The Pain of Conversion

"Conversion of Saint Paul" (detail) by Caravaggio

“Conversion of Saint Paul” (detail) by Caravaggio


“Did you experience any loss of friends and family due to your conversion? If you did, how did you get through the grief and loss? Thanks.”

The question, from a new Facebook friend, cut me to the heart. As I ponder his words, a rush of memories and emotions flood my mind. The answer to his first question, I assure him, is yes. But do I have any answers to the second?

Holy Spirit, help me out here.

My wife and I experienced two primary losses during our conversion: one involving friends, and to a lesser extent, family members. Grief and loss are exactly the right words to describe our experience, we had a profound sense of both during the process. Perhaps that’s why the question has both haunted and inspired me since it was posed. Allow me to hazard a response, hopefully it’s of use to others as well. The process is also something I discuss in some detail in my upcoming book, How God Hauled Me Kicking and Screaming Into the Catholic Church, particularly chapter seven on Spiritual Nomads.

The deep emotions you are experiencing are not uncommon. In my many years of association with The Coming Home Network International, I have been privileged to know countless individuals who have suffered tremendously through the conversion process. Much of this depends on individual backgrounds and the inevitable conflict that arises when someone’s very identity goes through a radical transformation. It’s analogous to being from a blue-blooded Republican family and one day announcing you’re becoming a Democrat, or being a die-hard Steelers fan all your life and deciding that you’re done with them. You’ll root for the Cowboys from now on.

It just doesn’t compute.

In a sense, that’s because conversion is a really big deal. It’s very much like putting aside an entire worldview and embracing a new one. It doesn’t happen overnight (my conversion took ten years—my parents, thirty), and it has the effect of challenging the very foundation of our relationships: trust. At the same time, as I look back on this time period, it strikes me that the emotions my friend describes marked the climax of the process, and in many ways, the final major challenge before my love story with Christ and His Church really took flight. So there’s hope.

My wife and I were involved in an evangelical prayer group during our conversion. I had graduated from Franciscan University, and we had moved to Cleveland to split the distance between our parents, hers in Toronto Ohio, mine in Toronto Ontario. Neither of us were Catholic, but at Franciscan we had been required to take Catholic theology courses—and one in particular dealing with the issue of birth control rocked our worlds (see that story here). While it didn’t cause a spontaneous conversion by any stretch, that course opened us up to the Church’s teachings in ways that would have been unthinkable previously. In addition, I had learned enough about the Church—and gotten to know enough good Catholics in the process—that I felt led to challenge some of the more obtuse anti-Catholic comments that were occasionally made in our bible study.

To make a long story short, my rebuttals didn’t win me many friends in our prayer group. I was read the riot act about Catholics being into idolatry, worshipping Mary, all the stuff you might expect. But it was even worse: my wife was counseled to divorce me, since I was supposedly leading our family to hell.

Thankfully, my wife kept her head, her husband, and by God’s grace, went through RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the classes taken to prepare for entrance into the Church) with me.

In the process we lost all our friends in Cleveland. My wife was crushed, and deeply lonely. We had our first three kids in two years and eight months, so it was a brutally challenging time for her—especially with me working like a maniac trying to launch a career in my CPA firm.

As it happens, our family relationships were challenged too. We got to a point where I was the one to call my mother-in-law when we became pregnant… again. My wife was very self-conscious about the fact that our attitude towards children had come a long way, and now differed pretty significantly from the norms of our generation. Although it was dicey at first, I’m happy to report that there was also grace along the way. Her grandparents, in particular, were beacons of mercy in our lives despite their Baptist perspective differing from ours. Relationships with other family members, while challenged for some time, have largely flourished subsequently. We found out later that my mother-in-law’s concern about our ever-growing number of children was rooted in her concern for my wife and her high-risk pregnancies—not any bias towards the Church or large families.

So… how? How did we get through the grief and loss? Here are just a few thoughts to consider, I hope they help.

1) Trust.

As noted earlier, the foundation of relationships is trust. Among the most extraordinary aspects of Catholicism is the whole notion that suffering can draw us closer to Christ. By embracing the cross, and trusting Him above anyone else, the Holy Spirit actually does much of the work in converting our hearts. That doesn’t make the feelings of grief and loss easier, but it gives them meaning and purpose. The feelings are normal, natural – and won’t last forever. Want a way to build trust and build relationships at the same time? Pray the rosary, one of the most powerful prayers ever. Mary’s heart of compassion and love is a radiant force. Her prayers for us are always heard.

2) Seek to understand, not to be understood.

Don’t feel that it’s your job to convert your friends or family members. While this may seem contrary to the gospel, it’s really not. We can only plant seeds. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to cause those seeds to grow and flourish—and this takes time! Particularly with close relationships, the best thing we can do is seek to understand the source of what we think might be anti-Catholic thoughts and feelings, not necessarily change (or worse, manipulate) them. As I have learned in my own walk, humility is a foundational virtue, and as I found out with my mother-in-law, one I needed to build. Read an excellent article here about the limitations of “fighting for the faith.”

3) Honor freewill.

I love the line that God has kids, but no grandkids. Each of us bears ultimate responsibility for our own choices with regard to faith, although the Church is much more about community than the traditional non-Catholic focus on the individual. Authentic love means desiring what’s best for the other person, but giving them freedom to make their own decisions.

4) Be honorable.

Especially as your conversion changes you, do your absolute best to act with love, tenderness, mercy… and common courtesy. Often times, other people’s strong emotions against what we’re doing spring more from what’s going on with them rather than us. God may intend to use this process for their sanctification. Don’t try to make it all better, manage their emotions for them, or go all codependent on them. Trust God. Trust Jesus. Trust the Holy Spirit. Be patient too – for authentic conversion to be lasting, the process takes time.

5) Know that the night is darkest right before dawn.

By looking ahead rather than in the rearview mirror, know that things will get better. Yes, there are irreplaceable relationships in your life that may be temporarily damaged. God can fix them, and it will take time. Pray for those people, and at the same time, look for allies, the new relationships through which you draw strength and encouragement. There are good people everywhere, and the Lord will put some in your path—all you need to do is notice. The right people will be there at the right time, and down the road you may look back and be in the same boat as me, where you have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to relationships with good friends and family.

~ ~ ~ ~

I hope these thoughts are helpful. Please also consider pre-ordering a copy of my upcoming book, because it was written precisely for the purpose of encouraging conversion and describes not only my own journey but many of the stumbling blocks people need to overcome on their way to the Church. Serious transformation is difficult—but it will become a source of everlasting joy. I know, I’ve lived it. Many blessings upon you, my brother and friend.


Pre-order signed copies of Kevin’s new book, with free shipping!  How God Hauled Me Kicking and Screaming Into the Catholic Church will be released by Our Sunday Visitor in June!

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