Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman once wrote that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Cardinal Newman, a notable convert to the faith, was commenting on the essential role the Catholic Church has played throughout civilization — and his belief that in order to take history seriously, one has to wrestle with the truth claims of the church.
As a former Protestant, much of Cardinal Newman’s sentiments ring true to my experience. In some respects, it was my introduction to the Fathers of the Church that first steered me in the direction of Catholicism. But almost a decade later, I can also attest to the fact that the seeds of conversion require more than a mere history lesson.
In the spring semester of my sophomore year of college, I found myself studying abroad in Paris. Frustrated by the divisions within Protestantism and exploring the history and tradition of the Catholic faith, I decided to spend my Sundays in Paris bouncing to different Catholic parishes.
It was a convenient way to feed my love of art and architecture — but it also served as an unexpected introduction to another kind of beauty — the liturgy.
Attending my first Mass at the age of 19 was a peculiar experience. The bells and smells were all new to me, as were the collective prayers. But most striking were two other facets of the Mass: the centrality of the sacraments and the reverence in which the Mass was celebrated.
In Protestant churches, the peak of the service is the homily (or the sermon as most Protestants refer to it). And let’s be clear: Good preaching matters when it comes to spiritual nourishment. But as I soon discovered, the pinnacle of the Mass is the consecration and reception of holy Communion.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, the Eucharist allows us to “unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life, when God will be all in all.” The discovery of ordinary things becoming extraordinary things forever shifted the way I thought about what it meant to attend a church.
And then there was the beauty of the reverence of the Mass. The rituals and rhythms of the liturgy served as a guide to enter into deeper communion with God. Outside, the streets were noisy and my life unfocused. Inside, the liturgy channeled my focus on higher things.
It’s for that reason the preparatory document for the 2018 Synod of Bishops on “Young people, faith and vocational discernment” reminds us that “in an increasingly noisy society that offers a plethora of stimuli, one fundamental objective in the pastoral care of young people is to provide the young with opportunities to enjoy the value of silence and contemplation and to receive formation in understanding one’s experiences and to listen to one’s conscience.”
After that semester in Paris, it would be another three years before I finally entered in full communion with the church. The history books and theology, they all mattered and were certainly formative in my experience. But I’ll always remain most grateful for the discovery of the beauty of the Mass, where in the company of saints and sinners alike, I could focus on what mattered most.
Christopher White is co-writer and co-curator of the Catholic News Service column “In Light of Faith.” White is director of Catholic Voices USA.