I was baptized Catholic as an infant. My family, however, did not practice the Catholic Faith. Instead, I came to know Jesus through the Nazarene Church, which formed my early faith. I helped lead worship and sang for God from the time I was thirteen.
Yet those Nazarenes were conservative and fundamentalist. Secular music, certain aspects of science, and anything other than a literal interpretation of the Bible were considered dangerous. My parents also separated and divorced during my early teen years, prompting me to cling more tightly to faith in Jesus. But it also left me less connected to my church home.
A high school friend attended a youth group at an Assembly of God church, and I visited an event there with volleyball and other games one night in 2002. I was surprised at how many people, both youths and adults, were attending. Continuing with the youth group, I began to attend Sunday services there.
This congregation was much larger than the Nazarenes, with full bands for both youth group and Sunday service. People spoke in tongues. Fortunately, no one pushed me into speaking in tongues, and my faith continued as before. I even joined the youth group worship team.
College and Questions
When I moved on to college, I entered a difficult period in my Christian walk.
Where before things were black and white, all of a sudden I was in a world where most people had different conceptions of truth, many doubting that it even existed. What was taught in class often didn’t fit into my previous conservative Evangelical worldview.
The liberal stance of this ELCA Lutheran college was my first exposure to the diversity of Protestant Christianity. I encountered doctrinal differences I didn’t know existed. Finding a Christian community I was comfortable with was difficult, so I tried to maintain my faith through personal study, seldom joining in community worship. It was a lonely time.
That particular college was a poor fit, so I returned to my hometown, took a break from school, worked multiple part-time jobs, and along the way met a young man, JP, who later became my husband. Meanwhile, I was losing my moorings in Christianity. I still had faith, but my practice of it gave way to “more important things” in life.
JP and Catholicism Enter the Picture
I really liked JP, except for one thing: he was Catholic. Thankfully, my mom didn’t seem to think JP’s Catholicism was anything to worry about. Besides, he was much too handsome to pass up. His “incorrect denominational choice” could be fixed later. I was sure that once the errors of Catholicism were explained to him, it would all work out.
To be fair, my understanding of the errors of Catholicism was mostly based on misconceptions. As I was growing up, I had absorbed a number of anti-Catholic attitudes and arguments, all one-sided, of course. The Protestant–Catholic debate remained our most frequent point of contention throughout our dating, engagement, and early marriage.
I attended part of an RCIA (instruction) class during our engagement but, following my predisposition, dropped out.
We did have a Catholic wedding — ceremony only, no Communion — on May 26, 2007 at Old St. Joe’s Church at St. Norbert College. It was a good compromise, since by then I had no home church, and our relationship had developed around the St. Norbert campus.
We had no inkling how difficult it would be for us to remain divided in our faith. Our first two years together, we wrangled over church issues, often going to two Sunday services, first to Catholic Mass, then to a non-denominational church.
How Can We Do It?
I prayed a lot for unity in that time. We knew that we wanted children, but how were those children going to understand that we both worshiped the same God if we went to separate churches each Sunday?
I began researching other denominations, trying to find some middle ground. When I came upon the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, I thought it might work. I shared the Lutheran theology with JP and drew him a tree of the early Church, suggesting that maybe truth had followed the Lutherans at the time of the Reformation. LCMS seemed to have a lot of the “good” stuff of Catholicism but none of the things I took issue with. We tried a nearby congregation and there encountered some lovely people. Maybe my prayers for unity had been answered.
We were finally able to attend one church together. We also sang and played together on the contemporary worship team at the Lutheran church.
Some of JP’s family took the news of his becoming Protestant kind of hard. His uncles talked to him at a family gathering and overwhelmed us with their concern that he was now living in heresy. Honestly, JP had no idea what he was leaving.
In 2012, after relocating twice, we found ourselves, with one child, in a town in southeastern Wisconsin where there were no young, vibrant LCMS churches. We found it easiest to find a different Protestant church to attend together. We settled on the First Christian Church, where we encountered some amazing and servant-hearted people, with whom we are still friends. But at the same time, I entered into the darkest period of my faith life.
JP and I had been backsliding in our faith. We weren’t reading the Bible; we weren’t praying much. Church had become something we did on Sundays. I was still leading worship, but I wasn’t sure I believed what I was singing. I wondered if this whole Christianity thing was a fairy tale. We were going to church but living as practical agnostics.
We moved yet again, this time to buy our first home in Racine, Wisconsin. Here we had our second child. Traveling distance to our former congregation became an issue, so we switched to a different church, closer to our new home. This one was Baptist. Since leading worship was part of who I was at the time, I inquired about being on the worship team. I auditioned, and everything looked good. We just needed to go through the membership class.
Things Start To Change
The Statement of Faith at this church was only two pages long. It was relatively easy to assent to, and the membership class was very basic. However, there was one point brought up, in which the teacher drew the classic “two cliffs illustration,” where the chasm between them separated God and man. Ultimately, the cross of Jesus fills that gap. (Interestingly, I later found out that this illustration had Catholic origins!) My husband then asked what happens for those who enter a relationship with God but later choose to reject Him. The teacher replied that, once you cross over, you can’t go back. If you have authentically believed, it is irreversible.
This didn’t sit well with us. “Once saved, always saved” just didn’t make sense with our life experience. Both JP and I had genuinely known Jesus from an early age, yet here we were, in our young adulthood, not living our faith. I knew the Bible well and I was familiar with the verse about faith without works (James 2:17). This teacher at our membership class was suggesting that, if we walked away, our original belief in Christ was illusory. JP and I were dissatisfied with the shallowness. How could we base our lives on such a faith?
We later discovered that this Baptist congregation had strong Calvinist leanings. Thoroughgoing Calvinists have a particular belief about predestination, election, and security of salvation, and they tend to be heavily anti-Catholic. These points would come back later to impact the events surrounding my conversion and JP’s return to the Catholic Church.
Faced with these facts, we decided to get serious about our faith. Did we actually believe Christianity was the truth? If it wasn’t, we wanted to stop pretending. But if it was, we needed to take our faith life much more seriously.
We could not sustain this practical agnosticism, this “Christian in Name Only, Church as a social club” lifestyle any longer. We had two children who would be depending on us to anchor them in some worldview that they could count on.
JP and I dug into theology, each in our own way. Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God was very helpful to me, as was C.S. Lewis to both of us. And at the end of our searching, we came to believe in Christ more fully as adults, passionate about doing whatever it took to follow Him.
The events that followed helped to create the scenario that led me, as a surprise even to myself, to look into the claims and beliefs of the Catholic Church and, ultimately, to become Catholic.
Now that we knew we were Christians, we sought to live in service to others. Reducing our selfishness would allow us to help our fellow man, Christian or not. We weren’t being super holy in this or thinking we needed to earn our salvation through our own power. We just wanted to be genuinely obedient to the commands of Jesus to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
The small group that we had joined at our church responded with discouragement when we shared the changes in our lives. We thought we were discerning what Jesus would have us do, but they insisted that we couldn’t do everything, that the purpose of the local church was to take care of each other and that feeding the hungry pagans wasn’t a bad thing to do, but it was not required.
It seemed so clear to JP and me that Jesus was calling His followers to care for the most vulnerable in the world, regardless of their faith. Yes, we as Christian brothers and sisters should take care of each other in times of need, but that does not mean that we are given permission to neglect others. The dissonance was growing between the reality we understood deep in our core and what we were being taught at this church.
Also, as I spent more time on the worship team, I was becoming discouraged with what I felt to be a heavy emphasis on the production value of the worship set each week. We had a stage with fancy equipment, and sometimes worship services were recorded and put on YouTube. People would talk about how you “rocked” a song if you did well. I’m not against making worship beautiful and removing worldly distractions. But the culture of the team and the emphasis placed on secular values made me wonder: Shouldn’t there be a certain reverence to what we were doing, singing, and playing music each week?
These thoughts began to redefine the whole concept of the church services we attended. It felt more and more like we were in a “church” where reverence was neglected and “niceness” was paramount.
Looking back, I know many in the congregation itself at the time would have described its whole culture as unhealthy. There had been difficult transitions, factions, and splits over the years that had left deep scars. I now view it as an example of what happens when you have no central authority that you assent to. If you don’t like something, you leave, or start a new church or, if you’re in a position of authority, you change things to your liking. Now that I am Catholic, I can see how, under such a system, each person becomes his own pope.
In all of this frustration, and in trying to find somewhere to land that would allow me to embrace the depths of my faith, I again started researching different denominations. I asked our small group what the early Church would have looked like because maybe the problem was the Americanized version of Christianity. No one had an answer, and no one thought it was a worthwhile question!
One night, I sat on the couch and acknowledged that, amazingly, I was at a place where I felt I needed to take another look at the Catholic Church. I had been to enough Masses and talked enough with JP’s Catholic relatives to know that they had a stronger connection with the early Church than I did. I simply wanted truth, no matter where it came from.
So I determined to re-examine all that I had previously disagreed with and give Catholicism a fair chance for the first time in my life.
JP and I were on a date, one snowy December evening in 2015, when I asked him if he would be interested in attending Mass that Sunday.
He was thrilled! Unknown to me, JP had been reading some Catholic theologians during his commute to work on the train each day. He told me he had been feeling drawn back to the Catholic Church and had been praying for unity in our marriage.
Taking on the Issues
Thus began the final, intense part of my conversion story. Every single bulwark that I previously had built up against Catholicism came crashing down. I tackled things systematically, one issue at a time, leaving my biggest concern for last.
My background was strictly Bible alone, but as I studied and learned, I came to the conclusion that we Protestants were setting ourselves up as the authority for interpretation of Scripture. If the Holy Spirit were really guiding everyone in correct individual interpretation, we would not have thousands of denominations and even more factions within those denominations!
I knew truth is not ambiguous. God has a specific meaning for all He has inspired to be written in Scripture. He has to be loving enough not to leave us with just a book, with no trustworthy means to know what He meant. It didn’t make sense that individual interpretation was the intended system.
Another big issue for me was purgatory. I thought it was a strange belief and imagined that Catholics believed souls just waited around for a while before God deemed them “good enough” for heaven. Besides, how could purgatory be supported by Scripture?
Protestants can easily understand that God sanctifies, or makes holy, those who follow Him in Christ. I also understood that we are sinless when we come into heaven, by virtue of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice and resurrection. But the intricacy of how that process works was vague to me as a Protestant. At the Baptist church we were attending, the belief was that Jesus’ death and resurrection cover over our sins like a sheet. God looks at us and sees a clean sheet. But underneath, we are still totally depraved. The Catholic view, in contrast, is that Jesus’ death and resurrection make it possible for us to actually become clean and holy in God’s eyes, no sheet required. This led me to think about the fact that, at the moment of our death, we are not all equally sanctified. Some people need more purification than others.
1 Corinthians 3:15 speaks of people who will be saved, but as though “through fire.” It’s difficult to let go of sin. Whenever we turn away from sin and choose God’s way, we experience a certain amount of pain. Ultimately, I came to understand purgatory as the process by which God allows our sanctification to be completed, so that we can enter heaven.
Praying to saints was another difficulty for me. I was taught that we should pray only to God. This is one of those instances when Catholics and Protestants use the same words but attach different meanings to them. When Catholics speak of praying to saints, it means we are asking for their intercession, or for them to pray for us on our behalf. Revelation 8:4 talks about the prayers of the saints in heaven. Since they are in heaven, they have no need to pray for themselves. Catholics conclude that they are spending their efforts in prayer for those of us on earth. Through the Communion of Saints that crosses the spiritual and physical worlds, we can ask for their prayers just as I could ask my husband to pray for me.
Priests and Papacy
I also learned more about the words Jesus spoke in establishing a priesthood at the Last Supper and establishing the role of Pope to guide His Church once He ascended. The Pope was always something that had confused me. I didn’t understand how “on this rock I will build my church” made Peter a Pope (Matthew 16:18). But finding ourselves on a road trip at the beginning of my conversion journey, JP and I listened to an audio recording of Scott Hahn discussing the legitimacy of the papacy. The way he described Christ’s words in the original language made a very strong argument that the “rock” Jesus is referring to is Peter.
Another thing I didn’t understand was how the papacy was an inheritable office. Just one verse later, in Matthew 16:19, Jesus tells Peter that He will give Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. For all my years of reading that passage, I had no idea of its meaning. Now, I discovered that the “keys” symbol refers to a passage in the Old Testament, where the person who held the keys was second in command to the King (Isaiah 22). The keyholder had royal authority; he acted on the King’s behalf while the King was away. The Old Testament also makes it clear that the “Office of the Keys” is an inheritable office. I then learned about the unbroken lineage of the Popes from Peter, which made sense, given that Jesus intended the Pope to be an inheritable position and that the Pope was meant to act on Christ’s behalf until He comes again.
In all of this, I was learning about the early Church. The early Church writings overwhelmingly support the office of the Pope.
At this point, I had no choice but to conclude that the early Church was entirely Catholic!
And just like that, issue after issue, I kept assenting to the Catholic position. But now I had to approach my biggest concern: the Catholic views on Mary. As a Protestant, we just didn’t think about Mary that often. Statues of Mary were okay to take out during the Christmas season within the context of a Nativity scene, but that was pretty much it.
A Different View of Mary
One thing that helped change my understanding of Mary came through a better understanding of Judaism. Jesus was Jewish, and what He did and said would have had significance for the Jewish people of His time. But 2,000 years later, our evolved culture has lost much of that understanding.
I had never been exposed to the concept of the Queen Mother and its significance in Judaism — until I started exploring the Catholic Church. In Judaism, the mother of the King was highly honored. King Solomon’s mother in 1 Kings is seated at Solomon’s right hand, and he even bows to her! Jesus is known as the King of the Jews. Understanding the idea of Mary as the Queen Mother made a lot more sense to me when I looked at it through a Jewish lens. She would therefore be honored greatly (compare Luke 1:48b). Revelation 12:12 also speaks of Mary. There, she is described as being in heaven and wearing a crown — further supporting the idea that she is highly honored. Again, the Queen Mother had the ear of the King, and the King would take her requests and input seriously. That’s why Catholics are so keen to ask for Mary’s intercession. When the Queen Mother speaks, the King listens respectfully.
To be completely honest, by this time, I had found the Catholic Church’s position on every single issue to be more thorough and logically consistent within Scripture and within the whole system of belief, and I ended up feeling that I had no need to look into the issue of Mary with much scrutiny. I basically acknowledged that if I hadn’t stumped the Catholic Church on anything thus far, Mary probably wasn’t going to be any different. If the Church said Mary was ever-virgin, I was ready to believe it.
Discovering the Eucharist
We began attending RCIA classes shortly after attending that Mass of family unity together. The classes helped me to work through my issues and answer my remaining questions.
During this period, I began to feel drawn toward the Eucharist. The Catholic understanding of the Eucharist wasn’t that difficult for me to accept. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod believes that Christ is truly present in holy communion, even though they do not believe His presence remains in the elements. Their belief comes much closer to the Catholic belief in the Real Presence than many other Protestant denominations. Having spent some time as a Lutheran, I had already reached the conclusion that, if God wanted to put His Presence in the elements, He was more than able to do so. This, then, helped me embrace a full Catholic understanding of the Eucharist.
Our RCIA class was held on the same night of the week that our parish holds Eucharistic Adoration. I would walk past the sanctuary and look through into the Adoration Chapel. Through the help of the Holy Spirit, I realized that something important was going on in there, and I knew that I wanted to participate. It was definitely a supernatural desire, something I cannot account for on my own. After caring nothing about transubstantiation, here I was longing for Jesus in the Eucharist. This yearning has continued and grown since my conversion.
Sharing the News
The time came for us to let those in our Protestant church know what we were doing. We hadn’t spoken much about it because initially we weren’t sure where we were going to end up. But we also were concerned with how people might respond. We didn’t want other people’s arguments and pressure to impact our honest study. I knew the arguments; I was the arguments. Nothing any Protestant could say was going to surprise me. I wanted to be able to focus, without interference, on seeking the truth.
Sadly, the transition from our Protestant church to the Catholic Church was painful. We lost some friends, and other friendships became strained. We were not allowed to say goodbye to those in our Christian life group; we were told “it would be best” for us not to return. We went from being connected and well-liked to being a dangerous concern. As beautiful as entering the Catholic Church was, it came at a cost. I remember talking to a Baptist pastor in our home, who had come to express his concern that if we were losing this much, and if it was this hard to become Catholic, and I was doing it anyway, this spoke strongly of my conviction. He confided in us that they had never before had anyone leave their church to become Catholic, that they would have much less problem with someone leaving for another Protestant church. Finally, in the view of those who held tightly to Calvinistic views, if we were becoming Catholic, then we were never genuinely Christian in the first place.
And still we pressed on. I was set to be confirmed at the Cathedral of St. Paul, in Minnesota, on Easter Vigil, 2016. I received permission to be confirmed there so all of JP’s relatives who had shared their Catholic faith with me over the years, who had prayed for my conversion, could celebrate with me as I became fully united to the Church Jesus Himself established 2,000 years ago. You can’t get more connected to the early Church than that!
Standing in that beautiful cathedral, during the amazing Easter Vigil service, having just been anointed with oil by the archbishop and facing the congregation, tears in my eyes, I just knew that I was finally home.
One Year Later
March 26, 2017 marked my one-year anniversary in the Catholic Church. Our lives have truly changed for the better over the past year. JP and I learned about the Theology of the Body, which is an extensive work by St. John Paul II, addressing the meaning and purpose of our human bodies. It is a holistic and completely Christian view of sexuality, an icon of our purpose as image-bearers of God. The Theology of the Body taught my husband and me about living our lives as a gift to each other and to those we encounter, and our marriage has become much stronger. Thanks to the teachings of the Church and the Theology of the Body, we reopened ourselves to new life, and I gave birth to our daughter, Mary Charlotte, the day after Christmas 2016.
We now have all these beautiful tools to help us live out our faith: Confession, the Eucharist, Adoration, the Rosary, weekly and daily Mass, and more. We have such a solid set of truths to teach our children and live out in our own lives. We are encouraged to think and dig deep, but discovering ultimate truth is not something that rests only on our shoulders. We have the confidence of correct biblical interpretation and teaching in the Catechism, Tradition, and the Magisterium.
In the short time we have been Catholic, the Church has given us so much that we feel blessed to give back and also to share with others. We have started sharing our own faith story and journey on our blog, This Catholic Family, and we hope to be able to assist in teaching RCIA. I have had the honor of cantoring at several Masses. We want to augment the young adult ministry by starting a small group in our home. Ministering in various ways, knowing that we are part of a Church that values social justice, and serving the most vulnerable and marginalized in society — this is our passion. My mom and stepdad are on their own conversion journey. They plan to be confirmed at Easter Vigil, 2018.
And finally, thanks be to God for the Catholic Church and for His Spirit gently yet persistently, leading me home!