Finding Catholicism at Harvard

On Sunday, April 6, 2003, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Nervous but happy, I assembled with my
By Paul C. Schultz

On Sunday, April 6, 2003, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Nervous but happy, I assembled with my sponsors, Frank and Gladden, and about twenty friends. Shortly after 4 p.m., the service started: Father greeted us with In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti and we began the prayers of the Mass. Our contemplation of the holy sacrifice was beautifully assisted by the performance of Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua and some other pieces of Renaissance polyphony by friends from school. After the homily, Father invited me forward.

Kneeling before the altar with my baptismal candle in right hand and with my left hand on the Gospels, I made the traditional profession of faith of converts, formulated after the Council of Trent. The beginning was easy, for I have always professed the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But each subsequent step was repudiation of part of my Reformation heritage: first, acceptance of Church tradition; second, recognition of all seven sacraments; third, the transubstantiation of the bread and wine fully into Christ’s body and blood; fourth, purgatory and indulgences, the power of the Church to remit punishment there; fifth, papal supremacy; and finally papal and conciliar infallibility in matters of faith and morals. I was not destroying my upbringing, however, but fulfilling it. My personal history had both prepared me for this day and had, at the same time, all but fully inoculated me against it.

I came from a devout, practicing Lutheran family. We always went to church at least once a week and my parents occasionally taught Sunday school. My religious education began with my dad reading Bible verses to me as soon as he knew I was within my mother’s womb and has never stopped. While children from other families went to sleep to fairy tales and the like, the days of my three siblings and I ended with stories from the Bible or from the biographies of famous Christians—Louis Pasteur, Isaac Newton, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther and others.

Biblical knowledge was a staple of the intellectual culture in which I grew up. My father emphasized that great minds and leaders of America and Western civilization have always known and used the Bible, and he wanted me to be so prepared. Homeschooled from kindergarten until third grade, I became thoroughly acquainted with many of the characters and stories in the Bible. My brothers and I even invented “Bible 20 Questions” to drill and try to stump each other.

We didn’t learn the Bible solely for rhetorical flourish; we believed it as well. While many Catholics and Protestants believe the Bible to be God’s inerrant and infallible Word (which reveals God’s law and salvation through Jesus Christ), Lutherans are among the Protestants who believe in sola scriptura, that is, that the Bible is the only document of divine revelation and that it is the sole norm and basis of Christian doctrine, as opposed to Catholics who believe that God has revealed doctrine through Tradition as well. Because of sola scriptura, many hours of my youth were spent in discovery of doctrine in the Bible. Though some Lutheran doctrines, such as original sin or water baptism, are easily found in the Bible, others, such as the Trinity, are not so clear.

In the fourth grade, my parents enrolled me in Lutheran grade school. My new peers often failed to recognize the value of scriptural knowledge as my homeschool peers had, but my pastors and teachers usually did. Through four more years of Lutheran catechesis I mastered the Scriptures and the doctrines that Lutherans draw from them and grew greatly in my faith in Jesus Christ and salvation through Him. In my confirmation during my eighth-grade year, I proposed a new theme for my profession of faith speech “What the Scriptures mean to me.” Mine was the most Lutheran speech of the 22 given by Guardian Lutheran School students that day.

Taking the Detroit Catholic high school placement test on a lark (my engineer father has always recommended that I keep my options open), I won a partial scholarship to Detroit Catholic Central High School, which was far closer and had many more course offerings than the Lutheran high school I would otherwise have attended. (Catholic Central also had a powerhouse football program.) Though my pastor feared that going to a Catholic school would confuse my Lutheran mind, I enrolled.

My pastor’s fears could not have been further from the truth. Rather than turning me from my faith, my four years of Catholic high school reinforced my beliefs in biblical Lutheranism. Sticking out as I did, I was always the “go-to guy” when questions of Protestant theology arose. I had to be on my toes continually: I read the Bible every day and worked to anticipate and research topics in advance to represent them correctly to my Catholic classmates. Because I always had to defend my faith, I left for college with Lutheran belief both in my heart and in my head.

Catholic Central helped me stay Lutheran in more ways than one. In Lutheran grade school we may have joked about Catholics who knelt to adore a piece of bread or prayed to Mary daily or believed that their Church’s tradition was on the same level as the Bible. At Catholic Central I didn’t find any of those Catholics. There certainly were people that had been baptized and “raised” Catholic, it’s just that none of them acted Catholic. Their parents’ generation had practically abandoned all the traditions that made Catholics Catholic. Their priests and parents, while not giving them the biblical knowledge fostered by Protestant sola scriptura, had also not sufficiently catechized them with the truths of their Catholic tradition. Thus left adrift, there was no way for them to demonstrate their faith in a way that I could appreciate. Unfortunately, my experience in college was much the same.

Harvard gets the best of the best, the brightest of the brightest. Surely—I assumed as a naïve first-year—surely the Catholics at Harvard would be those who were informed and serious about their faiths, right? So far as I can tell, no. Harvard Catholics, even at the institutional level, never successfully challenged my false assumptions about Catholicism. While they certainly professed the Harvardian belief in diversity and practiced the Harvardian concern for social justice, they never seemed to emphasize basic Catholic concerns like salvation or even spiritual formation. If anything, their Catholicism was even less evident to me than that of Catholic Central students—even though the environment should have made their beliefs more evident. Harvard is a pretty “godless” place: just to believe the things that the Catholic Church teaches should make one stick out like a sore thumb. I mean, why would a serious Lutheran ever want to become a lukewarm Catholic?

At this point, it would have seemed foolish to predict that I would ever find Catholics whose faith I could respect. Fortunately, when God acts, the odds don’t matter. Through my deep involvement in Harvard Right to Life and a serendipitous blocking experience which paired me with a devout roommate I hadn’t gotten to know yet in my first year, I discovered a group of active and faithful Catholics (N.B.: you do not have to be Catholic to be pro-life—my mother was once vice president of Michigan Lutherans for Life—but the Catholic Church is always emphatic and outspoken in the pro-life movement). Even though they weren’t Lutheran, they did share my culture and attitudes more than any other group on campus. I would continue in literalist Lutheranism for two more years, while they began knocking down the walls of anti-Catholicism in my mind. They showed me that there were pious Catholics who weren’t biblically illiterate and who did know and believe their catechism.

From the first we would argue religious questions. In the early days, I would conclude such discussions with an “agreement to disagree”—they could have their Tradition and Scripture and I would just stick to Scripture; they were well-informed and I enjoyed the challenge. In fall 2001, I began going to Mass because I found interesting the difference between the Catholic emphasis on the Eucharistic sacrifice and the Protestant emphasis on scripture and the sermon—and only celebrating the memorial of the Lord’s sacrifice, not actually renewing it. In spring 2002 I began attending spiritual meditation, Benediction and dinner Friday evenings at Elmbrook Center, since there was no more Lutheran option in the Square.

It was because of Elmbrook’s evenings of reflection and my time there that the chink in my Protestant armor was finally exposed last fall. In a bit of friendly Christian challenging, on Sept. 27, 2002, my friend Frank Altiere charged that “within two years” I would “feel the blessed chrism [of Catholic confirmation] drying on [my] forehead.” More than a tad annoyed, I countered that I would “never be Catholic,” and listed some specific Bible verses that I thought proved salvation to be by “faith alone,” as the Protestants allege.

Frank responded with verses to the opposite effect, and went a step further to demonstrate my fundamental error. As a Protestant, I claimed to rely on scripture to the exclusion of tradition, but my reliance on scripture was a tradition—from Luther and the sixteenth century. “Show me where in the Bible it says that it [the Bible] is the only thing,” Frank challenged. Ultimately, I couldn’t respond. Nowhere does the Bible claim to be the only thing. I didn’t concede the point that night, though. I said that I didn’t know offhand, but would be sure to check and get back to him. And check I did: in the course of the next few months I consulted my family, reread the New Testament and called a Harvard friend who is now a Lutheran pastor. In the end I had to concede his point. Verses such as II Thessalonians 2:15 and John 21:25 give far stronger evidence that Christian truth is not restricted to the Bible than II Timothy 3:16–17 give that it is.

As I asked more questions, Frank showed me where the seven sacraments, prayer to the saints and other Catholic doctrines could be found in the scriptures. By the end of January, most of my distinctly Lutheran beliefs were gone. Formerly I had attended First Lutheran Church near Boston Common and a traditional Latin Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church near Chinatown. At the start of Lent, I ceased attending Lutheran services and submitted myself to Fr. Higgins, who celebrated the High Latin Mass at Holy Trinity, for conversion preparation. Between Fr. Higgins, Elmbrook’s Fr. Bucciarelli, Frank and Gladden, all of my questions were answered and my preparation was complete.

I am a Catholic now. My parents are somewhat displeased and my siblings are confused but we all still love each other. Holiday service plans will require more elaborate coordination but we’ll still be a family. We have always discussed biblical and religious topics in the past and we’ll have even more to talk about now.

I am a Catholic now. I have made my first Confession. This Easter Sunday, the traditional time for receiving new members into the church, I will make my first communion. And all this because God blessed me with Catholic friends at Harvard.

Paul C. Schultz ’04 is an Economics concentrator in Quincy House.