On March 18, 2018, I was in an audience of several-dozen Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia and companions in faith. We were listening to a lecture by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton, retired auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit. (Even though since childhood I have been a member of the Religious Society of Friends—the Quakers—I am a Franciscan companion, meaning in part that I meet for faith sharing with several other lay companions in faith and with Franciscan sisters.) Bishop Gumbleton was the founding president of the U.S. branch of Pax Christi International, an international Catholic movement working for peace.
Bishop Gumbleton is profoundly committed to peace, and therefore, I believe, profoundly committed to the fundamental message of Jesus. Bishop Gumbleton said, for example, “If Jesus did not reject the use of violence for any reason, we know nothing about Jesus.” Pax Christi International includes an inspiring Vow of Nonviolence on their website. Bishop Gumbleton is also thoroughly devoted to full equality for all, within the Church and throughout society. I was so moved by the bishop’s message that at one point I turned to my friend sitting next to me and said, “I am going to join the Church.” I wish to spend the rest of my life doing what I can to live the Pax Christi International Vow of Nonviolence, which I believe reflects Jesus’s teaching and example.
My decision to join the Catholic Church has followed three years of active participation with the Franciscans, including frequently attending Mass and taking part in numerous retreats led by the Sisters of St. Francis. Until hearing Bishop Gumbleton, however, I believed that I would always remain a Quaker and never convert. Since March 18, my sudden decision to join the Church has continued to seem valid, but I have felt the need to examine my decision, and I do so as follows. As in some other blog posts, I write as though wiser voices are speaking to me in answer to my question—and perhaps they are. The response to my question is probably much more than you will want to read, but I include it all in case anything is useful to anyone.
My Question: Am I doing the right thing to resign from the Religious Society of Friends and join the Catholic Church as a Franciscan?
You are not doing the wrong thing to come to this decision. You were dangling, not knowing where to go, how to move forward, and so it is right now to make the best choice you can and go in that direction. You are finding a spiritual home that speaks to you. It will not be perfect. Nothing in this life is perfect.
You wish that you could return to the Quakerism—to the Religious Society of Friends—of your childhood, with the weighty Quakers of your parents’ generation and the generations before, with your parents’ wise and inspired messages, with the Phillips sisters and Robert Maris and Edith Rhoads, with hymn singing before and after Meeting, with the sense of mystery and beauty, of something grand and lovely, meaningful and ready to accompany you throughout your life.
But your parents’ generation and those before are gone. As much as you like those Quakers you know from your own generation and respect their sincerity and their community involvement, much seems missing from what you once knew. And as much as Meeting members speak of the wisdom they have inherited from the past, the Meeting you hoped to find again lives only in memory. Whatever the degree to which the changes you see are in your own perception, they are nonetheless true for you.
In contrast, you find a wealth of what you love in the nearby Franciscan convent and their chapel, where you enthusiastically attend Mass. The sisters are warm and seem sincerely happy to see you. When they teach and share, their spirituality is as vibrant as the spirit you used to find within the beautiful old meetinghouse at 4th and West Streets. In part it is the Franciscans’ music that envelops you: even when the choir is not singing, the congregation sings with gusto and conviction, knowing music resonates throughout the universe in the love of God, creation, and one another.
You are not in complete alignment with all of the Catholic beliefs, even among the Franciscans. But like Quakers, Franciscans consider themselves seekers, believe in continuing revelation and ongoing conversion, have nonviolence as a central value, and embrace all people as brothers and sisters. You profoundly admire and wish to advance the Franciscan commitment to peace: to serving and valuing all people; to welcoming strangers; to feeding, encouraging, teaching, healing, and clothing those in need; to honoring and preserving the Earth. You feel that Franciscans such as the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia are living Christ’s and St. Francis’s messages of love and kindness.
You see every human being as a child of God, and the Quaker belief in that of God within every person is not contrary to the Franciscan view of creation. But the most daunting area of doubt for you is your uncertainty about Christ’s nature. You do not know if Christ was more completely the child of God than are all other people throughout time. You wonder whether the difference is that Christ expressed love and kindness through his life vastly more fully, deeply, and profoundly than the rest of humanity has done and is doing. In other words, is the difference between Christ and other people a difference in essence, or is it entirely in the way he lived his life?
Clearly the doctrine of transubstantiation is another source of questions for you, but you have decided that the ceremony of Communion is a beautiful way to nurture your commitment to taking Christ’s life into your life, into your heart, soul, and all your being and ways of being. And you are seeking to become clearer in your beliefs through reading, as well as through attending programs in the Franciscan Spiritual Center, continuing as a companion in faith to the Sisters of St. Francis, and talking, as you love to do, with your dear friend who is a Franciscan.
Let’s look at your spiritual journey as an adult. During the many years that you lived away from the Wilmington-Philadelphia region, you never found a Quaker Meeting that felt like your spiritual home, and you tried quite a few. A Meeting outside Washington, D.C., came close to drawing you, but only briefly. In Ellsworth, Maine, you attended the Congregational Church fairly regularly, as you also did in Northampton, Massachusetts, where you joined the choir. In both cases, eventually you stopped attending. In Washington, D.C., you liked to attend the Episcopal service in the National Cathedral from time to time. The magnificent church and pageantry pleased you. You tried the Washington Ethical Society, but without continuing.
After returning to Delaware, you were unable to attend the Wilmington Meeting for a time because of the smell of gas in the meetinghouse. You visited a couple of other area Meetings, but always something ruled them out for you. For example, one Sunday you entered a meetinghouse and sat down to quiet yourself and wait for Meeting to begin. But a woman already present said in a haughty voice, “We’re going to be having a Meeting for Worship here,” as if you were an intruder rather than a visitor to be welcomed. You left immediately and did not return.
You began regularly attending the Unitarian Church in North Wilmington. You enjoyed the services and minister, sang in the choir, and were thrilled by the quality of the music in the church. You’d had a similar experience in Chevy Chase, Maryland, at a small Christian Church (as the Disciples of Christ denomination is known). But then you changed apartments and didn’t make the trek back to Chevy Chase on Sundays. And so on, and so on.
In Delaware, you left the Unitarians after the heating system in the 4th and West Meetinghouse was repaired and you were able to return. That was a happy time. On Sundays you sat between your parents on your family’s favorite bench. You were active on Meeting committees. You had come home, or so you thought. Even after your father’s passing, you and your mother were active in the Meeting until after your move to southeastern Pennsylvania—not a long distance to return to the meetinghouse on Sundays, but life changed, and then the Meeting seemed gradually to forget, and you felt sad and that your mother had been betrayed through the Meeting’s neglect.
When you expressed your hurt recently, you found the members of Meeting exceedingly kind, and you realized that loving feelings and appreciation toward your parents still remained among the Wilmington Quakers. Yet after a few Sundays of thinking that perhaps you had, after all, returned to stay, you did not continue to attend Meeting. Your affection and appreciation for present friends and Friends (as Quakers are also known) did not recreate the Friends and Meeting of the years now lost. The Meeting has gone on without you, and in spite of the kindness shown to you, you are no longer at home there, and you are not drawn to try to rekindle your belonging. The contrast between your approach-avoidance relationship with the Meeting and your enthusiastic attendance at Mass, retreats, companion meetings, and other events with the Franciscans is notable.
Not So Unexpected after All
You have had a fascination with Catholicism for much of your life, even though it was not until you became involved with the Franciscans that you understood how Quaker-you might find a fertile spiritual garden within the Catholic Church. Consider some of your connections with Catholicism over the years. At summer camp, you spent hours discussing ideas with your best friend, who was Catholic. You played your guitar at folk masses in college. Within your second college major, your emphasis was on medieval history, which was largely a history of the Church. One of your favorite activities in Europe was visiting churches—Chartres, Notre-Dame de Paris, and countless churches in Italy. And remember the joy you felt in waking up to church bells in Rome.
You have been inspired by Gregorian Chant and adore the magnificent religious music that has followed it through the centuries. And who was your best friend when you were in Pisa for a couple of weeks to learn Italian? It was a Franciscan brother. Your fascination with the Vatican has included reading several books on that subject. Consider your satisfaction in viewing religious art of the Renaissance. Of course, as a literature major, you have a strong appreciation for spiritual poetry and prose, from the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Franciscan Richard Rohr’s many books that speak to your heart and mind. And then you also feel the strong appeal of being part of a spiritual tradition that joins you with a billion current followers and with worshipers from the entire two millennia since Christ.
You will not find a perfect match anywhere. You will not agree with every quality and characteristic you find in any of the world’s religions. But paradoxically, the Catholic faith now seems closest to who you are and want to be. No real contradiction exists between the spiritual hearts of Quakerism and Franciscan Catholicism. Some of the externals are different, but not the essence that matters most.
So yes, you can take your Quaker heart into a Catholic church without denying parts of yourself or turning your back on your spiritual history and the beloved heritage given to you by your parents. You are not changing who you are; you are finding new settings for expressing your spiritual beliefs and values more fully than you are currently managing to do in the meetinghouse that once felt entirely inspiring, comforting, and embracing. While you continue to be a seeker and are growing somewhat in your understanding, you have not fundamentally changed your spiritual outlook. Circumstances have changed, however, and to continue to grow as you wish to do, you need to feel free to embrace new means of nurturing your soul.