It’s refreshing at times to encounter a recent convert to the Catholic faith, and to hear him or her speak glowingly of their new experience in the church. Most of the time their expressions are glowing. The contour of the churches, the layout of their interiors, the art work found within, whether statuary, stained-glass windows or paintings, the music, whether classical organ motets or those of recent vintage, the layout of the sanctuary with the focus on the altar and the tabernacle, the orderly arrangements of the ministers around the altar in their array of variously colored vestments—all these strike the newcomer as a thrilling display of taste and orderliness, and contribute to the “uplift” that recent converts to the faith experience. This is all for the good.
Over and above that, some of these recent converts are eager to give accounts of how they were drawn to the Catholic faith, and some of these are exceedingly interesting, to say the least. They may have involved hearing an inner voice or having a sensation of someone near at hand or witnessing some remarkable event or undergoing some other out-of-this-world phenomenon, etc.
Now, cradle Catholics stand outside these series of events, all of which are on the “wonderful” side, and either regard them as “hard to believe” or as privileged events reserved to the chosen few. And they may wonder why people like themselves, who have plodded along somewhat unenthusiastically and maybe sullenly at times, have never undergone comparable wonders or even had occasion to engage in admiration at the familiar sights and sounds of their Catholic faith, comparable to what some converts to the faith have apparently had.
We might well identify these two kinds of Catholics in terms of the two great apostles of our faith: Peter and Paul. Peter was an “ole timer”, in a manner of speaking. He was one of the very earliest companions of Jesus, accepting His invitation at the very outset to join Jesus’ ministry. He fulfilled the criterion expressed years later when a replacement for the unfaithful Judas had to be chosen: that he be : ”…one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of Jesus until the day on which he was taken up from us, become with us a witness to the resurrection.” (Acts 1.21-22) He was a companion of the “historical” Jesus, so to speak, from beginning to end of His public ministry: a cradle apostle, so we might describe him. And while He did witness the wonders Jesus performed and heard His marvelous discourses, He also experienced Jesus in the “down” side of His life here on earth, the opposition and ridicule He underwent, the criticism He endured, and, above all, His sufferings and death on the cross.
Paul, on the other hand, was a typical convert to the faith, one of the first. His very first encounter with Jesus was a remarkable event. Paul (at the time, Saul) was a belligerent Jew, a fanatical Pharisee, a sworn enemy of this new group, the followers of Jesus (all former Jews themselves). In fact, he was on his way to Damascus to do them some harm when he encountered the risen Jesus in some kind of remarkable experience that knocked him to the ground, blinded him and challenged him: “why are you persecuting me?” From that moment on, Saul was a changed man, on his way to becoming the apostle Paul. He became the quintessential convert to the faith, who never met the historical Jesus, as Peter had, and whose very first experience was one of awe and wonder, that continued and expanded throughout Paul’s life.
So here we have examples of the “cradle apostle” and the new convert to the ranks of the apostles: Peter and Paul. Peter plodded along, had his ups and downs, saw the down side as well as the upside of Jesus and stuck it out from beginning to end, trudging the roadways of the Holy Land. Paul was the new kid on the block, profoundly influenced by a remarkable event at the origin of his conversion, whose whole life became a living out of that initial experience. Both men are apostles. They stand at the origins of the faith handed down to us. They were nurtured by different kinds of experience: Peter was an early companion of the Jesus Who lived among us here on earth, Paul was a late-comer who encountered Jesus in His risen state, one of power and glory. They both contributed to the faith that we have inherited, each in his own way. We need and treasure them both.