Moving from a Reformed Congregation to a Catholic ParishNov 30th, 2011 | By Tom Brown | Category: Blog Posts
Stories of conversion from the Reformed faith to the Catholic Church abound. When I was Reformed, and was contemplating the claims of the Catholic Church, I read many conversion stories. I searched them and I probed them, looking for that nugget by which I could understand why the particular story’s author had gone off the tracks and landed in popery. As time went on, and as I became more aware of the real possibility that the Catholic claims were true, I started looking for something else in these conversion stories. I started to look for anecdotes about life after conversion to the Catholic Church. But all too often the stories ended with, “…and I received Confirmation and First Communion at the Easter Vigil, [year].”
This is my experience moving from life in a Reformed congregation as a committed Calvinist to life in an American Catholic parish as a Catholic who strives to live like one. It is not my conversion story, that is, not an explanation of why I converted or what I went through during my conversion.
As Presbyterians, my wife and I moved a lot. Before we were enrolled in an RCIA class together,1 my wife and I had been married for eight years, and had lived in six places. We had been married at McLean Presbyterian Church, a large and influential PCA church in an affluent D.C. suburb. Later, we were members of a medium-sized church in Virginia Beach, VA, New Covenant PCA; a large and ‘contemporary’ church in Annapolis, MD, Annapolis Evangelical Presbyterian; a church that had just changed from the OPC denomination to the PCA, New Life, in La Mesa, CA; and a small and extremely close-knit church plant, Dayspring Presbyterian, in Linthicum, MD.
These congregations had much in common with each other and with the churches of my wife’s and my upbringing. Generally speaking, our peers at these places had a sincere love for God, a willingness to place God first in their lives at all costs. As much as I hated “church shopping” at each move, I loved getting settled in to each of these particular congregations, growing in the faith with families similar to my own, getting to know the pastor, and encouraging our elders. We were involved in a host of programs, such as fellowship groups, Sunday morning Bible studies, nursery, and choir, as well as all of the wonderful ad hoc events that occurred throughout the year. And in terms of sharing in intimate Christian love, our experience at our last Reformed congregation was our best; that is, we left on a high note. We became dear friends with the pastor and his wife, could trust our children around any of the other families, and could call on a long list of friends if we ever needed extra help in life.
There were strains too. Several of these congregations had encountered internal factionalism, a church ‘split’, or (in the one case) a denominational change. Issues of contention included musical styles, preaching styles, and (certainly) doctrinal matters. We saw protracted disputes over the role of the Holy Spirit, the necessity for elders to be paedobaptists, the proper age at which children could receive communion, and the significance of the communion elements themselves. There were moral issues that created angst within these congregations too: very common experiences with divorce, where emotional distance was equated with ‘adultery’ (‘porneia’) so as to invoke the supposed New Testament permissions for divorce; disagreements on the permissibility of different forms of contraception; the propriety of in vitro fertilization (and prayers for the efficacy of said technique); and so on.
Generally speaking, we loved the fellowship and community, and accepted the ecclessial, doctrinal, and moral struggles as inevitable for the people of God still struggling in sin. As my intellectual switches slowly began to be thrown in favor of Catholicism’s claims, I was distressed at the thought of leaving life in a Reformed congregation to head for Catholic parish life. In that instance, the grass definitely did not seem greener on the other side. Catholics, my generalization went, had a weak commitment to their faith, shared little in fellowship, concerned themselves more with bingo and raffle tickets than fellowship and outreach, never read their Bibles, didn’t know their faith, and didn’t listen to a word spoken by the homilist.
So how has Catholic parish life gone for the Browns? The answer to that question deserves a quick caveat. When I accepted that the Catholic Church was the one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, the Church Christ founded, I made an acknowledgement. It hit me that if the Church was those things in my own time, she was also those things through her least attractive times. She will be those things in the future, no matter what clerical scandals or conditions of lay despondency should occur. Because of what she is and what is contained in her Eucharist, as well as because of the mandate extra ecclesiam nulla salus, for those who recognize what the Catholic Church is or might be, there is a special and essential obligation to learn and then to follow one’s properly formed conscience. So, simply stated, I would have joined the Catholic Church even if faced with the lousiest parish life imaginable because I did not join for Catholic parish life. That said, Catholic parish life for my family has been sweet and precious, and also has left some things to be desired.
Catholic parish life is sweet and precious because we are able to connect with dear Christians who love their faith and who live in the fullness of the Catholic faith. Where we have ‘connected’ with others who have given their lives over to God’s service, we have ‘connected’ at a much deeper level than I have previously experienced. I do not attribute this to a deeper commitment to God’s service by these Catholics than I could have found in my Presbyterian congregants. Not at all! But in my Presbyterian congregations, there was never a complete “meeting of the minds” on the faith with any other person, I suppose including my own wife. One fellow may have held a virtually identical view on Predestination (giving us great kinship) while simultaneously holding a discordant view on contraception. Or another fellow may have been very like-minded on moral issues, but then not seen a problem with putting leftover communion bread out with the fellowship snacks after the service. The proper way for Christians to live was not knowable apart from a common interpretation of Scripture. But since each individual was his or her own final interpretative authority of Scripture, we never could be mutually abandoned to a common way of Christian life. Those of my fellow parishioners who are abandoned to the teaching authority of the Catholic magisterium can thereby be mutually abandoned to a common way of Christian life, like-minded with me in doctrine and morals. This creates a depth of fraternity which I had not previously experienced, despite the amazing fraternal love I shared with many of my Reformed brethren.
In addition, in Catholic parish life we get to worship right along with all of the great Saints in Heaven. When we partake of the Holy Eucharist, we are bodily united with all of the Holy Catholic Church, including our Bishops, our separated loved ones, and even the distant Redemptorist monks at Papa Stronsay, Scotland, or those giant-hearted Missionaries of Charity sisters in Calcutta. Our local parish’s liturgy and mass is the same as that of a parish of any other language, on any other continent, even in places of war. While spending last Christmas in the heart of Afghanistan, attending mass said by a Czech priest, in Czech, I was still united by the Bread of Heaven with my wife and our home parish.
My parish’s liturgy also contains rich music that is itself a part of the worship. It is traditional, but not because it is “old fashioned” (many of the compositions are modern). It is traditional because it taps into the traditional role of music in the Catholic liturgy. (I must concede at this point that many Catholic parishes do deal with debates over music that are strikingly similar to those at Protestant congregations. A distinction lies in the ability to resolve this debate through resort to tradition and the role of music in the Church’s liturgy.) Lent is a community sacrifice, Hallow-e’en is given context, and Christmas is a season that doesn’t start until December 25th! We even have shared adventures, like when we process the body of Christ through town.
Speaking more generally, there are many similarities between Catholic parish life and Presbyterian congregational life. In parishes one can find fellowship groups, Bible studies, prayer groups, youth groups, young-professionals groups, moms groups, boy scouts, and the like. But, admittedly, there are improvements to be desired. Even in parishes that are committed to orthodoxy, one can find many a frustrating faux pas, such as parishioners entering mass with a cup of Starbucks in hand.2 Also, one might hear some wonky teaching in RCIA, or in a homily when visiting a parish with a less-than-stellar priest. The religious education of children is based on a parochial school model that is rapidly becoming antiquated — this leaves home school and public school kids to run through a one-size-fits-all religious education program that leaves a “check in the box” taste in the parent’s mouth. And yes, as expected, there are plenty of older Catholics who seem more enthused about raffle sales than outreach.
Ultimately, I love the richness, and am invigorated by what I perceive to be “growth areas.” There is so much grace in the sacraments and in tradition on which I can lean for strength. And I could never run out of opportunities to be involved in ‘ministries’ and the lives of my fellow parishioners, to encourage them to run the race set before them with perseverance.
Nothing has given me a misgiving about parish life that I could not also find in some Reformed denomination or individual congregation. If the more earnest and orthodox among us parishioners could pack up and form our own Catholic denomination, perhaps some of the aforesaid deficits would disappear. But in the process we would have instantly cashed in on all the treasures of being in unity with the Church founded by our Lord Jesus Christ. We would also wind up cashing in on doctrinal purity, since the source of the Catholic Church’s purity is not a core group of earnest and orthodox believers, but the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost to the Church. While I did not join the Catholic Church for Catholic parish life, I have been filled with joy by that parish life.
- RCIA is the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a ritual and classroom-based process for unbaptized persons to enter the Catholic Church, but also used by many parishes to catechize Christians baptized as Protestants who are seeking to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. [↩]
- This violates the fast, assuming the human cupholder is partaking of Holy Eucharist; it is disrespectful to those who are fasting, if he is not. [↩]