Coming Home

by Samuel Hopper

Airport encounter

Two and a half years after the 9-11 attacks, I was still working police-overtime assignments in uniform at a woefully understaffed airport in Southern California. By late winter of 2003, the newly created Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was in place at airports across the United States.

One evening I was posted at a passenger checkpoint. If something happened, I was the last line of defense. Otherwise my only responsibility was to be observant. It amounted to a lot of sitting and getting well paid while the much lower paid airport police and TSA agents were busy working.

At 6:00 p.m., my relief came. Sgt. Thomas (not his real name) jokingly commented, “Cheated death for another hour, huh?”

“Somehow,” I answered sarcastically. “And if anything does happen,” I continued, “as long as I see Jesus when I open my eyes, I’ll know everything’s alright.”

Sgt. Thomas and I laughed as I gave up my seat and started to walk to my next post.

Before I got five steps away, a TSA supervisor at the checkpoint (who I’ll call Mr. Pharis) stopped me and asked, “Do you expect to see Jesus when you die?”

That was probably the last question I expected to hear that night and I never expected it from someone else in a law enforcement uniform — especially from a stranger. Caught off guard, my defenses went up while I processed the question. What should have been a non-threatening question sounded very threatening to me. After a long pause, I answered simply, “I certainly hope so.”

Without missing a beat, Mr. Pharis asked, “If you died this instant, what would you say to Jesus that would convince Him to let you into heaven?”

I did not have an answer and it was obvious. Mr. Pharis then asked if I would be coming back to this checkpoint later in the evening. I told him I would be rotating back to it at 9:00 p.m. He then instructed me to tell him what I would say to Jesus at the gates of heaven that would convince Him to let me in.

When I returned to the checkpoint, I was ready to make my case for heaven. As I began to describe my works-laden justification, Mr. Pharis told me bluntly, “You’re not getting into heaven.”

Although Mr. Pharis came from a fundamentalist community church with a very narrow view of Christianity that believed only what could be gleaned from the Bible, (hard core sola scriptura folks), he got my attention. I was convinced I was not saved!

 

Culturally Christian

I was baptized and raised in the Methodist Church. There was never a time in my life that I didn’t believe in God. I went to Sunday school and knew many Bible stories including the basic Gospel account of the life of Jesus from His birth in the manger, His Crucifixion where He died for the sins of mankind, to His Resurrection. I never questioned anything and accepted it all as the truth. By most definitions of what is a Christian, you could probably say I was at best a cultural Christian, but not really a believing Christian.

When I was about five, a Sunday school teacher told us about heaven. I cannot remember anything specific about what she said but I knew I wanted to go there. I was disappointed when I realized I would have to die first. From that Sunday morning, though, I always assumed I’d be in heaven some day.

Growing up, I was not a big fan of church. I did not like going because it stole time from my weekend — my break from school. I was glad, however, that I wasn’t Catholic, because my Catholic buddies had to go to Catechism class on Saturdays and church on Sundays. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough not to go to church!

Going to college afforded me the opportunity to choose whether or not I would go to church — Christmas and Easter was enough for me!

Four years later, done with college, but not following a direct path in life, I was moved to go to church one morning. I went back to the church of my youth. The pastor gave a sermon based on the story of the Road to Emmaus. Again, I do not remember anything specific, but it was as if Pastor Black was preaching directly to me. His sermon had such a great impact on me that I began attending church regularly.

Three years later, I became a police officer and working on Sundays became very common.

 

Rome begins its call

In the spring of 1982, I met my future wife, Paula. We hit it off right away and enjoyed a whirlwind romance. For several weeks during our courtship, I was off on Sunday mornings. Paula invited me to go to church with her. It was then I learned she was a Catholic. By this time, I knew Catholics were Christians because they believed in God, taught about Jesus, and celebrated Christmas and Easter.

Within weeks of meeting, Paula and I knew we wanted to be married to each other. In my heart of hearts, I always wanted to get married in a quaint little chapel on Bear Island on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire where my family had vacation property. Paula, on the other hand, had always wanted to get married in the Catholic Church — case closed.

Where we got married meant more to Paula than to me, but when I found out getting married in the Catholic Church also meant raising our children as Catholics, I was a bit uncomfortable. I discussed this with a colleague who asked me, “Who’s more likely to ensure your children get a Christian upbringing?” The answer was obvious: Paula. Getting a Christian education, even if it was from the Catholic viewpoint, was better than no Christian education at all.

In the early years of our marriage, I wasn’t able to go to church very often. When I did though, I went with Paula to the Catholic Church. I thought, however, it was rude that non-Catholics were not supposed to receive Communion. In the Methodist Church, everyone was invited to receive communion. For this reason I didn’t think the Catholic Church was very welcoming and that struck me as being a bit un-Christian. When I would go to church, I would not genuflect or cross myself. I wanted people to know that I was not Catholic, that I was not like them. During the Mass, though, I would kneel with everyone. I must admit, however, when I knelt it was not out of respect for anyone or anything. It was due to pride. I did not want to be seen sitting back while everyone else was kneeling.

For the most part, I found Mass pretty boring. At least the services lasted only an hour and, because each Mass followed the same format, I could tell how far along we were without a watch. I appreciated a good homily, but would get irritated by the way the priests would drag out the Liturgy of the Eucharist. I thought, “My gosh. You do this every week. Get on with it. Just tell everyone it’s time for Communion. Come up and get it.”

 

Absurdity

A few years after I got married, my brother married his long-time girlfriend, Roxanne. Like Paula, she was also Catholic and was a devoted churchgoer. Unlike Paula, though, Roxanne was outspoken on many topics and didn’t shy away from talking about religion — even at family functions. Any discussion could get spirited, because Roxanne and I easily butted heads. It seemed there was nothing we could agree upon. I could say it was daytime and she would say it was nighttime. If I said up, she would say down. Even if we agreed on the same presidential candidate, we supported him for different reasons.

During a visit in the early 1990s, the four of us got into a discussion that morphed into a conversation about Communion. I commented that “the bread” eaten during Communion symbolized Jesus Christ. Without missing a beat Roxanne proclaimed, “It is the Body of Christ.”

“Symbolically,” I gently instructed everyone, “The bread is a symbol of His Body.”

Roxanne rose in her seat and insisted, “No. It is His body!”

“Symbolically speaking,” I started to say.

Roxanne was adamant. She began to explain that when the priest consecrates the gifts, they actually become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

This was the most absurd thing I had ever heard. It was so ridiculous that it wasn’t even worth arguing over. I quickly moved the conversation past this point.

 

An extra Bible

Although Paula and I didn’t talk about religion much, I didn’t interfere with her commitment to the Church. She always attended Sunday Mass and taught CCD. All three of our daughters were baptized as infants in the Catholic Church and I quietly went along with it.

When our daughters reached their teenage years, it occurred to me that church going should really be a family affair. I also didn’t want to be seen as a hypocrite. How could I tell them they should go to church but that I didn’t need to?

For the next three years or so we attended Sunday Mass regularly. Paula was very hopeful that I would convert to Catholicism. It crossed my mind but, even though I couldn’t tell anyone what I really believed (because, honestly, I didn’t know myself), I knew that I should not profess any faith simply to make another person happy. It would be something I would have to do for myself. I would have to believe in my heart it was the right thing to do.

My interest in the Catholic Church waned, though, during the priest scandal and I stopped attending church. Despite this, I found myself searching.

When Paula started teaching our daughter’s Confirmation classes, I discovered an extra Bible. I started going through it confident I could learn what I needed on my own. I found myself attracted to the Book of Sirach. I did not recall knowing about this book in the Bible but it was really loaded with good advice for living. It was on par with Proverbs, which I also really liked.

I enjoyed reading the Bible. It was fun going through the Pentateuch and reading the Bible stories I first heard during my youth. I read on and on, learning more about the great prophets and Biblical figures. I found wisdom, hope, encouragement, and inspiration from the Psalms. I glossed through Matthew, Mark, and Luke because they seemed pretty repetitive. Then I came to the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1 NAB). The hair on my arms stood. I was enthralled with the Gospel of St. John. Then I came to John 14:6 where Jesus proclaimed, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” I didn’t quite understand it, but this verse stayed in the front of my mind.

I was also really taken with the Apostle Paul, perhaps a little out of jealousy. When I read his account of being taken up into heaven, I desired heaven even more (2 Corinthians 12:2-7). For more than 40 years I longed to have a glimpse of heaven and here was a man who got to see it before death!

This “extra” Bible became my constant companion.

I was on the right path now, but I did not have my eye on a compass; I just sort of wandering along. Along the way I bumped into Mr. Pharis, the zealot who told me I wouldn’t be getting into heaven.

Until I could confess Jesus Christ as Lord and my personal savior, I was damned. Mr. Pharis gave me some New Testament Bible verses to chew on. I finally read John 14:6 with a clearer understanding. Yes, Jesus is the Way!

By March 30, 2003, I was ready to follow the recipe to be “saved.” I said the “Sinner’s Prayer,” confessing every sin in my life I could think of — it was a long prayer. Then in the afternoon of that memorable Sunday, while working an overtime security detail in the lush garden of a potential terrorist target, I accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior.

I was born-again!

Mr. Pharis said I needed to join a Bible-based church. A few weeks later, I settled on the local Baptist Church. I was made to feel very welcome and I fit right in. I quickly joined a men’s Bible study and got involved with other church activities.

Even though I’d been baptized as a baby, I was taught at this Baptist church that it didn’t count. Baptism was a decision I had to make; it wasn’t something that someone could make for me. I went to classes, professed my belief and faith in Jesus, and got a real baptism — full-immersion. Now I was a complete Christian, a true Christian.

 

Being a real Christian

All this, however, made the issue of my wife and kids being Catholic a bit sticky.

From my newfound faith, I was told that Catholicism was not true Christianity. Yes, there were some Catholics who were Christian, but the Church definitely was not. I learned that the Pope thought of himself as Christ. Catholics worshipped Mary and idols, they prayed to the dead. They believed in all sorts of things outside of the Bible. The Baptist Church and many Bible-believing churches like it were filled with “recovering” Catholics who had “seen the Light” and escaped from Catholicism — too many rules, too many restrictions. How dare anyone tell them how to be a Christian?

With great angst I had to face the issue of my wife and kids being part of a pagan belief system (even if they were among the few practicing Catholics who were actually Christian). I figured the best thing to do was invite them to go to church with me. If they could see what I had found, I figured their eyes would be opened to authentic Christianity.

Paula and our daughters witnessed my baptism. Beforehand she reminded me that I was already baptized. I told her this time was my choice. She didn’t say another word.

Although Paula did attend church functions with me at the Baptist Church, she continued going to Sunday Mass. A chasm was growing between us. When I pressed her about going to Sunday services with me, Paula emphatically informed me she would never leave the Catholic Church. Not giving up, I posed the question, “How can you say ‘no’ to the Baptist Church when you don’t even know what you’re saying ‘no’ to?”

Paula relented and started attending church with me for several weeks. I was very pleased. I was confident she would convert and we’d no longer be going in different directions. All I wanted was for us to be one in faith.

While I felt very secure in Paula’s decision to start attending services at the Baptist Church, she was going through quite a struggle herself. Although she was welcomed at the Baptist Church and felt the warmth and geniality of the other members, she felt something was missing.

After much soul searching and intense prayer, Paula came to understand that she missed receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. She immediately stopped going to the Baptist Church, went to Confession, and returned to the Catholic Church.

When she told me about her decision, I was shocked. My wife believed that whacky notion that the Communion bread turned into Jesus!

I had to find a way to convince Paula she was wrong.

 

Meeting the Church Fathers

I knew from learning history that there was a split in the Church during the 16th Century. I knew that Martin Luther was a central figure in the split. It made sense to me to research the Reformation and there I might find the answers I needed to enlighten Paula.

In the first minutes of my research of the Reformation, I learned that Martin Luther was a priest — a Catholic priest. At first, he had no issue with Catholic belief and doctrine. His intention was not to create a split but, rather, address the wrongs being practiced in the Church. The split was an unintended consequence.

In the same sitting, I also discovered “The Church” was also the Catholic Church. The Church, established by Jesus Christ Himself some two thousand years ago, was and is the Catholic Church. So, what happened, I wondered. How did we get to where we are today?

I was already troubled by the number of non-denominational Christian churches, with beliefs ranging from extreme, right-wing fundamentalism to far-left, post-modernism that is Christian in name only. Even within the Protestant denominations there has become a wide spectrum of accepted doctrine and belief.

Using simple logic I knew that an object could not be a square and at the same time be a sphere. Yet, here we were. Jesus, the manifestation of Truth could not, for example, condemn abortion and at the same time support it.

The only way to make sense of things was to go back to the beginning, back to ancient times, back to the Early Church. I began to study Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons, to name a few. These Church Fathers not only spread the Gospel, they defended it against heresies while facing intense persecution.

Each of these men had deep faith. Each, clearly, believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Uh-oh, I thought. Was my sister-in-law Roxanne right?

What if I was wrong? What else might I have gotten wrong?

Irenaeus of Lyons (a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John) alluded to the baptism of infants and children in Against Heresies (II, 22 §4). If the Apostles, appointed by Jesus Christ Himself, who then, by their God-given authority, appointed their successors continued the Tradition of baptizing infants and children, then why should I trust the opinions of self-appointed, protesting men 1,500 years later? A false doctrine, even if promulgated for 500 years, is still a false doctrine. My childhood baptism was indeed valid.

I understood, now, exactly what John Henry Cardinal Newman meant when he wrote, “To be deep in history, is to cease to be Protestant.”

Before my quest, I had already begun to question the concept and validity of sola scriptura. Nowhere could I find in Scripture a biblical claim that the written Word is the sole authority. The Bible makes no such declaration!

While I believe that the Bible is all true, I came to realize that all that is true is not limited to the Bible alone. The Apostle John wrote as much in his Gospel, “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25 NAB)

The Word of God is the sole authority. But, the Word of God was never limited to written form. It was always spoken first.

After researching the Church from its beginning, I turned to contemporary books. I read Patrick Madrid’s Where Is That in the Bible? He answered, citing Scripture, charge after charge others make against the Catholic Church.

I agreed with what Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”

 

Coming home

During the fall of 2008, I knew I had to go back to the Catholic Church. One Sunday morning I told Paula, “I’ll go with you to church today.” She didn’t know why, but she wasn’t about to stop me. I went back with open eyes and an open heart.

Only one stumbling block stood in my way. How could I come to believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist?

Then, on Easter Sunday in 2009, when Paula and I walked into church, an usher stopped us. “Would you bring up the gifts this morning?” We agreed, but I felt like a phony. I’m not even Catholic, I thought to myself, and this is Easter Sunday, no less!

When the time came, the usher handed me the large paten and removed the cloth that had covered it, revealing a thousand hosts. I looked at these wafers and my hair stood on end. Soon, I thought, this bread will be transformed into the Body of Christ. How?

As we approached the priest I could feel myself beginning to tremble. My focus, though, went to the altar — the sacrificial table.

Back at my pew, on my knees, my attention was riveted on the celebrating priest. For the first time I truly heard him pray for the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. In my head, I knew that these consecrated elements were now the Body and Blood of Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine. But I needed to believe it.

Although I had seen this ritual played out more than a hundred times, when the priest held the host and said, “Take and eat, this is my body,” I suddenly felt that I was at the Last Supper. The priest raised the chalice and said the words Christ spoke, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Then it dawned on me. The light went on! Jesus is Truth. He just spoke and said, “This is.” He didn’t say, “represents.” He didn’t say, “is like.” He didn’t say, “symbolizes.” Jesus said, “This is.” The deeper reality of what appeared to be something else was in fact His Body and Blood.

It was that Easter Sunday that I asked Paula, “How do you get into RCIA?”

Following that miraculous day, I decided to retire from the police department and commit myself to the service of Christ. The next RCIA class started in September and I was in it! A few months later, on February 7, 2010, I was confirmed.

I was finally home.

Samuel Hopper has been married for 30 years to his wife, Paula. They have three adult daughters and three grandsons. He retired as a police sergeant after working for 29 in law enforcement for a large police department in Los Angeles County. Samuel and Paula are members of Blessed Junipero Serra Parish in Quartz Hill, CA. They are active in Catholic Engaged Encounter. Samuel is presently the Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Engaged Encounter of Los Angeles.

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  • Alain N.

    Glory be to God. Touching story. Remain blessed!