Dr. Kenneth H. Howell
former Presbyterian minister and seminary professor
Summarizing my journey to the Catholic Church is a bit like attempting to put the Internal Revenue Code on a postcard. But I will venture to sketch the highlights of this journey.
My knowledge of Catholicism in childhood was limited to my father’s side of the family, some of whom were devout, but most of whom were Catholic in name only. I can remember at times being impressed with the aesthetic appeal of the Catholic Church and having a sense of something greater. But I was completely at a loss to know what that was.
In my late teens (college years), I had a deep sense of the grace of God in my life and loved to read the Sacred Scriptures. I read spiritual literature that stressed the importance of a daily communion with God in the Spirit and found at times an unusual degree of closeness to God, which I can only describe as a gift.
During the late seventies, I attended Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I learned the art of biblical interpretation and other theological disciplines. Although I had no interest in the Catholic Church at that time, I do remember being repulsed by the anti-Catholic attitudes of some of my conservative Presbyterian friends. To me, Catholics were misguided, but they were Christian.
In my seminary days, I remember formulating a theological issue that was to play a crucial role in my journey later on. I realized that the only way to justify the splitting of Western Christianity that occurred in the Reformation was to see the Protestant Reformers as bringing the Church back to its original purity from which it had fallen. This meant that the Protestants were the true Catholics.
In 1978, I was ordained a Presbyterian minister (Presbyterian Church in America) and served two churches while I also obtained a doctoral degree in biblical linguistics. Shortly after my ordination, I was preaching a homily on the unity of the Church and stated that the only justification for the Reformation was that the Catholic Church had left the Gospel. I further said that the demands of unity in the Church, for which our Lord prayed in John 17, required us to do this: If the Catholic Church ever comes back to the Gospel, we must go back to it.
Little did I realize in 1978 that I would someday eat my words.
Eucharist and Worship
In 1988, my family moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and I began teaching at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). I was not even considering the Catholic Church, though two indicators were already present: I had always had a love for the Lord’s Supper, and I believed that the Reformed faith was in fact the faith of the early Church — two beliefs that eventually led me to leave the Reformed faith.
Around 1991, I began teaching a course on the Eucharist at RTS that examined the biblical foundations and history of the doctrine in the Church. After two years of teaching this course, I became convinced of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and realized that the Calvinist view of spiritual communion was deficient. This spurred me on to study other aspects of Church history, especially concerning liturgy and the patristic period.
From this reading, I concluded two things: First, Presbyterian worship and a lot of Protestant worship in general had reduced the ancient liturgies to their minimal form. In general, a lot of Protestantism in America represents a kind of reductionism of the Catholic faith.
Perhaps the most salient point here is that there can be no official worship in the Church without the Eucharist. Even John Calvin seemed to recognize this truth, though most of his followers would not know why he thought this.
The second conclusion involved the “why” part. I have always wanted to know the reasons why I must believe something. I had always thought that the Reformed faith represented the teaching of the Scriptures and the ancient Church. When I had to teach the process of biblical interpretation — as opposed to teaching what I thought the Bible taught — I realized that the only way to agree on a proper interpretation of a text is to have a living Magisterium in the Church.
The reason that there are so many Protestants who can’t agree on what the Bible teaches is that they have no authoritative interpretative body. The analogy in law is, of course, the Supreme Court. The Constitution lying on the table is of no use to anyone, and in the hands of each individual, it might be interpreted in a myriad of ways. So what is needed is clearly an authoritative body of interpreters who can render judgments on which meanings are permissible and which are not.
In sum, I realized that the Protestant faith was not the faith of the ancient Fathers of the Church. The irony of all this is that John Calvin led me to the Catholic Church. Calvin in the sixteenth century wanted to bring the Church back to its original purity from which he and other Reformers believed the Roman Church had departed. So Calvin said in essence: Go back to the ancient Church! But when I did, I found that it wasn’t Protestant. So I knew in my conscience that I must leave my Protestant heritage.
Encountering the Catholic Church
My journey during this period was much, much more than intellectual inquiry. Between 1991 and 1994, I met monthly with Father Francis Cosgrove, the vicar general of the Diocese of Jackson, for spiritual direction. It was he who guided me to the Ignatian tradition of spirituality, a very perceptive decision since so much of Ignatian spirituality focuses on discerning the will of God for our lives. In the summer of 1993, I directed my wife in a mini-retreat in the Ignatian pattern using Fr. Andre Ravier’s Do-It-Yourself Spiritual Exercises. This was the beginning of the end, so to speak.
Another Catholic friend in California paid for my travel and conference fees to attend a Defending the Faith conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville in June 1992. Here God had another divine appointment for me.
One day at lunch, I was discussing with the man next to me the theological work of Father Bernard Lonergan, whose writings had helped me understand the doctrines of the Church. A woman in her sixties from Canada was sitting across the table from us. This holy and loving woman joined in the conversation with a theological sophistication that I had not found among Catholic lay people, and I was intrigued.
This was to be the first of many contacts with the Catholic sister who has been such an instrument of God in my journey to the Church. She is a cradle Catholic, and my friendship with her was essential in understanding the process of conversion. I think this process can often be distorted if we look at and listen only to recent converts from Protestantism.
What I needed to see was not a zealous convert, but someone who had faithfully loved and served Christ her whole life in the Church. This is what Marie Jutras showed me. It was to be her friendship, love, gifts, and prayers that would not only draw me to an authentic Catholic life but also break down some of my wife’s misconceptions of Catholicism. Probably more than any single individual, Marie has been God’s “sacrament” of love to show me the face of the Savior.
In the summer of 1994, I left my Reformed seminary after six years of teaching. It was quiet and amicable, but they and I knew that I couldn’t remain there forever because my views had caused too much of a stir. Theologically, I was probably somewhere between Rome and the Reformation, although definitely closer to Rome on many issues (such as the Eucharist).
During this time, I appreciated what had been said in the CHNetwork newsletter about using the time we have remaining in a Protestant setting to clear away misunderstandings and misconceptions about the Catholic Church. I endeavored to do just that.
The greatest conviction came when one day I realized that I truly believed it when the priest said, “This is Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Somehow I knew from that day on that there was no turning back and that becoming a Catholic was just a matter of time. What I didn’t know was how much time it would take.
We moved to Bloomington, Indiana, so I could use the excellent research facilities of Indiana University to write a book on the history of biblical interpretation. At the same time, I became good friends with Father Charles Cheesebrough, the pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church near the university. This man’s patience, compassion, and openness won my heart as I struggled through one of the most difficult years of my life.
I had fully hoped to enter the Church at Easter Vigil 1995, but conversations with my wife and Catholic friends suggested that it would be better for me to wait to see whether my wife could join me in that decision.
Encounter With Suffering
Then on June 3, 1995, a dramatic event stunned me. An assailant shot me in the neck with a handgun and almost killed me. God miraculously saved my life. Because of the prayers of God’s people on earth and the saints in heaven, I was surrounded with angelic hosts from above and human love from below. I learned, as I never had before, that in the moment of our deepest need, God’s presence pervades our being.
The people of St. Charles’ parish, as well as many other churches in the city, overwhelmed our family with love. This was only one of the many events in the last few years that have taught me the meaning of St. Paul’s words: “Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:10).
I am so thankful that the Catholic spiritual teachings on suffering are now a part of my heritage as a Christian. Without this understanding of grace and virtue through suffering, I would not have been able to endure the pains and hurts of my life. I now can say with the Apostle, “In our hope of sharing the glory of God … we rejoice in our sufferings” (Rom 5:2–3).
For a long time, I was Catholic on the inside while still a Protestant on the outside. For prudential reasons, I was delaying my entrance into the Church with the hope that my wife and I could resolve our differences so that we might join together. God’s plans, however, were different.
By God’s grace and with my wife’s encouragement, I was able to enter into complete communion with the Catholic Church on my forty-fourth birthday, June 1, 1996, and received for the first time the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of my Lord. Fourteen years later, October of 2010, my wife Sharon joined me when she was confirmed and received into the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. Praise and honor and glory be to God!
Dr. Kenneth J. Howell is the Senior Fellow of the School of Catholic Thought of the John Paul II Newman Center at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He also serves as theological advisor to The Coming Home Network International.
This story appears in the book Journeys Home, edited by Marcus Grodi (CHResources, rev. ed., 2011).To order the book, click here.