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I was agnostic, my friend a ‘mere Christian’. We both found the path to Rome

Georgetown (CNS)

My friend Benjamin Brazzel’s journey to the Catholic Church almost began in a mosque. He was invited there by a friend, and was struck by the corporal nature and liturgical structure of the worship. It followed a clear direction which required worshippers to employ their bodies to kneel, stand, and thus fully engage themselves in prayer. The service differed from those of Benjamin’s childhood in a small Protestant church in California, a decentralised body which followed a simple worship format.

As it happens, Benjamin traces the start of his conversion to a purchase at a Colorado Springs bookstore: a copy of Eusebius’s history of the church.

Benjamin and I have known each other since our sophomore year at Georgetown University, Washington DC. I entered Georgetown a lapsed Catholic and erstwhile Mormon from Massachusetts who styled himself more or less as an agnostic. When I first met Benjamin, he called himself a “mere Christian”.

I received the Sacrament of Confirmation in April 2017 towards the end of my sophomore year; Benjamin was received into the Church earlier this month. As we sat down to reflect on how we found our way to (or, in my case, back to) Rome, I remarked that I struggle to share my reversion story because it lacks dramatic moments which make for a pleasing narrative. The only language which seems to capture the essence of what I experienced is this: the Holy Spirit slowly moved within me, gently calling me back to the Lord until I finally was able to hear God’s call.

Most of my freshman year was concerned with classes, political clubs, and pursuing the various vices and indiscretions that are all too common among 18-year-olds. But there was an uneasiness beneath the surface. I found myself writing nightly in a journal, sometimes desperately wrestling with the question of God’s presence.

As summer approached, I would spend a few minutes some evenings in the campus chapel, praying quietly, feeling nervous and a bit unsure about what I was doing.

The summer witnessed my brief return to Mormon services, although I was far from sure that was the right decision. (I had been baptised a Catholic and received my First Holy Communion, but spent my formative years as a Mormon after my mother and I joined that church in my early adolescence.) I am admittedly an imperfect practitioner of the virtue of patience, and I think my second stint as a Latter Day Saint was born out of a craving for immediate stability in my spiritual life.

Yet although Salt Lake City was not to be my final destination, I continued to pray, and in October of my second year at Georgetown I signed up for an on-campus Ignatian prayer retreat. Retreatants were asked to commit to 30 minutes of contemplative prayer each day, and then to meet a spiritual director. The five-day retreat did not answer all of my questions, but it did help me focus during silent, intimate prayer.

And yet despite my growing prayer life, I returned to Mass during the first semester of my second year not because I was confident about God’s presence in my life or the world as a whole; I returned to Mass – and went persistently throughout the week – because I desired to encounter God. And so I sat in the back corner, silently praying as others went to receive the Eucharist.

In the course of doing this, I found myself increasingly hungry: I wanted to receive the Eucharist. And it was in that hunger, born out prayer, that I heard the Lord calling me to Him.

As I sensed myself being called back to God, I sought to refresh my knowledge of what childhood religious education classes, as well as religion courses at my Catholic high school, had taught me. I was blessed with a room-mate and friends who helped me dive deeper.

Having received First Communion as a child, I needed only to go to Confession to be in a state to receive the Eucharist. And so I did, midway through my sophomore year, on a night I won’t forget.

Four months later, with my roommate Patrick sponsoring me, I was confirmed at Dahlgren Chapel on Georgetown’s campus. It was Divine Mercy Sunday, and the Gospel reading recounted Thomas’s encounter with the risen Christ, and his beautiful words of recognition: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas was my confirmation saint.

The summer after Benjamin’s senior year of high school, he went on a medical mission to Guatemala. He struck up a conversation about faith with some of the Catholic students on the trip, and admits he found transubstantiation rather strange. Benjamin visited the Vatican soon after, where he was repulsed by the opulence to the point of saying to his father: “This is beautiful, but no way is this God’s Church, the Church of Christ.”

Benjamin’s first semester at Georgetown brought him into contact with a group of friends who would influence his faith. Most were devout Protestants, with many going to an Anglican church nearby on Sundays. These friends challenged some of his beliefs, including his opposition to infant baptism. At the end of his freshman year, however, one of them was received into the Catholic Church.

Benjamin frames his reaction to his friend’s conversion in this way: he set out to prove his friend wrong, but concedes he was really trying to prove to himself there was no need to go all the way to Rome.

He continued to converse with this friend, and also developed an interest in Eastern Orthodoxy. Visiting different churches deepened his understanding of the role of tradition in Christianity. Further study and regular attendance at Divine Liturgy steadily chipped away at his Protestant beliefs.

The final intellectual obstacle for Benjamin was the issue of the papacy. He found himself going back and forth between claims made by Catholic and Orthodox apologists. His reading of the Syriac Fathers, who emphasised Petrine Primacy, tilted him towards the Catholic Church. Moreover, his study was aided by Eucharistic Adoration, where he would sit in silence while praying the Coptic Liturgy of the Hours.

Benjamin says there was one question that came to him repeatedly when he found himself hesitating about continuing the journey to Rome and was tempted to remain a “mere Christian”. He thought of the words of Peter in the Gospel of John, after many disciples deserted Jesus.

“To whom shall we go?” Peter responded, after Jesus asked if he would also like to leave. “You have the words of eternal life.”

It became apparent, for Benjamin, that there was only one place to go. Earlier this month, aged 21 and about six years after he purchased Eusebius’s history, he and a small group of friends gathered in the small chapel in the Jesuit residence on Georgetown’s campus, where he was received into the Catholic Church.

Jeffrey Cimmino is a media analyst at the Washington Free Beacon