As an adventurer at heart, I suppose it makes sense that, of all places, I found rest in Central Asia. It was in Kazakhstan that I faced a critical question in my Christian walk: “What were the origins of my faith?” Upon exploring the extraordinary tapestry of Christendom for myself, I chose to bring my Protestant faith home to Rome.
Though a schoolteacher by profession, my deepest dream since childhood was to see the world. Canadian by birth, by age 27, I had travelled through over 30 countries on five continents and learned five languages. I had also experienced various places of worship, such as Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant churches; a Jewish synagogue; Sikh gurdwaras; Sunni Muslim mosques; a Zoroastrian gujarati; and Hindu and Buddhist temples. Religious discussions with people I met gave me a global perspective on spirituality in general and Christianity in particular.
Yet perhaps because I had already “accepted Jesus into my heart” back when I was in university, God’s call to become Catholic surprised me. It began with a quest for truth. A candid review of history had convinced me that there had to be something much grander than my individual faith.
When I was a child, my family belonged to the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW). We thought that ours was the only true Christian faith and that we alone would be saved. Baptists, Anglicans, whoever, were all phonies. Catholics were especially bad — they followed “tradition.” Later, we became “just Christian” after judging the JW organization’s credentials for ourselves.
We didn’t want to get bogged down in “tradition” and just wanted a “simple faith.” At university, where I studied politics and history, I desired to maintain my spiritual independence. Occasionally, I visited an evangelical non-denominational church.
When I moved to England for work in 2011, I had the pleasure of visiting many cathedrals and ancient places of worship throughout Europe. I felt humbled by the history of these places, and the experience opened my eyes to Christians worshipping God differently from what I was used to.
Nevertheless, after returning to Canada, I joined the church of my undergraduate days. Though I don’t doubt my convictions at the time, in hindsight I recognize the immaturity of my decision. In my mind, it was either Jehovah’s Witnesses or non-denominational “just Christianity” — nothing else registered. I really had no idea what Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox Christianity was.
Entering graduate school in Toronto, I discovered that two of my roommates were Christians, and they really impressed me with their knowledge; one of them was even a PhD student in theology. So I hit the books to catch up and discovered names like Martin Luther, John Calvin, C.S. Lewis, and Ravi Zacharias as well as terms like free will vs. predestination, original sin, and sola Scriptura (Latin for “Scripture alone”). This was my first baby step towards appreciating the meaning of “Protestantism.” Was I, then, a Protestant? I thought of myself as “just Christian.” So what, exactly, was a Protestant?
At the time, I thought quoting Scripture like a boss was the sign of a real Christian. So I ditched the milk and went for the solid food. But a keen reading of the Bible uncovered another can of worms: How did Scripture provide all the answers if there were thousands of different readings of it by thousands of different denominations? In hindsight, St. Augustine’s reputed words would have clarified things: “If you believe what you like in the gospels and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.” But I didn’t want to believe myself; I wanted truth.
The critical question hadn’t struck me yet, but others continued to assail me. What happened to the 1500 years of Christians who had lived and died for their faith before the Protestant Reformation ever occurred? Why did we sing “I get on my knees” in church whilst standing and waving? How could my JW relatives believe all others were damned even after they had “accepted Jesus into their hearts” and been baptized? In reaction, I stopped going to church altogether. I would just study my Bible at home and become a super Christian.
Whoever heard of a Protestant who didn’t know what he was protesting? My understanding of the history of Christianity went as follows: Jesus > Paul > 16th century rediscovery of Jesus. And my understanding of the Reformation went no deeper: The Catholic Church had obviously been a corrupt sham, and departing from it was obviously the right thing to do. Ironically, I had to travel east to dig deeper.
Kazakhstan and a Different Christianity
I knew I was in for the adventure of a lifetime in 2014 when I packed my bags for Kazakhstan and my first teaching position. Part of that adventure was seeing Christianity from a radically different perspective. Surprised by the sight of Protestant churches in my Central Asian town, I made a point of attending. I noticed their faith was practiced more devoutly than back home and often celebrated differently — even within the same denomination.
An expatriate friend of mine was once rebuked at church for wearing expensive clothing. I’d seen church members arguing because one man had waved his hands too high during a song (considered ungodly). Some churches required their women to cover their heads and wear long skirts. And we also washed each other’s feet at Easter. None of these things were in evidence back home. I pass no judgment on either these churches or the ones in Canada, but the cultural differences made me reconsider the question of unity.
It might come as a surprise that there are Christian churches at all in Kazakhstan. Yet the officially secular country is a melting pot of faiths, and according to the Kazakh government, about a quarter of its population identifies as Christian. It further states that Catholic monks had visited its steppes as early as 1245, over half a millennium before the Russian Orthodox Church arrived — and even longer before the Protestants. These facts made the broader chronological timeline of Catholic and Protestant traditions more tangible for me.
Another insight I encountered in Central Asia fascinated me even more: churches that are neither Catholic nor Orthodox are widely considered sectarian. I noted that Eastern Christianity, unlike its western counterpart, had never experienced a schismatic reformation. Furthermore, their liturgy was much closer to that of the Catholic Church than to anything Protestant. There are a dozen or so ethnic Orthodox Churches, while Western Christianity had splintered into thousands of denominations. What had happened to the unity to which Jesus had called us?
There was a Catholic church in my town in rural Kazakhstan, and in all my travels I had never been to one; my intolerance ran deep. When a couple of friends invited me there, I was surprised that I felt more comfortable there than I had ever felt in any Protestant church. It was peaceful and awesome, and I felt no pressure to posture my faith as I had in Protestant services. I felt a more direct connection with God.
While the sacred atmosphere drew me back, I continued attending simply for a place to worship, as well as to practice the Russian language. As a bonus surprise, the multiple Bible readings at every Mass challenged my notion that Catholics were anti-Bible.
But my pride kept me from admitting I was becoming Catholic. “No way,” I told my Christian friends. “I’m ‘just Christian.’” Besides, any consideration of Catholicism would recall my friend’s words back in Toronto: “Just because a church is beautiful, doesn’t mean it’s right.” That was my stand.
Nevertheless, the middle-aged Italian priest amazed me. Father Lucca exhibited all the qualities I’d assumed were missing in Catholic leaders: warmth, charisma, and a love of Jesus. Seeing him at an annual ecumenical gathering of Christians in my town changed my perception of Catholic leaders. Father Lucca’s enthusiastic preaching and singing — the kind I was used to back home — confused even the other pastors.
Everyone loved what he stood for, but that didn’t stop me from confronting him with my Protestant principles and anti-Catholic concerns. His patience and faith humbled me. Not once did he push; he simply answered my questions.
In January of 2017, I felt drawn to a study of Christian history. I needed to get to the bottom of why I believed what I believed. The arbitrariness of creeds and practices in the various Christian churches I’d seen was too much to overlook.
One prominent 19th century convert from Protestantism noticed that: “The Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth it is this, and Protestantism has ever felt it so; to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” When I began my study, I had never heard of Blessed John Henry Newman. But sure enough, history would make complete sense of my faith. It was as easy as A, B, C.
A) The 16th Century Reformation
My first step was to find out what it was I was protesting. I started with Martin Luther and his famed 95 Theses of 1517. It was a series of statements protesting the way in which indulgences were being sold (a practice that was contrary to Church doctrine), while repeatedly affirming Luther’s Papal allegiance.
I discovered that his 1522 German translation of the Bible had spearheaded a new form of Christianity, one in which the Bible replaced the Church as the pillar of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). The canon of Luther’s Bible, which later became today’s Protestant canon, had been altered from its original form. The original canon had been confirmed at multiple ecumenical councils for over a millennium, but this man saw fit to alter it, removing seven books from the Old Testament, as well as wanting to subtract Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation from the New Testament.
This brought up the issue of how the original canon of the Bible was formed. Why were some epistles and Gospels included, and others not, when it was promulgated by the Catholic Church in the 4th century? I also didn’t understand why Protestants believed in the Bible if it had been put together by a sinful institution. Then again, why was the doctrine of the Trinity, formally adopted by the Catholic Church around the same time, accepted by mainstream Protestantism?
Further, how had Christians practiced their faith prior to the printing press, widespread literacy, and material wealth? I cringed at the idea that a theological axiom like sola Scriptura was dependent on mere social development. This also put the use of images in churches into historical perspective.
Moreover, Luther wasn’t the angelic savior of Christianity I’d always believed him to be. He was unprecedentedly boorish, had counseled polygamy, and advocated the slaughtering of Jews in On the Jews and their Lies. On the other hand, Luther believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, venerating Mary, and purgatory — all things I’d assumed would be self-evidently false from the perspective of the Reformation’s initial protagonist.
Reformation history fascinated me, and I continued my research. I discovered that John Calvin, founder of the Reformed Church, overthrew 1500 years of Christian thought by writing the Institutes of the Christian Tradition. He believed that salvation, as well as all biblical interpretation, belonged solely within his own church; heresy was punishable by death.
One such “heretic” Calvin punished was Michael Servetus who was burned alive in 1553 for scripturally denying Calvin’s teachings on infant baptism and the doctrine of the Trinity.
But I acknowledge that horrors were committed by both sides during the religious turbulence of 16th century Europe. My point here is that these discoveries flew in the face of my previous understanding of the Reformers as the saviors of Christianity.
By the 16th century, the Church was in serious moral decay. But modern history has proved that moral scandals are a fact of humanity, not endemic to one church or another. The fact that Israel had rebelled repeatedly in the Old Testament doesn’t negate their chosen status. In a similar way, the fact that the Catholic Church includes sinners of every sort doesn’t refute its historical foundation by Jesus upon Peter and the rest of His Apostles and the veracity of its doctrine. Considering this, it became increasingly clear that the Reformation was a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
In fact, all the great Reformers — Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin — disagreed on the direction of the Reformation, and on truth itself. They accused each other of being unchristian.
Then I began to perceive that the Reformation’s religious goals were inextricably linked with the political objectives of various Eropean states. Crumbling feudalism and nascent nationalism capitalized on Luther’s rebellion in Germany and Calvin’s in Switzerland as those states struggled to rid themselves of Papal authority. Other countries exhibited even more unconventional methods of theological rebellion.
Papal rejection of King Henry VIII’s appeal for an annulment in 1524 inspired the English monarch to eventually pass the Act of Supremacy of 1534, establishing himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. The absence of direct religious grounds is evidenced by Pope Leo X conferring upon Henry the title of “Defender of the Faith” in 1521 for denouncing Martin Luther as a heretic.
B) The Church Fathers
As a professing Christian, I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of the Fathers of the Church. They were men who guided and defended the Christian faith during the early years of its existence. Those taught by Jesus’ apostles themselves are called Apostolic Fathers.
The very first use of the term “Catholic” in a letter (circa ad 107) by St. Ignatius of Antioch astonished me: “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
When I read their words on devotion to Mary, the sacraments, Eucharistic Presence, purgatory, Peter’s primacy, apostolic succession, ecclesial hierarchy, and the nature of salvation, I saw a Christianity that looked vastly different from the Protestant variant I was used to. Who was I to contradict these early Fathers on the nature of Christianity?
One such Father, St. Irenaeus, wrote in Against Heresies (circa ad 180) that it “behooves us to learn the truth, from those who possess that succession of the Church which is from the apostles” and:
When we refer them [heretics] to that tradition which originates from the apostles, which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they ob- ject to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth …. It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor tradition.
This is but a snippet of the Church Fathers’ writings. I would encourage all Christians serious about their faith to explore them on their own.
Historically, the Christian religion was both founded and passed on for over a thousand years by two types of tradition: written and oral. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the concept of writing alone, or sola Scriptura, was seriously suggested. This put the Reformation into further perspective.
The Church Fathers confirmed the authority of ecclesial tradition over a period of hundreds of years. Even in the earliest centuries, oral tradition was what formed the faith.
Sola Scriptura started looking even less attractive when I realized that the canon of the Bible wasn’t established until the late 4th century. Surely, of all Christians, the earliest should have been allowed to practice their own faith. And if uncanonized scriptures had existed prior to that era, how would Christian truth have been protected from various letters and manuscripts in different places?
C) The Holy Bible
Upon reading the Bible again, it felt like a different book. St. Paul, the author of most of the New Testament and the first “born again” Christian, started to look a whole lot more Catholic.
I noticed that sola Scriptura is itself never mentioned in the Bible. I had also overlooked the parts about guidance by both written and oral traditions (2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6; 1 Timothy 3:15; Luke 10:16; 3 John 13-14; Romans 10:17) and idolizing the Bible itself (John 5:39-40, 46-47; 2 Peter 3:16; Matthew 18:17; Acts 8:31). Those thousands of different biblical interpretations were starting to look very unbiblical.
I’d always taken Reformation notions of universal priesthood and sola Scriptura for granted. Surely everyone was self-evidently qualified to interpret Scripture — or be his own pope. Then I reread about Christ’s founding a living Church upon Peter (Matthew 16:17-19), who is mentioned 155 times in the New Testament compared to a total of 130 for all the other Apostles combined, and his succession (John 14:25-26, 20:23; Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; Mark 6:7, 12-13; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Matthew 19:11-12). That Jesus spoke some things to all His disciples, but others to His Apostles alone, was nothing short of a revelation to me.
It was dawning on me that there were no better pastors to preach from the Bible than the priests of the Catholic Church, for they are most directly connected to Jesus through apostolic succession. Jesus even breathed on His Apostles before conferring on them the power to forgive sins (John 20:21-23; 2 Corinthians 2:10, 5:18). It started clicking that the Holy Spirit works through the Body Christ Himself had established — the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church (John 10:16; Ephesians 4:4; Romans 16:17).
It also surprised me that the phrases “accept Jesus into your heart” and “personal Lord and Savior” appear nowhere in the Bible, being manifestly Baptist traditions. On the contrary, the Bible is quite explicit about how one becomes born again: “of water and the Spirit” (John 3:3-6). The idea of sacraments was starting to make sense, too.
The sacredness and obligation of the holy Eucharist (John 6:51- 65; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 11:23-29) was perhaps my biggest oversight. I later learned that, rather than long sermons or singing, pre-Reformation Christians regarded the Eucharist (the Body and Blood of Christ) as the central aspect of their faith. It had always been believed to possess the Real Presence of Christ, even by the major Reformers — all except Zwingli, who insisted it was a mere symbol, and who was the only Reformer to state that the Eucharist should be shared infrequently.
At the time of the Reformation, degenerate Catholic practice had made this sacrament an annual celebration, and this was a significant point of protest for the Reformers. All except Zwingli urged it to be administered at least weekly. Yet in an ironic twist of history, it is the Catholic Church which today shares the Body and Blood of Christ daily whilst the heirs of the Reformation seem to have lost their leaders’ — not to mention Jesus’ — instruction.
Morally, I was comforted by the knowledge that faith and works were two sides of the same coin (Romans 2:5-10; John 5:28-29; Mat- thew 25:26-46). It had never sat well with me that a person could “believe in Jesus,” then do every immoral thing under the sun and still be saved. Moreover, it seemed like all our time together at church was spent in Bible study and talking about faith — not putting faith into action.
It turned out the only time the words sola and fide (faith alone) ever occur together in the Bible, the idea of faith alone is summarily rejected (James 2:24). I felt at ease with the Catholic Church’s emphasis of working out our salvation (Philippians 2:12), calling Christians to share in practice the love we’d been shown and not just thinking about it. The Catholic view of faith, works, and grace is much more holistic.
If my former Christian faith had felt like the Mississippi River, the Catholic Church was feeling like the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t “just another denomination,” but rather holy and unique. The Church began to look like an old-growth tree, seeded by Jesus Himself, with the boughs being Protestant and the twigs being more recent denominational rifts.
Born into a faith far from the Catholic trunk, I had always won- dered how much more certain my non-denominationalism’s understanding of the Bible was than that of the group of my childhood, which was so sure of its biblical interpretations. In fact, the 19th century boom of alternative churches in America, to which the Jehovah’s Witnesses belong, is a prime example of the danger of sola Scriptura.
The absence of extra-biblical guidance was simply too non-scriptural, ahistorical, and illogical to accept any longer. Mainstream Protestanism questions the very Christianity of the United Church of God, Christian Science, the Church of Latter Day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to name just a few. Yet these groups (except Mormons) base their creeds on sola Scriptura and private interpretation arguments.
It became clear that Reformed disdain for tradition was yet another man-made tradition. So I called a spade a spade and admitted that my non-denominationalism was just another denomination. Besides, pre-denominationalism seemed much more attractive. In the end, I acknowledged that non-denominationalism, along with every other Protestant creed, differed only in detail, not in kind, from the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith of my childhood since they rely on sola Scriptura as the basis of their faiths.
During my holidays off work, I would stop by Catholic churches — in San Francisco, Almaty, Bangkok, and Paris. This impressed upon me the value of liturgy, not only for its aesthetic beauty, but in maintaining solidarity. I didn’t need to fret about finding a church whose preacher I approved. I knew exactly what to expect anytime, anywhere. Instead of listening to a lengthy sermon, I could attend Mass, hear Scripture and a homily, and witness the miracle of the Holy Eucharist.
I felt more humbled and challenged by these homilies to share Jesus’ love than I’d ever felt as a Protestant. The fact that the Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental provider of health care and education worldwide forced the question: Who was I to talk the talk while the Church was busy walking the walk?
Intensely studying my own faith humbled me enough to agree with Chesterton that “a Catholic is a person who has plucked up courage to face the incredible and inconceivable idea that something else may be wiser than he is” (The Well and the Shallows).
Moral teaching was another point that attracted me to the Catholic Church. According to Chesterton, “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. We want a religion that is right where we are wrong. We do not want, as the newspapers say, a church that will move with the world. We want a church that will move the world” (The Catholic Church and Conversion). Most denominations have compromised their morals to a fickle world, but the Catholic Church has stood like a rock against popular culture and political correctness.
Along my way home, I came across the testimonies of hundreds of former Protestant pastors who had become Catholic. They showed me that taking the Christian Faith seriously isn’t synonymous with anti-Catholicism.
Their stories secured me in my historical discoveries and helped me come in communion with fellow Catholic Christians. Somewhat ironically, I feel more “just Christian” than ever — which makes sense, considering that it is outside the Universal Church where personality cults such as Lutheran, Arminian, or Calvinist exist.
I was baptized in Kazakhstan on Ash Wednesday of 2017 and became more optimistic and secure about my Christian faith. Even though the corporal means of practicing the Catholic Faith — such as following the liturgical calendar, kneeling at Mass, or walking the Stations of the Cross are not critical to a relationship with God, they have made my faith more tangible and human.
I also feel a real sense of communion with other believers — all practicing Catholics share the same Creed and partake of the same Body and Blood of Christ. The depth and breadth of the Church provides the objective and meaningful connection with God that I had sought.
I could have remained Protestant and been a good person, but that wasn’t the point. My Christian journey was guided by a search for the truth and the fullness of Christ. I realized that if I was going to be Protestant, I must know why I am not Catholic. After my studies, I decided to put my trust in the Church founded by Jesus Himself. In the words of a letter by J.R.R. Tolkien:
I myself am convinced by the Petrine claims, nor look- ing around the world does there seem to be much doubt which (if Christianity is true) is the True Church, the temple of the Spirit dying but living, corrupt but holy, self-reforming and rearising. But for me that Church of which the Pope is the acknowledged head on earth has as chief claim that it is the one that has (and still does) ever defended the Blessed Sacrament, and given it most honor, and put it (as Christ plainly intended) in the prime place. “Feed my sheep” was His last charge to St. Peter, and since His words are always first to be understood literally, I sup- pose them to refer primarily to the Bread of Life.
October 31, 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the symbolic start of the Reformation, and so I pray for the same unity for which Jesus once prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. Amen.