FROM THE BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS TO THE BOSOM OF ABRAHAM
Saving Pop

January-February 2018By Casey Chalk

Casey Chalk is a graduate student in theology at Christendom College and an editor of the ecumenical website Called to Communion (www.calledtocommunion.com).

When we Christians are young and excited about our faith and the Gospel, we are confident that the trajectory of our lives will be one of growth in sanctification and deepening in a love that, to quote St. Paul, “may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Phil. 1:9). We will grow old, we think, ever more united to God and His will, bearing the badges of a life well lived, having fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. Yet — and I say this as a former Presbyterian seminarian who was sure of his election — even the most strident Calvinist is bound at some point to question whether that guarantee of faithfulness applies to him personally. No less than Calvin himself argued that some individuals who believe themselves “chosen” will discover upon death that they are actually among the damned — a terrifying thought! What confidence can we have that He “who began a good work” in us will indeed “bring it to completion” (Phil. 1:6)?

Such thoughts were on my mind on the five-year anniversary of the death of my Brooklyn-born, Irish-American, tenaciously Catholic grandfather, who passed away at the age of 90. He was a man whose life and experiences were intertwined with many of the most important cultural and historical events of the 20th century: He grew up in inner-city New York during the Great Depression, his family so poor that he had to drop out of high school and take a job as a delivery man; he enlisted in the Coast Guard at the beginning of World War II; he started his own fledgling dental-supply business amid the great American aspirations that followed the war’s conclusion; he led a family of seven through the sea change of the Second Vatican Council; and he sold his surprisingly successful business during the Reagan-era capitalist boom, acquiring enough money to build his own isolated mountain home and enjoy a comfortable retirement.

As the anniversary of his death approached, members of my extended family gathered at that remote refuge in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains to celebrate Easter. Another exciting development was on our minds: Someone had finally agreed to buy the property. The family would say goodbye, not only to a home that had hosted so many festive gatherings, but also, in a sense, to my grandfather. The house still emitted, in sight, smell, and touch, the presence of our “Pop.” Where was he now, we wondered, this man who was to us larger than life and full of contradictions, who elicited so much admiration and angst?

I myself felt this tension acutely, having devoted so many prayers to God on behalf of my grandfather, and having engaged in so many conversations with him. As a youthful and fervent non-denominational evangelical, later as an intellectually curious and doctrinally stringent Calvinist, and, finally, as a humbled revert to the Catholicism of my birth, my mission for almost 20 years remained the same: that my grandfather should know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. My yearning — so potent I still feel it — emanated from that most fundamental of Christian doctrines, the purest and most ecumenical of Christian desires: that my grandfather might “know him, and the power of his resurrection” (Phil. 3:10), that he might experience what Pope Benedict XVI called the “personal encounter” with Jesus Christ. This is the story of that spiritual pilgrimage: walking beside my grandfather, pressing on toward that eternal prize, hoping that the “perseverance of the saints” applied to him.

+++

It was late summer, when warmth slowly collides with the fragrant colors and smells of autumn in the Virginia Piedmont. We were in the car, my mother and I. She was trying to explain to a confused eight-year-old why she and my father were not going to Mass anymore and why I would no longer be attending CCD, the Catholic equivalent of Sunday school. I was thinking of my grandparents, with vague images of crucifixes and rosaries spinning in my mind. “But I’m a Catholic! Gram and Pop are Catholics!” I retorted. “That’s fine,” my mother said. “We can drop you off at Mass and CCD if you really want.” Such an ultimatum was too much for me. It wasn’t as if I actually liked Mass or CCD; I was more concerned about upsetting my grandparents. Besides, how could an eight-year-old attend Mass by himself, without the support of his parents? Catholicism would have to go.

I dreaded that first time seeing my grandparents after my family had left the Church. Would they still love me? More importantly, would my grandmother still cook me her beloved mashed potatoes or bake me chocolate-chip cookies? Would my grandfather, whom I knew as gracious but periodically grouchy, still take me to visit Civil War battlefields in the Shenandoah? Would he still buy me candy bars at the local country store? I honestly can’t recall that initial “post-apostasy” interaction, probably because grandparent-grandchild affections continued with little tangible difference. My grandfather was savvy. He would wait until I was older to make his move.

Several years later, when I was in middle school, I was visiting their mountain retreat and enjoying some grandmother-made treat or another. “Let me show you something,” my grandfather barked. He dropped the yellow pages in front of me with a loud thud. “Look up ‘church,’” he ordered. I did. “Tell me what you see.” I started reading off the churches listed all over the Shenandoah Valley — Adventist, American Baptist, Anglican, Arminian Baptist, Assembly of God. I had no clue what any of these titles meant. Finally, I got to Catholic. “Stop,” he demanded. “You know what ‘Catholic’ means?” No, I admitted. “Universal,” he said. “It’s the universal Church. ‘One, holy, catholic, and apostolic.’ All these other churches, they’re Protestant. Not one, not holy, not catholic, not apostolic. There’s thousands of these Protestant churches. There’s one Catholic Church.” I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what he was trying to say. I figured it had something to do with the fact that my parents and I were now attending a non-denominational “Bible church.” Best not to argue with Pop — that would just elicit his loud, angry voice. “Okay,” I smiled, and went back to my snack.

I didn’t really know what to make of my grandfather’s Catholicism. Weren’t good Christians supposed to be warm, friendly, and inviting? My Catholic grandmother certainly was; she was approachable and affable. It made for a more enjoyable visit. Pop’s Catholicism was harsh, difficult to interpret. He would go out on the second-floor deck and pray the Rosary in the afternoon. “Don’t bother him,” my grandmother would warn. “He doesn’t like to be interrupted.” My mother never seemed to mind if I interrupted her Bible-reading.

During my visits, my grandparents would drag me to Mass. Pop was always solemn and intensely focused, as if he were angry. I was afraid that if I smiled or laughed he would throw me out on the street. In my evangelical church, people were always smiling, clapping their hands to the music, and laughing at the pastor’s jokes. Pop’s Catholicism seemed way too serious. If religion ever came up in conversation, he would raise his voice, bang his fist on the table, and shoot down any contrary voice with the same disregard we showed the squirrels we popped with his air gun in the woods outside the house. It was terrifying. Once, my mother played him a recording of a sermon by the pastor of our church. Surely he would like this guy, we thought; thousands flock to hear him. Pop casually dismissed him: “He sounds like a used-car salesman.”

The more I felt at home in evangelical Christianity, the more I worried about my grandfather. Could a man so antagonistic toward evangelicalism really be a Christian? Could someone so prone to fits of anger, so easily provoked, so frequently joyless actually be saved? When I was in high school, I started praying for him regularly. I thought about what I would say to him the next time I saw him. Eventually, I got my chance. Visiting shortly after graduation, my grandfather and I started talking religion. I don’t remember the substance of the conversation, but I do remember that afterwards I was even more concerned about Pop’s eternal destiny.

I sat down that night and wrote him a letter. I told him about what Jesus had done for me. I told him the story of the prodigal son — as if he hadn’t heard it before. I encouraged him to turn to Christ and say some manner of the sinner’s prayer. I’m glad I don’t have a copy of that letter now. I’m sure it was the typical over-zealous, painfully emotional kind of spiritual testimony you would expect from an 18-year-old. I left the letter on his desk right before I drove home.

I received a letter from Pop not long before leaving for college. It was short and cryptic. He made some reference to the 12-year-old Jesus instructing the Jewish elders in the Temple. I wasn’t sure how to interpret it. Was he praising me for my spiritual wisdom? Was he calling me brash? Clearly, my objective — I envisioned him dropping to his knees and accepting Jesus as his Lord and Savior — went unrealized.

+++

During my freshman year at the University of Virginia, I took an introductory course ?in New Testament studies. It blew my somewhat naïve evangelical beliefs to bits. It made me doubt everything I believed about Christianity. I was in trouble. At the same time, by some strange coincidence, a magazine arrived at my apartment: First Things. It was a one-year gift subscription from my grandfather. He sent a note shortly thereafter telling me he thought I would benefit from a more intellectual approach to religious issues. I recalled that he often had the magazine around the house. It was a life-changer for me, and not just in helping to formulate responses to the kinds of attacks my religious-studies professors leveled against orthodox Christian beliefs. It taught me how to make cogent, intelligent arguments about politics, culture, and sociology that weren’t merely recitations of Bible verses. (My grandparents also subscribed to the NOR, but I imagine they thought it unlikely I would respond well to a distinctly Catholic publication!) Maybe, I thought, there was more to my grandfather’s faith than I had realized. With his knowledge of Scripture and his appreciation for theology, he didn’t fit into the easy categories I had learned in my formative evangelical years.

During my time at UVA, I became increasingly drawn to Calvinism, a system of theological thought that seemed to make better sense of the Bible. It also had more reference to Christian history and tradition, which I increasingly believed necessary, in contrast to evangelicalism. Calvinism didn’t really give me better answers regarding how to understand Pop, but it did help me find solace in entrusting his fate to the gracious providence of God.

Still, I was bothered: My grandfather had developed a tendency to speak disparagingly of religion altogether. He once told me he was more inclined to science, since, so he argued, that discipline deals with verifiable facts. Prompted by such talk, I wrote an overly dramatic, metaphorical article for the university’s Christian magazine, Wide Awake, about my experiences with Pop. In it I compared the long, winding country roads up to his home to the serpent in Genesis 3, imagining the serpent slowly tightening its deadly, anti-God grasp around my grandfather’s soul.

After graduating from UVA, I decided to enter a master’s program at a Reformed seminary in Washington, D.C. I think Pop was impressed; he showed a certain deference toward me when it came to religion. I was the only member of the extended family who could disagree with him about religion and come away relatively unscathed. I certainly wanted to talk with him about matters of the faith.

+++

All of us evangelical members of the family, meanwhile, were still praying for some manner of conversion as Pop progressed through his 80s. He seemed to be losing his desire to live for much longer. He had abandoned his medications and returned to eating as much butter, bacon, and candy bars as he could stomach. He even rolled out his old 1970s-era bicycle and rode it up and down the steep mountain streets. Was he trying to accelerate the inevitable?

Pop vacillated between exhibitions of some kind of spiritual metanoia, on the one hand, and anti-religious skepticism on the other. He once took my grandmother out for a meal — a rare occurrence — and proceeded to apologize for his mistreatment of her over the years: all the cruel things he had said, the times he had lost his temper, his mocking of her Catholic devotional practices as puerile and simple. Yet not long afterwards, during a conversation with me about religion, he said with an air of conceit, “You and I can talk about these things. Your grandmother, she believes a bunch of silly things. You can’t have a real conversation with her about religion.” Moreover, he would still go into fits of rage whenever anyone crossed him, damaging family relationships in a way only someone as respected as he could possibly accomplish. He was a man whose approval everyone in the family was eager to gain, yet we had all been stung by his brutal, callous words.

Around this time, Pop’s allegiance to Catholicism started to waver. He stopped praying the Rosary daily. He derided the various priests who served at the little mission parish near his house, speculating that the bishop sent “problem priests” up there to get them out of the way. It was plausible, given some of their eccentricities, but it had the unintended consequence of further distancing my grandfather from the Church. Instead of attending obligatory Sunday Mass, he now went during the week, declaring that he was tired of worshiping with so many people he disliked. I don’t know if he was still receiving Communion. It felt like a strange race against time. Would he grow so old and embittered that no one could bring him back? As C.S. Lewis observes in The Screwtape Letters, “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Every time I said goodbye to him, I made it a point to tell him I loved him. “All right, sport,” he would say in response.

+++

One day, almost halfway through my seminary program, I dropped a bomb nobody expected. I had spent about a year studying the claims of the Catholic Church and reconsidering some of the most fundamental doctrines and beliefs within the Reformed tradition. I had made up my mind that the Catholic Church was indeed the institution Christ Himself founded, the Church that indelibly bore the apostolic witness. I went to confession, a sacrament I had received prior to my parents leaving the Church, and, to the shock of my family and friends, I signed up for an adult confirmation class at a local parish. My grandmother was predictably ecstatic. What would Pop say?

The first time I saw him after my “reversion,” he asked me why. I tried to explain, in language likely unfamiliar to a lifelong Catholic lacking even a high-school diploma, my disagreement with sola scriptura and sola fide, my acceptance of the Church’s historic claim to apostolic succession, and the need for a magisterial authority to interpret Scripture. He smiled in his usual self-confident manner. “Well, my boy, you’ll soon find the Church is made up of fallible men,” he said. “Don’t believe everything they tell you.”

Given the nature of his growing antipathy toward the Church, his comment wasn’t surprising. Indeed, I knew enough now to recognize that my grandfather’s Catholicism was that of a hardened, 20th-century layman who had grown up with the beauty and splendor of the old Latin Mass, only to see those traditions ridiculed and replaced in the wake of Vatican II. As Ralph McInerny observed, “Many good souls had suffered much” during those post-conciliar years. God knows what silliness this World War II veteran, raised during the Depression, had suffered through at the hands of post-Vatican II priests and laymen zealous for “change.” I can imagine this old Irish son of New York gritting his teeth through acoustic-guitar “worship songs” and white-knuckling the pew during the handshake of peace.

I got down to the business of learning my re-discovered Catholicism. Not long after my confirmation, I met a very pretty and very pious Catholic girl, whom I would eventually marry. When I finally had the opportunity to introduce her to my grandfather, he put his arm around her and said, “Take good care of this guy.”

A few months before our wedding, I had to travel abroad for about four weeks’ worth of work. Nine days in, I received an ominous e-mail from my mother. I called home and my dad answered. “It’s Pop,” he said. “He’s had another heart attack. He’s probably near the end.” I was devastated. I hadn’t imagined my last visit with him would be the final one. Had I really shared with him enough about my Catholic faith, how in coming full circle I had finally reached home? Could we not, now communing together in the same Church, follow Christ together?

Frantically, I made some calls to see if it would be possible to cut my trip short and fly back to see my grandfather. My employer graciously agreed to help get me on a plane. It would take about a day and a half, waiting for a flight out and traveling 20 hours in the air. I spent that last night alone, alternating between bouts of weeping and Rosary-praying. What was happening? Would Pop make peace with God? Would he receive the last rites? Would I see him again?

The next morning, I called home before my shuttle left for the airport. “He’s gone,” my father told me. My grandmother, mother, and both uncles had been with him at the end, beside his hospital bed.

Soon I was back at the old mountain home, surrounded by extended family, preparing for the funeral Mass. Pop, my grandmother told me, had indeed received the last rites. Some hours before drawing his last breath, a priest from the parish near the hospital stopped by, someone my grandfather had known for a long time — not one of the “problem priests” from the mission. “My friend,” Pop had called out to him. What exactly transpired next is known only to that priest and God. I recalled the closing words of the Hail Mary, a prayer Pop likely offered thousands of times over the course of his life: “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

+++

The projection of our lives as followers of Christ is known only to the hidden counsels of God. Some of us, on our deathbeds, might be able to assert with clear and confident voices that we have “run the race” and are prepared to inherit the “crown of righteousness” waiting for us on the day of our Lord’s appearing. For others, the end might not be so clear; the hardships of life, or our own weaknesses and failings, could have clouded the route to our eternal home. Sometimes — most times, I hope! — God refuses to allow the obstacles we put in front of Him to have the last word. That seems to have been the case with my grandfather, who, despite many very visible character flaws, found Christ once more.

Was my grandfather “saved,” or did he still need to walk up the aisle to some sort of altar call? As a Catholic, I now understand that the Sacrament of Baptism leaves an indelible mark on the soul of every man who receives it, whereby he is definitively stamped a “Christian.” Yet the ultimate choice to embrace or reject that identity remains uncertain. Did Pop need to be “converted”? Only as much, I think, as we all need to be converted, every day, constantly renewing our baptismal vows to follow Christ and reject the Devil, and finding refreshment once more at the font of living water.

My most prized possession, as my wife will tell you, is my library. There are three books in particular I treasure, and they all once belonged to my grandfather: My Way of Life, a common man’s summary of the Summa Theologiae, written in the 1940s; Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor; and G.K. Chesterton’s spiritual biography, The Everlasting Man. They all bear Pop’s marks — various passages he highlighted or underlined, notes he wrote in the margins. As much as my grandfather resisted, he remained a marked man: these are the kinds of books people read who are struggling to understand and preserve their faith.

What strikes me about those many years of walking alongside my grandfather are the consistencies of my desires, even through my transitions from non-denominational evangelical to Reformed Presbyterian to Roman Catholic. At every step, what I wanted was for my grandfather to know and love Christ. What I expected that to look like changed and matured as I did. I came to realize that to be a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean one must always be happy or nice or have some off-the-shelf testimony of one’s personal conversion. Even on his best day, there was no way my bitter old grandfather would ever take a mic and share how God had changed his life. Perhaps he saw himself as Evelyn Waugh saw himself, who said, “I always think to myself: ‘I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.’” Moreover, I see now that the paths to Christ are as diverse as one would expect from such a complex society as the Body of Christ. What remains the same, ultimately, is the One upon whom we place our hope: Jesus Christ, who is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Jesus is the One who perseveres, even when we don’t. For me, for now, and, God willing, for my Pop, that’s enough.



DOSSIER: Conversion Stories





Back to January-February 2018 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this story!