Damascus Road: My Personal Journey of Encountering Christ, the Sacraments, and His Church
I sat at work with my head in my hands looking at the computer screen. I couldn’t believe what I had just read. There was no possible way that was the truth. How could it be? I always thought that I was right and the Catholics were wrong. If the statement I had just read was true, it would mean so much would have to change. Yet, how could they be right? This was only supposed to be a harmless trip to EWTN.com in order to disprove my fiancée’s parents and their firm Catholic beliefs.
Becoming a pastor
At the time, I had a successful career as an associate pastor at Grace Fellowship, a Non-Denominational/Southern Baptist church in the rural town of Poteau, Oklahoma. Although I was only twenty-two, I had been serving there for three years and was excited about what the future held for me. I loved being a youth pastor and watching teens grow in their faith, but my big dream was to be a senior pastor one day. I wanted to be the guy that God would use mightily to reach those with broken and shattered lives. I wanted to open the Bible to people in new ways they had never seen before.
Yet, there was a time when even being a Christian did not appeal to me. I grew up in a moral home, but not a Christian home. I attended a large First Christian assembly as a child in Kansas City, Missouri, yet fell away as my teenage years approached. At fifteen, I started attending a local Nazarene church at my best friend Derek’s request. There I would come to follow Christ, establish healthy, godly relationships, and meet one of the godliest men I have ever known, Michael. His example inspired me to be a better follower of Christ and to follow in his footsteps and become a youth pastor. At the age of nineteen, I entered Lyell Bible College in Fort Smith, Arkansas and just months later became the youth pastor at Grace Fellowship.
However, following that fateful visit to EWTN.com, my life turned in an unexpected direction. Reading Jesus’ words as He spoke to the crowd about the Eucharist in John 6:35-59, launched me on a journey that would lead from Evangelicalism to the Catholic Church.
Intrigued by His Presence
I stared at my computer. Where did this Scripture come from? I had read the Gospel of John thoroughly — I even took a course on it while in Bible College. Yet, somehow I had missed this passage about the Eucharist. I had learned in college that Roman Catholics believed that Jesus was truly present in the wine and bread of the Eucharist. However, I had dismissed it as superstition and an over-emphasis on Jesus’ words at the Last Supper “This is my body; this is my blood.” Now, for the first time, I was seeing Jesus say more than the bread was like His Body and the wine was like His Blood. He was telling the Jews that His Flesh is real food and His Blood, real drink. No talk about it only symbolizing body and blood; no apologizing to the Jews who left because they could not comprehend this teaching.
For several months, I spoke to no one about this dilemma of faith; not even my Catholic fiancée. If my pastor or deacon board found out I doubted one of the two “ordinances” of the church, I feared being fired for “abandoning my faith.” I knew Jesus said we needed to eat His Body and drink His Blood, but is that what He really meant? I was in a quandary and needed another opinion.
One afternoon, in September of that same year, while listening to the radio program Catholic Answers Live, I was introduced to the Early Church Fathers (the collection of Church leaders from the first three centuries of the Church’s existence); specifically, Ignatius, the first-century bishop of Antioch. In his letter to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius clearly defined what the church practiced and believed regarding the Eucharist:
Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes. (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 6:2-7:1).
After reading the words of Ignatius, I searched for other Early Church writings. I needed to know if Ignatius’ theology was commonly accepted or was simply his own heretical thought. I later found a second-century work by Irenaeus entitled, Against Heresies, in which he defends the practices of the Church to the Roman rulers. In his writing, he speaks of Jesus:
He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup [wine and water] and the baked bread receive the Word of God and become the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life — flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord and is in fact a member of him? (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 5:2)
To say I was anything other than scared would be lying. If the first and second generations of Christians believed in a literal Eucharist, what else did they believe that I called heresy? Over the next month, I used every moment of spare time to read more from the Church Fathers. They were revealing a world and a Church that looked very different from mine: a world that opened like the pages of Revelation, a Church complete with liturgy and sacraments. Not only did the Church Fathers open my eyes to the practices and beliefs of the Church nearly two millennia ago, but they also reopened the Bible to me. Scriptures I had read countless times began to unfold in new ways before my eyes.
Cracks in my theology
My brick wall of Protestant theology was starting to crack. Over time, stumbling blocks like Tradition, the intercession of saints, the pope, Confession, and the Reformation became stepping-stones leading me to my future home. I realized Tradition was not a man-made device, but the method by which truth was passed from generation to generation (see 2 Thessalonians 2:15). The saints weren’t just holy men of old, but presently stand around the throne of Christ, lifting up prayers for those here on earth (see Matthew 22:31-32, Revelation 5:8). Peter wasn’t just another Apostle, but the Rock on whom the Church was built and the person given the keys to the Kingdom (see Matthew 16:16-19). Confession, I came to believe, is the means, given by Christ in the Upper Room to the Apostles, by which we are forgiven of sin (see John 20:22-23).
By November of 2008, I had listened to hours of radio programs, read volumes of books, prayed fervently, and knew I needed ultimately to make a decision. I could put off the inevitable and live theologically-Catholic in a Protestant youth pastor’s body or I could “swim the Tiber,” as Steve Ray says, and start my path towards Rome.
While driving to church on a Wednesday night, I told my fiancée I had decided to become Catholic. She was delighted and relieved. However, I still had to break the news to my church. A few weeks later, I announced that I was stepping down as the church’s youth and associate pastor. Tears were shed, hugs given, cheeks kissed, and jokes told as I made my goodbye. However, I wasn’t sad when I left that December night. I knew I was on my way home.
The scales fall…
A few days later, on January 3rd 2009, I attended Sunday Mass at Immaculate Conception Parish in Poteau. For the first time in four years, I wasn’t in a church as a pastor, but rather a seeker, searching for God’s will. The morning began thirty minutes prior to Mass with a middle-aged man reciting the rosary. As I heard the words of the rosary, everything I had read about Mary in Tradition and Revelation came alive. She was no longer just a teenage girl God plucked out of time, impregnated with His Son, and left alone for the rest of eternity. She was the young maiden God handpicked among all other girls to bring His Son into the world. She is full of grace because the Lord was with her. In John 19:26-27, became not only John’s mother, but our own mother as well. In Revelation 12, she is seen as the Queen of Heaven, clothed in the sun, the moon under her feet, and twelve stars as a crown. We ask for her prayers, not because she can save us, but because her prayers are lifted up to the throne of her Son, just as the prayers of the saints in Revelation 4.
During the Mass, I found the fulfillment of everything I had studied. We listened to a reading from the Old Testament, sang a Psalm, and heard a passage from the New Testament. Next, the priest read a long excerpt from one of the Gospels. Much like Dr. Scott Hahn writes in his book in Rome Sweet Home of his first visit to a Mass, I hadn’t heard so much of the Bible read at a church service in ages! After the priest read the Gospel, he gave an inspiring sermon.
After the sermon, the priest invited us to “stand and profess our faith” and we proceeded to recite the Nicene Creed. The Creed is the summary of the Christian Faith, it is the proclamation of what Catholics have held true for 2000 years.
After the collection and more prayers, came the time that had scandalized me as a Protestant: the Eucharist. The priest stood before the altar and said the words of consecration. The church echoed with a loud “Amen.” The priest then held up the host and chalice and proclaimed “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to His supper.” As soon as he uttered the last word I said to myself, “Yes, it is Him.” I felt like Thomas in the Upper Room when he realized it was actually Jesus standing before him. “My Lord and my God,” I said to my King, “that is really you present in the Eucharist.” Leaving my doubting heart aside, I knew I was home.
Worth the price
One by one I started announcing to family and friends that I had made the decision to become Catholic. Family members and former parishioners thought I had lost my mind. Ex-colleagues treated me as if I had committed “the unforgiveable sin” by turning my back on everything the Reformers worked for.
Weeks later I started meeting with the parish priest, Fr. Valentine Ndebielie, and began RCIA classes to prepare me to enter Church. On the Easter Vigil of 2009, I was received into the Catholic Church. I chose the Confirmation name of Ignatius, due to his initial impact on my journey.
As I look back over the past several years I realize things were scary, uncertain, and certainly life-altering. However, I am thankful that I made the decision to seek truth even at the cost of losing everything I had always thought I wanted.