I left and came back.
That simple 5-word phrase describes a set of life decisions, over an 11-year period, resulting in my departure from and return to the Catholic Faith.
I began my journey in 1959 at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church. As with most cradle Catholics, I don’t recall my baptism — the watery genesis of our earthly journey — but I have profound, vivid memories of my Catholic upbringing.
The son of a French-Catholic father and an Irish-Catholic mother, my world was viscerally Catholic. I was raised in New Orleans where Catholic churches dot every corner — our football team is even called the “Saints.”
My earliest memories are of our first family home. It was saturated in Catholic imagery: a picture of the Holy Family, a holy card on the refrigerator, a crucifix appropriately placed to bless the home, and a rosary tucked safely under my pillow. I am sure there was a Bible somewhere in the house, but it was likely hidden away in a drawer, so no Catholic visitors would think we were dabbling in Protestantism — joking! The crucifix that was originally placed over my childhood bedroom doorway over 50 years ago now hangs in our garage over the door entering our house. Traditions die slowly, if at all.
Our parents attended Catholic elementary school and high school, so it was clear that my sister and I were destined for Catholic schools. My most vivid religious recollection from my elementary school years was my time as an altar boy in 8th grade. While we wore uniforms during the school day, there was something extraordinary about donning that black and white Roman “toga” and participating in the sacred rituals around the holy altar: bringing the water and wine to the priest, holding the holy books for prayer, and, my favorite, walking through the church with lit candles during the Good Friday Stations of the Cross. Keeping those candles lit while moving from station to station was a miracle unto itself!
After graduating from Catholic high school, it was on to college, which was my first non-Catholic academic experience in over 12 years. Unlike many college students, I tried to stay close to my faith tradition. In the midst of the mayhem of college life, the quiet Catholic church near my dorm provided a wonderful noontime solace for prayer, reflection, and continued connection to my Catholic Faith.
In 1979, while in college, I married my wife, Lynn. We attended Mass with great regularity. Not long after, I began to periodically attend daily Mass. At that time, I was not really familiar with the Bible. However, about a year earlier, I had been given an old King James Version Bible by a friend. I didn’t know that it was a Protestant translation, but it served as an opportunity to polish my yellow-highlighting skills! For a year, I was reading that Bible, not in a systematic or orderly manner, but just randomly flipping to various sections. As part of my discipline of learning the Bible, I began to hand-write Bible verses on loose-leaf paper.
Sometime in the summer of 1980, I became curious about the beliefs and practices of the “other” churches. I visited the nearby Baptist church and remember being struck by the strength of their singing. Sometime after the Baptist church visit, a little church I had not noticed before caught my eye: the Church of Christ. The austere church building, with its predictable white steeple, sat quietly on a busy road near my house.
One day, I called the pastor of the church to ask some innocent questions. I told him I was Catholic and just interested in what they believed. He invited me to their Wednesday mid-week service, which happened to be the next night. I said I would like to come — merely to check it out.
I went the next night and learned they were studying the Old Testament book of Exodus. There were probably 40 people in the “fellowship hall” reading and discussing the text of Exodus. I must admit, as a Catholic, it was both refreshing and bizarre to see that many people talking about the Bible.
I was invited to stay after the lesson for the Wednesday evening devotional. We were told this would consist of prayer and a few songs. We moved to the main sanctuary and my eyes quickly scanned the environment: no crucifix, not even a cross, no stained glass—and where were the holy water fonts? Also conspicuously absent was the altar. There was no religious art or Stations of the Cross. The only common fixture was they had pews like we had pews—a fairly minimal similarity, to be sure.
After my quick observations about the minimalism of the environment, I recognized someone from work. Our encounter was quite a surprise for her, because I guess she never expected me to drop in on their small congregation. Over the next few days my work friend was eager to talk to me about my experience and what her congregation believed. Since my experience had been relatively pleasant, I pledged to visit again soon, maybe even on a Sunday. A few weeks later, I visited again and continued going on random Sundays — attending the Church of Christ for their morning service and Mass on Sunday evening.
After attending off and on for a few months, my work friend invited Lynn and me to join them in a Bible study. We agreed. I expected this Bible study to be informal: pick up and start reading somewhere in the Bible and discuss. Maybe even focus on a particular book and study — but I was in for a surprise. We engaged in something called the Open Bible Study. It consisted of a series of pamphlets, colorful but laid out in a simple Q&A format. You read a Bible verse or two on a particular subject and then answered a yes or no question. The approach worked something like this:
There were around 40–50 of these questions, all arrayed under different subjects, such as: the Bible, proper worship, the Church, and salvation. Clearly, the canned approach called for the “correct” answer. If we answered correctly, we merely proceeded. If we answered incorrectly, there was some discussion, but the primary approach was to re-read the passage, because we had clearly missed something!
“Sitting the fence”
After a few weeks of study we hit what was—from their point of view—the moment of decision. The program had been building to some crescendo, and subjects at the end included belief, repentance, and Baptism. I recall we had no issues with the “belief and repentance” passages (they seemed reasonable enough), but there were some insinuations regarding Baptism that I had not encountered before. The section on Baptism included passages such as Acts 2:38 and 8:26–40. The whole purpose was to show that proper Baptism included: 1) those that could believe and repent; 2) by immersion only; and 3) for the remission of sins.
We read the passages on Baptism. As I recall the canned Baptism question read something similar to “Given the passages just read, would you agree that Baptism must be by immersion for the remission of sins?” A vigorous discussion ensued, with me mainly attempting to defend my infant Baptism. I don’t recall all of the details of the discussion, but I remember it remained friendly — and geared toward their continuous presentation of Bible verses to consider. I also recall more generally, that anytime there was an attempt to talk about some practice or belief “outside the Bible,” we were always directed back to the earlier subject of “authority” and the questions focused on the sole authority of the Bible.
The study had ended with the question, “so now, will you submit to the Lord in Baptism?” Since there was nowhere else to go, Lynn and I took a bit of a breather from the study. A few weeks passed, as we discussed our next steps. We were still attending Mass weekly and, with increasing interest, were also periodically attending the Church of Christ. Add to all of this that our knowledge of the Catholic Faith, particularly its history and theology, was quite superficial.
Unsure what else to do, without prayerful reflection and without consultation with our parish priest or any Catholic friends, we submitted to be baptized in the Church of Christ in August 1980. I remember the great joy that was expressed by the whole congregation.
As crazy as it may sound, I really viewed our baptism by immersion at the time as merely “an upgrade” to our earlier Catholic Baptism. I don’t recall at the time thinking that we had fully renounced our infant Baptism. In many ways, while we saw ourselves as joined to this small congregation of believers, I still thought of myself as Catholic! I never shared this with them, but I had not fully shed my Catholic identity. I do not recall precisely when it happened, but after several weeks, we just stopped going to Mass. We were becoming more integrated into this newfound experience.
11 years in the Churches of Christ (1980–1991)
Our 11-year odyssey in the Churches of Christ can be broken into 3 periods: the early years of learning/indoctrination (1980–1984); the years of full embrace (1984–1987); and the years of doubt, research, and radical change (1987–1991).
During those first 4 years (1980–1984), I was drinking from the Restoration fire-hose. I was attending every Bible class, Gospel Meeting, and Lectureship that I could, and was reading “brotherhood” literature and books. Simply put, I was buying into the entire paradigm of this new faith group. During those formative years, I did not seriously critique the Catholic Faith, but was more interested in learning the “ins and outs” of “New Testament Christianity.”
During the second period (1984–1987), my embrace of “all things Church of Christ” reached fruition. I fully embraced the notion that all other “churches” were merely denominations. I was confident that the Bible, and the Bible alone, was the sole authority in religion. On top of this, I had become convinced it had always been that way. I was convinced that the Lord’s Church had existed in the beginning and from the beginning, but had gone into centuries of hiding, only to emerge during the Restoration movement of the 19th Century. I began to serve as a backup preacher. I was the lead adult Bible class instructor. I created and distributed Bible tracts, outlining the simple plan of salvation. I met and debated with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons on the merits of simply focusing on the Bible. I had forgotten about my Catholic Faith — or so I thought.
Trouble in Paradise
After about 7 years of unquestioned embrace of this Fundamentalist religious trajectory, things began to change. There was no blazing light, no moment of deep religious conviction. Just slowly, but surely, I became uneasy with the over-simplified approach of biblical Fundamentalism. I was in no contact with Catholics at this time. In fact, I was not thinking about the Catholic Church at all. Nothing at the human level was propelling these uneasy concerns; so I have to attribute them to the Spirit.
I grew increasingly troubled with the “simple answers to complex questions” approach of biblical Fundamentalism. As I grew older, experience taught me that life was more complicated than what could be summarized in a bunch of religious clichés or a set of Bible texts, strung together like cans and string, could address.
I also became troubled as I thought about the necessary underpinning for all of this: that the Bible was solely authoritative, and that the original “Church of Christ” was strictly a “Bible church,” comprised of “New Testament Christians.” This overarching premise began to feel flimsy, but I pushed past my pride and began to investigate — quietly.
Please understand these creeping doubts about the validity of “Bible-only authority” were not propelled in any way by Catholic influence. To the contrary, my hope was that this new search would validate the decision I made 7 to 8 years earlier, to join the Lord’s New Testament Church.
Studies in early Church history
Around 1987, I began a rigorous investigation of the early Church Fathers. I heard about the Fathers from the periodic quoting of them by Church of Christ ministers — when they felt that a particular Church Father validated their view on a subject. I spent hours, months, and years opening up the Church Fathers. I read Clement, Ignatius, and Tertullian. I read Athanasius, Cyprian, and a host of others. I checked out books from the library and bought books that were primary sources of the Fathers. I did all of this while still an active member of the Church of Christ.
The more I read the Fathers, the more troubled I became. Not only was I not finding a “Bible only, New Testament Church,” but the descriptions of beliefs and liturgy I read the seemed like the Church I had left — the Catholic Church.
Now, one might say these findings were comforting. No! From my perspective at the time, this was anything but good. Not only was the foundation upon which I based my last several years crumbling, but what was emerging was the Church I had left behind. Even though I had abandoned the Catholic Faith without anger or frustration, being away for 8 years, in a biblical Fundamentalist church, is a long time. I didn’t know how to process these troubling findings, but I was not even considering the Catholic Church.
My intellectual curiosity would not let me extinguish this search for truth. I continued to read the Fathers and, as I did, I continued to encounter the Catholic Church in early Church history: its core beliefs, practices, prayers, creeds, sacramental life, liturgy…and the centrality of Eucharist. At every turn and in every century (7th, 5th, 4th, and even 2nd and 1st), I saw the Catholic Church. What I did not find, to my dismay and discomfort, was the church I had embraced and had been a member of for these 8 years: one that believed in “sola Scriptura” and one that was attempting to produce “New Testament Christians.” While my brain was fully engaged, my stomach hurt.
I tested these findings with my local preacher and elders, without revealing the extent of my search. I merely asked some questions about the early Church and the apparent absence of “New Testament Bible Christians” in those early centuries. What I received was a continued “maintenance of the party line”: I was told that the true Church of Christ is found in the New Testament (Romans 16:16), but an apostasy happened pretty quickly, so the smaller New Testament church went into virtual “hiding” while the apostate Roman Catholic Church grew in size and power. The true “New Testament Church” never ceased to actually exist, but just was suppressed and not really visible, until its fuller “restoration” later. I knew the drill, because I had used this same explanation myself. This programmed explanation fell woefully short of providing an explanation. It also matched nothing I was finding in my research—as it was appearing that the Catholic Church was seamlessly present from the very beginning.
Back on the fence
In parallel to this intellectual journey, another journey was taking place—one more subtle and veiled—the journey of the heart and emotions. By 1989, it was a full 9 years since I left the Catholic Church and fully wed myself to biblical Fundamentalism. The stark absence of ritual, symbol, sacred environment, and meaningful actions was beginning to become apparent. It was around this time, that I began dropping into a Catholic church for noon Mass. As I still had no interest in returning to the Catholic Faith, my trips were merely to “hear the Bible read” and “hear a short sermon.”
However, there is no way to overstate the role that these simple lunchtime visits were having on me. Just being surrounded by religious art — the stained glass, the beautiful mosaics, the holy water fonts, the altar, the soaring steeple reaching toward God — was having a subtle, but meaningful impact on my journey.
My continued study of the Fathers was rendering me completely troubled with my current state and my confidence in the Church of Christ was gone by 1989. It was evident there was never a time when “the New Testament Church, based solely on the Bible” existed. It could not be found anywhere, except in the imaginations of well-intentioned moderns. I began to see that, while “Give Me the Bible” seemed like a nice song, it was a very modern concept.
However, my journey was taking a precarious turn. No longer was my search simply to validate the presence of my current church community in the earliest times: I was now once again stuck as to how to proceed, even though my pride was still not allowing me to consider the Catholic Church. Unlike a few years before, where the thought never even crossed my mind, now it was crossing my mind in dramatic clarity, only to be met with a resounding “no way” from my internal defense mechanisms.
In 1989, I was still a member of the Church of Christ, but in membership only. I taught Bible classes and preached an occasional sermon, but with each experience I found it less and less edifying to be there. I realized the mystery of faith had been reduced to dry propositions. The simplistic view of the Bible, the tortured re-write of history, and the sterile worship no longer nourished my soul. There was no mystery, no interactive dialogue of faith and doubt. It was as a man dying of thirst in the desert. However, I did not want to confuse my family, nor did I want to upset the apple-cart at the church, so I kept these feelings of religious discontent, disconnection, and isolation to myself.
Encounters with the Orthodox Church
My study and research of Church history had taught me that the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church were similar in many ways. I began using my lunchtime to meet with an Orthodox priest. At the time, there was no way I was going to meet with a Catholic priest, given my unwavering pride. So, I used the Orthodox priest as a foil, to compare and contrast my currently eroding beliefs (in the Church of Christ) with the historic, apostolic faith. I wanted to tease out the differences, in a comfortable environment. I knew enough to recognize that what was true for the Orthodox generally was also true for the Catholic — but at least I didn’t have to face walking into a Catholic church to continue my search.
I barraged the Orthodox priest with questions focused on the early Church as well as modern belief and practice. The patient answers at first were uncomfortable, but soon the discomfort moved to consolation, as I began to see the terminus of my search coming into view. I was gradually leaving my belief system of nearly 10 years, and moving ever so slowly back into the arms of the ancient, original Church.
The final leg of my journey was driven by my annual silent retreat, focused on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, at Manresa Retreat House in Louisiana. I had begun these annual retreats in 1980, ironically the same year I abandoned the Catholic Faith, and continued through my 11 years in the Church of Christ. Even during those first 2 periods in the Church of Christ (1980–1984 and 1984–1987), I was never hostile to Manresa. In my own thinking, I just treated it as a time to pray and relax. But, with hindsight, I see that the Spirit was up to other movements.
Leaving to go back
In December of 1990, I attended my 11th consecutive retreat, with much on my mind and heart. I clearly was leaving the Church of Christ. No longer could I embrace a biblical Fundamentalism, focused only on the Bible, which was separated from a 2000-year living, breathing tradition of faith. No longer could I maintain what I had embraced early on: that the true Church of Christ had only recently been restored after centuries of apostasy. The light of historical inquiry had revealed this as a distorted, fallacious view of history. I knew the truth about Fundamentalism’s recent origin and history. The options were becoming more illuminated than ever before.
During that 1990 weekend retreat, I finally met with a Jesuit priest about my journey. Fr. Tompson listened patiently to my long and winding story. He never once condemned or criticized. He did not try to persuade me in any way. He merely said, in his Irish brogue, “Randy, you know what to do. You miss the smells and the bells. There is no more study to be done. Stop the research. Focus on prayer. Pray.”
Fr. Tompson was right, though my decision had really been made much earlier. The Spirit had been quietly active. Pride and other defense mechanisms had delayed my decision.
In summary, the earliest moments of my journey home were intellectual. In parallel to this intellectual journey, I began sensing that I missed the sensory, sacramental riches of Catholicism. My pride caused me to fight what I was beginning to sense: that just as Jesus had come in the flesh, so too our experience was grounded in tangible things: water, oil, incense, and sacred words. The sensory aspects of my lost faith were slowly being rekindled.
Once I came to realize that there was never a time when the Bible was solely authoritative and that the Catholic Church was the original, apostolic Church, I finally began to wrestle with what I missed the most: Jesus in the Eucharist. Of all the things I had questioned, there was always this deep abiding remembrance of Jesus’ true Presence in the Eucharist. In the Bible church, I knew something was missing, but I suppressed that feeling for years, buried under pride and arrogance. The presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, which I had neglected for over 11 years, was to bless me again soon.
In late 1990, all the threads of my journey converged: my intellectual journey had reached its destination; my longing for sacred ritual was fully present; and my desire to be nourished again by Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament was fully realized. Setting pride aside, I walked away from that conservative Bible church and back into the arms of the Catholic Church. I took that prayerful step on Good Friday 1991. I remember walking up to receive Jesus in the Eucharist that day, not knowing if my trembling legs would carry me forward. I was embraced fully by my Catholic sisters and brothers. In fact, almost immediately upon my return I was asked to lead our parish’s RCIA program for the upcoming year. God has a funny sense of humor indeed.
Five months later, after much discussion and prayer, Lynn also returned to the Catholic Faith.
When I left the Catholic Church 11 years earlier, I was neither angry nor bitter. I had merely succumbed to curiosity. But the Spirit called me home gently, using my intellect, will, senses, and desires.
I left and came back.