My childhood’s Christian experience
My journey to the Catholic Church spans my lifetime. As a child, I had a blessing that many people do not. I was raised in a Christian household with parents who taught their children the Christian faith to the best of their ability, and lived it out in front of us as well. My parents did everything in their power to make sure their children were raised with a strong foundation in the Christian faith. They were Sunday school teachers at our Baptist church and took my sisters and me to church every Sunday. They made sure all their children were baptized at a young age, told us stories from the Bible, taught us to pray, and made sure that we went to Vacation Bible School every summer. This foundation birthed in me the desire to be a minister at a very young age. At the age of 9, I publically confessed in front of the congregation that I wanted to follow Christ and be a minister. My dad publically vowed to support me in this decision.
As I entered adolescence, my Christian foundation began to slip away. I was an outsider at school and not part of the “in crowd.” To prove myself and not to be labeled, I indulged in some forms of typical teenage rebellion. Meanwhile, my parents saw the direction my life was headed. They urged me to become involved again with church. At the same time, my sister Kelley began to invite me to the youth group where she was serving as a youth leader at a local Assemblies of God church. After several denials, I finally caved and went. I immediately felt welcomed and found people who were strong in their faith. It amazed me to see you could be a cool teenager and a Christian at the same time. After attending for several weeks, I decided to go forward on an altar call and accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. I still remember praying the sinner’s prayer on March 16, 1998, and the feelings of peace that came with it.
The friendships I made at the youth group solidified, and I became an active part of the youth group’s drama team and discipleship program, which emphasized Bible reading and scripture memorization. I followed the curriculum and, armed with a highlighter, I devoured the pages of the Holy Scriptures. The truths of Scripture came at me one by one and each one seemed revolutionary. Shortly thereafter, our youth group took a pilgrimage down to Pensacola, Florida to attend a youth camp at Brownsville Assembly of God/Brownsville revival. There I felt like the Lord was telling me to cancel my plans to attend Virginia Military Institute and pursue a Navy ROTC scholarship, and instead stay behind and serve the youth group as a youth leader.
Wrestling with the truth of the Bible
I decided to enroll as a Religious Studies major at Virginia Commonwealth University. It was at this secular school that I was first introduced to liberal study of the Bible—which involves studying the Bible as if it were just another piece of ancient literature like the Iliad or the Epic of Gilgamesh and is skeptical of the Bible’s claims and divine origin. The teachings of liberal scholarship, especially related to the nature of the Bible and history of the Christian religion, really made me question my faith. I did have one professor, who taught in a manner that was affirming of traditionally conservative views of Scripture and affirmed the basic teachings of Christianity. He introduced me to the scholarship of a man named Luke Timothy Johnson. I was floored by Johnson’s scholarship, and read his book, The Real Jesus. The book The Real Jesus was faith affirming and exposed liberal scholarship for its extremes. There was one thing that stuck out about Johnson. He was Catholic. We Pentecostals held stereotypes of Catholics that they did not read or understand their Bibles. Since if they did, we believed, they would cease to be Catholic.
I was impressed with Johnson’s knowledge of Christianity and the Scriptures. Slowly, I began to realize that liberal scholarship did not have to destroy my faith, but at the same time, I did not have to embrace the overly conservative and fundamentalist views of Scripture I held as a Baptist and Pentecostal. I cited Johnson in several papers I wrote at VCU and the seminary. I found myself agreeing with his views more and more, despite the fact that he was, well, Catholic. He showed me that many Catholics have just as good a grasp of the Bible as Protestant Christians.
Growing up, I was never really exposed to any anti-Catholic prejudice. Many of our family friends were Catholic. As a Baptist and Pentecostal, I did believe that the Reformation recovered many truths that were lost during the medieval period because of the errors of the Catholic Church. I accepted Catholics as Christians, but thought they were off base in many of their beliefs. I believed Martin Luther and the other reformers had recovered lost truths, including that all one needs to understand the Christian faith is the Bible alone, not sacred Tradition or the teachings of the Church, and that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone. I did consider Catholicism as a religion of convenience and as a hypocritical faith. Many of the Catholics I knew did not live a devoutly religious life, and in some cases there was little telling them apart from non-Christians based on how they lived their lives. Some of the Catholics seemed to think it was ok to sin as much as you want as long as you went to confession and then received communion afterwards, sort of using the Eucharist as a spiritual morning-after pill. Little did I know they were misrepresenting the teachings of the Catholic Church.
One night at youth group, a youth came to me with a list of doctrines held by the Catholic Church, such as the Eucharist, teachings about the Pope, why the Bible alone was not a sufficient guide for certainty in the areas of faith and morals, etc…. The youth told me that she had a friend whom she wanted to invite to youth group but he wouldn’t come because he would only go to a Catholic church. I dove into my Bible to refute these lies and convince him that the Catholic Church was in error. I thought it was going to be a piece of cake, but it wasn’t. After several hours in the Bible, I came up with only a few token refutations—and none of them were really that original. I basically repeated arguments used by anti-Catholics already. I pointed out that Christ, not the Pope, was head of the church, for example, and gave Scripture references. It was only later, in reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that I learned that Catholics also believe Christ is the head of the church, and that I, and most Protestants, misrepresent the Catholic position on this issue. If I misunderstood the Catholic Church’s position on this issue, what other issues did I wrongly misunderstand the Catholic position on?
Sola Scriptura didn’t cut it, but it was going to take more than that.
I began to question “the Bible alone” doctrine when I would discuss my Christian beliefs with Christians of other traditions who did not embrace what I believed as a Pentecostal. At that time, I believed that the New Testament taught that speaking in other tongues was a clear initial evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit. After all, I had experienced it at youth camp. But yet, I encountered Christians who did not believe in speaking in tongues and we both used the Bible to justify our beliefs.
I also came across people such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christadelphians who questioned the deity of Christ. We both appealed to the Scriptures for our beliefs, my interpretation against theirs. I blew this off because I knew that Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, always had believed in the deity of Christ (looking back, it seems I was already appealing to Sacred Tradition, though I didn’t know it at the time). To me the Bible alone doctrine was the other side of the same coin as theological liberalism. It solved nothing, leaving everything in question, and nothing certain. It left all matters of Christian faith and practice up to that individual or individual church’s interpretation of the Bible. It was one thing to question speaking in tongues, another to question the deity of Christ and the Trinity, which are central to the Christian faith. If the Bible alone was sufficient for us to know the truth, it would be much clearer and many of these doctrinal disputes would not exist I thought.
Shortly thereafter, sometime in 2003, I heard that my aunt was converting to Catholicism. I thought, “Why would anyone convert to Catholicism…that makes no sense what so ever.” Yet I was intrigued. I picked up a book called Letters between a Catholic and Evangelical to study what was similar and different about Protestantism and Catholicism. I wanted to know what Catholics really believed. After reading the book, I found myself in agreement with many aspects of Catholicism. Most appealing to me was the Catholic understanding of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium’s role in teaching Christian truths to the faithful. I thought back to all the doctrinal disputes that the Bible alone was not able to solve. Perhaps this provided a better way to solve disputes on matters of faith and morals. I was not convinced of the Catholic position in other areas, such as the role of Mary and the saints. I was not sure what to make of the Eucharist either. The book was not enough to totally get me to convert, yet. The Evangelical author, James McCarthy, did a good job keeping me Protestant, though I gained a greater respect for Catholicism thanks to the Catholic author of the book, Father Weiss.
Off to seminary I go
Working as a youth leader changed my life so strongly that I began to contemplate a call to the full-time ministry. With the affirmation of those close to me, I enrolled in the Church of God Theological seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee upon graduation from VCU to earn my Master of Divinity degree. I did not know it at the time, but my seminary experience would bring several crisis experiences my way that would finally get me moving towards becoming Catholic. While in the seminary, I genuinely believed I was called, but called to do what? I considered youth ministry, chaplaincy (military and hospital), and the pastorate. I decided to obtain ministerial credentials through the Assemblies of God. I had to pass a written test and a screening by some local pastors. On my application I mentioned my personal disagreements with the denomination on a couple of issues that were rather (in my opinion) minor. None of the areas of disagreement were part of our 16 Fundamental Truths (the central and essential beliefs of the Assemblies of God). I was told that if I did not change my views on these issues to agree with the Assemblies of God position, I would not receive my credentials.
In defending my views, I appealed to the Bible. While opposing me one of the pastors appealed to Scriptures as well. When I refuted him, he had no choice but to appeal to the traditions of the Assemblies of God, not simply to the Bible alone. It later occurred to me that I was required to hold the views of the Assemblies of God, regardless of what my personal views were, even if I had arrived at my personal views by in-depth study of the Bible. I finally decided to publicly change my views on the issues, though privately I did not, and received my ministerial credentials early in 2005. This incident made me ask myself, what authority did the Assemblies of God really possess? After all, they were founded in 1914. Were there Christians before 1914? Certainly there were. They were in other denominations. If I left the Assemblies of God because I disagreed with them, they no longer would possess any authority over me whatsoever. I could always find another denomination to support me in my ministry. They had no authority over me except what I gave them; so ultimately, the authority rested with me and my personal interpretation of the Bible, which the dispute told me was not enough!
As graduation approached, I knew that I needed to find a place to do ministry. I did not put many stipulations on where I was willing to go. I sought placement in full-time ministry and was willing to accept a part-time position provided I was assisted in finding full-time employment. On more than one occasion, when I heard responses back from Church of God churches, I would be asked if I was married. When I told them no, I never heard back and my follow-ups were not returned. My seminary did not do much to help find a place for me in ministry. I was left to my own devices. I decided to expand my wings across denominational lines, sending out resumes to Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Non-denominational churches across the United States and even into Canada. When I was lucky enough to get an interview, the churches told me I had a great resume but no experience in ministry. I easily sent out 300 resumes over a four-month period after my graduation in June 2006 and with the lack of respoonse I began to question if I was really called to the ministry. I had felt the affirmation of my close friends and family and myself, but what about the church? Shouldn’t a call to ministry include the affirmation of the church (not just the local church, but the denomination as a whole?) I now see this as part of God’s plan to bring me home into the Catholic Church. Had I found a position in ministry, I may never have been Catholic.
My dad was diagnosed with cancer in May 2005. After a short battle, the cancer quickly spread, and he passed away in December 2005. After graduation, I decided to move back home to be of support to my mother. Reflecting back, I believe that this was my calling for this period of time in my life, and is why I had been unable to obtain a place in ministry. After all, God is the one who opens and closes doors. I then started to look outside of Pentecostalism for a church home. I no longer fit well within Pentecostalism for a number of reasons, including my understanding of divine healing. If there was a family who had faith and prayed for God’s healing, it was my family who prayed for my father’s recovery. Previously, I watched my church in Richmond pray for our pastor’s wife to be healed from cancer, and watched another prominent man in our church die from cancer. If there was a church who prayed, it was our church. We had faith, but God did not heal. This made me question the idea of divine healing: if God said we asked with faith, then he would heal if it was his will. Was it really his will that all these people drop like flies to cancer all around me? Maybe healing was all a lie, or worse, perhaps Christianity was a lie and God was powerless. After all, not only did God not heal, but he did little to open the doors for me in ministry. I still was looking for answers. I found them soon enough.
My Catholic Epiphany
Prior to moving home, I obtained a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in a used bookstore. I read it because I wanted to see what Catholics really believed. I also became interested in Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue while at seminary. Many of my seminary Professors were engaged in Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue, and I wanted in on the fun. This was probably due to the study of Catholicism that I already had done. I wanted to prove them wrong in a way, but hear what they believed right from their own mouths, instead of buying into misrepresentations of their beliefs often given by some non-Catholics. I wanted to be able to engage Catholics with a clear understanding of their faith.
As I read through the Catechism, I recalled learning about the Early Church in historical theology class in seminary. I found so many parallels between what the Early Church believed in the first few centuries of its existence. I thought about how “Catholic” their beliefs sounded. I saw each part of the Apostles Creed, which is one of the oldest statements of Christian belief, tied to beliefs held by the Catholic Church. It was clear; the Catholic Church was truly “Apostolic”, representing the teachings trusted to the Apostles and handed down from one generation to the next.
I knew that Christ had prayed for his Church to remain as one, as he and the Father are one. Why all the division since the Reformation around petty differences in doctrines and practices? Christ said that the Holy Spirit would guide his church to all truth, not just part of the truth. He also said that the gates of hell would not overtake his Church. Did I really believe that Christ allowed his Church to go astray after the time of the Early Church until the Protestant Reformation? Did he fail to guide his Church into all truth until just over 500 years ago? What about the previous 1500? This reminds me of the movie Bruce Almighty, where Bruce (Jim Carey) asks God (Morgan Freeman) “do you even take a vacation?” to which God responds “sure, ever heard of the dark ages?”
The Catholic Church does not believe God ever took a vacation. By implication the early Protestant reformers must have thought so if they really believed they had recovered “lost truths” that were lost due to the errors of the Catholic Church. I finally admitted to myself that the Catholic Church’s way of appealing to Sacred Scripture, Tradition, the guidance of the Magesterium, and the Pope made more sense to me than simply following my own interpretation of the Bible, and being my own authority. The Catholic Church’s claim to be infallible in teaching of faith and morals, based on Biblical promises made by Christ to his apostles, especially Peter, all made logical sense to me. For example, Christ taught his disciples while here on earth in person, but after his ascension who would fulfill his place as teacher and leader of the Church? Of course ,one could say the Holy Spirit, but the question remains, how and through whom, does the Holy Spirit guide the Church to all truth? All the popes, from Saint Peter to Benedict XVI have served the same role to the Church as leader that Christ did, in the structural sense, and the bishops of the church are the successors of the Apostles, serving the same role to the present church as the Apostles of the New Testament did. I began to see the Pope as a visible symbol of the Church’s unity in Christ and unity in truth.
I also was able to finally settle the question about truth and authority, namely, why should I submit myself to any church authority that cannot claim to be infallible in its teachings? As a Pentecostal, I believed the Bible itself was without error (as does the Catholic Church), but what good is having a book without error in its teachings if we cannot understand it without error? In examining the Catechism, I saw each doctrine laid out with multitudes of references to the Bible and to the teachings of Church Fathers. I examined the references to Scripture in the Catechism and I saw that the beliefs of the Catholic Church were very biblical. My love of the Bible and for its truths was leading me to the Catholic Church.
I decided to attend my first Mass in May 2007, which, ironically, turned out to be Pentecost Sunday. My aunt was in town and I took her to Mass under the guise that I was going because she needed someone to take her. After taking her to Mass for the first time, I had the courage to go back and tell my family that I felt that the Lord was guiding me into the Catholic Church. I enrolled in RCIA in August, 2007 and was accepted into full communion with the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil on March 22, 2008.