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A Protestant Pastor Stops Protesting

James Whittaker
June 22, 2023 No Comments

My faith journey to the Catholic Church took me through several different denominations and several different states. I was brought up in a Southern Baptist Church in Sophia, West Virginia. My grandfather was one of the founding members of that congregation. The founding members hand built that church by laying the foundational cinder block walls. It was there that I learned Bible verses, attended vacation Bible school and Sunday school. My love of God was formed through this congregation.

Letters to Billy Graham and Watching Bullwinkle

I heard God speaking to me at an early age while at my grandfather’s church, and I wanted to know more. My curiosity concerning all things Christian was hard to satisfy. I wrote to Billy Graham many times in those early years. I came forward one Sunday at that Southern Baptist Church and gave my life to Christ, because I felt God nudging me. In the Methodist tradition of my adult life, we would call that prevenient grace; God was wooing me toward him. I was baptized at 10 years old with a full-immersion baptism.

My most difficult years as a Christian were my adolescent time, between 10 and 16 years of age. My mom and dad had stopped going to church, so my grandparents took me to church on Sundays. But sometimes, I stayed home to watch Bullwinkle instead.

My faith was revived when the young woman who would become my wife asked me to attend youth group with her at her Freewill Baptist Church. At that youth event, I renewed my faith in Christ at age 16. I immediately read the entire Bible and felt called to do something for God, something like become a missionary. My mom wanted me to go to a regular college instead of one of the Bible institutes, so I went to Glenville State. I didn’t want to be part of the Baptist Student Union, even though I was Baptist, since I wanted to have experience of different denominations. My curiosity for learning more about the Christian faith in full swing, I ended up attending the Intervarsity Fellowship. There, at age 18, I ran into many Methodists and even met my first Catholic. He lived in the same dorm as I, and along with the many Methodists, we had daily prayer together. Five of that group of seven would later become Methodist pastors.

A Retreat Borrowed From the Catholic Church

I received my associate degree. Dianna and I got married and moved to Huntington, West Virginia. We started attending an independent Fundamentalist Baptist church, which we liked because of their Bible-focused teaching. I then began attending a local Bible college in South Point, Ohio, called Tri-State Bible College. At that time, we began having children. Going to work in the day and attending school at night became difficult, due to the extra responsibility of children. In 1983, I was laid off and began attending Marshall University for my accounting degree.

Within a few years, we moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where I focused on work. We began attending a Methodist Church in Cary, North Carolina, where we met a lot of former Catholics. In the Methodist Church, we learned about grace and a different way to look at the book of Revelation and spiritual disciplines.

The Walk to Emmaus, a Methodist retreat program, sparked a fire in my faith and took me to a new level in my relationship to God. It was a retreat created by the Catholic Church and borrowed by the United Methodists. The original (Catholic) retreat is known as Cursillo (Spanish for “the short course”). The Emmaus Retreat is a three-day retreat for adults, and I came back changed. Two years later, at a men’s retreat, I felt God calling me to full-time ministry. I resigned my secular position and began serving two small churches in Louisburg while attending Duke Seminary.

This is really where my journey toward the Catholic faith began. In my first semester at Duke, I took a Church history class, where I encountered the early Church and learned that St. Ignatius of Antioch, from the second century, said that the Eucharist is the “medicine of immortality.” My professor, Dr. Warren Smith, introduced us to this saint, saying that he was born in 35 AD and died as a martyr in 108 AD. When I heard my professor quote Ignatius concerning the Eucharist as the medicine of immortality for the soul, I knew the early Church did not believe Communion was merely symbolic.

When Jesus Spoke, They Walked Away

Another of my professors at Duke said that a colleague of his prayed the Rosary, but praying to Mary was a mile too far for my professor. This sparked my curiosity about the Rosary. (Now, as a Catholic, I pray the Rosary every day and have done so for years.)

Yet another professor, David Steinmetz, believed the Catholic Church has the best position on the Eucharist. In the second semester of the Church history class, we were shown four views of Communion. The first was the Catholic view, or Transubstantiation. The second was the Lutheran view, or Consubstantiation. The third was the mainline Protestant view, where God is present, though we do not know exactly how or in what manner; Methodists believe in this spiritual presence. The fourth is more of a Baptist view, in which the elements merely symbolize Christ’s presence and saving work on the cross. For this reason, Baptist celebration of Communion occurs only once a quarter. At this point, Dr. Steinmetz surprised us by saying that Catholics have the best defense for their interpretation because they believe exactly what the Bible says — a literal interpretation. Anyone deviating from a literal interpretation has to explain why the literal interpretation is wrong.

Such an astute observation by a Church History professor would shake any Protestant up a bit. Where would one begin to prove anything less than a literal interpretation of this passage? Could one point to anyone of that era who believed Jesus was not being literal? Were Protestants “walking away” from the teaching because, like those biblical followers who walked away from Jesus, they, too, considered it a “hard saying”?

The professor was referring to John’s Gospel, chapter 6, where Jesus says, “This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.” He goes on to say, “…if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” So much is at stake here that it sounds like a passage a person wouldn’t want to misinterpret. What kind of food is this bread? “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The world has never stopped murmuring, right along with those early followers. But Jesus did not back down; He did not reword with a changed meaning. Instead, He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

We cannot just write off this discourse. A Christian, by definition, should want to heed what Jesus says: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”

The actual verb Jesus used for “eat” means to gnaw. People were so offended that many disciples left Jesus at this time, and he didn’t shout out to them that this was a parable or symbolic. Instead, he looked at his twelve remaining disciples and asked, “Are you leaving me too?” It is heartbreaking! Jesus stands there, and He faces rejection, even though He is God and has come to save them. He is laying out for them how to be made fit for eternity, but they want nothing of it. They want more of last night’s fish and biscuits.

We know from Church history that the early Christians were considered cannibals because they ate the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This is part of the reason why Christianity was considered repulsive to the Romans.

It was difficult for me to process just how underutilized this chapter of the Bible is in the Protestant tradition. I felt the full meaning of this passage had been kept hidden. It is pretty clear here that Jesus meant what he said literally. I was surprised that I did not know the rich tradition of the Church regarding the Eucharist. We had shortchanged the significance of this sacrament in many Protestant churches. It would be some years before I actually yearned for the Eucharist, but I was well on my journey, thanks to this course on the history of the Church.

Startling Revelations

Duke is an academic institution that prides itself on academics, so that I found myself throughout the four years of Divinity School frequently receiving nudges or even being pushed toward the Catholic faith through their rigorous studies. I studied the Pauline epistles and had to write a 40-page paper on a small passage of my choice. I purposely chose a passage where I might get answers through my study to what I considered a difficult passage. In 1 Corinthians 15:29, it says, “What do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead?” I expected to find an answer. I researched in the library, bought commentaries, and talked to my professor. No one could tell me what it meant. At times, I suspected that I had been given incomplete or vague answers because the real answer was a Catholic one. I later discovered that the Catholic answer was that, while it is confusing and not clear, according to the Navarre Study Bible, it probably was an early form of praying for the dead, in view of their eventual resurrection, that was not practiced by the larger Church. This then opened me up to praying for the dead, even by way of the truncated version of the (Protestant) Bible. The Catholic Bible, which retains the books thrown out by Protestants, gives an even fuller picture of interceding for the dead in 2 Maccabees 12:39–45. I was beginning to realize that my own Protestant tradition did not point out things that conflicted with the Protestant understanding of the Bible. In other words, some things were ignored.

One of the most startling moments was yet to come. When I took Advanced Methodist Theology from world-renowned Methodist scholar Geoffery Wainwright, I was told that the basic premise of Methodist theology was Catholic. To be sure, there were some changes made to call it Protestant, but the theology definitely was not the anti-Catholic theology devised by John Calvin. Methodists do not preach “once saved always saved,” even if some in the pews believe that theology. I was dumbfounded and tried to argue against the premise that Methodist theology was basically Catholic. But I finally gave in and accepted that I had come to love Catholic theology.

What You Practice Is What You Believe

When I assimilated these eye-opening moments at seminary with the practice of morning prayer in the Anglican tradition and with the Book of Common Prayer, I was again nudged toward the Catholic faith during these four years. Nevertheless, my journey was not complete. In fact, this was only the beginning. My eyes had been opened to some theological truths of the Catholic faith. But it was the practice of spiritual disciplines that moved me even closer. This part of my journey lasted about six years.

I remembered when my Christian ethics teacher, Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, proclaimed to the class that the Catholic Church “has so much stuff” that helps in living a life devoted to God. I didn’t really know what he meant, but the Methodist Church is very open to different types of spirituality, and who has the most different types? The Catholic Church. So I learned to work up a personal rule of life based on the Benedictine tradition, including how to use my imagination to visualize Scripture by way of Ignatian spirituality. I found the Catholic prayer book, the Divine Office (also known as the Liturgy of the Hours) and discovered lectio divina (“spiritual reading”). Where did I learn these? Mainly from Methodist retreats.

One retreat program, called “Courage to Serve” practiced lectio divina. We would read, pray, meditate, and contemplate. This is a practice made popular by the sixth century monk, St. Benedict. We practiced lectio divina at a retreat, where we worshiped, prayed, and learned together for five days. I found myself praying the Divine Office daily. These practices were moving me closer to becoming Catholic without my even knowing it. I finally realized that I had arrived at a point where I needed to go to a Catholic Mass.

In Search of a Mass

In 2012, I remembered studying the book of Acts in seminary and being told that the Catholic Church was meeting daily and breaking bread just as was described in the book of Acts. I was startled. How could the Catholic Church be doing something so popular in the Bible and earliest Church, something that Protestants were not doing? I decided that I had to attend a daily Mass and see this for myself. I researched and found the closest Catholic Church and went to their 7 AM Mass. I sat in the very back. St. Michael’s parish in Cary, North Carolina is a large church, which permitted me to stay far away from most people. It all felt so natural, the bowing and praying, but I was lost without knowing the words of the laity’s responses. What I did see and personally experience was the beauty of the Mass. I loved the worship and prayers. I found the words to the Mass and would attend occasionally. I ventured out to an occasional service, including the Christmas Eve midnight Mass, when I took my wife with me. I dabbled with the service for about three years, reading books on what was going on in the liturgy. I was busy serving the Lord in pastoral ministry, so my learning about the Catholic faith was more of a hobby. It was my search for a deeper spiritual life that brought me to two things that had a profound effect on me: The Two-Year Academy and the Ecumenical Franciscans.

Looking Deeply, the Truth Surprised Me

Around 2015, God gave me a great desire to grow spiritually. This led me to the Two Year Spiritual Academy in Birmingham, Alabama, put on by Upper Room, an arm of the United Methodist Church. The two-year academy meets for a week once a quarter for two years. You pray, worship, and learn for those five days. You begin your day with prayer, and you end it with prayer. The night was called the Great Silence, when we could not talk to anyone after night worship, which ended around 9 PM, until after the morning worship was over by 8 AM. I loved this learning environment, but I found this was also filled with a lot of progressive ideology that seemed to be against biblical teaching.

I wanted to live more like one would in a monastery, so I researched and found the Ecumenical Franciscans. This is a group open to all denominations that seeks to live as St. Francis of Assisi did. They operate on the principles of obedience, poverty, and chastity. I worked hard and became a novice after six months. We did not live in a monastery, but we did seek to live like St. Francis. Unfortunately, the group seemed to be more of an activist organization, and this made me realize that what I really wanted could only be found in the Catholic Church. Once again, I was startled by the truth. While I was much more open to the Catholic spirituality, I had not anticipated that I would actually be drawn to the Catholic Church.

Crisis of Faith

My faith crisis came just as I was being drawn to the Catholic Church. My call to Christian ministry had been to make a difference in the United Methodist Church. I had made a difference in the two churches I served, but I had hoped to be one of many agents that would stem the tide of secularism flooding the denomination. In August 2015, it became evident that the leaders of the Methodist Church were welcoming practices contrary to Christian teaching for the past 2,000 years. For once, I could see how the Catholic Magisterium and having a Pope was a real advantage. My concern had been “Why a Pope?” Is this necessary? Would it not be simpler to not have a Pope? I was familiar with Matthew 16:18, where Jesus tells Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my Church.” I finally confronted the fact that Jesus had set up the Church this way.

I now realized that I could not change the Methodist Church. In fact, my battle revolved around what I would do if the church moved to approve what I considered to be unbiblical practices. Would I be able to continue to be a pastor? How was I going to be able to make a living? If I weren’t a Methodist pastor, where would I go? This was my crisis of faith. I questioned my call to ministry and even to Christianity. For the first time, I realized I had to become Catholic. The question was when. I had staked my whole life and that of my spouse Dianna on being a Methodist minister.

I scheduled a meeting with Monsignor Doug Reed at St. Michael’s in Cary, and we talked. I told him I was being called to the Catholic Church and asked him to tell me what I needed to know. I also told him I thought it would be years before I could make that move. He asked me to consider seminary. I went home and prayed about it. If I was going to make that move, it needed to be immediate, since my age would be an issue. After discerning, God was allowing me to make the choice, since he could use me either way. I decided I could not tell my wife that I was going back to school for a third time. I knew the timing was not right financially, so I vowed to learn more about the Catholic faith in the meantime. Everything was softening my heart. I was in the midst of reading 39 books for the Two-Year Academy, so my progress was slow. By 2016, both my wife and I were going to Mass here and there, as time allowed.

My Announcement

Several things happened about this time. I began going to the “That Man Is You” program at St. Michaels. I had become convinced that the Catholic faith was correct, but I wanted to meet real Catholics in love with Jesus. What I found was incredible. This was the best men’s program I had ever been privileged to join. By the end of the first year, I was praying the Rosary, and by the end of the second year, I was consecrated to Jesus through Mary — as a Protestant. In 2018, I announced to my wife that I was going to become Catholic. It was not a passing fad. It was something I felt God calling me to do. What I did not realize is that I had been on this journey, but she had not. This is when she informed me that she could not become Catholic.

I told her I would go to the Protestant church with her, but my church was going to be the Catholic Church. I had not accounted for her reaction, but it is understandable. I had been on a journey now for over a decade, and she had no idea that I would ever actually want to become Catholic. It was still several years before I could retire from ministry. I could not enter the Church at the moment for financial reasons. I began praying the Rosary, daily asking Mary to intercede on behalf of my wife, that she would become Catholic with me.

One year later, she did a search on the internet that said, “My crazy husband is going to become Catholic, what can I read for help.” One of the books that came up was Scott Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home. By now, I had a collection of conversion stories and many books on the defense of the Catholic faith, so of course I had the book. Dianna really identified with Kimberly Hahn, and her story deeply touched her. The next thing I knew, she was researching RCIA classes. She checked out nearby St. Michael’s parish. Their program was on a Sunday, meaning she would have to miss Sunday services at my appointed Methodist churches. I was still a pastor, and I now was only two years away from retirement. A pastor’s wife can’t miss a year of Sundays without raising a lot of questions.

She discovered that Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Raleigh had a Tuesday night class, and that was also the night I had free. We signed up for RCIA there in 2019. COVID-19 hit in 2020 and disrupted the RCIA class. We finished in June, but Dianna and I could not enter the Church until I laid down my sacramental authority or until I retired. I retired in June 2021 and entered the Catholic Church on August 15, 2021, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, at Our Lady of Lourdes.

We thank Father Pat Keane and Deacon Bryon Champagne for their help in our journey. Dianna and I continue to go to both Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Michael’s. It has been a great journey. We love the Catholic Church.

James Whittaker

James Whittaker attends Mass at St. Michael’s parish in Cary, North Carolina, while still keeping connections at our Lady of Lourdes parish in Raleigh. He is involved in the Knights of Columbus and That Man Is You (TMIY), a Catholic men’s group. He always looks forward to sponsoring those in RCIA. Married to Dianna, they have two grown children, Laura and Andy, and five grandchildren. They love walks in the park, gardening, and daily Mass.

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