Our third son was 10 days old on “Reformation Sunday” 1998. The preacher that Sunday at the local Lutheran church we attended was a retired Lutheran school principal, a man in his 70s with a great shock of white hair. He ascended the pulpit and held up a book, a book he proclaimed “the work of the devil!” The book was by a Catholic author on justification. The preacher offered this book as evidence that “the Reformation must go on!” To me, he came across as so angry and fearful, so unreasonably opposed to the Catholic author, that I leaned over and whispered to my husband, Joe, and said “Sounds like a book we ought to read.”
Though we were Lutheran, my husband was on the faculty of a Catholic college in a small town to which we had moved just two months before our son was born. Joe found the book in the college library and brought it home for me to read. That was the beginning of the end of my life as a Lutheran.
I was born and raised in a conservative German Lutheran family (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or LCMS), the third of five children; I was baptized as an infant, as were all my siblings. We attended church and Sunday School every Sunday without fail even when traveling. My happiest childhood memories are from church, particularly Christmas and Easter. I always had a lively faith and took to heart everything I could grasp at church. The messages of Advent and Lent, delivered through the Wednesday night services our family faithfully attended, left deep impressions on my heart. One year, I was quite surprised to wake up one Christmas morning to find Jesus had not returned yet, because so vividly and urgently had our pastor proclaimed His Second Coming that Advent! I loved singing the beautiful, strong hymns of our church and participating in the liturgy even though I couldn’t understand why we told God we were “hardly” [heartily] sorry for our sins in the Confession of Sins each Sunday. I regularly and devoutly read my treasured book of Bible stories, the only religious book in our home, which I had won for perfect Sunday School attendance.
By the time of my Lutheran confirmation when I was in the eighth grade, I was concerned I didn’t have “real faith.” I had questions about the Bible: “How do I know someone didn’t just make this up?” and “How can anyone know the truth?” Typical adolescent questioning, but I was tortured by these threats to my faith. I was afraid I was an atheist when I was confirmed and prayed God would just “zap” me with unwavering faith at the moment of confirmation. It didn’t happen. I wasn’t zapped. But I did get a wonderful gift of a prayer book for the event and settled on a “Prayer for Faith” that has sustained me since that day. “Lord, I believe,” the prayer goes, “Help Thou mine unbelief. Strengthen Thou this weak and flickering faith.”
I prayed that prayer often through high school as I struggled with doubts. Truly I sought God but didn’t know where to find Him.
I got involved in Young Life (a Christian ministry for middle school through college age students) for a while, which was an eye-opening experience. It was there I first experienced extemporaneous prayer. I had wanted just to “talk to God” but had never been shown how. I was introduced to Christian books (I had never known Christian bookstores existed until then) and read exciting stories of courageous men and women of faith, like David Wilkerson (The Cross and the Switchblade) and Brother Andrew (God’s Smuggler). I wanted to be like them, giving my life for God. Finally, I had found something I had been searching for — people who boldly lived the faith they professed.
My parents had not been happy with my foray into Young Life, not understanding why I didn’t want to go to our Lutheran youth group. After three years with Young Life, however, I did not sense the depth of the faith I was seeking. I couldn’t define it at the time, but it seemed to me “just not enough.” By my senior year, as I prepared to attend a Lutheran college, I felt compelled to return to our Lutheran church youth group (the “bloom where you’re planted” idea). I had one goal for my life now: to find God, to know Him and love Him, and to give my life to Him. I wanted to be a missionary, but it appeared the only way for a woman in the LCMS to do that was to marry one.
To a Lutheran, the Word of God is of primary importance. It is one of the two “means of grace” (the means by which God creates and increases faith in us); the other being the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion. I reasoned if I wanted the heroic faith I yearned for, I must commit to studying God’s Word. In Lutheran colleges, though, that track was found in “theology,” not Bible study. The only reasonable course to follow, in my mind then, was to study theology. The only career option for women at that time which called for a theology major was deaconess.
The long search
Theological studies were a huge disappointment. None of it was about the personal relationship with God I sought, only intellectual talk about God, and much of it called into question the foundational Christian truths I had been taught. Despite its noble-sounding motto — “Faith and Service in Christ” — the deaconess preparation program was my first encounter with feminism; serving the feminist cause, not Christ. I sought immersion in life with God, but was being groomed toward breaking open the male-only ministry in the LCMS to include women. The LCMS fractured while I was in college. The conservative faction, which retained the name LCMS, still has only male pastors today. The “liberal” faction later merged with other Lutheran groups to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), which ordains women as pastors and bishops. Upon graduation from a Lutheran university with degrees in theology and Greek, I hadn’t come any closer to finding God but, rather, was left very discouraged and confused about what to do.
My search for God continued for several years through a series of church occupations: a deaconess internship (after which I abandoned the whole deaconess track), director of Christian education in a
Lutheran church, and then a Lutheran schoolteacher. I looked for God in Israel pursuing graduate studies and later as an elementary school teacher in Jerusalem. I was impressed by many of the Catholic shrines in the Holy Land, particularly the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem which encloses the traditional sites of our Lord’s Crucifixion, burial, and Resurrection. The beauty of it all left a deep impression on me, but I didn’t yet have a context for appreciating Catholic history or worship.
Back in the U.S., I worked for the LCMS in mission education, traveling around the country promoting LCMS missions. This work took me around the country and even to Nigeria. The beauty and simplicity of the Nigerian people and their worship touched me deeply. Here, I sensed I was getting a little closer to God.
Paving the road
During these years of searching for God, I had several encounters with “real Catholics.” I had not thought Catholics were “real Christians;” I thought they just went to church because they “had to” but did not have “saving faith.” During that time, though, I met some Catholics who made me question this presumption. One was a woman whom I had known as a child in our Lutheran church. She had converted to Catholicism and told me about her devotion to Mary (I was not ready for that!). Her story was the first I had heard in which someone converted to Catholicism out of conviction, not just for marriage.
Another was a Catholic fellow I dated for a while who took me to my first Mass. Something struck me at that Mass, although I didn’t know what. I wanted to go back, again and again, and even attended a few classes with the priest who gave me my first book on Catholicism, Believing in Jesus. I was dumbfounded reading through that book — there was so much in there that I believed! But there was also much I couldn’t touch yet and so I set it aside. Looking back, I can see how the Holy Spirit was paving the road for my own conversion through these encounters with faithful Catholics.
So I continued in the Lutheran Church, married, and had children. I was content enough with the Lutheran church where we lived, which was certainly on the “orthodox” end of the Lutheran spectrum and with a solid liturgy. I was occupied with family matters that my burning quest for the deeper things of God was tempered.
But then, shortly before our third son’s birth, we moved to the town where my testimony began. My husband, Joe, and I were very uncomfortable with the local LCMS church from the beginning. The Baptist-style services and preaching tended in the opposite direction of the orthodox Lutheranism we knew, but we weren’t in the position to go looking elsewhere at that point. However, our experience on “Reformation Sunday,” not only catapulted us out of that church, it eventually landed us in the arms of the Roman Catholic Church. More on that journey later, but now I’d like to address some of the difficult theological issues that had to be overcome before I could embrace Catholicism.
Luther and his doctrines
The Catholic book Joe checked out of the library dealt with the cornerstone of Lutheranism. To have the doctrine sola fide (“faith alone”) fall, meant Luther’s foundation was fatally fractured. What I had learned and held as a Lutheran came crashing down when I squarely faced what the Bible said about faith and works. I had blindly accepted what I had been taught, memorizing “proof texts” for Lutheran doctrines from childhood, never questioning whether or not they actually proved the truths of Lutheran teaching.
Occasionally, it seemed there were inconsistencies between the Bible and Lutheran doctrines; for instance, the doctrine of sola Scriptura (“Bible alone”) came in conflict with New Testament passages. I had trouble reconciling the doctrine of “faith alone” with James’ passages on the importance of works (but we had learned that Luther had called the Book of James “an epistle of straw,” so we didn’t hold it very highly either). However, there was another inconsistency: who was Luther to say what should and should not be in the Bible? That thought was pretty close to blasphemy, I was sure, so I dismissed it.
We had never been taught any church history between the time of the apostles and Luther. I first heard of the “Church Fathers” in a Greek class in college. As I translated Irenaeus’ writings from the Greek, the truth of what he had written amazed me. I wondered why I had never been told of him before. None of my theology courses in college ever mentioned the Church Fathers. We were never given any devotional readings beyond what Luther wrote. I did begin to read some of Luther’s larger works in college and was indeed troubled by his anti-Semitism and hatred of the papacy and Catholic Church. However, that was explained away by saying, “that’s how people wrote and spoke in that time” and “he was German” (and having been raised in a very German family, Luther’s “German” personality made sense to me).
Now, after “Reformation Day,” I faced a book that challenged the most fundamental of all Lutheran doctrines. I shut the book hard several times, afraid of what I was reading. “If this is true,” I surmised, “everything I have believed in my whole life as a Lutheran is in question. If this is true, what else have I wrongly believed?” I did finish the book and I was scared. I was embarking upon the greatest adventure of learning of my life.
I happened upon an online Catholic forum, which became my greatest help for understanding Catholic doctrine in the context of my Lutheran understanding. In these early days of probing Catholicism, I first thought we, as Lutherans and Catholics, were all talking about the same thing, just in a different way. We all believe in justification by faith, but emphasize different aspects.
The biggest shock for me came when I learned that the Catholic Church does not teach, as Lutherans do, that man is totally corrupted through Original Sin, totally incapable of cooperating with God in any way, that God only covers our sins, or that when God looks at us, He does not see us but only Christ.
I was also confronted by something that has taken me years to grasp, and still I am afraid I cannot explain the Catholic doctrine of justification well. It is not simple or single-stranded, but involves the doctrines of sin (original and actual, mortal and venial), grace (actual and sanctifying), the sacraments (all seven), and runs so deep it can never be fully grasped. What confronted me was a completely new, non-linear way of thinking. I would have to empty myself of everything Lutheran and learn the Catholic Faith on its own, not in comparison or in relation to anything I had known as a Lutheran.
I was beginning to see Catholicism not as a set of doctrines, as I had understood the Lutheran faith, but more like a tapestry where every thread of truth is bound up with all the others: pull out one thread and the whole thing unravels; held together, you have a magnificent picture. I had begun with thinking I just needed to translate my Lutheran understanding into Catholic language, but I was looking for cognates in a language where there were none. This was going to be much more like learning Hebrew than Greek.
If I admitted that the Catholic Church was right on justification, which would be borne out in its consistency in all other doctrines, I believed I was compelled to become Catholic. The scandal of Christian disunity deeply troubled me. The least, and best, I could do would be to join the Church Christ Himself founded. But how to get from here to there was nowhere clear to me.
More light on the path
The next book my husband brought home from the college library was Rome Sweet Home by Scott and Kimberly Hahn. I could not believe what I was reading! Here were real people, devout and educated Protestants, who chose to become Catholic. They addressed many of the common Protestant obstacles to the Catholic Church in ways that made sense. I was starting to get an inkling of the process of conversion.
I couldn’t talk to any non-Catholics (which included all my family and friends at the time) about my Catholic musings, because I could not yet explain it. I had no words, no defenses, no context for any of it. I wouldn’t know how to answer their objections, but just knew in my heart I had come upon the Truth. The most I could say was what I had told a Lutheran pastor who asked before we joined his church, “What are you looking for in a church?” I replied, “I am looking for a church that will help me live as a Christian and die as a Christian.” All I could say to my horrified Protestant family and friends was, “I have found the Church I’ve been seeking.”
I continued reading and asking questions of my online Catholic friends. I devoured convert stories and somehow got connected with the Coming Home Network International, probably through the online Catholic forum I had found. CHNetwork provided me with a wonderful mentor, a woman who was formerly a Lutheran pastor. I will be forever thankful to her and CHNetwork for the help I received on my journey to the Catholic Church.
My husband did not yet share my enthusiasm for the Catholic Church and I had to learn that while we were one in marriage, God has His plans for us as individuals. He calls us and works with us according to our individual natures and only God knows the time and manner that is best for that call. It was certainly a challenging time for our marriage, but I know even these struggles were part of God’s way of preparing us both to enter the Catholic Church.
The Last Frontier
A couple years later, we moved again, this time to Alaska, now with four children, having added a daughter eight months earlier. I had continued my Catholic reading and correspondence and was growing more restless about continuing in the Lutheran church. My restlessness came to a head when I began planning for the new school year.
We had begun homeschooling two years earlier when our eldest child was in the third grade. Raising our children in the Christian faith was the central tenet of our home school and choosing the right religion curriculum was the first thing on my teacher’s to-do list each year. I looked over the Lutheran books in front of me and compared them with some Catholic curriculum a Catholic friend from our former homeschool group had shared with me. I was a convinced Catholic by this point and could not in good conscience teach our children what I did not believe. I chose the Catholic curriculum.
Another dilemma presented itself: I would be teaching the Catholic faith to our children while we still worshipped in the Lutheran Church. I talked with my husband and said I could not have one foot in the Lutheran Church and the other in the Catholic Church. Our children needed to have a consistent message. We agreed that day to begin attending the Catholic Church with the view toward becoming Catholic.
Learning to be Catholic
Deciding to become Catholic was one thing; learning how to be Catholic would be something quite different. Actually realizing what we sought — that is to enter the Catholic Church fully and completely — proved a very difficult journey, fraught with many obstacles. Perhaps ironically, this is one thing I appreciated about the Catholic Church: that it’s so hard to get in! It seemed the devil was very interested in keeping us out, so we must be on the right track, I surmised. Looking back over my journey to the Catholic Church, I can see God’s love and providence in allowing every obstacle, every challenge, along the way. How true it is that the harder we work for something, the more we appreciate it!
The first thing I did to learn “how to be Catholic” was to begin a Catholic prayer life. I purchased Manual of Prayers and began an early morning routine of prayer and reading, rising before my family was up. I believe this was the single most important step I took on my journey to Catholicism. After I found a pamphlet on praying the rosary in our church’s “tract rack,” I started taking it with me on my daily “prayer walks,” forcing myself to memorize the prayers and mysteries. It was hard to warm up to this devotion, I admit, but convinced of its importance to the Catholic life, I persevered. By the time I had memorized all the mysteries, I found I was looking forward to my daily rosary. I have received so much consolation and help through praying the rosary that now I can’t imagine a day without it.
In the fall of 2001, my husband and I enrolled in RCIA to begin the process of formal reception into the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, RCIA proved to be a trial rather than an aid on the way; not at all what I envisioned the Catholic Church to be. We endured it, went to Mass faithfully, and began preparing our 10-year-old son, Gabe, for his First Holy Communion. Our priest gave us permission to prepare Gabe at home using the materials I had purchased for our homeschool. This turned out to be a great way for me to learn about the Catholic Faith as we studied together. Gabe became the first “official” Catholic in our family when he received the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion the following spring.
Though my husband and I had completed RCIA, we had another obstacle to overcome before we could enter the Church; we needed to have our marriage blessed and for that we would both need to seek annulments of prior unions. The annulment process took two and a half years. Many criticize the Catholic Church’s annulment process. I am not one of them. It is a gift the Church gave us that provided tremendous healing. It required great patience to endure incomprehensible delays with no guarantee of a positive outcome. It afforded a great opportunity for growing through prayer and study, learning what it means to be Catholic. In the end, our annulments were granted and our marriage was blessed at a beautiful ceremony with our children and Catholic friends around us. The following Sunday, my husband (who chose “Augustine” as his Confirmation saint) and I (“Mary, Queen of All Saints” — why not go for the gold?) received the Sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Communion.
I am amazed at how God works! I am thankful for my solid Lutheran upbringing that first brought me to faith and taught me the Scriptures. Growing up Lutheran, I gained a great foundation in and appreciation for sacred music, something I probably would have missed in the Catholic Church during that time (I was raised in a conservative Christian church at the time the Catholic Church was undergoing its “identity crisis” following Vatican II). Now our family is assisting our Catholic parish with its sacred music ministry.
I join so many others God has called out of strong Protestant churches and into the Catholic Church who are now realizing the fullness of the Faith. When I first met with our priest telling him of my desire to become Catholic, I told him I believed I would be bringing many more with me. That remains my hope and I pray daily for my extended family, that they, too, will realize the fullness of the Faith.
My search is over. I have enough — more than enough to last my lifetime!
Advice for those on the way to becoming Catholic
Begin a Catholic prayer life as soon as you are convinced you are on the way to the Catholic Church. Get a “lifetime” prayer book like Manual of Prayers and make this a habit for the rest of your life.
If you are married to a non-Catholic spouse, recognize that although you are one flesh in marriage, you remain individuals spiritually. God does not call couples; He calls individuals. Your call is not your spouse’s call. Be patient with yourself and with your spouse. Pray, pray, pray! Let God do the work of conversion in you both.
Kathy McDonald lives with her husband, Joe, and their children in rural Tennessee. They are members of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Paris.