"You're no longer a Christian!" These were the words I heard multiple times in the fall of 1999 through the Spring and Summer of 2000. This was the time just before, during and after my conversion to the Catholic Church. I heard words like this from most of my friends, and yes, even some of my family.
You see, I was an Evangelical Christian, and for many years I had been a member of an Evangelical-Fundamental Protestant affiliation called Calvary Chapel. Now I had left that affiliation in 1997 and began attending a local Episcopal Church. I remember the disapproval I received from friends and family just switching from Evangelical to Episcopalian (Anglican). I remember how confused they seemed, and how they looked down at our local Episcopal Church. Still, it was technically Protestant, and I suppose tolerable. I have one sister who joined us for Christmas Eve mass, and she seemed to enjoy it. For the most part, however, most of the people I knew were displeased.
Then it happened. In the summer of 1999 my wife, Penny, and I decided to enrol in a Catholic RCIA class, with the intent of joining the Catholic Church. We waited a little while to inform our friends and family. It was probably a good thing we did, because we discovered it was best to break the news slowly, to a few people at a time. Oh my! You would have thought we just decided to join the Church of Satan!
First came the disapproval from our parents. Penny's mother told her she would go to hell for sure. My father told me I was making an enormous mistake and I would regret it. My mother told me this decision would lead me away from Christ. My sisters were careful and didn't say a whole lot. Then the letters and emails started to roll in. Some of these came from old friends from our former Evangelical church. Some from Baptist and Pentecostal friends we knew from various circles. We were told to reconsider, that the Catholic Church is the "Whore of Babylon" where members engage in idolatry. We were told that we would surely lose our salvation, and that we would no longer be Christian. Even some of my coworkers laid into me on a regular basis, as well as Penny's coworkers. It was really quite intense, and somewhat unexpected. We did expect a little bit of push back, but nothing close to the level we got.
You see, Penny and I were native Californians. We grew up in neighbourhoods that were mostly Catholic. Most of our childhood friends were Catholic. My aunt was Catholic, and so was my grandmother. So while we expected a little push back when we announced that we would soon become Catholic, we never expected it to rise to the level that it did. You see, several years prior, we moved to the Springfield area in Southwest Missouri. This area is highly Evangelical (mostly Baptist and Pentecostal). Consequently, most of the friends we made in this area were Evangelicals. Almost every contact we made in this whole region was either Baptist or Pentecostal, and many of them at the time had a strong anti-Catholic streak. I have to say, it was pretty shocking. For the course of a whole year our entire circle of friends had been reduced to just one couple -- two fellow coworkers. They just happened to be Catholic, and one of them was converting the same year we were, and we happened to be attending the same RCIA class. (Clearly this was a case of divine providence.) Had it not been for them, we would have been friendless between the years of 1999 to 2001.
Yes, that's how bad it was. Everyone we knew thought we were nuts. We were told that we were joining a "cult." We were told that we'll be engaging in "idolatry." We were told we were joining the "Whore of Babylon" (a negative reference from the Book of Revelation). We were told that Satan had deceived us, that we were losing our salvation, and that our children would never know Christ. Some of our friends cut off all communication with us. Some sent us nasty letters. Some called us "Mary worshippers." Some came to our door, and tried to reason with us. A couple of friends would spend hours with us, trying to talk us out of it. All of this was to no avail. Penny and I had made up our minds.
Then the weird letters and emails started to come. These were from people we didn't know, but who had obviously been contacted about us. Most of these were from older men, who apparently dealt with this sort of thing from time to time. Some of them were 5 pages in length, citing Scripture, along with erroneous historical quotes, and paragraph after paragraph of made-up history. It was like reading a personal letter from Jack T. Chick, or some other anti-Catholic apologist. I surmise that some of our friends contacted these people when they realised they couldn't get through to us, and asked for their help.
The culmination came in 2000, when my father gave me a cassette tape from an anti-Catholic apologist that had come to their Church. It was nearly and hour long. I made my own tape in response, re-recording what the apologist said, and then recording my own response to each point he made. I gave the tape back to my father, along with my response tape, and never heard of it again.
The irony of all this is that with each negative conversation, phone call, letter and email, the exact opposite effect was produced than what was intended. These people had intended to pull us away from the Catholic Church, but each time they interacted with us, they only drove us further into it. This was because we saw the anti-Catholic hysteria for what it really was -- hysteria! It would be one thing if they cited legitimate cases in Scripture or history, but instead they only cited Scriptures that were out of context, and historical events that were either fabricated, or else horribly twisted in ways that defy all academic standards. Thankfully, I had done my homework. I knew how to refute this stuff. My wife, on the other hand, just got angry. "We are 30 year-old adults!" She would say: "And yet they're treating us like children!" Every effort they made backfired. Here in the Bible Belt I see this sort of thing happen all the time. The same pattern is repeated over and over again with converts. Each time they only end up sealing the deal, and driving potential converts straight into the Catholic Church. The hysteria actually ends up helping the conversion process.
I think the only time the hysteria is effective is in keeping Christians from investigating the Church in the first place. So long as you can convince them that it's evil, they're less likely to look into it. But for those few who venture to look into it anyway, the results are almost always the same. They become Catholic, sooner or later. It may take six months, or it may take six years, but the result is almost always the same. They become Catholic.
What Evangelical-Fundamentalists don't realise is that the party's over. A growing number of Evangelicals (including Baptists and Pentecostals) are looking for something deeper. They're wanting to connect to the historical Church, and they're looking for deeper meaning in the sacraments, liturgy and deep spirituality that comes with 2,000 years of Christian experience. They just can't find any of that in Evangelical churches. Evangelical-Fundamentalists are making themselves increasingly irrelevant with all this "You're not Christian" rhetoric they direct toward Catholics, Orthodox and some Anglicans. It's old, it's tiresome and it's not in the least bit true. I think a lot of younger people are more sophisticated now than they were in previous generations. They're simply not buying into it anymore. So as Evangelical-Fundamentalists continue to go down the anti-Catholic road, I believe they will continue to find themselves more irrelevant in the decades ahead.
The best advice I can give to converts, experiencing some degree of this sort of hysteria from friends and family, is to stay the course and wait them out. You see, becoming Catholic will teach you who your friends really are. Some will come to their senses eventually, and realise what they said about your faith was wrong. The same is true with family. Other friends won't come back. These were not really your friends. They were just your religious associates. Once you changed churches, you no longer had anything in common. They moved on, and so will you.
The good news in our own case is this. Penny's mother eventually came to accept our Catholic faith, and enjoys coming to mass with us now and then. My own parents don't care for mass so much, but they have come to accept our Catholic faith as Christian and a legitimate expression of Christianity. They have faithfully attended ALL of the sacraments of initiation for our children (baptisms, first communions, and confirmations). The same goes for my sisters. The good news I have for you is that there's hope. It may take several months or several years, but eventually, most parents and family members come to accept our Catholic Christian faith, and just ignore what their Evangelical-Fundamentalist churches say about it. When faced with the harsh reality of having to choose between the radical teachings of their Fundamentalist church, or continuing a relationship with their children, siblings or close friends, most people eventually choose the relationship over the religious hysteria. Like I said, sometimes it takes a while -- even years! -- but eventually it happens. The sacraments of initiation for children often play a big role in breaking the ice. Time is another factor that heals wounds.
What's important to remember is this. The Catholic Church teaches us to love our family and friends. We are not to abandon them, disown them, or estrange ourselves from them. When there is a religious conflict over our conversion, we are called to draw close to them, as best we can. If they push us away, that's their problem. We just keep trying, knowing that eventually the ice will break. Most of the time, friends and family who attack our decision to join the Church, do so only because they are misinformed. In most cases, that's not even their fault! We need to remember that. We also need to remember, often times, their negative actions toward us are motivated entirely by love. Their acting this way only because they've been given bad information, and they can't help the way they're acting, because they've been misinformed. So in a sense, their actions are often loving, just misguided. On the one hand, we should be flattered by the lengths they will go to try to change our minds. It is but a testimony of their love for us. On the other hand, we need to gently remind them that we are informed adults, and we can make our own decisions. Sometimes this may involve some study in Catholic apologetics to help explain things to them. Catholicism for Protestants may help in this area. Don't be surprised if this doesn't work right away. There is often an emotional barrier that needs to be overcome too. No amount of apologetics can do that. Only time and love will.
We also need to remember that the Catholic Church specifically teaches that anyone who has been baptised in the name of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is a Christian, and deserves to be called that, even if they will not extend the same courtesy to us. Most Protestants don't even know this, and I have found that sometimes it's helpful to inform them of this. As far as we Catholics are concerned; most Baptists, Pentecostals and Evangelicals are our Christian brethren, even if they don't believe the same about us. I think it's beneficial to let your Evangelical family and friends know that even as a Catholic, you will still regard them as Christian brethren, and that the Catholic Church teaches you to do so. If you were already baptised in a Trinitarian Christian tradition, you probably ought to let them know that you will not be "re-baptised" as the Catholic Church recognises only one baptism for us all. These little bits of information usually don't have the effect of calming the waters right away. As I said, there are usually a lot of emotional barriers involved here, but over time, they do help.
Remember, most of all, to be patient. With my own family, my parents refused to attend our reception into the Catholic Church in 2000. I didn't expect them to, so it wasn't hurtful to me. They didn't really darken the door of our Catholic Church until almost 2004, when our son was baptised. It was hard for them, I could tell, but they did it. Then in 2006 our daughter was baptised, and they attended that as well. By the time we reached first communions, both of our parents were on board. Of course, they never converted to Catholicism, but that was not the point. They were now fully accepting of our Catholic Christian faith. So what I'm saying is it took time. For our families, it happened slowly, over the course of a decade. For other families it may take longer, and for others, not so long at all. Your family will be different of course, but if you apply what I've told you above, the odds are very high that you'll eventually prevail.
Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books, and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com -- Apologetics and random musings from a Catholic in the Bible Belt.'
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