As a postman in Bunbury I knew where all the churches were. So, I headed straight to St. Mary's in Columba Street, South Bunbury. Only once before had I been in a Catholic Church. So, I had no idea of protocol, gestures, liturgy or the like. I told myself that today I would suspend any judgment on what I was to be part of. I was here to worship the risen Lord. So, that would be my focus and not the people, priest or the other distractions.
The First Mass
Much to my surprise the Mass was entirely focused on Jesus Christ as the Second Person of the Trinity. I heard more Scripture read than I had ever heard in any Protestant church. I heard a 15 minute sermon on the Gospel reading. We said the Our Father together. We confessed our sins together. We prayed for the Church, the government, the needy, the lost and our selves. We remembered members of the Church who had died. We sang hymns. We kneeled. We stood. We made the sign of the Cross. We shook hands with each other and said, "Peace be with you." It was a corporate affair.
The fact that the Church has always understood the New Testament idea that Baptism was incorporation into Christ's Body, the Church, had always been something I admired about the Catholic Church. It made sense of why so much of the Mass was said out aloud, and acted out together. We were the Body of Christ. It wasn't just about me.
I sat there observing all the ritual, the vestments, the noises and the smells. Having come from a low-church background (Baptist, Churches of Christ) the Mass was the opposite of what I believed Christian worship to be. I have never liked vestments, liturgy, call and response prayers or the officiating of priests. Still I suspended judgment and focussed on Christ.
The primary reason Catholics meet is for the Eucharist. They believe it is truly Christ made present in their midst. It is the key to understanding Catholicism. I had believed the Eucharist (Communion, Lord's Supper, Breaking of the Bread) to be symbolic but still meaningful because we -The Church - were showing solidarity by eating the bread and wine together. This understanding of the Lord's Supper came from my Anabaptist understanding of Church. My Anabaptist tendencies accentuated the people who ate together (the Body of Christ) over the One who broke the Bread at the Last Supper. The Catholic Church drew the two together.
I watched the priest preside over the Eucharist then invite everyone to come forward to receive Christ. I saw people of all races and positions in life (an MLA was kneeling across from me) rise and walk orderly forward as a group to the front. I remained of course and surveyed the scene. Once everyone had Communion the priest told us the Mass was ended. The whole Mass took 1 hour.
I was pleasantly surprised that the Mass was so short. I was used to hour and a half services that continued afterwards with tea and biscuits. I decided to take a copy of the weekly Catholic newspaper The Record" from the back of the Church and headed for the café strip of Bunbury (I have since discovered that I should have paid for the newspaper!). Sitting with a large coffee I read the newspaper and reflected on the Mass. I felt edified and happy that the Catholic Church was not what I had thought it was. Funnily, I then bumped into a couple I knew from my previous church who had gone shopping that Sunday instead of going to church. They were coy because I had seen them. I was coy because I had behind my back the kind of newspaper that they would have disliked.
I came home and told Marina all about the Mass and said I would continue to attend for worship. Marina continued to take the children to our previous church.
Where to Now?
I began to read everything Catholic from theology and doctrine through to Church history. I downloaded articles and listened to interviews with Protestants who had converted to Catholicism.
I was struck by a number of things.
Firstly, as a Protestant I had always read church history backwards. That is, I would start with where the Protestant church was in the present and trace a path back to its origins in the 16th Century. I would compare how the denominations looked in the present with the early church as recorded in the New Testament to see which were the most faithful. I ignored the period of history from 90AD through to the 1500's.
With my new found interest in Catholicism I started to read history forwards. I downloaded a lecture series with its accompanying course materials by Thomas Madden, the professor of history and chair of the Department of History at the University of Saint Louis. Madden was a non believer but an expert on pre-modern Europe. I wanted an unbiased view of Church history. The series was in two parts: From Jesus to Christianity: A History of the Early Church & Christianity at the Crossroads: The Reformations of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.
Seeing Christianity unfold over the centuries was a revelation. By the time I came to the Reformation period (after hours and hours of listening on my iPod whilst sorting mail at work) it was with a sense of sadness and not triumphalism that I heard about the church schism that still has not been mended. I started to rethink some of the Protestant assumptions about Church authority. I started to see a more complete picture of the great Reformers in their historical context. I started to see the Reformation through Catholic eyes. The Catholic Church now views the Reformation as a tragedy that they were responsible for as much as the Luther's and the Zwingli's of the Reformation.
On my historical journey I wrestled with the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the bad Popes and times of compromise with worldly powers amongst other things. But I was often overcome (literally) by the many saints, good Popes and a Church that had gone against the world's powers in order to be faithful to its Lord. I started to see the Church for what is - a community of saints and sinners struggling through history with the Divine will and Presence in their midst.
I expected to read the history of the Church and finally put to bed any intention of becoming Catholic. Instead I came to see the Church differently. I realised that at the heart of my Protestism was the ancient heresy of Donatism. The mistaken belief that one can create a "pure" authentic Church out of a Church that remains frustratingly soiled by sin. I had personally church hopped for twenty years in an attempt to find a "New Testament church". I even helped to create one! Sadly it took that long for me to discover that a pure Church never existed in Jesus or Paul's time (we forget Judas, Peter's denial of Christ, James and John's desire for power, Thomas' doubt, Paul's sexually immoral and theologically dubious fledgling churches and so on) nor has it ever existed.
A Catholic Priest
I called the Parish Office because I wanted to speak to someone one on one about the Catholic Faith. I was referred to Father Vittorio, an Italian priest who had started at St.Mary's the same week I started to attend Mass there. We met at a café and spoke for 2 hours about our different lives. Strangely, I discovered that we had a lot in common when it came to our views of church. He was from a missionary order called the Neo-Catechumenal Way, which had it origins in the slums of Madrid. Begun by a Spanish painter convert to Catholicism in the 1960's it has grown throughout the world with the the blessing of the Vatican. From a Protestant perspective it resembles the house church movement. It is centred on a missionary family who is assisted by a missionary priest.
Father Vittorio has since become a good friend of mine and our family. He drops by regular for coffee and even watched the World Cup Soccer with my brother, son and me when Italy played. When I texted him about my intentions to be received into the Church he appeared at my door within ten minutes in his exercise clothes to shake my hand. He also attended the mass of my initiation.
A Catholic Friend
During a period when I was discouraged by the many nominal Catholics I had met over the years I began to pray that God would bring me a Catholic friend who was truly committed to Jesus Christ - someone who would show me what real Catholic life was like. Not long after that Marina and I were at the public library when Marina spied a man that she had met through homeschooling circles and whom we had sat behind once at a Latin Mass. His name was Matthew. After chatting about homeschooling matters she told him I was attending the Catholic Church and had a lot of questions. Matthew invited me for coffee the next week to talk. We started to meet nearly every week. I would come with a list of questions that were troubling me and he would try and answer them the best way he could. Matthew became my RCIA sponsor.
Conversion is never all about the mind. It also involves the heart, the emotions and the will. During the three months of attending Mass Marina and I started to have a lot of significant dreams. Whilst this was quite common for Marina in the past it was rare for me to have religious dreams. Here is a selection that stood out:
A dream about me: Marina dreamed that we were all on an ocean liner coming into a port. I was dressed all in white. As we approached the port I told marina I had to get off here. Whilst they stayed on deck they watched me walk down the gangplank and disembark.
A dream about a friend: I dreamed that a Protestant friend of mine who rejected the Catholicism of his youth was with me at a Catholic meeting. After it ended I took him over to meet the priest. My friend said that he had enjoyed himself and wanted to come back again.
When I told my friend this dream he laughed. He has since started to attend Mass regularly.
A Marian Dream: Marina dreamed that she saw a woman holding a jar of oil. It was the purest she had ever seen. Marina was also holding a jar of oil but hers was murky by comparison to the woman's. So, she asked the woman if she could have some of the pure oil. The woman replied that she had to ask the owner whether it was ok for her to give Marina the pure oil. The woman asked the owner and he gave permission for Marina to be given the oil.
A dream about a work colleague: I dreamed that I was at a garage sale when I saw a work colleague called Jon. As I went up to him he was carrying a box of books containing commentaries on the books of the bible. He told me he was interested in Christianity but wasn't sure whether it was ok to read the Bible without assistance. I reassured him that the Church had said that the canon of scripture was safe for him to read.
I have since discovered that Jon had become a Christian many years ago in England through a group called the Jesus Army but was no longer practising. We have since had conversations about what it means to be Christian and my conversion to Catholicism.
My family are not Christians. At the time I started to attend Mass I received a call from my brother in Perth vasking whether I had any Christian books that he could read. I was taken aback because my brother and I had never talked about religious matters before. I said, "Sure" and sent him a book my Anglican scholar NT Wright on Jesus. In short, my brother was investigating the Christian faith. He relocated to Bunbury not long after and eventually moved into the studio flat at the back our house.
One night I was talking to Marina about St.Mary's with my brother at the table. When I had finished he said that the next time I went to St.Mary's he would like to come along. He added that he had always felt that if he were to become a Christian he wanted to be Catholic - so, begun our weekly Sunday evening Mass attendance. My brother is getting baptised on the 23rd of April this year.
Being Received into the Church
I began attending RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) which is a 9 month weekly course in order to prepare an enquirer for baptism into the Church with my brother. I lasted four weeks. I had too many questions that needed answering and the RCIA wasn't the place where they could be answered to my satisfaction. I was in a bind. The RCIA was THE way to enter the Catholic Church in our parish.
When I mentioned this to Matthew he suggested I meet with a Perth based priest called Father Michael Rowe who visited Bunbury once a month to offer the Traditional Latin Mass. He received people into the church through private instruction which I didn't know could still be done. Every time he would come down to Bunbury I would meet him thirty minutes before Mass to discuss anything I wanted. He answered questions, gave me things to read, corrected misunderstandings.
It was before a Latin Mass that I was received into the Church. During the ceremony I knelt, professed the Catholic Faith, had my first confession, was given a conditional baptism (I was not sure whether my original baptism was legitimate) and then was formally received into the Church. At the following Mass I received the Eucharist for the first time. Through the grace of baptism I have joined all the faithful Christians who have lived and died and who still live in Christ. Amen.