I have two kids. My older grew in another woman’s womb, coming to us at a few days of age. The younger I bore myself. They are both my kids, and I find myself passingly annoyed when I find references--usually in articles in magazines and newspapers-- about “so-and-so’s adopted chlild....” as though there is a difference between bio-kids and adopted ones. Here is a news flash for those who don’t understand: it isn’t where a child is conceived, it’s where he grows that makes him part of a family. My son is my son, no modifiers.
The same sort of thinking shows up sometimes, even in my own mind, in the Catholic faith: that division between cradle Catholic and convert. “Were you always Catholic?” friends ask me. Others say (and I admit an inappropriate swell of satisfaction at this) “You know so much for a convert. How long has it been?” I dislike those questions because it often makes me feel like a second class citizen--though I know that is never the intent. More often it’s genuine curiosity--why would someone, especially well past the mid mark of life--so radically change directions? Why join this eclectic and sometimes contentious family that stretches over the whole world? For one already on the road, how another stumbles on to the path is interesting, illuminating. It’s why conversion stories are so popular, so important.
The down side, though is that sometimes I think I will never feel “really” Catholic, that I will always be an outsider in some form or other, that I have too much to “catch up” on in order to understand what being Catholic really means. Last evening, for instance, the visiting priest made mention of the Redemptorists, who were the parish retreat preachers of his Irish youth. Prefacing his remarks by, “You who are old enough to remember before Vatican II will all remember the Redemptorists...” and went on to describe a fire and brimstone style that was clearly familiar to most of the other grey-hairs in the parish except me.
Of course I don’t remember that! I’m barely making sense of the differences among the Franciscans and the Benedictines and the Jesuits. I only just discovered Thomas Aquinas, Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. I don’t have a lifetime of traditions passed on to me to help me through the transitions of my life; I am having to make them up (or discover them ) as I go along. I sometimes have the feeling that I have only thirty or so years (being hopeful and keeping in good health) to come to account with two thousand years of history. My type-A personality then kicks into high gear, and I contemplate many, many “all nighters” as I try to get my arms around it all, wanting to pass some ultimate “test”.
I relax when I remember a few things, most importantly this: the “test” isn’t a written exam of my knowledge, it’s an oral exam of my heart. It’s not a giant game of Trivial Pursuit, Catholic version. What I know of the rich history and traditions of the Church is useful only in so far as I manage to reflect its truth and its message in who I am and what I do.
We are all converts, and we are all continually converted, or should be. Having a Catholic history is a rich, wonderful, amazing gift, but the reality is, unless we all have a conversion, daily to follow Christ, all the history and tradition in the world will not matter. If we do have that conversion, the vast history of the Church, Sacred Scripture and Tradition, the sacraments, the community are there to help keep us on the way, to support us, to rejoice with us, to teach us just a little more of Truth.
Being Catholic isn’t just a matter of baptism, a “once and for all” event that requires nothing more from us and assures us a niche in Heaven. It’s a matter of living daily, honorably, joyfully in the family name. The church didn’t have any “cradle” members for a good long while and even they had to be brought into the faith by the act and love of someone else. We all come to Mother Church from some other womb.
All of us, even Catholics of the “cradle” variety are adopted. The adoption by God is so much more powerful than its legal counterpart here on earth. Modern courts play havoc with adoptions left and right, making and breaking bonds, willy-nilly, depending on the attitudes and desires of adults who previously made up their minds, definitively, about the status of the child they either bore or accepted.
God doesn’t do that. We might reject him, stray, revolt, rage, fall away--but He remains Father, and once that bond of adoption is made, if we want to be in the family fold, we can be, and no power on earth save our own stubborn pride can prevent us.
There’s a lot of family history to assimilate--and now mine is part of that. I’ll never feel Catholic like my friend who grew up in the faith in Idaho--but she’ll never feel Catholic like my friend who grew up in the faith in Mexico, either. All of us share the love and nurturing of our Father in Heaven and our Mother Church. It makes us kinsmen, without modifiers. It is enough. It is more than enough.