We recently hosted a talk by John Beaumont, author of The Mississippi Flows into the Tiber: A Guide to Notable American Catholic Converts to the Catholic Church. It’s a wonderful compilation of convert stories that includes a few folks associated with this fine magazine. John recounted a number of them. He ended with an arresting question: Why do people convert to Catholicism? There’s no one answer, of course, but many reasons, which John winsomely summarized.
My Protestant friends sometimes accuse First Things of encouraging Catholic triumphalism. We’re not entirely innocent. How can we avoid an atmosphere of triumphalism, given the profound influence Catholicism exercises over so many who are associated with the magazine, beginning with our founding editor and including our current one, yours truly? We love the Catholic Church, and one invariably wishes to champion that which one loves. And so, in that spirit—and with the urgent reminder that there’s no reason Protestants don’t share in these reasons in their own ways— I’ll recount John’s summation, adding my own observations.
1. Visibility: Catholicism attracts because it’s visible. That’s obvious in the case for the architecture of Catholic churches, which aside from a short period of modernist banality brashly claims space as sacred. Men and women in religious orders wear distinctive outfits. Priests consistently set themselves apart with clerical collars. Even the bulky, sometimes exasperating institutional bureaucracy of the Catholic has a reassuring solidity. This multifaceted visibility is especially powerful in our culture, which so often reduces faith to a private opinion or inward sentiment. The scriptures speak of a New Jerusalem, a city of God. Catholicism foreshadows that city with its very real and tangible buildings, uniforms, rituals, laws, and ensigns.
2. Universality: The Church is universal, spanning the entire globe. Or more simply: Catholicism is catholic. This breadth makes the gospel more credible. The universality of the Church demonstrates that ours is a faith for all men and all seasons. It’s not a European or African or South American religion; it’s not an ancient or medieval or modern religion. The Church’s universality has a special appeal to those of us aware of the failures of postmodern Western culture. We feel the intellectual and moral decadence of our times, and we know this deforms our reason and conscience. Here the universality of the Church is a source of grace. To enter the Church is to enter a larger world. We don’t stop being postmodern Americans—instead, we become more than that. The Church’s catholicity delivers us from our parochialism, which in America often comes in the form of a false universalism.
3. Endurance: There’s a joke about a papal representative who meets with Stalin. The Man of Steel announces his intention to destroy the Church. The cleric responds, “Good luck. We’ve been trying for two thousand years and haven’t succeeded.” The Church’s endurance, the continuity of teaching and ministry, is nothing short of miraculous—especially during times of high status, prominence, and privilege when worldly seductions are powerful. At the very times when the papacy fell captive to corrupt Renaissance popes, the Holy Spirt was stirring up a piety that gave birth to great new religious orders.
Welcome to the Blog! I am a Salesian of Don Bosco and was ordained to the priesthood on August 26, 2000. I hope this site is a place of interest for you where you will find ideas and information on the Catholic faith and on Salesianity.