Next month, I will celebrate the first anniversary of my decision to become Catholic. It was the day of the words, "Habemus papam!" on April 19, 2005, that electrified me and led me to call the local Roman Catholic parish the next day. Before that, the weeks of John Paul's illness increased the longing to become Catholic, but still something held me back. Perhaps it was a reluctance to let go of Anglo-Catholic worship. But at John Paul's death and subsequent funeral, I felt as if I had missed something. Watching then-Cardinal Ratzinger during the Funeral Mass, I sensed with an overwhelming certainty that he would be the next Pope and that I would be standing at St. Peter's Square before the year was out.
The days leading up to the Conclave, I found myself scouring the internet looking for conversion story after conversion story. It is said that people convert for one of two reasons, the beauty of the Sacraments or the Truth in the Magisterium of the Church. What was drawing me? What was breaking down the walls of my own resistance? I pondered the meaning of Jesus Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist. As an Anglo-Catholic, I believed in the Real Presence, yet I was surrounded by people who didn't. Is it really just personal preference? If the consecrated bread and wine weren't truly Jesus' Body and Blood, what were we playing at every Sunday at the altar?
The turmoil within the Anglican Communion and the depressing dead-end political fights which shoved Truth to the side left me in despair over where I should go. Over and over I asked myself that if Jesus prayed that 'they would be one' as He and the Father are one, why, oh why were all these churches fracturing? And why was I considering going to yet another branch-of-a-branch-of-a-branch that had split off from the trunk? Lord, to whom shall I go? Going to another off-shoot must surely be offensive, must give lie to the prayer that Christ prayed for his disciples.
So, early in the morning of April 19th, I thought to myself that the Conclave would take some time, so I could unglue myself from the television. I met with a friend who was seeking guidance in his discernment to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. I was explaining to him what the Eucharist and the sacrament of Holy Orders meant and he looked at me quizzically and said, "You better watch out or you'll end up becoming Catholic." To say that I was floored was an understatement and I left that meeting feeling as though I had been exposed and all my longing was laid bare. When I returned home and switched on the TV, there was the white smoke. For an hour as we waited for the announcement, I prayed and wept, knowing that I stood on the edge of a precipice. Would I have the courage? What will happen on the "other side"?
"Habemus papam!" declared the Cardinal Deacon with joy. The crowds roared with gusto. I knew then that I must become Catholic. When the new Pope Benedict XVI appeared on the balcony, there he stood, the visible sign of God's enduring presence with His Church, keeping the promise that He would not allow the gates of hell to prevail. How could I stay where Truth was casually treated, and where adherence to the faith once delivered was scorned as being intolerant? So, goodbye to private judgment, I said to myself, goodbye to being my own pope. Time to place myself under the Magisterium of the Church.
And as I took that "leap of faith", that affirmation of what had been a quickening revolution in my heart, it wasn't a hard landing after all. For there was Christ waiting for me all along. This past year has been full of unexpected graces and I am grateful to be where I am. What took me so long? I echo St. Augustine, "Late have I loved Thee, O Lord." There are days that I feel giddy with happiness, and others, I am filled with sobriety in understanding the struggles within the Church. But I have found strength in the Catholic devotions, and discovered a deeper desire to know God, though I have followed Him all my life.
This letter at Pontifications by Al Kimel brought back so many of the memories of that April morning. I commend it to you, "A letter to an inquirer", as a response to someone inquiring entry into the Episcopal Church yet reluctant to leave behind the Catholic Church's sacraments. He touches on so many things that I wrestled with. If I do regret anything, it is not coming into the Church sooner. But I take comfort that my comings and goings are all in His hands. And yes, I did make it to St. Peter's Square before 2005 ended. In fact, while in Rome, I spent a few evenings strolling around the Piazza looking up to the Papal Apartments and saying, "Thank you, Papa. Sleep well, tonight, sweet Vicar of Christ."