Saturday, November 5, 2011

Why I Didn't Leave the Church

The other day I came across a forum on which ex-Catholics shared their testimonies of how they left the Church. Ridiculing Catholicism, they glorified the process by which they were “saved”, and alternately cursed and pitied those Catholics who are not “saved” (by which they meant those Catholics who are still Catholic). While the Protestants of the forum rushed to congratulate these ex-Catholics and thank them for sharing their testimony, I only became increasingly saddened. Post after post scrolled by and I found tales of ignorant or apathetic people coaxed away from the truth by rhetoric or promises of immediate emotional fulfillment. Though many of the posters hoped that a Catholic would read this and “come to see the light” each comment only made me appreciate my Faith more and more. As the ex-Catholics dwelt upon why they left the Church, I began to reflect upon why I didn’t leave the Catholic Church.

I was “born Catholic”. My parents had me Baptized when I was exactly two weeks old. Most cradle Catholics are not interested in their Faith; it has been a part of their lives for so long that it becomes a common sight taken for granted, a job that must be done. They are uninterested it, and so don’t know it. I must admit, that this was never a problem with me. My religious education was never neglected and never haphazardly delivered.
I don’t know why I didn’t lose interest. It may be that I was (and remain) a very curious person. I always wanted to know what things are, and why they are the way they are, and why they can’t be another way. I drove my mother insane with the “Why Game”, because I would go at it for hours and never get tired of asking “why?”

“Why are worms slimy?”
“Because they need it to breathe.”
“Because they breathe through their skin.”
“But WHY?!?”

I was always curious, and I possessed that unusual ability to question something without doubting it. I simply loved to learn. As I grew older, the issues became more complex. I asked questions and received two different answers to the same question. I became skeptical of the replies I received… but not so skeptical that Ring Lardner’s statement applied to me: “He’s been that way for years—a born questioner but he hates answers.” I wanted the truth of the matter, and was sure I could find it if I first searched for it, and second accepted it. The subject of abortion was the first complex issue I tackled. My Faith was the second.
I remember the day a twelve year old girl, the daughter of a Baptist preacher, came up to me and accused, “You Catholics aren’t Christian!”
“Why not?” I asked. “We believe in Jesus.”
“My daddy says you aren’t Christian because you worship statues. He says you bow to them and pray to them.”
Now, there were statues in my Church. I had my own little statue of the Blessed Virgin which I‘d gotten from Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, and of which I was proud, because my daddy had said I could get it if I was very good, and I had “earned” it. But I could not remember once ever bowing to it. What was this girl talking about? I racked my memory. Well, there were times when I’d knelt before the statue of Mary in our Church, to ask Jesus and Mary to help me be good. But I wasn’t praying to the statue. I was praying to Mary and Jesus. I said such. “It’s like… when you have a picture of a family member to remember them by. You don’t love the picture, or have the picture because you like the picture. You have the picture because of the person it is of, and you love the person. If it’s wrong to have statues, then it’s wrong to have pictures.”
“My daddy says you worship Mary!”
Well, that was silly. I’d never done such a thing in my life. Maybe she’d never heard the Hail Mary. I told it to her. “It’s all from the Bible. I mean, not the end, but that’s not worship. That’s just asking her to pray for us. You ask your friends to pray for you, don’t you?”
I was thirteen. The girl stopped her “my daddy says” after that; maybe she was surprised that what her “daddy says” wasn’t quite true. Maybe she just lost interest. I’d never picked up an apologetics book in my life before that time. But her accusations made me ask new questions. I began to look into my faith with more seriousness on my part. I’ve been asking questions and searching ever since. Many Christian non-Catholics have told me that if I only stopped blindly following the Pope I’d see the light. If only I read the Bible just once, I’d see the errors in my Papist ways. Well, I have read the Bible. I have looked at what the Church teaches, and why she teaches it. I’ve been looking into it for years, ever since I was thirteen. And you know what? I’ve never found a single thing which was wrong, or which I thought would offend Jesus. I still search for answers. I look at what the Church says, and what Protestants say, and what history says (really, I can argue against the Catholic faith just as well as an anti-Catholic). “Why do I as a Catholic believe such-and-such?” I always ask myself. But every answer I find only reinforces what I’ve come to understand and believe long ago: Catholicism is right. I think G.K. Chesterton put it perfectly when he said:

“The difficulty of explaining “why I am a Catholic” is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.”

The Church has the Truth. And with everything I have heard and read and seen, not a single thing has ever led me to seriously doubt that. But, it is important to note, that I am not just Catholic because I know in my head it is the truth. I know, also, in my heart that it is the truth.
“Catholicism just doesn’t cut it for me.”
“I wasn’t getting anything out of it.”
Some ex-Catholic relatives of mine told me that. I have to be honest; there was a time when I felt the same way. I was twelve and I felt absolutely yucky. I felt like everything I was striving for was worthless, and was bored with everything I did. I suppose I could have blamed it all on my Faith, but I had to be honest: the problem wasn’t Catholicism. It was a lack of it! I was Catholic, and I considered myself faithful, but I didn’t live my faith heart and soul. It didn’t permeate my life. It’s wasn’t my every breath. No wonder I didn’t get anything out of it! I’d never put anything into it! I was twelve, but I realized this and set out to remedy it. I began to live the Faith. It took effort at first; I wasn’t used to praying every night or offering up my chores for Jesus. But I began and I stuck to it, and my Faith became a source of joy for me again. I found a “favorite saint” (or two or three or five…), prayed the Rosary and the prayers of Saint Brigit. But most importantly I began to pay attention and truly participate at Mass. And there, I met Jesus in the Eucharist. Again.
The Eucharist is the greatest treasure of the Catholic Church, and I rediscovered it through Saint Padre Pio (that story, later). The Eucharist is Jesus Christ Himself! There is something awesome and so very sweet and fitting about that. Jesus loved us enough to die for us. He loves us enough to make Himself physically available to us, dwelling in the Tabernacle until the end of time so that He could be with us. And He loves us enough to become a part of us through Holy Communion! Furthermore, there is something exquisite about the entire Mass. Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice on Calvary wasn’t some distant event in the past that I can only know through the memories of others, like the Pax Romana or the French Revolution. It’s here. It’s now. And I can actively participate in it! I witness it myself! When this fact hit me (like a 2x4, over the head) when I was thirteen, I felt it. Oh, you can’t miss it. How can you miss it? It is such a sweet realization, the depth of Jesus’ love and His closeness. Such comfort, such love… I cannot explain it. But I’m not the only one to have felt it. Not too long ago I was debating with a newly converted ex-Catholic. He’d left the Church and become a Protestant only one week before, and had come to the forum to talk about his gripe with the Church. One of the problems he had was the Eucharist. Well, we debated about it, and I gave the Scriptural evidence, and the historical evidence, and all the hard facts. It didn’t make him believe. But it did get him to go to Mass again. And there he realized that Jesus was truly there. Or, rather, he FELT that Jesus was truly there. He’s Catholic again, now, because he knew in his heart that the Catholic Church has Jesus Christ. It’s not a feeling that can be explained. But you can feel it, if you are open to feeling it. If you put aside your hostility (or apathy, as in my case), you will feel it. Once I realized that there was something to get out of my Faith, I got something—and that was Jesus. I love Jesus in the Holy Eucharist! I couldn’t get Him that way anywhere else. That’s why I didn’t leave the Church!
I will never forget how I re-discovered the reality of Jesus’ Presence and what inspired my devotion to Him in the Eucharist. It came, as I mentioned before, through Saint Padre Pio. He was one of the saints I dug up after my bout of spiritual apathy. I was initially intrigued by him because of the extraordinary things which occurred to/around him. He could bi-locate, had the Stigmata, could see and speak with his Guardian Angel… What kid wouldn’t be captured by the idea of having—if you’ll excuse the expression—superpowers?!? However, the attraction became much less shallow when I found the book “Secrets of a Soul”. It contains letters of Padre Pio to his spiritual directors and through it I came to know the man who was Padre Pio. Humility, faith, courage, charity, obedience, humor… he had it all. I wanted to have it too, all of it, but especially his love of Jesus in the Eucharist and of the Mass. His love was so great in his writings and so obvious in the testimonies of others that I could not fail to miss it and appreciate it. I began to want it… and that’s all it took.
I would have never known Padre Pio existed, if he had not been canonized. If the Church had not pointed to him and said, “This man is holy and led a holy life; imitate him,” I would have never known him to imitate him. I am well aware that there are many un-canonized saints in Heaven who lived lives just as holy as those canonized. However, knowing that some people are saints is different from knowing that a certain person is a saint. You cannot point to lives in general and say, “Imitate that!” but you can point to one life in particular and say, “It is good! I will imitate that!” There is something very encouraging about this. We can look at a person who was a human just like us—no more, no less—and the struggles they endured, crosses they bore, and the degree of holiness they achieved. We can see in this hope that we too can achieve this state of holiness; we also find in this the key to achieving said holiness. The examples of the Saints are ones we can imitate. We have only to be like them to attain what they have attained. I can look at Gianna Molla and see in her struggle to respect life, my own struggle to respect life in this culture of death. I can look at Saints Francis of Assisi and Padre Pio and see examples of virtues that I want as well as the key to attaining them. Having the Saints can give so much hope and encouragement! It also provides a testament to the Faith. Saints exist! They are people who are undeniably holy and faithful, whose devotion and virtues permeated every single moment of their lives. Extraordinary people like Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Damien of Moloki: the fact that such people exist in the Church is a testament to the truth and power of the Faith!
Another treasure of the Church is the Sacrament of Confession. I remember my First Confession. I was seven, and I went up to the priest, and sat down face-to-face with him, and told him all my sins. I remember walking away feeling like I was floating. I remember feeling light and airy and happy and bouncy. I drifted back to the pew and sat down next to my mother, and wondered why I felt so happy. Maybe I was a precocious seven-year-old; I remember thinking, “Why do I feel so great? I just told him what I did bad.” My joy was seemingly disproportional to the act I had just done, and I realized this and wondered at it. But it felt great! Now, I know why I felt (and feel) so great after Confession. When I am truly sorry for my sins and tell them in Confession, I am truly forgiven them. I come out of the Confessional white as snow through and through. Not as a dung hill covered in snow, but like an actual snow flake. Jesus forgives me, truly forgives me; He doesn’t just forget or ignore my sins. It’s another testament of His love for me. And not only does He forgive me in Confession, but He gives me the grace and strength to never commit those sins again. I have to be honest—I have committed the same sins over and over, but that’s my fault and because I didn’t try hard enough. And there are faults that I have overcome with the grace I received through Confession. When I was young, I used to be very vain. I was also very apathetic, first toward my Faith in general, and then toward my vocation specifically. But through the grace I received in Confession, I overcame. I’ve become a better person, Christian, and Catholic through the Sacrament of Confession.
This is only the story of how I came to appreciate my Faith when I was twelve/thirteen. Since then, I have learned so much more about my Faith and my vocational journey (which isn’t over yet) has especially helped me grow in love of Jesus! I could go on forever giving examples of what my Faith has done for me, but I believe my point is clear. The day those Protestants on that other forum can give me what my Catholic Faith does, that’s the day I will begin to consider leaving the Church. And to all you Catholics out there (I know no one is ever going to read this, probably, but I just love saying it!)… remember often all the reasons you DIDN’T leave the Catholic Church. Remember often everything your Faith has done for you, so that you may always appreciate the fact that you are Catholic. I’M CATHOLIC AND PROUD OF IT! Are you?

~Tally Marx

(PS: If you have a "Why I Didn't Leave the Church" testimony, feel free to send it to me. I'd be happy to post it! Pax et bonum!)

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