Someone once pointed out to me that when one commits one’s life to the Lord this journey seems to become “convoluted.” I would tend to agree. My journey back to the Catholic Church is one full of joy and pain, saints and sinners, angels and demons, and finally, a search for Jesus Christ and how to best serve Him. God’s Chosen People wandered in the wilderness and took 40 years to get to the “Promised Land,” a journey that could have taken 40 days if there were no hindrances. Looking back I would also have to say that my “convoluted” journey has increased my faith and hope that the Lord, indeed, is in control.
Falling away from Catholicism
First of all, I was brought up in an “Irish-Catholic” home (oddly enough, my wife was brought up in an “Italian-Catholic” home). There were five children, and I was the youngest. In the 1950s, I can still remember traveling around the neighborhood with my mother on Monday nights saying the rosary for the conversion of Russia. At that time my father was Protestant, but later became a Catholic during my early teens. My earliest memories include my parents leading us to pray on our knees as we started each day. I can remember “shooting baskets” in the neighborhood with friends. For some reason, the discussion turned to what each of us wanted to be when, “we grew up.” I said to everyone: “I want to be a priest.”
After completing nine years in a Catholic grammar school, I went off to the local public high school in my hometown of Newark, New York. Over the next four years, my faith went through the normal changes that this period of individuation seems to bring. Unfortunately, I came through this period with an extreme distance from God that I had produced by my own thinking and actions. I went to college at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. There I chose a lifestyle that did not include the Faith that I had so cherished as a child. I was a part of the “60s Revolution” that rejected God, Church, and most of the traditional institutions that are a part of our national fabric. During this period of time, I found myself with a growing ache in my inner life, unsure of who I was and what constituted spiritual reality. I tried to fill that void to which St. Augustine so often referred in The Confessions. I found myself dealing with that emptiness through a lifestyle that totally rejected the Lord, whom I so loved in my early years. I was like Adam and Eve as they hid from God in the Garden, not wanting to face Him or their own sin and separation.
The Lord’s saving hand
At this point I was not only lost but also recoiling from my Lord and King. I was fully serving the Dark Side, taken in by a culture of drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll — even attending Woodstock in the summer of 1969. I was living above a pizza parlor in the downtown district of this college town. I roomed with a guy from Long Island who shared the dark lifestyle that I had chosen. One night several of us were fraternizing on the street with other students. My roommate, Harold, came up to me and announced that his mother–who had never met me–had a dream that I was about to encounter personal destruction. When he shared that, a shutter coursed through my soul. Unknown to me, there was a battle being waged for my destiny and I was on the brink. A week later I took a psychedelic drug. During the experience, I became physically traumatized. My heart beat was erratic and I could neither stand up nor sit down. I knew I was in trouble and felt like I was losing it physically. To myself, I cried out to the Lord and told Him I would change if He would help me. The Lord heard me and I immediately began to recover from whatever was happening to me physically. Several days later, I heard that there were bad drugs on the street. They had been laced with strychnine and two people had died from taking them. I soon forgot the incident and did not change as I had promised.
In January of 1971, some “Jesus Freaks” (as they were referred to then) came to our campus from Ohio State. Along with them was an acquaintance of mine that had “found the Lord” and was giving a witness. One evening they came to the house I was living in with four others and shared with all of us about the Lord Jesus. As they shared, the Lord of my childhood came upon me. I knew He was calling me back. After the team of young evangelists left, I went upstairs and got on my knees. I called on the Lord Jesus and asked Him to forgive me. I could feel His presence clean me inside, and “something” tore out of me. As it left, it wreaked with darkness and stench. I felt like I could fly. Jesus had come and set me free. He had brought me “full circle” and I experienced a great deliverance and renewal. I was ready to serve God with abandon!
Immediately, I began to share the Gospel with any and all that I could. I went to my English class on Monday after my amazing weekend. Harriet, a close friend, said: “Peter, what happened to you? You look so healthy!” I was giving my testimony everywhere. Everyone I knew could see that something was very different with me. It even showed in my outward appearance.
The beginnings of ministry
Over time, a group of young college students emerged who had similar encounters with Christ and a Bible study community began to form. I was seen as one of two leaders who would organize and lead this growing group of young Christians. Rather than attending an established church, we met at the chapel on campus and in dorm rooms and apartments. The fires of revival grew on the campus and young college students were turning to Jesus Christ as I had.
Our group continued to grow and transformed from a student organization to a college Christian community. There was a Protestant minister affiliated with the Congregational Church denomination (Plain Congregation) who began to offer guidance to our leadership team and through our relationship with him, our community became an affiliate with the Congregational Churches.
On the Feast of Pentecost, 1971, I found myself in a Pentecostal gathering in Columbus, Ohio. It was quite a meeting. The minister preached on the topic, “Have you had your personal Pentecost?” At the end of the gathering, one of the elders of the community invited anyone who wanted more of the Holy Spirit in their life to stay after for prayer. I, of course, volunteered. I wanted all of God; everything He offered. I went up and was prayed for. This marked the beginning of my involvement with the Charismatic Movement. This would become the second (the first being the Jesus Movement) of many movements that I would find myself involved with in my journey back to the Catholic Church. During this period, I, along with the other young people on campus, were relentless in sharing Christ everywhere we went. The results were dramatic. We saw non-Christian kids giving their life to Jesus, almost daily. As we met on campus, at Prout Chapel, there was standing room only at our gathering.
In the spring of 1973, I met Leslie Brooks, who became my wife one year later. She had grown up in an “Italian-Catholic” home with five children. She too had a deep renewal/encounter with the Lord in college while attending one of our campus meetings.
In 1974, I joined what became known as the Shepherding Movement. Interestingly enough, this was a very ecumenical group of leaders. The group included Catholic Charismatic leaders from Ann Arbor and South Bend. This period of focus and fellowship culminated in the summer of 1977 when 55,000 charismatics filled Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, and Non-denominational fellowships from all over the country gathered to lift up Jesus Christ. It was a deeply moving period. At this time, I saw the Catholic stream as one of many. I was glad they were a part of what I was a part of, yet there was still nothing in me that desired to return to the Catholic Church.
I was a young pastor, with a young wife and a young congregation. My wife was finishing her undergraduate program at Bowling Green and became pregnant a short time before she was to graduate. Our first child was born in December, 1975–7 weeks premature. She lived two days and then passed into God’s arms. We were blessed that there was a Catholic doctor in the ambulance who providentially baptized her on the spot. Since then, God has blessed us with four healthy children, whom we raised to know and serve Him.
Rediscovering the Church of my youth
In 1977, we moved to San Jose, California where I pastored a new community that emphasized Christian community, relationships, and accountability. Here we spent the next 13 years in pastoral ministry. We developed deep friendships, experienced joy and pain in family life (a tubal pregnancy and two miscarriages), and three more healthy children joined our son, James, who was born before our move. Also during this period of time, an important event in history took place: Pope John Paul II was chosen to lead the Catholic Church. From the beginning, I was attracted to the personality, teaching, and charisma of the new Pontiff. I found myself listening to his words and feeling a unique connection to him. I can remember exactly where I was when I heard the announcement that he had been shot and gravely wounded.
Coincidently, around this time, I began to read the writings of the apostolic Fathers. These writings were those of the “disciples” of the Apostles. I became intrigued with their focus on topics like bishops, presbyters, deacons, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Day, and unity. There seemed to be a thread linking the ancient Faith to the present that I had been missing out on! It was like a new enzyme had been released into my system that catalyzed both a new quest for the ancient Church and a realization that I was not a part of it.
In the late 1980s, a decade where I traveled to Africa regularly to train Protestant pastors, two things happened that began to open my heart to my Catholic roots. First, my elderly dad came to live with us in San Jose. He was a committed Catholic Christian. I took him to Vigil Mass each Saturday. The Mass was attended by many involved with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Every time I attended that Mass, I found my heart lifted up and energized. I began to see a richness in the Mass that seemed to be absent in my own community of which I was the Senior Pastor. Secondly, as I discovered the Church Fathers in my theological readings, I began to realize the historical Church had an “ocean” full of writings that I was not aware of.
In August of 1989, while becoming increasingly attracted to the ancient Christian writings, we made a move from San Jose, California to Toledo, Ohio. I assumed the pastorate of a struggling evangelical community, with hopes of leading it to renewal and stabilization. In this community I began to put in place some of these ancient touchstones that I had studied and observed. We began to acknowledge the Christian calendar by honoring the Lord’s Day, practicing the disciplines within the seasons of Advent and Lent, and having special celebrations on Feast Days. In our worship service, I instituted Scripture readings, responsorials, intercessions, the sign of peace, and weekly communion and, at the end of our services, the exhortation “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” All of this was unheard of within the evangelical denomination, The Christian and Missionary Alliance, which I was now associated with. One of the college-age young men made the comment to me: “this community is becoming more like the Catholic Church every week!” Amazingly, with few exceptions, the community accepted and followed in this new way of worship. During this time I identified again with another movement, the convergent worship folks, led by Robert Webber, who called for the blending of the ancient and modern forms of worship.
From 1995 through 2002, my personal wrestling seemed to only increase. I had a growing sense that I was “playing church” while not really connecting with the ancient Faith. I read Cardinal John Henry Newman and even studied his sermons from Plain and Parochial Sermons to prepare for my own. In the summer of 1993, I highlighted a poignant sentence in Newman’s classic, work the Apologia pro Vita Sua:
“and first, I will say, whatever comes of saying it, for I leave inferences to others, that for years I must have had something of an habitual notion, though it was latent, and had never led me to mistrust my own convictions, that my mind had not found its ultimate rest, and that in some sense or other I was on journey.”
The Lord was at work in me, slow, methodically, yet with persistence. At this time there was some kind of divine “hook” in my jaw. I looked at an opportunity offered me by the Reformed Episcopal Church, a group that separated from the American Episcopal Church in the 1800s. With the offer, I had the chance to move to Virginia and lead five of their churches. I turned the job down for family reasons but now I see that God was certainly keeping me from going in a wrong direction.
Because of the increased frustration with my context, along with pressures within my evangelical community, I decided to resign my evangelical pastorate in Toledo and move to Indianapolis in the summer of 2002. I had been leading Protestant communities for 29 years (since I was 23 years old) and I was ‘burned out,” confused, and seeking something that I was not sure what it would “look like.” Leslie and I had been a part of two denominations, and several major “movements” within Protestantism of the last 29 years: the Jesus Movement, the Charismatic Movement, the Faith Movement, the Shepherding Movement, the Christian School Movement, the Signs and Wonders Movement, the Promise Keeper’s Movement, the Convergence Worship Movement, and the House Church Movement. Our journey is unique. Our destiny is not. Jesus was carefully guiding us to our destination: the Church of the Fathers.
Making a final decision
When moving to Indianapolis, I had the impression that God was moving me not only geographically, but spiritually. I was still connected with and in good standing with my denomination, The Christian and Missionary Alliance. Leslie and I met with our district leaders several times, trying to put together this “new season” to which God had brought me. We considered “church planting” in several different areas of Indianapolis, including the inner city. At the time, I was teaching high school in the inner city at Indianapolis Public Schools. Leslie and I thought that we would move into the inner city in order to reach out to the hurting that I began to encounter in this neglected part of our society. As we looked toward initiating this kind of inner city ministry, my mother-in-law had taken a dramatic turn in her health, and Leslie, along with her siblings, needed to care for her on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. Therefore, we bought a house near her mom so that Leslie could be available to care for her. Coincidently, the house was within a 3-minute walk of a Catholic parish, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Leslie’s sister, herself a committed Catholic Christian, commented, “Maybe you all will end up at St. Elizabeth’s.” We all had a quick laugh, but internally I was saying to myself, “I wonder how much of this is coincidence and how much is Divine Providence?” We attended Mass one Sunday and the celebrant was a Nigerian priest who was an associate at the parish. I previously had made several trips to Nigeria as well as hosted Nigerians in this country for the purpose of training in pastoral leadership. The Nigerian people had become very special to me. The “coincidence” continued to take shape in my thinking and meditations.
Leslie and I power-walked and prayed on a regular basis during this time. In the fall of 2007, we committed ourselves to pray, intensely, for one year, asking God if we should reenter the Catholic Church. Several divine appointments happened during that year that brought me to my final decision.
First of all, Leslie had steadfastly followed me all these years and had been a “faithful” pastor’s wife. She knew the growing frustration I carried and sense of disconnect with our context. Since our move to Indianapolis she had been praying that God would lead us to the field of labor that He had ordained for us. Could the Catholic Church and the New Evangelization represent this field of labor where the harvest was plentiful but the workers were few?
Secondly, our youngest child, Abigail, who was a junior at Marian University, decided to begin the RCIA process at college. The words of Isaiah 11:6 rang in my head: “A child shall lead them.” I looked at her materials every week and encouraged her with our full support and some “spiritual jealousy.” Our entire family attended Easter Vigil that year as Abigail entered the Catholic Church. As a minister, I had baptized her several years before and now, here she was realizing the fullness of that Baptism. This was a powerful witness to Leslie and me.
The third major event in that year of “seeking” was my connection with the Coming Home Network and a phone conversation with a staff member, Jim Anderson, in the summer of 2007. Jim and I knew several of the same people over the years of ministry. During our conversation he told me that Marcus Grodi had also attended Bowling Green State University and had been a member of Plain Congregational Church, the church that had sponsored our campus ministry and had given me spiritual guidance! Further, Jim put my prayer needs in the next month’s newsletter. A three-fold cord cannot easily be broken. These three events were answers to prayer and were catalytic to my final decision.
On my birthday in 2008 I announced to my family at my party that I was going “back” to the Catholic Church. Leslie was in full agreement. God had blessed us with a background and conviction that this was God’s plan for us. He would use the years of experience and ministry, powerfully, as we “came home” to serve the Lord in the Faith of our upbringing. At 60 years old, I believed the Lord was renewing my calling, sharpening my vision, and connecting the “dots” that he had led me through the preceding years, movements and experiences.
We have been “back home” now since the Easter Vigil, 2009. Leslie and I feel as though we are postured to “apprehend that for which we have been apprehended” (Philippians 3:12). We are pressing on “toward the mark” (Phil.3 14). Just as we gave ourselves to serve Jesus Christ over the past 37 years in various Protestant churches and movements, we now excitedly commit our lives in service to the Lord in the Catholic Church: our Mother, His Bride, the Body of Christ.
This is an interesting end to what began as excitement in discovering the Early Church Fathers in the late 1980s. However, it is not an end point to our journey but rather a fork in the road. I take my motto from Church Father St. Augustine in his classic, The Confessions: “All the while, Lord, as I pondered these things you stood by me; I sighed and you heard me; I tossed to and fro and you steered me aright. I wandered down the wide road of the world, but you did not desert me.” (Book VI.8)
Transitioning from being a non-Catholic minster to a Catholic layman has been a huge challenge in the “coming home process.” My identity had been one of preacher and teacher, minister to the sick, conductor of marriages and funerals, and leader of councils. Nearly 30 years of “this is who I am” was now over. It was a crisis that I was not sure how to navigate. I sought the advice of the local parish priest, met with the leader of the diocesan deaconate program, spoke often with my dear wife, and prayed daily. The desire to understand my role as a lay Catholic brought us
to take several steps we believed the Lord led us towards. First of all, I enrolled into the Lay Degree Graduate program at St. Meinrad Seminary, Indiana. I thought this program would be one way to “sort out” my gifts and call in the context of the Catholic Church. I will hopefully complete this four-year program in the spring of 2013. Secondly, Leslie and I decided to get fully involved in our local parish, thinking that this would be the place, on a daily basis, where the Lord could begin to show us how we “fit.” So far this is working well. I have facilitated Bible studies, started a small church community movement within the church, joined the RCIA team, and have been chosen to serve on the Pastoral Council. We are meeting people, developing community, and having opportunities to teach within the Church. This has begun to give me hope that in the future God can use my experience in ministry in the Catholic Church.
Two years ago, Leslie and I sensed that God was calling us, in the long run, to serve the New Evangelization. We began to read, study, and talk to other Catholics who carried this focus as well. It seems that after that commitment was made, everywhere we turned the New Evangelization was before us. I founded a non-profit organization, the John Paul the Great Center for the New Evangelization, which would take the key ingredients that helped people come to Jesus Christ or come back to Him as I did, and successfully enter the Church.
Finally, I am coming to a new understanding of calling, vocation, and mission. The Church teaches us there are three states in this life: Lay, Clergy, and Religious. Each state has a God-shaped purpose that the other states cannot fulfill. Rather, each state stands to serve in its place while also serving the other states. We all carry the same foundational identity as members of the Body of Christ through our Baptism. So rather than looking to fulfill “my ministry,” which was our past focus, we now seek to discover the “work” that God has prepared for us and which lies within the vineyard of the Lord. Slowly, yet surly, Jesus is transforming me into a more complete “minister” as I seek to discharge the “fire of God” that burns within me.