I Was A Teenage Agnostic!
Compelling conversion stories are usually very dramatic. The seedier and sleazier the former lifestyle of the converted, the better.
If I could start my story by professing to be an ex-drug pusher or pimp or high priestess (the gender does pose a problem though) in a neo- cult, I could probably secure and hold the attention of most readers.
The truth of the matter, however, is that I was none of those things. I was not terribly different from "the rest of the guys". I was not outwardly or ostensibly immoral (that is to say, I wasn't a gangster or an arson or a used-car salesman... just kidding!), but I was wholly uninterested in religion or cultivating virtue or any thing of that sort. I was the centre of my universe: ain't nobody gonna to tell me what to do and what not to do! Especially a guy in a pointy hat and a long white dress (aka. the Pope).
But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Allow me to start at the beginning, which is (in the words of Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music) a very good place to start...
As with most autobiographies, my story begins when I was born: 28 February 1969.
Unlike Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (a Catholic in the 18th-19th century), I had no clear recollection of my day of birth. I probably cried quite a bit and may have burped and gurgled a fair amount, but that is neither here nor there.
Slightly more than a week later, I was dunked in the baptismal font and christened "Kelvin" (a name which, I subsequently found to my chagrin, was a rather popular choice in the 1960's).
I was raised a Catholic. That is to say, my parents sent me to Catechism class and expected me to attend Mass every Sunday. Despite these attempts to "christianise" me, I was not particularly interested in God or religion. There is truth in the saying that "faith should be caught, not taught". I was quite upset to discover that I was expected to attend Catechism until Secondary 2 (ie. until I was 14 years old).
In my final 2 years of Catechism class, I decided that enough was enough. I began to apply my adolescent mind to search for any and every reason to worm out of Sunday school. I think that my class attendance was probably the worst. Anyway, I wouldn't know if there was anyone else whose record was more dismal than mine, since I was hardly present often enough to make that observation.
The Canossian sister in charge of Catechism class (I believe her name was Sr. Maria) hauled me up one day, and vowed to "keep me back" for an extra year if my sporadic attendance did not improve. Cowed by her threat, I decided to turn up just often enough to please the powers-that-be.
In 1983, the parish priests found me (and a hundred other kids) "worthy" and "ready" to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, which was supposed to be the rite to initiate us as "soldiers of Christ" (I supposed it's kinda like a Catholic Bar-Mitzvah).
I chose the mellifluous and rather appropriate name of "Christopher" (Christ-bearer) as my Confirmation name. However, I selected it, not because it reflected my zeal for Christ (of which I had none), but simply because it sounded cool. At the time, the concept of fighting for Jesus and extending His Kingdom was totally alien to me.
So, on the "big day", I was duly bundled up in my white shirt and white trousers, and confirmed by His Grace, the Archbishop Gregory Yong, on a date which has completely eluded my memory. In fact, the only detail which really stuck was this: I remember that my pants were rather tight and (I suspect) a little translucent.
Anyway, it was the end of the ordeal. Formal and mandatory religious lessons being over, I promptly dropped out of the church scene.
Maybe you've seen 'em before. Maybe you have someone like them in your family. Heck, maybe you're one of them!
I'm referring to nominal Catholics (sometimes more politely known as "Sunday Catholics"). For many years, I was one of them.
To stop practising one's childhood religion is, of course, a venture to be undertaken with caution and circumspection. One cannot simply announce to the family that one has abandoned "The Faith". In fact, it is preferable to preserve a veneer of religiosity, in order to prevent nosy family members (especially one's mother!) from asking awkward and difficult questions.
Therefore, Sunday after Sunday (and on other days of obligation), I would troop dutifully to church for Mass. I had to go, but I wasn't going to like it. For me, attending Mass consisted of: (1) turning up late, (2) leaving early, and (3) ignoring what was going on in church while I was there. It wasn't long before I concluded that receiving Holy Communion was a waste of time, so I stopped doing it.
During my teenage years, the main (or maybe it should be "sole") attraction of Mass was the prospect of looking at pretty girls in the congregation.
Besides the boredom usually associated with institutionalised religion, I found the Catholic Church to be backward and oppressive. I mean, who was this Pope guy to go around the world telling people how to run their lives? How dare he upbraid overpopulated countries for practising normal, legitimate and medically safe procedures for contraception? Who does he think he is... God?
My quarrel with the Catholic Church started from dissatisfaction with her moral teachings, especially on . I didn't know it at the time, but I was going down a slippery slope. After all, if the Church could be wrong on moral issues, what about issues of faith and doctrine ?
Having read of some liberal writer who had found "new evidence" to show that the Resurrection of Christ was conjured up by the Apostles, I began to toy with the idea that the story of Jesus as presented in the Gospels was really a myth. Following from there, I started to question the role of Jesus. Why do we have to go through Jesus to God, anyway? Such a roundabout route! If there really was a God, it seemed to me that the system known as Catholicism made religion way too complicated.
There is nothing wrong with doubting one's faith from time to time. But to persist in doubt, and not to find the solution, is a sure recipe for a shipwrecked faith.
I had many doubts, but no answers. Maybe I didn't care enough to actually look for the answers, or maybe I just didn't know where to look. Whatever it was, I was being led inexorably to the brink of outright apostasy. The fact that my doubts (more or less) coincided with my entry into the Army, for my 2½ years of National Service (NS), did not help. Putting a bunch of 18 year olds together is not a move designed to cultivate a pious and religious atmosphere!
I may have hit my religious low during NS, and in many ways, I lived like a non-believer, an atheist. However, I never actually denied the existence of God. I knew He was out there somewhere ... I just didn't know where, nor did I really want to find out. Some wiseguy once defined an agnostic as "an atheist who hedges his bets". I suppose I could be called an agnostic...
I remember that, later on, I told my mother that I was tossing round the idea of becoming a Muslim or a Buddhist. Still later on, I contemplated becoming a Methodist because my (then) girlfriend was one. In short, I had an identity crisis. I didn't know who I was or what I wanted to be. But, what I was most sure about was that Catholicism was not for me!
When I entered the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 1990, I was thrust into a punishing routine of Faculty Orientation, Hall Orientation and Matriculation Orientation (the result of which was dis-orientation, but I digress).
One of the activities in Matriculation Week was this. The freshmen were supposed to negotiate a maze (known, not surprisingly, as the Matriculation Maze), at strategic points of which various clubs and societies had set up booths to entice the freshies to join their activities. When I came to the stall of the Catholic Students' Society, I deliberately refused to "sign on" or to even let on that I was affiliated in any way with Catholicism.
Therefore, for about half a year, no Catholic group ever pestered me to join them or their Masses or what-not. I was happy and kept busy with studies, hostel life and my new girlfriend (not necessarily in that order).
One day, a classmate of mine found out that I was (at least nominally) a Catholic, and invited me to attend a talk on the Apparitions of Mary in Medjugorje at one of the lecture theatres in NUS. To be expected, I was rather sceptical about the whole thing. (Bah, medieval superstition!) And the talk was supposed to last 3 hours, which was 3 hours too long, as far as I was concerned.
So I demurred. But this girl was persistent (turns out she's from the Legion of Mary), and I gave in eventually. Therefore, one Friday night in mid-December 1990, I turned up at the lecture hall for the presentation, which was given by the ubiquitous Victor & Vivienne Wee (God bless them!).
I barely felt the 3 hours slip by. The talk was fascinating!
The apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary were taking place in a little village called Medjugorje, in Yugoslavia. At the time, the apparitions had been occurring daily to these 6 Croatian kids for nearly 10 years. Millions of pilgrims had gone to Medjugorje, and had reported signs and wonders and healings and miracles.
The apparitions were quite unprecedented in that they were occurring daily... and for so long! I understand that Marija Pavlovich, one of the visionaries, is still seeing the Blessed Mother everyday. Accounts of the Medjugorje apparitions were featured in such periodicals as Newsweek, Life, Reader's Digest, etc. I even heard that a documentary on Medjugorje was shown on BBC. Some years later, a movie was also made about the apparitions. It starred Martin Sheen, Michael York and Morgan Fairchild (as a nun!).
My interest was piqued. After the talk was over, I bought an armload of literature on Medjugorje, the first time in my life I purchased anything to do with religion! I devoured the books within a few days, but I was still hungry for more. I decided to do the unthinkable: I would pay a visit to the Catholic bookshops.
Within a few months, I had amassed a rather impressive collection of Catholic books. The more I read, the more my doubts began to be dispelled. I found out, with mixed horror and delight, that all the answers to life's nagging problems could be found in Jesus' Church all along, the Catholic Church!
I can't remember the exact date when I decided to "come home to Rome", but it couldn't have been more than a few months from that fateful Friday night in December 1990. I made my peace with God and re-entered Holy Mother Church.
It has been more than 7 years since my conversion, and during that time, I have never once regretted becoming a Catholic. It's not the "easiest" religion in the world, but I believe that it's the "truest" and ultimately that's all that matters.
God's grace is truly amazing. All it took was a 3-hour talk and a few months of reading to change over 20 years worth of bad formation, erroneous thinking and sinful attitude. Praise the Lord!
PS. Unlike the Blessed Mother's apparitions in Lourdes, France (1858) and Fatima, Portugal (1917), the Medjugorje apparitions have not yet been approved by the Church. The simple reason is as follows: the apparitions are on-going, and Rome will not be able to give a positive declaration until the purported visions have ceased. As a loyal son of the Church, I, of course, accept in advance the decision of the Holy See regarding the authenticity (or otherwise) of the Medjugorje apparitions.
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