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March 27, 2008
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Coming Out Catholic

I was a modern, middle-aged, happily married, upper-middle-class, New York Jewish mother who'd unaccountably been given a vision. I'd been caught in Peter's net, and I was filled with joy. It was time to go public.

Coming Out Catholic
Telling friends was hard.
For one thing, they weren't used to big revelations from me, so admitting I had something to disclose was really embarrassing. The hardest people of all to tell were my gay friends, since I didn't want them to think I agreed with the Church's position on homosexuality. When I told Scott, he said that it must be like coming out to friends if you're gay.

Exactly. All my friends believe in freedom of religion. All of them would say anti-Catholic prejudice is wrong. All of them think I have every right to be a Christian—just as they believe all those things about being gay. But when someone they know well comes out, the response is often, "Whoa! Wait a minute! Really? Are you sure?"

Not, "Congratulations!"

My dad was dead, but telling Mom was going to be as hard as telling friends. I had no idea how she would react, and I cared very much what she thought. Some Jews react to news that a family member has converted by "sitting shiva" for the person, that is, by observing the Jewish mourning ritual when someone dies. If you sit shiva for someone who is alive, you're saying he or she is dead to you. You never speak to him or her again. I didn't think Mom would sit shiva for me. But I didn't think she'd approve.

She lived in Florida, so I couldn't just casually visit and explain, so I wrote to her. When she called me after receiving my letter she told me she'd been scared to open the envelope. She knew something must really be wrong, something I was too upset about to tell her on the phone. Was I getting divorced again? She hadn't approved of my separation years before. Now she'd gotten over the divorce and had enjoyed having a new son-in-law; she didn't want to lose him. She didn't want me to have failed at marriage twice.

So it was a relief that I was only going to change my religion. She came around to thinking that she and my father should have taken my childhood interest in religion more seriously. I had asked for a Bible, she said, when I was about ten, a request I don't remember. They bought me a copy, published by the Jewish Publication Society, bound in soft leather, one I still have. She remembered I said I was going to read it all. "Religion was a need you had that we didn't recognize," she said. When she told me that, it sounded like a symptom, as if I'd had scoliosis. Now she felt bad about ignoring that need; she thought I'd outgrown it. "Daddy didn't like religion."

"I don't care who you pray to," she said. "Sometimes I pray to my sister Etta. Well, I don't pray to her exactly, but I talk to her. And I talk to your father, too. I look at his picture, and I tell him things." Etta, who was fifteen years older than Mom, died in 1952; Daddy died in 1988. Apparently, Mom believed in the communion of saints—not by any means acceptable in Judaism, but perfectly okay in Catholicism.

"At St. Clare's, where you were born," Mom said, "the nuns were so wonderful to me, and not just during my labor, but the whole time, which was ten days back then. The priest came to visit me every night. Father Andrew—that was his name. He was so kind, so reassuring."

The story of my birth was one I'd heard many times before: On the day my father came to take Mom and me home from St. Clare's, he went to see the Mother Superior in charge. Rather stout in her elaborate black and white habit, Mother Alice Henry, OSF, sat at her desk, smiling broadly. She told Daddy she had just convinced a butcher to give her a better price on the meat order for the hospital kitchen. Mother Alice was persuasive.

Daddy introduced himself.

"I know who you are," she said, motioning him to sit down. "Father Andrew has told me the story, of course."

"Father Andrew?" said Daddy.

"Our priest. Your wife told him about the tragedy of your first daughter, Marion Ruth." Kindness filled her broad face.

Daddy nodded politely. "I came to say thank you," he told Mother as he reached for his billfold. People in my father's circumstances in 1946 did not have checking accounts. "You've treated my family so well—I'd like to make a donation to the hospital."

"Put your money away," said Mother Alice. "We're so happy you have a new daughter after what you've gone through."

"Isn't there something you need for your staff?" Daddy asked. He looked around the spare office, in which the only "ornament" was a carved wooden crucifix on the wall. "I'm not a rich man," Daddy said, "but I'd like to—"

"Now, my dear sir," she said, "I simply cannot take your money as a donation. However, if you are determined to make a gift, I would suggest that you do so in order to have Masses said for the health of your baby."

And Daddy, the atheist Jew, did exactly as she suggested.

I believe Mother Alice told Daddy to have Masses said for my health because she knew of my sister Marion's illness—a then-undiagnosable condition that caused her to develop normally until the age of two and then to go backwards. When she died at the age of four in 1943, Marion was blind, and deaf, and paralyzed. So, even though Mother Alice raised money for St. Clare's from everyone in the city, rich and poor alike, even though she accepted quarters and dimes from her "poor unfortunates," the drunks of Ninth Avenue, she refused my father's donation—she who never refused a gift. She must have worried that I might die young, too.

I wonder whether those Masses had a bigger effect on me than anyone could have predicted. Soon after I was baptized, I became a St. Clare's volunteer, and I wanted to learn more about Mother Alice. Through the Franciscan priest who baptized me, Father Richard Trezza, I got in touch with Sister Ann Kelly, the archivist of Mother Alice's order. That's how I got to visit their convent in Allegany, New York, the St. Elizabeth Motherhouse.

There I met Sister Mary Johnson, a former nurse and administrator who'd lived at St. Clare's with Mother Alice until Mother died in 1960. During that visit, Sister Mary, in her seventies and totally sharp, told me something extraordinary. We were chatting in the sunny dining room over a delicious dinner. I was telling Sister how St. Clare's had changed. "Most of the patients are poor now," I said, "and most of the ones I visit have AIDS. The spirit is the same, but from what I've heard, the hospital no longer measures up to Mother Alice's standards."

Sister Mary said, "Well everything is different nowadays. And the truth is, Mother was old-fashioned in her day. She was kind of a law unto herself in certain ways." She laughed a little, then frowned, remembering.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well," she said, leaning forward and dropping her voice, "this is not public knowledge—but Mother Alice made it a practice to baptize the babies she thought were at risk. She didn't mind whose babies they were or what their religion was." Her pale blue eyes met mine. "The Cardinal wouldn't have liked it, and Mother knew that. But she 'overlooked' his objection. She baptized the babies herself in the hospital nursery. Of course, the baptisms weren't recorded, but they were sacramental. Anyone can baptize." She smiled. "Sister Ann told me your story, you know."

Catholics believe you can only be baptized once—that your soul is forever afterward marked, whether you know it or not. But we also believe that to be a follower of Jesus, you must convert and convert again, consciously turning your sinful self over to God's healing love. If I was baptized as a newborn, my second baptism probably counts as an act of contrition. Father Richard told me there was a line in the ritual prayer that takes my situation into account: "if it has not been done before...."

But what does it mean that my soul was marked? Perhaps it is the reason for the powerful attraction I have felt all my life to the Catholic Church. But I might well have felt that pull anyway. Many others have.

Jesus makes it clear that the Father welcomes everyone who seeks a relationship with Him, whenever that seeking begins, for whatever reason it begins, and in whatever way. Though I could not hear God's voice in Hebrew, the religious language of my forebears, I heard it in the Logos of Christ. Maybe that was because I was already baptized.

But the day I told Mom about my conversion, she said, "You're still a Jew. You'll always be a Jew."

 I nodded. "I am. I'm ethnically Jewish. But what I believe is Christian, Catholic."

"I don't really understand that," Mom said. "But if this makes you happy-you know that's all I really care about."

In certain ways, in fact, converting has made me much less happy—hampering my relationships with some of the most important people in my life.

With some friends, my conversion has come between us in a significant way. It curbs our verbal freedom. I don't mention lots of things that are on my mind—what I'm reading, if it's theology, the issues it raises, the points I find persuasive, and so on—interests they don't share. Also, because they've said so, I know they don't tell me certain things because they think I'll disapprove.

Except for my friend Lucille (who did say "congratulations!") and a few other Catholic friends—no one was pleased. I actually lost a close friend, Paul, a devoutly lapsed Catholic, who found my conversion just too painful. Perhaps it made him guilty. He has not explained, but other friends who know him have said it was the conversion that made him avoid me assiduously, until I finally got the message and stopped trying to keep in touch.

Even with my husband, whom I call T, conversion has added a measure of conflict between us that we didn't have before.

"You talk like you have the inside track to God," T said to me one afternoon.

"But why do you say that if you're agnostic?" I said. "If you don't even know if you believe in God. Why do you even care?"

"It's the arrogance that bugs me," he said, "like you have more of an inside track than Jews or Muslims."

"The inside track? Everyone who wants an inside track to God can have it. God loves everybody."

"How do you know? You always act like you know!" he said.

I had no idea how to answer him then, and the truth is, I still don't. I could have said that Jesus says so in the Bible, but why would an agnostic like T accept scriptural authority? Maybe beliefs are best not discussed at all, since everyone believes what they do because they think what they believe is true.

Except agnostics, of course. But my (avowedly atheist) father-in-law suggests that agnosticism, truly not knowing, isn't really what agnostics believe—they're just too afraid to admit they're atheists. He points out that they sure behave as if they know there's no God: They don't pray (mostly), they don't read the Bible, they don't worship, and they don't try to please the God who might be there.

Why one believes what one believes and what the implications of belief may be are a continuing problem in our multicultural society—and in my multicultural relationship. But personally, I can't say I think all religions are essentially the same, or equally valid. Why would I have converted if I thought that?

For the Jews—all secular in practice, including the believers—the negative feelings came from sociology and politics and history rather than from deeply held religious beliefs. Or at least that's what I inferred from their carefully worded reactions. For the (nominal) Christians, choosing to become Catholic seemed weirdly anachronistic. Why do something like that in this day and age? Oddly, for some in both groups, my conversion meant I had become their judge. They assumed that I now thought they were materialistic, self-absorbed, and shallow. Also, they began to apologize for swearing.

My secular friends all knew I wasn't in any kind of crisis, when a turn to faith might have been seen as the result of a psychological need, a kind of understandable insanity. But they also knew my conversion was not a rational decision based on research indicating that those who have faith live longer, happier lives than those who don't.

I didn't become a Christian because I thought it would make me happier or more long-lived. I became a Christian because a curtain was opened for me and I looked through the window. Once you've seen the sunshine, you cannot pretend there is no light.
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January 14, 2004

LINDA DICKEY directs the copywriting for Scholastic Book Clubs. She was baptized in the Easter Vigil of 1995 at Holy Name of Jesus, a Franciscan church in Manhattan.

"Coming Out Catholic" is excerpted from her spiritual memoir, "Convert", which is now being considered for publication. Her email address is lhdickey@mindspring.com and her weblog is www.lindadickey.com

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READER COMMENTS
04.13.04   Jonathan Kinsman says:
Linda,Thank you for an insightful, thoughtful essay. I have wrestled with the publicness (is this a word!?) of my faith. I hide the practice of it from my wife (who is Jewish and in my mind [I should know better] is not and would not be offended) and though we raised our children Catholic, I still am embarrassed at my lack of initiative in living my faith publicly and without this unfounded, amorphous fear of what-I-do-not-know.It is interesting that some writers refer to themselves or others as 'cradle Catholics.' Our faith was founded by a Jew, organized by Jews and initially proselytized by Jews. It is the converts who enliven and feed the Faith with enthusiasm, vigor and spirit. We so called 'cradle' types fight the inertia that comes with 'to the manor born,' an attitude not unlike never having to openly, actively and consciously choose and then to live the consequences of that choice.God bless you, Linda, for your faith and your reminder of what we Catholics should be about. The active choosing of living a life according to the Way (our Catholic faith) makes demands many of us would prefer to ignore or pretend that they do not apply to our specific situation. Keep writing, Linda, your faith rocks a lot of cradles out of complaceny.

01.14.04   Godspy says:
I was a modern, middle-aged, happily married, upper-middle-class, New York Jewish mother who'd unaccountably been given a vision. I'd been caught in Peter's net, and I was filled with joy. It was time to go public.

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