As I write about from time to time, the dynamics of telling my conversion story are truly fascinating to me. Emphases and inclusions vary with the occasions of being asked to tell the story, and also with the particularities of the audience.
Recently I was asked to tell the story at a party. Not wanting to get too serious at this particular occasion, the version that came out was kind of silly. All true, of course, but with an emphasis on some of the oddness of the process and making fun of the irregularities of my sacramental initiation. It went something like this:
When I was a freshman in college, I became curious about spiritual things. So I went to the priest who was on campus two afternoons a week and told him that I wanted to become a Catholic. I thought he would be very excited to sign me up right away, but he wasn't. He was cautious. He said,
'Read this big book and come back.' (McBrien's Catholicism)
So I read it and then went back and said I was ready to become a Catholic, and asked when I could be baptized. Nope, not yet.
'Read this book and come back.' (Bokenkotter's A Concise History of the Catholic Church)
So I read it and went back. This treatment went on for about a year, and I read several more books in the process. (In retrospect I realize the clever pastoral wisdom of the priest; he knew I could catechize myself by reading, and this was a perfect strategy for making me take my time.)
Finally I got fed up. I went back to the priest and said that I wasn't going to read anything else, and that I wanted to become a Catholic and please tell me what to do. To my surprise, he gave in right away. Then came the directions:
'You can't be baptized here. You need to go to a parish.'
'What's a parish?' I asked in my ignorance.
Father explained the nature of parishes.
"Where do I find one of these parishes?"
"Go out the Williams St. gate and turn right. Walk about a mile. Look for it on your right. Our Lady of Perpetual Help. It looks like a Pizza Hut."
So I walked down there one evening, and there it was, resembling a Pizza Hut and everything. It was the vigil of Ascension, 1992. I met the pastor after Mass, and explained to him that I had been working with Father, and that he had referred me for baptism. The pastor introduced me to the permanent deacon, who explained that he had two others in need of "convert instructions" because they were preparing for marriage to a Catholic. The five us would meet at his house over the summer, on Thursday evenings.
Now I know what you're thinking. What about the restored catechumenate? What about RCIA? I don't know. They hadn't heard of it in this parish. You know me; had I known better I would have certainly demanded such formality!
The deacon and his wife were extraordinarily gentle. Over the Thursday evenings we all watched these catechetical videos hosted by Fr. Ken Roberts, author of Playboy to Priest. They were pretty cheesy. Then we would talk about the topics. It was mellow and enjoyable.
It got to be the middle of August. Soon it would be time for school, so I asked the deacon if we could go ahead and get the thing done. We arranged that I would be baptized on a Saturday afternoon. It was August 29, the feast of the beheading of John the Baptist. Two of my Thursday night classmates served as my sponsors, God bless them.
When I was all baptized and we were done taking pictures, I asked about when I could receive my first Holy Communion.
'Come to the 9:30 Mass tomorrow, and we'll have Father give you your first Holy Communion.'
As I started to walk back to my basement room in Freeman Hall, the deacon's wife felt bad for me, and took me to Friendly's for a strawberry Fribble.
The next morning I was at the 9:30 Mass, as I had been instructed. After the regular communion procession, Father announced that here was Charles, that he was a student up-at-the-college, that he had been baptized yesterday, and now he would receive his first Holy Communion. So I went up. Father game me a whole half of the priest host, which seemed so cool and such a big deal at the time. (How times change; as a priest I regularly consume just a quarter of the priest host.) What do you think Father said when he gave me my first Holy Communion? Body of Christ? No. Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen.? Not even.
"Best wishes in your new religion." I'll never forget that. God be good to him, he was such a kind man.
After Mass, I asked the pastor and deacon when I could be confirmed.
'Hmm...I guess you probably don't need any more classes. Just show up when the kids are confirmed in December, and we'll add you to the list.'
So there I was. It was the evening of December 11, 1992. I was at the end of the line, like the big kid who had been held back a couple of grades. My long-suffering Jewish girlfriend was in attendance. Having worn her velvet pants for the occasion, she ran from the asperges in fear, one end of the pew to the other. 'You crazy Christians are trying to ruin my velvet!'
Later on that night I was at a party on campus. Standing around the barrel of beer, some kid asked me why I smelled so funny. I had to tell him about Chrism and balsam until he was sorry he asked.
And that's how I got to be a convert to Catholic Christianity!