By Charlie Johnston
“If Francis had been Pope when you came into the Church, would you have still come in?”
It was a clever question posed to me a few months ago by a shrewd friend.
I had been a great admirer of St. John Paul the Great for over a decade before I was received into the Church. While the breathtaking impressiveness of his witness facilitated my way, his greatness was not what finally brought me home to the Church.
My family’s religion was an obscure branch of southern fundamentalism (the kind where snake-handling was sometimes practiced). It was profoundly anti-Catholic. Oh, the calmunies I heard spoken of the Catholic Church when I was a child! Even so, there just was not any such ugliness in my parents at all. Ironically, when we moved up north to Chicago, the great majority of their circle of closest friends was Catholic. While this never created any tension at all, there was a residual dread of the strange rituals and beliefs of what we thought Catholicism was.
My first brush with the faith came when I was a boy, maybe eight or nine. Times were tight then. We ate vegetables throughout the week…butterbeans, pinto beans, northern beans, fried squash, always accompanied by pan-fried cornbread. On Fridays each week, my paternal grandparents would make a big bunch of hamburgers and always have us up for dinner. We all looked forward to hamburgers on Friday. My parents’ literal best friends at the time, Skip and Tom, were Catholics. Dad usually rode to work with Tom and we spent many holidays together – including every New Year. My parents had invited Skip and Tom over for dinner on a Friday night. Things were getting better, so we were happy to fry up a great platter of hamburgers. It created a bit of awkwardness when our friends got over and, abashedly, explained that Catholics could not eat meat on Fridays (this was in the early 60’s).
I was horrified – and told them I thought it was terrible that they couldn’t ever eat meat. They explained that they ate meat on most days, just not Fridays. At the time, Fridays were about the only days we DID eat meat. I had to ponder on this a while. I don’t know if I ever mentioned it to Mom and Dad, but for a long time I thought about what a good deal the Catholics had.
By the time I was in high school, I had become a fairly gifted amateur trumpet player. I was the lead trumpet in pit orchestras for musical productions across the North Shore of Chicago. Somewhere along the line an official from the Archdiocese of Chicago took note of me. I had the rare gift then (not now) of being able to play the far upper register with pleasing tone and tight control. Since high Church music uses a lot of Baroque, which requires that gift, I did a lot of paid work for the Church – mainly up at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, where I would stay overnight before an important performance, like for ordinations and such. The Archdiocese also farmed my name out to local Pastors who needed something for a special performance. I attended my first Mass at St. Anne’s Church in Barrington, Illinois in the early 70’s. It was for Midnight Mass at Christmas, all by candle light. We did much of the Hallelujah Chorus – and a beautiful rendition of “O Holy Night.” I was stunned. It was the most gorgeous, worshipful and moving Church service of any type I had ever witnessed. In my ignorance I had expected some weird series of pagan rituals, perhaps culminating in the sacrifice of a goat – or at least a chicken or two.
In late 1972, my paternal grandfather died. He was the noblest, most decent man I have ever known. Phenomenally strong, he was incredibly gentle, soothing and paternal to all (in the best sense of the latter word). My parents’ religion was one of those with the conceit that only its adherents could go to heaven. Well, Poppo Johnston was a nominal Methodist. I overheard Mom, in her grief, telling Dad at one point that she was sure Poppo had converted in his last breath – a common dodge when someone beloved outside of the faith died. Yet it incensed me. Truth was, I did not much like most of our family’s co-religionists; in fact, there were only a few I considered to be decent, honest people. Poppo Johnston was, as I said, the noblest, most decent man I knew. In my rage at what I considered a calumny, I told myself that if he had to say just the right words to get into heaven, after having lived so nobly, it’s all an arbitrary game and God is a cheat. I did not, for a minute, believe God is a cheat…but I decided if I was going to go to hell, I was at least going to do it for what I did believe, not for pretending at what I didn’t. I also resolved to hit the library intensely in the New Year, to research the origins of the various denominations.
Naturally, I checked the family religion first. To my surprise, our branch of fundamentalism sprung up in the American southeast in the early 1800’s. So if it was true that only adherents of this faith could go to heaven, that excluded everybody before that time, including Sts. Peter and Paul. Nope. In the course of my research, I discovered who the founder was of just about every major (and a few minor) Christian denominations. I also discovered an unsettling fact about Catholicism: it and the Orthodox Churches are the only Christian Churches which have a legitimate historical claim to having been founded by Christ, Himself – and the Orthodox eschewed unity a thousand years ago, so the Catholic Church was the only Christian Church that had remained substantially unchanged since that founding. It was not enough to overcome my ingrained cultural dread of Catholic worship, but it sure tickled at the back of my head.
Having discovered that reality diverged rather spectacularly in many particulars from what I had been taught, I mounted a two-front campaign. First, I relentlessly read and re-read the Bible. I called it trying to see the Bible with “fresh eyes,” getting beyond what we are taught it means and looking at what it is, in itself. Second, I knew that meanings of words and phrases change over time – and 2,000 years is a very long time, indeed. So I started studying history. I wanted to know what the sayings of Jesus meant to those who actually heard Him in His time on earth. Again, I was startled to see that many things are not at all as we think they are – and in some cases are exactly opposite of what we think they are.
During this period, I went nearly completely silent on all things religious. Most of the authorities in my parents’ religion loved nothing better than to find someone to condemn and rip apart. Even when they were technically right, they often did it in a way that tore the heart out of people. I prayed constantly that I not speak at all about religion until I could consistently speak in a way that built people up and inspired them with new hope, rather than tore them down. I only spoke about it if someone close to me was having a crisis of faith and sought my counsel. Up until I was 25, even my Dad thought I was a good fellow, but pretty much a heathen, because I would not talk about religion. In 1981, the covert break I had made with my family’s religion became respectfully overt. I wrote Mom and Dad a very long letter explaining what I believed – and what I could not accept. (Years later, when the New Catechism was released, I was gratified to see the description of what the Word is matching almost verbatim what I had written in that letter.) After the initial shock wore off, it became a blessing for us all. Dad, in particular, began studying the faith deeply. We had many edifying discussions where we both came out with profound insights we had not had previous. It became a favored, and joyful, subject of conversation. And of course, Mom and Dad were both overjoyed to know that, even if I was wrong, I was certainly no Godless heathen! Poor Dad. He later became a Fundamentalist Minister. While loved by his congregation, he was considered suspect, at best, by fellow ministers of the same religion. Gifted with great intellectual integrity, my Dad dismissed as contra-Biblical poppycock such things as the Rapture and ‘once-saved, always saved.’ Even worse, he and a Methodist Minister who were friends often preached at each other’s churches. Worst of all, he had a vigorously healthy respect for Catholicism – and occasionally explicitly referred to it as the ‘mother of all Christians.’ (Ha! Dad was always a bit of a contrarian. If you think I can get occasionally provocative, you should have seen my Dad in his prime!)
I had long since understood that my family’s religion really knew very little of the Bible at all. Oh, they could quote chapter and verse on a few things that confirmed what they already believed or wanted to believe, but they just paid no attention at all to everything else, particularly those things that seemed to contradict their favored beliefs. It seemed to me that, for a faith tradition to be true, it must take all Scripture into account, not just those excerpts it liked. It must be internally coherent. Just because it is internally coherent doesn’t mean it is true, but it can’t be if it is not. So I started attending different denominations, in search of a home. I would stay long enough to find what their primary beliefs are – and then would ask the preacher, after a few weeks, about bits of Scripture which contradicted those beliefs. If the preacher scolded me for my impertinence (which is what usually happened) and refused to answer, I knew this was not home for me and moved onto the next. There was a Presbyterian Minister who could not answer most of my questions, but enjoyed discussing them with me. We remained friends long after I had become Catholic. By the late 80’s, I had largely given up the effort. Oh, I knew, I believed passionately in Christ but, like a poor orphan, I concluded there was no honorable home for me.
In the spring and summer of 1990 I was reading a great deal of religious work from around the time of the Reformation. I admired Martin Luther’s courage, but didn’t particularly like him. He seemed too eager to condemn all sin save that which he personally was tempted by. I particularly enjoyed the writings of Erasmus. Then, for some reason, I read St. Augustine’s “Confessions.” It took my breath away. It spoke to me on every level; its description of what Scripture is, its description of what time actually is (foreshadowing Einstein’s discoveries some 1500 years later), the struggle with the sins of the flesh, the brilliance and the great magnanimity of the man. I pondered why I had never seriously given consideration to the Catholic Church as a home – and thought that any Church which could produce so breathtaking a saint was worthy of very serious consideration. On Sunday, September 2, 1990, I attended my first Mass purely as a worshipper. I was enthralled. I called the Parish Office to see what someone considering becoming a Catholic should do. They told me RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) classes were beginning the next week and would continue through Easter. I went to check it out. I was impressed that you weren’t allowed to just ‘join up,’ but had to spend serious time learning about what you were joining and whether you really meant it. It seemed a suitably grave approach for what was such a solemn decision.
Believe it or not, for almost two months I was the ‘Silent Sam’ of the class of just under 20 people. Having had so many disappointments in my earlier searches, I had little confidence that this would not turn into yet another. Meantime, I started reading furiously, starting with the documents of Vatican II, moving on to some Church Fathers, then to some serious Church history – both from religious and secular authors, with emphasis on times of greatest internal conflict in the Church. You might think I just wanted to learn as much as I could about the Church. Actually, I was looking for the catch. Certainly, I had heard some contradictions in class, but when I would check it in formal Church teaching, I would find the teacher was mistaken or misunderstood formal doctrine. I remember the moment when, in exhaustion, but dawning joy, I thought to myself, “I don’t think there is a catch here.”
After two months of silence, we were given an ethical problem with a binary set of solutions in one of my classes. We were asked to choose one and then defend our choice. As I studied the choices, I got irritated, for I thought they were both seriously deficient – and that if that was the best we could come up with, we were seriously derelict. So when it came my turn to answer, I rejected both choices and explained, with no little passion, what a true Christian choice should be. When I get impassioned, I can sometimes be quite compelling and intense. When I finished, everyone was staring at me wide-eyed, as if I were some tiger at the zoo whose cage had come inexplicably open. The silence held for a bit, then the Priest turned to the woman next to me and asked for her response. Her eyes went wide as she looked frantically back and forth, finally pointing her arm at me and blurting, “What that guy said!” Everyone burst out laughing and my silence was ended.
Going through RCIA, you go through several rites as your study goes deeper. About midway through, there is what is called the Rite of Acceptance. It formally recognizes the candidates’ decision to live the process of entering the Church and welcomes them. Perfectly innocuous. But a few weeks before the Rite, I started having nightmares that when I stood before the Priest, he cast me out and did not accept me. I mentioned this to the woman I was dating a few days before the Rite – and she burst out laughing. Offended, I asked why she did that. “You’re intimidated, aren’t you?” she asked. I said I was, but it was not something to be mocked. She laughed again and said, “I have never seen you intimidated by anyone or anything. Most of us are intimidated by a lot of things. It’s good you should know how the rest of us feel most of the time.” I considered that, then chuckled myself and told her I guessed I was like a poor orphan boy who had been an orphan for so long he persuaded himself he did not need – or even want – a home. Now I had found a home I wanted so passionately with every fiber of my being that I was terrified they might not have me.
At the Easter Vigil in 1991 I was received into the Church. My son, then four years old, dressed in his little grey suit, caught my eye as we were being presented and gave me a wink and a hearty thumbs-up with a great grin on his face. It is a snapshot that remains indelibly fixed in my memory from that glorious night. It was not until a year later, after getting familiar with saints’ feast days, that I realized the first Mass I attended at what would be my home came the Sunday after St. Augustine’s Feast Day in 1990. I have ever since considered him the patron of my conversion.
I taught RCIA for the next four or five years. It was a great joy and I was treated as a valued asset. Part of it was because I spoke Protestant fluently and could mount solid Biblical arguments against Bible-based objections off the cuff. Every year, someone would ask me to be their confirmation sponsor – and usually it was the one who I had argued with most vigorously at the start. I was every bit as excitable and combustible as I am now – and could sometimes erupt. One of the women who asked me to be her sponsor after we became good friends (she was actually secretary to a high-ranking official in the Archdiocese – and was keeping her conversion secret even from her boss until it was accomplished) came late to our second session of the year, where somebody had set me off on an intense rant. She giggled and said she had turned to her friend then and whispered, “Okay, this is the John 3:16 guy,” little imagining at the time that I would so carefully and seriously engage with everyone where they were at, always encouraging without rebuking them – and that we would become great friends.
In my studies, I had examined periods when there were anti-popes roiling the Church with effective schisms. (An anti-pope is an invalid claimant to the office. There have been several such great controversies in the course of history. In fact, there were two anti-popes at the time of St. Joan of Arc. When she appealed her case to the Pope, her tormentors slyly asked her who she recognized as the true Pope. Her charming answer was, “Why, the Pope at Rome. Is there any other?” It delighted me.) Pope Liberius condemned St. Athanasius for a time, and flirted with aspects of the Arian heresy. In the great doctrinal controversies, often you had genuine saints on opposite sides of the issue…though the genuine saints always accepted final, binding decisions. Some Popes were terrible men, some wrote private heresy – though none ever formally taught such. Still, some were painfully ambiguous. Some sought to enable genuinely errant movements; others used their spiritual office to enrich themselves temporally or enhance worldly power.
Even the greatest of prelates was not guaranteed to be even a marginally competent diplomat, administrator, or have any political sense at all. Yet the notoriously corrupt Medici Popes oversaw bringing great artistic treasures to the Vatican and the world, patronizing many of history’s greatest artists, including Michaelangelo. God often acts by indirection, bringing unexpected treasures from corrupt hearts and leaving certain odd deficiencies in many pure ones.
Forget how many misconceptions most Protestants have of Catholicism: most Catholics have almost as many. The relatively simple concept of infallibility is the most obvious case. Infallibility does not make a Pope free from sin – or even free from error on anything except formal, binding Magisterial statements. Even then, infallibility does not guarantee he will get it right, just that he won’t get it wrong. He may not be able to formally speak at all on the matter, or may speak with great ambiguity. Then there is the difference between Magisterial and administrative authority. In certain circumstances, a Pope’s Magisterial authority is infallible. His administrative authority is never infallible, even though binding on Catholics and the hierarchy. Thus, an excommunication is never infallible, because it falls under the Pope’s disciplinary, or administrative, authority. Then there is the matter of prudential responsibility. Matters of faith and morals belong to the Pope’s prudential authority. Temporal matters such as politics, economics, and science (save where a proposed course is truly illicit in itself) are primarily the prudential authority of the laity and not part of a Pope’s formal authority. I weigh what a Pope says on such matters as a matter of respect, but knowing that his authority on it is no greater than mine or any other citizen’s. The key thing is that, in 2000 years, the Church has never contradicted itself on matters of defined doctrine. It is rare for any institution to even go 50 years without fundamentally contradicting itself. To go 2000 years was sign enough for me. But it has often been a brawling, messy process.
I am not a fan of Pope Francis’ ambiguity in Amoris Laetitia. I don’t like his frequent hectoring and insulting of people who merely disagree with him. I don’t like that he has cozied up to and honored genuine enemies of the faith, such as abortion and population-control advocates. I don’t like that he spends so much time talking about political matters that he has no authority over, and like it even less that he insinuates that his mere political opinions are binding. While speaking ambiguously on grave matters of faith and morals, I deeply dislike that he enables and empowers prelates who openly oppose the unchangeable doctrine of the Magisterium, while punishing and banishing many who seek to uphold those things. Yet, when I look at it from a larger perspective, all that is happening is that we live in some of those tumultuous times that I had previously only read about. This is not the end of the Church. In all of those tumultuous times I previously read about, ordinary Catholics were able to live their faith. Great saints often encouraged them to do so simply, even as doctrinal and administrative storms raged around them. And in the end, God always accomplishes something in even the direst times. As God says in Isaiah 55:11, His word does not go forth without effect: “…it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”
Certainly, many Cardinals and Bishops are defending the unchanging nature of defined doctrine. That is how the messy process of refining doctrine has happened throughout the history of the Church. God has His purposes for which He is using Pope Francis. It may well be that part of Francis legacy will be to expose all those actual enemies of the faith who lurk within. It may be to correct the misconceptions that have grown up around infallibility – and recollect pious men to the prudential responsibility they bear – and will have to give account for – on political and temporal matters that are not part of the Pope’s prudential responsibility. It may well be that Pope Francis has some significant contributions to make to the Church’s Deposit of Faith – and woe to us who miss it because we focused only on legitimate disagreements with him.
I am a true believer. The foundation and protector of authority in this Church is God, Himself. It would be a failure of faith to fail to stand up for the fundamentals of the faith. But it is equally a failure of faith to think that any man, or combination of men, could capsize this Church. If God protects it even from final assault by the devil, how can men hope to ultimately confound it? If I were an enthusiast of Pope Francis, I would be careful to watch for things that could legitimately confuse and dishearten the faithful, lest his work be weakened. As I am not such an enthusiast, I watch carefully for the noble things he says and does that I might miss by focusing only on my concerns. But I have no doubt that God has His purposes – and that His Holy Word will not return to Him without effect. So the messiness of Bishop against Bishop and Cardinal against Cardinal, while unpleasant, will accomplish God’s Holy Will in the fullness of time.
The answer, then, to my shrewd friend’s question is that I did not sign on for a particular captain, but because of the sturdy seaworthiness of the ship. A hundred years from now, the captain and all the crew who currently man this great ship will have passed on to their reward, for good or ill…and the ship will still make her serene pilgrim way to find final harbor with the Lord of Hosts. How glad I am, in good times and in bad, to be aboard this majestic vessel!