I grew up as an atheist. Everybody around me did, thanks to our Czechoslovak communist government. I would go to Catholic churches because they were beautiful and I loved the architecture, but my mind was made up: there was no God and the Catholic Church was the most evil institution.
God has a sense of humour though for he took all my pleadings to him before my math and chemistry exams seriously : "God, if you are there and you are going to help me to get through this exam, I will believe in you." So when I was 16, he introduced me to Jehovah's Witnesses. We started talking. Their teaching didn't make any sense to me, but I was curious. I never met a believer before- well, none that I knew of at that time.
A couple months later (while we temporarily lived in an apartment housed in a school for Marxist education with a big red star greeting us above the door), I suddenly knew, "Oops, there is God!" Paul needed a little miracle, so did I. Some of us are just a bit slow and need God to tell us rather loudly, "I am here!" So there I was on a lovely June day, believing and having no idea who God was. I went back to the Witnesses who sent me to a Catholic church to buy a Bible (no, you couldn't just go to a bookstore to buy one). There I met a friend of mine, a fresh convert as well, and we started talking. A lot. About God. About the Catholic Church. I listened. I argued with him. God gave him a lot of patience with me.
When my mother found out that I was hanging around Catholics, her reaction was lovely, "If a bus ran over your leg and cut it off, it would be better!" With a reaction like that, I better knew what I was doing, right? Which church should I join? I shopped around. Protestantism didn't appeal to me at all, so I was deciding between Jehovah's Witnesses and Catholics.
My analytical mind kicked in and I made a list of pros and cons for each of those two religions. And then decided to join the Catholic Church. Why? Simple. Apart from the obvious reason that the Catholics in Europe have the most beautiful churches, there were two main reasons. One: if God is God, there must be some mystery about Him. Witnesses could explain God perfectly: no Trinity, too complicated. I wanted a mysterious God. Two: the Catholic Church is rotten. History shows that rather well. So if a rotten institution like the Catholic Church can survive 2000 years, there must be some supernatural power behind it, either demonic and divine.
I went with the divine. It's funny that the reason why so many Catholics leave the Church - because of her sins - is the same reason I chose her. After all, I am one of the reasons the church is rotten. I am not a saint, I am a sinner.
So in April 1990, I became a Catholic. I was baptized, confirmed, and received my first Holy Communion on that blessed evening of the Feast of Divine Mercy. From that day on, I became very clear what was my real reason for being a Catholic - that little host that is God. I would sneak to church often, telling my mom that I went for a date (with Jesus, of course, but as dating was acceptable to my mother while going to church was not, little mental reservation was needed).
A year later, I started studying theology. Another of God's jokes as I didn't particularly felt close to Him at that time and the only reason for even trying to be accepted to a theological school was because I flunked my English exam at other schools of my choice. So I studied theology in Czech for three years. I studied theology for four years in Austria. I understood clearly what the Church taught.
When I was 26, I married an American. He was a convert to Catholicism as well. He introduced me to the Tridentine Mass and a more traditional expression of faith. For five years, we attended Mass at the Society of Pius X. And then, before our eighth wedding anniversary, out of blue he became Orthodox, a member of the Orthodox Church of America. And took our three older children with him. Only the baby that was still nursing stayed with me in the Catholic Church.
The turmoil in me started. I was familiar with the Byzantine liturgy; we had Byzantine Catholics at our college. In Europe, I attended many Taize meetings where icons and orthodox-like chants were a norm and I loved it. Here I was, put in a situation that I was breaking up our family, that I was to join Orthodoxy for the sake of the unity of our family, to join my husband in his faith.
My husband's explanation for his conversion was: "I realized Orthodox Church was the true Church." Not much of an explanation, if you ask me, but then my husband was never too fond of apologetics, despite the fact that he spent a few years in a Catholic monastery, in a Catholic seminary, and obtained a Master's degree in theology. So discussion was out of question and my turmoil didn't ease up.
After all, it would be easier on some level to be Orthodox. No pope to obey, very little of "you must" as most Orthodox practices depend on one's spiritual maturity, not on any binding law of the church (even though fasting practices are rather severe, they are optional). A pretty church, family unity, beautiful liturgy, could I ask for more? After all, after five years of going to SSPX chapel, my fondness of the papacy was rather low. So as usual, I resorted to writing a list. For and against staying a Catholic and converting to Orthodoxy. If I understood then what I know about Orthodoxy now, the decision would have been much easier, Orthodoxy wouldn't have been even an option (as this is about why I stayed Catholic and not about why I have not converted to Orthodoxy, I will skip my reasons why I could never embrace the Orthodox faith).
So why did I stay Catholic? Because I loved the pope and the papacy? No way. I consider papacy a very practical and wise institution, giving the church unity in both dogmatic and moral theology, that kind of unity that I believe is often lacking within the Orthodox churches (for example the issues of contraception and IVF). But I didn't stay for the papacy. Did I stay for Mary, the mother of God? No. I don't have a strong relationship with this beautiful, wise, and holy woman. I don't know how to relate to an unconditionally loving mother. And after all, the Orthodox are venerating Mary very strongly...
I stayed for only one reason: I stayed because the Catholic Church can give me God on a platter every day. Every single day. I stayed for the Eucharist. It's that simple. I don't have to be holy to receive him. I am coming to him as a sick person comes to a healer. I am weak. I need him. There is no greater event any day than the Mass and the privilege to receive God so that I can become Him, become Love. Heaven comes into me, spiritually and physically, in that little Host. And this whole love story takes up only half an hour on a weekday, so that I don't have an excuse why I am not coming for the greatest date.
I became Catholic because it made sense to me, it was the rational thing to do. I stayed Catholic because of the Eucharist that I can receive every day and that I can adore every day. I stayed Catholic because I want to embrace Jesus as often as I can.
Thank you for sharing your journey, Benedikta!
Click on the 'I'm a Catholic' label below for more guest posts in this series