Friday, May 13, 2011

Mormon convert: Richard Sherlock

Why I Am Catholic:

Mormon Convert: Richard Sherlock

One should never leave the religion in which one was born or raised for anything but the most serious of reasons. Warm feelings, family, friends, a social ethos, should never be the reason for joining or leaving a religion. The fact that you do not like the priest, pastor or parishioners should never be a reason for staying or leaving. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have never been a person to "go with the flow" or seek popularity. I was a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War and I have a 1-0 draft card to prove it. I have been an absolute opponent of abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment my whole adult life. When I was a professor of moral theology at Fordham University in the mid-1980's I happily defended the view that artificial birth control is morally wrong. This was at a time when many, if not most, actually Catholic moral theologians wouldn't do so, or wouldn't do so strongly. I have not left religion or Christianity. But I have left Mormonism. I have become a deeper, more intellectual, more spiritual and truer Christian than I have ever been, literally. I am converting to the Roman Catholic Church. All true roads do lead to Rome.

Though I grew up in a "Mormon" household my family was not the typical Mormon family. My mother was a member who was semi-active. My father was not a member until late in life. Neither my brother nor I went on missions when Mormon boys are supposed to at 19. I did not think I could bear witness to Mormonism. I was not active in college and I had my doubts. My brother is now a Rabbi. That leaves only my sister in the Mormon fold.

In my journey to Catholicism I have in some ways been the last to know that this is where I truly belong. On the first weekend of October 2010 my brother closed off the side street in downtown Salt Lake where he lives and had a great Oktoberfest party. At the party I pulled my brother aside and said, "we need to talk." He was the first person I told of my decision to leave Mormonism and become a Catholic. He looked at me and said straightforwardly: "Rick, you haven't believed in Mormonism in decades." As we talked he said that he knew when I was a graduate student at Harvard in the 1970's that I was essentially a Catholic theologian. After all, I wrote my dissertation using the resources of Catholic moral theology.

When I showed up to Harvard in the fall of 1970 I roomed in Divinity Hall with a budding Catholic patristic scholar from Notre Dame, Michael Hollerich. We have been friends for 40 years. 20 plus years ago he was teaching at the University of Santa Clara. I was presenting a paper at a conference in San Francisco. My family and I went down together and stayed with one of my brothers in law who has a big house in the bay area. I went down for part of a day to see Mike. After we talked for quite a while and he showed me around his campus, he turned to me and in all seriousness said " Richard, from the way you talk and think, you should be a Catholic." Even then something inside of me knew he was right. But life intervened.

A third example is another old friend and also Harvard graduate who is senior vice-president for academic affairs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He is a devout Catholic. About 15 years ago we were at a small discussion conference I was running. The format allows for about 2 1/2 hours each afternoon for breaks, informal discussions, or walks. We went on a long walk together and talked animatedly. When I told him recently of my conversion he said that after our first long discussion he thought for sure that I was a conservative Catholic, until I told him I was not.

Finally, this last summer I was a speaker at a summer honors program for really talented undergraduates run by his organization. Two other faculty members, Jonathan Yonan from Eastern University and Paige Hochscheid from Mount Saint Mary's University became friends. Jonathan is an Oxford trained church historian and protestant. Paige is an Augustine scholar and like her husband a convert to Catholicism. Until I told them at the end of the week, they also both thought I was a conservative Catholic.

Enough of the "I am the last person to know" stories. What you want to know is "why."

Conversion must be a matter of both the head and the heart, both the intellect and the spirit. But it must be a whole reorientation of one's life, a whole that transcends just the sum of the parts. Two further points I must make. First, conversion in the Catholic faith is never a completed event. It is always a process. Even devout "cradle Catholics" are still on a journey to become closer to God. Second, conversion as an adult Catholic cannot be begun and completed in a short period of time. In Mormonism one can meet missionaries and be baptized in a few weeks. In my Catholic case I started attending weekly meetings of the adult conversion class in October, 2010. I hope to be a catechumen in June 2011 and I hope to be received into the Catholic church with baptism, confirmation and first communion at Easter 2012. I believe that this is superior. One should understand the Catholic communal, sacramental, liturgical, and theological life before making a true commitment.

Let me begin by telling you of 3 deeply moving experiences that brought my heart to where it is now, where it must be, and where it will always be.

In February 2010 I got a flyer for a conference In Rome at the end of May devoted to the work of the great Catholic phenomenologist (and convert) Dietrich von Hildebrand, especially his seminal work The Nature of Love. Since I had just finished working through the Christian love literature in Catholic and protestant forms I decided that if my university travel budget would pay at least part of my trip to Rome I should have a paper accepted so that I could see Rome for the first time. I persuaded good friends who are devout Catholics to come with me so we could see Rome together. The conference went from Thursday through Saturday. On Friday after the conference was over, the conference had a special Latin mass in a majestic cathedral next door to the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross where the conference was being held. If my friends had not been with me I probably would not have gone. But we did. In that mass I felt the power of the Holy Spirit in a way I had not felt in years. It was a feeling but it was more than a feeling. It was a grasp of truth; an illumination if you will. I both felt it was right and knew it was right.

A second decisive moment also was the result of what some would think a coincidence, but I do not. In early September last year I heard a rumor from someone I thought should know, that the monastery in Huntsville, Utah would be closing in the next 6-9 months. A friend and I decided that if this really was true then we should visit the monastery in September when the weather is good.

Suffice it to say that we spent time in the chapel twice. The first time was not very moving for me because several monks were deep in prayer and the door made a small noise. I was concerned that this would disturb the monks. We went to the chapel later and I brought my Catholic Jerusalem Bible. I was deep in meditation and reading the passion narrative in Luke. For only a second or two the Holy Spirit touched me like I had been touched in Rome, only stronger. I almost broke down. I am not one to break down easily. I will never forget it. Feeling was present but so was a Biblical narrative that anchored my feeling.

The third moment came on the first weekend in October. A Catholic friend in Cache Valley picked up an announcement at the parish for an Immaculate Mary, Divine Mercy, Pro-Life Conference in Park City.

We went in Friday afternoon and then to the conference Saturday and Sunday. I'll be blunt: Saturday was transformative. Saturday afternoon, hearing Father Wade Menezes and then Deacon Jones (for you old enough to remember not that Deacon Jones who played with Merlin Olson in the fearsome foursome), I was reduced to tears. I tried to hide it. I took my glasses and rubbed my eyes constantly, like I had something in them. I did, but not what I tried to have people think. A couple of times I thought I would have to go out for a minute to collect myself. The experience was majestic. The presence of the Holy Spirit to me that afternoon was more than just feeling. It was and remains a gift of truth that is more than just feeling. I knew it was right and what I was being called to do. That night was when I told my brother and then a few others.

Each of these moments was unplanned and unexpected. If you had asked me 2 years ago if I wanted them I might have said, "I don't know". I know now. As physical human beings such experiences will involve emotion. But it cannot be merely emotion. If it remains emotion it cannot ultimately lead to eternal truth

Conversion is a matter of both the heart and the head. Mormonism is all about feeling and almost never about a conversion of the head. But conversion must be more than just feeling. The experience of the Holy Spirit often, but not always, involves feeling to be sure; The Holy Spirit, however, is a profound sense of the presence of God, not merely emotion. It is hearing a music that is transcendent. But if it is truly the presence of God it will lead to wisdom and intellectual curiosity, not away. Reason is a precious Divine gift. We should use it. If the beliefs to which you become emotionally attached are intellectually wrong, emotional attachment won't magically make them right.

In a truly moving opening passage in his seminal encyclical Fides et Ratio Pope John Paul II expresses this marriage of faith and reason: " Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know Himself—so that by knowing and loving God, men and women may come to the fullness of truth about themselves."

I was a "head convert" much longer than I have been a heart convert.

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