How I really became a Catholic
Patrick McKelvey | Friday, May 1, 2020
I’ve been lucky enough to be with the Observer since the beginning of my sophomore year. I’ve been a columnist with Viewpoint for almost as long. Every other week for three years, I’ve sent in a column with my musings on the state of the world. It was like clockwork. Rarely stressful. Almost always fun.
But like every senior columnist come April and May, I’ve been dreading this one. The closer. The finale. I had no idea what to write about, especially because we’re home now and my memories of my last semester are going to be so different from what I thought they’d be. The one thing I was certain of was that I didn’t want it to be overly cloying or sentimental. I threw that out right away when I realized that was going to be impossible.
I looked back at all my past columns. A lot were about movies. Some about baseball. Way too many about politics. Perhaps interestingly though, I’d never written anything about the most important thing in my life — or, what ended up becoming the most important thing in my life.
Like a lot of us at Notre Dame, I was baptized Roman Catholic. I went to Catholic school my whole life. I wore a cross around my neck. According to myself, my family, my friends and — most importantly — canon law, I was a Catholic.
I really wasn’t, though. I hardly went to church. I prayed, occasionally, when I wanted something. I didn’t go to confession. I didn’t live by Church teachings. I didn’t try that hard to be a good person and just sort of assumed I was one. I believed in God, and I believed Jesus was him, but I had no idea how that worked, and I didn’t really try to find out.
I’m sure you can tell where this is going — one day, that all changed. There wasn’t any grand conversion process. It didn’t happen overnight. There was no apparition; I didn’t fall to my knees and cry out to God. I just went to the Basilica one Sunday. And then I went again. And again. I kept going every Sunday until it became a habit, just as it’s supposed to be. And then I started to notice a change. I believed — really believed — in God. And I wanted to get to know him better. I wanted to do more than just go to church once a week.
So I did. I went on Wednesdays. I went to confession. I read the Bible — some of it, at least. I read Aquinas. I took a class about “The Chronicles of Narnia.” I poured over theology, over the Church Fathers and the centuries of work that delved into the nature of God, the ontology of Christ, metaphysical proofs of his existence. I coupled my faith with reason. I prayed. A lot. And I think that helped more than anything.
After doing all of this for a long time, I changed. I wholly and completely changed. It’s difficult to say exactly how, but I’ll do my best to explain it. When you’re not very religious, and you start to hang around religious people, you notice that they’re different from you. It’s not foolproof, but in my experience it’s true. They seem more solid, less easily shaken by things. They’re happier, for sure.
Chalk it up to naivety if you want. I don’t think that’s what it is. Not in my experience. Before I became a Catholic, truly became a Catholic, I was missing something. I wasn’t unhappy, but there was a hole. I tried to fill it in all the ways we all try to fill it, and nothing ever stuck. Until, well, God. I found that same solidness, that same happiness, that had so confused me in the other religious people I knew. Change swept over. I wasn’t just happier, I was different. Like so many others, most of my personality came from what I hated. I was mean. I was judgey. I bonded with friends over anger and eye rolls. I was 20 years old and already a curmudgeon.
Not anymore. I don’t do that — not as much, anyway. I don’t take pleasure in finding things to make fun of. I don’t let myself get so easily annoyed anymore. Giving myself to God has completely changed my personality. And not in a washed-over, cult-like, lose yourself way. I don’t think the old me was truly me. I hope not, anyway. I hope what I’ve found is the truth, and I believe it to be. I’ve never felt more like me in my life. It’s going to sound corny, but I really believe that the only reason I know myself is because I know Jesus. C.S. Lewis said it way better than I could: “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.”
This wasn’t an easy column to write. It’s deeply personal. I don’t want to boast about my faith. I don’t want to get up on a high horse or tell you I’m morally superior to anyone (definitely not). I’m not here to condemn anyone. And I’m not here to convert anyone. I just wanted to admit to what he means in me. And I thought this was as good a time as any to do it.
I don’t remember what led me into the Basilica that Sunday. I think I was nervous about an upcoming interview. Since I lived in Zahm, though, and the only thing between me and that church was a golden statue of Mary, it’s not a stretch to say Notre Dame led me there, as she did to so many other things. She led me to a bachelor’s degree and a new job. She led me to football games in New York and California and Michigan and South Bend. She led me to my closest friends, to four years and a lifetime of memories with them. Notre Dame did all of this for me, and I will be eternally grateful to her and the school named after her for that. But the greatest thing she ever did for me, the thing that truly changed my life and the thing I will remember most, was probably the easiest thing for her to do — the thing she most wanted to do. Notre Dame led me to her son.
Patrick McKelvey splits his time between being a college senior and pretending to be a screenwriter. He majors in American studies and classics, and will be working in market research in New York after graduating. If you can’t find him at the movies, he can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @PatKelves17 on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.