[On December 6, 2020, the Feast of St. Nicholas, my wife and I entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. While there is no simple way to explain how we got to that point — and I fear my attempts will be reductive as a result — the “why” is easier to pinpoint: we, like so many before us, became convinced of the Catholic Church’s claim to authority. After being convinced, conviction quickly followed. We felt compelled to follow Jesus into His Church.]
My own journey formally began over a decade before, during my sophomore year at Notre Dame. For it was there that a classmate kindly corrected my distorted understanding of Church teaching on the intercession of Saints. This was pivotal, though I didn’t think much of it at the time, because it set a new precedent — the first in a long series of dominos to fall. After discovering that what I thought I knew about Catholicism was not, in fact, what the Church actually teaches, I began to question other assumptions. I had been “Catholic friendly” for years, but this was the first time I began to wonder whether or not Catholicism was actually worthy of belief. I wasn’t convinced yet, but my curiosity had been piqued. It was the first of many times that Catholicism would disarm me.
An Era of Apathy
I spent the next ten years experimenting with existentialism and hedonism in various doses at different times. But even during that circus ride, my displays of self-centered humanism were offset by a lingering sense of Christian morality, no doubt a remnant of my Protestant upbringing. Brief yet powerful encounters with Catholicism were sprinkled throughout, but I didn’t give them much more than a passing glance. I was skeptical of religion in any formal sense. More seeds had been sown, just the same.
For a variety of reasons, I knew I couldn’t fully embrace the Christianity of my childhood (I won’t cover this here), but I had no idea what should replace it. Naturally, I did everything in my power not to think about concrete matters of faith and morality, instead focusing on the abstract and the feel-good aspects. It wasn’t that I thought I knew better. Instead, I didn’t mind not knowing. I rested in my apathy for years, trying to be content avoiding scrutiny of the unpleasant questions I had left unanswered. That changed when my wife and I decided to have children. My interest in religion and philosophy rekindled; I knew I had to face old fears and revisit the questions I had abandoned.
While my wife and I were still wrestling with what to do about it all, I serendipitously became friends with a devout Catholic convert. When we first grabbed lunch, I saw him as a potential client; I think he always saw me as a potential convert. Almost immediately, he challenged and encouraged me to dive back into the investigation of Catholicism, to revisit the doubts and concerns I had voiced. Armed with an abundance of book recommendations and resources, he walked alongside me as I explored and considered the Church’s claims, always willing to answer my questions along the way. I cannot overstate the value of this relationship.
An Era of Friendship With a Friend of Jesus
During this time of intense research, an internal shift occurred. I grew almost frenzied in my search for answers. For the next eight months, I voraciously consumed everything I could handle. I still wasn’t convinced that Catholicism was worthy of belief, but to say that I was intrigued would fall short of describing the intensity of my pursuit. Somewhere between the two, perhaps. My new Catholic friend was persistent without being pushy, and his presence greatly facilitated this theological process. Our friendship, and the many discussions it produced, proved pivotal to my intellectual journey. It’s hard to overemphasize the power of timing — and that certainly played a part here — but it was more than that. By getting to know him, I encountered a Catholic conversion on display. In witnessing the way the Church and her holy Mysteries had changed his life, I saw a glimpse of what my future could hold.
As a result of continual study, reflection, and prayer, my trek to Rome rapidly accelerated during the year leading up to our Confirmation. In addition to regular conversations with my Catholic friend, I started having weekly phone conversations with a brilliant Thomist priest and philosopher who was capable of navigating even the most nuanced of concerns. He gave me satisfying answers and reasonable explanations, gently but thoroughly correcting my remaining misunderstandings. In many ways, he finished by convincing me.
A Spoonful of Apologetics Helps “Authority” Go Down
A final conflict emerged: my willingness to submit to Church authority. The mind may have been convinced, but the heart did not want to be convicted. When relegated to the hypothetical, investigating Catholicism was thrilling because it was safe. After I realized I was becoming convinced — not only that the Church taught some truth, but that the Church embodied the fullness of Truth itself — the stakes soared. If I wasn’t careful, I might actually have to change my life.
Enthusiasm turned to apprehension; I dove back into my studies with a different goal in mind: relief from the nagging sense of obligation festering inside me. I sought out the best Protestant, Orthodox, and secular counterarguments I could find, desperate to disprove the position I was starting to entertain. I revisited the history of the Reformation. I read (and reread) Martin Luther’s and John Calvin’s objections in their own words. I discussed my findings with honest, well-read Protestant friends and family members. I considered modern secular criticisms. I mulled over recent scandals. I actively tried to dissuade myself.
Fortunately, my plan backfired. I failed in the best possible sense. Instead of alleviating conviction, I’d effectively removed all lingering doubt — all while bolstering my ability to defend the Catholic faith against myriad objections. This final act of Protestant rebellion ended up becoming my Catholic pièce de résistance. I think God appreciates irony. Across the Tiber I would go.
When I finally embraced the Church’s claims, a deep sense of admiration replaced my skepticism. Newfound adoration fueled my already insatiable appetite for the Catholic faith, spurring my desire to consume even more information. The conviction I had been feeling paled in comparison to the sense of captivation that supplanted it. There were no more dragons guarding the treasure.
You might be wondering about my wife: where was she during all this? Here’s the short answer: By God’s grace, despite our wildly different start dates and trajectories, she and I had become convinced within a couple of months of each other. We were formally catechized and confirmed at the same time. My friend was my sponsor; our priest (and catechist) was hers. It was the beautiful culmination of our journey to Rome — and the start of our new life as Catholics.
Before going further, I want to emphasize that I don’t see my becoming Catholic as standing in conflict with my Protestant background. It’s the fulfillment. Similarly, I don’t accuse orthodox Protestants of embracing a corrupt form of Christianity, but rather an incomplete version of it. I happily recognize the essential role my classical Protestant upbringing played in my journey to the Catholic Church — especially the way I was taught to love Jesus, seek Truth and follow God’s Word — and I dearly love and appreciate my Protestant family and friends. We’re all looking at the same portrait, but the Protestant copy misses certain details.
My prayer is for all of us to be reunited in the Church. I want Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant Christians alike to be one as the Father and Son are one, a monolithic representation of what Christ and His Church are meant to be, so that we might set the world ablaze with His Love.
I grew up believing many lies about Catholicism and, while there are indeed big differences to this day, I’ve learned they are rarely as they seem. To that end, I will outline the fundamental changes in my thinking to highlight how my understanding of Catholic doctrine shifted –– or rather, how I came to understand Catholic doctrine in the first place.
I had to undergo several significant changes of mind (and heart) before I could even think of becoming Catholic. I’d like to highlight three pillars as foundational to my being convinced of the credibility of Catholic claims. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is indicative of the nature of my shift in understanding. As such, it is a good starting point for further investigation. Prior to even reaching these pillars, however, I had to have many misconceptions about Catholicism cleared up.
Perhaps most importantly, I became convinced that our Lord established a visible church as well as an invisible church, one which He commanded to remain in unity (John 17:21); that He made Peter and the apostles the earthly overseers of this Church (Matthew 16:18–19; Acts 15:7), starting a line of succession that remains intact in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Coptic traditions.
Leaning on the first pillar, I became convinced that the Holy Spirit guided and preserved the deposit of faith, from the early councils to today, by working through this visible Church which has been passed on and preserved in written as well as oral tradition (i.e., by Sacred Scripture and Holy Tradition). When Christ established the Church, led by the Apostles, He gave it authority to teach, interpret, and preserve the faith, by God’s grace and through the Holy Spirit’s divine protection (not of their own power, to be sure): the determination of the New Testament canon and the ecumenical creeds are prime examples of this protection in action.
I became convinced that the Catholic Church has always been the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” in a visible sense, and that it contains the fullness of Truth to this day. (Note that this does not suggest exclusive access.)
Much to my surprise, I had discovered — or should I say “realized”? — that the pillars outlined above, along with the related points they illuminate, were supported by Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition alike.
In my final throes of Protestantism, when seeking the best defenses against Catholicism that I could find, I dove into the work of the early Reformers. I was shocked to find that John Calvin and Martin Luther both believed in the perpetual virginity of our Blessed Mother Mary. As someone who grew up as a Calvinist, this gave me pause: for such teaching is almost altogether absent from their Protestant descendants. The more I studied the early Reformers, the more I realized that they clung to many beliefs we now call distinctly (or at least predominantly) Catholic and/or Eastern Orthodox in essence –– from the perpetual virginity to the scope of conciliar authority to the emphasis on the Eucharist. I don’t think either of the two great Reformers would look kindly on the modern state of their respective traditions.
On the other side of the world was something equally perplexing to consider: Orthodox Christians. In contrast to our Protestant friends, the Orthodox had maintained a surprisingly similar, dare I say Catholic, expression of Christianity, both in terms of theology and practice. The parallel existence of the Eastern Churches proved to be additional support for the Catholic claims I was investigating, particularly with respect to the sacraments and apostolic succession. Setting aside disagreements about the pope, to my Protestant mind, the similarities between Catholic and Orthodox in terms of what it actually means to live as a Christian far outweighed any nuanced theological arguments that remained. I had grown up believing that many of the standard-issue Catholic beliefs were papal innovations, not apostolic Tradition. To find out that the Orthodox held the Blessed Virgin in comparable esteem was particularly persuasive to me when determining whether or not it was, in fact, part of the deposit of faith.
The more I dug, the more I wondered how the Catholic Church, with all its blatant shortcomings and abject failures, could remain intact for 2,000+ years… if it weren’t being preserved by God’s hand. What was the essential characteristic that distinguished it? Authority. Not the human kind, but divine authority.
My journey had come full circle. The initial difficulty, that of authority, now became a most necessary thing for unity and for the kind of longevity required for the Church that stands until the end of time.