Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Becoming Catholic—Reflections Of A Former United Methodist Clergywoman

By PATTY RYLE CLAY, Commentary | Published April 1, 2010

On Pentecost Sunday last year, I officially became a Catholic. My former parishioners, Protestant friends and colleagues, even family who know me so well, would ask, “Why?”  Interested and curious, they listened in earnest attention as I repeated the simple version: My becoming Catholic is a natural result of my spiritual and intellectual journey.

How could I ever put into words—even to those who know me so well—my lifelong movement in this direction? When I reflect on my past—the rosary I found at my feet in the woods when I was praying at age 15, the slow realization that I have been a contemplative all of my life, the attraction to and affinity with medieval women mystics, a deep longing to live in Christian community—I am aware all these factors and more brought me to the point of no return. The decision was almost made for me. All I had to do was stand at the altar and embrace it.

Father Richard Wise—who lives up to his name as an incredible pastor, teacher, friend and priest—received me, blessed me in the St. Francis of Assisi Church in Blairsville. I would quietly weep then, as I do at every Mass. My sweet husband and children, a sister-in-law, my sponsor, all were present, circling me with their love.

I am not sure I fully grasped then either the magnitude of the decision or the joy I continue to feel as a new Catholic. I am not certain I ever will.

Yes, there was a certain grief in surrendering my credentials as a United Methodist clergywoman: I would never again celebrate the Eucharist. I would muse over ideas for a sermon that would remain unwritten, the words privately lodged in my chest. The sacred privilege of burying a loved one or baptizing a baby would remain an experience of the past. As a female pastor for over 23 years in a pivotal time and transition within United Methodist history to be a more inclusive church, as a wife married to a UMC minister and one of the early ‘clergy couples’ in our North Georgia Conference, as an active member and modest leader within the system, I had weathered much, witnessed much, both good and bad, that I would be leaving.

And yet, we must follow the Spirit wherever she leads. And trust the journey. How can we ever regret?

Catholic friends have encouraged me to join the organization called “Coming Home,” an association for former Protestants who “convert” to Catholicism. And perhaps it is the Protestant remnant in me, or simply the natural loner and rebel I am, that causes me to resist even the name of the organization.

With all due respect to my new brothers and sisters who share a similar path as former Protestants, I offer a slightly different perspective. I wonder if it is even possible to “come home” in this life. And aren’t we all one body as the Church no matter what part we fill? Don’t we all share in the call and challenge of falling in love over and over again with the beauty and terror of creation? Doesn’t the Mass remind us of this truth, fill up our mouths, our hearts, the fabric of our very lives with this amazing grace and presence?

I tell people I am Catholic largely for this—the daily reminder that Christ is enough. I tell them that I don’t want or need to be a priest, even if Catholic women are ever ordained. I am on a different journey now.

My intellectual, theological, spiritual life, all lead me to union. I know no other way to exist. And for this union—for a past, present and future reality as a daughter of our Lord, for old and new colleagues and friends in the universal church and Christian faith, for love which transcends every barrier, even the smallest crack, for the marriage of souls which exists between God and one another, for the confluence of theology, religious practice, and experience, for the coming together of heart, mind and body in an Incarnational faith, for the mystery of the Trinity—I will sing.

Whether it’s the Salve Regina during the exquisite chants of a monastic compline or the rousing and beautiful harmonies of Charles Wesley’s “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” in the pew, I pray I will always open my mouth wide in awe and wonder and sing the Song which never ends.

I pray that you will too.

Patty served as a United Methodist minister for 23 years before becoming Catholic last Pentecost. She has master’s degrees in divinity and in theology from Emory University and lives with her husband in Dallas, where she writes essays, poems, and is called to a life of contemplative prayer and simple work.