St. Augustine says that he left north Africa to go to Italy in order to find better students there, students who would actually pay their fees. As a teacher, Augustine wanted to move up in the world. He longed for fame. But, as he says in his Confessions, another and higher reason he went to Italy was because God wanted him to hear the preaching of Ambrose of Milan and to be converted.
The Confessions are a profound meditation on God’s providence. I remember reading St. Augustine for the first time in college and being struck by the peculiar ways in which God is at work even in our selfish and God-ignoring choices. Having grown up with a pious, praying mother myself, I left home and went to public school in the eighth grade. My freshman year, in an advanced Spanish class, I met a sophomore named Mike, who took a liking to me for reasons I do not know.
Mike’s friendship was valuable to me for very selfish reasons. He was a very popular fellow, well-liked by everyone, athletic, talented, and friendly. I had grown up keeping to myself, the bookish child among mainly athletic brothers. High school was, relative to my own history, an overwhelmingly vibrant social sphere in which I was not at all at home. So, the meaning of this budding friendship with Mike was clear: it meant upward social mobility. If you were friends with Mike, you were something.
It turned out, actually, that Mike was a Christian. All the friends he introduced me to were, for the most part, also wonderful Christians, ‘mere Christians’, in C.S. Lewis’ words, whose most noticeable quality is that they didn’t consider their Christian faith just ‘one more thing’ in their lives. Not: “Yeah, I play hockey, am in the debate club, love the Dave Matthews Band, and–in addition–am Christian’. But rather: their faith meant everything to them; it oriented everything they did.
Seen retrospectively, from the vantage of God’s grace, it seems clear that the reason I became friends with Mike was because God wanted me to become a Christian, to turn away from myself toward Christ. I did, and humanly speaking, I owe Mike and our friends everything.
All these friends to whom Providence had introduced me were, I soon learned, Protestant. But at the time, I was not a big fan even of Protestantism. All the big books of theology seemed like a distraction from what really matters. Catholics seemed even more hopeless.
With a great deal of passion and interest, and probably a significant degree of arrogance, I went to a Christian undergraduate college in order to become a minister. In order to avoid a certain class, though, I had to switch concentrations, and as a result, I ended up in an intro to Western Civ that I had hoped to avoid. The result, however, was that I fell in love with history and philosophy. It is very difficult to explain how this happens. The closest thing I know to it is falling in love. There’s a great deal of excitement and nervousness, but at the same time peace, contentment, and gratitude.
As a result, I thought either of becoming a college professor or a Christian minister. My thought-process was simple. I was a Protestant, but one who was greatly appreciative of the Christian inheritance. I did not want to be a prodigal who takes the inheritance and squanders it. So, I figured, I would seek ordination in some historic Protestant denomination. But which one? The Episcopalians? The Lutherans? The Reformed? I spent several years investing myself both in Protestant communities and in study of their theological backgrounds. I even went to Yale Divinity School to do so.
It turns out, however, that from the vantage-point of God’s grace I actually went to Yale in order to become Catholic. I could not have anticipated this. But after developing deep friendships with a handful of wonderful Catholics, both in the academy and not, and after more and more reading books and deliberating over what to do with the great gifts God has given us, I came to realize around Easter 2013 that I should join the Church. After some private catechesis with a Dominican brother at St. Mary’s in New Haven–where Fr. McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus–I joined the Church in October 2013 and was confirmed–as St. Augustine.