Catholic By Choice

BaptismIn the modern Jewish tradition, converts to Judaism are often called Jews by Choice, which indicates that they were not born to Jewish families but chose to become Jews. A few years ago, I listened to a roundtable discussion on conversion to Judaism by Jewish converts. One gentleman participated in the discussion only very reluctantly and after concerted effort by the organizer to persuade him to attend at all. His ordinary practice was to refrain from mentioning to anyone that he was a convert to Judaism, to such an extent that he had a ready response for whenever a fellow Jew would remark that his surname did not “sound Jewish.” In the years since his conversion, he had experienced some prejudice for being a convert from his co-religionists, and solved the problem by no longer mentioning his conversion.

I was reminded of this the other day when I once again experienced prejudice directed at me by cradle Catholics for being a convert to Catholicism. I had published an essay on the brown scapular, and the post was advertised on Catholic Answers’ Facebook page. That essay, in which I sought to clear up common misunderstandings about the brown scapular and thereby promote a healthy devotion to it, opened this way:

Soon after becoming a Catholic, I started collecting “Catholicana” to hang about my neck. Eventually I was wearing a brown scapular, a crucifix, and a “dog tag” chain with twenty or more holy medals. No joke, people could always tell when I was approaching by the clinking of my medals. I liked to think of that necklace as my “cloud of witnesses.” One day the chain broke, and I never replaced it. The only sacramental I continued to wear was my brown scapular.

The blog post was well received, for the most part, but some of those who objected could not limit themselves to disagreeing with the assertions I made (which would have been entirely fair), but chose to focus on my mention of being a convert:

Is everyone [who] works for Catholic Answers a convert? . . . At Catholic Answers it often seems like a competition you have to be more Catholic than anyone. I think it would be a good idea if you left that at the door when you came in.

(Nota bene: No, not everyone who works for Catholic Answers is a convert. Some are converts, some are cradle Catholics.)

Another gentleman made his point more succinctly:

You can always tell a convert, but you can’t [tell] ’em much!

I started to sympathize with the Jewish convert who resolved to never again mention his status as a Jew by Choice.

The prodigal’s return

To some extent, I feel some sympathy for the exasperation sometimes felt by cradle Catholics, who have been Catholic all their lives, toward converts to the faith. No one makes a big deal over the cradle Catholics’ lifelong devotion to their faith, their efforts to grow in understanding of it, and their steadfastness in handing down to their own children the spiritual heritage they willingly accepted from their parents.

For the convert however, especially those converts of some stature in their previous churches or other religious traditions, celebrations break out at the announcement of his decision to become Catholic. Radio shows and television shows call to book appearances so that he can share his testimony. Sometimes there are book deals or opportunities to take his story on the road to conferences and other Catholic events.

There can also be resentment when converts become teachers of the faith. Who do these upstarts think they are, anyway, to think they can explain to the cradle Catholics a religious tradition to which converts have only recently committed themselves (and some of them after a lifetime of believing and propagating anti-Catholicism!)?

Perhaps cradle Catholic discontent at the fuss made over converts begins to sound like Christ’s parable of the two brothers (cf. Luke 15:11–32), in which the younger son is welcomed home by his father after leaving home and squandering the inheritance he demanded from his father (Luke 15:12). Not only that, but the prodigal is given a lavish celebration in honor of his return—much to the annoyance and resentment of his elder brother, who complains to his father that his father never seemed to care much about his own loyalty (Luke 15:29–30).

But although the elder brother does not seem to be a sympathetic character in this parable, mainly because of his churlish refusal to join the celebration or even to acknowledge his brother as his brother (Luke 15:27–28, 30), it is only just to acknowledge that his reasons for why he is angry are not entirely unsympathetic. And if his younger brother then went on to teach his elder brother how to be a better son to their father, we can only imagine that the elder brother would not be an eager student.

The loyal son’s failing

Personally, I always gravitated to the elder brother in this parable, and for a long time did not understand why, even granted the father’s undeniable love for his first son (Luke 15:31), the elder son appears to be the villain of this piece. When I read the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth by Benedict XVI, a piece to this puzzle snapped into place. The Pope Emeritus made this observation about the elder son, bringing to light a hidden agenda:

The older brother knows nothing of the inner transformations and wanderings experienced by the younger brother, of his journey into distant parts, of his fall and his new self-discovery. He sees only injustice. And this betrays the fact that he too had secretly dreamed of a freedom without limits, that his obedience has made him inwardly bitter, and that he has no awareness of the grace of being at home, of the true freedom that he enjoys as a son. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31) [pp. 208–209].

The elder son’s failing is that he subconsciously wanted what the younger son had—the presumed freedom to do whatever he wished, and then to come back home with no noticeable consequences. And not just no consequences, but a welcome-home party, new clothes, jewelry, and the reinstatement of his status as a son.

Is it possible that some cradle Catholics can subconsciously envy converts’ “adventures,” wishing that they too had an exciting story of faith to tell and longing for a captive audience to pat them on the back and treat them as returning heroes?

If so, then perhaps it is worth noting that conversion is rarely exciting or adventurous while it is occurring. Converts usually have to deal with serious hardships during their conversion process, and some of those hardships (such as dealing with non-Catholic family members) can continue to be a cross for converts to carry for years to come. There is in fact a great grace to be recognized in having received the faith as a family heritage; to having been raised within a Catholic culture (even if that culture is limited to one’s own family); to never having had to wonder where your spiritual home is or if it even exists.

Everyone’s a convert

We can’t neglect to recognize though that no one, not even those raised Catholic all their lives, is “born Catholic.” Each and every Catholic is a convert, including those brought into the faith by their parents soon after their birth. And each and every Catholic, no matter how long they have been a Catholic, either is or will have to become a Catholic by Choice. As I wrote last year in a blog post about conversion:

I firmly believe that, sooner or later, each and every convert to the Catholic faith—whether that person chose to become Catholic as an adult or was brought into the faith as a baby by his parents—is going to have to face the scandal that the Church is not what he believed it to be when he signed up. The test will be whether he will persevere because he knows it to be the Church Christ founded, or whether he will fall away because he decides it is merely a human institution that has disappointed him.

For every St. Augustine, who comes to the Catholic faith as an adult after decades of wanderlust through various spiritual traditions, there will always be a St. Francis of Assisi, raised Catholic from infancy but who experiences a dramatic “conversion” of heart and soul that alters the course of the rest of his life. For every St. Kateri Tekakwitha, who defied her pagan family and their tribe’s entire way of life to seek out baptism from the Jesuit missionaries, there will always be a St. Clare of Assisi, who defied her Catholic family and their plans for her to seek out the vocation to which God called her.

All in the family

Sometimes tensions can rise between cradle Catholics and converts, but both sides should keep one thing in mind: We’re all one family. Maybe not always a happy family, maybe occasionally unhappy in our own way (à la Anna Karenina), but family. At the reception for those newly received into the Church on Easter Vigil 1996, the priest who baptized and confirmed me that night made a point of gesturing to the crowd in the social hall and then telling me, “You’re just as much a Catholic now as everyone here.”

I never forgot that remark, and I think it applies to all who profess the Catholic faith. No matter how we came into the Church, no matter how well or how poorly we practice the faith, no matter the challenges we face in living out our faith, we are all Catholics—no more, no less. No Catholic should be hesitant to tell his story, to share how he came to faith, whether it was within the family that raised him or after a journey outside the Church. Every testimony is valuable because it is the unique story of how Christ has worked in that person’s life.

Before he was elected Pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was once asked, “How many ways are there to God?” The then-prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, commonly believed to have been a modern “grand inquisitor,” responded:

As many as there are people. For even within the same faith each man’s way is an entirely personal one (Salt of the Earth, p. 32).

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36 Responses to Catholic By Choice

  1. Matthew Nguyen says:

    Cradle or Convert…we are all one in the Lord. Thank you for a great article. I have a lot of converts in my family, and at times..I feel they cherish the faith more than other cradle Catholics.

  2. brojr says:

    As a convert myself, from Judaism, I have problems with SOME converts from Protestantism, especially Fundamentalist Protestantism. Quick explanation. Hebrew Catholics tend to be very discrete converts. We go about our “Catholic business” and we also preserve many of our Jewish customs, especially family traditions. We don’t come into Catholicism with resentment toward Judaism. Converts from Fundamentalist Protestantism not only come with the excitement that is natural for a convert, but they also carry with them a great deal of hatred and anger. Anything that is similar to Protestantism or even those areas on the Venn Diagram where Protestantism and Catholicism intersect are anathema for them. They tend to bash everyone on the head over these, to the point that they become like the uncle who drinks too much at the family gatherings and then becomes obnoxious. I may be wrong, but I think that many Cradle Catholics have that image when they hear “convert”. It’s like “Oh no, here come the Catholic Fundamentalists”. Horrors!

    Brother Jay Rivera, FFV

    • Connie Ebert says:

      Amen Brother.

    • Wow! That is quite an observation – one that I as a convert from fundamentalist Protestantism can scarcely conceive of! Although the faith I grew up in was quite anti-Catholic, I don’t believe I’ve ever resented my upbringing, or bashed people over the head over the differences in faith traditions. In fact, I know no other Catholic convert who has verbalized these feelings of hatred or anger toward their prior affiliation in non-Catholic traditions. Perhaps there is a bit of false projection here from the “Elder Brother” who has been a “faithful” Catholic all his life and now feeling a bit jealous!(?) If, however, I have been too “indiscrete” or too boastful of my “conversion” experience, or made cradle Catholics uncomfortable by my joy at becoming one with them, please forgive me. I am simply overcome with gratefulness to God for his abundant grace, and will never cease to thank Him for the privilege of being Catholic.

    • David Oatney says:

      Brother Jay, I am a convert from a fundamentalist Protestant background. I harbor no hatred or anger toward that background or the people in my family who still worship in that way…

      I don’t harbor that bitterness because that background was where I learned to know and love the Lord Jesus. Yes, many people hated the Catholic Church, many said things about the Church that just weren’t so…but I see that these things and these beliefs were held out of a sincere faith, and with a lack of knowledge or understanding.

      I’m proud to be a Catholic today, and I’ll make the apologetic case for the Catholic faith vs. Protestantism any time that I am asked. But coming to understand that the ecclesial community of your upbringing is not theologically correct or orthodox is quite a bit different than having hatred toward that community of faith…I sure don’t!

  3. LC says:

    I can totally relate to this article. I admit that when I’m in a discussion with a cradle Catholic about doctrine or tradition, I find myself thinking I’m the expert because I’m the convert. On the other hand, my children are all cradle Catholics. When we are watching a movie or TV and there is a reference to a Bible passage or story, I jokingly tell them, “You wouldn’t get that. You weren’t raised Protestant.”

  4. peneb says:

    Thank you! I’m a convert. My experience is the most emphatic defiance and denial of the Catholic faith comes from former Catholics who don’t really know their faith. When they make a statement that is false I direct them to the CCC for correction.
    We must continue to pray for them!

  5. Clara says:

    Humility is key. I could not wait to proclaim the truth but I found that my story, gentleness, a change in my character and invitations to lunch and mass worked best.

  6. Pablo Correa says:

    Actually, I LOVE THEM!!! I feel tremendous joy for every convert. I am a cradle Catholic and the last episode that brought me ever closer to The Church was precisely a convert! Am I always so thankful to God for this man!!!

  7. KC says:

    I am a cradle Catholic and I had no idea that many converts felt this way. I love my convert friends. I personally learn so much from my convert friends because they understand the faith better than we cradle Catholics do. I went to CCD once a week when I was younger and it just was not enough time to learn all about our beautiful religion. Please know that there are some of us out there that welcome you all with open arms. It doesn’t matter how you got here. I for one am glad that you have joined the Catholic Church.

  8. Kenneth Winsmann says:

    Really wonderful article michelle. I think that cradle catholics are so celebrated because… well… so few adults choose to convert. The Church just doesn’t do a very good job of spreading the evangel (at least in america). I can’t tell you hiw many times my my wife and I are asked “which one of you was catholic when you got married?” Followed by “OH! You were both Lutheran? You just… converted?!?”. I have another theory why cradles can by annoyed by converts…. conviction. Conviction by the Holy Spirit, that they should be living their faith more fully, more proudly,and more passionately than they have been.

  9. Tomas says:

    Converts bring new energy to the Church. All God’s plan! Praise to God! I treasure the converts. Each one is a gift from God to the Family.

    • FlameSkywiper says:

      I’m a cradle Catholic but I feel so much joy when I saw a newly baptized convert in a Muslim country.

  10. Richard Tear says:

    When I went through RCIA classes I taught my wife a “Cradle Catholic” stuff she had either forgotten or never learned.

  11. I am a cradle Catholic married to a convert and I’ve learned more about Catholicism since he decided to convert than in the 45 years prior. What a blessing in our home to have us both sharing in the wonderfulness of Catholicism. And we are constantly learning about our faith together, which is also very nice.

  12. jose says:

    Your idea that we are all converts is not true when God made us he instilled a faith in us therefore we are all born Catholic , some are blessed to be cradle Catholics amd everyone is Heaven is Catholic. Convert Catholics as adults tend to be very arrogant and not fully living the teachings of his church.  “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
    I recommend reading the beatitudes but don’t just read them but absord the message and live it.
    Repent and go to confession God will give you the grace to live his Catholic way.

    • I can only say that you are incorrect in your understanding of when faith is given by God. A just-conceived zygote does not have faith, and is certainly not “born Catholic.” We become Catholic at baptism. While those who have the use of reason may have faith in God before their baptism (and indeed there must be some faith for adults to be given baptism), babies are not capable of faith. At baptism they receive the supernatural graces to enable them to grow in their faith over time.

      As for the rest, I’m afraid that the rash judgment you expressed toward converts simply demonstrates my point that cradle Catholics can be prejudiced toward converts. I will say though that converts can also be prejudiced toward cradle Catholics. I do not deny that both cradle Catholics *and* convert Catholics can treat each other unjustly.

    • mskirk70 says:

      Jose: I also think you are incorrect. I would like to know how you can perceive that a person is “arrogant and not fully living the [Catholic] teachings”? As I wrote earlier, I am blessed and grateful to becoming a Catholic, previously a fundamentalist Protestant. I’ve worked with RCIA for 14 years, and I have never met an arrogant Catholic who went through the process and were received into the Church. True, there are some converts who do not live up to the tenets of the faith, but when compared with lapsed cradle Catholics…well, who can tell how many there are!. The writer of this column tried to say that all Catholics, [prodigal son and the elder brother] should rejoice over anyone who comes home. We should all rejoice and pray for them, but please do not judge their motives. You know, there’s a website that features stories of conversion and reverts (cradle Catholics returning to the faith) that would help us all understand their faith experience. I think you would see in them a humility and gratefulness to God for bringing them home to the Catholic Church. Look up and if you have TV access to EWTN, watch “The Journey Home” program (Mondays 5pm/eastern).

      • mskirk70 says:

        Oops! I mean The Journey Home on TV is at 8pm/Eastern. I watch it in Pacific Time at 5pm, and my fingers just didn’t translate properly on the keyboard.

    • Matthew says:

      The traditional ritual for Baptism has the priest ask the parents at the church door: “What do you ask of the Church for your child?” The response: “Faith”. We are NOT born with the Faith. Oddly your objection sounds like Islamic theology, which asserts that everyone is born Muslim. Thus we are regarded as apostates / infidels for we have abandoned that original Islamic faith.
      Oremus pro invicem!

  13. Hugh Hubble says:

    I was received with open arms after and before my conversion as member of our church. Not because I was anyone special but because we all shared the love of Christ. I feel I owe this reception to other converts ahead of me and our Pastor. I am so happy to be one the family.

  14. SIMON KURIA says:

    What count’s is the driving sincerity that keeps one yearning for more graces while still aware that they have been saved by grace.

  15. jose says:

    Sorry I meant to say God gives us the grace to have faith when he made us.

    • jose says:

      God made Pope John Paul a Saint, on earth we just recently recognized it.
      Infant Baptism we recognize the baby a Catholic but God made him/her a Catholic.

  16. Cindy Eimann Coleman says:

    Not to be prejudiced, but give me pews full on converts (or reverts) any day! Converts, in my experience are fervent, committed and better catechized (and know they need to consistantly try to learn more about our faith) compared to the majority of cradle Catholics. Converts made a choice and took positive action that has positive fruits. My (sad) opinion is that too many “cradle Catholics” are poorly catechized, lazy and more Catholic in name than in knowledge, fervor or practice. Isn’t this what the “new evangelization” is about? To bring the fullness of the Good News to those who are joined to the church by baptism but not drinking from the fullness of the Faith? Don’t get me wrong,I know many wonderful cradle Catholics, but percentwise…converts rock! I can’t imagine having a bad reaction to a convert. Again, excuse my generlization–but I wonder if cradle Catholics with an “attitude” about converts are just unsure of their own faith? My perspective is colored by being a catechist in our parish religious education program for 15+ years. I struggle to catechize the families/parents as well as the children. I know I have offended by teaching that Sunday Mass is the first precept of the Church and is more important than cheerleading clinics, soccer tournaments and sleeping late w/ pancake breakfast etc.? (How do I know? the emails from the parents) Nothing like having a 3rd grader preparing for First Holy Communion tell you: “But Mrs. Coleman, we took a knee before our basketball game and said a prayer, my mom said that was as good as going to Mass.” Also, cradle Catholics may appreciate the obstacles in family reaction/rejection that converts have bravely faced.

  17. Diane says:

    First and foremost, thank you for writing such a wonderful piece. I am a cradle Catholic who absolutely loves everything about converts: their story, their faith, their perspective, and especially their courageous devotion to convert. It hurts me to know there are people who are not as accepting especially ones who truly claim they are faithful. Faithfulness to Catholicism should never produce such negative emotions. I’m sorry you had to experience that but I’m grateful you are standing up to this. Thank you.

  18. Judith DiPietro says:

    I’m a cradle Catholic also but I have learned more from converts and my own experience when I dropped away from Church years ago. When I returned with a renewed vigor, that is when I studied our Catholic Faith,, read on the Saints and why many died for our Catholic Faith, learned about the Eucharist and the beginning,, etc. etc. etc. I love watching The Journey Home on ETWN and learn so much more about my Catholic Faith. I recommend this show to every Catholic who wants a better understanding of our Catholic Faith Loved the article. It was excellent!

  19. Sadie says:

    I was baptized at age 13. Before that I went to catholic Mass with my cradle Catholic mother once in a while. It got more frequent as time went on and eventually my mother wanted to go home again (to the Church). But I had a cradle catholic friend in high school tell me I had no idea what I was talking about when I said you couldn’t be pro-choice and Catholic. And why did I have no idea? Because I’d only been baptized the year before. When anyone says something we don’t want to hear or that challenges our understanding of God and the world, we can attribute that to their background. And that’s a shame regardless of who we are. Keep up the good work, Michelle! I’ve been reading your stuff for years and they don’t come across as arrogant AT ALL.

  20. meli says:

    Michelle I am so sorry that you experienced this! I am a cradle Catholic and unfortunately know many that take the faith for granted. Please don’t stop sharing your story of conversion! You may not know it, but I find so much encouragement from stories of conversion which is part of the reason I seem almost addicted (in a good way) to the Journey Home show. For a while now it seems that every Mass I weep and have to hide my tears (even from my CCE students and family) because I miss my little brother. He has stopped coming to Mass and I long to share this with him again, so pray for his return one day. I weep for the man that I love hoping that he will also come to know the fullness of this our Catholic faith. As I write to you now my eyes fill with tears because I want them to both come back home so much! The wait sometimes seems so tough, but in the story of each convert I find encouragement, and many lessons to learn- especially for us cradle Catholics who have taken our faith for granted for far too long. I find tools for defending our faith, understanding of the way outsiders misguidedly see us, and I have started to realize how important it is to encourage each other in our own faith journey. Reaching out to that person in the pew that you never saw before and saying “I am so glad you came I hope you enjoyed the Mass”. I pray more converts come home because I know that a mother never tires of waiting. Thank you Michelle for all you do. God bless you abundantly! (Please pray for my brother and friend.)

  21. mathew says:

    Dear sister,

    Thank you so much for the article!!
    That was beautiful!!
    And once I get converted into the Catholic Church, that’s it, me and the fellow catholic whose forefathers were baptized by the apostles are the same!!

    And that’s called one, holy and universal Catholic Church!!

    But, unfortunately, there are lot of catholics who believes that they are “fallen stars” because of their tradition and blood line!! But they forgets the fact that whenever someone tries to distinguish themselves from a fellow catholic based on tradition or some practices or hereditary, they are proving themselves as non-catholics or phareses!!

    I personally know a diocese which separates itself from other catholics especially and strictly in case of marriage with other catholics!!

    In acts of the apostles, the same thing happens between Jewish converts and other converts among first Christians in the name of circumcision!!

    Wish the Vatican keep an eye on all the Catholics around the globe and their religious practices!!

    A good percentage of catholics don’t know what’s CCC.

    Let’s hope for the best to happen by the power of Holy Spirit!!

    God bless…!!

  22. Ignatius says:

    I converted in 2004 at the Easter Vigil from the Episcopal church, so for the most part I am grateful for sane home at last. The phenomena I encounter the most is a parochial attitude, or being considered a “second tier Catholic” since I was not born into the faith. This can result in a person to self ostracize in order to “belong” to the group who would ostracize him or her. I choose not to associate with those people, sometimes at the cost of a ministry opportunity. The Church is still an organization inhabited with people, and the issues that are associated with that. Fortunately it is a large enough tent to help deal with this effect.

  23. Jennifer says:

    I appreciate your perspective. As a cradle Catholic, I have, at times, found myself feeling resentful toward some converts, but not all. The assumption some of them have about how ignorant we cradle Catholics are of scripture and church teaching rankles. Often Catholics know the teaching of the Church but have their own reasons for ignoring or “forgetting” it. When I find myself being irritated by a convert, I ask myself, “Is this person arrogant or is my conscience poking me?” About half the time it is the latter, so I say a mea culpa to God for my lack of charity and try to have a better, more Christian love for all my Catholic brothers and sisters.

  24. Sherry Guess says:

    Thank you for your blog and for your honesty and clarity of thought.. while I am a cradle Catholic, I fell away from the church through sin and stayed away out of ignorance.God’s mercy is unfathomable and staggeringly beautiful. I love hearing about anyone who has had a conversion experience to the one true church of Jesus Christ. Each new convert makes all the angels and saints cheer for us. Each journey of faith is unique, however we are all one body in Christ. Our faith study is a lifelong pursuit of love eternal.

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