Thursday, October 28, 2021

How does an atheist become Catholic?

A few weeks ago, I officially became Catholic. The question that seems to keep finding its way to me is, "How does an atheist become Catholic?"

My knee-jerk response to that (in my head) is, "What ever made you truly believe I was an atheist?"

So here is the story...get some popcorn, because this might take a bit.

I'm pretty sure my mother was raised Lutheran and my father was raised Baptist. I don't think either of them were frequent flyers in a church though. I could be wrong; I honestly don't know though because they never talked about it. When Mom was in the Navy, she converted to being Catholic. My older brother  and I were baptized as infants in a Catholic church, but we never attended mass. By the time I was old enough to remember going to church, Mom had begun what I think of as "The Great Quest" for the perfect church. We attended the Methodist and Presbyterian churches for a bit, but never officially joined the religion. When I was 11, Mom enrolled me in a Seventh Day Adventist school because she was worried about the drugs that were so rampant in the public schools back then. Throughout The Great Quest, I was the only other member of the family that was dragged to all of these various houses of God. When I was 13, Mom became interested in Mormonism because her mother joined that church. 

And that was when I said, "Peace, out!"

I attended Catholic mass a couple of times as a teenager, but only because my boyfriend was Catholic and wanted me to go. I asked him once (after watching him serve as an altar boy), how he justified the things we did on Saturday nights with being an altar boy and he said, "I just go to confession, say a few Our Fathers and Hail Marys and I'm clear." 

"After a while, can't you recite those prayers and be thinking about something else at the same time?"


"Of course! I can be thinking about when we will do the things we did on Saturday night again!"

Needless to say, my interest in Catholicism disappeared at that point. I will say, however, that I did attend mass all through Army Basic Training, but that was only because if I didn't attend church, I had to help clean the barracks. So off to mass I went every Sunday!

I did marry an atheist though. I think when we got married, I thought of myself as an agnostic. I wanted to believe in a higher power, but I felt like I hadn't really found much example of it in my young life. Being married to an atheist opened my mind to other possibilities. I spent many years studying different religions and traditions. I still love a lot of pagan traditions mainly because I like the nature-centric way of viewing the world. But even with those, I never found exactly what I thought "religion" or "God" should be.

Then cancer entered our lives. If you don't have a strong faith to begin with, it's pretty hard to find God while watching your child die. It's even harder when there are other children out there surviving their (less lethal) cancer and seeing the parents say things like, "Thanks be to God!" I hated those people. Not because their child lived and mine died, but because the message they were sending, and that they fully believed, was that God CHOSE to save their child and not mine. To add salt to the wound, people would make comments about how they fully believed their kids were healthy because they've always gone to mass every week. 

Then there were the people (and by people, I mean my mother) who said things like, "God has a purpose for Keeghan." Or my personal favorite, "God doesn't give you more than you can handle."

I hated those comments the most. Try finding a faith that you've never felt in the middle of that. I prayed constantly for God to heal my child. I begged, I bargained. He didn't listen. Or so I thought at the time.

My mother eventually gave up on her quest. She never went to another church after becoming Mormon, but she didn't remain active in that church for very long. She used to say that she stopped going to church because of "Sunday-only Christians." She didn't like it that people would be so nice to her on Sunday, but then act like they had no idea who she was if she ran into them at the grocery store on Tuesday. With her last church, it was the gossip that did her in. She worked for a chiropractor who was a member of the Mormon church that she attended and many of the parishioners were patients. The way they talked about other parishioners was just too much.

Fast forward to 2019 and my incredibly wonderful and meddlesome friend who I will refer to as V. After hearing that I had toured a couple of Catholic churches in our new home of Erie, PA, she decided to call the Diocese here. She was on a quest of her own - to find me a church. It turns out that she had heard of the priest at one of the churches I had toured and she thought he would be PERFECT for us. She made me promise I would go to mass just once.

We went for the first time in January 2020. The first time I sat in that church (in the back row, so that if we started smoking we could make a hasty exit), Father Larry said something to the congregation that made me sit up and listen. He said, "You can come to mass every Sunday and pray the rosary every day and still go to hell!"


"If you are only going through the ritual and there is no relationship, you will still go to hell."

Mike and I looked at each other that day with raised eyebrows, like "Did he really just call out his parishioners and tell them they could still go to hell, even though they are sitting here in church?" I was intrigued. We went back a couple more times, but then COVID hit. We didn't go back until early 2021. In the time between though, I had stayed friends with a young woman who was the first to reach out to me after V put me in touch with the church. I bugged this poor woman with questions a lot. Like...A LOT. She was a trooper though and was always quick to answer. When we started attending church again, she became more than just my Catholic Google. She became my friend.

Once we started back to church, we found that we constantly wanted more. We didn't necessarily always feel welcome in the church though. People gave us the side-eye a lot. I wasn't there for them though. I was there for The Word. I found myself not just hanging on every word of the readings, but also the homily. What Father had to say became very important to me because he does not shy away from brutal honesty.

Something I can relate to, right?

We decided that we wanted to find out more about becoming Catholic. We started meeting with Father and going through the process. As in most things with us though, we kept it on the down low. We are not showy people. We also started volunteering at the church, which opened us up to meeting new people. I learned something's nice to have friends who share your faith. That's when it hit me...Mom wasn't looking for God. She was looking for friends, but the places where she tried to find them didn't produce any so she quit. I learned something else as well: just like with family, you will not like everyone you go to church with and they will not all like you and that is ok. It's sad, because my mother gave up so quickly. We came close to doing the same, but decided that we weren't there for those people; we were there for God. Mom died without a single friend. There was no one to notify of her death. I wish she would have stuck it out somewhere; maybe her life would have been happier.

But...back to the question of how an atheist becomes a Catholic. I don't think anyone who has ever taken the time to really get to know me well believes I was an atheist. There are a handful of women who have (crazily) remained my friends since Keeghan's death who probably saw this coming all along. I know they've been praying for it. I stopped looking for a perfect religion and instead found a relationship with God.

As for my husband, the actual atheist? Well, his story is just that...his. It's a great story! Maybe he can tell it sometime if he wants. 

So...there you go. I don't know how an atheist becomes a Catholic. I only know how Shannon did it. With the help of a meddlesome friend (who I will forever be thankful for) and a lot of love and support and prayer from my huge family of friends.

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