Before with my post, My Paradigm Shift, I marked the moment when I realized I had changed from a Protestant worldview to a Catholic worldview. Since then, I have wondered what it was that flipped the switch. The best I can do is to trace the force that caused the breakdown of my Protestant mindset back to a conversation with our old priest, Father Chuck, when we met with him to sign the papers to convalidate our marriage. Chris has already written a little about this, but I thought I could expand on the event a little and why this one thing got through to me when it seemed nothing else would.
Chris and I had gotten married before he had officially converted to Catholicism. I knew full well what I was getting into with him, though. He never minced words when it came to laying out his faith for me to accept him with it or reject them both. Living in Northern Ireland in a Protestant family and a Protestant neighborhood, there were many obstacles to his Catholic conversion. It turns out by immigrating to marry me, Chris was enabled to officially join the Church. It was during the process of RCIA, making preparations for the approaching Easter vigil two years ago at which Chris would take his First Communion and our daughter would be baptized, that several couples were getting their marriages convalidated.
I couldn’t understand the other couples’ cavilier attitude. They behaved as if they were just checking something off the list as they went about joining just another church. I had something of the attitude that I was already married and already said my vows, and once is good enough. Otherwise it would imply that we didn’t mean it the first time or our commitment had waned since then and our marriage needed “refresher” vows. But we met with the priest and I was ready to grumpily sign the papers under protest that my husband’s faith forced me to do all kinds of crazy things on his behalf. Chris would have none of my false sacrificial spirituality and so wanted to make sure that I was comfortable with the whole thing before we committed to it. Then we talked about convalidation.
I related my view on vow renewals, that it somehow invalidated our initial vows, and Father Chuck kindly asked why in light of the fact that Protestants rebaptize people. That’s somewhat like renewing vows, isn’t it? I can’t remember what I stammered out in reply to that, but we went on discussing exactly what convalidation was and meant. Father Chuck repeatedly called it a blessing. I thought I understood blessings, and I was fine with that. If the Catholic Church wanted to ask God to bless our marriage or give their approval for it, let them. Then occasionally he threw in the word “sacramental”, saying that a marriage outside of the Church wasn’t sacramental.
Every time the word “blessing” was mentioned, I calmed down. But every time Father Chuck said the word “sacrament”, the hairs on my neck stood up. What’s a sacrament?, I thought. Outwardly I bristled, “What do you mean my marriage isn’t sacramental!?” How dare anyone say my marriage is missing something! So I asked why the blessing of the Catholic Church was necessary to make it sacramental. Father Chuck seemed to be having a hard time warping his mind, trying to understand exactly where I was coming from and why this concept was so difficult for me. He tried to tell me we needed a priest to perform the blessing. “Why do we need a priest? We already had a pastor marry us and bless us.” Because a pastor hasn’t been ordained by the Church to administer sacraments. What’s a sacrament??
In my usual fumbling and incoherent manner, I explained to Father Chuck that I had been raised to believe that God and His grace was equally available to everyone. A lightbulb appeared over his head. He leaned back in his chair and said, “So you think that anyone is able to perform marriages and convey God’s graces?”
I went on conversing with myself:
Well then, who?
Certainly we cannot base it on our own spirituality. I’ve seen how that doesn’t work. We all fall short of the grace of God.
Only those ordained by God through the Holy Spirit.
Who has been ordained by God through the Holy Spirit?
I don’t know. But I don’t think being ordained by men who have formed a church of their own accord is the same as being ordained by the Holy Spirit. It should look like something… like something real… so those of us seeking Him can find His grace…
But I replied to Father Chuck, “Uh… yeah.” We left without signing the papers and still haven’t convalidated our marriage. I think my pride still says “How dare you say my marriage is missing something!” But that simple word change, from everyone to anyone, had worked on my thoughts for a year and a half before I began to understand it.
God gives us actual grace. He has left us actual means to come to Him and receive that grace, and those means are known as “sacraments”. However, He has not based the conferrence of His grace on our own righteousness or that of the person administering sacraments, because “not one is righteous” (Rom 3:9-10). Instead, He has given His blessing, and enabled some of us sinful creatures to serve as His instruments of grace through His ordination. That ordination can be found in Christ’s choice of the twelve disciples and His life given to them, Him living in them and through them, at the Last Supper, passed on through those men by the laying on of hands to others who would succeed them. By partaking of the sacraments, we acknowledge our utter dependence on God and His grace, denying our own merit to find these things apart from Him and His chosen.
It’s not surprising that the concept of sacraments and things sacred as blessed by those ordained by Christ through Apostolic succession was completely foreign to me. What is sacred in the Protestant world apart from the Bible? I don’t know much about those Protestant churches who retain “sacraments” as they call them, but it is not like the Catholic term. Reading through Luther’s biography, Luther the Reformer: The Man and His Career, I see the reduction of sacraments from seven to two, and the debate of any actual grace being conferred. Though Luther steadfastly held to baptism and the Eucharist and desired reform of the Catholic Church, his contemporaries were looking for a way to separate from the Church, not only from the authority of the pope but also from the power of the priests in the sacraments. If the Eucharist hold the real presence of Christ and real graces are conferred in sacraments, then the priesthood is necessary. They knew there was no turning to our own qualifications to confer God’s grace. If there was actual grace, then we needed those ordained by God. Their solution was simply to destroy the sacred, annihilate the sacraments, and maintain that God’s grace is only ephemeral and handed out on a case by case basis by the Holy Spirit working alone.
Much like the Eucharist drew Chris to the Catholic Church, the sacraments drew me in. I began to understand how God works through us and not by our own merit. This humble reliance on God’s grace was in stark contrast with the theology of glory found in my early evangelical days, complete with pastor veneration and self-proclaimed callings. Things began to fall into place. For me, Sunday fellowship began to depend on the sacraments instead of the pastor’s ability to preach a good sermon. The unity of the Church depends on God grace and our submission to Him, not on the greatness of any given man to lend logic, consistency and loyalty to his theology. All because God chose to use Father Chuck and two little words, “everyone” and “anyone”, to reveal His sacraments to me.