When I came into communion with the Church five years ago, wise Catholics warned me that the road might get rocky in the years ahead – writes Catholic convert Jennifer Fulwiler.
They reminded me that my conversion did not end, but only began, that night at Easter Vigil. They counseled me to prepare to be tested over and over again as I lived my life as a Catholic.
I didn’t doubt that they were right, but it was hard to imagine. I was so overjoyed to be entering the Church, so grateful that I had finally found not only the truth but the source of all joy, that I simply could not imagine ever having a moment when I wasn’t on fire about my faith.
As it’s turned out, the experienced Catholics were right. Though I’ve never seriously doubted the truth of Catholic beliefs, I have faced challenges that left me feeling uninspired about my faith. There have even been times when I felt so despondent or frustrated that I understood how some people can fall away again, even after powerful conversion experiences. Though moments like these have been rare, they were painful to go through, and they left me with deep sympathy for people who drift away from the active practice of their Catholic faith.
In an effort to help converts (as well as cradle Catholic “reverts”) who might be struggling, I’ve talked to RCIA leaders and spiritual directors about the most common issues they see facing people in these situations. Combining their answers with my own experience, I’ve created a list of the most common pitfalls that we converts need to watch out for:
1. Discounting spiritual attack
If you only remember one thing from this post, make it this: Spiritual attack is real, and we discount it at our peril. The devil exists, he does not want you to deepen your relationship with Christ, and he will work tirelessly to lure you away from the Faith. One of the most important things I’ve learned about day-to-day life as a Catholic has been how to recognize spiritual attack. Needless to say, we don’t want to spend too much time pondering evil, but a little knowledge about spiritual warfare can go a long way toward helping you maintain a strong faith life. If you’re not familiar with the subject, try to find a spiritual director who can teach you about it. The Catholic Spiritual Direction blog also has some great posts on the subject.
2. Thinking that Catholics are perfect
When you’re excited about your conversion, it’s natural to focus on all the wonderful things about the Church. Even though secular culture constantly emphasizes faults among Catholic leaders, I’ve still seen plenty of new converts develop a perception that everything is just perfect among the folks at their local parish—especially in cases where they were converting from congregations that had abusive or unhealthy practices. Of course it’s great to see all the positive things about your fellow Catholics, but don’t forget that the Church is a hospital for sinners more than a hotel for saints. Your fellow Catholics will probably let you down at some point, and that’s okay. That doesn’t make the Faith untrue, it’s simply part of life in a fallen world.
3. Not developing a relationship with Christ
One of the most thrilling parts of my conversion was when I realized the unfathomable body of wisdom contained within the Church. I couldn’t read fast enough; I had to clear off entire sections of my bookshelves to make room for all the fascinating books I was devouring from the great Catholic thinkers throughout the ages. The problem came in when I began to think of my conversion as more of a reading project than a friendship with the living God. Technically, I knew that I was supposed to work on my relationship with Jesus. But that kind of thing didn’t come naturally to me, and so my spiritual life tended to revolve around thinking and analysis. Sure enough, when I would hit dry spells in my reading it would have a big negative impact on my spiritual life, since I had been more devoted to reading books than I had been to getting to know Jesus Christ as a person. It sounds incredibly obvious, but it’s a surprisingly easy mistake for book nerds like me to make.
4. Not seeking answers to tough questions
For some lucky folks, the “relationship with Jesus” aspect of conversion comes naturally. They don’t get bogged down with books or doctrines, and find great joy in their friendship with Jesus. Often, what brings men and women like this into the Church is that they yearn for the Eucharist. This is all wonderful. But, like those of us who spend too much time in books, it can lead to problems if you’re not balancing the emotional and the intellectual aspects of life as a Catholic.
I’ve seen cases where people convert with tremendous enthusiasm, overjoyed at finally being able to receive Jesus in Communion. They’re on such a spiritual high that they brush aside lingering questions about doctrine, figuring that it will all work itself out. Then a few years later, they hit a spiritual rough patch where they feel little consolation. Friends and family members start telling them that certain Catholic beliefs are crazy or hateful or unfair, and they don’t know how to respond. Times of personal turmoil are not the best situations for exploring doubt anyway, and so the anti-Catholic arguments start to sound more compelling than they would under different circumstances. All of these factors combine to leave people in these situation feeling uninspired, unsure about the faith they were once so excited about, and they often end up drifting away from the Church.
5. Not rooting yourself in a community
This one can be difficult for converts who have no friends or family members who share their newfound faith, but it’s important to become a part of a Catholic community—and Facebook doesn’t count. There’s nothing like sharing your life with the lives of other people of faith to keep you grounded in the spiritual life. Very often when I hear cases of converts leaving the Church, it comes out that they were not connected to any kind of local Catholic community. Unless you have some extraordinary circumstance like a call to be a hermit, regular interaction with flesh-and-blood people who share your beliefs is critical for a healthy spiritual life. Becoming an active member of your parish is the most obvious way to do this, but seeking to add more Catholic friends to your network for casual socializing, joining faith-based groups, and attending Catholic events are great ideas too. (And no, fellow introverts, we don’t get to skip this one—I’ve asked. Though we might not join as many groups and socialize as much as our extroverted brethren, we still need to be part of Catholic community in some way.)
So, to all the new converts who are entering the Church at Easter Vigil or have entered recently, I would say: Watch out for these five pitfalls, keep praying no matter what, and welcome home!