First of all, what is the appeal of Catholicism? People have joined the Church from Day One, which was Pentecost, 33 A. D., when some 3,000 or so souls were baptized. In the few decades since Pentecost, until the last of the Biblical writers, the Apostle John, put down his pen for the last time towards the end of the First Century, the Church had managed to grow from the mere 120 disciples (including St. Peter and 10 other original Apostles) in the upper room who saw the tongues of fire, to many tens of thousands of individual believers scattered throughout much of the known civilized world, and (more or less) growth ever since then. Why did they join up?
Jesus Christ came back from the dead (and had raised a few others during His Own time here), and also taught that we too can rise up from death (with His help of course). As we all know we are going to die, this has to mean a lot. Saving one's own soul has to lie at the heart of what it is that attracts believers to the Church, and keeps them here despite personality clashes that have taken place from that of Paul versus Barnabas in the Bible clear to Dolan versus Kelly today. We have been reborn into Christ, to be part of His Mystical Body. We have not merely joined a club or been initiated into some secret mysteries or attained some winner's circle. We have been incorporated into a living Whole which is Divine and shares with us His Divine life.
Having been so blessed, how is it that any of us fail to live as if that life truly lives in us? Yet from the beginning we have, even with mortal sins, to say nothing of our even more numerous venial sins. Obviously it is not the people who attract others to the Church, (except for the great saints). Yet despite it all we have something, something that appeals to the image of God we are created in, the nobler side of Man seeking to better himself morally.
Christians lived up to a far higher moral standard than those around them in the ancient times, and later, and reactions have either been one of a kind of contempt based on envy at our good example which proves to be such a reproof to their lax way of life, or else a realization that here with us is the one bastion of the truest and noblest mode of human life, as that we were ever meant to be.
Our standard of right and wrong stands head and shoulders above every other "standard" ever put forth, itself and evident reproof to every other standard which permits sin in one form or another. Ours is the moral standard which has no blind spots, makes no compromise with sin, and which demonstrates a higher existence from a higher source. Christ rules not from the world but in it, over it.
Just recently, a Lutheran pastor and many of his congregation in Sweden (a Lutheran nation if there ever was one) just left the Lutheran church and decided to become Catholics. Why did they do this? They had been born and raised Lutherans all their lives, and not that long ago would have laughed off the prospect of deciding to become Catholics. But, what was happening in the Lutheran church in Sweden (and other places) is their total acquiescence to a falling worldly moral standard, when homosexual and lesbian clergy can "bless" like-minded members of their congregations and see nothing wrong with that, when morals had gotten so lax that the kids fornicate and get pregnant and have abortions right and left with total wild abandon and see no inconsistency in even so calling themselves "Christians," it all just had to be enough.
So, let's tally up what we have so far: 1) Becoming Catholic is the way to save our soul, 2) Catholicism can boast a moral standard superior to any other standard ever put forth, 3) the Catholic moral standard, being perfect, need not and never does change. And there are additional attractions for those not as yet with us.
When we get to the really serious parts of our lives, we want something to do to match it. A frivolous wedding ceremony comes across as a joke that it is and indicates no real commitment between the man and woman. When a woman wants to get married, she wants it to be as grandiose and serious as possible, to make it as "official" as possible. This stems from a wise instinct that a woman knows that to be married to a man who does not take his vows seriously can be a life-damaging and tragic event. Hence the instinctive desire for a big fancy church wedding with all the frills and white and flowers and rice and serious music and reverence and so forth. And who better to provide all that than the Church?
Someone dies and again we are reminded of our own mortality. For that reason funerals are somber affairs anyway, to say nothing of the tears of knowing that their dear departed beloved will not be seen in this life again (and who can be certain of the future, whether we will be in a position to visit with them again or not?) Again, you want it done with the greatest solemnity and seriousness, for death is a very serious thing. And who knows best how to be truly and fully serious at such a time but the Church. And what could be more serious than the Church with its teaching of no reincarnation, no second chances after death, no divorce, and no remarriage to anyone else?
A baby is born and it is a cause for joy, and again we want everyone to celebrate and share in our joy as the baby is baptized, and so things go for all the sacraments. In the sacraments we seek Something We Did Not Invent, which comes from and ties us to the God We Did Not Invent. Religion is useless if it does not connect us to something, Someone, Who is greater than ourselves, greater than the sum total of all humanity, for we can never truly believe in the gods we ourselves invented, nor would we dream of turning to such in our hour of need.
So, people are attracted to the mystery of it all, the awesomeness of coming before the throne of God, an awesomeness only hinted at by all the incense, bells, silence, and Divine Mystery of the Eucharist adored and mystically partaken of in the Holy Mass. Each of us have our own reasons why the Faith and Church appealed to us, such that we should join it (if not already born to it, and even then, why we should choose to stay in it once we are of age).
For my own case, it was 1) the scripturalness of the Eucharist, that Jesus said of the bread He held in His hands, "This is My body," not "This means my body" or any of a zillion similar Protestant variants used to explain it away, 2) the pure and sinless appeal of our Lady, 3) the high moral standards about marriage and family life that even Protestants had forsaken, 4) the sense (however vague in my Protestant/initial converting to "Catholicism" which was really Novus Ordo) that there should be more to what we Christians do when gathered together on a regular basis than merely singing songs and hearing a sermon, 5) the desire to be on something solid, theologically instead of being cast about on "every wind of doctrine," and 6) a seeking for some sort of "universal church" which would faithfully represent what Christ really came to found instead of the multitudinous sects and isms and groups and so forth that dominate the Protestant scene.
In my Protestant days, I recall the various confusions and problems that they argued over. We Catholics think WE have questions about our Faith, ours are practically on the level of arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin in comparison to their profound disagreements about fundamental doctrines and moral questions. These are the kinds of things you get different answers for, depending on which Protestant you talk to:
1) Are miraculous healings, tongues, interpretation of tongues, apparitions and angelic visitations, exorcisms, and so forth meant for our day, or were they for the First Century only?
- 2) Is masturbation sinful? (and it doesn't even occur to them to ask if contraception is sinful, or remarriage to another after divorce, as they have already decided - by and large - that these things are perfectly fine)
- 3) Should worship be structured and "liturgical" or free-form and spontaneous, or does it even matter (what ought Christians to do when they gather in church to worship, how ought it to be conducted)?
- 4) Can you lose your "salvation"?
- 5) If you do sin after "being saved" what should/can/ought you do, if anything?
- 6) Can Catholics be saved?
- 7) Is stopping abortion more or less important than helping the homeless?
- 8) Can women be ministers/pastors?
- 9) Can/ought open and public practicing homosexuals be ministers/pastors?
- 10) Should Christians in political office be guided by Gospel principles in the running of their office, or keep Church and State utterly separate?
Even back in my Protestant days I sensed a need for some sort of "universal church" that would get back to the authentic Gospel beginnings, no matter how little it looked like "churches" (as I knew them then). I was increasingly becoming conscious of the difference between churches as I saw them then and how church is described in the Bible (and also getting acquainted with the earliest of the Church Fathers). On a slightly separate but related tack, I also felt the need for an Arbiter. Such massive confusions as illustrated above (which all Protestants live with no matter how satisfied they may be with how their own denomination or preacher handle them) may be something others seem content to live with, but I was not. How can Christ have one single cohesive message to the world without some more unity on these questions, or at least a more explicit declaration on which of these might really be "up to us"?
Funny thing was, even as I thought those things it never occurred to me that there was already help in them from the other end. In the midst of thinking such things as "wouldn't it be great if only there were some sort of 'universal church'" or "if only there were some sort of Arbiter to decide definitively about these difficult questions," I could not have imagined God having any possible response to either of them other than "what a great idea; why didn't I think of that!" That there could actually be a Church, founded apostolically, and still existing today, that fulfills these needs, who could have expected?
Without a doubt, many Protestants still live in that same underestimation of God as did I. Can no one but me have hungered for the authentic beginnings (apostolicity), formal and universally accepted resolution of all questions (catholicity), and gatherings which reflected more than what mere man can concoct? If only more Protestants would realize that God, being far wiser than any of us imagine, would have already provided these things. So this too is a real attraction of the Church.
Might there be other reasons people decide to become Catholics? Perhaps as many as there are people who do so. But having made that determination to join the Church, what does one do next? Throughout most of history, persons deciding to become Catholic could just go find a Church and approach the priest to be received into the Church, end of story (or beginning of story, a story of a life in Christ). As we know, things are not so today, and there have been such times in times past as well.
Think of Emperor Constantine, having seen the sign of the Cross in the heavens with the Divine message, "In this Sign you shall conquer" and having done so. Surely few had as dramatic reason to become a Christian as he. And thus occurred the Edict of Milan in 312. But having done that, what a vast and confusing array of options lay before him! Already there had formed all manner of Judaizers, Gnostics, Marcionites, Phibionites, Manicheans, and of course that largest of all groups back then, the Arians. And oh yes, also among them all was also this tiny little group of Trinitarians, currently championed by some bishop named Athanasius (the pope in that era was too busy being tortured in confinement to do or say much of anything one way or the other). Surely the Emperor had to wonder, "Will the real Christianity just please stand up?" No wonder it took until nearly the end of his life before he finally decided to become a Christian and be baptized!
And no wonder Emperor Constantine had been one of the main instigators of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea! Who wants to have to go to one bishop, learn a lot, only to have to unlearn it when consulting the next bishop, and then again the next and so on? Give me a Truth I don't have to unlearn! Nice thing about being an emperor, one really has the power to gather them all and force them to sort out their questions in an honest forum.
The Council of Nicea was that honest forum. And in that honest forum the tiny minority opinion of St. Athanasius won out, hands down. Athanasius vowed to take on the whole world of false alternatives (Arianism especially), and defeated it all in that Council. And also was then produced the Creed which gave the Emperor something he could come away with, a Truth he could know with absolute confidence that he would never have to unlearn.
Today, there are no such emperors, but a lot of us would love to do the same thing, were it only possible. Let the real experts today get together are argue out all the details in an honest forum, and not be allowed to emerge until all have agreed to a single solution. Back then they had to solve such big questions as whether Jesus is God or not. Today's questions are far smaller than that. What happened to the Church? What happened to the papacy? Do we even really have a true pope now? How ought Catholic bishops, priests, and laymen respond to the present situation? What exactly IS the present situation? Those questions only loom large today because authentic Catholics cannot agree as to what the answers to them are.
Until such time as Providence arranges such a gathering in an honest forum, see what difficulty confronts us today. We want to bring people to the Church. Yet today, where precisely is that Church? Who does and does not belong to it? Amazingly, the doctrinal, moral, liturgical, and spiritual unity She still possesses has not yet re-manifested in a unity of fellowship and governance. Approach any traditional bishop or his attached priests, religious, and lay catechists with the above 10 questions for Protestants (or any other standard question of Catholic teaching) and you get the exact same answers, in practically the same words. If they could say Mass together blindfolded it would all fit together perfectly.
Nevertheless note what the above-mentioned Lutheran Pastor and his congregation decided to do: They, deciding to become Catholics, approached the SSPX who will accept them into the Church themselves. Well, it's about time the SSPX recognize its right and duty to convert the world and receive congregations into itself directly as they are as much a part of the Church as any parish would have been in bygone days. But it is so important and worthwhile to see why these ex-Lutherans have decided to join the traditional Catholics specifically instead of the Novus Ordo. As ex-Lutheran Pastor Sten Sandmark put it, he didn't want to "leave Lutheranism" only to "find it back on the other side of the river." And this is not the only visible case. In another, an east Orthodox bishop desired to repent his schism and heresy and return to the Roman Church. Like Pastor Sandmark he approached the SSPX. But in those days the SSPX felt unequal to the task of receiving him back into the Church so they pointed him to the Vatican, which in turn merely discouraged his conversion saying "We need such friendly clerics on that side of the East orthodox schism with which to pull our ecumenical publicity stunts with, so don't convert." In the end he had nowhere to turn but to a sedevacantist bishop for his abjuration of error and schism, and so turned to Bishop Mark Pivarunas. Of course such examples can only be multiplied as more and more see the truth of where the Catholic Church really is We have not all been on our best behavior and yet see how we are increasingly being recognized for what we truly are.
"Let the law of prayer determine the law of belief" has its glorious flip side as well. We traditional Catholics all worship the same way, ergo we all have the same belief. The only way you would ever find anyone saying or assisting at a Tridentine Mass without believing what the Church has always believed would be if for them it was only like attending a music concert or opera or ballet instead of serving as their means of adoring the one true God.
What a major ticket back to the mainstream it would indeed be if only the traditional Catholic bishops would only begin cooperating with grace and each other to provide to the world a Church to join! It wouldn't be just the same little chapels and parishes we have today, merely united as formally as they materially already are, but something far better. Even many of the conservative outlook would join us in a heartbeat if only we gave them some one single Church to join instead of being forced to choose between this or that group within the Church. Increasingly they are seeing that they have been let down by recent and current events at the Vatican. More and more are seeing that not even having the supposed "arch-conservative" Ratzinger/Benedict XVI at the helm of their group is changing anything for the better. With scarcely the briefest of hiccups, the damage continues unabated. What have we been giving them to come to, once they desire and seek the true Faith and Church that Jesus founded?