Tita Antonia (not her real name) was a friend of my uncle’s, and an extremely devout Roman Catholic Marian devotee, along with her husband. When we came to visit her family in Virginia a few weeks ago, she had just arrived from Rome, from an audience with the Pope himself. She had been absolved, she said, and that as long as she didn’t sin again after that, her salvation was assured — at which her brother-in-law joked, baka lumampas na sa langit. (She may already have overshot Heaven.)
When Tita Antonia found out I was a Baptist, converted from Roman Catholicism, the reaction was almost alarming: her eyes widened in surprise, then suddenly narrowed to unfriendly slits, not unlike those of a predator viewing its prey.
The response from elder Filipino Catholics who know me is always the same, almost word for word: “How awful. What could make you leave the Catholic faith after years and years of being in a Catholic school?”
And my response is also the same: “I have realized from the Scripture that my salvation is in Jesus Christ alone, by God’s grace and mercy, and not by works and traditions. I left the Roman Catholic church because I could not reconcile its teachings with a Biblical faith.”
She had dealt with this kind of talk before, though; her husband had been with Assemblies of God before becoming Catholic with her. “You should read M. Scott Hahn,” she said, “and pray to the Blessed Mother to open your eyes to the truth.”
“I’ve found the truth,” I responded, in as friendly and docile a manner as I could, “and the truth is that God declares us righteous solely by virtue of the sacrifice of our Lord on the cross.”
“Ah,” she said, “But what is it that saves us?”
“Jesus Christ,” I responded, matter-of-fact as could be.
“Yes, but what was spilled that saves us? You’re missing the point.”
“Spilled? His blood, of course.” I wondered where this was going.
“His blood!” she said, “Yes! You see?” And she put on a look of smug triumph, as though that statement of the obvious had made her right and me wrong. I could only raise an eyebrow. Then she continued, speaking more to the air than to me (or perhaps to other relatives in the room who were very intently watching the exchange over pastries and tea), “These children, with so little experience in life…”
“Tita,” I said somewhat peevishly, “are you trying to imply that my decisions of faith are simply the result of youthful impulsiveness? I find that terribly insulting.”
“Well,” she said, that smug expression with its slitted eyes trained on me again, “what else could cause you to turn your back on the Holy Church? You need to read the Catechisms of the Holy Mother Church to be enlightened, and the works of the saints and the popes. I mean, you’re Protestants! Even just that name, ‘Protestant,’ implies that something is wrong with what you believe….”
Shortly after, her husband (an American whose name I have forgotten) came in, and a lively — but one-sided — debate ensued, as I was bombarded with M. Scott Hahn, implicit accusations of desertion, and attacks on sola Scriptura, sola fides, Calvinism, and the priesthood of the believer. At one point, her husband tried to point out what was wrong with personal interpretation of Scripture: “See, when I was with Assemblies of God, I could just open the Bible and freely interpret it any way I liked. I was my own Pope! Isn’t there something wrong with that? That’s what’s wrong with you Protestants. M. Scott Hahn says…” (Could you tell they were infatuated with Hahn? They had his overrated book Rome Sweet Home and even a videotape of testimonies.)
It went on through the night, and I wish that I could say I was a strong witness to the faith, that I stood my ground in the Spirit; but the truth is that I was unable to get much of a word in. I could only sit there with a dumb smile on my face and the occasional attempt to try and interrupt the barrage, without success.
I wasn’t much of a testimony, but I did learn a bit that night, though: in many ways, this particular sect of Marian devotees are to the Catholic Church what the Fundamentalist Baptists are to Protestantism. They’ve picked up certain aspects of dispensational premillenialism — though decidedly negative on a pretribulational Rapture — and can match any “Left Behind” Baptist for predicting Armageddon based on current events in Israel. There’s a dose of Rebecca-Brown-style demonism and cultural paranoia, a strong streak of anti-Masonic suspicion, and — get this — they disapprove of the Jesuits.
I found out that last one at the end of the day. Despite the somewhat heated tension of interreligious debate, conversation stayed rather cordial, and as I left the house with my uncle, my aunt said that if I ever returned to Catholicism, I would make an excellent priest. I laughed and agreed, saying, “If I do decide to do that, I want to be a Jesuit.”
“No,” she replied, shocked, “not the Jesuits! Too liberal!”
This despite the fact that one of the main reasons Ignatius of Loyola formed the Society of Jesus was to combat the Protestant Reformation.
I went home with my uncle, somewhat disappointed and downhearted . Pieces of the conversation from that night have stayed with me these past few weeks, and afterisms have flooded my mind — of course, too late. Not that I could have gotten a word in anyway.
I did achieve one thing, though: while addressing whether Catholic Catechism is on equal footing with Scripture, I managed to use the phrase “begging the question” in its proper context. Yee-haw!