Becoming a Roman Catholic was one of the best decisions I ever made, and certainly the most life-changing. But in truth I had only a vague notion of the deep waters I was wading into. What would have been helpful over the past 40 years? Here are a dozen things I wish I had heard and internalized sooner, and some concrete items that established Catholics ought to consider.
• Formation never ends, but you’ll be (mostly) doing it yourself from here on out. As St. John Paul II said, “All formation … is ultimately a self-formation. No one can replace us in the responsible freedom that we have as individual persons” (“Pastores dabo vobis,” No. 69). The Order of Christian Initiation of Adults (OCIA) is a guided process of intense catechesis and prayer aimed toward baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. After that, the training wheels come off and you are ready to ride. But remember: the best way to keep your own faith growing is to contribute to the formation of others.
• There are some people who seem ready to canonize new Catholics while the chrism is still wet on their foreheads, and others who are equally ready to view them with doubt. Worse than either, though, are those who will push new Catholics into leadership roles too quickly. Don’t ask. And don’t say yes. New Catholics need to allow themselves some time and space to acclimate.
• Those who enter the church through OCIA probably know more about the Catholic faith than at least 75% of their co-religionists. If you’re a cradle Catholic, don’t let that discourage you. If you’re a convert, don’t let it make you feel proud — or frustrated. It’s a sad reality that the formation catechumens and candidates receive is almost always superior to what is provided to everyone else.
• The church is even bigger than you thought, and it’s easy to get lost. Newbies would do well to find a few tour guides who can show them around what they know and love, but without pushing it as the best-or-only path for everyone. Each of us should discover our leading grace. That means trying on different types of Catholic spiritualities — and there are dozens — until we find one that fits. All of us should be careful not to impose a veneer of monastic spirituality over our secular lives. Our task, as St. Francis de Sales puts it in his “Introduction to the Devout Life,” is to “be who you are and be that well.”
• When the church hurts and/or disappoints you — and she will — love her anyway. Popes, bishops, priests, deacons, religious and fellow parishioners will all fall short. Some will admit their errors and do what they can to correct them. Others will ignore bad behavior and continue to justify it or cover it up. Loving the church doesn’t mean excusing anything that is contrary to the Gospel. It does mean avoiding anger and the desire for revenge. Speaking or acting prophetically can be costly. Integrity, however, is always worth the price.
• There are all kinds of self-described Catholics. Resist the temptation to hyphenate yourself and go narrow. Instead, enjoy the fact that there’s room for all valid forms of authentic Christian discipleship in the church. That’s what makes us catholic!
• Find a spiritual director and a posse of go-to saints. Make holiness your goal. Be patient with yourself but persevere. Recognize that the things most likely to keep you from becoming a saint are deficits in human formation, and we all have them.
• Root yourself in a parish and decide to live with the things you don’t like. In the great scheme of things, personal preferences, tastes and opinions don’t matter.
• Keep praying. When it seems like no one is listening, pray more.
• Don’t expect Catholic life to be easy. Remember: we are following someone who was persecuted and put to death when he didn’t deserve it.
• Don’t become a Sacristy Rat. Participate in the mission of the church to be Christ in the world. Those who never leave the loft will always be preaching to the choir.
• Faith is personal, not institutional. Keep Jesus first. Not even the church can (or should) take his place. The Eucharist draws people to the church and the Eucharist is what keeps us here. Nothing else comes close.
Sometimes we forget that while the church is a treasury of God’s grace, it was meant to be lived in. Welcome home, new Catholics, (and sorry about the mess).
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a sinner, Catholic convert, freelance writer and editor, musician, speaker, pet-aholic, wife and mom of eight grown children, loving life in New Orleans. “Called to Holiness” appears biweekly at OSV News.