Apparently a lot of people were able to sympathize with my initial relationship with the Catholic Church, as was evidenced by the significant increase in viewers when my post “Loving Christ and Hating His Church: A Conversion Confession” was published last month. You can read that post here. Over the past few weeks, it has become incredibly clear to me that I am not the only one who has ever felt rejected by the Church, or more particularly, by her members. Since this post first appeared on my blog, I have received several emails and Facebook messages describing other people’s first experiences with the Church. I have also had the opportunity to discuss these struggles in person with a few people. Over the past few weeks, several things have become very clear:
- If you fell away from the Church and then returned, only to be rejected, you are not alone.
- Once you come to know Christ, it is easy to love Him. Once you come to know the Church, it is easy to hate it.
- Falling in love with Christ is intimately connected to falling in love with the Church. This is often difficult to do, and it seems that it can only be done after you have accepted that the Church is composed of sinners as well as saints.
- Despite the rejection you might face, those who come to cling to Jesus Christ in the Eucharist will inevitably cling to His Church. We must either accept the Body of Christ completely, or not at all.
These past few weeks have been incredibly eye-opening. It is beautiful to see how many people have been touched by Christ; it is always wonderful to hear Christians recount how they first met the Lord. No story is the same. No encounter with the risen Christ will ever be the same. It is the union of two hearts, the blossoming of a relationship between two unique people, and thus, every conversion is one of a kind. That being said, it was astounding to see how many people were able to sympathize with my first experience within the Catholic Church. I, like so many other converts and re-verts (AKA fallen away Catholics who return to the Church), had a very particular idea of what our return to the Church would be like, and I was shocked when I realized that I had been mistaken. I didn’t realize until much later that I’d had unrealistic expectations. More often than not, we fall in love with the Lord with the guidance of other people. I have heard countless stories of men and women, in the depths of despair, who find the peace and comfort that they so desperately seek in Jesus Christ. This can happen in all sorts of ways. Sometimes we meet another person who has suffered the same sort of pain that we hold, and we turn to the same person that they did: the Lord. Sometimes we just feel like we are missing something vital in our lives, and a friend might suggest that we read a book that was pivotal in their own spiritual lives. Sometimes we feel alone in this world, and we find ourselves sitting alone in the Eucharistic Adoration chapel, begging for help. Or we are surrounded by thousands of other people who are reaching out to Jesus Christ, longing to be embraced by Him. Many converts and re-verts encounter Jesus Christ for the first time in another person. We are not solitary beings, and we look to others for guidance. We are constantly identifying ourselves according to our relationships with other people. We are daughters, wives, and sisters. We are sons, husbands, and brothers. We are teachers, students, and friends. We are Christians, lovers of the Lord, and Catholics. We only call ourselves Christians because of the relationship that we have found with Christ, a relationship that we want to share with the world when we choose to identify ourselves as Christians. As I wrote in my last post on this topic, after I found my faith again, it was easy to call myself a Christian, but it took me a while before I could comfortably call myself a Catholic. Yes, I never stopped being Catholic; I never called myself a Protestant, but for a while I was ashamed of who I was. When I returned to Christ, it was through the guidance of another Catholic, and I assumed that everyone in the Church would be the same. I assumed that I would join a Church of saints; I was not expecting a Church of sinners. In all honesty, I was incredibly naive to believe that. When I fell in love with Christ, I did not suddenly become perfect. I continued to struggle with sin, but I repeatedly told myself that the Christian life was not about how many times we fall, but how many times we reach up to take the hand of Christ. If I fell forty times, the important thing was that I got back up again forty-one times. But from the very beginning, I was a hypocrite. I was incredibly forgiving with myself, but demanded perfection from the rest of the Catholic world. After some time and a lot of struggling, I finally realized and accepted the truth: accepting Christ meant accepting the Church, which is both composed of individual sinners like myself but is also so much more than that. The Church is home to both sinners and saints, and saints are only sinners who realize their own fallenness and seek God’s forgiveness. The Church has arms that will embrace all people, no matter how fallen we might be. Christians should be striving towards perfection, but we can’t expect everyone to be perfect. When I returned to the Church, I assumed that everyone would be like that first person who re-introduced me to Christ. She was gentle and incredibly patient with me as a stumbled towards the Lord. When I fell in love with Christ, in a very real way, I fell in love with Christ in her. Yes, I fell in love with Christ in the Eucharist, and it was the Blessed Sacrament that kept me faithful to the Church when I doubted her most, but it was this young woman who brought me to Him. Before I could fall in love with the Church, I fell in love with the Eucharist, and before I fell in love with the Eucharist, I fell in love with Jesus Christ in the person of this gentle, loving Christian. She was Jesus Christ for me. When she spoke of His love and mercy, it always felt like His words. When she held me as a I cried, it always felt like His arms around me. She introduced me to Christ by being transparent, by allowing Jesus Christ to shine through her. She brought me to the Lord by bringing Him to me in her very person. After having such an incredible re-version experience, I assumed that all Christians would be like her. I was shocked when I realized that they weren’t, and I was astounded when they glared at me and made me feel like an unwanted trespasser in church. This was not the Gospel that Christ had preached. This was not the love and forgiveness that I had been shown. I had been embraced by Christ, but I felt shunned by His Church. During that period, I realized that not all Christians faithfully live up to the name that they have adopted. Not all Christians are Christ-like. Some Christians are down-right un-Christian. But most of them are simply sinners who are struggling with their own crosses, and even their own demons. They are simply fellow sojourners on this journey called life. Over the past few weeks, I have heard many people recount tales of rejection by members of the Church, but there were also a handful that had been hurt by people who are often viewed as embodying the Church herself, namely priests and religious. These stories were definitely the most devastating, and those who had been wounded by priests and religious have scars that go much deeper than most. Those of us who are rejected by the “regular” whose pew we “stole” or by the elderly woman who does not approve of our clothing choices feel slighted, but most of us overcome this. The power of the Eucharist is strong enough to hold onto us when we feel like walking away. We are hurt, yes, but our new-found faith, though tested, keeps us in church. Now that we have finally found Christ, it takes a lot more than a grumpy Christian to chase us away. But men and women who have been wounded by those who are most closely linked to the Church are different. Those scars often run much deeper, and the wounds are the kind that never seem to heal. Those of us who were rejected by disgruntled parishioners eventually realize that they are just sinners like us. They are exactly “like us.” They are fellow parishioners who are struggling, just like we are. Eventually we manage to forgive them for making us feel unwanted, and we learn to at least “play nice” with them. Sometimes we even learn to forgive them, though we also vow to never become “like them.” Of course, we also realize that even if we make every effort to welcome newcomers, we are “like them” in other ways. We are all sinners, each in his or her own way, and we have all fallen at one time or another. We are just at different stages of the journey. Some of us are still stubbornly trying to get up by ourselves. Some of us have finally realized that we can’t do it alone, but don’t know where to turn. And some of us are being pulled up into the arms of Christ Himself. But we are all fallen beings seeking redemption. We can sympathize with fallen parishioners, but we are less forgiving of fallen clergy and religious. We expect more from them, and not just because of their collar or habit. We expect more because we respect them more. We look up to them, so it’s shocking when they fall. It just doesn’t seem right. And because we look up to them, they have a lot farther to fall in our eyes. But this blog post is not a defense of clerical misbehavior. In reality, we all must take responsibility for our actions, no matter what our state in life is. That includes you. And me. And the disgruntled parishioner. And the priest. And the nun. We are all human. We are all sinners. And we are all capable of becoming saints. This blog post is an invitation to all those who are suffering from wounds inflicted by members of the Church, whether they be average parishioners or authority figures at your parish. Some time ago, you fell in love with Jesus Christ. It might have been a few months ago. It might have been a few years ago. No matter how long it’s been since you found the Lord, He loves you just as much today as He did on that providential day that you first reached out to Him. He longs to embrace you, to wipe away your tears, to be a source of comfort and solace for you. He wants to heal you, to love you, to give you everything. He has given you His life, and a promise of an eternity with Him in heaven. And all you have to do is love Him back. Love is not always easy, but it is always worth it. Love is about mercy and forgiveness. Christ has shown us all mercy, and He has forgiven us all our sins. But we must be merciful too. We must be willing to forgive as well. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is perfect, but His Body here on earth, the Church, is made up of sinners- sinners in need of forgiveness, sinners who need to be shown mercy. We must be Christ to those who have wounded us, because they need Christ just as much as we do. We first turned to Christ because we realized we needed Him. We were empty, and longed to be filled. We were in pain, and wanted to be healed. We were alone, and needed to be loved. That is why we first turned to Christ. That is why we first fell in love with Him. After a great deal of searching, we have finally found what we’ve been looking for all along. We have found fulfillment, healing, and love. We have tasted heaven, and now we will never be satisfied with anything less. When we fell in love with Christ, He asked us to love His Church. It is not always easy, but it is always necessary. If we are going to love the Body of Christ, if we are going to embrace our Eucharistic Lord, we must love His Church. We must love both the sinners and the saints. Now that we have found Christ, we will never be satisfied unless He is present in our lives. Now that we have been filled, we will never be satisfied being empty. God has made us so that we will always be restless until we rest in Him. He has created us to long for what will fill us. Once we have discovered this truth about ourselves, there is no turning back. It might have taken years for us to realize that our hearts yearn for Jesus Christ, but now that we have found Him, we will never be satisfied without Him. We know what it feels like to be loved by Him, and we will always need that love. We will always desire it, we will always long for it, no matter what might happen to us. One of my friends explained it best to me: she told me that she fell away from the Church because she had been hurt by some of its members, and she left with a hole in her heart. She tried to fill this void in countless ways, but none of them worked. Eventually she admitted why this was: this was the space that Christ had once occupied, and she would never be satisfied until she invited Him back into that space. She thought she could find something to make her feel satisfied again, but everything left her feeling empty. She needed the Eucharist. She needed Christ. We all need Christ. We all long for Him, and once we have found Him, there is no turning back. Our God is a jealous God. He is a God of love, of mercy, of forgiveness. Once we have found Him, He will not let us go. Once we have invited Him into our hearts, He will make it His own. He will transform us from the inside out, and we will never be the same. Even when we are hurt, even when we want to hate God for what His Church has done to us, we will always turn back to Him in the end. We will never be happy until we do. We were made for God, and we will not be satisfied until we turn to Him, until we embrace Him. As St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. We will be satisfied with nothing less. Even when we are wounded by members of His Church, only Jesus Christ can heal us, and this happens within His Church. It is only through the power and grace of Jesus Christ that sinners can be transformed into saints. We are all called to become saints, whether we are students, teachers, doctors, lawyers, priests, or religious brothers and sisters. No matter what our vocation, we are all called to holiness, and we are all called to help one another to achieve that holiness. Some of us may be further along in this journey than others, but we are all in it together. Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!