in the ‘choice’ of faith, which is never really a choice at all, since that implies a well-reasoned decisions achieved after comparing all the options. I obviously did not do that. Instead, I found myself in a place that felt right for me, and which continued to feel right (except more so) as I learned more about it. That study of the faith means not just gaining a bunch of knowledge, but also, out of necessity, a growing relationship with the source of that faith: God.
Faith is a relationship, and just like relationships between people, the relationship with God is not solely the product of comparison, logic and solitary reason. In my case it began with curiosity, but it grew with experience, with encouragement, with trust in people and ultimately, with the encounter with God. What was that encounter was for me? It had a number of forms, and it continues to happen from time to time. It can be an intangible feeling, but also a word at the right time (as I experienced during a retreat well before my baptism), a prayer answered, a sacrament received (my first Confession, for example). The things we learn about with our heads, are confirmed by the things that affect our hearts.
Faith as a commitment
Such encouragement as I outlined above is a great incentive to keep trying to search for the encounter with God. But obviously, that doesn’t always happen. Like everyone, I too have bad days when my mind is busy with other things, when concerns distract me, or when I simply don’t put in much of an effort to make the time and space for God. But those moments, when God is just a word, when I sit in church and nothing much seems to be going on, are no reason to give up. Faith is a commitment too. Baptism is for life, and so are the vows I made then, the faith I expressed in the Creed then, and continue to do today. The message of Christ is a promise, even on darker days, even when he seems to be absent. He is there for me, but I also have to be there for Him; be it alone in prayer or at Mass, or through other people. It’s a two-way relationship, and I can’t just give up when I feel like it. In that way the relationship with God is, once more, not unlike the relationship with family or friends. Family bonds or friendships don’t end when there’s been a disagreement, or when someone’s been absent when you needed them. We are there for each other, as family, as friends, and also as God and His people.
Then, although faith must be, because of its very identity, be a personal matter, there is also the public aspect. As Catholics, this aspect is usually seen in the form of the ‘institutionalised Church’: the ancient structure of the Church with its priests and bishops, parishes and dioceses, pope and Curia, social teachings, Catechism and canon law. Is this a necessary evil, or does it also play a positive part in my faith life.
Readers of my blog will know that, for me, the latter is the case. I am personally interested in the workings of the Church on earth, but apart from a mere quirk on my part, I believe that the ‘institutionalised Church’ is a very necessary element of our faith. Whatever the situation, in order for people to grow ands flourish, for endeavours to succeed, structure is required. That is especially true when we are talking about such an enormous heritage as that of the Church: ranging from the faith deposit of the Jewish people to the writings of modern scholars and, yes, the experience of all faithful. These all contribute to the heritage that we inherit, and that the Church is called to safeguard and communicate.
Although the Church is Christ’s it consist of people and is therefore a very human entity. Instead of considering the ‘institutionalised Church’ as an enemy to a free experience of faith, we should see her as its guardian. With that attitude we can tackle the hard questions without being immediately forced to consider the question of staying or going.
Faith is, in the first place, an expression of love. As a faithful Christian, I don’t pretend to know it all, but I have trust in God, working in me and the people around me, that He will lead me to where He wants me, and I will take an active part in that. I will be actively lead.
Returning to the misunderstandings that I listed above, and which I find leveled against me and other people of faith time and again, I think we can start ticking them off.
I belief in God out of fear. Hardly. If my faith can be seen as a reaction to life and society, it is a conviction that the secular worldview does not work. I don’t fear life and the world we live in, but I believe they are better with God in them.
I have faith because a book tells me to. The Bible is a guide, since it tells me who God is. It is a foundation, to be read and understood within the framework of tradition and human thought. It is an inspiration, because nowhere else do we read the Word of God. It is not the single reason that I believe.
I have faith because it’s easier. In today’s world, having no faith is easier, since most people express having none, and they are encouraged to keep it private if they do have it. Having faith is also not the easy way because it tells me what to think. It does not. Rather, it encourages me to think, learn and understand.
I have faith because that’s what I learned from my parents or teachers. I was raised without much in the way of religious faith. Religious education classes were social study classes more than RE.
I think I am a better person because I have faith. On the contrary, I know I am no better than anyone else, but I also know that there is a way to improve myself. Having faith does not automatically make me a good person, since faith without good works is worthless.
I fear science. Science and faith both have the same goal: the search for te truth, and therefore they can’t contradict each other. If they disagree, one of the two is wrong. It’s up to us to then find out which one it is, and what the error is.
Why am I Catholic? Because the Church is home. Because I believe in God who takes His people seriously, and loves them like parents love their children. Because I don’t think I can now everything and decide what truth, right or wrong is. Because I hope, and because I believe in love. That is why I am Catholic.
Image credits:  Royalty-Free/Corbis,  author’s own,  bizario.com