Something occurred recently that provided me a better understanding of the difference between converts and so-called “cradle” Catholics.
It was during a meeting of older parishioners, those groups commonly called by names like “Senior Catholics” or “Golden Agers” or “Young At Heart,” etc., groups where you might expect to hear laments of lost traditions. A woman in her eighties who serves as a Eucharistic minister bemoaned her observations of young people who, she said, “…don’t believe. I mean, they really don’t believe that it’s the real body and blood ….” I mentioned that they don’t really have to believe, what they have to do is assent to believe; that coming to believe, or to know, is actually a grace, not a criterion or some measure of their faith.
My comment didn’t do anything to make me more popular in the group, and I get it now that the purpose was to criticize, or just to mourn the lost traditional “have-to’s” that constituted the Catholic faith education of their youth. Nothing wrong with that. And it might be well argued that such is the privilege of the elderly. (I’m not totally sure I go along with that argument, however, since oppositional obstinacy is no more a privilege of the elderly than it is of the young—who can be just as stubbornly opinionated. I think it’s more characteristic of personality than it is of age.)
But it brings out something not much attended: the nature of grace, for one, and for another, the meaning of assent. I remember as a Southern Baptist child, being drilled repeatedly in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” This was the criterion of faith, followed by the warning that if you don’t believe, you’re condemned. Well, I tried. I tried hard. I didn’t want to go to hell for not believing. Somewhere, sometime, I gave it up. I couldn’t help what I believed or didn’t believe. Slowly and silently, I faced the truth that I would go to hell, and even more silently, grew angry with a God who would condemn me to hell for something I couldn’t help.
Fast forward many decades: Learning the difference between assent and dissent, and learning the nature of grace. Faith as belief is a grace. We can’t earn it, gain it, no matter how hard we might pursue it. It is a grace, not an achievement. Grace comes from God, not from us. However, we can’t receive the gift unless we assent to it; i.e., unless we are willing to believe. Those who dissent are unwilling to believe, and therefore not open to receive the gift of faith. What is up to us is not whether to believe or not believe, but whether to be willing to believe.
The vast majority of those in communion lines assent to believe that what they will receive is the true body of Christ; thus they are able to say Amen when the priest says to each of them The Body of Christ. They may not fully believe, but they are willing to believe. And that’s enough. It’s all God asks of us. Sometimes they may have something like an experience of peace when they consume the body of Christ, and it’s a peace that is valid.
There are others who dissent, who are not willing to believe, their minds are made up, and their decision is final. It is they who, as St Paul says, “eat and drink their way to condemnation.” It is a blasphemy. And that’s the reason non-Catholics are not invited to consume the Holy Eucharist, not because they’re somehow excluded from the church (their exclusion is their own choice), but because, if they eat the body of Christ in dissent, in an unwillingness to believe, they condemn themselves. In their own interest of spiritual integrity, it is better to abstain.
We can’t help what we believe, but we can be open to belief—or not. Frankly, I think all the millions of Catholics who have gone to their graves after a lifetime of always being willing to believe and never having received the grace of fully believing may well be the greatest saints in heaven. It’s us hard-core types for whom grace was an absolute necessity who will be very blessed indeed just to get a seat somewhere in the back rows of that great assembly.