Converting One at a Time
by David K. DeWolf
from When Only One Converts, ed. Lynn Nordhagen
published by Our Sunday Visitor, 2000

Priscilla and I had been married twenty-two years when I began thinking seriously about becoming Catholic. We met in a meditation group in Orange County, California, back in the early 1970s. I had just graduated from college and had moved to Southern California because a friend of mine from college had told me about a meditation group that he was attending. I had a lot of respect for him, and I was in between assignments, since I had turned in my draft card the last year of college and was waiting for the draft board and/or the United States Attorney to decide what to do with me. I expected to go to prison eventually but didn't really know what was in store.

I didn't fall into any immediate line of work, so I wound up working for a temporary agency, with a long-term assignment at a pharmaceutical company in Long Beach. I rose in the morning early enough to do some yoga and meditation, packed a huge lunch for myself, and rode my bicycle about forty-five minutes to the industrial part of town, then came home to a vegetarian dinner. On the weekends there was a class in the theosophy-type meditation course entitled "Nature of the Soul." Class lasted about three hours and featured a limited amount of socializing afterward. There was also a class on Tuesday nights called "Corrective Thinking," and it was taught in Orange County. I decided to try to get to that class when I could. It was a fairly strenuous bike ride, but I made it. I've long since forgotten the class, but I met a woman there with a Mickey Mouse T-shirt who caught my eye-it was Priscilla. I ran into her at a weekend class and we got to know each other. Early in 1972 we got better acquainted and in September of that year we got married under a bough of flowers in the backyard of one of the meditation group members.

Priscilla sewed her own wedding dress (practically made of polyester cloth at my suggestion, so she could wash it after what we thought would be subsequent uses--it never emerged again from the closet), and as a portent of many years to come of my poor taste in clothes, I combined a Mexican wedding shirt with white pants and black wingtip shoes.

We exchanged vows Quaker-style, and invited those in attendance to join us in saying the New Age equivalent of the Lord's Prayer. After about forty-five minutes of silence, the guests made a beeline for the punch bowl. Priscilla's father thoughtfully provided some alcohol for one of the punch bowls (as vegetarians and teetotalers, the thought hadn't occurred to us), and it was gone in a twinkling. After making sure that friends and family who had come a long distance were squared away in our rented house, Priscilla and I spent the night in an orange tent in the backyard. Having practiced, um, New Age morals up until that point, it was no big deal. The next day we left with a surprise guest from Germany to spend a few days camping in Yosemite.

Our happiness with New Age philosophy continued for a couple of years, but as we watched many marriages spring up and then wither like the seed sown on rocky ground, we knew that there was something impermanent about New Age philosophy. In 1974 we moved to Boulder, Colorado, and began attending Quaker meetings there. Something about the Christian origins of the Society of Friends was attractive, and there were some impressive academic types who seemed to add gravity to the somewhat countercultural atmosphere. I had been raised in a pious Methodist household (my father was a Methodist pastor until his retirement in 1982), and I was very much at home with Christian theology. But I carefully avoided its more Fundamentalist aspects.

After two happy years we left Boulder so that I could go to law school in New Haven, Connecticut. We were sad to leave the Boulder Friends Meeting and the fellowship we experienced there. In our new location we'd go to church on holidays or special occasions, but the demands of school and work took over. In the fall of 1979 we moved to Boise, Idaho, and there we started going to a large Methodist church. The pastor was educated and outgoing, and the congregation was respectable and sincere. I loved the hymns of my youth and began to take a Bible study course. I think I might have gotten more involved except that I knew we weren't staying in Boise. A year later we moved to Spokane, Washington, where we found a Presbyterian church with a somewhat similar demographic profile.

Our first two children were born in 1982 and 1984, and then we moved to Oklahoma so that I could start teaching. There we wound up in a Disciples of Christ Church, which was more florid and emotional than we were used to, but it was reasonably satisfying. Even its more Fundamentalist leanings had its appeal. There was something attractive about the angular quality of Fundamentalism--its willingness to be "out of step" with reigning fashions--that helped prepare me for a similar quality of Catholicism.

As time had gone on we were becoming more conservative, both politically and theologically. Having children and running a business gave us a perspective on the need for bedrock principles. It was frustrating to begin searching each time we arrived in a new location--which we seemed to do every two years or so. In 1987 we moved back to California, and then in 1988 we were able to move back to Spokane. By that time we had our third child, this one with Down syndrome. Shortly after arriving back in Spokane, Priscilla discovered she was pregnant with our fourth child. We had always been pro-life, but we were surprised at the concern of the doctors who wanted to be sure that Priscilla had "genetics counseling" which told her she had a five-percent chance of delivering a second child with Down syndrome. We weren't particularly worried. Sure enough, our Peter is now an all-too-normal ten-year-old.

I came back to Spokane to teach at Gonzaga Law School, a nominally Catholic and Jesuit institution. I say nominally because much of the university had by that time lapsed into secularism. (As I write this there are reasons to hope that this trend has been reversed at Gonzaga, but it is a long struggle.) Ironically, even before coming to Gonzaga, I had described myself as a "closet Catholic."

What I understood of Catholic doctrine I tended to like. I felt more at home with the consistency and high intellectual content of Catholic teaching. Compared to the mainline Protestant denominations, which had given in to the culture on many of the social issues, the Catholic Church fearlessly preached the truth. The Fundamentalists, on the other hand, who were good on the social issues, couldn't connect their heads with their hearts. Occasionally the two would be combined in an admirable individual--a pastor or a teacher but this disjunction prevented us from getting firmly attached to any church body.

Upon returning to Spokane, however, we tried once again. Having journeyed from New Age to Quakers to nothing to Methodists to Presbyterians to Disciples of Christ, we thought we had returned home, ecclesiastically speaking, by joining the Presbyterians down the street from our home in Spokane.

But two things intervened. One was my eldest brother, who had lived in Japan all of our married life, whom we had seen only intermittently. He had become a Catholic convert shortly after he married, which was the same year that we married. He didn't talk too much about his faith, although he was very well read philosophically and theologically. Once we both discovered e-mail in the early 1990s we began a pretty regular correspondence and the discussion often turned theological. My frustrations with the Presbyterian Church, particularly on social issues, provoked him to say at one point, "Then how can you remain a Presbyterian?" I didn't have a very good answer. The other thing that happened was that a student of mine from Alaska heard that I was one of the few actual Christians teaching at the law school, and made an appointment to see if there were any cure to her sense of isolation. When she said she was Catholic, I said jokingly that I described myself as a "closet Catholic" which piqued her curiosity as to why I used that term. I explained that I often found myself defending orthodox Catholic doctrine in debates with nominal Catholics--and sometimes with priests. She groaned with recognition and said she would give me some literature and some tapes that would show how consistent and satisfying Catholic doctrine was. I thanked her and said I looked forward to it.

Over the next six months I became a project of hers and I looked forward more and more to her visits. At one point her mother came for a visit, and we invited the two of them for dinner at our house. It was a memorable evening. Mother and daughter were clearly in love with their faith and were delighted to have an opportunity to share it with people who were receptive but didn't yet know much about it. And as orthodox Catholics, they were also embarrassed by the unwillingness of some nominal Catholics to accept the fullness of their faith. They were as grieved by the prevalence of "cafeteria Catholics" who were no better, and in some cases worse, than the Presbyterians with whom we went to church, selecting those portions of the faith that were convenient. There was also something bold and exciting about people who were willing to be different, and who didn't mind upsetting those who were more anxious to be accepted by the world than to be faithful.

During this period Priscilla remained interested but noncommittal. Her primary challenge was dealing with a tragedy involving her father, Russ. Shortly after the birth of our fourth child, Russ had suffered a freak accident, which resulted in a broken neck. After weeks of hovering near death he was released from the ICU as a quadriplegic. Eventually he was transferred to a Veterans Hospital on the Hudson River in New York. While Russ lay helpless in a hospital bed, Priscilla tried to negotiate the transfer of his limited possessions to suitable quarters, but it was complicated by the fact that Russ had just separated from his second wife. Priscilla also agonized over how to keep in touch with him over the long distance. He was in a considerable amount of pain; even though he had lost the ability to use any of his limbs, the involuntary muscle contractions were excruciatingly painful, a condition that was relieved only when the tendons were surgically severed.

Priscilla could only visit her father once a year at best, and yet she thought of him constantly. His pain was mingled with her own at the sense of loss and futility at not being able to do anything at such a distance other than to pray. In addition, many other painful memories from her childhood and adolescence surfaced at this time (her own struggle with survival as a severe asthmatic as a child, her brother's polio, her mother's early death due to rheumatoid arthritis, struggles as a stepchild). At one point she sought relief through the counsel of a psychologist, who after one visit told her she needed a divorce. Thankfully, she did not take this advice but rather struggled to keep her head above water and maintain order in a very busy household. During this time we opened our home at different times to a homeless family of refugees, exchange students from both Germany and Denmark, two nieces-one from Japan and one from California- and a grandniece who lived with us from age two to age five. Needless to say, this time of needing supernatural strength when our emotions were fragile (particularly in'the case of Priscilla, who was unable to discuss her father without unleashing a torrent of tears) put us on a path of deep inner searching.

As I began to explore the possibility of conversion more seriously, I had sharply conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it seemed that I had finally found a kind of home, although it wasn't entirely to my liking. One thing I had to get used to was the fact that I only really liked a small number of people that I met in the Catholic Church. That is, I was only attracted to a certain mind-set about the Church. Most of the people I had known as Catholics, and whom I continued to encounter, were frankly unattractive. Many were uneducated; many were heretical; many were irritating in one way or another. Whereas a Protestant can choose a denomination that is comfortable in terms of its intellectual content, social class, and taste in music and dress, Catholics were all over the lot. Although Priscilla would grouse from time to time about the Presbyterian Church, she enjoyed the high quality of preaching that we got on Sundays; the music was superior; and we'd made a number of friends whose general life experience and outlook were compatible with ours. Most important to Priscilla, our children were going to church without resistance. They either went to Sunday school or stayed with us in church, but it was a relatively easy routine for us on Sunday. In previous years, one or more of the children was either too old or too young to sit quietly in church, and Priscilla refused to put them in a Sunday school class unless they wanted to be there, which they typically did not. As I drew closer to thinking that the doctrine of the Catholic Church was actually true, I wondered how I could ever persuade Priscilla to fix what, to her, wasn't broken.

A related problem was that I began to wonder whether my inclinations were just part of a midlife crisis. I was forty-five years old; I had just gotten tenure, and thus had job security and lots of leisure. I couldn't help wondering whether my fascination with Catholicism was just an unusual form of looking for novelty. Would I convert, and make this serious commitment, only to discover that the grass was no greener on the other side of the fence, and that the flaw lay not in the church I attended but in myself? I couldn't resolve this issue, but it made it all the more difficult to share these things with Priscilla. I didn't want to convert and wind up in a different church, but I also felt that I couldn't be of much help to Priscilla in sorting out what ought to happen to the rest of the family. I was in this helpless sort of drift when I got the wakeup call from my brother Charles, mentioned earlier. How could I remain in the Presbyterian Church given my knowledge that it did not contain the fullness of the truth?

I decided that I should sign up for an RCIA program and put myself on the road to an official decision, but I didn't know where to do it because I wasn't really connected to any church. Most of what had attracted me to the Catholic Church was what I read, my conversations with the student from Alaska and her family, and e-mail communication with my brother. I thought the best thing would be to go through the RCIA program at Gonzaga; it fit my connection to the university and my lack of connection anywhere else. When I signed up, it was suggested that I find a sponsor who would attend the classes with me. Although I knew several people who might be willing to do this for me, my first choice was the student who had first nurtured my interest in the faith. But I was simultaneously reluctant to impose upon her, particularly because she was still a student. In the end I decided just to ask her, and she immediately said yes. So Monday nights I dutifully attended the class, and most of the time my sponsor was able to come.

The RCIA class itself was symptomatic of much of what is wrong with the Church today. It was taught by an assistant in the campus ministry program, a nice enough fellow who traded a career in the U.S. Air Force as a navigator on B-52 bombers for more peaceful pursuits. Once or twice we got a visit from the Director of Campus Ministry, a priest, who seemed anxious to make us feel comfortable. The first few weeks featured some student assistants, one of whom was the campus militant for gay rights. At one point I expressed my surprise that the book we were using to learn the fundamentals of faith (what in an older era would have been a catechism) referred to Old Testament dates by giving the date followed by "BCE" (rather than "BC"). "What's the meaning of that?" I asked. The assistant patronizingly explained that it meant "Before the Christian (or Common) Era," in order to be more respectful of our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters. I again expressed surprise that this kind of politically correct thinking, which I had encountered elsewhere in the secular academy, should have permeated a book that was presumably designed to explain the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all of history. Perhaps because of this and my other intemperate remarks, the student assistant found other ways to occupy his time on Monday nights. Almost all of the other students in the class were students at the college, many of whom were preparing to marry Catholics and were happy to accommodate their spouses by accepting the religion of their loved ones. Others seemed drawn by some social aspect of the faith. The message they received was that this was indeed a neat religion, and one that would make them feel at home.

I reported my experience to Priscilla and also the fact that my sponsor took the time after each class to correct the obvious errors and cover the kinds of things that should have been covered in the class. It hardly whetted her appetite for conversion. I also began to feel more nervous about the fact that my primary lifeline to what was beautiful about the faith was my sponsor. It began to feel more like a mid-life crisis and less like something that was of God.

Fortunately, at the end of October, I was able to go for a four-day Ignatian retreat outside of Phoenix, Arizona, with a wonderfully gifted priest, Father Donald J. McGuire, S.J. There I felt a sense of community with people whose passion for their faith was similar to mine. I also encountered a priest to whom I could happily entrust my spiritual guidance. I made my first confession, said my first Rosary, and spent time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Finally the yearning of my heart was met with a true community of kindred spirits.

Priscilla now says that I came back from the retreat walking on air. I had turned the corner in my determination to enter the Church, but I was still dealing with an environment that was hardly hospitable to her. Moreover, the children had no idea what I was up to. While Priscilla tolerated, and to some extent encouraged, this exploratory venture, it was mine rather than ours, and I could not see at that point how I would ever be able to make it ours together. However, I also knew that it was useless to try to persuade her to do something 1 was still only contemplating doing myself. And if I attempted to make my conversion contingent upon her wanting to convert at the same time, it might bog down in endless complication. I had to follow my own light, as selfish as it might seem. As Easter finally approached, Priscilla remained neutral; she neither encouraged me nor put up resistance. She came to the Holy Thursday confirmation ceremony, and afterward we went out for a little party with our Catholic neighbors and friends, my sponsor, and an earnest Protestant friend of ours who was himself searching. As we drove home, Priscilla said to me that I should not expect her to convert to Catholicism in order to please me. She was going to do so, if at all, for her own reasons. I interpreted this at the time as a healthy form of candor, and it proved to be a very wise insight on her part.  Although Priscilla was understanding, my mother was not. I had talked with her by telephone along the way and was somewhat lighthearted about the whole thing. She was hoping that I would simply think better of the whole thing, but as the time approached she became more insistent about knowing why I was taking this unusual step. I got a letter from her that politely complained about the fact that by becoming Catholic I had in effect repudiated the lifework of my father, who had retired some years ago from almost forty years as a Protestant minister. I wrote her a reply that was as diplomatic as possible, but I still felt wounded. (This reply, incidentally, has been published, in a slightly edited form, in the February 1998 edition of This Rock, entitled "Dear Mom, I'm a Catholic." ) For reasons I did not understand at the time, I began to spend regular time saying the Rosary. I left early in the morning to walk through the woods near my house and say the five decades of the Rosary while I walked. While doing so I began to see how much I needed MY Blessed Mother, in part because my earthly mother had been unwilling or unable to salve some deep wound. I recognized that one of the things that appealed to me about my sponsor was her reflection to me of a kind of holy femininity, which I craved as desperately as a refugee from institutional food craves a home-cooked meal. I also realized how lucky I was to be married to someone who, though she wisely refused to try to fill the gaping holes in my psyche, recognized some basic goodness that managed to maintain itself.

I asked our Lady's special help in finding some avenue for Priscilla's conversion. By praying for her I also recognized how much she needed me to be a better person, not only that she might sense the value of the faith, but because it was only through a massive infusion of grace that this dream could become a reality. Luckily, I was greatly aided by the generosity of my sponsor's family. When they came for their daughter's graduation, they extended an offer to send Priscilla an airline ticket to Alaska for one of Father McGuire's retreats. I had tried to get her to go to the retreat in January of the preceding year, but she thought I was more than slightly crazy for wanting her to go to Alaska in the dead of winter. Another retreat was scheduled for Labor Day of 1995. At the time Priscilla was still dealing with her father's physical decline. She might never have considered a retreat if my sponsor's family had not made her an offer she couldn't refuse.

I felt reasonably confident that the retreat would be a success, since Priscilla had always demonstrated a natural spiritual gift; after all, we met in a meditation class. I was also reasonably confident that Father McGuire would appeal to her in much the same way he appealed to me. But nothing was guaranteed. Despite the awkwardness and novelty of being the only Protestant and having to observe silence as a retreatant, Priscilla dutifully attended all eleven conferences, daily Mass, praying of the Rosary, and stations of the cross--all new experiences made all the more special by the transcendent beauty of Alaska with moose cavorting a-round the retreat center and Mount McKinley visible in the distance.

As always on Father McGuire's retreats, the Holy Spirit was very active. From the first night Priscilla knew she had found her spiritual home. By the end of the retreat she was bursting with newfound enthusiasm. In her private conference with Father McGuire she asked two questions: what do I do with our children, and where to find a parish? He said to let both things work themselves out with patience and prayer. Indeed, I had just discovered a wonderful parish in Spokane and met the priest, the Rt. Rev. Adrian Parcher, O.S.B. I was confident that Priscilla would be able to make a reasonably smooth transition from Father McGuire. When I asked about an RCIA class, Abbot Adrian said that he preferred to do the instruction on an individual basis, since he rarely had more than a few candidates at a time and he preferred to have more flexibility in designing an appropriate program of instruction.

It turned out that the abbot was a wonderful shepherd for Priscilla. He had two qualities that I believe are essential in such a situation. First, he was extremely knowledgeable about the faith, and able to answer difficult questions about Church doctrine. What makes the questions of an adult convert difficult is not so much that they are theologically hard, but that they require an ability to relate what the convert already knows to what is new and puzzling. Converts usually have an easy time with some aspects of the faith, and a difficult time with others. That raises the second important quality, which is a strong pastoral insight into the condition of the soul presented to the priest. The convert often has mastered some steps along the path of faith (in many cases well beyond those of a cradle Catholic). But other steps are surprisingly difficult. The pastor has to discern which steps the convert is ready for, and which to postpone for a later day. On the one hand, a convert should be expected to embrace the faith wholeheartedly, not with reservations. At the same time, there may be things that will become clear in time, as long as the fundamental disposition is correct. The pastor's love for souls and his delight in pastoring them is essential to making the convert feel wanted and appreciated in his or her own right, and Priscilla could not have asked for a better guide. During the time of Priscilla's instruction we attended an early Mass (powerfully centered on the Eucharist and with no music) followed by the Presbyterian Church where the preaching and the music were skillfully done. Our children also began to be introduced to both forms of worship. Although Priscilla still found much in the Presbyterian service that was nourishing, it became clear to her that something important was missing. Despite the earnestness of the preacher and the musicians, something was being withheld; it remained more performance than worship. Despite the recent impoverishment of Catholic liturgy in many parishes, it had a kind of authenticity that was missing in even the most heartfelt Presbyterian service.

And to return to a theme touched on earlier, there is in Catholic liturgy an acceptance of human suffering, a sanctification of that suffering, that makes other worship pale in comparison. In the Presbyterian Church there was always a weak spot when it came to an appreciation of suffering. Priscilla felt that many people wanted to avoid admitting difficulty in their own lives or in someone else's because in their minds a true Christian never really suffered; one's faith should always triumph over any apparent misfortune. It had a kind of Christian Science quality to it. By contrast, Catholicism seemed to her to recognize more clearly that the cross is at the heart of the miracle of salvation-a truth poignantly demonstrated by the last six and a half years of Priscilla's father's life. Russ was not a religious man, but he accepted the cross that was handed to him with astounding equanimity, grace, and even humor, which increased over time. Russ died on December 12, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the day before Priscilla's forty-ninth birthday.

It was not long before we knew that Priscilla had passed the point of no return. She was reluctant to call an end to her instruction, in part because it was so enjoyable and in part because she hardly felt that she had mastered what she needed to know. But, as she said, if she waited much longer she would be "one awfully thirsty communicant." So she arranged to be received at EasterVigil in 1996, only a year after my own conversion, and of course my joy was indescribable. Not only had we put aside the divisiveness of two different faiths, but we had done so in a way that Priscilla felt was on her own terms. Miraculously, our prayers for our three younger children were answered. They were received into the Church less than a year later. Our oldest child, a son just finishing high school, will occasionally ask questions about Catholicism but is too involved in Young Life and other youth groups to seriously consider a change. Occasionally we feel guilty about blithely accepting our separate status and not exerting more influence for fear of exacerbating an adolescent rebellion, which was well on its way at the time of our conversion. Despite our concern that he's missing out on the graces that flow from a sacramental life, we have to trust in God's timing.

Having narrated the story of Priscilla's conversion, I cannot resist the temptation to offer advice to those who identify with my position in the early parts of the story. The first piece of advice during the conversion process itself is to try to identify those aspects of your attraction to Catholicism that represent some wounded quality of yourself. That is, to what extent might I justifiably be accused of a form of escapism? Of course, this is not a disqualifying feature; St. Augustine described our condition as being restless until we rest in God, so that all human longing can be seen as a path by which we eventually find God. But our religious life may reflect less admirable motives. Church may be a place where we can feel self-important or escape unpleasant relationships that dog us in other contexts. Or it may be a simple case of boredom; as the saying goes, the grass frequently looks greener on the other side of the fence. An honest self-assessment serves several purposes. For one, it alerts us to areas where we are vulnerable to criticism from our spouse or from others who question our motives. Even if our accusers do not themselves have the best of motives for their criticism, we need to have a reasonable answer for them. As a corollary, identifying the suspect motive gives us an assignment to demonstrate the redemptive power of our newfound faith. When Christ restored sight to the blind or hearing to the deaf, he produced many converts. If our faith leads us to demonstrate true love for our spouse-obedience toward our husband, sacrificial service of our wife-then that miracle may very well bring about the conversion we seek. Alas, it is often the case that our discovery of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church leaves us wanting to spend more time at church, on retreats, and in pilgrimages, and less inclined to spend time at home. Or we love our spouses conditionally-to the extent they share our faith. It can't be helped that we need to go to a different church, often at a different time from the rest of the family; but that should be more than made up for by the fact that in all other respects we are a much better spouse and parent. As important as it is to be obedient to the Magisterium of the Church, the greater challenge for most converts is to display humility and loving service toward their spouse.

A second piece of advice is at the risk of being obvious, but it is to offer our marriages up in prayer, and to request heavenly assistance, especially from our Lady. Not only will she obtain for us the grace to transform us into spouses who make our faith more attractive, but she will prepare everything else that is necessary. The Rosary in particular should be relied upon. I would recommend the seven-day scriptural Rosary, which includes not only the three traditional groups of mysteries (joyful, sorrowful, and glorious) but also four others (healing, Eucharistic, salvation, and consoling) that add to the richness of that devotion.

A final piece of advice would be patience. In some ways I lack standing to make this recommendation, since my wish was granted almost immediately, compared to many conversion stories. However, from the time I first began drifting toward Rome, until Priscilla's entry into full communion, seemed like a long time. If I had known that the condition was only temporary, it would have eased a lot of the anxiety. But no matter how long it takes, by eternal standards everything is temporary. Priscilla was wise enough to know from the beginning that if she were ever to convert, it had to be on her terms, not mine. It wasn't my job to convert her; it was my job to deepen my own conversion. Learning to treasure our spouse without preconditions is the quickest way to marital harmony, whether or not it includes sharing the faith.