There’s a saying that goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” My own life has proved just how true that is. I was an evangelical Protestant, educated at Dallas Theological Seminary, but my search for truth led me to enter the Catholic Church in 2011. My journey from a strong anti-Catholic to a Catholic convert is what this tale is about… with some wonderful twists and turns along the way.
My Early Years
I was born in 1954 in Junction City, Kansas. My family went to church weekly, and I grew up with church being a regular part of my life. The church that I attended, along with most of my friends, was associated with the Stone-Campbell Restorationist Movement.
My church was blessed to have godly men as leaders, especially the youth leaders. I don’t recall any legalism. This was the era, in the late 60s and early 70s, of the Jesus Movement, and we youngsters found it to our liking. Faith was a natural part of my life. I was interested in growing in my faith and, on occasion, would speak up about it in high school. I recall a class in which the ethnicity of Jesus came up for discussion. A number of students offered their ideas on what Jesus might have looked like. I spoke up, noting that Jesus, being a Jew living in Israel, would likely have had dark skin and dark hair. I insisted that Jesus definitely didn’t look like the many paintings that depicted Him as if He were from Norway instead of Israel. The class agreed.
While I had been raised in a local church, and the Christian faith had always been a significant part of my life, it wasn’t until I began dating a long-time friend named Jeannie that I got serious about my faith. In the spring of 1973, I made a commitment to Christ that would stay with me. Jeannie’s foster father was the pastor of our church, and he and his wife were instrumental in my commitment. Jeannie and I were also married that year, and I began to attend Bible college full-time.
In my early years as an adult Christian, my wife and I became involved in the charismatic movement. Along with friends, we attended a number of local charismatic meetings and Bible studies. Yet, after a couple of years, I noticed a decided lack of growth and depth to these meetings. My hunger for learning was deepening. Before long, we left the charismatic movement.
Within a few years, I moved from the church in which I grew up to a Baptist church. I was then interviewing local pastors for a college assignment. One such interview involved a pastor who had graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary. His expositional sermons, followed by his friendship, were the reasons we left our earlier church. His influence also moved me to consider seminary.
Therefore, after graduating from Bible college, we moved to Texas so I could attend Dallas Theological Seminary. My time at Dallas was incredible, and I earned a Master of Theology degree there in 1983. Dallas molded me into a strong evangelical Protestant, complete with an equally strong, anti-Catholic side. While Catholicism did not come up for discussion very often, I knew it was wrong, and I certainly didn’t believe that Catholics were “saved.” Little did I suspect what God had in mind for me!
After seminary, I returned to my home church, and my world was blown to bits. I had intended to take a few classes at Kansas State University to beef up my counseling skills, as well as look for a church to pastor. I was asked to serve as an elder at my local North American Baptist church, but I got embroiled in a difficult church situation that I should have avoided. However, wanting to help, I dove in. Young and naïve, I made some comments that I should not have made and soon found myself being blamed for a long list of things.
This incident sent me spiraling into several years of depression. It put a strain on my marriage, and I was not able to find a church to pastor. Indeed, I was convinced that I was not cut out to be a pastor.
My discouragement went so far that I began to question my faith and was on my way to becoming a skeptic. I sold my theological library and returned to college to get a degree in English to become a high school teacher.
A couple of years later, I was still angry and resentful and saw God as a kind of Cosmic Jokester who took delight in pulling the rug out from under me. Being an English major, I began to absorb the writings of skeptics like Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and James Joyce. My attitude developed into a dangerous combination of disillusionment and anger, fueled by those skeptics whose works I devoured.
I believe that, in such times as these, God continues watching over us even though we don’t realize it until sometime later. Looking back on those years, I can see God was moving the mixed-up pieces of my life into position like a giant puzzle. He would eventually lead me on an entirely different path concerning my faith, but I just couldn’t see it at the time.
Enter C.S. Lewis
Things reached a climax when I took a course that required me to read aloud a passage from a work of literature. For reasons I will never fully understand, I selected one of the few Christian books on my shelves: A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. Reading this book hit me right in the heart. For the first time in years, here was someone whose pain and heartache spoke to me in a way that I could understand. I was slowly pulled back from the brink of skepticism.
Not long after that incident, I began what would be a 13-year stint preaching at a couple of small churches. For about two years, I preached at a small, conservative Congregational church. Then I preached at a small, non-denominational church for 11 years. This enabled me to use my gifts and continue to heal from the hurt I incurred as an elder at my earlier Baptist church.
During these years, I was also a schoolteacher and, later, a full-time librarian. These were years of continued learning, and it was enjoyable to serve in a way that left me feeling comfortable. But, of course, we all know that God doesn’t set us up for comfort – at least, not for very long.
Another Encounter with Lewis
Around the late 1990s, something began to gnaw at me. It was a restlessness, a sense that there was something missing in my Christian life, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Like many other times in my life, a book appeared that would set me off on a journey that I wasn’t looking for. That book was The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll. This book was, for me, like throwing a match into a box of tinder. Noll seemed to be addressing all my concerns at once, and a desire for more of this thinking settled upon me.
Soon, the circumstances of my life began to move in a providential fashion. I went to work at a university as a humanities librarian. One of my duties was to become involved in research and presentations. In this environment, I stumbled across the C.S. Lewis Foundation. They offered conferences with academic paper sessions. So C.S. Lewis re-entered my life in a strong way.
I began to read a great deal of Lewis, and as I read, he ignited my imagination. While he wasn’t officially a Catholic, he was very “Catholic” in many other ways. Through reading him, I came into contact with other authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald. If that were not enough, in 2001 a movie called The Fellowship of the Ring came out. I had friends who had been urging me to read The Lord of the Rings for years, but I had turned a deaf ear to them. Instead, I went and saw the film. When it was over, I sat in the theatre with my mouth open, completely blown away. I was hooked.
A thousand things were running through my mind, and I was trying to figure out what God was saying to me. However, Catholicism was not on my list of possibilities. Actually, that would have been the last thing I would have considered. I had always been a die-hard anti-Catholic. But now, I was going to have to re-think all that.
A Visit to England
In 2002 a dream came true for me. I had wanted to visit England for as long as I could remember. I submitted a paper idea to the C.S. Lewis Foundation for their triennial conference in Oxford and Cambridge, England. To my delight, my paper was accepted for their academic paper section.
England was everything I had imagined and more. I toured Magdalen College, where C.S. Lewis had taught, and his home, The Kilns. The week in Cambridge was highlighted by a visit to Ely Cathedral. Naturally, for a kid from Kansas, this was my first visit to a medieval cathedral. I was in utter awe of it. As I listened to the choir sing, it hit me that Christians had been coming to this site for centuries and that the Christian faith was much more ancient than I had ever allowed myself to consider. Why hadn’t I thought of these things before? Why had I been so narrow in my outlook?As I listened to the choir sing, it hit me that Christians had been coming to this site for centuries and that the Christian faith was much more ancient than I had ever allowed myself to consider. Click To Tweet
While in Cambridge, I attended a Church of England service. When I went forward to receive Communion, a couple things happened. First, I knelt to receive, something I had never done before in my Protestant churches. As the priest came to me, I put out my hands like everyone else was doing. When he got to me, I looked up at him. He looked me in the eyes, held up the host, said, “This is the Body of Christ,” and placed it in my hand. Out of the depths of my impoverished soul, I burst into tears – not just my eyes tearing up, but actual sobs emerged from me. Moments later, the chalice minister stood in front of me and said, “This is the Blood of Christ.” Once again the tears flowed. I was completely undone!
Now, I was still nine years away from becoming a Catholic, but then and there I became a believer in the Real Presence of Christ. The chase was on.I was still nine years away from becoming a Catholic, but then and there I became a believer in the Real Presence of Christ. The chase was on. Click To Tweet
Plunging into a Great Sea of Books
Upon my return from the conference, I left the evangelical Protestant world that I had known and became an Anglican. My wife did not meet this move with much enthusiasm. She had carried her own grief from the previous church hurts we had endured; however, she was not attracted to a liturgical church. Still, she was supportive of my decision to become an Anglican.
I managed to find a conservative Episcopal parish and thought I had found what I was looking for. I figured that, if Anglicanism was good enough for Lewis, it was good enough for me. But there were problems. First of all, the Episcopal Church was in the midst of a great doctrinal battle. The parish I attended was solid, but for how long?
The other problem was my reading. I came to see that my anti-Catholic feelings were not based on Catholic writers. I hadn’t read any, and eventually, I realized that I was being intellectually dishonest in rejecting something I knew nothing about.My anti-Catholic feelings were not based on Catholic writers. I hadn’t read any, and eventually, I realized that I was being intellectually dishonest in rejecting something I knew nothing about. Click To Tweet
I began to watch EWTN and dip into some Catholic writers, and I found them to be quite good. Soon, I reached the point where I realized that I would have to lower my defenses regarding Catholicism. When I did, who do you think was standing on the other side of the wall I had constructed? G.K. Chesterton! I began to read Chesterton and found his mirth and sharpness of mind irresistible. He made complete sense, gently nudging me ahead. I began reading other Catholic writers, like Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and George Weigel.
My progress was one step forward and three steps back. It began to dawn on me that Catholicism was making perfect sense, and it scared me to death! There was no way I could become Catholic. Somehow, I could sense Chesterton having a good laugh at my expense.
An Unexpected Friendship
There are times in our lives when God moves in a way that we could never have imagined. It is often a life-changing experience. In 2006, deciding on a new path, I moved from the state university to a Christian liberal arts college. I had an idea for an academic paper for a 2008 C.S. Lewis Foundation conference. I wanted to write about Lewis’s spiritual mentoring in his letters. I had read through two volumes of the collected letters of C.S. Lewis that had been edited by Walter Hooper, Lewis’s secretary in the summer of 1963. Walter had labored for many years to bring Lewis’s unpublished works into print. This editing was a huge labor of love. I anxiously awaited the arrival of volume three of that opus, and finally, it arrived. I was amazed at the size of that final volume, well over 1,000 pages. The letters were annotated with brief biographies of the writers and even included some commentary on the background of many letters. In my admiration of this awesome tome, I decided to write a letter of thanks to Mr. Hooper.
Using my librarian skills, I managed to find his home address. I wrote him, basically, a fan letter, thanking him for the immense work he had done. I never expected a reply from him. Why would he waste his time replying to some unknown guy in Kansas? To my surprise, several weeks later, a letter from Walter appeared in my mailbox. It was a two-page, single-spaced missive thanking me for my letter and telling me some interesting facts about the project.
What caught my eye would change my life forever. You see, Walter had sent along his e-mail address. Was this an invitation to write to him? I took it that way… and thus began a correspondence that would continue until his passing in December of 2020.
In the summer of 2008, I returned to Oxford, and Walter invited me to his home for tea. We had discussed my spiritual journey in our correspondence. But when I arrived at his home, within a few minutes, he asked me how my journey to the Catholic Church was going. Walter himself had become a Catholic in 1988. No one had asked me this question as of yet, and it took me by surprise. Before I could really think it through, I found myself saying, “I think it’s more a question of when and not if.” That was all Walter needed.
Our visit quickly moved into a mentorship that continued through our regular correspondence. Walter became a steady hand in guiding my thinking and gently pushing me towards the path I needed to follow. He also put me in contact with his parish priest, who would answer my questions and give me perspectives that otherwise would not have occurred to me. Walter coming into my life in this way was completely unexpected. On his part, it was overwhelmingly gracious and loving.
The next two years were a blur. One by one, my objections to Catholicism began to fall, and I got ever closer to entering the Church. In the process, I had to let go of many biases. I had my list of things that I was sure the Catholic Church heretically taught (worship of Mary, justification by works, etc.), but just when I thought I had caught the Church in its errors, I realized that I was the one in error. The Church didn’t teach the things I thought she did. Instead, a sacramental approach to life, transubstantiation, veneration of the saints, and the Blessed Mother all made sense. The more I studied Church history and the Church Fathers, the more all the pieces came together. The more Catholic writers I read, the more I wanted to read. It was as if I had discovered a huge hole in my soul, and Catholicism was filling it and enchanting me in unimaginable ways. Along the way, Walter’s steady encouragement and friendship were just what I needed, moving me ever closer. But there was one chapter left to go. I had read tons of books, but still I hesitated. What was the problem? Why couldn’t I take that last step?just when I thought I had caught the Church in its errors, I realized that I was the one in error Click To Tweet
Part of the problem was a growing realization that, if I became a Catholic, there would be consequences. I had friends and family who would not react favorably. Moreover, I wasn’t sure how my employer, a Protestant Christian college, would react. Again, just at the right time, an English Catholic came to my rescue… in the person of (now Saint) John Henry Newman. I had read some of Newman, but now I came across An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I dove into this book, and it drove the final nail into my Protestant coffin. In just the introduction, Newman blew away the last vestiges of my Protestant world. This quote hit me like a sledgehammer: “And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this” (Newman 1989, 7). Then, a little further along, there was this gem: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant” (Newman 1989, 8).
Newman helped me to recognize a major blind spot in my life. Having been trained in an evangelical seminary and having been an evangelical Protestant, I had always seen myself as the final arbitrator of what was true. While I had rejected the Catholic pope, I now realized I had been my own pope my whole life. Newman helped me to see that I could not make the move to become a Catholic until I surrendered myself to the Church and her teachings.While I had rejected the Catholic pope, I now realized I had been my own pope my whole life. Click To Tweet
At long last, the chase was over. In the fall of 2010, my friend, Baptist youth pastor Vaughn Kohler, and I began private instruction. We were received into the Catholic Church at the 2011 Easter Vigil. I took Newman as my patron saint. At one point, I asked Walter if I could be received into the Church in Oxford because I wanted him to be my sponsor.
Wisely, Walter told me I needed to “bloom where I was planted,” even though he would have loved nothing better than to have filled that role. In the summer of 2011, I returned to Oxford and received the Eucharist with Walter in his parish. It was the next best thing.
Unfortunately, my life took a sharp, difficult turn a year later, perpetrating a painful divorce. I maintain that my becoming a Catholic helped to prepare me for what was ahead. The Church’s support and care meant the world to me as all that I had learned about offering up our pain became a personal reality.
Looking back, I marvel that I was able to make such a long journey and overcome my strong anti-Catholic feelings. I marvel even more that my love of C.S. Lewis could have led me to a friend of his, someone who would help mentor me home. Only God can arrange such incredible circumstances. Thank you, Lord, and thank you, Walter.I marvel even more that my love of C.S. Lewis could have led me to a friend of his, someone who would help mentor me home. Click To Tweet
Dear Mr. Hooper… From, the Pepper King!
In 2006 Ron Ratliff wrote a fan letter to C.S. Lewis’s secretary, Walter Hooper. What transpired was an unexpected reply from Hooper (who lived in England), and the two struck up a much- treasured, providential friendship through their regular email correspondence over the course of 14 years. Ron even became acquainted with Walter’s cat, Blessed Lucy, and Walter affectionately referred to Ron as “The Pepper King” – in gratitude for the gift of 2 ground-pepper shakers that Ron sent Walter every month. Walter grew to become Ron’s mentor, offering Ron sage and witty advice, as well as uplifting, yet firm, encouragement as Ron made his difficult journey into the Catholic Church. While their friendship, sadly, ended with Hooper’s death in 2020, Ron saved the majority of their emails. Below are some never-before-seen excerpts from their personal correspondence.
December 15, 2009 | Dear Ron,
I’ve just refilled my McCormick pepper shaker… and I decided that before I dare shake a flake of pepper onto anything, I must thank you for what seems your supernatural kindness…. I know it must be very complicated for you to convert to the Catholic Church when so many things weigh on you. But you have not only my prayers — but the far greater prayers of the SAINTS. They will make it possible for you. And never are the Saints more active than at Christmas. So — watch out! — you may become a Catholic sooner than you expect.
Happy Christmas, Walter
January 28, 2010 | Hi Walter,
I know your prayers have been working on me. I spent most of last week pondering why, after all the years of thinking and months of preparing, I would back out [of RCIA] at the last minute. I tried to think through what had caused me to hiccup at the last minute…. I think I know what was bothering me, and I want to see what you think. Coming into the Catholic Church will be one of the great events of my life. I know it’s going to change things in my life, and I will, in many ways, be a different person (in all the right ways)…. Lewis and my trips to England have figured largely in this. Getting to know you has also been such an important step, as you’ve been like a mentor to me. I want my being received into the Church to be special. Honestly, I don’t feel that… it is going to be special…. So, here goes. What I would like, more than anything, is to be received into the Church in Oxford and you to be my Godfather…. I can’t think of anything more wonderful than becoming a Catholic in the city that gave us [Saint John Henry] Newman and many others.
My best to Blessed Lucy and to you, as always, Ron
January 28, 2010 (later that day) | Dear Ron,
You’ve been much on my mind, and I’ve thought long about your attempt to become Catholic. This evening I told Fr. Daniel about the difference between what you are offered – the boring RCIA program in your parish – and what you’d like – to be received in Oxford. As for the RCIA program… I expect Fr. Daniel calls it ‘Roman Catholics in Agony.’ Anyway, if you must go through with it, his advice is to ‘offer it up.’ I’d [also] been coming to the conclusion that it’s good to begin by showing some of that humility [that] the great G.K. Chesterton showed when he was preparing to be received – he chose to begin with the Penny Catechism…. You’d like to begin, as you say, in Newman’s Oxford, with me as your Godfather… but… I don’t think you’ll like hearing this, but I think it is good to begin lowly. Remember Chesterton saying, ‘We are taller when we bow.’ The people you would be sharing the RCIA program with… would be – wherever you are received – your fellow Catholics, the ones you will spend a great deal of your life with. Have you read Newman’s novel, Loss and Gain? One of my favorite passages in literature is… when Charles, the young convert, goes to a Catholic Mass for the first time and finds himself with the Universal Church – people from every walk of life, high and low, rich and poor. And he rejoices in finding it that way…. Now here comes the DESSERT. When you come through [RCIA] with humility – you emerge as a Catholic entitled to the enormous privileges that come with it…. What an enormous amount of ‘real estate’ [one] inherits when [one] becomes Catholic. You may receive the Body of Christ in no end of wonderful Catholic Churches throughout the world…. You might receive the Sacrament from the Pope himself. Surely it is worth being like Chesterton, and even greater Catholics, who chose to ‘become taller when they bow[ed].’ So… simply become a Catholic. Then you can have all the beauty and pomp you like. But not before. God bless you.
August 26, 2010 | Hi Walter,
A lot has been happening…. I am looking forward to the RCIA classes and will go through them gladly. Fr. Z. … thought it would be more beneficial to me and my friend Vaughn to receive private instruction… because the church has never had theologically-trained Protestants apply for RCIA. The church sees this as an opportunity for a give and take with us that they’ve never had. Vaughn and I are in dire need of the training… as we are trained as Protestants but need to learn to think like Catholics, which we don’t always do…. Vaughn and I are chomping at the bit to get started…. I certainly never expected this, but it is the will of the leadership, and I’m fine with it…. After almost a decade, I am finally heading Home….
August 29, 2010 | Dear Ron,
Splendid! I’m thrilled to hear you’ll receive private instructions…. Remember Our Lord saying that His followers would be mocked? Get used to it. I believe it can be turned into a blessing — for if they mocked, and eventually crucified, Christ — why should we expect to fare any better? But remember, you will be one of an immensely large family…. You will make a marvelous Catholic because you will find that, instead of trying to save the Church, this Church will save you! …. I’ve been a Catholic for 22 years, and I cannot think of it without rejoicing. The same will happen to you. You will have finally come HOME, and the anxieties of recent years will simply drop away. However your friends react to Catholicism – you can take it. Remember that in many cases [their objections are]… mainly a matter of sheer ignorance. Don’t take it too seriously. Do what you have to do. If one waited until all one’s friends were happy about your becoming a Catholic, you’d never do anything…. Remember, too — becoming a Catholic is to you an informed decision, made over years of praying and learning. Your objectors have probably not spent 5 minutes considering their objections…. Please let me know when you’ll be received so that your friends in Oxford can be praying for you.
September 28, 2010 | Hi Walter,
Tonight is the third session of my class, and it’s going very well. Vaughn and I are really enjoying our sessions. Our teacher has a deep love of the Catholic Church and keeps us on our toes firing questions at us. In response, Vaughn and I ask a lot of questions. We are going bit by bit through the Mass after being shown how and why the Church is set up as it is…. I see now how much my free-church Protestant years kept me in the dark. Yes, I’ve been asking myself what took me so long to do this!!
God bless, Ron
October 2, 2010 | Dear Ron,
… I’m thrilled your instructions are going so well…. You will be forever glad you crossed the Tiber when you did… because you will be entering what [Saint] John Henry Newman called ‘the one true fold of the Redeemer.’
All good wishes from, Walter & Blessed Lucy of Narnia
January 1, 2011 | Hi Walter,
…. I am curious to know if Lewis and Chesterton ever met?…. I have thought what a great meeting that would have been!
God bless, Ron
January 9, 2011 | Dear Ron,
No, Lewis and Chesterton never met. I think it had entirely to do with Chesterton’s immense fame. Lewis… did not like to bother people he imagined to be very, very busy…. It’s a pity that [they] didn’t meet, but by this time it might have been almost impossible for Chesterton to make any new friends. This happens…. Lewis… enjoyed all friendships, old and new… [but] he was in some ways a shy man, and he was certainly too shy to introduce himself to Chesterton…. Did I say how thrilled I was [that] your wife is becoming a Catholic? This way, both of you can be entirely honest about how much Catholicism counts in your lives. It’s a sad thing to lie about the Most Important Thing in Your Life to the one You Love the Most. I’m so glad you and your wife are not setting up ‘conditions’ with the Almighty, but accepting the wonderful Catholic Church which Jesus gave us at the beginning of His ministry….
Yours ever, Walter
April 25, 2011 (Right after the Easter Vigil) | Dear Ron, Congratulations! And I really do mean it, for you and Jeannie have done your souls a power of good. I’m sorry Jeannie’s foster father is unhappy, but as you’re rich, and he’s poor, you can afford to be affable and generous. If your Catholic life is anything like mine, you’ve started on what may be called, in the words of Richard Halliburton, ‘The Royal Road to Romance.’ In other words, Catholicism is not only the most exciting thing on earth — but TRUE!