I can still smell the green vinyl of the used couch in our living room as I knelt with my mom, with my face buried in my hands and my nose pressed into the vinyl. She had decided I was old enough — after all, I was four years old. She didn’t want to wait any longer. She was eager.
When I was born, I was taken to the front of Joy Road Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, held aloft and dedicated to Christ. The thought of baptizing an infant was repugnant. Where do you find that in the Bible?
My parents had “found Christ” less than a year earlier. After twelve years of painful miscarriages, my parents had discovered Jesus through the preaching of Billy Graham. The radio was on one morning as my mother was getting ready to go shopping. With keys in one hand and purse in the other, she stopped in the kitchen before heading out the door. She heard something she’d never heard before.
She heard the compelling voice of Billy Graham passionately explaining the precious blood of Jesus that was shed on the cross. It was shed for my mom to pay for her sins. It could save her from hell and insure her a place in heaven. My mom, raised without any religion, heard John 3:16 for the first time: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
When I was older, she told me that she had fallen on her knees on the kitchen floor. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she “accepted Christ as her personal Lord and Savior and asked Him to come into her heart.”
At the same time, my dad thought he had cancer and was having a nervous breakdown. He went out on the front porch one night, and after looking up to the stars he pleaded, “If there is a God up there, please reveal yourself to me. I don’t know if you even exist, but if you do, I need your help!” He then went to bed.
The next morning he went through his normal routine and ended up at his office at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. A friend walked up and said, “Charlie, can I tell you something?” My dad said, “Yes, of course, what is it?” The friend boldly proclaimed, “Charlie, you need Jesus Christ in your life.” It had been less than twenty-four hours since the prayer of desperation.
Do you think it was a Catholic who approached my father? Unhappily, it was not. Catholics too often think their faith in Christ is a “personal thing; not something you talk about.” But this Baptist friend had a different opinion: the Gospel of Christ was something you talked about, and you talked about it to as many people as you possibly could. My father prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer” with his friend. Within a matter of days, my parents were members of Joy Road Baptist Church.
On my desk sits one of my most valuable possessions; a black, leather, King James Version, Scofield Reference Bible. The gilded pages of this Bible are filled with notations, underlined verses, scribbled notes, and comments. This was my father’s first Bible and became one of the loves of his life. He wrote the date, May 1954, inside the cover.
After their dramatic conversions and much prayer, I was born nine months later, after twelve years of miscarriages. Two brothers followed.
Now we are back to the green vinyl couch in our small house on Marlowe Street. Mom thought I was old enough to accept Christ as my own personal Lord and Savior. So after some coaching and explanations in words a four-year-old could understand, she led me in the Sinner’s Prayer. I can still remember that moment, and the smell of old vinyl always brings that memory to the forefront of my mind.
Now came the task of raising this young boy to love Jesus and the Bible. It began with memorizing Bible verses. I was a rich little kid because my parents were smart. They paid me 50¢ for each Bible verse I memorized (I now do this for my grandchildren, but the price has gone up to $1.00). Mom knew a young mind was fertile and supple and could memorize easily. After all, Proverbs reminds us that if you “train up a child in the way he should go, … when he is old he will not depart from it” (22:6).
Of course, John 3:16 was the first verse we memorized. It was the heart of the Bible and the perfect summary of the mind and heart of God in His relationship to His people. My brothers and I also learned to say the books of the Bible, the faster the better: “Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers …” We raced to see who could say them the fastest, keeping it under fifteen seconds!
We never missed any of our church’s events, especially not the ever-anticipated Summer Vacation Bible School, where prizes, ice cream, racing around, sticking flannel graph elephants onto Noah’s ark, and all kinds of other fun stuff abounded.
My parents, though, moved between churches. My dad would question the pastor and disagree about biblical passages and theology. Through the years, our family attended Baptist churches, Reformed, Methodist, nondenominational, charismatic, and ultimately I ended up bouncing between an Evangelical Presbyterian and a Baptist church. It was great being a boy in a Baptist family in the ’50s and early ’60s.
But time marches on, and interests march on as well. At fifteen years old, my mind shifted to girls and motorcycles and the Beatles and other things upon which my parents frowned. The kids in our church youth group were not “cool,” and I left them behind.
Just before the beginning of twelfth grade, I heard Billy Graham on the television. I always had a soft spot in my heart for God that was never calloused over by my cultural rebellion. Mr. Graham’s compelling arguments sank deep into my heart followed by the mellow baritone voice of George Beverly Shea singing, “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.” That did it. I was out the door with tears running down my face. I walked down our long country driveway, and I said to the Lord, “I am only seventeen years old, but tonight I give my whole life to you!”
The Perfect Life
On the first day of twelfth grade, a friend introduced me to a cute girl with long blond hair. Janet had just moved to Michigan from Costa Mesa, California. She had been baptized as an infant and raised as a nominal Presbyterian. But that summer she had gone to a Bible study at school and had been led to a “new life in Christ.” She was baptized by Pastor Chuck Smith in Pirates Cove in the Pacific Ocean. (For those who don’t know Pastor Chuck Smith, he is the founder of Calvary Chapel. One of their boasts is that eighty percent of their members are ex-Catholics.) Janet was quickly caught up in the excitement of her new Christian life.
She told me that God spoke to her for the first time in her life that morning at her new school in Michigan. She heard, “That is the man you’re going to marry.” But I had other goals, and they no longer involved girls. I was now dedicated to Bible study, prayer, and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone. Four years later, in 1976, we did marry, and it was the best thing I ever did. (We now have four children and ten grandchildren and counting.)
Janet and I loved being Evangelical Protestant Christians. We homeschooled our children, taught Bible studies, evangelized, and started our own very successful family business. With a great family, wonderful Evangelical friends, a flourishing business, a love for the Bible and evangelism, and a life full of joy, we felt we had it made. All our family and friends were not only Protestant, but also anti-Catholic. To even have a member of the family “go Catholic” would have been unthinkable, an egregious betrayal of the Christian faith and the family traditions.
We taught studies on how to evangelize and always had people in our home, though not all our visitors were Evangelicals. Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness missionaries, atheists, New Agers, and Catholics were always targets for evangelism. We knew the best arguments and Bible verses to unleash on any one of them. Catholics were usually pretty easy to pick off the tree. They generally didn’t know the Bible and, from our perspective, had no idea how to get saved. We believed Catholics prayed to Mary instead of Jesus, thought they got to heaven by works instead of faith, and followed tradition instead of the Bible — in everything, they were upside down.
Then it happened — we converted to the Catholic Church!
Problems Arise in Protestant Logic
People often ask, “What was it that made you willing to lose everything to become Catholic?” Protestants asked us, “Why would you leave biblical Christianity to follow the traditions of men in the Catholic Church?” Others asked (and still do), “What did you see in the Catholic Church that made you want to leave everything you knew to begin such a radical new path in life?”
My answer is, “I saw nothing in the Catholic Church to make me want to be Catholic!” And the Catholics I knew were the biggest argument against the Catholic Church. Out of principle, neither my wife nor I had ever set foot in a Catholic church. We had never met a Catholic priest or religious, and, most unfortunately, we had never encountered a Catholic who could explain or defend their faith.
Our journey to the ancient Church began by seeing the problems within Protestantism — problems that were incurable (if these problems had been corrected, Protestantism would have had to become Catholic). Sometimes one has to realize they are very sick before they visit a doctor. Janet and I came to realize over time that something was dreadfully wrong with Protestantism. I will briefly explain the three “biggies” that hit us.
Problem Number One: Worship
Janet interrupted me one Sunday on our way home from the Baptist church, saying, “I can’t listen to preaching anymore and call it worship. Something is missing, but I don’t know what it is.” In the nineteenth century, Charles Haddock Spurgeon, one of our favorite preachers, had once said that no form of worship was higher than a good sermon. But Janet knew this was not correct. It was the first crack in a locked and bolted door. What was worship? Was it preaching? Was it loud music — “pump up the volume”? It seemed that Evangelicals did not know either since they were constantly trying all kinds of new worship services to entertain and inspire.
The act of worship has always involved offerings and sacrifice. Not just the offering basket passed back and forth through the pews but real sacrifice. Pagans, Jews, Hindus, early Christians — they all knew this. From the beginning of time, people have brought a sacrifice or offering to the gods. The Jews offered sacrifices, and we inherited their God. The Protestants had preaching, but what did the early Church have?
Janet and I have since had the privilege of visiting the oldest churches in the world. We have visited and explored the first churches ever built in Israel, Egypt, Italy, Turkey, and Greece. Every one of them had something in common with all the others. As the focal point in the front and center of every ancient church is an altar! An altar was always a place of sacrifice, and sacrifice was offered by a priest. In 1 Corinthians 10, St. Paul speaks of the sacrifice of Jews, pagans, and Christians. All offer a sacrifice. Where was this in my Baptist church? We had exchanged the ancient model for a new religion. No longer a priest and an altar, instead we had a preacher in front of a podium. The Catholics had the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
And to my great amazement, I learned that the very first Christians believed the same thing about the Sunday sacrifice as Catholics today! The disciples of the Apostles referred to what we called “communion” as the very Body and Blood of Jesus, the same flesh that was nailed to the cross (see St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 6, 7, ca. ad 110). The Didache, written during the New Testament period, calls the Eucharist a sacrifice and reminds the first-century Christians to confess their sins (Confession) before offering their Sunday morning sacrifice (section 14).
Problem Number Two: The Bible Alone?
The second major difficulty Janet and I came across was “who speaks for God?” It is the Bible, correct? That is what I thought. But in my house I have thousands of books on the Bible. Each was bought to teach me what the Bible meant and how to properly interpret each page, especially difficult passages. I realized over time, however, that even among my close-knit circle of Evangelical Protestants we could not agree on significant issues. Should you baptize infants? My Baptist tradition said, “Absolutely NOT!” Yet my wife who was raised Presbyterian had a certificate of infant baptism in her files. Can you lose your salvation once you are born again? “In no circumstances,” said my particular tradition. Yet citing alternate Scripture verses to defend their position, other Evangelicals said, “Of course you can lose your salvation, if you deny Christ and chose a life of sin.”
So, who interprets the Bible? Who is the arbiter when conflicts arise? How can I be certain? Ultimately, I realized that within Protestantism it is up to me to decide these deep matters of theology and salvation. Did I have to become my own pope? This became a huge discussion.
I realized early on that the New Testament was not codified and closed as a collection of twenty-seven inspired books until the end of the fourth century. How did the early Christians know how to get saved, what to do on Sunday morning, or how to please God? And it was these early Christians without a New Testament who were eaten by lions, burned at the stake, and beheaded in front of cheering crowds. How could they follow Christ so faithfully without the “Bible alone”?
The Bible itself never promotes “Bible alone.” We realized that sola scriptura was unscriptural. The early Church had the Apostolic Tradition, bishops in the apostolic succession and, only later, a gradually recognized and collected New Testament. And where did the authority to chose and close the canon of Scripture come from? As St. Augustine said, “I would not believe the holy Gospels if it were not for the authority of the Holy Catholic Church” (Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental, 5, 6, ca. ad 397).
St. Paul himself said that it was the church of the living God that was the pillar and bulwark of the truth, not the Bible (see 1 Tim 3:15).
Problem Number Three: Morals
The third issue was no less monumental. What about morals? We had just returned from studying with Dr. Francis Schaeffer in Switzerland. Time magazine referred to him as the missionary to the intellectual, and he spoke uniquely to those searching for the truth. He was a Presbyterian minister, very Evangelical, in the tradition of the John-Calvin-Bible-alone-and-faith-alone persuasion. He encouraged us to return to America and speak out against abortion. This we did.
However, our first attempt met with dismal failure and disillusionment. The pastor told me to my face, “You will NOT talk about abortion in my church. We are here to get people saved and make disciples for Christ. We have no business being involved in politics and medicine. Plus, many women in this congregation are getting abortions, and I am not going to allow you to rock the boat.”
Something was seriously wrong with American Evangelicalism! I knew enough from my reading of history that ALL Christian traditions from the beginning of Christianity until the beginning of the twentieth century condemned as sinful not only abortion but also contraceptives. Had God changed His mind? Who spoke for God in this matter?
It did not take a rocket scientist to realize that among the thousands of Protestant traditions, sects, churches, and denominations that one could find a group to fit any idea of morals desired. Maybe someone had had an abortion and didn’t want to feel guilty. They could find a church to tickle their ears. What if someone were more concerned about a good music ministry than morals? No problem, the mega-church down the road might fit that customized request with no problem.
I realized that many Americans decide on their church the same way they choose their restaurant at lunch time. We drive down Main Street, and on one side of the street are Burger King, McDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut. What I feel like today determines what restaurant I choose.
Now it is Sunday morning, and I drive down Main Street again. On the other side of the street, I find Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Mormon options, and so on. How do I choose where to go? Again it is very simple. What do I feel like this morning? Do I want good preaching or a good children’s ministry? Do I want a pastor who meddles in my choices or someone who makes me feel good? Americans sadly too often pick their church the same way they pick their restaurant!
A New Catholic Friend Rattles My Cage
These three were not the only issues. But worship, Scripture, and morals were right up there on top of the heap. We did not see any solution. I began to question the foundations for the faith altogether. Had I gone much further, a form of agnosticism might have set in.
At that very moment in our lives, a long-time Evangelical friend and pastor announced to us, “Steve, my wife and I have decided to join the Catholic Church.” Janet and I were stunned. I immediately blurted out, “Al, that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard; you are way too smart to be a Catholic!”
This friend, Al Kresta, is now a well-known commentator on Catholic radio, a speaker, and an author. We are still best friends, and I never cease thanking him for being there at the right time to rattle my cage and force me to look in a new direction.
Our first response, though, was to study and prove him wrong. Janet and I decided we would mount a defense. Al knew the Bible as well as I did so to collect an array of Bible verses would prove ineffective. A better strategy had to be found. Ah, that’s it! We’ll go back in history to the first Christians and prove to Al that primitive and apostolic Christianity was Protestant! There were no pope-mobiles or processing cardinals, no Vatican or ecumenical councils.
Surprise, surprise! We were not prepared for what we discovered. But first, why were we never encouraged to read the Fathers of the Church? We had always stated, “The Fathers are not inspired; the Bible is inspired, and that’s all we need.” But this new finding was a real eye-opener. These first Christians lived, preached, worshipped, and died before the New Testament was even in existence. They were authentic witnesses to the life, Tradition, and practice of the Apostles themselves. They still had the apostolic voices ringing in their ears.
On New Year’s Eve of 1993, some Baptist friends had us over for two reasons: to usher in the new year and to try and save us from our lunacy. We had been studying the early Church for months now, and they saw the effect it was having upon us. They wanted to talk, and talk we did. In the midst of the conversation, I stood up and asked my friend, “Do you realize that if you and I had seen Jesus crucified and risen from the dead we would have never read the Gospel of John?” He retorted, “Why not?” I replied, “Because it wasn’t written until about 100 ad, and we would have been dead long before that. Jim, how did the first Christians live and practice Christianity without the New Testament?”
On the way home, I was quiet for a long time. Janet asked, “What are you thinking?” I said, “This is getting very scary; the more we argue against the Catholic Church, the more I realize we are backing ourselves right in the front door!”
The next day was January 1, 1994. It was a delightful day with no phone calls or business. We had no interest in football either. At this point, we were consumed with our quandary — What is the Church? What does God expect of us? Where did the Bible come from? Could the Catholic Church possibly be the Church Jesus founded and promised to build?
We had tackled all the obstacles one at a time: the pope, Mary, purgatory, priests, Confession, the Eucharist, faith alone, Bible alone, and many more, and it was all coming to a head. We had books open all over the living room floor. We were asking questions and reading passages aloud to each other. Then it happened: I began to sob. I closed all my books and sat on the floor, crying like a baby. With great concern, my wonderful wife asked, “Steve, what is wrong?” I responded through my tears, “Nothing is wrong.… I just realized, I am a Catholic!” She responded, “Oh good grief,” but she said the same thing as I did less than twenty-fours later.
I called my friend Al Kresta (the same person I had called stupid a year earlier) and said, “Happy New Year, Al. Guess what? I’m a Catholic!”
There was silence on the other end of the phone.
“Al, are you there?”
“Yeah,” he replied, “but I don’t think I heard you correctly, what did you just say?” After I explained, he replied, “You are the last one I thought would ever say that!”
Then he asked me a question for which I was certainly not prepared: “Steve, tomorrow is Sunday, how would you like to go to Mass with us?”
I stopped dead in my tracks and froze. It had never dawned on me that if I would read my way into the Catholic Church I would have to some day go to a Catholic Mass! Old sentiments die hard, and I had lots of them about the Catholic Mass.
I covered the phone and related to my wife what Al had asked. She responded as cool as a cucumber, “Tell him we will go, but we will leave the kids at home; we want to get there late, sit in the back row, and leave early.” (People have jokingly told us we were real American Catholics from our first day.)
Al did not keep his promise, and we ended up arriving at Mass early, and we sat in the front of the church. I will never forget that morning. Tears welled up in my eyes for the second time in two days when I watched an apostolic man process up the aisle. I had never seen a priest up close before, but I knew exactly what he was. Janet was weeping too. We wept at every Mass for the next six years, and still do.
On Pentecost Sunday, May 22, 1994, Janet and I, along with our entire immediate family, were received into the Catholic Church. We have never looked back.