Easter of 2010 brought me into full communion with the Catholic Church — a long pilgrimage from my Pentecostal childhood, flirtatious teenage years with Calvinism, and a brief stint in Canterbury before finally setting up camp in Rome.
When asked about the reasons for this conversion, I often note that the fractured nature of Protestantism left me unsettled, and I was attracted to the unity and teaching authority of the Catholic Church.
Growing up, I witnessed church congregations splinter for a number of reasons—some pastoral and others political.
While observing such division around me, I couldn’t help but to be haunted by Christ’s prayer in the Gospel of John that “they may be one just as We are One.” Looking back, I’m certain it was this understanding of Christianity that led me on a winding path towards Catholicism.
Many friends accompanied me along the road to conversion. Some would keep me company through late night theological conversations and spirited debates fueled by alcohol and cigarettes.
Others were priests who would patiently hear out my concerns and gently help me discern just where this adventure might be leading. And then there were friends — both dead and alive — and although distant, I knew they were providing support too.
These friends included folks like Dorothy Day, John Henry Newman, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI among many others. Their lives and their writings not only helped me to realize the transformative power of the Gospel; they also displayed the wide range of notes that are all a part of the beautiful symphony of the Catholic tradition.
Day’s radical conversion helped me realize the force of Catholic social teaching and how it can transform both individual lives and the world around us. Newman awakened me to the depth with which the Church has long wrestled with doctrine, and the ability of the Holy Spirit to guide and move it from age to age.
I was inspired by John Paul II’s challenge that we all become saints, and by Benedict, to begin to explore the life of Jesus, something that will take a lifetime to unpack fully.
Each of these individuals were imperfect, but their commitment to lives marked by holiness and pursuit of truth was an invitation I couldn’t resist.
What these individuals also shared — and what I wanted to be a part of — was a Church bound together by the faith of the apostles and a belief in the continuity of that tradition in the world today.
Central to this, of course, is the office of the pope, the Vicar of Christ on earth. Protestants have towering figures — luminaries like Billy Graham, Rick Warren, and Jim Wallis — but the primacy of Peter is a key distinctive for Catholics.
Beyond that, it’s the authority of the pope, along with the bishops, that serves as both a guardian of the deposit of the ancient faith and a herald of it to a modern world. And while the Church is in need of reform and renewal at all levels, it’s the pope that is critical in setting that direction.
So as a convert — one drawn into the Church convinced by that authority — it’s been a disappointment at best, and a scandal at worst, to see this legitimacy come under such attack during Pope Francis’s pontificate.
In a way that would have been entirely unacceptable in the previous two pontificates — pontificates that first drew me and so many into communion with the Church — it now seems that questioning Peter is fair game.
Here I’m not merely talking about recent debates over communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Hostility to this pope has been mounting from the earliest days of his papacy, when his pro-life credentials were called into question, when his economic views were mocked, and when an entire encyclical was practically ignored by certain constituencies within the Church.
As someone who continues to be inspired by the life and legacies of Popes John Paul II and Benedict, it’s been all the more disheartening that such behavior has arisen from the very writers, thinkers, and publications that paved the way for my early exploration of Catholicism.
They were once the first to proclaim that the cafeteria was closed. Today, not only does the cafeteria seem to be open, but some of those figures are encouraging a food fight.
In recent years it seems that many of Francis’s sharpest critics have been fellow converts who perhaps now find themselves uncomfortable with what they perceive to be a change of both style and substance that has rattled the certainty they once had. Yet it’s one thing to seek certainty, and it’s another to seek unity.
The first is an individual project more focused on one’s own judgments and feelings while the latter is an act of faith and humble trust in Christ and his Church.
Pope Francis continually repeats that Jesus’ most important message is mercy. It’s a central theme of his papacy. This renewed emphasis on mercy is not a departure from his predecessors, but an amplification of the truths they proclaimed, presented to the world anew.
Both Dorothy Day and John Paul II’s lives illustrated the prophetic witness that the Church is called to play in this world. Newman and Benedict XVI’s work provide the scholarly depth to buttress that lived expression of the faith. What these individuals present are diverse ways of living out shared truths of the same faith in different and new ways.
In that same manner, Francis provides a refreshingly new and necessary approach to those same truths for our particular time and place. He has reoriented our Church to a focus on the peripheries rather than the center.
By introducing a new vocabulary of the “throwaway culture,” he has offered the world a stinging critique of societies that fail to connect the dots between the need to protect both life at its earliest stages and our ecosystem at large. And by giving new voice to the concerns of the forgotten and marginalized, Francis is making sure that the world knows that everyone has a home in the Catholic Church.
I take great solace in the affirmation of “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” that we profess at each Mass. That was true when I was first confirmed and it remains just as true today.
This doesn’t mean we’re a homogenous institution without different ideas and opinions. As Pope Francis has reminded us, the only place you won’t find disagreement is in a cemetery.
But it should mean that Catholics of all stripes should welcome this time of mercy that we are blessed to live in and seek to promote it rather than be polarized. For if we sincerely hope to heal a broken world, a unified Church is a necessary starting place.