I was not your typical college student; I didn’t follow the crowd. When many people go to college they also stop going to church and start going to bars and getting into mischief. When I went to college, the first thing I did was look for a church home — a real Christian community, not just a group of individuals who got together on Sundays for a Christian lodge meeting. I visited just about every kind of church. I was refused admittance to a Baptist church because I was not wearing a tie. The Methodist church I tried for a few Sundays treated me well, but they were all elderly people. I even went to a Unitarian Universalist church once; that was a story in itself. I never could seem to find a good fit where I liked the people, the doctrine and the worship. It seemed to be always one or the other, or sometimes nothing worked out. Suffice to say, I was a church shopper carte blanche.
I had about given up on finding a church home when, in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, on my way to a football game, I walked by a beautiful building, the Episcopal cathedral. The urge hit me to go inside, just to see the stained glass windows. However, it being a Saturday, I waited until the next morning and attended a Sunday service there, not really looking for a church that day but wanting to see what this one was like on the inside. I walked in, and the usher offered me the prayerbook. I flipped through the prayerbook during the service, and immediately, I felt like I had found what I was looking for. I read through the entire catechism during the service and did not really object to any of it. So I just stayed with the Episcopal Church, mostly because of the liturgy and patrimony. Praying “in common,” hence the Book of Common Prayer, changed my life and my understanding of living in community as a Christian. When Anglicans do something well, they do it very well indeed.
While still in college, I felt I might be called to go into the ministry. But law school beckoned, and I ended up out in Nebraska for a year. The Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska then adopted me into their ordination program. I did an internship there and subsequently went to seminary. Part of my seminary was in Chicago and part in Cambridge, U.K. I fell in love with the Anglican patrimony during my time in England, due to the lovely history and tradition, with morning and evening prayer, choral evensong, church bells, and architecture. In many ways, I became a theological son of John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement strand of the Anglican high church tradition.
The one thing that, in retrospect, really planted the seeds of my later conversion to the Catholic Church was to read Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars while I was in seminary. It is a superb work of historical analysis of the dark side of Henry VIII’s reforms, particularly the dissolution of the monasteries and the rich Catholic culture that was integral to English life prior to the English Reformation. I thought back to the themes of that book many times in the coming years.
I returned to Nebraska and was ordained an Episcopal deacon in 2007 and then a priest in May 2008. I also married in January 2008. That was a big year for me spiritually, learning what it meant to be ordained and married all at the same time. At the beginning of 2009, I became the rector of a small Anglican church in South Dakota.
During my tenure there, I really began to see the theological deterioration of the Episcopal church proceeding at an astonishing pace. In the ten years or so of my formation process, seminary, and ordained ministry, the Episcopal Church seemed to come to fully embrace all facets of liberal Protestantism and the relativist culture of the age. Being in a small town parish, I had managed to insulate myself from the issues of the broader denomination until the Confirmation class I was teaching exposed the theological straits that the Episcopal Church had entered.
I was forced to write my own curriculum for Confirmation, because I could find nothing of substance available anywhere. I called it “Father Ryan’s 10 Ten Things You Need to Know to Be an Anglican.” Almost all of it was very basic Christianity 101 topics like the Bible, the liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer, the sacraments, Church history. It never touched on any theological hot button topics like sexuality or abortion. In fact, I had intentionally avoided such topics. I had assigned this curriculum as a final project for my high school students in the form of a compare-and-contrast essay. I asked the students to find a family member or family friend who was not Episcopalian but did generally go to church and take Christianity seriously, then run my Top Ten List by them and see what he or she said. One bright lad decided to alter the directions slightly. He called or e-mailed every Episcopal priest within a four hour drive of our location in rural South Dakota, ran my Top 10 list by them and recorded their answers. In a state where you can drive for two hours without encountering a gas station, there were not more than a dozen priests in the whole region.
The results this student came up with horrified me! Only two Episcopal priests agreed with even three of those traditional Top 10 tenets. Most did not agree with even a single one. I remember sitting at the table after the students had left and just staring off into space, utterly mortified that in a rural — and I thought somewhat orthodox — Episcopal diocese in heartland America, there would not be another Episcopal priest within a four hour drive who agreed with basic themes of the divinity of Christ, the liturgy, the sacraments and suchlike. Something within Anglicanism had gone horribly wrong.
For the next year, I went through a personal discernment, asking God what I should do in this situation. I initially looked into Orthodoxy, but after heavy reading in Eastern theology, I had far too many questions that no one in the Orthodox Church seemed to be able to answer to my satisfaction. Being a good Anglo-Catholic priest, Protestantism was no longer viable for me, either intellectually or spiritually. After much heartache and discernment, I felt very clearly that God was calling me to join the fullness of the Catholic Faith.
Thankfully, I was privileged to have spiritual direction from a Benedictine monk at a now-closed monastery not far from home. He was ecumenical but solidly Catholic. I went to him for advice, and that day he gave me the finest spiritual advice I have ever received. I told him about my travails and where I thought God was leading me. He was very supportive and very pastoral, but he said, “If you fall in love with the Catholic Church, be sure you fall in love with what the Church truly is, not what you wish the Church to be.” I will return to that thought later in this narrative, because it saved me from a very dark place later on, after my conversion.
After a brief instruction from a priest at the local Newman Center, my wife and I were received and confirmed into the Catholic Church on May 1, 2013, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. By divine providence, this was five years to the day after I had been ordained to the Anglican priesthood. We were, of course, immediately evicted from the Episcopal rectory. I will not go so far as to say that it involved a lynch mob with torches and pitchforks, but that is certainly what it felt like at the time. We decided to move back to Nebraska, my wife’s native soil, to get back on our feet. We joined the local Catholic parish there. I have since been installed as a lector and acolyte. I also cantor and help lead a weekly Lectionary Bible study with a small group in the parish. My wife works part time, and my daughter is attending the Catholic school. I am currently managing a small business in small town Nebraska.
I could end this narrative here with a “happily ever after” ending, but that is not real life. I had a rough transition into the Catholic Church. For me, the actual conversion process was quite simple. Being an Anglican priest, transitioning to the teachings of the Catholic Church was really not that difficult for me. Mary, praying to saints, the need for a beautiful liturgy, the call to help the poor — all the things that usually pose problems for would-be Protestant converts — did not faze me at all, because I already believed them and had often preached on them. In some ways, I was more Catholic as an Anglican than many a lapsed or lukewarm Catholic of my acquaintance.
The problem for me came after the conversion. I went from having more opportunities for Christian ministry as an Anglican priest than there were hours in a day to accomplish them, to finding myself in a new town, in a new state, in new Catholic parish, with no ministry whatsoever. I felt as if I had entered the federal witness protection program and was living under an assumed identity somewhere. I was not even allowed to lector or serve at the altar as an acolyte. I literally had nothing in terms of ministry. As someone who had viewed Christian ministry as my vocation, something that gave my life meaning and purpose, this came as a shock. I was unprepared for it, mentally or spiritually. The only analogy I can think of is what a military veteran must feel to return from war missing his right arm or leg. For some months, I was frustrated and angry. I felt God had led me down a path that went nowhere. What was the point of me becoming Catholic if the Church did not allow me to use any of my gifts? I felt like I had thrown my life and career away .
Then I remembered the words of my spiritual director during my conversion process: Fall in love with the Church for what it truly is, not what you wish it to be. The Catholic Church is not perfect. It is full of sinners. There are people — priests included — with warts. Rome is called the Eternal City for a reason: it often takes that long to adjust to it. God must continue His work for a while longer to bring about that fulfillment.
I do not say this to discourage people. The Church has some beautiful things to offer, things like wisdom, fine clergy, lovely people, beauty, and economic and philosophical thought. However, with all of that, it is also a hospital for the sick and helpless, and for people who should know better but act like they don’t. It’s like marriage: you have to love the real person in all his or her strengths and weaknesses. You must not fall in love with your idealized image of who you think that person is, because that’s a non-existent fantasy. If you fall in love with that idealized image, your days in the Catholic Church are likely to be short and unhappy.
A few years passed before I began to feel like I was in a good place in my relationship with God and the Catholic Church. These things do take time. The hard work of conversion often takes place after the actual conversion, rather than before. As I stated at the outset, I don’t necessarily do things the way normal people do them; so maybe my story will not apply to you. While I have since come to have some meaningful lay ministry in the Catholic Church and am looking at my long term options for ministry in perhaps some other capacity, my process was not as clean-cut as I had thought it would be.
God is still working on you, the reader, as well. Never lose sight of what the Church truly is, even if all you can see right now is the Church’s rough edges. Give it time. Give it prayer. Fall in love with the Church for what the Church truly is. That is the best advice anyone ever gave me, and I hope these small words of mine may help you in your journey as well.
Come home: your Mother is calling.