Conversion StoriesPresbyterian & Reformed

From Long Ago and Far Away to Here and Now in the Catholic Church

Dean C. Waldt
February 12, 2018 No Comments

My parents were children of the Great Depression. They married in 1941 and started a family during the Second World War. Our family was neither rich nor poor; we had what we needed.

I grew up in a small town, the youngest of four sons. Life was comfortable and unexceptional. Dad worked and took good care of the family. Mom ran the house and also worked from time to time. My two older brothers were married and gone by the time I was 10 years old, which left two of us brothers at home. When my third brother entered the military after high school, I got to be an “only child” for a couple of years before heading off to college.

Our home was not affectionate, nor enthusiastic, nor even particularly fun. If I had to pick a phrase to describe it, I would choose “regular and steady.” For my parent’s generation, this was considered a compliment.

We went to the Presbyterian church every Sunday. Dad was an elder and Mom was in the women’s group. Youth group was Sunday night and was 20 percent about Bible study and 80 percent about the girls who attended.

Once my brothers were off to college, career, military, marriage, and so forth, I was left to decide what I would do with my life. My favorite television shows were Saturday morning westerns, anything about flying and the space program, and Perry Mason, “the television lawyer.” There are not many cowboys in New Jersey, and my poor eyesight kept me out of the military academies, so that left Perry. I started college as a pre-law major but then changed my mind. During my freshman year, I felt a call to the ministry and moved to become a philosophy and religion major.

It just seemed like the right thing to do.

My senior year in college I was president of the Presbyterian church youth group. I gave the sermons on Youth Sunday, and everyone said I did a great job. My pastor encouraged me to consider the ministry as a calling. My parents were thrilled by my decision, and I wanted to please them. These were the external influences.

Going away to college at age 17 and being away from home for the first time forced me to examine whether my faith was really my own or just a family tradition. The Christian message made sense to me, but God the Father seemed very far away and Jesus not much closer. I was a natural student, and the Biblical studies, the theology, the philosophy and the history were all very exciting to me. I ate it up. I graduated with high honors, received the prize for being the top senior in religion studies, then went off to seminary in California.

Marriage and Seminary

During my college summers before I left for seminary, I was a cook at a “Down the Shore” seafood restaurant just off the boardwalk.  That still may be the best job I ever had. Linda was the best and prettiest waitress there. She was a beautiful, smart, no-nonsense, young woman. She knew her mind and spoke it with a smile that would knock you over. I figured that she was way out of my league; I still think so. I proposed, she said yes, and we were married. When summer was over, we packed up Linda’s cat, along with everything we owned, in a 1970 Dodge Colt and headed off to Los Angeles.

Seminary was fun. There were scores of newlywed couples, just like us, starting out in life together. For my language requirements, having taken four years of Greek in college, I just had to handle the Hebrew. I did an internship as a youth leader at a Presbyterian Church, got to preach several sermons there, and worked as a teaching assistant in the Church History Department. Once again, I excelled at the academics and got my Master’s degree a semester early. Then it was back to New Jersey to actually become a Presbyterian minister.

To be honest, I had discovered after one semester in seminary that being a parish minister was not right for me. If I had gone right into doctoral work, I might have persevered a little longer. But I think God did me a favor because I would probably still be hiding from life in the library if I had stayed in academics.

There were some things about being a minister that I loved. I loved the academics, the preaching, and the “life of the mind” that a theological education can become if one allows it to take over his life. But I was never very fond of the people, and Jesus was still a spiritual Luke Skywalker — inspiring, to be sure, but a long time ago and far, far away.

My Short Career as a Pastor

As the young pastor of a small parish, I spent my first year preaching the world-changing sermons I had thought about in seminary. But the world did not change. Discouraged and doubting that God was listening, I wondered what I was doing wrong. After all, I thought I preached really good sermons. Then the petty bickering began amongst the parishioners about when to schedule something or who did not speak to whom, and how I really ought to make a special visit to the hypochondriac lady because she was a big donor. After two years, I was done. I quit the parish and resigned my ordination.

But employment was still necessary; I had to provide for my family. Our son was born during my second year in the ministry. Perry Mason came back to mind. I ended up at Villanova University School of Law. It is a great university and a great law school.

Only in retrospect do I appreciate that it was at Villanova where I first encountered the mysterious “thing” that was Catholicism. Sure, many students and faculty were “nominal” Catholics. But some were serious about their religion, and the integrity they exhibited was attractive. As a Protestant, I had picked up the idea that Catholics had outdated medieval views, from which the Reformation had liberated us. I remember my grandfather, a First World War veteran, being sincerely concerned that President Kennedy would be “taking orders from the Pope.” The cultural bias was subtle but very real.

I excelled again at academics, graduated near the top of the law school class, and was hired by a prestigious downtown lawfirm. Then I stopped going to church. Linda went alone and prayed for me. I bought a boat to “commune with God in nature” on the weekends. I was on the road to success; I climbed the ladder to the top over the next eight years. I reached the summit and discovered something remarkable: when you finally arrive at the top of your career, you find nothing there.

One wintry Saturday morning, I had a “Jonah” moment. I just could not run away any more. I knelt down in our living room and told God that I was exhausted and accepted the fact that I could not escape Him. I told Him that I no longer wished to flee; He had won, and I had lost. I surrendered. I asked for forgiveness and for a fresh start. Surprisingly, I got both.

It took a year or so for me to get back into “going to church.” But this time it was different. Jesus was much closer now, and I really believed that He was listening and responding to my prayers. And the people at church were no longer an annoyance. In fact, I often thought I saw Jesus in them. Imagine that!

Our Phenomenal Bible Ministry

Then one day Linda told me that she had volunteered to lead a start-up Monday evening Bible study for high school students, since some of the kids at church were interested. Linda is a teacher by profession and a natural at this kind of ministry. In fact, if it had not been for her help, I never would have made it through my internship as a youth minister. I told Linda that I would support her decision to do the Monday night program, but I wanted nothing to do with youth work. Those days were over for me.

The first night of the program eight kids showed up. Two years later, we had 150 high school students from several churches in the area involved in two weekly Bible studies. I returned to the Presbyterian Church and reaffirmed my ordination vows. We rented a hall and formed a 503(c)(3) organization. We started running annual retreats, and, as the students graduated from high school, we also started a college program. In addition, Linda began a counseling ministry.

We ran this ministry for ten years, and all the while I was practicing law full time. Frankly, as I look back, I have absolutely no idea how we did it.

Time for Some Personal Study

My faith continued to grow and deepen as I studied and prepared to teach adult, college, and high school Bible study programs. This was not academics. I was digging deep into the Word of God because I wanted to get as close as I could to the Living Word. As a Protestant, the best means I had to get close to our Lord was a book, and I went as deep as that book could take me. But I was still alone; Jesus was still “back then” or “up there.” He was closer than before but remained just beyond my reach. I saw Him “in a mirror dimly,” and it was a lonely and frustrating experience.

We had some Catholic kids who came to the programs we ran. I was also invited by some kind priests to speak with them about what we were doing. I liked these priests; they understood what I was doing with the kids, but I did not quite understand what they were doing in their churches. The theological discussions we had were interesting, but they knew something that I did not. What they knew could not be communicated in an intellectual discussion, which was the ground on which I felt comfortable.

Meanwhile I had always wondered why we Protestants had to ignore certain things to maintain our perspective. Who decided the canon of the New Testament? Why does Justin Martyr describe the Mass in AD 150 when Protestants know that all the “real” Christians must have been having home Bible studies? Why does Augustine speak of the sacraments as a means of grace and consider Baptism as initiation into the Body of Christ? It occurred to me that I should actually start thinking about these things and not ignore them any longer.

I already had a complete collection of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, plus everything from Augustine, in boxes in the garage from my days as a Church History teaching assistant. I dug them out and started reading on the beach on Sunday afternoons.  Then I ordered an English version of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. Then I ordered a Catechism of the Catholic Church, and, after that, the Documents of the Second Vatican Council. Linda laughed and said I was the only guy on the beach with a highlighter and a notebook. But she supported my efforts every step of the way because she could see my desire to get closer to the prize, to Jesus.

Compelled by History

The first step on my journey home was, quite naturally for me, an intellectual one. Now, theologically-informed, traditional Protestantism is first and foremost the life of the mind. The core concept behind the Protestant experience is that, to know Christ, not only must one believe in him, but also one must believe and think correctly on theological matters.  Denominations are formed and divided along sometimes esoteric doctrinal differences.

There are historic reasons for this, which is a subject for another day. Suffice it to say that the Protestant movement was a “protest.” What was the object of the protest in the 16th century when the movement began? In sum, it was the abuses and excesses of the medieval Church that remained unresolved, despite the best efforts of great saints such as Dominic, Francis, Catherine of Genoa, and others, as well as unsuccessful Church councils that almost got the job done. The efforts at internal reform would not find success until after the tragedy of schism. There are historical reasons for this, but a fair person must acknowledge that the Church was not in the best of shape in 1517 when an Augustinian priest named Martin Luther nailed 95 questions on the cathedral door in Wittenberg. Like other priests, bishops, and Popes before him, Luther wanted to reform the Church. But he ended by being the catalyst to break the Church apart, a tragic divorce which today remains an open and unhealed wound causing continued pain to both parties.

As a Protestant student of Church history, I came to ask myself a basic question: Since it was not 1517 anymore, what exactly was I protesting? I arrived at this question for two reasons. First, I noticed that those of my Catholic friends who were sincere in faith and steadfast in practice hardly resembled the corrupt medieval power structure of the Church in 1517, struggling to come to grips with an emerging modern Western European civilization. I began to wonder if I was protesting a caricature.

Second, to resolve this question, I needed to go to the source, hence all the book orders and the highlighting on the beach. Despite the fact that I looked like the ultimate book nerd with my notebook and pen, I discovered something essential.  It was 2008, and I was the guy still driving around in a VW bus and marching down the street with a “Get Out Of Vietnam” sign. What I was protesting no longer existed. The Church was now reformed and was in much better shape than I could possibly imagine. I was protesting a ghost. If Luther was alive today, he would still be celebrating Mass.

Compelled by Example

About the same time I was getting beach sand in my Catechism, I began to consider where I saw the presence of Christ in the world at large. There are thousands of Protestant denominations. There is no realistic authority structure that speaks for, or speaks to, the children of this great ecclesiastical divorce. As the echo of Christendom fades in an increasingly secular Western society, and as the Protestant empire that was the United States drifts away from its Christian-based moral compass, it not only tolerates, but actively embraces, the evils of secularism, including the death of millions of unborn children and the deconstruction of marriage and family. Where, then, is the voice of the Church?

For me, the answer to that question was not an idea or a concept, it was a person: Pope John Paul II. After him came Benedict XVI. There was no way I could get around it. These men were the real deal; they were the Vicars of Christ. They spoke for Christ and did so with true moral authority based on lives of virtue, humility, justice, and love. I was drawn to them the way people were drawn to, and walked for miles to see, the One who fed thousands with a few loaves and fishes. I read the Popes’ many letters to the Church. I remembered what the temple guards who could not arrest Jesus said: “No one speaks as He does.” These men were the authentic apostles of today. They spoke for the Church and for Christ in a way other Christian leaders could not.

Compelled by the Presence of Jesus Christ

On countless occasions, as a Protestant minister, I had invited people to reason their way into the kingdom. I would introduce them to Jesus, who was born, died, and rose again so long ago and today is in heaven with the Father. I would tell them about Jesus and ask them to reflect on Him, think about Him, and fall in love with Him. Jesus was alive and real — but His presence was an incorporeal reality, confined to Biblical history and the theological life of the mind which can occasionally be enhanced by inferential experiences.

To know, love, and obey Jesus is not an easy task when the Person you are to know, love, and obey is long, long ago and far, far away. Yes, Jesus is our “personal Savior” and “lives in our hearts.” But to me, these were ultimately ideas without substance. One might compare it to falling in love with another person online without actually meeting the other person face to face.  It may be a genuine love, but it is not the same as holding your beloved in your arms.

So I went to Mass.  I could no longer stay away.  I had to know what was going on in the historic, apostolic Church, that my mind and my heart had now engaged.  On a Sunday morning, before going to teach Sunday School to nearly 100 adults at the Presbyterian church, I walked uncomfortably into St. Augustine’s Catholic Church.  I sat in the back.  I knelt to pray, mostly because that was what others were doing.  I really didn’t know what to ask God, so I simply asked for an open heart.

We stood; we confessed; we heard words of forgiveness. The Word of God was proclaimed clearly and without commentary. Every word spoken had depth and meaning. It was an unexpected theological banquet. Then we sang together an announcement that I recognized from the Gospels. But we were not reading it as history. We were saying it as if it was happening in the here and now: “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord.” We knelt as one. Father Michael, a man who in time would become my guide and friend, stood at the altar.

What came next was something for which I was completely and totally unprepared, so far was it beyond my comprehension. Father Michael spoke. Bells rang. Then Jesus showed up — not just an idea or a memory, not just the long-ago or far-away Second Person of the Trinity. Jesus showed up in person.

As I would later come to acknowledge, Jesus showed up in Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. I cannot prove it to the skeptic, nor can I measure it by any scientific method. I did not even intellectually believe it at the time. But this was beyond intellect, and it was more true than any truth I had ever encountered.

I knew that this Jesus, with whom I had been in love all of my adult life, to whom I had spoken on countless occasions, about whom I had read and studied and whom I had tried to follow — this Jesus had just entered the room. He was there in person. I was in awe. I was in love all over again and more; I wept for joy. This was an encounter with my living Lord through the grace of His sacramental economy. It was His gift to me through His Apostles. I was with Jesus, home at last.

After I was done reading and highlighting, I spoke to my friend and neighbor who was a deacon at the local Catholic parish. He started me on the official journey. I set aside my Presbyterian ordination in the fall of 2008 and entered the Catholic Church on Easter Vigil 2009. Now I was truly home.

The reaction among friends and acquaintances to this sermon preaching, Sunday school-teaching, academic award-winning Presbyterian minister “going papal” was mixed. My family was wonderful. Linda, our son, our fantastic daughter-in-law, and my elder brother (having already married my wonderful Irish-Catholic sister in law) have since come into the Church.  Our good friends have been supportive, and some have asked to come to Mass with us.  A few even came to my Confirmation and First Communion.  Others are confused and think that I am suffering from an unknown mental disorder or have experienced a lapse based on some emotional trauma.  These folks feel bad for me, and I appreciate their kind, if bewildered thoughts.

Another group views me as a turncoat and have written me off. But this is by far the smallest group.

Come and See

I pray that my dear Catholic brothers and sisters, my elder siblings in the Church who grew up in the faith, even those who had a mean nun in Catholic School or those who find it hard to love an imperfect Church with imperfect priests, can glimpse for a moment, through the eyes of a former orphan, what it means to have a real family, warts and all.  This is a real family where the elder brother, who was always there, and the prodigal son, who returns home after a difficult journey, both find a loving Father waiting for them. At the Father’s great feast, Jesus, in person, is our host.

I pray for my Protestant brothers and sisters, separated from their Mother and their true home by old quarrels now more imagined than real. We can all be one family again. We are the children of divorce. It is time to be reconciled. Just come to Mass. Just come. Jesus is here, in person. Come and see. Come and see.

Not a day passes for me without experiencing a profound sense of gratitude and joy that I have been united with our Lord Jesus Christ in His Body, the Church.

Dean C. Waldt

DEAN C. WALDT holds a B.A. summa cum laude in Philosophy and Religion from Grove City College, a Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a Juris Doctor cum laude from Villanova University School of Law. He is a partner in the Litigation Department of a major national law firm. He and Linda celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary in May 2017. Dean recently published his first book, When the Echo Dies / Marriage is Unconstitutional: America At Risk, addressing the crisis represented by the federal court same-sex marriage decisions. Linda leads the adult Bible study program at their parish. They live in South Florida.