You know the expression "more Catholic than the Pope"? That describes the convert mentality, or at least the mentality of many converts I know. No sooner have the waters of baptism trickled onto their foreheads than they're lecturing the rest of us on fine points of doctrine, hanging a crucifix in every room in the house (including the bathrooms!), looking down their noses at laggards who don't confess their sins every week, and writing letters to Rome castigating the pontiff for not excommunicating this or that dissident.
I have no business casting stones. I, too, as a brand-new convert, went through a period of crazed spiritual intoxication, marching sure-footedly to the beat of what I imagined to be "true" Catholicism, while the cradle Catholics among my friends—those who had grown up in the faith and had a relaxed attitude toward it--were forced to watch and wince.
Now I'm the one wincing, as friends and associates of mine make the same trek and fall into the same traps I did of spiritual and intellectual pride. And no wonder they do. Libraries are filled with volumes by and about Catholic converts. Amazon carries more books by and about converts than about the Church fathers, the scholastics, the martyrs, or the other saints. The Eternal Word Television Network has an entire program devoted to heralding converts. They are the superstars of the Catholic world—having taken a heroic step to the faith—while cradle Catholics are seen as passively living out a faith that was handed to them on a platter and doing the lukewarm minimum to comply with the church's commandments.
To be sure, to be a new Catholic is a heady experience, because the Catholic faith, with its rich theology, array of devotions, and tradition, is so captivating and enticing to the mind and spirit. The Catholic Church attracts the poor and the rich, the ordinary folk and the elites, the mystically minded and the intellectuals, and people from every manner of culture and nation. It transforms life from the inside out.
The life of a new Catholic begins with confession and then reception of the Holy Eucharist at the Easter Vigil, when many converts receive the first communion they have ever received in their lives. They are the center of the entire congregation's attention, and the grandeur of the Easter liturgy seems designed for them alone. They are the toast of the Catholic town.
That's also when the trouble starts. Gone is the humility of the confessional, as the pride of having grabbed the brass ring takes over. Many new converts make the mistake of believing that there is nothing else to learn, no more questions to ask, no issues in dispute. Since all seems settled and done with, it is time take on the world—the Catholic world especially. They become know-it-alls who appoint themselves as the fixer-uppers of the whole faith. They pester people who have been Catholic all their lives about their apparent lack of piety.
So the new converts start hectoring us, writing tract after tract about what the Bible really means, what we should think about Mary, how to get to heaven, how to pray. They must think that cradle Catholics don't know a darned thing about their faith. Some converts record 24-part tape sets about their not-so-fascinating lives. Most just presume the right to tell Catholics what they should believe and how they should practice their faith.
This can make converts ill-equipped to deal with Catholic reality. One friend of mine, another convert from the Baptist faith, found himself scandalized by what he believed to heretical sermons. Furthermore, he couldn't stand the way the altar girls dressed—and the fact that there were altar girls to begin with. He began to criticize the English translation of the Mass, and then to wonder whether the post-Vatican II Mass itself was valid. By the next Easter, he had stopped coming to Mass, period, and joined a wacky ultra-traditionalist sect that regards Pope Benedict XVI as an imposter.
Another convert friend couldn't stand the music in his local church, so he bailed out to join an exotic Eastern Rite parish. Now he pretends to love all aspects of ancient Assyrian food, dance, and language—even though he's a fourth-generation German from Detroit.
Then there is the opposite intellectual error. I've known once-sensible converts come to believe that the pope is so infallible that he ought to be running the world economy, managing wars, and censoring every song on the radio and every show on television.
One convert I know became obsessed with the minutia of the doctrine of salvation, eventually concluding that all non-Catholics are going to fry in hell. Another talks of apparitions of the Virgin Mary—to him personally! Yet another believes that since Catholics can drink, it's all right for him to drink himself silly every evening. His opposite number on the convert spectrum endorses Catholic teetotalism; this person once grabbed a glass of wine out of my hand and replaced it with water.
Some Catholic converts join strange political movements with zany titles such as Anarchist Organic Farmers for Social Justice. I know one convert mother who forces her daughters to wear Amish-style corduroy dresses that hang to their ankles, because that's what she thinks Mary wore in Nazareth. A talented economist I knew gave it all up when he converted to become a prayerful layabout and welfare bum, because, of course, gainful work would interfere with his plans for his salvation.
And oh, do converts know better than you how to practice the faith! They ostentatiously strike their breasts thrice at the Confiteor. One convert, I'm told, informs friends that it is "theologically wrong" to bless oneself with holy water on the way out of the church, in contrast to the way in, which is fine. Who cares? I know of one convert who stands outside his church before Sunday Mass with a basket of veils, urging women to put them on the way they did during the 1950s.
All this mania is understandable. Finding faith is like finding love. It is a kind of rhapsodic insanity, both glorious and dangerous. St. John of the Cross describes those new to faith as coddled and fed and protected by God the way a mother cares for her new child. We are never likely to be as close to God as we are during those first heady months after conversion, and this can breed arrogance and pride.
Nonetheless, as John of the Cross also points out, the time eventually comes when we are released from God's close embrace and asked to walk by ourselves. The time even comes when we feel very distant from God: the dark night of the soul. What then? That is when we can learn from people who have been living with the faith since childhood. From them we can learn how to integrate the radical religion we have embraced into our everyday lives with their ups and downs, their periods of fervor and tepidity.
Converts should remember that after the Easter of baptism comes the Second Sunday of Easter. In past times, that day was sometimes called Quasimodo Sunday because the traditional Latin entrance hymn of the Mass says: Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabiles, sine dolo lac concupiscite. That means that converts should be like newborn infants guilelessly drinking sweet milk from God.
Newborn infants. That’s the message. Remember the old adage that children should speak only when spoken to? You don't have to take it literally, but it's good cautionary advice. I suggest that converts first live the real day-to-to-day lives of Catholics for a while--and it's not always easy—before they dictate to the rest of us how to live. Let the Quasimodos among us live through Lent, at the very least, before they are put in charge of reading the Easter Proclamation.