Sunday, September 1, 2013
This is not Scott Hahn's conversion story
Not a few Protestant converts followed in his footsteps. Not all ended up in sprawling Tudors on the riverfront with the ears of bishops and cardinals within reach. But they taught in Catholic schools and universities, they were hired by Catholic publishers and ministries, they were placed in positions of service and pastoral care within the diocesan or parish level, or they were able to start their own apostolates (that's ministry to our Protestant brethren).
And yet, today, that seems to be less and less the case. I just was put in touch with a fellow who, like me, entered the Catholic church recently. His plight? Unemployment, financial ruin, struggling to get by. He's the first convert I've met in some time who has come into the Church within the last decade. I had worked with a Catholic apostolate that supposedly specialized in helping Protestant Clergy converts. Even then, I could get a whiff of change in the air, and I noticed it seemed as though some 'fluffy math' was being employed to keep the image of a herd of converts assailing the doors of the Vatican fresh in everyone's mind. Fact is, I noticed that the numbers weren't going up. If anything, they appeared to be going down. And that was before the economy tanked in 2008.
So what's happening? Are fewer converts coming into the Church at this time? I don't know. I don't have the resources, money, or time to investigate. I do know that it's harder finding cases and testimonies of those who have recently converted than, say, eight or nine years ago when I first came to the Internet to see about this Catholic stuff. Oh I'm sure out of hundreds of millions, there are some who come in even now, somewhere in the country or the world. And maybe it's because there are just more websites, blogs and resources out there that it's tough zeroing in on them. But when I came through RCIA, without being part of any apostolate or ministry, I already met or knew or heard of several who had just come in or were, in fact, on the path toward converting.
Now, visiting blogs, having my own, knowing many Catholics who have their ears on, and this is the first fellow I've met in years who has recently converted? And his life in in shambles. So why the difference? Here are a few ideas I've kicked about.
First, Scott Hahn and company converted in the 1980s and 1990s, when many converts I know who have ministry positions, academic positions, and national recognition came into the Church. What was going on then? Well first, Pope John Paul II, that's what. The Billy Graham of the papacy. Mr. Catholic Evangelist to the separated brethren. The man who took the term 'the New Evangelization' and made it his. Reaching out to all non-Catholics, former Catholics, and non-Catholic Christians was on top of his list, and hence it was on the mind of the Church universal.
Second, it was still that moment when people like the aforementioned Pope John Paul II were trying to peddle back against some of the excesses of Vatican II, even though many of those ideals were still popular. Changing the Church, embracing modernity, women priests and married priests were seen as almost foregone conclusions by not a few Catholics. Even when I came into the Church in 2006, many I met immediately asked if I was going to be a priest. After all, they've got married priests already, and it will be allowed soon. Or so I was told.
Third, it was the 1980s and 1990s. Yes the Christian roots of society had long been shed. But Christianity was, even then, not as flagrantly maligned in the popular culture. Being a priest or minister still had some notion of 'that must mean he's a good guy, or a least a righteous prude.' Plus it was a period of abundance. The economy was booming. Money was flowing. Credit was flowing more. Everyone seemed ready to purchase that McMansion they had wanted since the previous year when they graduated high school.
Fourth, EWTN. That broadcasting network was in many ways the love child of Mother Angelica, a feisty nun who hosted her own show, embraced evangelism with a zeal that would shame a fundamentalist Baptist, and wasn't afraid to call a spade a spade when it came to discipleship. EWTN soared, its ratings soared, and Mother Angelica loved this whole idea of Protestant clergy converting to Catholicism.
So what happened? Well first, the Spirit of Vatican II began to be restructured. Though many assumed married priests were a forgone conclusion, by the early 00s, it was clear that it wouldn't happen any time soon. When Benedict became Pope, he made it clear early that there would be no women priests, and no married priests. Though he reached out to the Anglican Communion, on the whole he seemed to have little to no real interest in reaching out to the 'Separated Brethren', at least as a top priority. His interests were in other areas. The idea that it was time to put the kibosh on married clergy sent a not-too-subtle message across the Church. Those seeing Protestant clergy as support for the married cause had to realize that their efforts would not be realized any time soon.
Plus, because Pope Benedict was less evangelistic, if not less charismatic, the outreach just wasn't there. As goes the Pope, so goes the Church. Like it or not, Popes make an impression on the Catholic mindset. As evangelism became more of a parlor discussion than an urgent wave of immediate priorities, it turned to individual ministries and individuals to keep the flames burning. And that has far less of an impact on the Catholic Church than the passion of a serving Pope.
Not to mention that, at that very same time, Mother Angelica began to fade. Simply because of age, she was no longer the default leader of EWTN she had been, but became more or less the default leader emeritus. It was her love of stories like Scot Hahn's or Marcus Grodi's that caused her to step in and do her own version of William Randolf Hearst's 'Puff Graham' to the clergy convert cause. If there was still residue of her zeal in the form of shows or stories when I came into the Church, it lacked her personal touch, a touch that made an impression on her millions of adoring followers back in the day.
Plus it was the 00s. Two big things had happened culturally. First, 9/11 had allowed radical and zealous atheists to emerge and drive anti-religious bigotry into the mainstream. Within a few years, being too religious was seen as suspicious at best. A person ready to leave it all for a religious cause may have been something in 1990, but by 2002 not a few folks had to raise a cautious eyebrow. Not to mention that many young people, weaned in a society fomenting endless days of anti-religious doctrine, grew up at best with no religious knowledge, at worst having a built in suspicion of those religious types. Try getting a job from a young HR rep who doesn't know what the term Congregation means when you're a former clergy.
Plus, the priest abuse scandal. Not only did it encourage people to trounce the Church, but it appears to have caused a certain latching of the doors within the ordained ranks of clergy itself. Really. I was told by a priest not to go door to door. I suggested if I went about and introduced myself it might open some opportunities. Not now!, he said. If you just show up or send letters, they'll think someone sent you. Heaven forbid go to the bishop. How many testimonies from converts of old told me that they were advised to speak to the bishop, or go to meet this or that priest. I was told don't do it! Times change.
And of course, our bishop and the diocese in general is not the diocese or bishop of the 1980s. Neither seems to care much about the Protestant Clergy conversion phenomenon. In fact - and I hesitate to say this because it was told me in meetings with priests, but since it impacts me, I'll say it - I was told by no less than three priest to more or less forget serving in a ministry or even diocesan capacity in our area. One even said that a blank resume with no writing on it would get me farther now than a resume with any experience at all that included the term 'former Protestant clergy.' Clearly, for reasons more complex than new Popes and changing times, there is a different atmosphere.
In my time with the apostolate, I noticed that conversation was taking place more and more. There were still dioceses that opened their arms to clergy converts, but I remember not a few conversations at lunch in which the president of the apostolate lamented yet one more bishop here or diocese there that seemed to be closing doors to any more clergy. Ours, unfortunately, being one of them. Again, as go the leaders, so goes the Church.
If all that wasn't enough, and by golly it ought to be, we had the economy tank. Many converts I met and talked to who came into the Church in the 80s or even 90s, spoke of getting positions in parishes or the local diocese, in this apostolate or that mission. Why? Well, they were easy to get. The pay wasn't good (back then). People didn't stay in those positions long. There were usually plenty of job openings and turnaround a bishop could utilize for a convert looking for employment and a ministry. Just like getting jobs in the secular world as a bi-vocational pastor was easier then, so it was easy to find jobs in church settings, since availability was not an issue.
Today, with unemployment at least 7.6% (some argue much higher), even a low paying job or position is worth its weight in gold. Those jobs just aren't moving. In our diocese, except for a few custodial or part time positions, there haven't been that many openings over years (and yes, I applied, see changing attitudes above). People aren't leaving. There just isn't the open door policy or availability there once was.
So what's all this about? Well, nothing really. Just when I was told about this fellow convert whose life is unraveling in a way similar to ours, it got me to thinking. Truth be told, when I came into the Church, I discovered that the proverbial 'pastor loses everything to become Catholic' didn't happen all that often. Most weren't pastors in the true sense of the word. Most didn't get their income only from being in ministry. Most didn't lose much outside of family troubles and personal losses of friends and colleagues. Scott Hahn was an exception, not the rule. Yet even then, most when they came in found a much more open, willing, and excited environment in which to settle and start life anew.
In fact, in the early years of my conversion, I only met one fellow whose life unraveled after becoming Catholic, and based on his story, it had more to do with problems in his family and a failed marriage than becoming Catholic. I have a feeling his life was going to unravel either way. Most converts from the early decades seemed to have discovered a quick path into the faith, and often found parishes or dioceses that took the initiative, stepped in and got them back on track. Or many more simply weren't full time vocational ministers in the first place, and therefore didn't really need to change as much as make a few alterations.
So the full time vocational minister has been a rare thing. Statistically, about fifteen years ago, more Evangelical ministers were entering the Orthodox traditions than Catholicism, at least proportionately. The reasons should be obvious. But even when they became Catholic, it appears times were different. Now, changes have taken place. Those changes I mention may or may not be local, or because of reasons I tossed out. I might not be altogether right, but I don't think I'm entirely wrong. In any event, whatever the reasons, things have changed. Personally, because of that, I think there needs to be some front desk for Protestant clergy that will explain this and be honest. Not to dissuade clergy converts, but to make them aware of what to expect. After all, this is not Scott Hahn's conversion generation.