Some people call themselves “recovering Catholics.” I, on the other hand, like to think of myself as a “recovered Catholic” because returning to and being embraced by the Catholic Church was hands down one of the most life-giving things that’s ever happened to me. Furthermore, choosing to remain daily in the Church’s bosom nearly 30 years later — in spite of the wounds and imperfections she carries there because of her all too human members — continues to be a source of sublime satisfaction and new life for me. Praying I’ll avoid unnecessary and uncharitable triumphalism, I’d like to tell you why.
I was born and raised Catholic in the profoundly Catholic city of New Orleans; the sixth of 10 children my parents baptized within weeks of our births. I didn’t know a non-Catholic growing up, and all of the large families that filled our Gentilly neighborhood attended St. James Major Catholic Church and School two blocks away. Church was a staple in our lives even though, in retrospect, I can see that our family brand of Catholicism was primarily cultural. In other words, a personal, passionate relationship with God was not part of the equation.
Like many other Catholics of that era, our entire family drifted away from the faith when the winds of change blew through the Church and the culture during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Sadly, by the time I graduated college in 1982, I was a professed agnostic moving toward atheism and I hadn’t set foot in a Catholic church, or any other church for that matter, in years.
Thankfully, through God’s sovereign intervention, I found faith in him again at the age of 23 by discovering a personal relationship with Jesus in an evangelical Christian church. God literally reached into my life and “saved” me — mostly from myself, and from the sinful, pagan ways I had adopted as a lifestyle by then.
I will be forever grateful for that long-ago Sunday in a little chapel near my apartment in New Orleans, where I received a clear, concise invitation to give my life to Jesus Christ. In one split second, I morphed from not knowing if God existed to knowing beyond a shadow of doubt that God was real, that he loved me, and that he had a plan and a purpose for my life. Thanks to grade-A evangelization and my willing “yes,” my life completely changed.
For the next few years I feasted on my newfound love of Christ, the Bible and my friends who deeply loved the Lord. Enjoying exponential growth in my spiritual life, I was certain I would be happily evangelical for the rest of my life. In fact, I couldn’t imagine ever returning to the Catholic Church.
Until the Protestant paradigm I was operating under stopped making sense.
The first confounding thing I heard was that everyone must explicitly pray “The Sinners Prayer” in order to be saved. Further, I was taught that anyone who didn’t pray this prayer to receive Jesus Christ as his or her “personal Lord and Savior” was condemned to hell — even if they lived in a remote jungle and had never heard the name of Jesus before!
Once I did the math and concluded that only a small percentage of people throughout history could have possibly prayed that precise prayer, I wondered: What kind of God would condemn most of his creatures to hell? That is not the God I love and serve! That was my first step back to the Catholic faith, even though I didn’t know it at the time. (When I finally learned of the Church’s beautiful teaching on the baptisms of water, blood and desire, a whole new world opened up to me in understanding the incredible greatness and mercy of God as articulated in our faith. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1257–1261).
Questions about salvation were soon followed by questions about suffering, when after getting married at age 24, my life hit a rough patch. “Memorize more Scripture verses,” I was instructed, “and read your Believers Identity in Christ.”
My continued attempts to find solace in suffering were met with more of the same directives, along with the insinuation that if I was doing Christianity “right,” my suffering would cease. Further implied was that the suffering in my life was somehow my fault, and my frustration over that suggestion practically led me to the brink of despair. I’ve since learned about the highly popular “prosperity gospel,” which holds that if our walk with Christ is “right,” we’ll be guaranteed only blessing and prosperity in life.
Even before I knew its name, I rejected this sort of “Christianity” as completely unbiblical. I had taken another step back toward the Catholic faith, though that movement was still unclear to me.
The proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” happened over the Blessed Mother, and the outright declaration by my evangelical friends that her apparitions and interventions throughout history were “demonic manifestations” that could only lead a person away from Christ. Remembering the Blessed Mother’s powerful intercession in my own life via answered prayers as a child, I began to earnestly beg Jesus to show me the truth about his mother. I also began to ask God if I should return to the Catholic Church.
One night, I heard the Blessed Mother “speak” into my heart, telling me she would “cleanse my family.” I had been ardently praying for my entire family’s conversion for some time, and I took the message to mean that my family would be converted back to Christ. I was literally lying on my face pleading with God to confirm what I’d “heard” from Our Lady when the telephone in the kitchen rang. My brother Kenny was on the line announcing that “a old Catholic man” had prayed with him to give his life to Christ! Although Kenny and I had not spoken in months, he felt the need to call and tell me that right then and there.
I returned to the Catholic Church that week — as a daily communicant, at that! — and I have never once looked back. I wept non-stop through the first Mass of my return, and during many months of Masses thereafter. I have continued to look forward ever since, spending the last three decades finding more goodness, truth, and beauty than I ever dreamed possible as I’ve studied and taught the Catholic faith unceasingly.
The Church and her teaching continue to be mysterious and marvelous to me — with their utterly merciful, incredibly beautiful, and refreshingly wide scope. What a happy surprise to come “home” to learn that home was always what my heart longed for: a home that offers both a daily feast and a delectable foretaste of my ultimate dwelling in heaven.