I do a lot of parish-based adult faith formation in Catholic parishes. I know from that experience that many people are in “mixed marriages,” that is marriages where only one spouse is Catholic. That in itself creates issues regarding how and where to worship and how children are raised.
The potential issues for conflict are magnified in a situation where the Catholicism of one spouse results from that spouse’s conversion. Hence the title of Lynn Nordhagen’s book When Only One Converts, recommended to me by someone with whom I work at a local parish. The book seeks to address the question of “what happens when the two most important relationships in your life seem to be on a collision course?
The book pulls together a number of stories of people who have faced this situation. As the introduction to the book notes, the stories “all witness to the strength and complexity of both the marital bond and the inexorably magnetic pull of Catholicism. Some of these accounts include happy resolutions to the initial rupture caused by the conversion of one spouse. Others remain unresolved but hopeful – even where further rupture has occurred.”
One of the things that stood out for me in reading the book is the need for God’s grace in what is essentially a matter of the heart, not the head. As one of the writers observed
Grace is the key. Without God’s grace we would have never cut through the “hodgepodge” of erroneous ideas and ingrained misconceptions. With God’s grace, the fears subsided, the path was made straight, and the light of truth scattered our darkness.
This recognition of the role of grace is the key when one spouse converts ahead of the other. Argumentation accomplishes little. In fact, it is impossible to simply argue someone into the kingdom of God. If it were, conversion would be reducible to a merely intellectual exercise. However, conversion, while involving the intellect, is essentially spiritual and, therefore, is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit.
That recognition also has implications for all of our efforts to evangelize others, in a marital relationship or otherwise. The book quotes from the journal of Elisabeth Leseur, a French convert of the late 19th Century. What she wrote is as relevant today as it was when she wrote it:
To go more and more to souls, approaching them with respect and delicacy, touching them with love. To try always to understand everything and everyone. Not to argue; to work instead through contact and example; to dissipate prejudice, to reveal God and make him felt without speaking of him; to strengthen one’s intelligence, to enlarge one’s soul…’ to love without tiring, in spite of disappointment and indifference…to disclose Truth in its entirety and yet make it known according to the degree of light that each soul can bear.
I recommend the book for couples struggling to deal with the challenges raised by the conversion of one spouse as well as for those ministering in a parish setting.