Coming Back Home
by Paul Ackermann
I was bored with the Catholic Church! All I did was daydream through Mass and my catechism classes. When I was 10, my parents stopped going to Mass, but my father would still drop off my sister and I at the church.
I grew up in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago. I had an older sister (she was the religious one in the family) and a younger brother and sister. My childhood was pretty depressing. I have a minor case of cerebral palsy – not bad enough to be noticeable, but bad enough to make me terrible at any kind of sport. Others constantly ridiculed me. This made me very shy. I went to college at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, and I thought that I could put my childhood behind me. I was wrong. I had a very difficult time making friends. The harder I tried to make friends, the more people withdrew from me.
Coming to know Jesus
Then I received a pamphlet called The Four Spiritual Laws. It told me things I never heard in the Catholic Church (maybe it was because I was not paying attention all those years). It told me that God loved me and had a wonderful plan for me life, but my sins separated me from His wonderful plan, and that all I needed to do was ask Christ into my life. This I did.
And Christ did come into my life.
He changed me — not overnight, but gradually. I could reach out of my shell to others. I realized not to try to get others to love me, but just to love others unconditionally. As I started to love others in this way, I started to have friends. The most important thing of all, however, was the friendship I had with God. Jesus Christ was my best friend. I could sense His presence with me at all times. I knew that I was never alone, He was always with me and, when I died, I would be with Him forever.
Around 1971, I got involved in Campus Crusade for Christ, a lay ministry for college students. I became one of their student leaders and taught one of their regular classes. My expertise was the doctrine of salvation. I used to read everything I could on the subject, mainly the theology of the Reformers. I had the conviction that the most important key to a victorious Christian life was to realize with absolute certainty that you are saved. I taught that one is justified by faith alone. God sent His Son to die once and for all and imputed Christ’s righteousness onto us in order that we could apply His righteousness to ourselves simply by faith. If we were truly born again in Christ, we would be so grateful for what He did for us that we would want to live a righteous life. Yet even though we may want to live a righteous life, we were still bound by a sinful nature.
Needless to say, at this point I was no longer a practicing Catholic. I do, however, thank God for my Protestant experience. One thing I appreciated about Protestant Evangelicalism was its ability to easily communicate its beliefs. For instance, Campus Crusade for Christ has these booklets called the 10 Basic Steps Toward Christian Maturity. These booklets described simply how to pray, how to be filled with the Holy Sprit, and how to read the Bible. These were very helpful for someone like me who was just starting out on my spiritual journey. I am not so sure I would have ever been able to get close to God, if was not for Protestants laying down the basic foundation of Christianity for me so that I could understand it.
A Protestant without a Church
For the first half of my fourteen years as a Protestant, I never committed to one particular denomination. I attended an Independent Bible Church, then went to a Baptist Church, then went to a Evangelical Free Church, then the Assemblies of God, and then back to the Baptist Church. I just wanted to be a Christian. I looked down on organized Christianity, which I called “Churchianity.” The church scene just seemed too stuffy, too cold — more concerned about programs, than having a relationship with God.
I loved Campus Crusade for Christ, however, and I wanted to join its professional staff, but a doctrinal difference got in the way. At that time, I believed in “soul sleep,” a belief that when a Christian dies, he or she enters into a state of unconsciousness until the return of Christ. However, Campus Crusade taught that, after death, a believer’s soul is in a conscious state in heaven with the Lord.
From the experience of student teaching at Campus Crusade, I realized I had the gift of explaining biblical truths to people and, therefore, wanted to become a minister. After college, I entered Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. It was known as an inter-denominational seminary and, thus, I still had time to decide to which denomination I wanted to belong.
Upon entering the seminary, I no longer believed in soul sleep. I learned that in Revelation 6:9-11, St. John saw the souls in heaven under the altar of God asking how long before the end would come. This showed that those who died in the Lord are conscious after death. I was conservative in my beliefs, but tolerant in my attitudes. I was avidly pro-life. I believed that tongues and prophecy are gifts that still exist today, but I did not believe everyone must pray in tongues. Although I believed that miraculous healings could happen, I also believed that God did not heal everyone and that suffering is part of the Christian life. I believed that a person could loose his salvation (if a person freely chooses to follow Christ, and he can also freely choose not to believe in Christ). I believed in infant baptism, but also free will (so I could not be a Calvinist). I also did not believe in the pre-tribulation rapture. In spite of the thousands of denominations out there, there was nothing that seemed to fit me (unbeknownst to me then, the only church that did fit all my beliefs was the Catholic Church). Since I needed to make a decision, I decided on the Assemblies of God.
I knew upon choosing a denomination that no matter which denomination I chose, I would have to compromise my beliefs. The Assemblies of God believed that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a subsequent experience after conversion and that everyone should speak in tongues as evidence of that experience. However, I enjoyed their worship, so I decided to compromise and say I accepted their beliefs. I knew this was wrong, but I was tired of trying to find the denomination with which I could totally I agree. I just wanted to be a minister and preach the Gospel. I remembered being rejected by Campus Crusade for a belief that I no longer held, so I felt it was not worth it to just hold onto a doctrine. I felt I might not believe tomorrow what I believed at that moment.
After I graduated from seminary, I attended an Assemblies of God church. I approached the pastor and I asked if he could use a seminary graduate like me somewhere in the church — so he made me the janitor. I waited for two years to become an Assemblies of God minister. Apparently, the Assemblies of God are not that impressed with seminary graduates. In fact, they feel that the more education you have the less likely you are filled with the Holy Spirit. They prefer graduates from their own Bible colleges (oops — I think I chose the wrong denomination). Also, I was still single. Protestant churches like their ministers to be married. I told my placement director that my ministry did not have to be in an Assemblies of God church and a month later, he called back.
The placement director told me that a small Free-Will Baptist Church in Illinois needed a pastor — not a youth pastor or an assistant pastor, but the only pastor! I was excited about the opportunity to finally preach the Gospel. Also, it appeared that the church’s doctrines fit with my theology and the members seemed to favor the charismatic movement. Oddly enough, the address of the house that the church rented me matched my issued license plate! I took it as a sign that God wanted me there.
I soon found out that this coincidence did not mean that this Free-Will church and I were a match made in heaven. The church was very fundamentalist; for instance, they believed that no real Christian would ever drink wine.
I thought I might be able to bring the congregation around and, during my time serving there, the church doubled in size (however, this was still less than 100 people). I was concerned about the fundamentalist nature of the Free-Will denomination, and that it would be difficult to grow larger as long as we stayed affiliated with that denomination.
Then one day the pastor at the nearby, large Evangelical Free Church asked if our church would want to become part of the Free Church. He said if it did, he would send some members to help us to build it. I excitedly presented the idea to our members and they voted in favor. For the first time, I could envision the church growing and, thus, being able to afford to give me a large enough salary for me to fulfill my dream of getting married and supporting a family.
During this time, I met a woman who was also from a Baptist church. She was divorced with an 8-year-old daughter from that marriage. I asked the leaders of my church if my dating a divorcee would be a problem. They said no, provided that she divorced her husband because he was unfaithful (there were already members in our church who were divorced for that reason). Our relationship blossomed and, when she visited my church, the members welcomed her. I popped the question and she said, “yes”! It was a dream come true: my church was switching to a much better denomination, growing in size, and I would finally be married — and even have a daughter right off the bat! Everything seemed to wonderful.
But things soon turned sour. When my fiancée and I announced our engagement to my church, there was one woman who objected. I did not think much of it at the time, but eventually the pastor at the large Evangelical Free Church got involved. He called for a meeting to resolve the problem. My fiancé and I attended the meeting with the leaders of my small church, moderated by the Evangelical Free church’s pastor. It turned out that this pastor was not a moderator at all. He opposed our engagement and had convinced the others that divorce and remarriage is wrong under any circumstances. The meeting turned out to be about only one thing: when I was going to submit my resignation.
I thought of staying and fighting, but that did not seem like the Christian thing to do. I knew if I stayed, it would cause a split in the church. Besides, my fiancé’s pastor liked me and he started to talk to me about me being his assistant pastor. For a short while, it seemed as though this was where God was leading me. Then, my fiancé told me that, no matter how hard she prayed, she did not have an inner peace about our relationship — not until she took the ring off! She said it was not God’s will for us to be together just one week after my resignation. Given the turn of events, her pastor now said that he did not think it would be a good idea for me to join his staff.
In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I was without a pastorate and the victim of a broken engagement. I had nowhere to go but back to live with my parents. I tried to find another pastorate. I remembered how it took two years for me to find a pastorate after I graduated from seminary. Now, it seemed like it would be harder and take longer. Not only that, but this was probably the lowest I ever was spiritually. I was intensely depressed, even contemplating suicide. I could not pray. Every time I tried to pray, hatred and depression haunted me. I was mad at the members of my former church. They were like a family to me. I could not believe they would force me to resign. I was mad at the Free Church pastor. I was mad at my ex-fiancé. Most of all, I was mad at God. I thought God gave me a sign that this church was His will for me. What happened? I was afraid I could no longer trust God with my life. I soon stopped going to church.
I came home
This was a big turning point in my life. At 31-years-old, I was starting over. I decided to become a computer programmer. I lived with my parents, went to class, and worked part-time at a nearby Sears store. I also met my future wife, Pat, who was Catholic. Beforehand, I would never have been involved with a Catholic, but at this point of my life, I no longer cared. She would drag me to Catholic Mass.
Two years after moving home, I graduated from school with an Associates degree in Computer Science and found a job as a computer programmer. Pat and I were married, but not in the Catholic Church since Pat was also divorced. We were not able to have children, so we adopted two wonderful girls from China.
We continued to go to St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Lake Zurich, Illinois, but we could not partake in the Eucharist. Although my life was now better, I felt I did it on my own — without the help of God. I still remembered how my life was in shambles when I trusted in God and I felt that I was better off without Him. Deep down, this attitude scared me. Sometimes my wife and I would visit a Protestant Evangelical church and I would go forward on the altar call and re-dedicated myself to Christ, but then on Monday, apathy would set in. Except for a few times on a Sunday morning, I did not want God to be a part of my life. There were times I cried to God. I tried repenting with my whole heart, but the next day my attitude was totally different. At times I was afraid that I would go to hell if I died. At other times, I did not care. Whenever I tried to pray, all the bitter memories of how I was treated when I lost my ministry came back to me. As years went by, I questioned whether any religion was even true. I felt I was becoming an atheist, or at least an agnostic. I started to rationalize that maybe it would not be so bad if God didn’t exist, but for the sake of my wife and kids, I still went to church with them. When I saw my children receive their first Communion, I was very intrigued. Maybe there was something to the Catholic Eucharist. I wished I could just receive it to find out.
In seminary, I had a roommate who was also named Paul. Paul had graduated from Moody Bible Institute, but actually converted to Catholicism while we were in seminary. Before I knew Paul, I thought there was no valid argument for the Catholic Faith, but he had arguments I just could not refute. He would argue, “How could sola scriptura be true if it is not even in the Bible?” I would respond with 2 Timothy 3:16, but Paul responded that this verse says, “ALL scripture is inspired by God, but it does not say ONLY scripture is inspired by God.” Also, “scripture” in this verse meant the Old Testament. New Testament scripture was not yet completely written or canonized. If this verse supported sola scriptura, then it supported sola Old Testament scriptura, which means that the New Testament would have to be excluded. If there is no verse that supports sola scriptura, then that meant I believed in a doctrine that was not in the Bible! Paul also pointed out that many of the doctrines and practices in Protestant churches are not explicitly taught in the Bible alone — the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity of the Holy Spirit, asking Christ into your heart, accepting Christ as your personal Savior and Lord, the rapture, the altar call, pews, hymnals, etc. These are more supported from our traditions than what is actually taught in the Bible.
All of Paul’s arguments came back to me as I attended the Catholic Church with my family. I became convinced, that if there was a God (something of which I was still not sure) and the Jesus Christ is truly God made flesh, it made sense that the Catholic Church would be the Church that Christ founded. I was, however, only intellectually convinced — and, of course, only if God actually existed.
My family and I went to a Catholic wedding and we ended up sitting with the priest at the reception. I asked him if it was all right for my wife and I to take Communion, even though my wife was previously married to someone else. “Sure,” he said. “You two seem to be a nice couple! Just don’t tell your pastor about your wife’s divorce.” This, of course, we learned later, was bad advice and it went against the teachings of the Church. But that Sunday, my wife and I received Communion. As soon as I received the Eucharist, I sensed a small voice in my head saying, “You must go to Confession!” I could not get this thought out of my head. Normally, I became apathetic about God during the week, but this time, I had a new determination to follow through with my commitment: I must go to Confession that Saturday.
The enlightening fruit of Confession
So I did! It was 30 years since the last time I went to Confession. I told the priest all the sins of my past. When I left the confessional that day, I knew I was truly forgiven! As a pastor, I preached that God forgave us on the cross through our faith, but I never felt as forgiven as when I heard the priest say those wonderful words that absolved me of my sins. I then realized that the true application of the cross was not just granted by faith alone, but by approaching the Sacrament of Confession with faith.
Shortly after my reconciliation to the Church, I found a newsletter in my parish, which included Pope John Paul II’s teachings on the rosary. He taught that the rosary is a Christ-centered prayer. This thought inspired me to pray it. For eighteen years, I felt as though I could not pray, now, I was praying the rosary! I made a commitment to God to pray the rosary every day and it’s fruit helped me develop a new and deeper prayer life! I was also surprised how other traditional Catholic devotions, such as the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the Stations of the Cross, veneration of Mary, and praying to saints, brought me to a closer relationship to Jesus Christ. As a Protestant, I used to think that Catholic practices detracted the Christian from Christ, but I now realize how wrong I was. These practices brought me far closer to a Christ-centered life than ever before. The more I do these practices, the more I am in love with my Lord Jesus.
I also learned that truth matters. The Bible says that we should be lovers of truth. All throughout my life, I compromised the truth. I even compromised my beliefs in order to pastor a church! After so much compromising, I ended up not believing in an absolute truth anymore. Doctrine was just something that I kind of believed in until it became too inconvenient. Sure, the Bible was truth, but I could always change my interpretation of the Bible to suit my needs at that time.
After my reconciliation with the Catholic Church, I realized that Protestantism brought with it a sea of relativism: many believe all Protestant denominations are equally right (or at least God views all denominations equally). God saved me by helping me realize that truth is absolute. There cannot be conflicting views of the same truth. Only one can be right, which means that the others are — at least in some way — wrong. I came to see that only one church has for stood for the truth without compromise for the last 2,000 years. Whether it be on the issue of abortion, homosexuality, artificial contraception, divorce, the deity of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, or the inerrant Bible, the Catholic Church has unwaveringly stood for the truth. Other churches have held things to be true in the past, but have compromised in the present. If the Lord tarries, there is only one church today that will still hold these truths 2,000 years into the future, and that is the Catholic Church. As Christ promised, the gates of death and hell will not prevail against His Church. It is the pillar and foundation of truth.
Humility brings healing
God also taught me another thing through His Church: forgiveness is not an option. As we pray in the Our Father, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The Lord teaches I must forgive those who hurt me in the past. I must forgive the kids that made fun of me in my childhood. I must forgive those who forced me to resign from my pastorate. I must forgive my ex-fiancé. It must be done for the sake of my own soul. Not only did God show me was it imperative to forgive those in my past, but through the Holy Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin Mary, God gave me the grace to be able to forgive.
Along with forgiveness, God also taught me humility. God revealed to me the people who forced me out of ministry were the ones who were right and I was the one who was wrong: Marriage is forever. The Bible does not teach that divorce is ever acceptable. An annulment is possible with the Catholic Church, but it is not the same as a divorce. An annulment is Church’s recognition that a marriage was never valid. When the people at the Baptist church saw that was wrong for me to marry a divorcee, they were closer to the teaching of the Catholic Church — to the truth — than I was. During the confession that reconciled me with the Catholic Church, I told the priest about my wife’s previous marriage. This priest began the processes for the Church to investigate the validity of my wife’s previous marriage. The Church determined that her first marriage was not sacramental and thus she was granted an annulment. We then had our marriage convalidated in the Catholic Church. Until she was granted the annulment, we abstained from conjugal relations, so that we could continue to receive the Eucharist.
I have now been home in the Catholic Church since 2002. In humility, I realized that I couldn’t trust in my own pet doctrines and opinions. Too many times in the past I dogmatically held a certain view from the Bible, only to change my view a few years later. This is why I could never commit myself to a Protestant denomination. My views kept changing, and then I move on to a different denomination in a couple of years. As the Bible says, I was “tossed to and fro, from every wind of doctrine.” Now, I humbly submit all my opinions to that of God’s Church, and to God’s representative on earth, the Pope. I have been wrong so many times in the past, but God’s Church has never been wrong. It is not because of the people in the Church, it is because of Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, promised that the gates of hell will never prevail against His Church.