My Journey to the Catholic Church, Part I
As promised, here is the first post of what is now known as "The Week in Which Marisa Tackles Very Heavy Subjects." I've been meaning to write about my conversion experience for the longest time, but I kept putting it off. It took me a long time to figure out why it's difficult for me to share things with (essentially) the whole world, although I certainly realize the whole world does not visit my website on a daily basis. I am not a confrontational person by nature. I make it a point to avoid saying or writing something that will offend anyone, and if I do happen to write a controversial blog post, I usually preface my content with a long list of disclaimers. However, I realized something last week, as I scrolled through the past four or so pages of my blog. For the most part, my posts are just...fluff. With a couple of exceptions, I haven't written anything earth-shattering, thought provoking, or even remotely contentious. I generally remain silent on the practices of my faith (for example, veiling), lest I offend my Catholic readers who don't participate in this particular custom. I've said nothing about Kermit Gosnell or Emily Letts, rather than risk the angry words of my pro-choice readers. Ultimately, though, what I realized is that I'm not being honest. Not with myself, and not with those who read my blog. That's not to say I'm going to do away with my light-hearted posts, or the 7 Quick Takes, but I'm going to make a sincere effort to incorporate serious-and hopefully, debatable-topics as well.
I was baptized and raised in a Protestant home; specifically, we attended the United Church of Christ in Greendale, WI. My father was raised in a strict 1950's Irish Catholic household, and he broke away from the church when he was in college. My mother was raised Methodist. After she and my dad married, they decided that the UCC fit their spiritual needs, and they attended services on a fairly regular basis. I don't consider my religious upbringing strict, but I did attend Sunday school, sang in the church choir, and participated in the youth group activities. I can't remember exactly when I began to feel disillusioned with our church, but if I had to guess I'd say it was sometime in middle school. I no longer looked forward to church on Sundays; I thought the services were boring, I didn't particularly care for the pastor, and the youth activities just felt (for lack of a better world) lame. My frustration grew as I entered high school, and began the preparation for confirmation at the age of fifteen. The pastor and the youth group leader seemed to be completely unprepared to deal with a group of high school students (although, to be fair, we weren't exactly the most well-behaved bunch), and I always dreaded Wednesday nights, when we would meet at the church to prepare for confirmation. I'm a fairly private person, and having to sit in a circle, hold hands and sing Christian songs and talk about "our personal relationship with Christ" was enough to make me want to run far, far away.
I reluctantly went through the confirmation process, but that was pretty much the end of our involvement at the church. My parents were unimpressed with the two pastors as well, and there was some kind of power struggle brewing between the two church leaders. My parents decided to leave the UCC, and "church shop" for another place to worship. I remember visiting a lot of churches in the Milwaukee area. Methodist, Presbyterian, non-denominational, and an Episcopal church. I remember I enjoyed the liturgy and prayers of the Episcopal church, and I said as much to my mother in the parking lot after the service. She shook her head and said, "it's too Catholic for me."
Up until that year, I knew very little about the Catholic Church. My father didn't have the greatest memories; years later, he still grumbles about being hit with a ruler by the nuns in grade school, and being unimpressed with the priests at the church in the small town where he and my mom grew up. My mom didn't really have a lot of good things to say about Catholics, either, but she generally kept her opinions to herself. There's a fairly large Catholic population in Milwaukee, and many of our friends and neighbors were practicing Catholics. I myself had never considered the Catholic church, since my parents didn't really have anything good to say about it. However, my desire to find a place to worship was fairly strong, as I always had a solid Christian faith and wanted to belong to a church. My parents more or less stopped attending church when I was in high school, but I knew they would support my brother and I joining a church, if that was what we wanted.
Shortly thereafter, I began spending a lot of time with my friend, Katie. She was a fellow violinist (she and I were both members of the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra), and when we met a few years back we really hit it off. Both of us were passionate about classical music, literature, education, and our faith in God. Katie was also a devout Catholic (her father had even been in the seminary at one point). I remember the weekend I spent over at her house, when we were sixteen. We stayed up late that Saturday night, eating pizza and watching Pride and Prejudice. When we woke up the next morning, she asked if I would like to go to church with her. I agreed, and we both got cleaned up and left for Mass. It was the first time I had ever been to a Catholic church (with the exception of a wake I attended for a neighbor a few years back), and I wasn't sure what to expect.
I loved it. I loved everything about the Mass. The prayers, the order, the homily (it definitely helped that this particular church had a very enthusiastic priest), the music, and the solemnity of it all. It felt so holy, so sacred. I didn't take part in communion, but Katie told me I could go up to the priest for a blessing, with my arms crossed over my chest. It was an experience like none other, and I bombarded Katie with questions as soon as we stepped into the parking lot. I think what really struck me was how much she loved her faith, and she didn't have that hesitation, that frustration that I had with UCC. She answered all my questions as best she could, but encouraged me to do some exploring on my own. And explore I did.
I was hesitant to share my enthusiasm with my parents, as I wasn't sure how they would react. I figured I would learn more about Catholicism, decide if it was right for me (even though in my heart, I knew it was), and only then would I approach my parents with my decision. I was nothing if not determined. I spent hours down in the basement on my parents' computer, reading about the history of the church, what Catholics believe, and how to become Catholic. On weekends, I would tell my mom I preferred to study at the bookstore instead of my room, so I would stuff my backpack full of notebooks and textbooks, and drive to the local Barnes and Noble. I spent hours there every weekend, on those big, comfy armchairs with a latte in one hand and the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the other. (I know...such a rebel!). I was becoming more and more convinced that Catholicism was right for me, but I still didn't know how I would broach the subject with my parents. I didn't know how they would take it, and there was a part of me that was afraid they would forbid me from attending Mass. Which, in retrospect, was very foolish of me. My parents have always been supportive of my decisions, even when they disagreed with me. Still, something held me back.
The summer after my junior year in high school, Katie and I were both accepted to an intensive, 5-week music program at Northwestern University in Illinois. When I say I spent all day at the conservatory, I'm not exaggerating. Katie and I set our alarms for 5:30 every morning, and we would run to Panera to get coffee and bagels. Then we would spend at least 3 hours practicing at the con, then go to our small ensemble rehearsal, private lessons, lunch, more practicing, then orchestra rehearsal. It was intense, especially for high school students. We had weekends off, although Saturday evenings we were usually required to attend concerts. Every Sunday morning, Katie and I would attend Mass at the university chapel a few blocks away. I looked forward to it every single week, and this is what ultimately made me decide to convert to Catholicism. It wasn't just a phase, or a "good" church that Katie and I happened to attend in Wisconsin. I still loved everything about the Mass, and I felt so complete, so joyful when the priest gave the final blessing. I knew I had to tell my parents...but I was so nervous. I planned on telling them later that day, but in the end I chickened out and went to bed early. I promised myself I would tell them the following day, after I came back to the dorm from dinner, but I lost my nerve on Monday night as well. Finally, on Tuesday evening, I forced myself to pick up the phone and call my parents. I was shaking as I dialed their number, and immediately my mother asked me what was wrong.
To be continued! (Mwahahaha. Have to leave you hanging!).