What is it that leads people into the Catholic Church? I recently found myself reflecting on this question as I visited the gravesites of my parents, both of whom were converts. I do not have a neat, black and white answer and I don’t remember my parents ever giving one either. It is interesting how parents can remain a mystery to their children. A mystery that only deepens after the parent dies and the children are left with jigsaw puzzle memories.
My parents lived their Catholic faith although I think both would admit their struggles. My father was an alcoholic – a disease which he would never overcome that took his life and his marriage. My mother, for the good of her boys, finally separated from my father but such a disruption is never perfect nor good. Faith-wise, my family was thrown into limbo for most of my childhood and teenage years. At best we were twice a year Catholics, lost and confused – reeling from the effects of the modern, shattered family.
My father was brought up in a Presbyterian household although how staunch it was is open for debate. A story I once heard was of an exchange which occurred sometime after my father’s conversion when my two great aunts from Mississippi made a visit to my grandfather and grandmother. Noticing a little dust on the family Bible one aunt is said to have remarked, “Maybe if that Bible was not dusty, Jack would never have converted.” A number of years later my own aunt (my father’s sister) would tell these same two great-aunts, “Michael has decided to enter Catholic seminary and we are very proud.” The southern equivalent of drawing a line in the sand!
My grandfather was a self-made and successful businessman who established a local business and, at some point, acquired a bottling company in Cuba. This was pre-Castro when Cuba was open and, apparently, quite the place to be. Every now and then my father would share memories of being a young boy visiting Cuba and he would smile when he talked of visiting some Catholic churches and shrines in the country. Even to the end of his life my father enjoyed spending whole evenings sitting and listening to records of Cuban music. I cannot help but believe that the lived faith my father witnessed in Cuba as a young man lit a spark that eventually led him to embrace Catholicism.
My mother did not grow up in affluence as my father did. Her childhood was spent in a small town in North Carolina. Nominally, I believe that she was raised Baptist but it seems that church was not a major factor in her younger years. She did once tell me that for a while she worked at a local Methodist retreat center frequented by the young (and then single) Billy Graham. “All the young ladies would swoon over him,” my mom once confided. She never said if she was one of the ones swooning. Right out of high school my mother left Brevard to work in book-keeping for a man who owned a number of hotels scattered around the southeast. Mr. Faw was a good man. He looked like Colonel Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and for the fun of it would sometimes dress like the fast food icon just to see people’s reaction. Mrs. Faw was of Eastern European descent and she once gave my mother an eighteenth century lithograph of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. My mother treasured this gift and today it hangs on my wall.
At one point (prior to marrying my father) my mother was sent to a hotel owned by Mr. Faw in Oak Ridge, TN. At that time it was the only hotel in the city and therefore the temporary residence of visiting scientists from all over the world who came to do work and research in the government-run laboratories. My mother met a wide variety of people those years and at one point was approached by the FBI to help keep tabs on a visiting couple that the government thought had Russian connections. For this effort my mother received a signed letter from J. Edgar Hoover thanking her for her service to her country. One scientist my mother met and became a good friend of was a Franciscan nun from the Northeast. She taught at a university and had come to Oak Ridge to do some research. She and my mother remained friends for many years and I do believe that her friendship and that of Mr. and Mrs. Faw were what helped my mother in recognizing the beauty of the Catholic faith which, in turn, enabled her to make the choice to become Catholic.
When I was studying theology I took a class on the thought of Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman. It was in that class that I first heard the term, “The Illative Sense”. Fundamentally, the illative sense in regards to faith, is that capacity that the human person has to draw from a multitude of converging and intersecting common human experiences the belief and sure conviction that there is a transcendent dimension to reality and that there is a personal God who seeks encounter with us. One experience alone is not enough but when the experiences add up we have the ability to connect the dots. The illative sense is not so much an academic exercise (although that might be an essential component) as it is a fundamental living recognition of experience. Things just kind of add up and it is in this “adding up” that a person is able to make the step in faith.
My father and mother each walked their own journey of life and of faith (like we all do) but through their journeys and their own reflecting on experiences (i.e. use of the illative sense) they both came to belief in God and in the Church. I do not know all the experiences that added up to their each making their choice for faith. I never will and that is probably for the best. There are some things rightly left between the soul and God alone. These are and will remain the missing jigsaw pieces of their own journeys but I must admit that I do take great delight when I hear a story or memory shared that sheds a little more light on the journey each one had. These insights bring me joy and, I believe, are gifts given to help us who remain to continue our own journeys of life and faith.