A cradle Anglican, Kasey Kimball grew up in Newburyport, Mass., moving to Vancouver in 2014 to attend Regent College. In 2018, she graduated with her MA in doctrinal theology and was received into the Catholic Church this Easter. She shared her story of conversion at St. Mark’s College April 7 with the talk “The Body of Christ Suffers Together: Reflections from a Convert to a Church in Crisis.” This is a shortened version of that testimony.
Trying to tell one’s own conversion story is a bit like trying to express the ineffable. Yes, there are important moments, important revelations, and important books to mention, but the work of grace is also inherently mysterious. Every time I tell this story, I get more insight into that work of grace, and am newly amazed by it.
Last August, I attended Mass at a small outdoor chapel in Lake Tahoe, Calif. At that time, I was deep in ecclesiastical no-man’s land. I’d flunked out of RCIA a few months earlier (by that, I mean I attended all the classes and went through all the rites but could not in good conscience become a Catholic at Easter).
I wanted to be a Catholic and was certainly living as one (using the Magnificat missal religiously, getting comfortable with the Rosary, speaking about Protestants as if I wasn’t one), but I simply wasn’t ready theologically. I was missing that deep conviction that the Church is who she says she is
– a conviction without which there could be no moving forward.
At the same time, I knew I couldn’t go back to Protestantism. I’d tried, but after spending a year attending Mass, Protestant liturgies seemed so full of arbitrary human words (some of which, as an occasional preacher, I’d written myself). It seemed we were reinventing the wheel Sunday by Sunday, even though the riches of tradition were there, ready to be used.
There was also the question of authority that lurked in the back of my mind. While Protestants claimed the Bible as their final authority, in reality we all appealed to someone
– to Luther or Calvin or Cranmer or Barth or a blog we liked or our local pastor – when it came to interpreting what the Bible said and meant. My own Anglican church was struggling to remain viable after a major theological split. Who had the final say? Without a clear authority, it seemed we always fell back on ourselves.
I also found Protestant churches lacked the definitive presence of Christ I’d sensed at Mass. This is not to say that Christ was absent in Protestantism, but there was a palpable difference in intensity. There was one Sunday early on that I felt Jesus staring me down from the table and tabernacle; the intensity was deeply compelling, yet barely tolerable. The idea that the Christ was present in a unique way in the Catholic Church was an idea that I found offensive, but my experience suggested it just might be true.
So there I was at Tahoe, on a wooden bench, on a sunny Sunday morning with my Protestant friends on my left and a Catholic stranger on my right. Because I was so familiar with the Mass, the stranger next to me must have assumed that I was Catholic. My friends must have wondered why I seemed so Catholic. I felt like a Catholic pretending to be a Protestant pretending to be a Catholic. As you can tell, my conversion was not far off!
When the priest came out, he spoke directly about the McCarrick scandal which had broken that week. He acknowledged the horrors of the abuse, the need for accountability and reform. I appreciated his directness, the refusal to maintain a chain of silence.
I also found myself feeling unexpectedly drawn to the Church. The impression I had in that moment was that if the Catholic Church was the body of Christ in a particular way (and that was still a big if), then I needed to move close to her in this time of crisis. If you find this a strange reaction to the revelation of yet another instance of clergy sexual abuse and cover-up, I did too.
Perhaps part of this impulse was due to the shift in perspective on the place of suffering in the life of the Christian and the life of the Church I’d experienced over the last few years. My Master of Arts was a time of great suffering: in 3 years my parents got divorced, both were diagnosed with cancer, and I faced a series of health challenges, including clinical depression and a concussion that caused chronic headaches.
All of this challenged my understanding of the Christian life. I wouldn’t have said I believed in the Prosperity Gospel, but there was still a part of me that expected following Jesus to “work” in a certain way, to produce a certain kind of result. If it didn’t make one healthy or wealthy, at least it would bring some modicum of satisfaction, meaning, peace, hope, joy, purpose, or fulfilment?
This narrative no longer seemed right to me. Either I was misunderstanding Christianity on a fundamental level, or the whole thing was a sham. As a result of the concussion, I was spending a lot of my days alone in my dark bedroom binge-watching Gilmore Girls and Parks and Recreation. I was barely able to do my schoolwork, much less “big things for Jesus.” I didn’t know what faithfulness looked like. I didn’t know what vocation meant.
Many Christians I knew seemed fixated on the idea that God would heal me. They didn’t have a category for a faithful life that was constrained by chronic illness or pain, where faithfulness and suffering were not at odds.
I had already started working on my thesis on St. Bonaventure’s texts on the Passion, but as I lay in bed, unable to read or write, I started thinking about how Bonaventure understood Christ’s own suffering and what bearing that might have on his reader. This forced my thesis in a new direction.
In The Tree of Life and The Mystical Vine, Bonaventure invites the reader to meditate on Christ’s suffering in all its excruciating detail. For Bonaventure, the intensity of Christ’s suffering is evidence of the depth of his love for his fallen creation. Christ, the new Adam, became human to heal humanity on our behalf from the inside. In every moment of his life, he reversed the self-orientation of sin with loving orientation to God and neighbour; he healed our pride with humility, our rebellion with his obedience.
This involved great suffering on his part. Bonaventure does not claim that Christ’s suffering itself is good or beautiful. It is the fact that God would do this on our behalf – to heal us of evil and its consequences – that is beautiful.
Christ’s work – including his suffering – has freed us from sin and its consequences. We are promised all our suffering will end. But Bonaventure is clear that Christ’s victory doesn’t mean the Church ceases to suffer. In fact, the opposite is true. And, just as suffering and joy are shared among the members of Christ’s body on earth, so they are shared between the members of the body of Christ who are on earth and those who are in heaven.
As I sat, in pain, with Bonaventure for two years, I found these claims to be true. As I learned about the saints (Julien and Catherine, Francis and Thérèse, the Teresas, Faustina, and many others) I noticed how faithful men and women were not spared suffering. In fact, many of them suffered on account of their faithfulness: in their battles against sin and struggle for holiness, in their works of mercy, in their becoming like Christ in his poverty, humility, obedience, and love.
They were so secure in the love of God that they were free to give themselves away, even unto death. Their stories were inspiring, maddening, and convicting. I started to believe their testimony that the suffering was worth it in order to possess the freedom and joy of beatitude. I started to count them as my friends. I wanted to be a part of their family.
I was also intrigued by the way in which suffering had been a pathway for these men and women to come to know Christ. This ecclesiological dimension of suffering was striking to me as a Protestant. It was not just that I as an individual could know Christ and become like him by sharing in his suffering, but that by being connected to Christ, I was also connected to other members of his body.
I didn’t quite (and still don’t quite) understand the Catholic language of “offering up” suffering for others and knew that it can become masochistic, burdensome, and an excuse not to fight against oppression. However, I found it empowering. In this way of thinking, suffering itself was still bad, but it could be forced to produce good.
This opened the possibility that while I was at home alone in my bed, not living an “epic” or “radical” Christian life, not even sure that my body would allow me to do the vocation to which I was called, I was still valuable, I could still be part of what God is doing in the world.
Plunging myself into a Catholic (particularly Bonaventurean) way of thinking about suffering:
- Helped me love Jesus again and see him as beautiful, especially in his suffering. It made me willing to embrace the way in which the pursuit of sainthood would require suffering: dying to myself in order to love God and others.
- Gave me a vision of the Christian life that squared with reality of suffering, and yet held this in light of deep eschatological hope for a time when suffering would end.
- Helped me understand that suffering, while temporary and evil, is a way of knowing Christ and participating in his death; part of sanctification (it certainly helped me become more patient, compassionate, dependent, less attached to my idols of performance); and profoundly ecclesial, because by connecting us to Christ, it connects us to others.
All this thinking paved the way for my response at Tahoe: my willingness to receive the invitation to move toward suffering, as Jesus had, rather than away from it.
Before I continue, I want to be clear that I do not wish any of what I’ve said so far to minimize the suffering victims of abuse have endured, to imply that God wished it upon them, or to suggest that it is a good thing for which they should be thankful. While I believe that suffering is, by the grace of Christ, redeemable, all abuse (like all suffering) is an evil that cannot be excused or tolerated. We should be angry about it; God certainly is. While we claim the redemptive power of suffering, we are still called to prevent, reduce, and alleviate it.
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself: “Okay Kasey, I can see how you might have been willing to join a church that was suffering on account of its faithfulness, if it was being persecuted, or falsely maligned, or whatever. But what makes sense of moving toward a church that claims to be the Church Jesus founded and has caused suffering and is suffering (rightfully) on account of its own sin?”
Let me turn to another Catholic writer (not yet a saint) who influenced me greatly: Caryll Houselander. Some of her famous writings concern her experience of World War II, which she understood to be Christ’s Passion.
Much of her theology emerged from three visions she had of Christ in people. The third occurred when she was on the Tube in London and saw Christ in every passenger: living, dying, suffering, sorrowing. Reflecting on the experience in her autobiography A Rocking Horse Catholic, she said: “I saw too the reverence that everyone must have for a sinner; instead of condoning his sin, which is in reality his utmost sorrow, one must comfort Christ who is suffering in him. And this reverence must be paid even to those sinners whose souls seem to be dead, because it is Christ, who is the life of the soul, who is dead in them; they are his tombs, and Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ. For the same reason, no one of us who has fallen into mortal sin himself must ever lose hope.”
For Houselander, Christ can be found not merely in those who suffer innocently, but also those who suffer on account of their own sin. A she says, this does not mean condoning their sin, but seeing in them a dying Christ who might rise.
The Church doesn’t cease to be the Church when it is plagued with sin and scandal. This might seem like a deterrent, but many people have been drawn to the Roman Catholic Church precisely because it is honest about its need for proving and purification.
A definitive moment in the conversion of G.K. Chesterton was when he saw a notice in a Roman Catholic church warning people not to leave their umbrellas in the bucket, lest they be stolen during Mass. It told him that this Church was self-aware; it was honest about its propensity to sin; it wasn’t claiming to be a field of wheat free of chaff. It was a church for someone like him (sinful and in need of mercy) to come and be equipped to answer the call to sainthood.
My intention here is not to excuse or diminish sin, and it certainly doesn’t mean that people guilty of perpetuating abuse shouldn’t face consequences. Of course, they should. But the Church Jesus founded should expect correction, humbling, and purification precisely because of who she is.
God will not allow us to get away with sin in secrecy forever. It seems like the whole Church is in the confessional right now, bringing its sins out into the open before God and the whole world. I think the public nature of the Roman Catholic Church’s reckoning right now is actually a sign that she is who she says she is. She has been through much worse and not (as happens in Protestantism) divided or disappeared. This is nothing short of miraculous.
I think part of what was happening at Tahoe was a growing recognition that as a Christian (not even a Catholic), I was part of the body of Christ, the body for whom Christ suffered. And in that sense, it was a fallacy for me to stand apart from the Catholics and say: “your sin doesn’t implicate me; your suffering doesn’t hurt me.”
This was even more true as I was increasingly thinking of the Catholics as “my people.” I couldn’t enjoy the beauty of the Church without also feeling its pain, suffering its humiliation. I didn’t have some misplaced Messianic complex; I didn’t think my doing this would solve anything, but it still seemed right.
By the time I left Tahoe, I was moving increasingly closer to being ready to join the Church. My experiences and studying all pointed me in the same direction, but I still needed to do some historical investigation about the claim that the original church was the Catholic Church.
On a basic level I knew this: there was one church until the East/West split, then the Reformation. But many Protestants (my own Anglicans included) claimed a resemblance between their own theology, worship, etc., to that of the early church. So, I read the Apostolic Fathers to get a sense of what the church was like after the close of the New Testament canon.
I was surprised by how Catholic it was! This was not the hippie church that had a flat leadership structure in which people casually met in homes and the Eucharist was a normal meal. I was struck, in particular, by how similar the emphases in these teachings were to what I’d been reading in Bonaventure and more contemporary Catholic writers. There was the same emphasis on humility, unity, love, perseverance, hope, obedience, repentance. There was the same emphasis on the communal nature of Christian living.
Furthermore, the emphasis on unity was profound. Over and over, these writers asserted that obedience to their bishop was obedience to Christ and separation from the church was separation from Christ – a major issue for sanctification and evangelization.
I see how this single focus on obedience can be problematic, and we’re certainly having important conversations about how structures of power work (and can be abused) in Catholicism today. To that I offer three reflections/observations:
- This structure of obedience assumes an incredibly high standard of holiness on the part of the bishops.
- Unity isn’t unanimity. In the image of the Triune God the cCurch is united across difference.
- JMR Tillard, in his fabulous book Flesh of the Church, Flesh of Christ writes while a power hierarchy is necessary in the Church now, it is temporary. The leveling power of the Gospel is the one that endures.
This was convicting for me as Protestant. What is obvious to Catholics became clear to me: God didn’t just leave behind a book; he left a people. This people, despite its sins and heresies, mistakes and failures, was (by the grace of God) still intact. Becoming Catholic wasn’t about agreeing with everything the Church was saying or doing (apart from dogma, of course). It was about the identity of the Church, an identity based in Christ. I was given the grace to believe that the Church is who she says she is.
Cradle Catholics often tell me: “Given all the theological reading you’ve done, I hope you’re not disappointed with the Church as it actually is on the ground.” I can say that I’m not disappointed.
Perhaps this is a “perq” of coming into a Church in crisis. I have no romantic illusions about what I’m getting into. To the contrary, in the Catholic Church (the real one on the ground today) I find this profound mix of ordinary and divine. When I walk into my parish, I see an actual cross-section of my Vancouver neighbourhood: rich and poor, men and women, married and unmarried, old and young, healthy and disabled, from many ethnic backgrounds. My growing conviction is that this body of ordinary people is, mysteriously and truly, also the body of Christ.
As Tillard points out, it’s the Eucharist that makes the Church. As we receive the body of Christ, we become the body of Christ. We are what we eat. As the body of Christ, we are then offered back up to God in the sacrifice of the Mass. We are blessed and broken and poured out.
The Eucharist empowers us to go into the world in love, the kind of love that will lead us to suffer. As we continue through this crisis, there is much suffering ahead. May we remember the Eucharist and, in receiving it, become who we see and receive who we are.
Kasey Kimball is a new Catholic and has an MA in doctrinal theology from Regent College. Her talk at St. Mark's was hosted by the Newman Association of Vancouver.
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