Father Carter Griffin is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. Raised Presbyterian, he converted to Catholicism while attending Princeton University.
by Fr. Carter Griffin
My big mistake was attending a Catholic Mass. It began innocently enough, visiting a Catholic friend who attended a southern university, a young woman that I wanted to impress by my large-minded desire to go to church with her. But my life has never been the same since that April Sunday of 1992. The next day, returning to New Jersey where I attended college, I had eight hours to ponder the experience of that Mass. It had made an indelible impression, and upon returning to the dormitory I asked a Catholic friend of mine to take me to his parish priest. I had some questions that needed answering.
I grew up in a Presbyterian family, fairly consistent churchgoers, and I had always harbored an interest in religion. My father's business took us abroad when I was very young, and most of my childhood was spent living in countries in Latin America. Most of my friends who were "serious" about religion were in fact Catholic, so I grew up touched by a favorable view of the Church. When we lived in Brazil, I attended an English-speaking Catholic school, and I vividly recall being one of the few children who were not able to receive Holy Communion during our weekly Mass. It was that hunger to receive Our Lord that would one day blossom into the grace of conversion and the faith to believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist.
By the time I reached college, however, I suppose that I was a typical product of our age: ambitious for worldly gain and pleasure, friendly, noncommittal, non-dogmatic, tolerant to a fault, ignorant of supernatural realities, numb to the movement of the Holy Spirit. All things considered, I may not have been a great sinner, but neither was I remotely interested in becoming a saint. I was, in other words, your average "nice guy." Then came that unforgettable experience of Mass.
After that initial impetus, there was nothing very theatrical in my path to conversion. My life continued as normal, but peppered by moments of insight. Many of these experiences were triggered by my reading. Having spoken to my friend's parish priest, I began to read a great deal, and I found that many of my presumptions about Catholicism, about its beliefs, practices, and history, were inaccurate and often plainly wrong and unfair. Much to my surprise, I found that Catholics did not, in fact, worship Mary; that children whose only fault is being unborn nonetheless have a right to live; that Catholic history is not a swath of benighted ignorance punctuated by moments of light, but rather a fantastically rich and diverse and proud affirmation of goodness and beauty, shadowed only by the human frailty that we all share.
As my "myth busting" reading continued, I found that these and my other prejudices, never before questioned, began to waver, then sway, then collapse. Each time, my presumed conviction in what I held became less strident, until one day I realized that I was approaching a topic in reverse: where my views differed from that of the Church, I expected the Church to be right, and me to be wrong. That's when I thought to myself with wonder, "I can't believe it. I think it's all true!" The irony of those words didn't hit me at the time, because of course it was precisely then that I could believe it! I entered the program of formation (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) at the parish church, and several months later, at the Easter Vigil of 1993, I was received into the full communion of the Catholic Church and Confirmed.
During this period of preparation, I will never forget one of my talks with the priest who eventually brought me into the Church. As I was preparing to leave, he casually remarked that, after my conversion, God may ask still "more" of me. That is – and I fully understood what he meant – God may ask me to be a priest. I mumbled an answer, and left feeling a bit resentful that he had placed such a burden on me, before I was even a Catholic! It was not the sort of thing that nice, non-committal people like myself would ever dream of doing to another human being! How little I knew, how little I understood the depth of his charity for me. And how grateful I am today for that priest's courage; though he has now gone to the Lord, every day I pray for him in thanksgiving. In fact, ten years after his unwelcome suggestion, he vested me as a deacon in St. Peter's Basilica.
Upon finishing college, I entered Officer Candidate School and began a four-year stint in the Navy, where I served on a cruiser and a destroyer in the Atlantic Fleet. Fortunately, at college I had met some wonderful Catholics in Opus Dei who encouraged me to foster a life of prayer, ongoing reception of the sacraments, spiritual reading, and devotions. That formation in the interior life kept me grounded throughout those exciting four years of military service.
As I neared the end of my time in the Navy, I again reflected on that priest's suggestion to consider a vocation to the priesthood, but was still not quite ready to take the plunge. Once again I had a serious girlfriend and, while deep down I knew that the Lord was calling me to be His priest, I tried one last "end run" around Him. I took the LSAT and applied to law school, and when the acceptance letter came from my "long shot" school, I was ecstatic. When the euphoria wore off, however, I stared at the letter and realized that I would never attend. Without any more hesitation, I turned it down, sent in my application to the seminary for the Archdiocese of Washington, and embarked upon the most satisfying and exhilarating journey of my life.
More than any other feeling, my heart is filled with gratitude. Gratitude to God for my life, for the grace of conversion, for my faith. Gratitude to my family for their love, for my education, for their unfailing support and encouragement. Gratitude to the many priests and laypeople who have been such fine witnesses of the Catholic faith and who have supported me every step of the way. Most of all, however, I am grateful for the great gift and blessing of a call to the priesthood. What an amazing life – a life of intimate union with Christ, of acting as a powerful channel of God's grace, of having a privileged role in the lives of His people. God gave me a choice, a real choice, and I was free to turn the vocation down. He does not want reluctant disciples. Not for a moment, however, have I regretted my answer. I have never been happier in my life, I have never looked back, and there is nothing I would rather do. I pray every day that Our Lord will bestow the privilege of a call to the priesthood on many generous, steadfast men to be fathers of souls. Never before, I believe, has there a better time, a more noble cause, or a more abundant harvest of souls hungering for truth, for pure and unstained love, for genuine happiness and peace of heart.
That priest who asked me to consider a call to the priesthood understood. He knew that every man's happiness, ultimately, is found in following God's plan for his life. That is the great, open secret unknown to the modern world, in which so many people frenetically pursue "happiness" in all the wrong places. He wanted for me what every true Christian friend should want for us: the serenity and uncontainable joy of a generous disciple of Jesus Christ. For me, the road of discipleship meant becoming a priest, but it first meant embracing the beauty, the truth, and the joy of Catholicism. The Catholic Church has been a sure guide, a light in dark times, and a bedrock of support to me for over half my life. I cannot even imagine life without the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession, without the steady hand of her doctrine, without the assurance that she uniquely unites us to Christ. And that, in a nutshell, is why I am Catholic.
Father Carter Griffin is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. Raised Presbyterian, he converted to Catholicism while attending Princeton University. After graduating in 1994, he served for four years as a surface line officer in the United States Navy prior to entering the seminary. He attended Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland for two years of philosophy followed by the North American College in Rome for five years of theology. Father Griffin was ordained to the priesthood in 2004 and served as the priest-secretary to the Archbishop of Washington before beginning doctoral studies in Rome in 2008. His doctoral dissertation, "Supernatural Fatherhood Through Priestly Celibacy: Fulfillment in Masculinity," was published in 2010. He is presently the parochial vicar of St. Peter's parish on Capitol Hill, and has recently been reassigned as the Vocations Director of the Archdiocese of Washington and the Vice-Rector of the Archdiocese's new Blessed John Paul II Seminary.
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