Published April 26, 2001
The Catholic Difference
When I first started working with evangelical Protestants some fifteen years ago, I was struck by the singular way these brethren would introduce themselves at a meeting where few present knew each other.
“I’m John Smith,” a man in his meridian years would say as the introductions went around the room, “and I was born again on October 5, 1970”—at which point, Mr. Smith would have been about eighteen or twenty. Similar testimonials would come from every other evangelical present. It was touching and intriguing, but the pedant in me is never far from the surface, and so to inject a little sacramental theology into the proceedings, I took to saying, on such occasions, “I’m George Weigel. I was born again on April 29, 1951….at which point I was twelve days old.” Interesting glances followed, often by interesting discussions.
As I mark fifty years since my rebirth in Christ, I find myself reflecting on a letter I was sent on May 15, 1951, twenty-eight days after I entered this vale of tears in Baltimore’s Mercy Hospital. The letter was written by Father Thomas Love, S.J., then of Georgetown University. Father Love had celebrated my parents’ wedding Mass and had been recruited to do the baptismal honors in Sts. Philip and James Church (whose pastor at the time would later be the twelfth archbishop of Baltimore, a mentor, and a friend: Lawrence Cardinal Shehan). According to family legend, perhaps exaggerated a bit in the telling, I hollered so loudly that my cousin Judy took refuge in a confessional. Chalk it up to a particularly virulent case of original sin.
In any event, Father Love was not off-put by my infant caterwauling and dropped me a note a few weeks later. My mother, who has rarely thrown away anything of consequence (look in the right bin in my parents’ attic, and you can find who Mom’s dance partners were at a cotillion in 1932), gave me my “baby album” a while ago. There was Father Love’s letter, written in a craggy but entirely legible script. “You must know,” he wrote, “how highly honored I was to have been asked [to baptize you] and I appreciate that honor. I could ask nothing better for you in life that that you will be an honor and glory to God…You know, George, I’m getting very old now and I don’t hop around as much as in years gone by. I’ll try to surprise you some day and see how much you have gained in weight…Grow in wisdom and age and grace, and God be with you always. Your spiritual daddy, Fr. Tom, S.J.”
Father Love died long before I could get him fixed in my memory. But half a century after we met on what was, arguably, the most important day of my life, I thank him for his spiritual paternity and for what I hope are, now, his intercessory prayers. It is not for me to judge whether his baptismal hopes for me have been fulfilled; as a prominent preacher-politician once said, “God isn’t finished with me yet.” Like a latter-day St. Paul exhorting his Corinthians, Father Love’s letter, sitting on my desk, is an epistolary exhortation “not to receive God’s grace in vain” (2 Cor. 6.1).
“Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation,” the apostle continues. That, it seems to me, is perhaps the greatest challenge of the Christian life: to see the world afresh, every day, as a world aflame with the fire of the Holy Spirit. If I really lived the grace of my baptism fully, everything that happens to me, every person I meet, every situation in which I find myself would be self-evidently caught up in the great cosmic drama of God’s creative and redemptive purposes. And I would react accordingly. May I do better in the years ahead.
I thank my parents for bringing me to the waters of new life on April 29, 1951. I thank Father Thomas Love, S.J., through whose priesthood I was born again, a new creation in Christ. And I thank my evangelical friends for reminding me that that is exactly what happened, fifty years ago.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.