California Catholic Daily writer Mary Rose is interviewing young Catholic converts as part of our Inquiring Minds series. If you are a young convert to the Catholic Church and would like to share your story, please contact us.
Interview on December 22, 2021 with Somnath, who entered the Church in 2020 at age 23. He is from Los Angeles.
What was your faith like as you grew up?
Somanth: I grew up in a Hindu household. My mom was quite pious and my dad was also religious and we were instructed to pray every day and go to temple every few months. We abstained from meat on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. The purpose is to give up something that we desire out of love for God. I also abstained from beef, because of the sacredness of the cow in Hindu mythology. In terms of what we were taught, we had some stories of the different Hindu gods told to us. For most of my childhood, I pretty dutifully obeyed a lot of the things. I would be willing to abstain from meat and I also believed in a God, although I had some difficulty believing in some of the Hindu stories.
There are stories of gods with a human body and an elephant head and a wise and powerful monkey god. They were all interesting stories, similar to the Greek myths, but from an early age, by God’s grace, I had always thought that if there was a God, then He would be more powerful and there wouldn’t be this kind of strife between gods and devils that was portrayed in the mythology. Additionally, when I was hearing about the different stories from my parents, the gods seemed to have personality defects, such as rage, jealousy, and things of that nature and I couldn’t square that with the image of a perfect God that we were supposed to worship.
What led you to Catholicism?
Somnath: In seventh grade I took a world history class and we were exposed to various religions of the world. I was exposed to Buddhism and the idea of the four noble truths and the general philosophy of the Buddha, which is that life is full of suffering because human beings have desires for material and temporal things that can either be given or taken away. At that point I realized I didn’t want to be like so many others who simply derived satisfaction from transient things. I began to be a little bit detached from worldly things because I realized no matter how much wealth or fame or honor I amassed during this life they would all be taken away from me when I died.
When I entered college, I stepped into this atheistic environment and I also read a little bit of Sigmund Freud, who stated that the belief in God is a projection of our own need for fatherly comfort that we had as children. I started to doubt whether God did exist in the first place.
At this time I was going through a lot of the common problems that a person my age was going through: relationship problems, general loss of meaning, I didn’t know what to make of my life, and I couldn’t justify my own existence. The psychologist Jordan Peterson was very interesting to me at that time, because his basic claim was that you could try to go through this life by making your own decisions and suffering from ramifications, or you could try to follow the wisdom of religious traditions that have built healthy civilizations for centuries.
In college, I became very interested in having other people like me. For a few months, I was very socially anxious because I was always looking for the approval of others. One of the things Jordan Peterson teaches is that you need something to ground yourself beyond the opinions of others. He would constantly say that this is the truth. The pursuit of truth is what will ground you. So that even if you’re not liked by anyone else, you could say that you lived a meaningful life if you were pursuing the truth.
So I took that as my personal initiative: pursuing the truth. I had always been interested in philosophy and the ideals of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. In my third year of undergrad, I went to a study abroad program in Rome, which taught a great books course. I read the works of Dante and St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle and Chaucer, and I was immersed in the beautiful architecture and art of Rome.
Dante and St. Thomas Aquinas were the most influential for me. I took St. Thomas Aquinas as my patron saint when I got baptized. What spoke to me from Dante was in the Inferno, in the Divine Comedy, he meets a man and a woman whose souls are caught up in a storm and they have no control over their own wills. We later find out that the reason that they’re in hell is because they committed adultery and, because they were unable to control their passions and do what is good in their earthly life, their punishment was to suffer the extent of that sin into the eternal life. That was my first understanding of the law of sin that is if you do a bad action repeatedly, you will lose the ability to choose what is good, because it becomes a habit. At that time, I realized that sin was not just about external punishment or restriction imposed by God, but a way in which we become more human by avoiding sin, because we’re able to choose what’s good. So that was what Dante taught me.
When I read St. Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God I was surprised because I always thought that belief in God was a matter of faith. But St. Thomas Aquinas held that you can believe in a God, which he defines as the primary mover, based on reason alone. I thought his arguments were very clearly laid out and syllogistic, but I couldn’t get myself to believe immediately. But what it did show me was that there are very intelligent people who were theists and got me interested in the Catholic intellectual tradition.
I also met really good Catholic people in Rome who seemed to love me with no other motivation. They would invite me over to have food and take a genuine interest in me, not for their own pleasure or in an attempt to increase their fame, but it was a genuine desire to know me as a person. I was very moved by that, as well. So then I came back from Rome to Los Angeles. At that time I couldn’t say that I believed for sure, but I wanted to start acting like a Christian. I continued to read a lot of books.
I have some friends who brought me to a Korean Presbyterian church and I would go there every Sunday for a few weeks. After the first time, I asked the pastor why he believed in God and he gave me several books to read. I was consuming a lot of literature during that summer after my study abroad program. I started medical school that fall. Every free moment that I could get, I would read more. I read works by J.P. Morland, C.S. Lewis, Mortimer Adler. I was just consistently reading.
At what point did you start focusing on Catholicism?
Somanth: With the study abroad program and the Catholic friends that I made in Rome, I had already become interested in Catholicism. In addition to reading, I was also watching a lot of YouTube videos. There’s a lot of good Catholic content on YouTube, including Fr. Mike Schmitz. He has a video, “Why be Catholic and not just Christian.” He talked about the Eucharist and I was really moved by the Eucharist because it made sense to me that Christ would not only give us a spiritual connection to Him in prayer and through the Bible, but also He would give Himself to us physically, because we’re body and spirit.
I also had a little bit of interest in history. I knew that the Protestant Reformation, which was the origin of all of these denominations that we see today, happened in 1517, which is a relatively recent advancement if you look at the history of the Church. I didn’t believe that Martin Luther could have this access to God and fundamentally change what Christians had believed for 1500 years. I wanted a church that was connected to its founder, which is Christ.
I was reading a lot of Protestant authors, but very early on, by the grace of God, I knew that Catholicism made much more sense to me than Protestantism. But in medical school I was also attending a group called the Christian Medical and Dental Association, students who come together and do weekly Bible studies. I was really interested in faith. I knew that everything that I was learning in medical school was good, but it was definitely of much less priority than a relationship with God because if God didn’t exist, then I couldn’t really make sense of my own life. So I was doing a lot of these things in medical school and going to these Bible studies, but I was still unable to bring myself to believe in God, even though I thought that the arguments were reasonable.
The event that really changed me was when we were reading a passage where the father of a sick son goes up to Christ. And it’s pretty evident that he’s not necessarily himself a believer, but he’s heard of all these things that Christ has been doing and he wants to give it a shot. He’s despondent, with nowhere else to go and he asked Christ, “Could you please heal my son?” And he says, “Lord, I believe. Please help my unbelief.” That really struck me because in some sense, I had all of the arguments and I could use them to argue well against atheists and people that don’t believe, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe in Christ.
At the same time I’d been reading a lot of philosophical works on the existence of God. I was reading How to Think About God by Mortimer Adler and I was thinking, very tired after studying medicine for most of the day and trying to read this book, that it couldn’t have been the case that so many millions of people have come to the Catholic Church by studying very dense philosophy. So I didn’t believe that God would work solely in this way. That, and this desire to believe but being unable to believe, was when I realized that faith is something that is a gift from God. And so I remember, I think either the same day that I had read that passage from the Bible or several days afterwards that I was actually praying beside my bed. And I prayed that same prayer, “Lord, I believe. Please help my unbelief.” I can’t really describe an instantaneous change, but later I decided to enroll in RCIA. And since that time my faith has grown stronger.
Did you face any hurdles that made you second-guess your decision to enter the Church?
Somnath: I don’t think anything made me second guess my decision, but one of the obstacles or difficulties was obviously I love my family a lot, and it was perceived that when I asked my parents if they’d be okay with me being baptized into the Catholic Church, that they felt as if I was not only leaving the faith, but also the family and general Indian culture that I was born into. It was a sense of betrayal, but my mom and my dad, when they saw how much the faith meant to me, they gave me their permission to be baptized. There’s a little bit of tension between myself and other members of my family because there’s this whole part of my life that we don’t share. I wouldn’t even say “part.” It’s like this is my life that I can’t share.
Did the Traditional Latin Mass play any part in your conversion?
Somnath: Yes. I was baptized in an Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest parish and confirmed the same year at that parish. At the point that I first went to the Tridentine liturgy, I was already quite convinced about the truths of the faith and because it was such a dramatic change in my own life and a lot of things that I had to sacrifice as well, I wanted my worship to reflect that kind of intensity. When I first came to the Traditional Latin Mass it was beautiful because so many women were veiling, everyone was quiet, any noise was typically the parents trying to instruct their kids about some aspect of the liturgy. It was a real palpable love of Christ that I could experience. When I had sat through my first liturgy and I heard the priest who later baptized me give his sermon, it seemed to be orthodox and to be inspiring. I felt safe there because when I went to a Novus Ordo Mass previously, when I was studying the faith, I had to be on watch because I felt like the priest was misrepresenting some aspects of the faith and that he was emphasizing God’s mercy at the expense of His justice. I later found out he didn’t believe that anyone goes to hell, which I thought was crazy. So I loved liturgy, but I also loved that the preaching was orthodox and it was actually deepening my faith rather than making me question my faith.