Lies! No one likes being lied to — except if it is to confirm one’s own chosen self-deception.

Convert John Bergsma describes how his journey to Catholicism was through an emotional reckoning he had one hot summer day while passing a Catholic Church in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. He had a sudden urge to go to confession. The problem was he was not Catholic. In fact, he was the Methodist pastor of a congregation a few blocks away!

In his Bible group he had been wrestling with the scriptural command to “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16). How was it possible for him to do this? If he went to an Elder, some official to certify his forgiveness, he feared revealing his sins might cost him his pastorate. If he went to someone else, how could confidence be assured? People do talk about their pastors. He had been in groups where some discussed their sins, and often comforted one another, but could not count on good spiritual counsel. So often, the shared “advice” was more like, “Oh, don’t worry, I do that, too.” Hardly a sure path to virtue.

What struck him that afternoon, more strongly even than his urge to confess, was that what he yearned for the Catholic Church already had: an ordained priest authorized to absolve (assurance of forgiveness), who has bound by the seal of confession (confidentiality), and the hope of getting better spiritual direction than a platitude like “Hey, it’s okay, we all do it” (good counsel).

Key to Bergsma’s conversion is how Jesus reached him through his own inward search for truth. He began to realize he was depriving himself of what he yearned for inwardly, heart and soul, to be faithful both to Scripture and to his conscience. His co-religionists were not helping him find the truth. Or, rather, he was using them to reinforce his own evasion. You can find his inspiring story in his own words on his website (www.johnbergsma.com).
In his case, it was the attraction of a sacrament that fed his human, spiritual and intellectual hungers that started to draw him in: the sense or sensibility of the Catholic faith. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Peter’s words to Jesus speak for many who have been lost or wandering, until they find a home among his disciples.

I know a woman who left the Church because she did not feel a sense of welcome in her local community. Her story is not uncommon. Many people find a certain contradiction between the joy of the Gospel message, that certainly attracted so many non-believers to the first Christians, and the apparent absence of that joy in some churches. I have heard that a lack of reverence is also an issue, where the people, even the celebrant — perhaps more so — treat the sacred mysteries too casually. Or else, the homilist seems more focused on himself, his politics, hobbies or vacation, than Jesus. The lady I speak of was invited by some friends — not a common practice among Catholics! — to come to their Brooklyn Tabernacle. The singing and enthusiasm were outstanding. She was instantly sold.

Who wouldn’t be, if you find people who really enjoy their faith community, invite your presence and express their faith so openly? Like many Catholics who find some solace from the bleakness or apparent irreverence of some Catholic liturgies, this was okay for about five years, the average time it takes to realize that something is missing. In her case, the absence of the real Eucharistic presence is what drew her back. She felt the emptiness in her soul, despite the glorious acoustics and stirring sermons, though no one ever preached about John 6: Jesus as the Bread of Life. She began to understand why and felt she was not hearing and receiving the whole truth that her heart longed for. It only made sense to return.

Ironically, Christ Tabernacle, an affiliate of Brooklyn Tabernacle, had a very well-attended congregation in the Queens neighborhood where I served as pastor for some 10 years. I used to call it sometimes “the largest Catholic Church in Ridgewood” because many of our parishioners at St. Matthias were drawn to their services. They were good people who did wonderful things with youth on weekends and were as generous to the kids as Santa Claus on Christmas morning. We tried to maintain good relations with them and other non-Catholic congregations in the neighborhood.

St. Matthias, however, always had social outreach ministries second to none. Sometimes it seemed we were feeding the neighborhood. We were the go-to place for those facing evictions, who couldn’t meet their copay on prescriptions or needed help with immigration papers. We never asked what their faith was the first time anyone came to us and, if they returned, only invited them to share their story. It didn’t matter what their faith was. We wanted to help not because they were Catholic, but because we were Catholic. It’s what we do.

People often complain, whether they are regular churchgoers or not, that all the Church talks about is money. It’s true, we did ask for generous offerings, partly to pay for heat and utilities, to pay salaries, benefits and insurance of staff and premises, but most of our expenses were to assist others, to fulfill our mission. How else could we expect parishioners to know this unless we talked about it? Well, there are smart ways and not so sensible ways to do this and good parish leadership finds ways though it takes some planning and a commitment to transparency. People are entitled to the truth and may not immediately believe that parishes have auditors and bishops cannot siphon off collections to pay for settlements and lawsuits. This is why it makes sense to have active trustees, finance councils and competent lay professionals who collaborate with pastors and bring their skills to the table. It only makes sense to follow best practices. Although the Church is not in business for business, its standards of accountability should never be lower than those of a good business.

Beyond personal experiences which I have cited in this writing and some of the practical matters that make good sense of the soundness of our faith, there are even more fundamental reasons why our Catholic faith makes sense which I will explore next week. For one thing, most important, our faith addresses the most basic questions about our humanity and our personal identity: who we are, why we are here, where we are going. This is because the reason Jesus came was not such to save the soul, but the whole person, body and soul. Every aspect of what it means to be human, our identity, our sexuality, our relationships — with other persons, our wealth and the whole environment — is the focus of the human salvation our faith brings. Stay tuned.

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