I don’t tell many people the true story of how I became a Catholic. It’s not that I am embarrassed by it, but it does cause people to give me a lot of strange looks. I get it. I will be the first person to admit that it is a strange tale, but it is my tale and for the first time, I am willing to come clean about it.
I am a Catholic because at the time, I couldn’t swim.
I am not a cradle Catholic. My mother converted to Catholicism when she was 21 and my father was an American Baptist. When they married, they had the logic that they vowed to expose my brother and myself to Christian principles but wanted to let us choose our own “religion” when we felt the time was right. However, when they enrolled us in a Catholic school, they had to know that there was a possibility that this decision could come sooner rather than later.
Now, my brother started his academic career at the local public school but then transferred to the parochial school when he was in the fourth grade. I began in the first grade when at the time, first graders prepared for first Holy Communion. None of us really and truly knew what was happening. My mother assumed that these little “gold books” had something to do with our religious education, but she didn’t think anything about it. Suddenly about a month before receiving a sacrament I technically didn’t qualify for, my teacher asked if we were all Catholic.
“What’s Catholic?” I wanted to know.
“What’s Catholic?” She repeated, like I’d lost my mind. “Haven’t you been baptized?”
“I’m not sure,” I told her. “What’s baptized?”
She gave me a confused look. “You don’t know if you have been baptized?”
“Nope,” I confirmed.
She tried again. “Well, where do you go to church?”
When I answered that I attended church in the same building that we were standing in, she seemed happy with that answer. However, a second later I added, “Of course sometimes we go to my dad’s church.”
The faculty all looked at each other like they didn’t know what to do and my teacher finally told me to go home that night and ask my mother if I had ever been baptized and more specifically, if I was Catholic. I rode home on the bus, came in through the back door and say my mother stirring spaghetti sauce. “Mom, am I Catholic?” I asked the minute I walked in.
“No, and who told you that you were?” She asked.
I shrugged. “Well no one…but we’re getting ready for First Communion in a few weeks and apparently I have to be or I can’t do it.”
“THAT’S what this has all been leading up to?” My poor mother cried. “No, you are not Catholic. No, you’ve never been baptized. Your father and I wanted to let you choose….”
That night, my mom and dad sat my sibling and I down and explained some of the differences between their two religions. To be honest, it seemed to my 6-year-old mind that they were pretty similar in what they believed and who they believed in…but the way they went about initiating new members was verrrrry different. My mother explained that in the Catholic Church a priest would pour a bit of water over my head while my father described some sadistic practice in his church in which a preacher would lead me into some pool I’d never seen before and push me under water.
“But I can’t swim!!!” I protested. “What if I drown?”
“You won’t drown,” my father countered. “It’s only for like a second.”
No part of this sounded reassuring. To complicate matters, I learned that if I became a member of the Catholic Church I would be expected to swallow a consecrated host. I couldn’t swallow an aspirin at the time and was more than a little nervous about that possibility. (My father let me that I could “chew” the cracker that they used at his church – maybe he was trying to make up the ground he’d lost in the Baptism discussion?) While I am sure that I should have based this monumental life decision on something deep and theological, I was too consumed with the possibility of my untimely demise in the water or by choking on the Body of Christ. What was a girl to do?
Very quickly my brother announced that he was going to become Catholic. My parents assured us that we did not have to make a decision right away, but because of my situation I had to know if I was going to go for it or wait so that she could tell my teacher what to do about me and first communion. I remember thinking that I didn’t know if a Catholic host was wet or dry, what it tasted like or how creepy it would feel when it melted in my mouth. Still, it seemed like the lesser of two evils. “If he’s going to be Catholic, I guess I will be too,” I declared.
A few weeks later, we gathered at the back of the church after Mass and I was welcomed into the Catholic Church feeling pretty good about my new religious life knowing that I was a child of God with my feet firmly on dry land. It wasn’t the most theological plan ever, but when I was six, it was all I had. The following month, I went up to the table of the Lord and received the Eucharist for the first time. (To my utter relief, I learned that I was allowed to chew it.) Two Sacraments of Initiation down, and one to go.
Good news though, I had better reasons for getting confirmed than I did for being Baptized. Luckily I realized that I liked being Catholic and thankfully, I didn’t have any dinner reservations that day. (Just kidding!)