Home at last

I haven’t posted since Holy Saturday, before the Vigil. I’m now officially a member of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church. I’ve been saying those words in the Creed all my life as an Anglican, but now I finally feel that I’m able to pronounce them without any doubts or caveats. I can join my voice to 2 billion or so others, all proclaiming unity with the successor of Peter. That’s quite something.

I don’t know what to say about the Vigil other than that it was one of those nights where earth seems much closer to heaven than usual. As a matter of fact, in the run-up I had felt mixed emotions. I was slightly sad; my parents came to see me confirmed and I knew that I would no longer share a church with them; we won’t be able to take the Eucharist together or share fully in an understanding about the faith. Still, I can always hope that they will someday join me on this side of the Tiber…

There was also a slight feeling of guilt. As an Anglo-Catholic you stick together with your fellow ACs – you are the small but staunch army besieged by the forces of change within the Anglican Church. For years the thought of ‘giving up’ on Anglo-Catholicism felt like a betrayal. Now, however, it feels different. The Anglican Church has proved itself again and again to be protestant by its words and by its actions. The Ordinariate has enabled the welcome of Anglican patrimony into the Catholic Church. And more than either of those, I have, over the years, sincerely come to believe that the Catholic Church’s claims of authority are true and just. It’s not ‘giving up’ any more; it’s choosing what is right.

Finally there was a sliver of regret that I hadn’t done this years ago. I’ve been close to converting for years, but chose not to. Having experienced the joy of coming home, I can’t believe that I procrastinated so long over this decision. I’m very glad I didn’t waste any more time.

All those negative feelings were minor, however, when compared to the joy I felt during the Vigil as I affirmed my faith in the Catholic Church and was received into full unity. People talk about ‘coming home’ and that is certainly what it felt like. To receive the Eucharist for the first time* was an incredible and humbling experience. That our Saviour should give Himself for us – for each one of us – and that we should be able to receive Him directly, really and tangibly– is such a mind-blowing and awesome fact that I haven’t got my head round it yet, and possibly never will.

It was a wonderful Mass. The beauty of the Liturgy at the Easter Vigil serves to highlight the wonder, the glory and the Mystery. The darkness, the procession, the Paschal Candle, the light spreading through the Church, the ancient chants, the white and the gold. Resurrexit sicut dixit! He is risen as he said! Alleluia! The joy and the glory was all there in our church that night.

And after the Mass, of course there was the party. Lots of wine was drunk, lots of food was consumed, I ate chocolate for the first time since the start of Lent, and we were very late going home that night. Everyone I spoke to had words of welcome and congratulations.

And now? Well, a month or so on and it still feels a bit strange. I’m so used to sitting in my pew during Communion that I have to remind myself to go up and receive. During all those years of procrastination preparation, I thought of my reception as the goal, the end point. But of course it isn’t! I am still only scratching the surface of the Church, of her teachings and her liturgy. I am still getting excited over the sense and coherence of those teachings, the incredible depth of meaning to be found in that liturgy. It’s going to take a lifetime and I still won’t have reached the end of the mysteries. To be honest, I can’t think of a better adventure.

*(I know that the Catholic Church doesn’t accept the validity of Anglican orders anyway, but I didn’t even receive communion at an Anglican church as I was never confirmed)

The Joy of Surrender

Then Simon Peter answered him: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life. John 6:68

And so it has begun. The Maundy Thursday Mass was magnificent, and then we moved into the silence and sadness of Good Friday. Now we are waiting with bated breath for the joy of the Resurrection. I was reminded of something our Priest said in RCIA: far from being three unconnected events, the Triduum is the great cycle of salvation – Eucharist, Crucifixion, Resurrection. Obvious perhaps, but it is definitely brought home in the liturgy of the Church at this time.

I’m filled with a mixture of joy and trepidation. For years I have fought against becoming a Catholic, afraid to let God take control of my life, unsure about accepting all those rules, preferring life as a lukewarm Anglican to the prospect of being a committed Catholic with all that entails. But eventually I had to accept that what I was running away from was the Truth – and once you have accepted that, everything else follows.

I went to an interesting talk on Wednesday by Father John Hemer about the Crucifixion. Actually the bit I want to mention was almost an aside at the end. Father Hemer talked about the post-Christian society and how it differed from a pagan society. The key difference, he said, was in the fact that there was no further salvation to look forward to – because we in the Christian world have already been exposed to the Truth in its entirety. That means, of course, that their claim that there is no such thing as truth is perfectly logical – because once you have rejected Truth itself, there can be no other to replace it. Depressing, but it brought home to me how important it is to accept the Truth when you find it.

So, this evening, I will publicly proclaim my acceptance of the truth of the Catholic Church.

I believe that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again, and sits in glory at the right hand of the Father.

I believe that on earth, He instituted a Church, with Peter at its head, and that He will not let the gates of Hell prevail against it.

I believe that the Church, having taken on authority on earth, has preserved what is true through tradition. I believe that if you accept the Bible as the Word of God, you have to accept the Church which compiled it in the first place.

I believe that the Pope is the successor of Peter, and that in order to be fully a part of Christ’s Church, it is essential to be in communion with him, whether you like him personally or not.

I believe that Priests at the altar stand in persona Christi.

I believe that the Eucharist really is the Body and Blood of Christ. Unlike any of His parables, He never made any attempt to explain away what He had said about the need to eat his flesh and drink His blood, even when it meant that many of his followers left him.

In short, I no longer have a choice but to accept the Truth where I see it. It has been a long journey, but I am finally experiencing the joy of surrender.

Please pray for me tonight as I am received into the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church!

“Whose sins you shall forgive…”

With the best of intentions, I meant to keep a record of my RCIA experience. I wanted to be able to look back on it in times to come. And then life happened, and I’ve barely written a word. Never mind.

Anyway, suffice it to say I’m nearly there and on Saturday next week I’ll be officially joining the Catholic Church. I’m looking forward to that, but I’d also like to reflect on a few things which have happened over the past few months. The most recent being my First Confession.

Actually, there’s a convert in Canada who is going through exactly the same conversion process (although from Evangelical Christianity rather than Anglo-Catholicism) but who is a much better writer than me, annoyingly… If you’re at all interested in conversion you should be reading his blog, and he has written a wonderful piece on the Sacrament of Confession: ‘How First Confession Blew My Mind’:

If I were in charge of marketing the Catholic Church—and I might take a run at the job if it opens up—I would put the Sacrament of Reconciliation on the top of the list of things to “sell.” I’d put up billboards across the country touting the amazing power of forgiveness that exists in the Catholic Church’s practice of confession. A remarkable power—and power remarkably different from anything I’ve ever experienced as a Protestant.

I’d advertise confession as a gift.

Because I’m convinced that the sacrament is the most under-valued gift. One of the greatest hidden treasures of the Catholic Church. And something that’s completely blown my mind and convinced me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is how God intended Christ’s sacrifice to have worked.

To actually be able to hear that I’m forgiven, to know that I’m truly reconciled with God—that our relationship is repaired—is absolutely mind-blowing.

I’m not, and never have been, an Evangelical Protestant. But I do know people who are, and I know that one of the appeals of the Evangelical churches is that people who join them often feel as if they’ve been born again, made new, all the mistakes of their old life wiped out. It’s a powerful appeal, because forgiveness is something almost everyone is searching for.

And the thing is, the Catholic Church turns forgiveness into a real and tangible thing, a glorious Sacrament which is exactly as Our Lord intended.

Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. John 20:23

As an Anglican, I wanted my sins to be forgiven. I said sorry to God in my prayers. But still I didn’t feel forgiven. The sins I had committed in my life still lay like a weight on my shoulders, and no amount of prayer could make me feel truly free.

Fast forward a few years, and I am preparing to make my First Confession in the run up to Easter. I’ve reflected, I’ve written a list which takes up most of an A4 sheet of paper, and I’ve found the right places in the Missal so I’ll know what to say when I get in there. When I enter the Confessional my hands are shaking and I am so nervous I have to clear my voice many times before I can start.

I can see why some Catholics stay away from the Confessional. You open up all of the old wounds you inflicted on yourself in the past. You say things you have been embarrassed about for years. You tell the Priest things you’d never dream of telling to another person. It’s not an easy thing to do. People who don’t like the Catholic Church often paint Confession as a horrible thing – a way for Priests to have power over their congregations, making you confess all the sordid details of your life to them so you are humiliated and they know all your dirty little secrets. But in reality it’s something quite different.

I can honestly say, without any exaggeration, that when I heard the Priest say the words of absolution I felt almost literally as if a weight had been lifted. I knew with absolute certainty that the burden of sin I had carried with me for years had been taken away. In the Confessional I was crying, but when I walked out I had the biggest smile on my face. The grace of this Sacrament is incredible, and suddenly it all made sense to me.

So here are a few pieces of advice for anyone else making their First Confession. Most of them are common sense, but it bears repeating I think!

1. Take plenty of time to reflect a few days beforehand. It’s not easy to remember all your serious sins if you were baptised as a child and have never been to Confession, but you do have to do your best to remember as many as possible. On the day if you’re anything like me you will be so nervous that it’s hard to reflect on anything with any clarity.

2. I know some people say you shouldn’t write down your confession, but at least for this first time I found it very useful to have a list. For a start, I was so nervous when I walked into the Confessional that I wouldn’t have remembered most of the things I wanted to confess; and for another thing it took some of the emotion out of the process as I could simply read what I had written down. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel it; but it made me calmer. This comes with a huge caveat, however; make sure that nobody – nobody – has access to that piece of paper other than you, and that you tear it up and throw it away immediately afterwards. What you have confessed is, and should remain, private.

3. Take some tissues.

4. Further to point 3, don’t be embarrassed if you start crying. I’m sure the Priest regularly deals with people having a massive emotional breakdown in the Confessional. If you do start to cry, just keep going with your confession and I promise that you will feel better once it’s over.

5. This is a personal preference, but I would recommend using a Confessional if you possibly can. I know that a lot of Priests now encourage you to sit or kneel next to them, but it really helped me to have that distance, and not to be able to see the Priest’s face fully (although of course I knew who he was!). I was able to concentrate on the fact that I was confessing to God, and the personality of the Priest wasn’t important. It shouldn’t be a cosy chat and for me the act of kneeling, the Priest being behind a grille, all helped with this.

6. A useful piece of advice I was given before my confession was not to elaborate too much. Just list your sins in number and in kind. If there are any circumstances which are particularly relevant mention them. For example, if you stole money it might help to give the amount and when you did it, and possibly even why (because stealing £1 from your sister’s money box because you didn’t have enough to buy her a birthday present is a less serious sin than stealing £50 from your work because you wanted a new pair of shoes). Likewise, confessing the number of times or frequency with which you’ve commited a particular sin isn’t just a weird custom, it helps the Priest to know whether it’s a habitual sin or a once-off, which is again going to alter the seriousness of that sin and its effects. But beyond that, you don’t need to go into detail. Keep it as simple as possible and move on rather than wallowing in the badness of it all.

7. On the other hand, you do need to be specific. Saying ‘I’ve sinned against X commandment’ is not enough. Don’t bother with euphemisms for things you’re ashamed of – it’s quicker just to say the words and get it over with! An ex-Anglican Priest also pointed out to me that some churches have the 10 Commandments in a slightly different order so do make sure that if you mention a Commandment you’ve got it the Catholic way round – you don’t want to find yourself inadvertantly confessing to murder!

8. When you have finished you say an Act of Contrition, which at least in my Missal contains the words, ‘And with the help of your grace, I will not sin again.’ We discussed this in depth in RCIA. It’s a big promise. You don’t promise to try, you promise to do it. You have to walk out of that Church determined not to sin again. Of course, human nature being what is is, you will be back with a new list of sins in the not-too-distant future, and in all likelihood they’ll be the same sins that you confessed last time because they are your besetting sins and human nature is like that. But you have to make a firm intention that you will change your life.

9. Further to that thought though, don’t be too cast down when you almost immediately start committing sins again. Having left the Confessional bouyed up by an immense feeling of grace, I can see how some people end up going back every single day. Confession could so easily become addictive! But that’s not really the point of it. Go regularly, but don’t become over-scrupulous. Remember that venial sins can be confessed privately to God at the end of each day, at the start of Mass during the Confiteor, and really at any time.

10. One final thing – don’t worry that the Priest will judge you. All the Priests I’ve ever spoken to about Confession say that they don’t remember people’s sins afterwards, and having been through it I can well believe that’s true. For a start, they hear so many confessions, and I’m sure most of them are almost carbon copies, because there’s a limited number of sins in the world! The overwhelming likelihood is that the Priest will be very nice to you, because you are doing one of the hardest things and turning back to God. And when the Priest pronounces those words of absolution, no matter how hard it has been to walk into that Confessional, it will all become worth it when you walk out, forgiven and freed from your sins.

Adoration, Evangelisation and Night Fever…

On Saturday I was fortunate enough to attend the School of the Annunciation’s Guild Day at St Patrick’s Soho Square: ‘Go Forth, Friends of Christ: The Joy of the Gospel and the Missionary Option’. This was a full day conference exploring the New Evangelisation and how we might be able to respond to Pope Francis’ call in Evangelii Gaudium to be a Missionary Church. I’m sure other people will talk in detail about the topics discussed in the conference, but I wanted to note down (in a rather rambling way!) my impressions of the day as a whole.

Firstly, this was the first Catholic ‘event’ I’ve been to and it was wonderful to attend. Apart from my husband I only know a few practising Catholics – the majority of my close friends aren’t religious at all so certain topics are off limits, as I know they would think me mad! I am excited to be becoming a Catholic and am enjoying RCIA but at times it can feel like a bit of a lonely journey. Yesterday was something of an antidote to that feeling – it was reassuring to see so many committed Catholics who are passionate about their faith. I had the chance to catch up with some people I already know and to meet a few new people as well which was lovely.

Secondly, the talks were very interesting and the whole day felt positive and full of ideas for evangelisation. Personally I loved Caroline Farey’s talk on sacred art – she talked us through various altarpieces depicting the Annunciation, and uncovered layer upon layer of symbolism from Old and New Testaments which up till now I had been totally unaware of. I would love to know more about this and will certainly be studying liturgical art a lot more closely to spot the symbols and references! What a wonderful teaching tool this could be if more people understood these layers of meaning and passed on their knowledge, as they would have done in the past.

In the afternoon we had two talks on the New Evangelisation in the context of the Parish. Bishop Philip Egan from the Diocese of Portsmouth told us about the work his Diocese is doing to reach out and evangelise, and his ideas for how parishes can be restructured to make use of everyone’s talents and become truly missionary, reaching out not only to committed Catholics but to non-practising Catholics and non-Catholics as well. Finally, Father Alexander Sherbrooke from St Patrick’s gave a fascinating talk on the way in which his parish has tackled the call to evangelise. He used the Mysteries of Light as a template for the ways in which we should reach out. I particularly loved his point that Eucharistic Adoration must be at the heart of everything that we do – before making any decisions we must first adore Christ, and let ourselves be guided by Him. I hope I’m not paraphrasing too inaccurately as I didn’t make any notes!

This point about Eucharistic Adoration was brought home to me particularly strongly yesterday, as it is the first time I have actually taken part in it myself. We had two opportunities during the day – firstly before the Mass (celebrated by Bishop Egan) which took place halfway through the day, and secondly after the event finished, during Nightfever in the evening. I can’t quite describe the feeling of taking part in Eucharistic Adoration for the first time – I can only say that now I need to make more space in my life to spend time in front of the Blessed Sacrament! It was one of the most peaceful times I have spent and it is wonderful to be able to lay one’s hopes and fears before Christ and simply to be, quietly, in His presence. To be there with a hundred other people all focussed on Adoration was an incredible feeling. And where better than St Patrick’s, which is a truly stunning Church with a beautiful Sanctuary.

And finally to Nightfever. I was in the Church for an hour or so while it was going on in the evening. When I was first told about this I was sceptical. Going out into the streets with lanterns and inviting people into Church to light a candle? In Soho? On a Saturday evening? But in the event I was amazed at the number of people who came into the Church. Some stayed for only a few minutes and lit a candle, some took a seat and stayed for longer. It was a beautiful, peaceful time and if this is someone’s only encounter with the spiritual this day, week or maybe even year, it will no doubt stay with them.

I have rambled on for a while; but there was a lot to take in and think about! True to the title of the event, it felt like a day filled with joy. Here’s hoping for many more.

Coming home

In the end, the decision was easier than I thought. It happened during the Easter Vigil. I don’t know exactly how to describe it: a gentle nudge; a subtle shift in perspective so that my thoughts, previously clouded and confused, became clear; a sudden longing to be part of it – really  part of it, not just standing outside looking in.

Actually, I know I made up my mind a long time ago. It’s been a long while since I seriously considered any future for myself outside the Catholic Church. But in the end I needed that gentle nudge to push me over the threshold.

During that Vigil, the first Catholic Vigil I have attended, I followed the Light of Christ in its triumphant procession up the nave. I saw it spread gradually and surely throughout the Church, illuminating a hundred lesser lights, touching on the austere beauty of the Crucifix and the dazzling bridal flowers on the altar. I kneeled with a hundred other people in reverence at the supreme moment of the Consecration, and felt the blazing joy of the Easter renewal. And, with a mixture of joy and pain, I watched those people who had made the same decision before me, being received and confirmed in their faith.

At the end, the Priest spoke briefly about the baptisms and confirmations which had taken place that evening. God calls people in His own time, he said. It echoed something another Priest said to me when I was a teenager and told him that I was thinking of converting but just wasn’t sure. God has all the time in the world, he said to me. He will wait.

As I left the Church, I made a vow. God may have all the time in the world, but I don’t. For a long time I have been standing on the threshold looking in, but the door is open, and the light is shining outwards, and there is no reason to wait any longer.

It’s time to come home.