Reflecting on my life, I recognize God’s hand leading me through the times of joy and sorrow. I can now trace the turns in the road that led me to the best thing that happened to me in my life: coming home to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
In December 1939 when I was six months old, I was baptized in St. John’s Evangelical and Reformed Church in Coshocton, Ohio. On the documents that hung in one of the Sunday School rooms were the names of some of my relatives who had been instrumental in bringing the congregation to our town. Before that, other ancestors were listed as charter members of the denomination in the rural areas where they settled after immigrating to this country in the mid 1800s. In 1942, my parents divorced and my mother and I moved in with my grandmother. It was Sunday School and church every Sunday except in the case of illness or very bad weather, since we did not have a car. Learning the Bible stories, singing, and spending time with other children, many of whom were our extended family members, was a bright spot in my week. Afterward, a covered-dish dinner was a bit like a family reunion with grandparents, aunts and uncles, great aunts and uncles, and cousins — first, second, and third! It was a comfortable place to be.
Drawn by His Presence
However, my parents’ divorce left a deep wound in my heart, because I idolized my father; he had been my best buddy and, after the divorce, I rarely saw him. My tenacious little heart wouldn’t give up and almost every Saturday I would sit on the front steps and look down East Elm Street watching for him to come to take us home. It was a hurt that never went away and one that I cried over when I was alone. I thought I had done something wrong that made Daddy leave me.
The children in the neighborhood would go to the Kiddy Show downtown on most Saturdays. We always took a shortcut through the churchyard of Sacred Heart Catholic Parish. I felt drawn to this unfamiliar church on the hill more than to my own. One day, I made an excuse on our way home, left the other children, went back to Sacred Heart, and entered the church.
The huge, seemingly ancient, double wooden door closed behind me and shut out the sun; I was standing in a dimly lit vestibule. A bit frightened at first, I slowly made my way into the sanctuary and knelt down in the back pew. I had Catholic friends, but knew nothing of their beliefs and practices. Moved by the quiet beauty, I cried and told God how hurt I was; He was the only one I trusted my pain to. At home, I would kneel down at the window in my bedroom and said to God, “You’ll have to be my Father.”
But that day, in that Catholic church, I found something that never occurred at my window: kneeling in that dim sanctuary, I recall being vividly aware of a Presence. The Presence had a kind and compassionate personality and somehow I knew that the personality was a strong, but gentle, male. I felt that this personality was emanating from the area where the mysterious red light was hanging in the dark church. That Presence was so real and so reassuring that it drew me back through that big door Saturday after Saturday.
After having suffered from rheumatic fever that summer, I came back to the huge, thick, wooden door, but I was too weak to push it open. Tears began to fall, and I panicked, thinking I couldn’t get in. I can still recall how fast my anxious heart was beating that afternoon. Finally, I pushed the door with all my might and it opened. After that day, I was afraid to go back.
However, I sought that Presence all throughout my life. As a teenager, I went to the youth group at our church and would steal away upstairs and sit in the sanctuary trying to find that Presence. He wasn’t there. Once when Mother and I went to a wedding at the big Methodist church, I wandered away from the reception and went back upstairs and sat in the pew, hoping to find what I had found at Sacred Heart. He wasn’t there, either.
The need for truth
Our Calvinist Evangelical and Reformed denomination merged with others and became the United Church of Christ. For a couple of years I taught an adult Sunday school class; I wanted to simply use the Bible as my curriculum, but I was told I needed to follow the church teaching somewhat. I didn’t know what that meant — we were Protestants — didn’t everyone believe the same thing? I sincerely tried but found that I couldn’t teach the Bible through the Calvinist and Zwinglian lenses of our denomination. They just didn’t fit together. I found that one had to twist the Scriptures, take verses from here and attach them to others in order to make the Bible say what I was supposed to teach. I wasn’t comfortable with that.
A turning point in my life came on a Sunday in October of 1979 when I found myself on the patio crying and praying. If God is God, I thought, then there is His truth and men need to conform to it, not the other way around! Something was dreadfully wrong. I remember asking the Lord if I was supposed to believe that the Holy Spirit was not doing His job; I couldn’t begin to believe that. I told the Lord that Sunday afternoon that, from that moment on, I wanted His truth and nothing but His truth. But, to take up the question of Pontius Pilate, what was the truth? The ongoing question in my mind was, “Where is the church—the Church?” The only answer I got from Protestantism was, “The church is invisible.” I didn’t argue, but it wasn’t an answer I could reconcile with Scripture. Was Jesus’ prayer for unity unheeded and unanswered? What of the biblical witness that the unity of the faithful would be the thing that draws others to the Church?
That very week, I went to the library and picked up my first two books on the Reformation — an old book simply called John Calvin and another general book on the Reformation. This began a personal study of the Reformation that lasted from October 1979 to January of 2011 and evolved into a long study of the works of Luther. For thirty-two years I persisted in my study that included 55 of the 63 volumes of the Erlangen Editions of Luther’s Works, some of Jaroslav Pelikan, and most of the romanticized versions on the Reformation.
In 1981, I turned my Sunday School class over to another because, through my studies, I had found a series of self-willed opinions thrust up in the face of the Catholic Church. I found that Luther’s novel inventions were decisively the “traditions of men” into which the Bible must be made to fit. I began to get a glimpse of why I couldn’t make the Bible fit the doctrines of my denomination.
I could no longer in good conscience call myself a Protestant and my mother and I walked out the door of St. John’s United Church of Christ.
By “faith alone” was one of those doctrines on which Protestantism either stands or falls. I learned that Luther literally added the German word allein (“alone,” or sola in Latin) to Romans 3:28 in his translation of the New Testament. Paul states, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the works of the Law.” Luther’s translation read, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith alone without the works of the Law.” The Catholic Church sent Luther a message saying it was not acceptable to add the word “alone” to holy Scripture. In Luther’s answer, which you can read in its entirety in Luther’s Open Letter on Translating, he states, “You can go back and tell your papist that a papist and an ass are the same thing.” He then wrote that, no, the word alone was not in the original; and, yes, he did add it where it was not. He went on to say that “I, Dr. Luther, will it and my will is as good as the Thomists,” including a diatribe about having to add “alone” to make it say what he wanted it to say and that “I, Dr. Luther, am a doctor above all the papal doctors.”
That was a huge eye-opener. When I related it to other Protestants they often laughed and thought it was funny that Luther was so feisty. I quit talking and kept studying. I searched for the biblical basis of sola fide and I found nothing. The only place the Bible states the words “by faith alone” is in James 2:24, in which James says, “You see then how that by works a man is justified and not by faith alone.”
Luther went on to radically pit faith against works and to even say that works are sinful because through them one would be attempting to earn salvation. Because Luther’s teaching contradicted what was clearly stated in the Letter of Saint James, Luther said that it was an “Epistle of Straw with nothing of the Gospel in it.” He was opposed by other Reformers and finally said that he cared not what others did about the Book of James, but “I will not have it in my Bible.” He threw out seven books of the Old Testament on the same grounds. So much for sola Scriptura! Luther never actually put sola Scriptura into distinct words, but intimated it in a hundred ways. It bothered me that we, as Protestants, were holding others and ourselves to “the Bible alone” when the Bible doesn’t even teach “the Bible alone.”
For a time I was angry; I’d believed those who taught me “by faith alone,” “by Scripture alone,” a “symbolic Lord’s Supper,” etc. (our denomination followed Zwingli who held the lowest doctrine on Holy Communion — pure symbolism). I could find no one to talk to who had delved into anything beyond a biography of Luther. Even minister friends of mine had never dug into the origins of their doctrines. When I tried to encourage it, I was branded as a troublemaker and ignored.
An Episcopal priest friend of mine brushed me off saying, “There had to be something good come out of the Reformation.”
He was a new priest at St. Paul’s Continuing Episcopal Church in Coshocton and he and his family became our best friends. They helped me through some very hard times in my life and I finally had someone to talk to about the deeper and richer things of God. The priest was a Scripture scholar par excellence (my mother insisted there was no better preacher).
My years in the Episcopal Church were years of growth spiritually, but there was still that longing for what I had experienced as a child — the presence of the Lord. It was a quiet need that I concluded finally would be satisfied only in heaven. But in this world it manifested itself in a continual frustration to study more — and more and more. I really wanted to know the truth.
The truth I had known without knowing
Decades passed, and I was having some kind of spells for which the doctors didn’t have an answer; it was taking less and less to wear me out. In October 1991, I caught my foot on a piece of carpet and catapulted across the hall. I fell headlong into a wall, pulling ligaments and muscles in my neck, injuring my right shoulder, and popping out my back in three places. A couple of months later, one doctor finally listened to me when I said that there was no feeling in my left leg. It was a worker’s comp case and it was a big struggle to get anyone to take me seriously. I ended up with lots of pain, stiffness, and muscle spasms.
I was housebound for a while and right around that time my cable television company added the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) to its lineup. I began to watch EWTN and listen to Mother Angelica as she talked about “offering up” pain and suffering to the Lord. It was an immense help that seemed providential. I watched all day, every day while I was recuperating. After I went back to work, I videotaped six hours a day of the programming and watched it in the evening. The more I heard of the teachings of the Catholic Church, the more I knew I was hearing the truth I had sought for so many years. Scripture was falling into place.
One day, Mother Angelica and a guest were talking about the Eucharist. As they explicated the Catholic teaching regarding the Real Presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, my ears perked up. I became engrossed in what they were saying — it seemed as though they were talking to me. Part of the way through the discussion, a realization dawned on me that hit me with the impact of a velvet sledgehammer. My mind ran back to Sacred Heart Church that summer I was nine, and suddenly I knew that the experience had been real — it had been Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament that I had “known.” Stunned and in awe, I exclaimed, “Oh, my God” — a prayer and exclamation rolled into one.
I began to put together in my mind the reasons why I had never found the Presence in any Protestant church, although I looked for it always and everywhere.
Watching TV that day, I heard with my ears the truth that Jesus was present in the Catholic Eucharist — Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity — but I realized that it was a truth I had known without knowing, for all those forty-four years.
Finally, John 6 made sense in a way it had never made sense before. It was ironic to me that the “Bible believers” I had studied with took this chapter figuratively, and the Catholic Church (which I had been taught did not follow the Bible) took it literally. I found it refreshing. Although, through my studies I had already become so disgusted with what I learned about the Reformation, it had never occurred to me to convert to Catholicism. I had never known anyone who had converted! Yet, somewhere in the very depths of me, I seemed to know that the Catholic Church was not just another denomination into which I could “church hop.” Converting would be a big deal.
1 Corinthians 11
The discovery of the truth about the Holy Eucharist was the push that launched me into yet another study. I went to Luther. I read a letter that Luther had written to a friend in which he said that he had heard a very learned man say that perhaps it would be better if Jesus just came into and was present along with the bread and wine. He stated, “I liked that better.” And so he invented the concept of consubstantiation (literally, “with”-substantiation). That was too much for Calvin and he came up with receptionism — what you believe is what you get — “the divine gift” is manifested through the believer’s faith alone. Zwingli, who many denominations seem to follow today, said that the Lord’s Supper was purely symbolic. I saw in the changing doctrine of the Protestant communion the warning St. Paul had given regarding those who would be “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it” (2 Tim 3:5).
I was interested to see how Luther formed his beliefs about Holy Communion, as taught from his Small Catechism:
What is the Sacrament of the Altar?
It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink, instituted by Christ Himself.
Where is this written?
The holy Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul.
Notice that Luther leaves out John 6 and in his writings he states that John 6 has nothing to do with Holy Communion but is about believing the Word (by faith alone). In order to substantiate his claim, Luther uses the Scripture of St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 11:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
However, Luther truncated this Scripture passage. What Luther did not include in his catechism on the Eucharist were the verses immediately following the previous quotation from 1 Corinthians 11:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
The portion he excluded is fundamentally important and the Catholic Church rightly includes its teaching. Luther used Scripture in a dishonest way to form Protestant beliefs and practices on the Eucharist (what a strange way to uphold sola Scriptura).
Towards His Real Presence
Upon learning about the truth of the Eucharist, I was intrigued: just what else does the Catholic Church believe and teach? By the summer of 1992, I was deep into the study of Catholicism. I wasn’t alone in my study; my eighty-nine-year-old mother and our Episcopal priest and his wife were studying with me. We spent our Sunday evenings tearing apart every Catholic teaching and holding it up to a scriptural analysis. We were surprised that the Bible “fit” as written into the doctrines of the Catholic Church. It passed every test!
After what had been thirteen years of personal study of the Catholic Church, I had come to the conclusion that I could never go back into any form of Protestantism.
In September of 1992, I began RCIA classes. By that time, RCIA was just a formality, because our Sunday study group had examined and re-examined every Catholic doctrine, and we were all in agreement: the Catholic Church had the fullness of Christian truth! At Easter Vigil 1993 I came into the Church — I came home! I had the feeling that I had finally made an honest woman of myself.
My mother would have converted, but she was ill and frail; she was Catholic at heart and prayed the rosary faithfully twice a day until the end of her life in December 1993. I had the privilege of traveling to Florida to attend the ordination of my former Episcopal priest, Fr. Grover Tipton, into the Catholic priesthood in September of 1994.
I have never had a doubt that the Lord orchestrated my conversion; I believe it began when my father left and I committed myself to seeking out my heavenly Father. I believe that it was the Lord who led me to enter Sacred Heart Church to pray. Finally, I know it was Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament, who met me there when I was nine years old and brokenhearted. I believe God knew that His presence which I had tasted would turn into a life-long pursuit until I finally found what my soul truly longed for all those years.
No one can ever tell me that Jesus is not truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, because He let me experience it decades before I even knew the doctrine existed! Although I knew and loved the Lord for many years, I have come to know and love Him in deeper and richer ways in His Church — in the sacraments; in His word; in a deeper spirituality; but particularly in receiving Him, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. I love Scripture in new and deeper ways.
On my 70th birthday in June 2010, I became an Oblate Novice of St. Benedict in association with St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. On September 1, 2011 my sisters took me to Latrobe where we stayed for three days and where I made my final profession and was confirmed as a full Oblate of St. Vincent. I took the name Sister Grace Marie, since, it has all been, from start to finish, God’s grace, grace, grace!
I think of what Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity said when she was asked, “Are you sometimes homesick for heaven?” She answered, “I am sometimes homesick for heaven, but apart from the Beatific Vision, I have everything here that I will have in heaven.”
Kathryn E. Stuart lives in Coshocton, Ohio and is a parishioner of Sacred Heart parish. She is an Oblate of St.