"Mom, Today I Became a Catholic": Analysis of a Teen Conversion

About five years ago Natalie Thomson, an attractive, popular, well-adjusted 16-year-old girl made this surprising announcement. It was surprising for two reasons: at the time the Catholic Church, in the throes of the pedophilia scandal, was losing members much faster than it was gaining them; and her parents, while loving and supportive, had long been turned off by organized religion and might have been expected, by their example, to nudge her in a different direction.

Along with the rest of the family--I'm her uncle--I was also surprised and became increasingly intrigued as I watched her faith deepen over the years. Most of the young people I personally know are "nones"--not affiliated with any religion. And those that are are lukewarm at best. What made Natalie different? I was sure that many parents would want to know her story and was happy when she consented to an interview.

She began by saying that "a piece was missing in me. I had morals, good values that I got from my parents, but I kind of felt empty." When a boyfriend invited her to a Bible study at the local Catholic church, she went along "to hang out. But something clicked. They were talking about something bigger than me, a God who loved me."

I asked her if she lacked love at home. "Not at all," she replied. "I was absolutely loved. But I wanted more."

But why Catholicism? When taken to Mass, she liked it right away. After further experience she found that she enjoyed the structure. "I knew what to expect next." She was attracted to its symbolism, the tradition behind it, its "depth."

Perhaps just as important, at least at first, was the support she got from her new friends.

I was especially interested to learn how her conversion changed her life. Until she was sixteen, she never prayed. "But now I do," she said. "It helps me get through the day." She's a busy senior today at a large state university, where she's on scholarship in the marching band as a trumpeter and attends the football games. She has a lot to "get through." But she carves out space for the practice of her religion. As a member of the Catholic Student Association, she prays the rosary in a group and even spends an occasional hour "in adoration" in front of the altar where Christ is exposed in consecrated bread.

As for morality, "Well, when I go to band parties, I don't get wasted. I guess I'm just one of the weird ones!" she laughs. As for movies and books, she's "a little more careful" to avoid entertainment that might "influence me in a negative way."

I was curious to know if she had thought much about death and if that had played a major part in attracting her to religion. No, there were no traumatic events in her life that stood out. But she's glad to know that heaven is in her future. "I go to confession once a month--the sacrament helps me keep on track." Does she believe in purgatory? "Yes. I'm far from perfect."

Her religion might influence her career choice. She is studying to become a school teacher and thought she might like to teach theology at a Catholic school, but "the public schools pay better." She's undecided about which way to go.

Her parents have always been content to let her and her younger brother make up their own minds about religion. Would she follow their example or raise her kids as Catholics? She was definite: she would give them from the start what she had lacked. But she did not rule out marriage to a non-Catholic.

I asked her what she felt about Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and Mormons. Did she think they would be saved? Without hesitation she said yes, "but Catholicism gets you to perfection faster." She thought that whatever those religions lacked could be made up for in purgatory.

How did she feel about gays? "It's not my place to judge them. I have sinned too." She singled out Pope Francis as one of her heroes and was attracted to his openness. "He shows by example how other Catholics should share their faith."

Next July, if she can raise the money, she'll go to Rwanda and teach English for the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy. I asked her if she would try to convert her students to Catholicism. "Not if it means pulling them away from something that's already working for them," she said.

I closed the interview by asking her about life in the present compared to a time before her conversion. "I have a more positive outlook. I'm so joy-filled now." Any final words for young people who have turned their backs on religion? "Yes. I'd tell them to try not to shut doors before they know where those doors lead."

Religion at its best is life-enhancing. It gives a person a sense of purpose and instills a discipline missing in the lives of most young Americans. It cultivates intellectual curiosity, an outgoing spirit of service, and a desire to make something good of oneself. It makes room for tolerance, even appreciation, of other faiths--of special importance these days. And it does all this without sacrificing wholesome fun. No doubt to the surprise of many, Natalie has found all this in Catholicism. It's the blueprint she uses to forge a happy and meaningful life.