By this time of year, newly baptized Catholics have really begun to settle in to their pews, physically and metaphorically. The solemn rites are long since accomplished, the party is over, and now the hard and joyful work of practicing the faith begins.
At this stage, it’s not uncommon for new converts to begin to take on a slightly baffled look, because while they definitely felt overcome with Paschal joy at the time, they may now also feel overwhelmed with . . . Catholicism in general. Specifically, the vast and bewildering array of cultural and liturgical and pious practices and customs and traditions that never came up in RCIA, but which everyone around seems to know about, and treats as if they’re completely foundational to their faith. Saints, prayers, holy days, sacramentals, pieties, practices, not to mention synods and sodalities and bitter Twitter fights over doctrine. It’s all a bit much.
Fear not, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I’ve been a Catholic for most of my life, and I feel exactly the same way. Just about every time I spend time with a large group of Catholics, in or outside of church, I end up hearing something that makes me feel like a newcomer.
I have come to conclude that the Catholic church is, like, really really big, and as such, it is, like, really really full of stuff. I’m never going to feel completely caught up, and that’s okay. As long as I keep trying to come back to Jesus, it’s okay.
Here are just a few of the things that I, as a nearly lifelong Catholic, still find confounding:
I can’t keep my creeds straight. When I was little, my mother had me memorize the Nicene creed. Or possibly the Apostle’s Creed. It was definitely the one that we didn’t say at Mass, and I could say it! as long as we weren’t at Mass. If we were at Mass, I could only say the one everyone else was saying, whichever one that was. You just get swept along with the general rumble of the crowd and you don’t stand a chance. I fully understand that people have shed blood over whether it ought to be homoousios or homoiousios, and I admire that, but if I were at Nicea, let me tell you, I would have not have been helpful. The body is not made up of one part, but many, and I am the part saying, “Wha?” and I’m too old to change. And yet I am still a real Catholic.
I can only know about one Theresa at a time. There are about fourteen different St Theresas (including Thereses and Teresas, not to mention Thérèses). Some of them said something about how people are like flowers; some of them apparently are little flowers in some way that escapes me at the moment. We have a picture of one of them dressed up like an entirely different saint, purely to be confusing. The one I’m very clear on is Mother Teresa, because I remember when she was alive and hanging out with President Reagan, who was also alive at the time. I saw them on TV, so that helps. But then there is the Theresa with the nice cheeks. You know the one. Beyond that, I am completely at sea, and when people start going on about the Interior Castle, my eyes glaze over and I wonder if there will be sandwiches at this thing, or what. And yet I am still a real Catholic.
I have no idea how to say the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I’m very much in favor of mercy, but when I see a chaplet, it’s pretty clear to me that that’s just a stumpy little rosary, and I feel that this is much easier to lose in the washing machine than a normal rosary. So what you should do is get yourself a normal rosary, say part of it, and fall asleep. Boom, divine mercy. Boom, real Catholic!
The liturgical calendar in general. I’m already losing my mind over here trying to keep Christ in Christmas while buying presents for everybody but not too many presents, and making sure we’re all sufficiently praying for the souls in purgatory while we dress up like zombies, because if we don’t do that, we’ll drive our children away from the faith, and so on. And we won’t even talk about what it does to your psyche to cook for Passover while you’re fasting on Good Friday.
So I have given myself a pass for, for instance, having to look up every single Holy Day of Obligation every single time, every single year, and I don’t even feel bad about it. I only have so many brain cells. When I hear about people also keeping track of First Fridays or First Saturdays and then also ember days and rogation days and whatever the hell it is, I just assume they are praying for me, or people very much like me, and it will all even out. See above: Divine Mercy. Boom.
In short, it’s a big church. A very very very big church. And if you keep coming across things that are unfamiliar, don’t think of it as evidence that you’re a stranger. File it under “treats for later,” and maybe you’ll get to it in this world, and maybe you won’t. But someone is definitely praying for you, and we’re so glad you jumped in and became a real Catholic. Just keep coming back to Jesus, and you’ll be okay.
A version of this essay was first published on August 1, 2022 at The Catholic Weekly.