A Cradle’s Conversion: My Return to Tradition

Late have I loved you,
Beauty so ancient and so new,
late have I loved you!

Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong,
I, misshapen.
You were with me but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being
were they not in you.

You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance,
I gasped, and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions (X.27)


 

Introduction:

This blog post has been “in the works” for a while now. In fact, I have wanted to write something on this topic for a few years now… but haven’t for various reasons– I have procrastinated, felt that writing it would be a bit too ‘much’ (whatever that means), and because of other excuses I made. And then, I reflected upon my resistance– what am I afraid of, and why? Why am I avoiding this post & posts to come? Interestingly enough, this period of self-examination coincided with the release of several new books:

  1. The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise“; by Cardinal Robert Sarah, a Guinean Cardinal prelate of the Catholic Church & prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
  2. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation“; by the former Catholic (now Eastern Orthodox) author, Rod Dreher, an American writer who is the senior editor & blogger at The American Conservative.
  3. Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages“; by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, a founding faculty member at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming & Roman Catholic theologian.
  4. Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity” by Fr. James Martin, SJ, a Jesuit priest and New York Times bestselling author.

While this post is neither a book review nor an analysis of any/all of these books, I still mention them because all of the above books, as well as their authors, have certainly shaped recent Catholic discourse in the United States. These books have their fans & their critics, but regardless of one’s strong opinions, it is important to note that all of the authors are all writing about what they believe is an important topic in the Church today.

And that is why I am writing– because I believe that I need to give voice to a few aspects on Catholicism, especially in light of the various Catholic subcultures one finds online, which I have identified here: But enough of that. This is my post for the one-year anniversary of this blog, Inflammate Omnia. In the past year, I have connected with many new people who have told me about their faith journey, and the way Catholicism has taken form in their lives. One of the goals of this blog is to create an environment where petty Church politics can be put aside and we can discuss Catholicism freely, openly, and faithfully. And so, in this spirit, I give my testimony on my experience of Catholicism through these past 25 years of life– especially in my own reversion.


 

Smells, Bells, and Graced Car-Rides

When I tell people that I grew up with the Latin Mass, I often get puzzled looks. “You couldn’t have grown up with the Latin Mass… you were born in 1992.” “Was your family involved in SSPX?” These questions are often coming from a honest place; after all, even now, 10 years after Summorum Pontificum, Latin Mass-goers remain a minority in the Church. And so, I was explain to them that in the church where I was baptized, the priests offered the Tridentine Mass every Sunday to a group of faithful Catholics, fully in communion with Rome, and I had the utmost blessing to have been introduced to it from a young age. Some of my earliest memories are of incense, votive candles, statues, and Gregorian chant. I recall going up to the communion rail with my mother, and watching how she reverently received the Holy Eucharist on the tongue. My mother brought my sister & I to Eucharistic adoration and daily mass. It was (and is) who we are- Roman Catholics. We also attended mass in the Ordinary Form, as it were, at our home parish. I grew up in a Catholic church that has been considered by some to be one of the most beautiful in all of New England. Thankfully, our liturgies lived up to that superlative, as well. Whether the choir sung Remondi’s O Sacrum Convivium or Bob Dufford, SJ’s Be Not Afraid, our liturgical music program featured highly-trained singers who offered their voices in praise to God and for His glory alone. Whether Haugen or Hadyn, Schubert or Schutte, our musicians carefully chose hymns which reflected the readings/season of the given liturgy for the day. Even some of the most gaudy hymns were done artfully and tastefully. And so, my experience with the Ordinary Form complemented my experience with the Latin Mass. As a singer, I faithfully attended both… and saw no major rupture between the two. We didn’t have awkward “mini-homilies” at the beginning of mass, which commented on the weather & let the priest riff like Jay Leno. We didn’t have cantors standing in the sanctuary awkwardly waving their hands to “get people to sing”. Our parish, in all of its beauty, never had a sense of the banal, the vulgar, or the tacky. Mass at these churches were about the action of God on behalf of humankind, and so we celebrated God’s work– not ours.

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It's always good to go back to your roots. _ Since May, my life has essentially been one big transition. Major decisions have been made, new practices begun, new friendships sprouting. I got my first job not involving a church. For the first time, I am living somewhere that isn't a school dormitory, home, or parish rectory. I am learning more about who I am by first learning who I am not. I am on a path that is admittedly unfamiliar, yet one which I wouldn't be on without my past experiences. – Today, on Gaudete Sunday, I was able to go back to the parish which hosted me back when I was a seminarian. I sang with the choir in a wonderful Lessons and Carols service. I saw a lot of familiar faces, people who were crucial to my personal and spiritual development during those important college years. Many smiles and hugs abounded. – Tonight, I also was able to go to Mass back at the church where my spiritual life began- the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception- the church where I was baptized. My memory was flooded with images- seeing my mother receiving Holy Communion while kneeling upon an altar rail, endless hours with her in quiet, Eucharistic Adoration, the sweet smell of incense and the harmonious voices singing Renaissance polyphony. _ Amidst major changes in life, it's always important to remember your roots. It's important to remember that wherever you end up blooming in life, it is because you were planted somewhere first. On this #GaudeteSunday, I rejoice because of the many blessings I received in the past. I rejoice because those same blessings formed me to be who I am today. And I rejoice for the roads I have yet to trod, and those bridges I will one day need to cross. I rejoice because the same God who created me is also the same God present to my current needs, who happens also to be the God of time that has yet to pass. _ I rejoice in whatever the future may hold, not because I know what it holds, but rather because I know the One who holds it.

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Thankfully, my experience of “Church” as such never remained solely in, well… the physical church itself. From a young age, my mother taught me about the Holy Trinity, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Apostles and martyrs, the Church and Her saints, the sacraments, sacramentals, devotions, prayers, liturgy, Catholic social teaching, and more. My mom was my first catechist (and dare I say, the best one I ever had). Before school, she and I would pray for the intercession of my favorite saints, whether it be St. Thomas Aquinas for academics, St. Cecilia for music, or even St. Maria Goretti for purity. It was understood that prayer was vital to the life of a Christian, and that the saints were my friends in heaven who I could call on for assistance. “Church” was not some extra-curricular activity… it was the wellspring from where I discover the meaning of life.

If it wasn’t made explicit before, music was (and still is!) a vital part of my life, especially in the way it provided glimpse into objective beauty. As a child, I never listened to secular music. My sister wasn’t even allowed to watch MTV! Instead, my mother would play what the majority of people call “classical music” in the car… regardless of the day, the season, or the destination. Going to Wal-Mart? Listening to Celtic Woman. Heading home after Little League practice? Vivaldi’s Gloria was waiting for me in that Ford Focus. I looked forward to ‘car time’ with my mother, precisely because it was peaceful, and I listened to sublime sounds of the Western civilization’s finest– from 8th century Gregorian chant, to 17th century oratorios, to even contemporary classical violinists. The car and car rides were a place of musical excitement. It was exactly this “Catholic imagination”, as the late Fr. Andrew Greeley called it, which nourished and formed my sacramental view of the world. Every moment, including seemingly mundane ones, were an opportunity to pause, reflect, and offer myself to God in gratitude.

And so, my earliest memories include a whole lot of church, a whole lot of prayer, and a whole lot of (good) music. I understood how Sunday was the most important day of the week: it was the Lord’ day, a day for rest, leisure, and most importantly- the Mass. My experience of Catholicism was largely shaped by my experience of the Mass– whether in the hushed silence and grandeur of Tridentine worship, or whether it was in the Novus Ordo, where I listened to solid, orthodox preaching & adaptions of modern hymns into beautiful pieces of music fitting for Catholic worship. The graces from the altar poured into the hearts of my family, which sought to nourish our faith in a peaceful, traditional, and spiritual home life, a place where the faith was lived even in the car. Traditional Catholicism? Check!

 

Luke 2:52

If my idyllic childhood was the best part of these 25 years of life, then my early-to-mid adolescence holds second place. Put simply, I freaking loved being a kid. As I began public school, where I would spend the next 12 years of my life, I developed a love for learning… a love which is still strong as ever today. I will forever be indebted to my hometown’s public school system for encouraging a love of learning. I was blessed with so many wonderful teachers who never made me feel burdensome when I had difficulty with a particular assignment. I honestly rate my experience with school, from K-12, a 10/10- highly recommend. It was also in this public school system where I encountered diversity– non-Catholic Christians, non-Christians, and kids who only knew the word “God” from the phrase that begins with “Oh my-“.

As I got older, my mom didn’t need to walk me to the bus stop, but we still prayed together in the kitchen like we did when I was in kindergarten. While daily mass was no longer an option due to my school schedule, I still attended mass every Sunday. In fact, Sundays held its high place in my life for a different reason, now, for Sundays were when I could bring what I learned the previous week in the classroom to the church pews. As we learned about history, I learned that Jesus lived many, many years before George Washington. As we learned about science, I marveled at how the Red Sea could be parted– something that simply doesn’t happen naturally! As we learned music, I began to learn how to read church hymns and follow different melodies on the scale.

From about 4th grade- my senior year of high school, my life consisted of the following: school (always came first in our house, as far as temporal affairs go), music (private lessons, band/choir practice), sports (baseball, basketball, football), and the Catholic faith. Friday evenings were “chill-out” evenings where I could play video games, Saturdays were when I could hang out with friends (but eventually that turned into marching band practice & music competitions), and Sundays were dedicated to our attendance and worship of God at mass.

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Do you know what depression is? The feeling of hopelessness, anxiety and sadness that is often associated with it seems unbearable. It causes the once-happy to scream internally. It plunges the peaceful person into horror and nausea, leaving you feel like a trapped animal. Minutes feel like days. Constant sleepless nights. Distracted days. Whether it is clinical, somewhat often or even just a rare occurrence, when anxiety engulfs you, you freeze and become numb to any feeling of joy, hope or freedom. Telling someone who suffers in depression or anxiety to "feel better" is like encouraging a rock to be a tree. It doesn't help, whatsoever- and it can also be extremely hurtful. Instead of saying "feel better", why not acknowledge their suffering and say this: "I am with you, in your time of joy and in your time of need. Call upon me, and I will help you bear this, because I love you, just the way you are. No strings attached." Tonight, my prayer goes to all those who have suffered under suffocating anxiety and maybe even hopelessness. Instead of telling you to "feel better", I am telling you that in your darkest hour, call upon God. Even call upon me, a friend. There is not a single person in existence that I would push off as "too needy" or "too emotional". The presence of a loving friend can make the unbearable seem as a light burden. For anyone out there who has experienced this, you know the people in your life, in any, that you just want to collapse in their arms. Think of that person, and how their love of you makes you feel. Then think of the One who created, protects and watches over you- think of His love for such a beautiful creation. Spend a few moments just thinking of God, the true God- the God of love, the God of peace, and the gentle whisper He gives you in your time of need: "You're free. You're free. Be kind, and love others, just as I have loved you. Trust that I come to bring you peace, and not anxiety. Just hold my hand. All shall be well."

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My adolescence was busy, but joy-filled. I made many friends. Sure, I wasn’t the most popular kid in the school, but I was able to be myself. I had great teachers, kind friends, and many activities, sports, and interests to keep myself going. If my early childhood was almost monastic, this period of my late childhood/early adolescence could be seen as a sort of “contemplative-in-action” lifestyle; I had a job (aka school), I had interests (aka sports, music, friends), I was in the world, but not of it, and yet, the most important day/moment of the week was when I was kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament, offering my week to the Lord. Hence, it made sense to me why Holy Communion was named as such– I was able to communicate with the Holy One. Traditional Catholicism? Check!

For better or for worse, the Internet gradually became an important facet in my personal development (or destruction, depends how one looks at it). When I was a junior in high school, I received my first laptop as a gift. My love for learning & inquisitive nature naturally led me to discover the grand world of Google, Wikipedia, and Internet message boards. It was like an entire new universe was opened before my eyes. I eventually stumbled upon Catholic Answers, a website dedicated to the promotion, defense, and explanation of the Catholic faith. Here, I encountered many people who were as passionate about Catholicism as I was, if not more. But something was just a bit… off.

Matthew 15:8 and Internet Apologetics

Some of my peers probably had wild teenage experiences… but I could probably classify my wildest experience as arguing with atheists on GameFAQs’ message boards. With the Internet, I received a vehicle to transport me wherever the interwebz trail went. Catholic Answers, YouTube, GameFAQs, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter– you name it, I was on it. My teenage years could best be described as my “apologetics phase”, a term I use to describe my newfound obsession with defending the Catholic faith against all of her enemies. Although I was in public school, I never really experienced anti-Catholicism; I mean yeah, we weren’t going to pray before class, but then again, I was in a public school after all. I said “Merry Christmas” & “Happy Easter” without the politically-correct, secular police coming after me. In a sense, my Catholicism was never really challenged by what I saw, heard, or experienced in my school and local community, but on the Internet? A totally different story. And so, my move towards apologetics was largely one that took place in the virtual sphere.

People often ask me “how do you know all of this stuff?” in regards to Catholic theology, and to be honest, I have no idea. As a child, I read incessantly. As a teenager, the Internet provided me with Wikipedia articles and book suggestions on Amazon. However, one of the main reasons I “know” a lot of Catholic theology is because of this apologetics phase; I spent a lot of time on Catholic Answers, New Advent, and Catholic online journals. The results? I was well-equipped to provide a reason for the hope in my heart (1 Peter 3:15). I read books by Scott Hahn, Cardinal Avery Dulles, John Henry Newman, Peter Kreeft, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, James Martin, and other popular writers. I learned about common objections to the Catholic faith, whether it was from atheists who saw the existence of God to be irrational, non-Catholic Christians who questioned why we should submit to the Catholic Church on matters of faith and morals, attacks on Sacred Scripture from both fundamentalists and rationalists, and more.

The more I learned, the more I wanted to share the Good News! That said, it was still a bit frustrating to have a zeal for evangelization and yet see my fellow Catholics on the message boards squabbling about whether one should receive Holy Communion in the hand or on the tongue, whether nuns should wear a religious habit or not, and more ridiculous debates which would never be solved through a forum post. Seeing these, I shook my head and went back to my actual theology texts. That is where I found the answers to my deepest questions of the faith.

 

The Four Pillars

I entered seminary right after my senior year of public high school. While that in and of itself was an experience, one thing which I did not expect was the “culture war”, well… culture. Indeed, my entrance into college seminary marked my first experience with reactionaries, politicized Catholicism, and these “culture wars”. Beforehand, I was concerned with questions of truth; here, it seemed as if the Truth was possessed only by those of a conservative bend. My fellow classmates, some of them from rural parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and even Nebraska simply held different views on society, life, and culture.

While I will write another time about my experience in diocesan seminary, one point of note is that it taught me that conservatism does not own doctrinal orthodoxy, and in fact, a certain kind of conservatism is at odds with elements of unchanging– yet living– Catholic truth. Many of my classmates opposed things like ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, increasing leadership roles for women in the Church, optional celibacy, and even matters pertaining to ecological conservation. Jesuits were said to be deviant, misleading, and liberal enemies of Holy Mother Church. According to their thought, our current culture was a battleground between conservatives who love God, guns, and babies, whereas liberals want to turn our country into a Communist state. Of course, these are the thoughts of 18-21 year old college kids on the track to priesthood, and many of them were simply regurgitating the political views of their parents and holding it as dogma.

It was at this college seminary where I heard of this website called “New Liturgical Movement”, dedicated to a restoration and promotion of traditional, authentic, Catholic liturgical practices. Despite being ostracized from my fellow classmates on several political issues, I did find a sweet spot of agreement on all things liturgical. The student prefect on my floor, a senior, was from the South and his gentleman-like demeanor and quiet conservatism showed it. While he and I disagreed on the morality of voting for a pro-choice candidate, he and I would talk about the sacred liturgy. He told me about how, the previous summer, the pastor he was assigned to told him that it was time for women’s ordination, and as a result, allowed several lay women to “preach” after the Gospel on consecutive Sunday masses. I was conflicted; here, I disagreed with this conservative Southerner on most things, but here, we both agreed that liturgical abuse is, well… wrong. Full stop.

Negative experiences began to pile on as my first year in seminary continued. Seminary was a house filled with hot air; we were together for most hours of the day, whether by praying, eating, studying, learning, or recreating. Table conversations were a penance. “Can you believe what that libtard Obama did?” “You should watch this video on Church Militant; Michael Voris speaks the TRUTH!” And so on.  It became obvious that I was in a conservative seminary, and many of my classmates were concerned more with being in the right Church/political party than in defending orthodoxy wherever it maybe found.

After one year in college seminary, I transferred to Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn– a private, liberal arts, Roman Catholic school steeped in the Dominican intellectual tradition. It was there where I studied philosophy and discovered all sorts of interesting philosophers– from the Greeks , to the Romans of Antiquity, the medievals, the moderns, and even the postmoderns. I was free to ask questions. I was told by several professors that I needed to think with a particular philosopher– whether it be Plato, Locke, Marx, or Lyotard– before I could begin to think against them. This point was crucial, especially for someone like me who sought academic integrity. Looking back, I am grateful that I had the privilege to study philosophy for the love of wisdom itself, and not as a sort of “training manual” to help me avoid errors in theology. With the exception of one sole class (Sexual Ethics, taught by a female Presbyterian minister who saw Catholic teaching on contraception/abortion as misogynistic), my experience at Albertus Magnus was liberating, especially after a nasty year in the college seminary, and I saw myself growing in a desire to love, know, and serve Truth Himself- Jesus Christ.

During these college years, I was also privileged to work under pastoral parish priests who offered their lives to help others grow closer to God. Some of these priests were victims of the “Spirit of Vatican II” reforms, ones which divorced authentic reform within Tradition to a revolutionary, anti-clerical, and anti-liturgical mindset. I say “victims”, and not “products”, because each priest I was assigned to, while celebrating mass exclusively in the Novus Ordo, did so very reverently, and did not reduce the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to mere “table fellowship” or casual dining. I heard them preach, I assisted them as they celebrated mass– they were some of the kindest, holiest, and most compassionate priests. And thankfully, Catholicism wasn’t some political statement to them. Each priest I was assigned to, though they took different approaches, saw that at the center of Catholicism is an encounter with the Word Himself. And yet, they were “victims” insofar as they did not see Pope Benedict XVI’s writings on the liturgy, culminating in “Summorum Pontificum”, as an urgent plea to reexamine how we Catholics see our liturgy. Many of these priests had at least 6-7 masses to celebrate a weekend– without any help. I saw their tiredness and burnout, and even in that, I saw even more their desire to grow close to Jesus was a flame which never extinguished. To this day, whenever I think I myself as burdened and weary with the affairs of the moment, I remember the example of these holy priests and their perseverance.

Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic exhortation, Pastores dabo vobis, offers four ‘pillars’ which should guide the formation of future clergy: intellectual, pastoral, spiritual, and human. Though I am no longer intending on pursuing priestly ordination, these four pillars are simply a nugget of wisdom for all Christians in our personal growth. While I wrote about the intellectual and pastoral above, I left out the latter two. Why? Because while growth in the intellectual & pastoral pillars was relatively easy, the spiritual and human were more challenging.

Spiritually, I was doing everything I needed to do– daily mass, frequent Confession, Eucharistic adoration, devotionals, etc. But there was a sense of unease that came with the spiritual life. It is not like I wasn’t praying… my issue was that I was worrying about prayer too much. Instead of just kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament and telling God how I truly felt (something I only did when situations/life became unbearable), I would constantly check myself, seeing if I was “doing it right” or if I was being selfish. I liken it to being outside a room, pacing around, wondering if the person inside the room is nice, instead of, you know, actually entering the room and finding out for myself. It didn’t help that my experience at the liturgy was less than ideal– at the best, most parishes I attended during my college years were largely filled with the ‘4 hymn sandwich’, and at the worst, the guitars were front and center. I used spiritual direction as a sort of litmus test, bringing to my spiritual director different feelings/thoughts that came to mind during my Holy Hour of Eucharistic adoration. Instead of trying to grow deeper into friendship with Christ, I instead treated prayer & spiritual direction like a mission– “Just tell me what you want me to do, Lord, and I’ll do it.” This, of course, is not the core of what it means to truly pray.

Human formation is concerned with things like emotional maturity and healthy psycho-sexual development. According to Pope John Paul II, the goal of human formation is to form “…balanced people, strong and free, capable of bearing the weight of pastoral responsibilities. They need to be educated to love the truth, to be loyal, to respect every person, to have a sense of justice, to be true to their word, to be genuinely compassionate, to be men of integrity and, especially, to be balanced in judgment and behavior” (PDV, 43). When I look back at my high school/early college years, what do I see? I see someone who was excited to serve God through love of Him and neighbor. I see someone who was naturally compassionate, could relate well with others, had respect for everyone he met.

The Fall to Fishwrap

However, a storm within my soul was brewing. Put simply, my experience in seminary put a bad taste in my mouth. Given this new, academic freedom, I was eager to squash the nonsense I  endured my freshman year. I conflated doctrinal orthodoxy with Republican Party-Catholicism, as if they were synonymous. Liberated from the walls of the seminary, I embraced my newfound freedom, and was filled with reactionary energy. I wanted to combat the stuffiness of Catholic conservatism. And, just as I had done years before in high school with Catholic Answers-apologetics, I found an online community which took my concerns seriously. And thus, my path to heterodoxy began.

It began with little things– agreeing with secular folk that the “institutional Church” needed to “get with the times”, as if there existed a parallel “institutional Church” which was somehow different than the Mystical Body of Christ (hint: there isn’t). The concept that history is the story of inevitable progress was a myth that I foolishly bought into. Thus, as 21st-century Catholics, we had the right to change anything that existed prior, simply because “it’s the year 2014 and we know better now”. Other ways the path to heterodoxy began was in rejecting the Church Fathers as “old and irrelevant”, the canonization of “the new theologians” such as Karl Rahner & Yves Congar, and the constant arm-crossing and shouting when the Church proclaimed something that rubbed my progressive values the wrong way.

Examples? The issue of contraception. Growing up, I was taught that artificial contraception was an intrinsic moral evil because it divorced the sexual act from its proper end– that is, procreation & self-giving love. However, as I began to read more, I discovered that in 1968, Pope Paul VI famously rejected the majority opinion of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, who argued that artificial contraception was not intrinsically evil and could even be responsible in certain cases. Immediately, my progressive Democratic spirit raged, “How DARE the pope reject the majority opinion!?” I read journal articles and books by moral theologians who argued that, since 98% of Catholic women report using birth control, the Paul VI’s teaching was not “received”, and therefore isn’t binding. Another example includes the topic of gay marriage. I saw conservative opposition to gay marriage as a given result of those who subscribed to the foolish “natural law” theory, which I found unconvincing, hetero-normative, and more philosophical than theological. So what if two gay people want to get married? Didn’t Jesus say not to judge others? How is it an assault on marriage? I read theologians who saw gay marriage as a good thing for marriage, and a right to which the Church needed to yield. I ate all of this up, as if I was a Gnostic who attained the secret wisdom of “true” theology.

Speaking of “true” theology, I began to equate dissent with “academic” theology. In other words, I saw those who defended Church teaching (especially on controversial topics like marriage, sex, euthanasia, etc.) as ‘company men’ who were afraid to ask questions and think on their own. The “real” theology, I reasoned, was the revolutionary theology written by those theologians whom the Church persecuted, precisely because the Church was a mean organization with a lust for power and control. Thus, theologians who justified things like gay marriage, Marxism, and women’s ordination were the “real” theologians, while those conservative theologians holding the Church teaching were backwards-thinking conservatives who only knew apologetics.

I began to visit the websites of National Catholic Reporter (known as “National Catholic Fishwrap” by the infamous Father Z), Commonweal, America Magazine, and US Catholic exclusively. They were the ones who held onto the liberal vision of the Church, and although many of their writers & readership were of the Baby Boomer generation, I saw myself as the messiah who would save the liberal wing of the Church from old age and death. My thought was largely influenced by the liberal presuppositions I held, and was fueled by my anger towards my conservative classmates (who actually disagreed with actual Church teaching regarding topics offensive to their GOP elephant ears). I could go on and on, but you get the point. Looking back, I see myself as someone who wanted to love *his* own truth. I saw someone who oftentimes put his own agenda before loyalty to the Church, or even loyalty to God. I saw someone whose “judgment and behavior” was often impulsive, reactionary, and contrary to the fullness of Christian life. And yet, my stubbornness remained, though my reversion began with a slight detour– that of the Christian East.

 

A Light from the East

Among the many things I hated in minor seminary, there was one thing I actually liked. In February, we had this thing called “Multicultural Sunday”, where on that given Sunday, we were sent to an Eastern Catholic parish to experience their liturgy. The concept was that the Catholic Church is more than just Roman Catholics, and thus it would be important for us to see how the liturgy and traditions were celebrated in the East. We went to an Armenian Catholic liturgy (the Badarak), and to summarize, it was nothing short of beautiful!

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If you know me, you know how in love I am with the Armenian Catholic liturgy, the "Badarak". It contains such incredible music, symbolism & prayers. I have been to mass at St. Mark's Armenian Catholic Church in Wynnewood, PA, as well as at Holy Cross Armenian Catholic Church in Belmont, MA. Today, I was able to go to mass at Saint Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Catholic Church in Glendale, CA. The church was standing room only, the choir sang in full, and there was an atmosphere of prayerful worship. – 2015 marks the 100th year anniversary of the Armenian genocide, where over 1.5 million Armenians were murdered under Turkish rule. As the famous Armenian-American author, William Saroyan, once said: – "Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia." _ God bless the Armenian people.

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At the minor seminary, I malnourished liturgically. While it is true that Novus Ordo masses I attended were certainly valid (the ‘requirements’ for a valid consecration were met), I felt robbed. Even more so, though, I felt malnourished theologically. Feeling suffocated from seemingly overconfident and arrogant Neo-Thomism, I secretly began to read the Greek Fathers, including St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, etc. Then, in college, my interest in the East grew exponentially. I was introduced to Dionysius the Areopagite through one of my philosophy professors in undergrad, who saw my desire to learn about the Church’s mystical, apophatic theological tradition. Under this professor, I read Jean-Luc Marion, Edith Stein, Thomas Aquinas, Michael Henry, and other philosopher-theologians. The connection between the mystical and the doctrinal seemed so important to the Eastern Orthodox, and I found their theological method much more liberating than that of an overly-rationalized, Thomistic formula.

Between not being able to shake the haunting memory of the beautiful, Armenian liturgy and finding the Eastern theologians to be so doxological, I found myself investigating more and more about Eastern Christianity. I started reading contemporary Orthodox blogs, and found myself nodding my head while reading about their critiques of Catholicism. Paired with my liberal dissatisfaction with the authority of the papacy, the whole question of the pope (and the limits of his authority) began to bubble. Accusations of Catholics as separating from the Orthodox (and not vice-versa) abounded. Most of all, the liturgy just seemed more authentic. What do I mean by that?

Growing up, the liturgy– whether Ordinary Form or Extraordinary Form– was always a prayerful experience. As I left my home for new ones, I struggled to find a spiritual home and a liturgical refuge, especially during my time in seminary. Growing up with a very reverent Novus Ordo mass, I never had to worry about “happy clappy” music, priests barking the Eucharistic Prayer, or lectors blowing through the readings, ending it always with “TheWURDOFDALORD” and a quick, half-assed “Thanks be to God”. However, as I moved beyond my little parish enclave, I was exposed to the craziness of some post-conciliar parishes. Priests making up their own words to the Institution Narrative. People doing “liturgical dance”. Liturgies that were rushed, choppy, and awkward. Very word-heavy, yet it seemed to lack substance. The Eastern Divine Liturgy on the other hand, just screamed “THIS IS TRUE WORSHIP OF GOD”. They didn’t seem to care whether or not they were ‘hip’ or “with the times of modern man”; they simply worshiped God as their ancestors did. I began to attend Orthodox liturgies (including Vespers) more frequently. I even began meeting with an Orthodox priest, asking him all of my questions, and even asking how to convert! Even though I did not end up converting, my time exploring the Eastern Orthodox began a process, unbeknownst to me, of a reversion to the Tradition I seemed to have abandoned.

I Fought the Law (of Prayer), and the Law (of Belief) Won

While I greatly subscribed to the liberal Catholic lemonade, there was one thing I simply could not give up– beautiful, reverent, and traditional liturgy. After graduating college, my liberal self decided to return to seminary formation. It was in major seminary where I began to once again butt heads with some of my more conservative classmates. However, something began to change. On move-in day for major seminary, my mother and I toured the building, looking at the classrooms, the refectory, the rooms, and the oratory chapel. On our way out of the chapel, my mother stopped, and gasped. She discovered a side chapel with a beautiful image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I noticed her reaction. We then parted ways (moms don’t live in seminary with you), and later that evening, I began to feel homesick. I went back to that chapel, and just looked at the statue of the Sacred Heart. It was an image I saw often as a child, and it was my favorite image of Jesus. I decided that I would make that chapel my personal prayer location, and I would visit it in the morning, afternoon, and night.

 

 

In the beginning, I would just go there, sit, and talk to Jesus. I would tell him how I felt, how much I disliked my conservative classmates, etc. Eventually, I decided to read more about the Sacred Heart devotion. And that’s when everything changed. I found an “Act of Reparation to the Sacred Heart”, and began to read it. For your convenience, I will post it here:

 

MOST sweet Jesus, whose overflowing charity for men is requited by so much forgetfulness, negligence and contempt, behold us prostrate before Thee, eager to repair by a special act of homage the cruel indifference and injuries to which Thy loving Heart is everywhere subject.

Mindful, alas! that we ourselves have had a share in such great indignities, which we now deplore from the depths of our hearts, we humbly ask Thy pardon and declare our readiness to atone by voluntary expiation, not only for our own personal offenses, but also for the sins of those, who, straying far from the path of salvation, refuse in their obstinate infidelity to follow Thee, their Shepherd and Leader, or, renouncing the promises of their baptism, have cast off the sweet yoke of Thy law.

We are now resolved to expiate each and every deplorable outrage committed against Thee; we are now determined to make amends for the manifold offenses against Christian modesty in unbecoming dress and behavior, for all the foul seductions laid to ensnare the feet of the innocent, for the frequent violations of Sundays and holydays, and the shocking blasphemies uttered against Thee and Thy Saints.

We wish also to make amends for the insults to which Thy Vicar on earth and Thy priests are subjected, for the profanation, by conscious neglect or terrible acts of sacrilege, of the very crimes of nations who resist the rights and teaching authority of the Church which Thou hast founded.

Would that we were able to wash away such abominations with our blood. We now offer, in reparation for these violations of Thy divine honor, the satisfaction Thou once made to Thy Eternal Father on the cross and which Thou continuest to renew daily on our altars; we offer it in union with the acts of atonement of Thy Virgin Mother and all the Saints and of the pious faithful on earth; and we sincerely promise to make recompense, as far as we can with the help of Thy grace, for all neglect of Thy great love and for the sins we and others have committed in the past.

Henceforth, we will live a life of unswerving faith, of purity of conduct, of perfect observance of the precepts of the Gospel and especially that of charity. We promise to the best of our power to prevent others from offending Thee and to bring as many as possible to follow Thee.

O loving Jesus, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mother, our model in reparation, deign to receive the voluntary offering we make of this act of expiation; and by the crowning gift of perseverance keep us faithful unto death in our duty and the allegiance we owe to Thee, so that we may all one day come to that happy home, where with the Father and the Holy Spirit Thou livest and reignest, God, forever and ever. Amen.

I winced while reading it. “What kind of grave, arch-conservative nonsense is this?” I asked myself. So much talk about “sin”. So much talk about “offending” God. So much subservience to a supposed God of “love” and “mercy”. And so, I decided to bring this prayer and my feelings towards it to my Jesuit spiritual director. Obviously, he too would agree that such a prayer is so antiquated, rigid, and unfitting for a modern Catholic to pray.

“Doesn’t this remind you of Jansenism?” I asked. His eyebrows furrowed, he squinted, and said, “Uh… no. Do you know anything about St. Margaret Mary Alacoque?”

“My sister is named after her, I think,” I responded.

He then proceeded to tell me what Jansenism truly is, and how Our Lord’s revelation of His Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary was something the Jansenists hated. The tangibility, tenderness, and love of God in the Sacred Heart had no place in the cold, selective, and distant God of the Jansenists. Admittedly, I felt like a fool. I obviously did not know as much about Church history and devotional practice as I previously thought!

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Today is the day. My top 3 favorite days of the year are Easter, my birthday (lol), and today- the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Observed 19 days after Pentecost, this feast celebrates the love of God manifested in the Heart of Jesus. – While Jesus' heart obviously served a physiological function, spiritually-speaking, His Sacred Heart represents eternal LOVE: the divine love our Lord shares with the Father and Holy Spirit in the Trinity; the perfect, divine love which God has for us; and the genuine human love Christ felt in His human nature. – Growing up in a very Irish Catholic household, images of the Sacred Heart abounded. Perhaps I never grew up with scruples or a negative, cold image of God because everywhere I turned, I found an image of Jesus- staring at me while pointing to His Heart. – A few years ago, I was in a parish helping out with a group of visiting families with their children. As we were walking through a church, we stopped in front of a statue of the Sacred Heart. A young boy raised his hand & asked, "Why is Jesus' heart outside of His body?" As I went to answer, I was cut off- a girl, no older than 8, replied: "Because Jesus loves us so much, He can't keep it in!" _ It's amazing how sometimes children just 'get it'. Yes, yes, YES- Jesus loves us SO much, He cannot keep it to Himself. We would do well to focus on the tender love & mercy of Christ- for us Christians, our redemption & salvation, peace & security, and even our dignity & worth, come- NOT from any of our own merits- but rather from the eternal love God has for us, His children- manifested most clearly, perfectly, and fully, in the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

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In the following weeks, I went from wincing at the prayer, to actually praying it. Of course, it still seemed foreign to me. All of the talk about offending God by our sins and “making reparation” seemed like a lot of arch-conservative nonsense. But I prayed it, nonetheless. Day after day, I visited the Sacred Heart chapel, and day after day, I prayed a selection of prayers to the Sacred Heart.

From ancient times, the Church has maintained the motto, “Lex orandi, lex credendi“: “the law of prayer is the law of belief”. In other words, what we believe is largely informed by what we pray. We Christians do not simply draft a list of theological principles and then create a liturgy out of them, but instead draft our theological principles by the experience of prayer and worship from the time of the earliest Christians. It is this “lex orandi, lex credendi” motto which, I believe, led me back to Tradition.

You see, the more I prayed to the Sacred Heart, the more I began to really think about what I was actually praying. Prayer of Reparation? “For what?” I asked. My sins. What does it mean to “resist the rights and teaching authority of the Church which Thou hast founded?” That must obviously mean that the Church has authority, and that Christ founded the Church. The more and more I prayed these prayers, the more I began to question its essence. And even more so, I began to question my own conduct and dispositions.

You see, none of this “mercy” stuff makes sense if we don’t believe that sin actually harms. If all sin is simply personal weaknesses that do not affect our relationship with God and each other, then why do we need forgiveness? Or, in response to some moral theologians, if it is impossible to sin, then what is the purpose of grace? If the Church doesn’t have authority, then why do we consider the command to preach the Gospel? If Christ didn’t found the Church, then why should we bother following it? I also wondered why I was skipping all of the “hard-sayings” of Jesus, such as His words on divorce and remarriage, purity, suffering, obedience, and the promise that the “world” would hate me for preaching the truth. I started examining the fact that people would tell me, “I like you because you’re not talking about Hell and all of that sin stuff all the time”, and that had less to do with me balancing the Christian message than it did with me picking & choosing which parts to speak about.

The “lex orandi” principle extended not only to my personal prayer, but my communal, as well. Major seminary was weird, insofar as I was holding onto more “liberal” ideas in a conservative, yet oddly not “traditional”, environment. Doctrinally, I was “liberal”. Liturgically, I was “traditional”. And my thirst for traditional liturgy resulted in me escaping the seminary walls to attend the Latin Mass when I could. It was at the Latin Mass where I felt like I was truly worshiping God. The focus on sober and intentional gestures, such as kneeling, observing silence, etc. eventually disciplined my mind to meditate upon the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. I resisted the urge to feel “entertained”. I resisted the idea that I needed to somehow cognitively understand every single Latin word. I stopped thinking that “active participation” was about me doing something, like proclaiming the readings, clapping, or having a liturgical function. Attending the TLM required discipline and personal sacrifice, two things essential to the Christian life.

It was at this time too that I discovered the works of Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, whose writing I found to be academic, faithful, and simply convincing. Dr. Kwasniewski’s work showed me that, if I had a desire for traditional liturgy AND a love for the Church’s social teaching, I was not some ecclesial misfit; rather, I was of the same mind of many a saint and Church magisterial teaching. In other words, the binary of “conservative” and “liberal” didn’t apply to St. Francis of Assisi, who saw taking care of the poor and creation as crucial, and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament as paramount. Thus, I began to reconcile my love for beauty with a commitment to the good, and a desire to know the true. Dr. Kwasniewski wrote in such a way which forced me to realize that man should accommodate to Catholicism, and not Catholicism to man. And so, thanks to the devotion to the Sacred Heart and my exodus from the liberal/conservative binary, I was able to allow the liturgy and prayer of the Church to form me into a more authentic and faithful Catholic. My personal project of ‘creating my own Catholicism’ began to collapse once I started to understand that God—and not I—was God.

I saw where my heterodoxy led me– to a path of self-aggrandizement, dissent, and pride. You see, for so-called “progressive” Catholics, the idea that history is a story of inevitable progress leads to a distrust of the way the Church Fathers, medieval saints, and Baroque spiritual writers lived. In an attempt to accommodate the Faith to the mythical ‘modern man’, progressives end up distorting the perennial truths of the Gospel to fit modern fashions and sensibilities. But most (and probably the worst) of all, the heterodox Catholic wants mercy without justice, charity without truth, and Christ without the Cross. The starting point for their theology is not an actual belief in Divine Revelation, but instead, what they want God to be. And this was my error, as well.

The Return

The story of my reversion has many other details, twists, and turns, but I have written enough, for now. In the end, the nitty-gritty details are to serve the larger narrative, namely, that my reversion to Tradition was something “ever ancient” and “ever new”. Just a few last points:

When I say that I “fell away” from Tradition, I am not saying that I somehow left the Church, stopped receiving the sacraments, or no longer identified myself as Catholic. During my time in heterodox-land, I continued to attend Mass, pray the Divine Office, engage in works of charity, etc. Externally, I was doing all of the ‘right’ things. However, internally, I was rebelling against the Church. I took every opportunity to rail against the “institutional Church” and to try and frame Paul VI, JP2, and Benedict XVI as “conservative” men who were out of touch with the “lived experience” of the faithful, as if that was an actual source of Divine Revelation. During my heterodoxy, I simply just resisted the Church’s teachings, viewed them with an arrogant suspicion masqueraded as “critical-thinking”, and wanted the Church to bend to my wisdom– not vice-versa. This “fall”, so to speak, was due to my hubris of thinking that I was the source of all knowledge and wisdom, and that by arguing/dissenting with the Church, I was somehow achieving gnosis.

Now that I am in graduate school, I am exposed to a wide range of opinions, yet united under an open atmosphere for conversation, dialogue, prayer, and intense study. My return to Tradition would not have been possible if I was not in a place where I could be a Catholic both committed to traditional liturgy, as well as committed to issues of social justice. It was in the Sacred Liturgy and devotion to the Sacred Heart where I realized that my liberal “Catholicism” was a farce which would be unrecognizable to the many saints, mystics, and Doctors of the Church who have gone before us. My time in heterodox-land was a time where I could use many trendy buzz-words, such as “pastoral”, “accompaniment”, and “discernment” to achieve my own selfish ends and not to convert myself back to the Lord.

In fact, much of what “traditional Catholicism” calls for is a return to the submission to God. This, in turn, elevates all of our actions to being directed towards God’s designs. None of my pastoral work means anything if it is not rooted in obedience to the Good Shepherd himself. While important, personal prayer can never replace or change the significance of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the spiritual lives of the faithful. In my intellectual pursuit for truth and wisdom, I must be anchored to Truth Himself. Delving beyond the contemporary face of Catholicism, I was able to re-discover Tradition- not through EWTN or Rorate Caeli, nor through PrayTell or Crux, but rather through a true experience of the sacred liturgy, prayer, and study. Personally, I often think that Catholics news websites can be sources of great scandal, misinformation, and polarization. Given the choice between reading the Catechism or the latest Vatican gossip, you should read the thing which will help lead you to heaven (hint: it’s not the Whispers in the Outhouse website).

Many people have laughed & claimed that it’s nearly impossible to label me. I believe that environmental issues are issues to which the Christian has a duty to respond. I am fiercely anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia, and hold fast to the Church teaching regarding the preferential option for the poor, capital punishment, and the dignity of the family. In case you haven’t realized, my return to Tradition was fueled by my dissatisfaction with the way Catholicism was twisted to support political agendas on every side. I think the fact that I am not easily labeled is a testament to the fact that Catholicism, when properly lived, evades the political binary of liberalism. The conflict of today is not about “liberal” versus”conservative”, but rather “truth” versus “error”, orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy.

My return to “traditional Catholicism” was simply a return to my childhood experience of God– a God whose presence filled & shaped my interests, my desires, and my response to His grace. As I wrote, when I was a child, God was so “near” to me. God was the ground of my being, the oxygen to my lungs. My return to “traditional Catholicism” is a return to the beauty, truth, and goodness of the Catholic faith as it has been experienced, handed down, and faithfully entrusted to Holy Mother Church. Traditional Catholicism is not its own genre, nor a subgroup, all of which seeks to divide. Traditional Catholicism is the only Catholicism there is. Catholicism divorced from tradition ceases to be Catholicism at all– it instead becomes a self-enclosed circle, an idol of our own making, a modernist invention, a self-praising tool using philosophical/theological thought of past thinkers who wrote stuff we like.

While one can say that my return to “traditional Catholicism” is a rejection of the modernist tendencies of the liberals as well as a rebuff against neo-conservative, snarky polemics, I would rather explain it in a more positive light. My return is characterized by a turn to the Source of all life, a turn away from the entrapping tendency to worship creation instead of the Creator, and a serious attitude towards the summit of the Christian life, the Eucharist. It’s common for Catholic bloggers to put forth claims such as “the Church is in a crisis!!!”, as if their interpretation of events is an infallible perception. I cannot claim that the Church is in a crisis, but what I can claim is that I myself was in a crisis. I was allowing, for the longest time, Internet-Catholicism and polemics to dictate my view of the Church and the world, instead of actually submitting to the former for the sanctification of the latter.

It is the goal of this blog to provide an oasis for my fellow pilgrims on the journey. Realistically-speaking, the Internet is a necessity for us living in the world, here and now in 2018. However, the Internet can be used to twist, distort, and cause rifts within the Church, conflicts which can bleed from the digital into the spiritual. My return to “Tradition” was none other than a return to an intentional relationship with God. And for that, I am beyond thankful.

Thanks for reading,

J

2 thoughts on “A Cradle’s Conversion: My Return to Tradition”

  1. Thank you for writing this. I always find it interesting reading about the views of cradle Catholics. I converted from a mixed Methodist/Lutheran bcakground straight into TLM. The NO masses make me realize how fortunate I am to have a TLM nearby and how much I need to do so that I can help Catholics everywhere get back to the timeless tradition of Christ, away from a modernist, worldly bend that is evident in much of the Church today. Thanks again for posting! 🙂

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