5 Years Later: On My Catholic Conversion

Never for one second have I regretted my decision to become Catholic.  Within its theology, I have found more challenge, more vastness, more embrace of the whole of me.  And I’m not exaggerating when I say that the last five years have been the most challenging of my life and if I had not become Catholic, I don’t know how I could’ve made it through. 

The Challenge of Purgatory

Before you understand what I’m about to say, you must know what purgatory is and what it is not.  It is not hell.  If you are familiar with the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14) where many are invited but no one comes, and then everyone from the streets is invited, except each must “wash and put on a new garment” before joining the wedding feast.  That is purgatory.  It is the place where, before we enter heaven, we must be purified, putting on the new garment in order to join the feast.  It is a time of purification. But purification is never easy nor is it desirable.  

Knowing that then, I’m going to tell you something very personal.  For the first three years of being Catholic, I kept telling myself that I didn’t know what to pray for those in purgatory.  I wasn’t even sure how sold I was on the idea of purgatory.  And specifically, I didn’t know what to pray for my mom.  

For awhile, I believed my own excuses until I really asked myself why.  Why was I so hesitant to pray for her soul? Was it really that I didn’t know what to say?  But no, the truth was simpler than that.  The truth was, I didn’t want to pray for her.  I had forgiven her over and over while she was alive, but that final step of praying for her while she was suffering for her sins, seemed to be a step too far.  There was a deeply buried part of me, that thought it fitting that she suffer for the things that she did while she was alive.  This praying for her in purgatory was one step further than forgiveness.  It was wanting and praying for her full redemption and it took me 4 years of being Catholic to finally do it.

I know how horrible that sounds because it is horrible.  I am a sinner and I’ve got a front-row seat to knowing how dark the crevices of my heart can be.  Which leads me to the next beautiful and much needed part of Catholicism.

Reconciliation (aka Confession)

“I’m going in for spiritual my tune up,” our wonderfully eccentric friend Sam once said, while waiting in the confessional line.

As a child, before I knew God, I became very aware of my sins.  I went around to my siblings asking forgiveness for all of the things I could think of that I’d done: lying, stealing, bossing, etc…I confessed to the adults around me that would listen.  Particularly, my friend and my Dad’s friend and coworker, Larry.  I got in trouble one particular evening because I skipped choir to confess my sins to him.  For a little while, I would feel relief for having voiced these things.  And this need to have a physical confession to someone else and not just to God is still within me.  

Although I get nervous before every confession, it is so freeing.  I know that I am forgiven by God and that it doesn’t require a priest, but you know what?  I think that people are created for physical confession.  Protestants have accountability partners, and it’s very similar.  For me, to hear the priest say, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Is a beautiful thing.  Not only that, but to be given a penance and knowing that the priest is also doing a penance on my behalf is so comforting.

Mind, Spirit, Body

Speaking of physical acts, I love this aspect of the Catholic church.  Whether crossing ourselves, kneeling, confessing, bowing, standing, the smell of incense, or something larger like a pilgrimage, the physical body is an integral part of worship.  Each physical act has a meaning and a purpose and I appreciate that.


“It sucks that I pray ‘Thy will be done’ and mean it,” I told my priest not long ago, “because then he goes and asks something even harder of me every single time.  And good grief, it’s been such a hard last few years.”

“Jesus wouldn’t speak of taking up crosses if it was easy,” he gave his small smile.  This particular priest is one of my favorite confessors.  He has personally been through so much suffering himself and he takes his own faith very seriously in his quiet way.

During some of the hardest times in our lives, we felt fully loved and fully embraced by our church family.  This is not to say that we haven’t felt loved by those in other churches, but many times, it was only in the parts with which they could personally identify.  In our church now, they wept with us in our grief—sometimes weeping for us when our numbness was too great–and rejoiced with us in the good things.

One dear man, who has battled cancer for many years, and who is still in the throes of cancer treatment, hobbled over to me one day, tears in his eyes.  “I offered up my cancer suffering for you, Ethan, and your boys.”  I stammered my way through a thanks, my chest feeling hit by a brick, but at the time, I was too numb to cry.  The idea of offering up your own suffering on behalf of another is such a beautiful and humbling thing.  

But joy and suffering go hand-in-hand.  They are inseparable.  The deeper our grief, the more expansive our joy. And just as we grieved together the boy’s leaving (and what has turned out to be further trauma for them as we’d feared), our church family celebrated with us every step along the way of meeting our now adopted kids and supporting us.


Spending time in the same room with Jesus is pretty much exactly what I need every week.  Early on Saturday mornings, me and Jesus hang out.  I pray, I try my best to listen, and I tell him things.  He’s a great listener, and as hard as I can be on myself, Jesus never is.  He asks things of me, hard things sometimes, sure, but he always offers to be there with me.  I’m so thankful for this dedicated alone time with Jesus.  This cherished time to adore him.

The Acceptance of the Body of Christ

I love that within just our parish, we have the pentecostal types, the lace head coverings, and starched-suit types, the hangover late-to-Mass-college types, the large Catholic family types, the families who never have it together and whose kids have never seen a hairbrush, the families who always have it together, the guy who brings his homemade wine to choir practice, the ladies who spend their lives as caregivers to disabled family members.  There are blue collar workers, white collar workers, stay-at-home moms, farmers, migrant workers, and refugees.  There are CEO’s, entrepreneurs, politicians, and teachers.  And they all bring their own beautiful uniqueness to form the church.  

One of my favorite things I’ve witnessed over and over and somehow, it still surprises me every time, is radical acceptance.  A few years ago, a girl came in wearing short shorts, and a tank top and sat down in the pew two rows in front of me.  The older lady in front of me leaned over to the woman next to her and I fully expected the usual judgment I’ve heard so often in churches.  Instead, I heard, “Look at that.  That’s Helen’s daughter.  I’m so glad to see she’s here.”  No judgment in her voice, only joy.

Not to say that it’s perfect, but it’s a beautiful, imperfect, fully-embraced mess of people and I’m thankful to have found it.

Speak Your Mind