Cradle Mennonite to Roman Catholic
Featuring Harold Wenger/
January 30, 2012
On May 1, 2011, with great joy, I confessed my faith, was confirmed as a Roman Catholic, and received my first Holy Communion at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Mesa, Arizona. The church was packed with over a thousand reverent people for the 10 a.m. Mass, which made it so joyful and welcoming. For a sixty-eight-year-old Mennonite, career pastor, and missionary, this was a dramatic move!
As a “cradle Mennonite,” I grew up in Chesapeake, Virginia, the oldest of nine children. My ancestors were Mennonites from the Anabaptist movement, which started in Switzerland in 1525. They migrated from Europe to Pennsylvania in 1727. My Mennonite parents struggled to provide for us materially, and my father worked very hard. Unfortunately, my father grew lukewarm and critical of hypocrisy in our denomination. During my growing years, he hardly ever went to church (he returned to the Lord when I was eighteen, and at age ninety, he is still a faithful Mennonite), but my late mother always took us to church. I remember her singing and praying with us at bedtime every evening when I was a child.
I enjoyed going to church, attending summer Bible school, and memorizing Scripture. I accepted Christ as my Savior at a revival meeting (meaning I was convicted of sin and sought forgiveness) when I was nine or ten and then was baptized with a group of my peers — in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. My upbringing as a Mennonite taught me serious discipleship as obedience to the Word, following Jesus, nonconformity to the world, pacifism or conscientious objection to war (we called it non-resistance), and the importance of foreign missions. I have great appreciation for my Mennonite spiritual heritage and for those who nurtured me along the way.
When a cousin of my father, who was a missionary in Ethiopia and Tanzania, spoke at our church, I felt the call of God to mission in Africa.
A Call to Mission Abroad
At Eastern Mennonite College, I met a black-haired girl with a beautiful smile named Christine Headings (a Mennonite from Ohio), whom I later persuaded to marry me. We became husband and wife on August 28, 1965. She agreed to go to Africa with me, and we served as English teachers in Zambia from 1966 to 1969, where I did alternative service as a conscientious objector under the Mennonite Central Committee instead of doing military service in Vietnam. We served a second term in Sierra Leone. Upon returning to the States, we studied at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart, Indiana, where I received good biblical teaching and Anabaptist theology and earned my master of divinity degree in 1975.
Near the end of my seminary training, we wrestled over our call to mission. I believe that God sent a senior missionary couple to challenge us to return to Africa where there was such great need. So Christine and I went to Swaziland in 1975 with our three young children, and we served six years, initially teaching with African Independent Churches. In 1976, African students revolted in Soweto, near Johannesburg, South Africa, and a good number came to Swaziland. At that point, some of the churches organized the Council of Swaziland Churches, and a Catholic bishop was chosen as the chairman. At the organizational meeting, he looked at me, a young missionary, and nominated me as secretary. I thanked him and said I had come to serve the churches, but I thought that they should choose a Swazi leader for secretary. With a twinkle in his eye, he said that since I had come to serve the churches, I should do what I was told! So I was secretary under a gifted and eloquent Catholic bishop. Several years later, he died in a tragic accident, and his funeral service was a great celebration of life. I was impressed with the Catholic funeral Mass!
In 1981, after six years in Swaziland, there were mounting personal and professional reasons to return home, so I applied for pastoral ministry back in the States. After seven years as pastor of Mennonite churches back in Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh and Altoona), I had the longing to return to Africa. Christine struggled over that call, but then agreed with me. We served in Tanzania as Bible teachers for six years, followed by six more years in Mozambique as country representatives for Mennonite Central Committee. It is now hard to believe that we spent a total of twenty-four years in Africa!
Primed to Come Home
Throughout our years of service in Africa, we were exposed to many positive aspects of the Catholic Church. A list of reasons for my “Big Move” to Catholicism began to mount:
Liturgical Worship and Communion. In Mozambique, we had worshipped primarily with the Anglican Church, and I was ordained a subdeacon to assist the priests with the sacraments and to preach. While I remained officially a Mennonite pastor in the Allegheny Mennonite Conference, we were practically Anglicans for six years. We came to love the liturgical worship and regular communion.
After we returned to the United States, I served as pastor at a Mennonite church in Virginia for two and a half years. I encouraged communion once a month to which the congregation reluctantly agreed, but I missed the liturgy with weekly communion.
Discontent and Spiritual Hunger. As pastor of that small church in Virginia, I began to experience a lack of fulfillment and affirmation. After months of struggle and prayer, we felt that God gave me the freedom to resign. We decided to move to Arizona in 2005 to be near our daughter and grandchildren, even without a job or position lined up! I made contact with Mennonite churches in Arizona and had serious discussions with the chair of a search committee, but when I learned how wide open they were to same-sex relationships (an issue that had already made me uneasy about the larger Mennonite Church), I told the chairman that we would not make a good fit. There were very few Mennonite churches in Arizona and no other opportunity for me. At the same time, following the difficult experience in Virginia, I was struggling over my sense of call to pastoral ministry. With encouragement from my father and realtor friends, I decided to pursue training as a realtor. I saw it as a source of income and the kind of business that would give me flexibility in schedule. I was able to get my license right away and began a new challenge in business.
After stepping back from ministry, we soon joined Koinonia Mennonite Church in nearby Chandler, where our daughter and family were attending. It is an expanded house church with an attendance of around sixty. We came to appreciate the fellowship and joyful worship, and I did occasional preaching. As in Virginia, I again encouraged more frequent communion, which was increased to six times a year. In 2010, for various reasons, I became discontented enough with the church to go visiting elsewhere. I felt a spiritual hunger for something more. The next nearest Mennonite church was about forty-five minutes away in Phoenix, and I was not interested in the other Protestant churches around.
But I was curious about the Catholic Church. This interest was sparked by many positive encounters with Catholics in Africa, such as the Catholic bishop in Swaziland and wonderful Catholic nuns and sisters, especially in Tanzania and Mozambique. While in Virginia, my spiritual director was a wonderful Catholic priest. I had drawn much inspiration over the years from the writings of Catholics such as Henry Nouwen and Mother Teresa. My call to mission left me with a great curiosity about Christianity throughout the world and a longing for richer, liturgical worship. The fact that the Catholic Church has a similar focus on Jesus and the Gospels, rather than starting with Paul and justification by faith — as did many other Protestant denominations — also sparked my interest.
Spiritual Retreat. As part of my search, in November 2010, I went to Holy Trinity Monastery in southeast Arizona for a spiritual retreat. There I met a former Episcopal priest, who shared his Catholic conversion story with me. He listened patiently to my questions about the Real Presence, Mary, the pope, and the Church’s attitude to war. He counseled me and gave me a book about the conversion of a Protestant minister and his wife to the Catholic Church. I was deeply moved by their journey from a conservative, anti-Catholic, Presbyterian church to the Catholic Church. It had a powerful impact on me as I realized my own anti-Catholic bias from childhood, though not as strong as theirs!
That First Mass. I first went to Mass at Holy Cross Catholic Church on October 10, 2010, and found it packed with about a thousand people for the 10 a.m. Mass. The beauty of the Mass — the reverence, the music, the singing of the Gloria, the Scriptures, the confession of sins, the Profession of Faith, the sacrament of Holy Communion, the whole Christ-centered worship experience — moved me to tears. In my heart, I felt greatly blessed to have been there and had a strong desire to return. I dared to continue going to Mass (to the dismay of Mennonite friends), and with great excitement, I invited friends and family to go with me, of whom several did. With growing desire, in December, I went to see the director of Christian education and signed up for the RCIA class beginning in January 2011.
In the RCIA class, I had to review the basics of the faith again. I remember being touched by the Nicene Creed (which is not used in Mennonite worship) and commented to the teacher: “As a Mennonite that is exactly what I believe.” As we continued, I realized the Creed’s importance for the unity of the Church’s faith. During the course, I had many questions, and I kept borrowing books from the parish library. The teachers were so clear on Church doctrine and practice and explained it with passion. I struggled with new terminology, new practices, and with the Church’s great respect for Mary. At some point along the way, I realized that in my heart I was ready, that I really wanted to be Catholic, that I respected and trusted the teaching authority and Magisterium of the Church, and that I did not have to understand everything. I could hardly wait to be received and to receive Holy Communion.
The Real Presence. The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is such a joyful, faith-building sacrament, the heart of our faith. Using a phrase from Scott Hahn, it is “heaven on earth.” From my reading, I am convinced that Protestants have had to ignore or reinterpret the teachings and practice of the early Church in order to circumvent the clear message of the Scriptures, as in John 6 (“unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood”). I had taught the symbolic view for so many years, criticizing the Catholic view as absurd. However, with further study, I rediscovered early Church history, and realized that the Catholic Church has faithfully maintained the clear teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. From the Coming Home Network International, I received the book Ignatius of Antioch & Polycarp of Smyrna, by Dr. Kenneth Howell, confirming the Catholic faith of these early leaders. In fact, I chose St. Polycarp, a second-century bishop and martyr, as my Confirmation name! Now I find it such a joy to receive the Body and the Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist, and I sometimes go to Mass twice on Sunday. Already I am privileged to serve as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.
Clarity of Faith and Doctrine. I had tired of endless dialogue over issues of theology, biblical interpretation, leadership, worship style, homosexuality, etc. In the Catholic Church, I found a fixed structure and leadership, with clear lines of authority, and I respect that. I appreciate the Nicene Creed, the clear teaching, the Catechism, and the Magisterium of the Church. I trust that the Spirit of God will continue leading the Church to work through difficult issues, and to continue proclaiming the faith of the Apostles. Plus, I have come to greatly admire Pope St. John XXIII, Pope St. John Paul II (whose life story has amazed and inspired me), and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whom I consider one of the greatest theologians of our time.
Coming Home. It is a surprise to everyone — even myself — that I am now a Roman Catholic, but it truly feels like coming home to the “Mother Church.” My father thinks it is a temporary phase, one of my sisters is shocked, and our three children are respectful. My wife, Christine, has done considerable reading as well and has gone with me to Mass a number of times, but she is not ready and is still serving as an elder at Koinonia Mennonite Church (but we are still deeply in love!). I remain grateful for my heritage in the Mennonite Church: for the emphasis on Jesus as Lord and Savior, for the strong sense of community (now enlarged with the community of saints!), for the teaching on peace and nonviolence (which is still very important to me), and for the emphasis on nonconformity to the world. However, I now realize the tragedy of the broken and divided Christian world, which continues to splinter into thousands of groups. There are scores of Mennonite groups alone, and more every year. Yet we all confess one Lord, one faith, and one Baptism.
At age sixty-eight, I have begun a new spiritual journey, with so much to learn, so many new resources, and such awareness of my human weaknesses. I have become part of the Church established by the Lord Jesus, part of the worldwide community of faith, and an heir to the treasures of Christian history and the witness of the saints. I am excited with my continuing journey and ready to tell my story to anyone who will listen! Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.