Books, Friends, and Priests: A Reflection on My Conversion

When I was asked to write down the story of my conversion, I immediately knew where the story would end. However, I was not quite sure where it would begin, because it seems that it was always there. I remember once speaking with a friend of mine, a Protestant who learned of my forthcoming conversion. He asked, “So, was there a moment when you knew you wanted to become Catholic? Or was it always a part of you that you had not known before?” It was certainly the latter. I remember no exact moment when I internally converted to Catholicism. Rather, I remember a series of moments in which some sediment was removed and uncovered a little bit of who I was always becoming. 

Beginnings

Looking back, it seems the first moment was my first Sacrament. I was raised in an independent Baptist church. It was the usual country parish with hymns and the occasional guitar and piano mixed in. The liturgy of whitewashed walls, business suits, and the King James Bible (Before I go any further, I will say that I am very grateful for my Protestant upbringing. If it were not for that I would never have become Catholic, of that I am quite sure. Christ works in many ways and one of them, as often is the case with converts, is our separated brethren). When I was thirteen, I was baptized in this community. The trinitarian formula, the water, and the Holy Spirit did its work on an unsuspecting boy from upstate New York just looking to fulfill his parents request that he be baptized. 

Introduction to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful

Fast forward five years: I was entering college at the Templeton Honors College of Eastern University. Here, that same unsuspecting boy would be introduced to the great traditions of history, philosophy, and theology. A pragmatic soul, I was raised to see usefulness in things and not beauty. Because of my upbringing, I was heartily set on seeing what I could glean from all these new things that were introduced to me. I had to learn how to use them after all. 

After about a month in the College, I came to realize that others around me in the classroom (professors and students) were thinking differently than I was. I found this troubling and began to wonder if I was doing something wrong. Then, I was introduced to goodness. In a class titled, “The Good Life,” we were reading St. Therese of Lisieux’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul. I remember I was absolutely struck by her willingness to suffer. “Make me a saint!” she pleaded to God; she wanted to suffer that she might better love God. Coming from a faith community that taught that Catholics were going to hell, I was dumbfounded. I remember saying to myself as I read one evening, “There is no possible way this exceptionally good woman is not a Christian.” 

That same semester, I read two other texts that truly affected me. One was Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair, in which I was introduced to beauty. Catholicism, I find, has a sort of natural, almost dirty beauty to it. Because of the Sacramental nature of the Church, its beauty is something so entrenched in real humanity that it seems almost scandalous to the outside world. That is what Greene introduced me to. In this story of a saint, Greene shows his readers the beauty and power of grace in some of the most debased sinners you will ever encounter. He shows the true power of baptism, the power of prayer, the sacramentality of the human person, and so much more. This book quite honestly shocked me in many ways, but I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Catholicism I was shown here. 

In the last influential book, I was introduced to Truth. This book was a sort of breaking point for me. Saint Therese opened my heart and mind to the idea that all Catholics might not be dirty rotten apostates, Greene drew me close, and Saint Augustine would show me the truth (about Augustine’s Confessions, if you are a Catholic and you have not read it, there are very few things that could possibly be more important to your life at this moment). You might know the famous line from Augustine’s Confessions, “For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee” (Confessions Bk. I CH i). If I’m being honest, when I first read it, not knowing its fame I barely noticed the line. I must have been trying to finish enough for class the following day. But thank God for a diligent Professor who stopped the whole class and made us read and ruminate on that line. I was hooked on Augustine; I wanted to know him. I was still relatively uninterested in Catholicism—at least, I was not consciously interested. What I really wanted was to know Augustine. 

So I began to do some research, I started with some articles: a few bits from James K.A. Smith, C.C. Pecknold, Oliver O’Donovan, and I even burdened my soul with reading a bit of Calvin and Luther. This led me into Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, Enchiridion, and De Doctrina Christiana. As time progressed, I was unable to continue my personal inquiry into Augustine. Freshmen year ended and I had to begin taking a more difficult course load. However, there was another thing God chose to use to bring me home. 

Late in Freshman year, I thought I ought to at least see one of these Catholic services (I probably did not know it was called mass at the time). A friend of mine allowed me to tag along to a Sunday morning mass at Villanova University. Not long after I opened the car door, my friend began laughing hysterically at me. I thought, “What could I possibly have done?” She soon exclaimed, “You brought your Bible?!?!” and continued to laugh hysterically (I find it quite funny now, too, and you can see how little I knew even about cultural Catholicism). On the way out from mass, I expected to be peppered with questions, like, “what did you think?” and “what did you notice?”. But instead, whether intentional or not, my friend did what I now see to be one of the greatest things she could have done: she said nothing. I breathed deeply as we left, waiting for her inevitable questioning, but none came. Being a rather talkative person, I said, “Well that was interesting.” She said, “I’m glad you liked it,” and we got in the car, and drove home. This allowed me plenty of time to mull over what really happened in mass. Instead of putting up my defenses right away had she questioned me, I was forced to think through the mass. This made a world of difference. 

Climbing the Ladder

Sophomore year of college came around, and I knew I was on a journey upwards, liturgically. I was making a transition from a low church protestant background to a high church protestant mindset. I had no intention of going beyond this. This was mostly due to the fact that liturgically (as far as the mechanics of the liturgy went, not its actual substance), Anglicans and more traditional Episcopalians offered me what I wanted. This period essentially involved me spending almost an entire semester attending an old Episcopal parish where I was previously introduced. 

During this time, I also became more seriously interested in theology. I had so many questions I needed answers to. Through this, a theological tendency of mine rose to the surface. This was a tendency that had always been present in other facets of my life, but I never expected it to manifest itself in my faith. I began to desire fervently for unity and order. I was drawn to the structure of formal theology of the Western tradition. Because of this, I knew most low church Protestantism was out of the question. I found it unconvincing and shaky. 

After attending this Episcopal parish for quite a while with a friend on a similar journey, we decided we should meet with the priest. One Sunday, we asked the priest if we might chat with him in his office after the service. He willingly and joyfully agreed. After a bit of conversation concerning the history of the church and the Episcopal/Anglican divisions. I asked the priest, “Can you tell me more about the theology of the Episcopal church? And where I might go to understand its structure?” He smiled and said to me, “Well, we like to keep our theology in conversation, allowing it to always change and move with the times.” That was all I needed to hear. I left knowing this was not the church in which I was born to be. Unity and order have always been two things that have been important to me. I find that a theology that is not systematized and allows opposition to its most fundamental principles is usually of man and not of God. 

Before I move on to the next stage of my journey, it should be noted that obviously, not all strands of Anglicanism are this fluid. There are many Anglo-Catholics who are more stringent in their theology and liturgy. While I did find that appealing, there was still something missing that was only fulfilled in the Catholic Church. 

Returning to Mass

After this conversation, I knew I was left with only two options: Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism. I soon ruled out Eastern Orthodoxy because of my understanding of the Schism of 1054 and Saint Pope John Paul II’s teaching on the Eastern Orthodox Church (which is that they are the other lung of the Church and are welcome to come back into communion with the Catholic Church). I then started a deeper exploration into Catholicism. I began by returning to mass at a few different parishes and usually with friends. I began to become familiar with the structure of the liturgy. I began to know when to kneel, sit, and stand. I even began to say some of the responses silently in my head. Despite the processes and rituals becoming familiar to me physically, I still knew none of their significance. After about two months of attending mass, I started asking questions. On our way out, I would whisper to my friend, “Why do you kneel? Why a crucifix and not just a cross? Why can’t I receive communion?”

Perhaps surprisingly, I came to understand the answers I received to these questions quite quickly and none of the answers ever seemed to me unreasonable or wrong. I often remember thinking, “that makes sense,” and moving on to my next question. Finally, my friend (probably disgruntled by all my questioning) came to me after a class one day and said, “Here.” It was a catechism. She said, “You have so many questions, I thought it might help.” And it did. This catechism would help me immensely when it came to more specific doctrinal questions I needed help with. I looked up Marian doctrines, Eucharistic doctrines, Sacramental doctrines, and so much more. I began to understand the rationale for the theology. 

As time progressed, I continued to go to mass, and while I was beginning to have a theological understanding and appreciation for Catholicism, I still did not understand the liturgy. One day, when at mass at a local parish with some friends, I leaned over to my friend during the consecration and said, “Why do they ring the bells?” “The host has been consecrated,” she said. After a blank stare from me, she said, “It has become the Body and Blood.” 

From that moment on, the mass was never the same for me. I then understood why it is that we go to mass: we go to mass to be with Christ. What greater joy and fear could there possibly be? I remember physically shaking on the kneeler that Sunday when the bells were rung again. That is when I knew it was no longer a choice, I could not deny the truth of the Catholic Church any longer. 

First Attempt

After about another month or so of going to mass, I decided it was time to meet with a Catholic priest. So I made my way over to the local parish one afternoon to speak with the pastor there. This was about four months before Easter and I was very eager. The priest asked me about my story a bit: how I got to where I was, whether or not I was baptized, and any questions I might have—the normal things. After about an hour of conversation, he said, “Well, it seems like we could meet once a week for the next few months, and then you could come into full communion with the Church at the Easter Vigil. But I, for some reason, was unsatisfied with this. “Why wait?” I thought. The priest suggested perhaps we could work something out sooner and perhaps any of the coming weeks could work. With this plan in mind, I left. But something curious would follow. In the coming weeks I heard a lecture on the importance of good catechesis. I knew the speaker was right and contacted the priest to tell him I needed more time. An entire year would go by before I was truly ready. 

Purgatory

The next year was one of the most excruciating of my entire life. It began rather innocently. I went home that summer and did not much else but work, read (Lewis and Augustine mostly), and listen to two podcasts which had a curiously powerful impact on my development. The first was Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire podcast. The second was Clerically Speaking with Father Sciarappa and Father Harrison. After not attending mass a great deal that summer and doing more intellectual rather than spiritual or liturgical catechesis, I headed off for a much welcomed semester abroad. 

During this semester, I was surrounded by a group of friends who were willing to deal with my existential struggles and help me through them. For that I am most grateful. My time abroad was a spiritually strenuous time. I arrived overjoyed to be away, but quickly came to miss my home. I arrived longing to one day be Catholic, but I struggled with the obligation I felt to it. Thankfully, due to the efforts of a great friend, a good priest, and a healthy dose of the Rosary, I made it out and home alive. 

My Return Home

Upon my return home, I knew the time had come. I would go to a priest, speak with him, and do as he said—No questioning, no impatience, just complete obedience. I went to him about ten weeks before Easter. I explained to him my situation and he said, “Alright then, come here next Monday at seven to meet with Brother Raymond.” And so I did. Brother Raymond and I would spend the next nine weeks praying together, asking questions together, and learning together about the Catholic faith. We did everything from walking through the Church itself to learn little things I had not known before, to reading through the order of mass and learning about the Sacraments. It was an instrumental last step in my intellectual and spiritual journey to Catholicism. 

One week before I was to be confirmed at the Easter Sunday mass, I had my first confession. For those of you who have also prepared for and gone to confession after accruing 21 years of sin, you know what a spiritually strenuous process that was. But upon leaving the confessional, I swear to you that the trees were greener. It was the greatest grace I had received since my baptism (though a grace I was completely unaware of). I was finally washed clean and prepared to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord. 

When that day came, I shook with fear and joy all the same. On the ride to mass that morning my confirmation sponsor noted to me, “This is the most important moment of your life thus far, James. It will be truly life-changing. You are about to be a Catholic.” His words were true and helped to prepare me to receive the Sacraments of Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist. When the time came, I approached the Priest, and he confirmed me. “Augustine, be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Those were the  greatest words I have ever heard. Minutes later, as I knelt to receive my first communion, I felt a greater peace than I ever have before.  

At the end of the day, after I received the Eucharist surrounded by my greatest friends and my parents, I can honestly say it was the most joyous day of my life. I was finally a Catholic—a piece of my identity that I still smile about each time someone asks me. It truly was unbelievable. To those of you who are Catholic, stand by the Church in all that you do, because it is faithful Catholics who led me to where I am today. To those of you who are not Catholic, look, in everything, for goodness, truth, and beauty.  It is those things that brought me to Christ through the saints. 

~ James Davenport

@mrJSDavenport

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