/Catholicism is a place to present new developments in the world of Catholicism, discuss theological teachings of the Catholic Church, provide an avenue for reasonable dialogue amongst people of all beliefs, and grow in our own spirituality. Catholic Christianity offers the world the fullness of the Christian Faith.
A sub for discussing a possibly unhealthy obsession with the anime and manga Love Stage!
25 years ago today I was confirmed Catholic. Thanks in part to William Shatner. Here is my conversion story [long]
[Actually the Shatner thing was an aside. As you'll see, the truth is I had an insane amount of topmost catechetical opportunities and resources made available to me and yet I was, embarrassingly now, a skeptic for as long as I was.]
"Conversion of the skeptic"
Written: February 7, 1995 - May 27, 1995
[But square bracket material, which provides 25-year hindsight, added September 4, 2019. Also the names of all non-clergy people have been deleted. I tried to retain 100% of the personal stuff, but there are a couple of sentences I did end up deleting.]
Confirmed: September 5, 1994
From atheism to confirmation took 17 months. I was baptized, raised, and even confirmed as a Missouri-Synod Lutheran. Like many teenagers, I stopped going to church with my parents. I was about 14. I became agnostic, preferring to leave the important questions for "some other time."
Agnosticism is one of the many forms of atheism [taught in my RCIA class]. As I grew older, I developed a few tenets which bordered on deism, another form of atheism. I held that human life was the most beautiful thing to exist, and that everyone should strive to preserve the existence of the human race in the universe. Individual human lives were of secondary importance to the long-term survival of mankind. But since I believed the key to survival was the traditional family, I was pro-life. I believed abortion to be one of the causes of the breakdown of the modern family, so I was against abortion except in the cases of rape and incest.
To back up slightly and concentrate on the abortion issue, my original awareness to the issue came at age 15 from my [best] friend, a Catholic. I knew the word, but was unaware of the fury surrounding it, and I had never before considered the issue. My friend brought it up as an issue, and it didn't take long for him to convince me that abortion was bad. As I grew older, the truth that abortion is murder became more clear. I even became against the I.U.D. and I also argued that a single cell human being should be saved because it had a unique genetic code. But equally as important to me then was the preservation of the human race, and how abortion jeopardized that.
The abortion issue typifies the basis of my philosophy as an atheist.
The goal of preserving the human race was inspired by science-fiction such as Star Trek: The Next Generation. The means to that goal was inspired by the Catholic Church. I recognized the value of the high morals, and the preservation of the family espoused by the Catholic Church. I also recognized the longevity of the Catholic Church and saw its morals as a means to my goal.
I believed the questions of the existence of God and His relationship to Creation and man today to be unknowable. I believed that perhaps the human race was just a group of mice in a cage, as proposed by Kurt Vonneget Jr. in his Sirens of Titan
which I had to read for English literature, or as described in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
. Under those possibilities, man would have little hope as the keeper of the cage could snuff out the race at a whim. But I thought it was worth a shot anyway.
That was the culmination of my atheistic philosophy, which as promised, bordered on deism. Now like most young men, I was interested in meeting young women.
[This is the point where I insert a major portion of hindsight and backstory. Where I lived, the Washington DC area, especially the singles scene, was dominated at the time by Boomers, meaning the women were 8-20 years older than me. The GenX people my own age just hung out in bars. Remember, this was (just) before the Internet. There was nothing else to do; hanging out in bars was the
thing to do, and it just wasn't for me.]
[OK, so I was wondering where I could meet women my own age. More than wondering; I was quite distraught about it. It didn't help that I was a computer nerd. Nerds didn't make a lot of money back then (not until the dot-com boom) so we didn't even have that going for us.]
[So, in January 1992 the repeat of William Shatner's famous 1986 Saturday Night Live appearance comes on. But I don't believe I had ever seen it before (remember: no YouTube, no social media). http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/howtowatchTV/clips/shatner-takes-on-star-trek-fans-on-snl/view
It changed my life. I vowed to change my life. Yes, I vowed to get a life. My best friend set me up with his neighbor, a young woman my age. I accepted invitation from the (older) women in my office to go country/western dancing. But the real change occurred due to a hard drive crash in August, 1992 from my Internet startup, halluc.com. You see, in 1990-1992 I was an Internet Service Provider. Here is a complete list of every server on the Internet in Virginia in 1992: http://www.mit.edu/afs.new/athena/contrib/potluck/Net-Services/net-directory/maps/uucp.bak/u.usa.va.1
When the hard drive crashed, rather than spending time to rebuild everything from backups, I decided the whole Internet thing would never take off in popularity, and I gave it up, giving me time to develop a social life and, oh by the way as it turns out, become Catholic along the way. OK, so I lost out on an early retirement, but I got the Catholic faith instead.]
So I signed up for every single's event and club in the Washington, DC area. The problem is that no women in their 20's did. The Washington, DC demographics have mostly baby-boomers (30's and 40's), plus young people tended to hang out in bars, which I did not care for. I was distraught.
Then one day in April, 1993, my best friend [a practicing Catholic] invited me to a get-together at Bob's Big Boy. He had been taking night classes that school year at the Notre Dame Institute for Catechesis, based at Queen of Apostles in Alexandria, Virginia [which subsequently got merged into Christendom College and became their graduate school https://www.christendom.edu/about/a-history-of-christendom-college/
]. One of his classmates, a woman, had arranged a get-together just before one of the classes. Eager to expand my social arena, even with religious zealots, I tagged along with my best friend. It was OK.
Meanwhile, that woman classmate was planning a trip to Denver to see Pope John Paul II for his August, 1993 visit. My best friend had been mentioning this trip for a while, but I was not interested because I was concerned about 30 people trying to share one bathroom with one tiny hot-water heater. The woman classmate invited my best friend to a party, which was to be a combination Denver planning party and birthday celebration for the woman's boyfriend.
Eager to meet more people, I went along with my best friend to this party. Lo and behold, there were lots of nice, young women. Even though I had no intention of going to Denver, I eagerly went to the second planning party. While the first party was all party and little planning, the second involved some planning. They played the first half of the movie about Pope John Paul II, and a videotape advertisement for the ranch we would be staying at. Also, the woman classmate had brought a large posterboard with a floor plan of the ranch. The videotape showed a luxurious ranch, and the floor plan revealed eight bedrooms and four bathrooms. I was guaranteed a bed and a good percentage of a bathroom!
The real inspiration to go to Denver was the movie about Pope John Paul II. Though I scoffed his authority, I saw that we was a great man in his own right. I wanted to see him purely on those grounds.
The other important thing that happened at the second planning party was that a male friend of the woman classmate encouraged me to come to the prayer group that several people at the party attended regularly. He said there were "lots of babes" there. Prayer or not, uncomfortable or not, I was going. I twisted my best friend's arm into going with me. I considered him, a Catholic, my ticket into this strange gathering. I was pretending he forced me to go, when it was really the other way around. It turns out that male friend of the woman classmate was right. After about my second visit to the weekly prayer group, I found I actually liked praying the Rosary. I found it peaceful and meditative. Since it was pleasant, and since I figured it wouldn't hurt to learn about the Catholic faith, I attended the prayer group, weekly without fail.
I actually committed to the Denver trip at the third planning party.
The trip to Denver was a blast. It was constant companionship with 20 other single young adults. It was like going away to camp as a kid. The overnight vigil in Cherry Creek Park with 300,000 other "youth" was great. The ranch was nestled in the Rockies at 9,000 feet elevation [possibly Breckenridge area?].
Every morning and evening we made the 70 minute commute through the continental divide in our rented vans praying the rosary. Every day brought a new level of togetherness. The trip was, up until that point, the best time of my life. I was still an atheist, but I was having a great time.
Around the time of the Denver trip, my best friend had started going to another prayer group [hosted by a group of young women sharing a home in Annandale, Virginia]. My best friend had met one of the young women at a wedding that spring. At the time, I considered her "too religious" for me to be comfortable hanging around her. But my best friend eventually followed up during the summer, and went to one of their prayer groups by himself. He told me that they sang during their prayer groups, so I decided to stay away from that prayer group, despite the reportedly large number of young women there. After many such reports, I eventually gave in. It was intense -- they kneeled through the whole rosary! But it wasn't so bad. I got used to it. I alternated between the two prayer groups during late summer and early fall of 1993, to maximize my social arena.
Another reason I alternated was because every other Sunday at the Annandale prayer group, the leader [who learned at Thomas Aquinas College and would years later become a locally-recognized expert] led a discussion on the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, using the book Light of Faith
, which is the [then-] recent translation of his Compendium of Faith. St. Thomas is a father and doctor of the Catholic Church. He is also a philosopher who followed the lines of Aristotle, and used his philosophical methods to explain Catholic doctrines. Since I had jumped in a few weeks into the progress through the book, and since I had never been exposed to philosophy in my life, I was more than just lost the first time.
During my second attendance, they (the leader reading St. Thomas) built on what was discussed during my first attendance, and I started to feel the flow of things. I had the leader order me a copy of the book. Through these discussions, and through my own reading of the book, I quickly became convinced of the existence of God, as well as several qualities about Him: eternal, all-powerful, uniqueness. I wasn't convinced that He was the Catholic God at that point. Through further discussion, I also became convinced, through St. Thomas' explanation of matter and form, of the feasibility of the immortality of the human soul. I was not convinced this was necessarily so, however.
To quote the first non-introductory chapter:
Chapter 3: The existence of God
Regarding the unity of the divine essence, we must first believe that God exists. This is a truth clearly known by reason. We observe that all things that move are moved by other things, the lower by the higher. The elements are moved by heavenly bodies; and among the elements themselves, the stronger moves the weaker; and even among the heavenly bodies, the lower are set in motion by the higher. This process cannot be traced back into infinity. For everything that is moved by another is a sort of instrument of the first mover. Therefore, if a first mover is lacking, all things that move will be instruments. But if the series of movers and things moved is infinite, there can be no first mover. In such a case, these infinitely many movers and things moved will all be instruments.
But even the unlearned perceive how ridiculous it is to suppose that instruments are moved, unless they are set in motion by some principal agent. This would be like fancying that, when a chest or bed is being built, the saw or the hatchet that performs its functions without the carpenter. Accordingly, there must be a first mover that is above all the rest; and this being we call God.
[Another major part of the Annandale prayer group was taking a half-mile walk through a field after the rosary each week to the perpetual adoration chapel at St. Michael Church https://stmichaelannandale.org
. The first time I had no idea what it was; I just followed right in. If you've ever been to an adoration chapel, you know what it's like: tiny, with kneelers, completely silent, with the consecrated host displayed in a gold monstrance. The first time, I sort of gathered something important and awesome was going on; I wasn't exactly sure what. This hunch was reinforced by the prayer group leader asking afterward what I thought. I didn't know. By the second or third time, I somehow inferred the idea they were worshipping God in the Eucharist (the consecrated host). No doubt my Lutheran upbringing helped play a role, because Martin Luther described it in his catechism as Jesus being "in with and under the bread and wine". Catholics, of course, believe in complete transubstantiation (change in substance) where the bread and wine become
the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ.]
Also sometime during the fall of 1993, I happened across a pamphlet on birth control [Couple To Couple League, 1982]. Birth control had always been a reason for me to try to avoid the Catholic Church. Finding out how the Pill actually sometimes aborts fertilized eggs, and how Natural Family Planning is just as effective allayed my fears and concerns. I became more open to the Catholic Church because of that.
One Sunday evening In January, 1994 at the end of a prayer group meeting at the Annandale prayer group, a group of us were standing outside St. Michael Church, and a young woman from the Annandale prayer group walked up and played a big roles in it. But that night she did not attend because she started attending a class at Notre Dame Institute, a tiny local graduate school. The class was on Catholic Apologetics and was taught by Father Most [who would later become semi-famous for being the lead apologist for ewtn.com]. She was saying how great the class was, and that maybe, "Hey, this would be a great class for Mike". I had heard about this course because my best friend had taken it the previous year. I signed up.
Shortly after I signed up for the class, Lent was rolling around.
Dancing [swing/ballroom/country-western] had been an obsession with me since August, 1992. One evening in February, 1994, I invited a couple of women from the Annandale prayer group over to the house of one of my [regular] dance partners [eight years older than me] so that I could teach them some steps. After it was over, as we were leaving, my [regular] dance partner asked when we were going to do it again. I replied that since Lent started the next day, they wouldn't be back anytime soon because they took things further than most Catholics, and so would not be dancing during Lent. Outside, one of the women [yet another of the Annandale housemates] told me that she could explain Lent to me, but that I probably wouldn't care.
I asked her to go ahead anyway. She explained that Lent is a time where we can detach ourselves from worldly things, and spend more time on spiritual matters. She further said that someone like me who was exploring the faith could especially benefit from giving something up, and spend more time in prayer. That was news to me. I had always thought that Catholics gave things up for Lent in order to be more like Christ, and that was it. Since I wasn't convinced about anything about Christ, I had no intention of observing Lent under those pretenses.
But after her explanation, I readily gave up dancing.
With the extra time I had, I learned a lot from Fr. Most's class. Fr. Most is a scholar, well-versed in classical history and languages. The textbook for the course was his book, Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics
[full text is now available for free at https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/most/getwork.cfm?worknum=212
but the book is only 1% of listening to Fr. Most's vast knowledge and engaging personality in person]. The approach he used to explain the Catholic faith was to first use the Synoptics (the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as historical documents. He does an investigation as to the validity and reliability of these books as historical documents.
The conclusion is that the following points can be determined with confidence, strictly from an historical perspective, from the books:
1/ There was a man named Jesus.
This fact is borne out of secular history as well, such as the Annals
2/ He claimed He was sent from God as a sort of messenger.
Note that we are not saying at this point that Jesus was divine, or that He even said
He was divine. We are only saying that He [said He] was sent
3/ He did enough to prove this by miracles done with a connection between the claim and the cure.
Not only do we have evidence from the Synoptics, but also from Tacitus, and even more compelling, the modern miracles associated with the Catholic Church. The three miracles which have occurred this millennium which were compelling to me were:
i) The healings at Lourdes. Hundreds of people visit Lourdes daily. Most claim a healing. Indeed, the power of suggestion is a scientifically proven healer. But there is a team of doctors present on-site which investigate the healings to disprove them. Several healings over the past century have completely baffled the doctors, and one doctor was even converted. One example is a blind woman whose optic nerve had withered. Her sight was restored, even though her nerve was still withered. Three months later, her nerve was found to be restored.
ii) Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Mary appeared to a Mexican farmer, and gave him a message to deliver, which he did. He delivered it to the Bishop, who did not believe him. He went back to the field, and this time Mary gave him roses as proof (it was the dead of winter). The Bishop believed him this time, because on his cloak was emblazoned the image of Mary. The image on the cloak has not faded (it's been 150 years), and has been scientifically examined. A small amount of paint was found (evidently from attempted human touch-up), but the nature of the bulk of the image cannot be explained by scientists.
iii) The Host of Lanciano [actually eighth century rather than second millennium]. A priest did not believe in the True Presence in the Eucharist. So one time when he consecrated the Blood of Christ, blood clots appeared where there was once wine. The Host has been preserved for the last 1250 years, and the clots have been confirmed as being blood, yet they have not disintegrated.
4/ In the crowds He had a smaller group to whom He spoke more, i.e., the Apostles.
5/ He told them to continue His work and His teaching.
6/ He promised God would protect that teaching.
"He who hears you hears me, He who rejects you rejects Him who sent me."
From these points, we have that God established the Church on Earth, starting with the Apostles. That Church was started with Peter as the first Pope. Matthew 16:15-19:
Jesus said to them [the Apostles], "Whom do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus answered, "Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood has not revealed it to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to you: That you are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: And whatsoever who shall loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven."
The Catholic Church traces an unbroken chain of Popes back to Peter.
Peter and the other Apostles ordained priests and bishops, who in turn ordained other priests and bishops, etc. Every priest in the Catholic Church can trace a lineage back to Peter, who was ordained by Jesus.
Except I had a problem with point number 3 above. Just because Jesus, and even the Church, seems to be supernatural does not prove that Jesus was sent directly
by the First Mover. Who is to say that we are not mice in a cage? Surely we humans seem to be gods to actual mice awaiting their next biological experiment. Could we not be so fooled, if not by others from this universe, then perhaps by beings from a higher dimension? Perhaps the entire universe is a computer simulation, and nothing really exists (you can see the Star Trek influence here).
I spoke in private [twice] with Fr. Most about these concerns. He pointed out that the First Mover is responsible for every action that takes place, and to fool us with such compelling evidence would not be just. I pointed out that He would need to be just only if man had an immortal soul, of which I was not convinced. Fr. Most reiterated some proofs that man had an immortal soul, but at the time I found them unsatisfying. I was in a catch-22. If the Church was established by the First Mover, then man has an immortal soul because the Church says so. If man has an immortal soul, then God would not allow the compelling evidence that the Catholic Church is the true Church to persist unless it were true.
St. Thomas argues for the immortality of the soul in chapter 79 of his Compendium of Theology (Light of Faith)
Understanding is proper to man beyond all other animals. Evidently, man alone comprehends universals, and the relations between things, and immaterial objects, which are perceptible only to the intelligence. Understanding cannot be an act performed by a bodily organ in the way that vision is exercised by the eye. No faculty endowed with cognitive power can belong to the genus of things that is known through its agency. Thus the pupil of the eye lacks color by its very nature. Colors are recognized to the extent that the species of colors are received into the pupil; but a recipient must be lacking in that which is received. The intellect is capable of knowing all sensible natures. Therefore, if it knew through the medium of a bodily organ, that organ would have to be entirely lacking in sensible nature; but this is impossible.
Moreover, any cognitive faculty exercises its power of knowing in accord with the way the species of the object known is in it, for this is its principle of knowing. But the intellect knows things in an immaterial fashion, even those things that are by nature material; it abstracts a universal form from its individuating material conditions. Therefore the species of the object known cannot exist in the intellect materially; and so it is not received into a bodily organ, seeing that every bodily organ is material.
I personally found the argument unsatisfying at the time. Now that I am Catholic, and now that I understand philosophy slightly better, I appreciate the argument now. Back then, I liked it to the extent that it showed to me that there was a strong possibility, without having to rely on the Catholic Church, that man has an eternal soul.
So with the catch-22, I remained 70% convinced of the validity of the Catholic Church. But to continue on with Fr. Most's explanation of the Catholic Church, he uses the above six points to show that God established and protects the Church. From there, we can let the Church tell us that Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, which is the First Mover. We can let the Church tell us (as it did in the 300's) which books belong in the Bible (i.e., which are inspired and Sacred Scripture). We can also let the Church tell us which parts of the Oral Tradition are valid. Oral Tradition is what Jesus Christ taught the Apostles, but which was not written down in Sacred Scripture.
E.g., the Pope affirmed just forty years ago that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven, even though that is not in the Bible, but it has always been known by the Church.
In April, 1994 I approached Fr. Hathaway [ https://twitter.com/fatherehathaway
] at St. Michael's Catholic Church about taking an RCIA (Roman Catholic Initiation for Adults) class. I had been visiting Mass every week there since October, 1993.
And all my friends from the Annandale prayer group knew him personally, mostly through work with the Legion of Mary. I was interested in the RCIA class as a stalling tactic. By this time I was feeling a lot of pressure to make up my mind. I had been on this path of studying Catholicism for a year, and my new-found Catholic friends were getting a little impatient with me. I figured the RCIA class would buy me some time, since I could decide after the class was over. Fr. Hathaway replied that the current class [the regular RCIA cycle ending Easter] was just ending, and another one would not be starting for a couple more months [what I now know to be a highly unusual expedited summer RCIA], and that since I was baptized Lutheran and had good knowledge of Christian doctrine, he could just talk to me personally. I took that to mean that I would not have to attend RCIA. My stalling tactic blown, I immediately shied away.
Then one day after the semester of Fr. Most's class, I was in a restaurant with a young Catholic woman [connected by an extraordinarily expensive dating service; online dating at the time had a pool of less than five women per major city. It turns out this is the only time I met her and I do not recall her name]. I was explaining how I was 70% convinced. She was a born-and-bred Catholic, and a teacher of young children. I don't think she was well-versed in philosophy and Star Trek. So I don't think she really saw or identified with my doubts. She asked me, seemingly off-hand, "What would it take to convince you?" Either she was a mastermind at Apologetics or it was accident. Either way, I tried to reply but found no words. I realized in the weeks after that that I was merely questioning reality all along, which was absurd. Because what would
it take to convince me -- God appearing to me in a burning bush? Could that not also be contrived by the cage-keeper? How could I know anything was real? Is there any way anything other than the First Mover can know anything is real? I think the idea is absurd, and therefore I realized that there was sufficient evidence that the Catholic Church was in fact established by the First Mover. If one believes in reality, one must believe in the Catholic Church. I believe in reality.
I didn't sign up for an RCIA class right away. The summer RCIA class at St. Michael's was on Monday nights, which conflicted with a dance class I wanted to take with another nice Catholic woman I had recently met [online, actually. Recall I was an ISP so as soon as I saw her post I jumped and immediately responded]. After the dance class was over, I went to the beach for a week.
One of my favorite beach activities is reading novels. Since I was financially destitute from being a new home owner and renovating the house, reading was my exclusive activity that year at the beach. One of the books I read was Screwtape Letters
by C.S. Lewis. It's a scary book that makes one self-insightful about Satanic temptation. The story is told from the perspective of one devil training another in the art of temptation. The protege devil is responsible for a man's soul. The story follows the man through his life. The ways in which the devils in the story cause the man to avoid thinking about religion, causing him to to innocuously take definitely wrong turns, rang true.
When I returned from the beach late on Sunday, I managed to find out the time and location of the RCIA class that Monday, as well as get permission to start in late. I was able to catch up by reviewing the videotapes of the RCIA class held the previous summer.
I had a shotgun confirmation. I wanted my best friend to be my sponsor, but he was leaving to start the school year at St. Thomas Aquinas College in California. So Fr. Hathaway got permission from the pastor, Msgr. Browne, to hold my confirmation on Labor Day. 30 people attended my confirmation, from both prayer groups, and my best friend's family. My parents were holding a major party at their house the same day, so my mother attended, but my father did not.
[1/ To allay confusion about why I now live in Denver: it's mostly coincidence not related to the 1993 visit. Among some other reasons, it was because I no longer wanted to live in the suburbs and I could actually afford (in 2006) to live next to downtown Denver. Also to get away from the pagan temples that define DC. https://www.lewrockwell.com/lrc-blog/dc-creeps-me-out/
[2/ Although the Shatner thing was something I just added today as kind of a joke to the Reddit title, it remains true that I would most likely never have become Catholic were it not for the timing of the 1992 rerun of the 1986 SNL episode. For example, I recently Googled the name of one of the very few women online back then. I never reached out to her because I assumed she would be very unattractive. It turns out she was just my type. And she was evangelical. So I could have so easily ended up evangelical (or, much more likely, an atheist dating an evangelical) instead.]
[3/ I will try to answer questions posed, but do not feel offended or left out if I decide to not answer for personal reasons.]