From Cocaine to Christ
I was brought up in an Italian Catholic home. I don’t recall going to church with my family as a child, but my grandmother was always praying and taught me to pray. Beyond that, we never really practiced our faith as a family.
I was enrolled in a parochial school in 1969. This was shortly after Vatican II and things were confusing in those days. In grammar school, we had mostly “old school” Dominican nuns and were fed a steady diet of fire and brimstone. I remember feeling that God was waiting for me to slip up so He could send me to hell. If I was lucky, I could look forward to a few centuries of purgatory for swearing during recess. In junior high, things were different. Matters of faith were reduced to singing “Kumbaya” around the campfire and striving toward a “warm fuzzy” feeling about God.
By the time I was confirmed, I knew enough externals to follow along with the crowd and fake it. The fact is, unfortunately, I was never properly evangelized. Yes, I was told, “Jesus loves you,” but no one introduced me to Jesus. Further, His love was presented as being conditional on my behavior. At age thirteen, I suffered the loss of my father. As a result, I developed a rebellious streak. I was not truly open to what little evangelization I was receiving. It was not long before I fell away completely from the Church.
At age twenty, I was using drugs. I discovered cocaine, and it became my drug of choice. I was addicted. A year later, I nearly died of an overdose. (I had snorted roughly a half-ounce in 24 hours.) As a result — out of fear of death — I stopped using for short periods of time. During those “dry” periods, I would seek out different kinds of highs by starting new jobs or even businesses. After the ventures would become successful, I would find the success as empty as the high the drugs gave. So, over and over again, I’d return to my drug of choice, cocaine.
In 1988, I started to do more and more of the drug and wound up in debt by the end of the year. I had finally hit rock bottom. I knew I needed to change and that I was powerless to do so on my own. As I look back at this period of my life I can see the hand of God allowing this for my own good. Through this experience I was confronted firsthand with what my addiction was doing to me and to other people.
One of my friends had recently overcome his addictions. He had become a “born again” Christian and left the Catholic Church. One evening he shared the gospel, as he understood it, with me. He told me that Jesus loved me unconditionally, that I was in sin and needed to repent. I could not blame my addiction on anything else but the choices I had made. If I wanted to be free of this pain, I had to take responsibility for my sin and place my life in Jesus’ hands. He also made it very clear that he was, and would always remain my friend, whether or not I became “born again.” He assured me that, like Jesus, he loved me unconditionally. He left me with a Bible and that was the end of the conversation. I placed the Bible on the shelf and left it there for a couple of months.
One evening I was sick of being sick and picked up that Bible. I remember being in tears and shaking my fist at God. I challenged Him to reveal Himself to me. I told Him I did not believe what was written in the Bible. I remember saying something like there is no way Noah got all those animals in one boat. But I added that I would read it in an attempt to reach out to God, because I knew He could reveal Himself to me through the yellow pages if He so chose.
I read through the Gospel of Matthew that night. Then, for some reason, I decided to skip Mark and Luke and proceeded to John. I noticed there were notes on the sides of the page that led to a series of Scriptures that explained “how to be saved.” They included all the standard evangelical references: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16); “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23); “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified and he confesses with his lips and so is saved” (Rom 10:9-10); “For by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8-9). And, finally, the story of the Phillipian jailer, who asked in Acts 16:30-31: “‘What must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.’”
This all seemed too good to be true. The fact that I did not have to earn Jesus’ love and salvation was quite a revelation. At this point, being skeptical, I put the Lord to the test. I said: “Prove it! If this is true, then I don’t have to be a drug addict any more. You can heal or deliver me.” The addiction left me that instant. I felt something jump off my back. And I seem to recall a shriek. And with that, the physical desire for the drug was gone. I never spent a second in a detox center, nor did I ever seek out counseling. Just as the lepers had been cleansed, the blind made to see, and the lame to walk, I had been healed and delivered. (Now, I must add, that this was a unique grace. For most people dealing with addictions, God helps them to overcome with the assistance of professionals and 12 step support groups. I don’t want to discourage those programs. My case was nothing short of a miracle.)
After this experience, I began attending my friend’s Charismatic Baptist church. Soon after, I was enrolled in a local Bible School and was granted a minister’s license. A congregation hired me as a part-time administrator/staff minister. You could compare the position to an associate minister and I conducted services and Bible studies from time to time both in the church and at nursing homes.
So there I was, an aspiring young minister of the Word; ready to take to the world for Jesus. I had dreams of being an itinerant preacher some day. I began to minister in other churches and para-church groups. I was actively involved in evangelization, music ministry, counter-cult outreaches, and Christian apologetics.
At this point in my ministry, the Evangelical leader and author Chuck Colson had heavily influenced my attitude towards fellow Christians of other denominations. His book The Body had become a sort of Magna Carta for me. I often would quote his saying, “If Jesus Christ is one, then the Church by definition must be one.” This was similar to my pastor’s attitude and that of our congregation. We believed in an invisible, mystical body of believers that inhabited the various denominations including the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Thankfully, we were by no means anti-Catholic, at least not in the classical sense. In fact, our church was the epitome of denominational diversity. The name on the door said Baptist, but my pastor, his wife, and I all had ministerial credentials through a Pentecostal fellowship. This diverse tradition in our church led my pastor and I to become active in the local Ecumenical Association of Ministers and Priests. Moreover, I was encouraged to make myself available to anyone who wanted to share Jesus.
The Lord opened up an opportunity for me to play the bass and guitar in a charismatic Catholic music ministry. This was my first exposure to “life” and “fervor” in the Catholic Church. I began to meet Catholics who were on fire for Jesus and the Scriptures, but just as important they were on fire about their Church. Up until then, the Catholics I knew made excuses for their Catholicism. Many of them were “cafeteria Catholics.” But these new friends were different. They were unashamed and unabashedly Catholic. Further, they were willing to talk to me, answering my questions about what they believed and why. This was all done in a respectful manner and was not about winning debates and proving each other wrong. It was genuine faith sharing in love.
It was around this time that various new “movements” were spreading out of control in non-Catholic Charismatic churches. I began to see many excesses coming from pulpits that I had once held in great regard. I began to question the whole Protestant system. Particularly, I was concerned with the authority structure or rather the lack of one. I asked myself: Where was the authority to take the pulpit away from these preachers who were getting caught up in the latest wind of doctrine? Who were these men and women accountable to? Why was everyone using the same Bible and coming up with different answers?
This eventually led to questions about doctrine. Specifically, I began to question the standard charismatic belief that the “initial evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit” must be speaking in tongues. Not that I objected to tongues or any of the spiritual gifts. In fact, the Lord has graced me with some, including tongues. My questioning of this “doctrine” became a point of contention with both my pastor and his wife. We would argue the point for hours. All I wanted was one verse of Scripture that stated that the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” must be accompanied by tongues. We all believed in sola Scriptura, but their arguments were all reading into the Scriptures not reading out of them. Finally, in frustration the pastor’s wife said: “John, if you won’t accept the Scriptural evidence we present, you must realize we also know the initial evidence of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit is tongues from tradition and experience.”
I was now faced with the realization that everyone had a tradition no matter how much they denied it. The question then became: whose tradition carried authority? This question became a thorn in my side. It began to affect my thought process and every aspect of my ministry.
As Providence would have it, the very next week I was scheduled to work on a project that entailed living for a few days with a local cult called the 12 Tribes or Messianic Communities. The idea was to spend time with them and learn what they believed firsthand to accurately record and report their beliefs. This group insisted that the Church fell into apostasy with the death of the last Apostle. Further, they believed that God after nearly 2000 years was restoring the true Church through them and their self-appointed “apostle.” In our discussions, I posed them a question, which I would soon have to ask myself. The question went something like this: “Let me get this straight, you folks insist the Church fell into apostasy at the end of the first century; further, you recognize that the Bible was not canonized till the end of the fourth century by this same Church. Don’t you have a problem claiming the Bible as your only authority if it was canonized by an apostate Church?”
The cult leaders stumbled for an answer; I looked at the other two Protestant ministers whom I was assisting. They both looked at me as if to say: why didn’t we think of that, it’s such an obvious question. I realized that the question was not a result of my brilliant intellect or apologetic skills. Rather, God placed that question on my heart, because, as a Protestant, I was essentially doing the same thing. I was discounting many Catholic doctrines on the basis that I could not find them in the Bible, yet I knew the Catholic Church had canonized the Scriptures.
Subsequently, I began to do two things. The first was to go back to the Bible and see how much of what I believed was the result of my tradition. As I probed the Scriptures, I came across some verses that I had simply read over before. For instance, Hebrews 11:39-12:1 states, “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
All of a sudden, I saw what I had never noticed before. I’d never made the connection between Hebrews 11 which expounded on the lives of Old Testament saints now dead and Hebrews 12:1 which spoke of this great cloud of witnesses. I had been violating a fundamental rule of Scriptural interpretation — context. Moreover, when a verse starts with “therefore” you need to look back and see what the “therefore is referring to.”
I read further on in Hebrews 12 and discovered verses 22 and 23: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.” These verses describe new covenant worship. They seem to be saying that we are connected with worship taking place in heaven. Verse 23 talks about the spirits of just men made perfect. The implication here is that we are united with the righteous souls of the dead in heaven. Just as important, the text says that the spirits were made perfect, not simply declared righteous, as Luther and his successors have been teaching for nearly five hundred years.
How could I have missed this? This was the Catholic understanding of the uninterrupted Communion of Saints. This was the Catholic understanding of justification. And these verses also seemed to validate the Catholic notion that the Liturgy on earth is the same Liturgy going on in heaven. I must have read these verses scores of times. But my tradition would not allow me to see the implication.
Along with re-examining the Scriptures, I began to read the writings of the early Church. Clearly, I was still struggling to hold on to sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). However, I could no longer discount the importance of what the early Church had practiced and believed. Beyond that, I had already come to realize that everyone reads Scripture through the glasses of their own tradition. Therefore it only made sense to read and research the earliest traditions.
I sought out the earliest writings I could find so it was not long before I discovered Ignatius of Antioch. As I read his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, I was confronted with belief in the Real Presence. I remember telling myself, Well, that’s just one guy; they all couldn’t believe this. So I studied further. I came across Justin Martyr; he not only talked about the Eucharist being the flesh and blood of Jesus, but mentioned the fact that it became Jesus by the action of a bishop or priest saying a prayer. The more I read, the more I had to abandon, or at least seriously question, my Protestant beliefs.
Another major stumbling block for me was the Canon of Scripture itself. I knew that the Catholics had more books in the Old Testament than Protestant Bibles. As a Protestant, I was led to believe that the Council of Trent added these books after the Reformation. One of my Catholic friends then confronted me with a list of books written by St. Augustine around AD 385. It was identical to the Catholic Canon. I objected, saying this was just one man. He then informed me that various Church Councils starting with Rome in 382 and subsequently the Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) canonized all these same books. He then gave me a simple challenge.
“John,” he said, “you know all the ministers in town and in fact you have a very good professional relationship with the Orthodox priest. Why don’t you pay him a visit and ask to see his Bible. The Orthodox split happened in 1054, surely if the Council of Trent added those books in the 1500’s then the Orthodox surely don’t have them in their Canon. They reject anything after the seventh ecumenical council.”
I took my friend’s challenge. I must say that my motivation was more to talk to what I perceived as an “independent third party to the conflict.” Surely my friend already knew the answer I would get. At this point part of me wanted to be proven wrong. After all, I now believed in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and I was not going to receive it where I was.
So, off I went to see my Orthodox colleague and friend. I started by telling him I had been reading the early Church Fathers. He grinned at me and warned me that was a dangerous thing for an Evangelical mind. As I expected, I found out that the Orthodox accepted all the books the Catholics did. The good father was very understanding, answered my questions, and never once suggested that I should become an Orthodox. He did, however, recommend an Orthodox Study Bible.
I continued to study and pray. I even took a fairly good look at Orthodoxy. But, the more I pondered it, the more I saw it as a different twist of Catholicism. They seemed to be hung up on the papacy, but had no convincing arguments against it.
At this point, I decided it was time to go to the horse’s mouth. I bought a Catholic Catechism and made a life-changing telephone call to Catholic Answers. I explained my situation to the receptionist who took my name and number and said someone would get back to me promptly. I did not expect to hear from them for weeks. Five minutes later Jimmy Akin called me back. He was very understanding as I tentatively told him of my search for the truth. I was not convinced that the Catholic Church was the place for me and told him so. He did not pressure me in the least. He just answered my questions as best he could, seeing as I was blurting them fast and furiously. Further, I was jumping from one topic to another and then back again. He empathized with my predicament and then broadsided me when we ended the conversation. He said, “God bless and by the way welcome home.” That last comment simultaneously struck fear and comfort in me. I knew he was right. I yearned to be “walking in the truth,” but I was in fear of the changes in my life that the truth would bring.
From July 1995 to Pentecost 1996, God brought me on a whirlwind trip of discovery. I’ve only given a few examples of doctrinal stumbling blocks that I had to overcome. The others included everything from justification to Mary. But, as Scott Hahn put it, “at a certain point God takes over and it all takes on a supernatural dimension that surpasses intellectual study.” Every time I had a question, God would provide me with an answer. Mostly, He brought lay folk to me who were devout and not afraid to share their faith. Other times, I would be struggling with an objection so I would turn on the TV to relax. As was now my habit, I would flip on EWTN or Boston Catholic Television, and there would inevitably be someone talking about the subject I was struggling with.
Somewhere in my journey, I discovered a 24-hour adoration chapel. At that point I had come to believe that was Jesus in the monstrance. If I could not receive Him at the altar, I could worship at His feet like I’d never done before. I recall the irony: here I was a Protestant minister praying the Rosary at all hours of the night in front of the Eucharist. It was during this period that my prayer life began to change. My prayer changed from “God, what do I do” to “God, how do I do it” and then finally “How are you going to do this for me, Lord?”
On the Eve of Pentecost 1996, I played in the music ministry at a charismatic Mass. The cardinal of the archdiocese was the celebrant. After Mass, I was dragged over to him and introduced. My friend mentioned to the cardinal that I was a Protestant minister who was considering Catholicism. The cardinal smiled, gave me a few words of encouragement, and recommended Dr. Scott Hahn’s work (by then I was familiar with Dr. Hahn; his series on Romans had been instrumental for me). Then the cardinal laid hands on me and gave me a blessing. I felt something — something very strong. I felt a connection with the whole Church throughout history. I was aware that I was being blessed by a successor of the twelve Apostles. I also knew that I’d be home soon.
The following business day my pastor called me into his office and said: “We need to talk. John this is not working out very well, this is a Protestant church and you keep on referring to the Reformation as ‘The Great Rebellion.’ You are making your views very public. You are free to believe what you want and stay here; we only require that Jesus Christ be the Lord of your life, for you to be a member. But you can’t preach this stuff and remain in the ministry here.”
At that point, I told him I needed to be a Catholic. He said: “Yes, I know, but you’ll be back. You know we don’t teach that the Catholic Church is apostate. You also know that I’ve always said that there are many Catholics who are genuinely saved and true Christians. But I’m convinced you’ll find that the Church you’ve been reading about does not exist in practice.”
With that, he gave me his blessing to leave. One week later, after a few phone calls to the chancery and my local parish, I was received back into the Catholic Church. I was at a weekly adoration hour, and I asked the priest to hear my first confession in over 25 years. I also was finally able to receive our Lord in the Eucharist that same night.
I will forever be grateful for all that God has lead me through. I do not look back at my years as a Protestant with regret. I owe my love of Scripture and the desire to evangelize to the wonderful training I received from my former pastor, his wife, and dedicated teachers in Bible School. I’m also grateful to the many people that God brought my way, who patiently answered all my questions and willingly engaged me in fruitful dialogue. Were it not for these Catholics willing to defend their faith, I might never have found mine. I must also thank people like Jimmy Akin and Karl Keating at Catholic Answers for their support during my journey. Last but not least I am grateful for my grandmother who taught me to pray as a child. I’m sure she was praying for me every step of the way.
In closing, we need to respond to Pope Paul VI’s call to evangelize the baptized. It’s not enough to teach our children to go through the motions of Catholicism. We not only need to tell them about Jesus, we need to introduce them to Him. We need to minister to people who have fallen into serious sins of addiction, tell them Jesus is the answer. Yes they should seek professional help, but it is the anointing of God that breaks every yoke of bondage. And it is a shame that I had to learn that from someone who left the Church, rather the hearing it from a Catholic. We need to be willing to reach out to our separated brethren, in unconditional love, and build relationships. In that process, we can share the full Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I’ll end with the words of the Apostle Paul from Romans 11:36, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.”