Learning to Love Catholics

by Phil Johnson

As a young boy, I learned that Catholics were evil. Not Catholics exactly but that the Catholic Church was evil. Some people even told me that the Pope was the anti-Christ. My mother seemed to agree, but, for her, the Pope was an anti-Christ not the anti-Christ.

I learned that the institution—the Catholic Church was evil. I heard stories about skeletons of little babies discovered buried outside the walls of convents and monasteries, that Catholics prayed to Mary rather than to God. that they believed all sorts of superstitions, that they believed that a person could earn salvation, and, in addition, could be helped by the extra merits of others. The Catholic Church, rather than pointing the way to salvation, blocked the way for its followers and sent them in the wrong direction through idolatry to bell. Besides that, the Catholic Church wanted control of the whole world for power, money, and demonic reasons.

With this information in mind taken as fact, I was worried about my friend, Bob, and his family. During grade school he was my best friend. He taught me how Lo catch with a pud (catcher’s mitt), and he told me the stories from movies he had seen. I was not allowed to go to movies. I loved Bob and idolized him. Bob’s mother was a nurse. One day, when we were six years old, she weighed and measured us. I was delighted because we were exactly the same height and weight We ran along the sidewalk of 8th Street shouting to the world and anyone who would listen, “We’re twins! We’re twins!” I was proud to be Bob’s twin and happy that Bob seemed to feel as good about it as I did.

Bob went to St Thomas School with the other Catholic kids. He lived almost directly across the street in a house that I thought was really nice. It was surrounded by a hedge, and there were trees and flowers in the yard. It always looked cool, pleasant, and private. Bob lived with his mother and dad. His older brother had been killed in the war (WWII), and a little baby brother had died before he was 14 days old. I was filled with wonder about this. What did it feel like for Bob and his folks that two sons had died? I felt very bad for them and wondered how they could carry on in such an accepting way. Even more complicating was the fact that Bob told me that his little baby brother didn’t go to heaven because he died before he was baptized. I told him that. I didn’t think God would send a baby to hell. Bob was very definite that his brother was not in heaven. He thought he might be in Purgatory, but I knew there was no such place. It was either heaven or hell. I was sure his brother was in heaven.

I asked my mother about this. She assured me that what Bob said was not true. Catholics just didn’t know better because of the false teachings of the Catholic Church and the Pope. But, I worried, would Bob and his folks go to hell because they didn’t know any better? Was the baby brother the only family member who would be in heaven?

My mother’s answer was a big relief. She said that anyone who believed m Jesus and accepted him as savior would go to heaven no matter what church they belonged to. She knew Catholic persons of whom this was true. The problem was that the Catholic Church did not teach that truth. The Catholic Church, she said, taught that you had to be a Catholic to go to heaven and that, if you were a Catholic, you would. I didn’t know if Bob, his parents, or brother who died in th~ war had accepted Jesus, but they might have, so there was at least a chance.

It was hard for me to understand how intelligent people like Bob’s family and a lot of other people in town who were obviously intelligent would believe these strange things that didn’t make sense. There were other worrisome matters. Bob’s dad smoked, sometimes his parents drank beer and wine, sometimes they went to dances, and they didn’t think movies were wrong. These were big danger signals suggesting that they may not have accepted Jesus as savior.

Meanwhile, my friendship with Bob was a delight, and his parents were always kind and fair to me. I respected them very much. Bob and I played hard together and had a lot of fun. One time when I was in third or fourth grade, I went into the Catholic Church with Bob. He was going to confession and I was waiting for him so we could walk home together. I stood in the doorway of the dark sanctuary, my eyes focused on a bowl and candle at the beginning of the aisle. It was very strange. I saw statues, too. I felt very uncomfortable, didn’t dare look around much, and was eager to get out of there. To Bob it was all okay and maybe he was even proud of it. I, on the other hand, suspected that I was in a place where there was evil.

When we got to ninth grade, Catholics joined protestants in the public school. By then my friendship with Bob was less intense, and I had made a lot more friends who were Catholic. They seemed to have the advantage. Catholics were the best athletes, and many of the best-looking girls were Catholic.

My mother respected all my friends and invariably welcomed them when I brought them home, including the Catholics. But my parents were clear that they didn’t want me or any of us kids to have Catholic girlfriends or boyfriends. “Be not unequally yoked together . . . .” they would say. “If you marry a Catholic, your children will have to be raised Catholic.”

Once out of High School, my contact with Catholics diminished. Catholics were rare at North Park College. My eyes were opened though when I learned that, though unity was more a quest than a fact, the Catholic Church was once the whole Church. Catholicism was not such a ridiculous thing as I had thought. I continued to be mystified by the doctrine of papal infallibility, for example, but I began to understand the historic importance of the Church of Rome.

My fear that Catholics would not make it to heaven dissolved and, along with it, fears of the damage they might do to the world. During the same period, I became equally critical of Protestant establishments. The Catholics no longer seemed to have a comer on institutional religious self-interest. But, during college and seminary days I had little contact with any Catholics.

In 1962, I was on intern hip from North Park Seminary in Worcester, Massachusetts. Hans Kung, the great, controversial Catholic theologian, came to town to speak at Holy Cross College. I was impressed and inspired by his talk and said to Fred Cervin, who attended the lecture with me, that I wished I had a Catholic friend. The place was filled with enthusiastic people, mainly Catholics, who had heard and identified with the same message we had. Though a period of ecumenism followed, I did not have occasion or make a special effort to find any Catholic friends.

Years later (1976), I was assigned by Andover-Newton Theological School to do a term of Clinical Pastoral Education at Danvers Stale Mental Hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts. Among my 15 or so colleagues were a Jesuit Priest, a Dominican Novice, and five Sisters of various orders. My best friend during those twelve weeks was Dave Dougherty, the Dominican. Dave, as his vows support, became my brother, conversation partner, and confidant. Each of the sisters became my sister, and Father Louis Lipp became my priest and friend. In the evenings after work, I was invited to Mass celebrated by Father Lipp. I attended regularly and was very blessed. We followed the form of the Mass in an informal way. Brother Dave played the guitar as we sang songs and joined in discussion of the scripture lessons when it came time for the sermon. I have maintained since then that I am in communion with Rome, and it is true, because sharing in the Sacrament is the most basic fellowship possible—especially from the Catholic point of view.

My appreciation of these brothers and sisters has not diminished through the years. I have had fine colleagues in my life, but none finer. When I think of these people, I thank God for them and their ministries. It was not hard to love these Catholics. It was the case at Danvers, as it was pretty much all along, that I loved them because they first loved me.

Even when I do not agree, I respect the firm stand the Catholic Church continues to hold on many matters. I particularly respect the Catholic commitment to social concerns and the way Catholics identify with and embrace the poor. I appreciate the value of celibacy, and I am thankful for the ministries of brothers, sisters, and priests. We would be very impoverished in this country and in most countries in the world without them. Through the discipline of celibacy, the Catholic Church has accomplished much ministry among people and for civilization through the centuries and has provided a ministerial vocation for millions.

Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” I thank God for the great mansion, the Catholic Church, and in each new encounter with it, I now find it natural to continue to love Catholics.