St. Paul wrote to his “son in the faith” St. Timothy that “God our Savior … desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). He penned this after all the joy and trials of his own conversion and his travels as a missionary, bringing many from paganism or Judaism into the Christian Faith.
The world has now witnessed 2000 years of conversions, in every culture, nation, or ethnic group, and the universal witness is that this conversion of salvation and truth is one of great joy and fulfillment. For many, conversion to Jesus and His Church involves only minor changes in lifestyle or relationships. For others, however, conversion can bring great upheaval, even crises which they never anticipated.
The book of Acts details the beginning of these centuries of conversion, stating that “the word of God increased, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (Acts 6:7). An oft ignored continuation of that verse relates that “a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.” Generally, Jewish priests were married with families. We have no further records on these first Jewish priest converts, but what did they do once they converted? With the joy that came with their salvation in Jesus Christ, what upheavals, even crises, occurred in their lives? Did their families convert with them, or reject them? How did they support themselves? Did any of these Jewish priest converts become Christian priests or bishops? We don’t know the answers to these questions, but this passage does suggest that from the beginning “clergy converts” were probably facing vocational, occupational, and marital issues similar to those faced by modern clergy inquirers and converts.
We know that not every story about Jesus was recorded in the Gospels (cf, Jn 21:25). The authors were selective, for various reasons, and likely to address the needs of their intended audience. Such was the case with St. Luke who desired “to write an orderly account” so that Theophilus might “know the truth concerning the things of which [he had] been informed” (Lk 1:3–4).
Recently I was reading through Luke 14 and was struck by how the entire chapter contained stories and teachings that relate directly to the challenges faced by those either considering conversion or who have recently converted to the Catholic Church. The literal sense of the stories proclaims the divine power and authority of Jesus as the long awaited Messiah, but the spiritual (anagogical) sense speaks directly to the unique challenges of the journey. This essentially involves reading the text with a hermeneutic of conversion.
Chapter 15 could be included in this discussion (the ninety-nine and the one found sheep; the rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner; the found coin; the prodigal sons and the loving father), but chapter 14 particularly provides much material for an examination of conversion.
“One sabbath when he went to dine at the house of a ruler who belonged to the Pharisees, they were watching him. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. And Jesus spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath, or not?’ But they were silent. Then he took him and healed him, and let him go. And he said to them, ‘Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?’ And they could not reply to this.”
We generally hear this story as pointing us to the compassion and power of Christ. Two other familiar stories of conversion are worth considering:
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Beth-za’tha, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked. Now that day was the sabbath (Jn 5:2–9).
Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at that gate of the temple which is called Beautiful to ask alms of those who entered the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s, astounded (Acts 3:1–11).
Conversion is a mysteriously selective work of God’s merciful grace.
In all these cases, one among many was chosen, awakened, and healed. Here is the mystery of God’s merciful grace, which we have each experienced. Most converts have friends who know as much as or more than they do about the fullness of faith in the Catholic Church, yet, for sometimes indeterminate reasons, these friends do not see the convincing reasons and mandate to convert, and so remain uninterested in “coming home.”
We need to be constantly grateful for the “healing” we have received. St. Paul expressed this to his “son in the faith” Timothy:
I thank him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to his service, though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus (1 Tim 1:12–14).
Most of our non-Catholic friends continue to serve in sincerity, yet are to a certain extent ignorant of Catholic teaching. We must continue to pray for them.
During our 18 years, the CHNetwork has worked with over 1500 non-Catholic clergy from over 100 denominations. New clergy inquirers contact our offices at the rate of 2–5 per week! Alone this data sounds significant—and it is because every individual clergy inquirer or convert represents many needs and challenges for him and his family.
A recent Yearbook of Christianity, however, indicates that there are over 600,000 ministers in America: approx. 55,000 of these are Catholic; 3,000 are Orthodox; which leaves over 540,000 non-Catholic ministers! Comparatively, 1500 is a mere drop in the ocean!
So why aren’t more men and women interested and moving toward the Church? Only God knows. Certainly we ought to be more active in the new evangelization, but still there is the mystery of God’s merciful grace—especially the mystery of why He chose you and me!
Conversion can have a drastic effect on our lives.
As in all of the cases mentioned in the beginning of the article, the conversions caused drastic life changes in the healed and converted: the three formerly lame men had always supported themselves through begging for alms; now they were healed and everyone knew it! And though their neighbors rejoiced with them, when the next morning came, how did they proceed with life? How did these men continue to support themselves? Had they ever learned another trade, since they presumed they would always be lame and dependent upon others?
Such is true with so many clergy converts, who may have had no other training and work experiences except in pastoral ministry. Most never anticipated making such drastic changes to their lives and careers as becoming Catholic! And as a result, many assume, not only that the Catholic priesthood is the obvious option, but that this must be the calling to which God had always been preparing them.
This is why the CHNetwork tries to help inquiring clergy examine all aspects of their lives—their vocational options, skills, and calling—before they resign from ministry and enter the Church.
Luke 14: 7–11
“Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he marked how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, ‘When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; and he who invited you both will come and say to you, “Give place to this man,” and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, “Friend, go up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”
Conversion requires constant growth in humility.
Here Jesus was teaching His disciples about the importance of humility. Is it possible, though, that the reason St. Luke included this story was also because some converts (maybe some of those priest converts) were assuming they brought with them some level of entitlement?—that they had reached high levels of leadership and honor before their conversions, and now assumed this justified a lateral promotion?
The truth—which is essential for clergy inquirers and converts to understand and accept as soon as possible—is that there is a vast difference between Protestant ordination and Catholic priestly ordination. There are many historical, theological, and philosophical reasons for this, but maybe the most obvious is that the men (and women) who laid their hands upon non-Catholic clergy ordaining them may have been well-meaning and sincere believers, following their denomination’s understanding of ordination, but they had no apostolic authority to ordain anyone to priesthood.
St. Paul himself emphasized the crucial importance of being “sent” to have the authority to preach (Rom 10:15). Here’s the question for those of us who were non-Catholic clergy: Who “sent” us when we were ordained to preach, and who “sent” those who “sent” us? God in His mercy can indeed grant grace and bless our efforts, but we must be cautious when we presume that our non-Catholic ordinations were to some degree akin to that performed by a Catholic bishop, a successor of the Apostles. And since the Church has clearly determined and declared that Anglican orders are not valid (because of an inherent defect of both “form” and “intention”; see Pope Leo XIII’s Apostolicae Curae: On the Nullity of Anglican Orders), it is highly unlikely that any other non-Catholic orders are any less null (except the Orthodox).
Growing in humility requires that we not presume that our prior ordinations and achievements entitle us for the Catholic priesthood, but rather that our training, gifts, and experiences have prepared us to serve as faithful Catholic lay men and women. At first hearing this may offend us, but it’s likely that any Catholic teenager who has received the Sacrament of Confirmation has a more valid “ordination” to ministry, through the charism anointing of the bishop and resultant gifts of the Holy Spirit, than any Protestant ordination.
The majority of clergy inquirers and converts, therefore, need to reconcile themselves to the fact that entrance into the Catholic Church means that, regardless of what their ordinations and hierarchical achievements once meant to them or their non-Catholic traditions, they are now laity. To a real extent, most clergy inquirers should set aside any expectations of consideration for Catholic priesthood, and instead learn to appreciate the high calling of the Catholic lay apostolate, as described in Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) and most excellently in Blessed John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Christifideles Laici.
I have come to believe that the measure to which we have grown in humility is the measure to which we have grown at all, and for clergy converts, growth in humility requires that we “go and sit in the lowest place,” willing, for the sake of Christ and His Church, to start over, accepting with joy whatever opportunity of service He brings into our lives.
“He said also to the man who had invited him, ‘When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.’”
Conversion requires that we be cautious of the temptation to become a member of the elite, the comfortable, the powerful, the enlightened.
This often accompanies the feelings of entitlement that some bring with them. We all know we are not to entertain any sense of importance due to our ordinations, assignments, or promotions, because Jesus specifically warned against this!
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:25–28)
Nonetheless, I have witnessed some clergy converts who love the attention, the front-row seats, the public notoriety, and particularly seem to glory in the new robes, pomp, and circumstance that they had not experienced in their former less liturgical traditions. Again the need for continuous growth in humility.
Luke 14: 15–24
“When one of those who sat at table with him heard this, he said to him, ‘Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ But he said to him, ‘A man once gave a great banquet, and invited many; and at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for all is now ready.”’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it; I pray you, have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them; I pray you, have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the servant came and reported this to his master. Then the householder in anger said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’”
Conversion involves an informed, courageous act of the will.
Jesus said often to His audience, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Conversion is not merely a passive work of God’s grace, changing our hearts and minds, convincing us so that we have no choice but to drop everything and convert: it always involves the mysterious partnership of His grace and our free will.
Jesus expressed this well in His parable of the sower:
As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. (Matthew 13:23)
We can all attest to how God’s grace has helped us hear and understand, and enabled us to respond and accomplish sometimes miraculous tasks for His glory. But in every case we each had to respond and act with our will; “bearing” fruit involves our informed courageous act of the will.
Behind all of this is the spiritual battle, for our souls as well as those for whom our witness can affect. Therefore, we can be tempted to come up with all kinds of excuses NOT to respond to God’s invitation; and many of these excuses can sound valid and justifiable—we in the CHNetwork have heard them repeatedly during our 18 years! And it has always been our policy never to “push, pull, or prod” anyone into the Church, because it must be a free act of intellect and will, heart and mind, as they are led by the Spirit.
Yet, given statements like the following from Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, we still want to do whatever we can to help seeking inquirers come home:
[N]ot for one moment have I felt otherwise than most grateful to God that I did what I did last October—and it comes to me sometimes with affright ‘what if I had missed the moment and lost my election!’ and day by day I seem to gain a nearer approach to Him who condescends to dwell with man upon earth under sensible forms—but what would I have given for a clearer view at the time of acting, and for a year before!(Letter to Elizabeth Swinburne, 1845; quoted in Stanley Jaki, “Newman to Converts,” (Real View Books; 2001), p.112.)
Conversion requires that we remember that we, too, were once spiritually poor, maimed, lame, and blind. We must never forget who we have left behind!
The problem arises, mostly because of sin, that priests and laity can adopt an imbalance in their understanding of the ministry of the Church: one can easily over-emphasize the priestly-sacramental aspects while ignoring the call to evangelize and teach (this is not merely a Catholic problem). Too often it’s easier to see the Church as a dispenser of sacraments and provider of programs, while hundreds of families living in the neighborhoods surrounding a parish remain uncontacted and uninvited into the Church.
Statistics continually show that only around 20% of the American population claim to be Catholic. But how many even of these claimants are sincere practicing Catholics living in grace? I guestimate half; a bishop recently told me he guestimates 30%! If we assume half, that means that of every 100 people who die, only 10 die with the benefit of the Catholic sacraments! Do the sacraments make a difference? Then merely offering the sacraments is not enough; we have a lot of work to do!
This requires that converts particularly remember that we, too, were spiritually poor, maimed, lame, and blind; and because of the uniqueness of what we experienced from our previous traditions, we are uniquely prepared to reach back to those we left behind.
Jesus gave multiple commands to His Apostles on how they were to carry on His ministry after He was gone. Three of the most important are: (1) “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19); (2) “Abide in me, and I in you” (Jn 15:4); and (3) “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” (Mt 28:19). Far too often, ministers focus most of their attention on: (1) the sacramental/priestly functions, because this is most easily scheduled; then (2) their personal spiritual welfare; but often very little to (3) evangelization and catechesis. We need to strike a healthy balance.
Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”
Conversion requires personal trust in God and His Church.
One of the most common experiences shared by clergy inquirers and converts is that they often feel quite alone in their journeys. They have few people, if any, they can talk to concerning their new discoveries about the Catholic Faith. This was the primary reason we started the CHNetwork.
Sometimes this decision puts inquirers and converts at odds with everyone they’ve ever known—family, friends, or colleagues. There can be great temptation to see this as a valid reason for not converting: “Hey, if they all feel I’m wrong, maybe they’re right!”
Conversion, therefore, requires informed, prayerful, constant, and courageous trust in God and His Church.
Conversion requires that we examine our assumptions about marriage.
Many of us, from other traditions—especially here in America—think of our callings as mostly individualistic: “God called me to the ministry. Now He’s calling me to resign and become Catholic. Is He now calling me to the priesthood?” We have in our CHNetwork database copious correspondence with inquiring clergy. But sometimes after a dozen emails, we have to ask, “Are you married?”, because they have never mentioned the status of where their wives are in this process, especially how their wives are feeling about their consideration of the Catholic priesthood.
As a Presbyterian clergy convert, I was told from the early days of my own journey that I had the option of pursuing the priesthood directly though my local bishop. I have discussed this with all four bishops I have lived under; my present bishop, after several years of discussions, recently told me we were now on the path of discernment. But after a month, I told him, no, I had decided/discerned that the priesthood was not where God was calling me. There were lots of reasons, but the primary one was that after 19 years of being a Catholic, I realized I was still thinking of my marriage/calling from an individualistic perspective. Marilyn had grown to accept this possibility and had expressed her “permission” and support if this was the direction I felt God was calling me; but she was not expressing the sense that she perceived any call to this, nor did she freely express that she sensed that I was called to this—she was not telling me I ought to become a priest!
Under the Catholic sacramental understanding of marriage, the two have become one; and I believe it is not enough for the wife to give her husband permission to be a priest, or to be willing to support him; but rather it needs to be a mutual call; not that she is going to take on the roll of so many Protestant clergy wives, but rather that she equally senses a call to this radically different life.
For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, `This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Conversion requires self-examination and planning.
Many converts assume that God and His Church, of course, will take care of them. Doesn’t Scripture promise that, “in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28)? So, shouldn’t we expect that He will provide all our needs, since we love Him and He called us?
However, through our work with nearly 800 clergy converts, it’s pretty obvious that God’s providence is not always equal to what we expect. He calls us to take responsibility of and use the gifts He has given us—especially recognizing how important suffering is in our growth in holiness!
Certainly the mandate holds true, as expressed in Lumen Gentium 14: “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it.”
However, the many responsibilities that come with our sacramental vows of marriage may affect the timing of this conversion. Hence we are called to “first sit down and count the cost,” not to reject conversion, but to discern the timing.
Conversion requires sacrifice.
“So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” We live in a culture that is so materially rich, with so many services that are good and helpful for our families and for protecting our futures, that we can become paralyzed from moving forward out of fear for loosing these services and material blessings. True conversion, however, may require that we let go of everything.
Here we encounter the Catholic theology of redemptive suffering. Much can be said, but we live in a culture that does everything possible to avoid suffering, and to portray suffering as the worst evil. On the other hand, the Church, following the teaching of our Lord, emphasizes that a key element in our spiritual growth is suffering. To what extent are we slowed down in our movement toward the Church out of fear of suffering?
Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is fit neither for the land nor for the dunghill; men throw it away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Conversion requires examining our presumptions and “baggage.”
We in the CHNetwork believe, from our experience, that one of the most important things an inquirer or convert needs to do is recognize the differences between his or her previous ways of thinking, praying, and discerning God’s will and an authentic Catholic way of thinking, praying, and discerning. These differences may not be readily apparent from a reading of the Catechism or the documents of Vatican II (though I strongly recommend both!). This is particularly true about the way we “hear” and “discern” whether God called us and is still calling clergy converts into full-time ministry.
The danger is that clergy inquirers are preparing to make one of the most difficult and important decisions of their lives, yet they are still doing so with the assumptions of their non-Catholic traditions: How does one hear God? How does God speak to us? Fleeces? Still small voices? Seeming coincidental unexplainable occurrences? Yes! Of course! But how do we discern accurately what He is telling us, especially when it means the welfare and future of our families, marriages, and ministries?
This is why the CHNetwork tries to help clergy inquirers while they are still on the journey, to examine their assumptions and discover the beauty of Catholic discernment, especially using the steps of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Converts do indeed have much to bring to the Church. As Unitatis Redintegratio stated, “Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification” (UR, 4). However, this does not mean that everything from our old tradition ought to be brought along or, for that matter, promoted as an answer to the Church’s ills! As stated earlier, we must enter the Church willing to accept the bottom seat, until invited up.
All of this is a reminder that clergy inquirers and converts need to determine to what extent their “salt has lost its taste” because the tradition in which they were formed and from which they have converted had “lost its taste.”
Conversion means more than merely “adding on” to what we presume we have always had “right.”
I confess to this problem, which we have heard also from many converts: we think all that is necessary in conversion is now to jettison certain aspects of our past that are false, and add on the uniquely Catholic truths we may have rejected before: purgatory, praying to Mary and the saints; belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist; Baptism as the entrance into the Body of Christ. But these are far more than mere add-ons. Rather they are expressions of a much deeper, richer, more integrated Catholic theology, philosophy, and culture.
I think this requires that we be willing to examine all aspects of our theological and philosophical presumptions, down to our very understanding of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Some of our former traditions are more in need of this critical examination.
Conversion, therefore, requires continual conversion!
I can attest to how much I continually am learning and unlearning, still becoming a Catholic. After nearly 19 years a Catholic (after 40 years a Protestant, 10 of which an ordained pastor), I’m still amazed how much baggage from my past I continue to discover that still hinders my full appreciation of the Catholic Faith. As I wrote earlier, many key aspects of the Catholic Faith can remain as add-ons for converts, and I think, as a result, this holds many back from fully benefiting from the graces and blessings of our Faith.
I remember an experience once when driving in the wee hours of the morning north into Michigan. I was tired and came to a fork in the highway and, unintentionally, took the wrong fork. An hour later I realized I had driven 60 miles west out of my way, when I should have been 60 miles north. The problem was there was no direct short-cut route NE across country, so I had to turn around, drive the 60 miles back east, then take the correct route north.
This experience stands as an analogy for our journeys: in many ways our journeys forward into the Catholic Faith require that we first take some big steps backwards, re-examining what we have for so long assumed in our non-Catholic background, to determine if there are assumptions we need to realign or even reject.
As TS Elliot once wrote, “The way up and the way down are one and the same.” Our journey forward sometimes requires a journey downward if not backwards. Conversion requires continual conversion.