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Damascus Road Traveller

Ben Eicher
January 6, 2022 No Comments

“Someday we’ll all be Catholic. ”What!? I was eight years old when I heard my father say those words. It was the evening of Sunday, October 22, 1967. Dad was driving our family from our home in West Milford, NJ, where he was serving as pastor of Holy Faith Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, which he’d founded in 1960 straight out of Concordia Seminary. Our destination was about twenty miles down the highway, to Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church in Wayne, NJ, where my father and Father James Rugel were to jointly lead a post-Vatican II ecumenical service.

Dad had penned the “Welcome” message appearing that night in the Catholic parish’s bulletin. He’d be serving as one of the nine participating clergymen: five Catholic priests and four Lutheran pastors. The Don Bosco College Choir and the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia Chorus would be singing the hymns.

I protested, “but we’re Lutherans!” I felt like we were being traitors, or at least crossing enemy lines.

My protest wasn’t because I was anti-Catholic. Practically all of my neighborhood buddies were Irish or Italian Catholics. They attended St. Joseph’s Parochial School.

Why had Dad said such a confusing thing? I was aware that some grownups had angrily grumbled that my father’s liturgical practices were “too Catholic” — not that I understood what they meant. I was aware that Dad had gotten into hot water with the officers of the Missouri Synod because he was offering weekly holy communion, rather than only having it once a month, and that he “communed himself.”

My father’s maternal familial lineage was German Lutheran. Before the Missouri Synod even existed, his maternal ancestors had founded a parish in northwest Ohio. Dad was the first home-grown member of that parish to be ordained. That took place in July 1960 at the hands of his seminary mentor, Dr. Arthur Carl Piepkorn. Piepkorn had been the head chaplain of World War II’s European theater, serving with General Eisenhower.

I loved my father’s demand for “high liturgy” worship, as well as his passionate and intelligent sermons. I also loved when Dad would ask guest pastors to help, mainly those from his seminary class of 1960. In February 1961, Richard John Neuhaus delivered the very first sermon at Dad’s Holy Faith parish. Later, when we were going on vacation, Dad tabbed Robert Louis Wilken, another seminary classmate, to man the pulpit until we got back. I was proud to serve frequently as an acolyte (altar boy) at our services. In 1967, again at Holy Faith, I received my first communion.

Dad had hoped I’d follow in his footsteps and become a pastor, but that wasn’t my dream. I wanted to play shortstop with the New York Yankees. (Ironically, three decades later, another boy from West Milford, Derek Jeter, would become the greatest-ever Yankees shortstop.)

“Someday we’ll all be Catholic!” My mind ran through all the reasons we Lutherans weren’t Catholics: didn’t Catholics worship the Virgin Mary? Weren’t Catholics told not to read the Bible? Didn’t Catholics constantly take the Lord’s name in vain? Didn’t Catholics believe Jesus died again at every Mass? Didn’t Catholics care more about a “haze of saints” than Jesus? Didn’t the Catholic Church burn heretics at the stake and sell indulgences to get to heaven?

Was Luther wrong? I grew up thinking I’d forever be a Missouri Synod Lutheran. “Here I stand, I can do no other.” What were we doing going to a Catholic church?

I’d never been inside a Catholic church. My Aunt Betty (my father’s older sister) had scandalized the clan by wedding a Catholic man and had converted in order to get married in his parish. Then she became the parish’s organist.

The only thing I knew about the inside of a Catholic church was it had racks of votive candles and weird statues. The women wore doilies on their heads, no one took off their coats, the priest spoke in Latin, and Catholics were taught a “works-righteousness” salvation.

Now, echoing in my head was this statement, “Someday we’ll all be Catholic.”

I learned later that Fr. Rugel and my father had led a parallel pastoral existence. Both had been ordained in July 1960; both had immediately been dispatched to the hinterlands of northern New Jersey as greenhorn missionaries, sent to build parishes from the ground up; and both had a devotion to the Eucharist as their respective faith traditions taught and practiced.

Despite my trepidation that night, the Catholic service wasn’t bad. The church building wasn’t eerie. The accoutrements inside weren’t off-putting. I survived the evening.

However, not long after this ecumenical service, the storm clouds rolled in to rain fire and brimstone on my father. The semi-Fundamentalist wing of the Missouri Synod had surged to power. Their goals included ridding seminary professorships and the pastorates of “Evangelical Catholics,” and what they considered to be theological and/or political “liberals.” Dad’s bunch of Evangelical Catholics fell within their crosshairs.

In 1972, we moved from New Jersey to northwest Ohio. In 1973, Dr. Piepkorn, who had served on the panel of theologians making up the official Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue — where, by all accounts, he was the dominant force on it — was scheduled to face a heresy trial for allegedly teaching “false doctrine.” The purge was on, as was the exodus. Eventually Pastor Neuhaus would swim the Tiber. So would Professor Wilken, who by then was serving as a Patristics professor at the University of Notre Dame.

By 1974, my father was trying to hold on within the Missouri Synod. He accepted a call to pastor the twin Missouri Synod parishes in far-off Crawford and Harrison, Nebraska. We became Cornhuskers.

Even though the administration of the Missouri Synod was in turmoil, I was completely happy being a Lutheran. Dad’s high-liturgy style moved me; his preaching moved me; his Bible teaching moved me; Luther’s Small Catechism moved me; receiving Lutheran holy communion moved me; the intelligence of the Lutheran pastors Dad was rubbing elbows with moved me. I remained loyal to Missouri Synod Lutheranism.

Dad’s willingness to stay in the Missouri Synod continued even when the higher-ups were monitoring the content of his sermons. In the fall of 1976, the hammer fell again. The “too-Catholic” accusations were heaped onto the allegation of an error I’d never heard of: “unionism.” This meant worshiping or praying in a ceremony with non-Missouri Synod Lutherans. In Dad’s case, his ultimate malfeasance had been saying the opening prayer at a high school baccalaureate.

Dad was shown the door. The synod removed my father’s name from the “call” list, meaning they would no longer allow him to pastor a Missouri Synod church.

In the years that followed, my father wandered in the employment desert. He worked the night shift as a security guard; he taught high school; he obtained a Master’s degree in guidance and counseling. In 1993, the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) Synod offered him a parish in Edon, Ohio. He accepted, although he was honest with the parishioners that he’d give them Piepkornian Missouri Synod Lutheranism.

The “someday” that “we’ll all be Catholic” never arrived for my father. He died in 1995, on the Eve of the Feast of All Saints, as the popular pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church.

As for me, it was with great heartache that I jumped ship in September 1982. During law school in Lincoln, Nebraska, I became a member of the AELC (a short-lived synod of purged Missouri Synodians that, in 1988, was absorbed into the newly-formed ELCA). I was a faithful attendee at All Saints Lutheran Church until my law school graduation.

In May 1985, I joined a law firm in Rapid City, South Dakota. In the Black Hills, there were no AELC parishes, and my father was back in Ohio, so I sat on the sidelines. I became rudderless. Although I never lost my faith in Christ, I descended into an unchurched, non-sacramental existence. On Sunday mornings, I lamented the loss of “going to church,” but not enough to join an ELCA parish. Those who are familiar with the Dakotas know that a large Scandinavian-heritage population lives there, and they tend to be Lutherans. This means there are many ELCA Lutheran parishes. On the other hand, there are also many Native Americans (Lakota Sioux) there, and they are Catholic. So there are also plenty of Catholic churches.

I ignored them all. I was determined not to dabble in non-Lutheran Protestantism. That was easy for me. As a Missouri Synod Lutheran, I shared much in common with Catholic doctrine, but little with Calvinist or Zwinglian doctrine. They didn’t believe in a true Real Presence, and they had a different set of the Ten Commandments.

In 1988, I married a divorced woman with two unbaptized children. I asked my father to trek the 1,100 miles from Ohio to go South Dakota to perform the nuptials and baptize the kids. My Catholic aunt was willing to play the organ for us. A local Congregational parish in the Nebraska town we used to live in rented me their church building for the festivities.

I worked hard to make the wedding ceremony perfect. I bought the communion hosts. I built a processional cross. I typed the bulletins. But that’s about as “religious” as I got. I never prayed about our situation. My fiancée and I didn’t go through pre-marital religious counseling. We didn’t scout for a parish to join after we became man and wife.

The wedding ceremony Dad led us through was highly liturgical. It included the kids’ baptisms as well as holy communion. My bride and her family constantly joked about our religiosity. Afterward, Dad lamented that he shouldn’t have married us because of the low state of our chronically non-religious life. He was right. My wife and I didn’t even make it through two years before we were divorced.

God wasn’t to blame. I knew I had to get God back into my life. But even then, I didn’t feel compelled to become “churched.” I thought I’d just read the Bible, plus books by or about Luther and Lutheranism.

In 1990, I met a lapsed Catholic woman with three baptized kids, and I began a serious relationship with her. The woman’s parents, as well as her brother Paul, were devout, but she was not.

During our three years together, we didn’t attend church. Not even Christmas or Easter. Also, I didn’t get to know Paul during that time. By early 1993, our relationship was failing.

The time had come for me to pray, “God, help us!” I hatched a plan to get my girlfriend to become Lutheran: “You’re Catholic and I’m Lutheran. Let’s alternate every Sunday.” I was being devious. I had no intention of becoming Catholic. I figured I was Catholic enough by virtue of my father’s “too-Catholic” habits. My girlfriend agreed to my plan. I suggested we start at a Lutheran church.

We picked an ELCA parish, and one Sunday we headed there. The parish was holding a “modern” liturgy service, without holy communion. As the “contemporary service” unfolded, I thought to myself, “I don’t recognize this. Where is any semblance of the Lutheran liturgy?”

The next Sunday it was my girlfriend’s turn. During the week, my benign anti-Catholicism (which I hadn’t realized I had) reared its head. Much of it ran through my thoughts: Tetzel and the sale of indulgences (“Into the coffer a penny rings; out of purgatory a soul springs.”); worldly cardinals and popes, some of whose rich overly-secular families had purchased ecclesiastical stature for their boys when they were under five years old; priests who couldn’t read and who’d fathered illegitimate children while wagging fingers at the parishioners not to commit fornication; the papacy is the anti-Christ; Church councils had erred; burning heretics at the stake; they’d chained Bibles to tables; forbade Catholics from reading the Scriptures; then there was the Inquisition and Galileo. I dug out my tattered copy of the Book of Concord, the official set of Lutheran doctrinal writings, and read.

Regarding Mary, yes, she is rightly called Mother of God; yes, she was perpetually virgin; yes, in heaven she prays for us. But in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, there is criticism of Mariology as the desire to employ “magic.” A specific example is cited: at a monastery, a statue of Mary was manipulated by puppet strings to nod Yes or No to parishioner’s prayers to her. The Catholic Church, I was convinced, had rejected Luther when all he wanted to do was preach the gospel and bring education to the masses.

“Protestantism” meant “Protest-antism,” and it was the Catholic Church that was being protested. “Reformation” meant “reform- ation” to us Lutherans, but to other non-Catholic faiths it meant “re-form-ation.” It was, of course, the Catholic Church that was being “reformed” or “re-formed.” Despite having little in com- mon with other non-Catholic faiths, I was sure that, since 1517, in spite of the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church hadn’t been re- formed. It still taught a works-righteousness salvation, and it was filled with the traditions of men.

With these thoughts spinning inside my brain, my girlfriend and I headed to Rapid City’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. As we drove there, I was filled with trepidation, and I tried to calm myself: “whatever happens, don’t run out in mid-service.”

With shaky knees, I started walking up the entrance steps. Suddenly a voice inside me announced: “once you go in, you’ll never come out.” The locution literally stopped me in my tracks. My girlfriend looked at me like I was bailing on her before we even went inside. I was stunned! Were the words a warning or a prophesy?

We walked in. I nearly hyperventilated. There were holy water fonts that people were dipping their fingers in. Everyone had their coats on, maybe because there was nowhere to hang up their coats. We walked into the nave. The biggest thing in the sanctuary wasn’t a hanging cross or crucifix, but an icon of Mary holding the infant Jesus. It looked enormous — especially Mary. I worried: “during the service, will there be worship of Mary?”

My girlfriend and I sat in a pew far in the back. I nervously scanned the other pews and made mental notes of where the exits were. “There are more people here than I expected,” I gulped as the liturgy began. The processional hymn was familiar. I’d grown up singing it. The priest and altar servers solemnly processed behind a crucifix, just like we used to do.

I began to calm down. I suddenly had the odd feeling I was “home.” The parishioners were singing, even if not nearly as loudly as we Lutherans did. There was no worship of Mary. The liturgy was virtually identical to the Lutheran “high-liturgy” I’d been raised with. Some of the wording was different, or not in the same order, but at no point during the service did I feel I was in the wrong place.

When it came time to leave, I didn’t want to. “Let’s come here next week,” I said to my girlfriend. And we did.

But it didn’t save our relationship. It dissolved soon afterwards. Nevertheless, I kept going back to the cathedral. The next thing I knew, my girlfriend’s brother, Paul, was inviting me to stay between the Sunday morning Masses for coffee and donuts in the basement. The locution I heard was right: I went in and never came out. I never went back to a Lutheran church. As I kept attending Mass at the cathedral, I became closer with my ex’s devout brother and his family. I still had no intention of becoming Catholic, though. Enter Tim — now known a well-known Catholic professor and apologist. At that time, he was a high school religion teacher at the new St. Thomas More High School in Rapid City. Tim also taught a Bible study class. Paul invited me to attend with him. A Catholic Bible class? I didn’t know such a thing existed! I’d been through many boring Bible study classes, and I already knew the Bible well enough. When I was 11 years old, I came in second in a New York City radio station’s Bible Quiz show. I begrudgingly told Paul I’d give it a try.

Wow! I’d never heard the Bible opened the way Tim did it. My “Lutheran Bible- interpretation eyeglasses” flew away. Tim laboriously fed us hot meat instead of the lukewarm milk of the “What does this verse mean to you?” style of Bible studies I’d grown weary of. He walked us through Covenant Theology and delved deeply into the linguistic nuances and what the early Church Fathers interpreted the verses to mean. I was putty in Tim’s hands.

But I wasn’t spineless about it. I became committed to immersing myself in reading more Lutheranism than I ever had. I pored through the Augsburg Confession and the other writings contained in the Book of Concord; I read parts of Martin Chemnitz’s four-volume set on the Council of Trent; I read this Lutheran book and that. I also had numerous long-distance phone chats with my father. I tried hard to remain Lutheran.

Despite my research, I was drifting in the undertow of Catholicism. I doubled down on my commitment to Lutheranism by firmly gripping onto the life raft of sola Scriptura. I reminded my- self that one reason Luther was so Scripture-oriented was because of the lack of holiness and worldliness of the popes and cardinals of the early 1500s. Their scandals inspired in me no confidence that they spoke for God. Indeed, the gates of hell seemed to be prevailing. As to sola fide (i.e., “faith alone” — “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls”), I couldn’t see any way that doctrine could fall.

Tim’s comprehensive and kind Scripture teaching offered a better life raft. I learned that Tetzel was a rogue; the pope wasn’t the anti-Christ; the Church taught that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ”; there weren’t any puppet strings manipulating statues of the Virgin Mary; and rightful Mariology carried out the prophecy (Luke 1:48) that all generations would call her blessed.

Sola Scriptura sank when I realized a bunch of leaks: we Lutherans had our own extra-Biblical Magisterium, “lover of the Bible”Martin Luther wasn’t thrilled with a number of New Testament canonical books; the Catholics hadn’t added books to the Bible, but rather the Protestants had removed them; during the Catholic liturgy, the Gospels are so revered they are held aloft and often incensed prior to their reading; the Lutherans used the same Bible readings in their service that the Catholic Church did; we both held to the Three Creeds, those being the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

Sola fide foundered more quickly: I no longer had to believe a tortuous reading of James 2:24 (“not by faith alone”); in comparison, the words of St. Paul should be read in context with, and in comparison to, the words of Jesus, not vice versa (2 Peter 3:16 talks about those who misinterpret Paul’s words); even the Athanasian Creed ends on an anti-faith-alone declaration.

Gulp!

My “someday” had arrived. It came as a thief in the night the evening Tim taught on Matthew 16:18, where Jesus makes Peter the head of His Church. If it were true that Peter was the first pope — Jesus had made Simon His prime minister, and had given him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, promising that the gates of hades would never prevail against the Church founded upon him — I knew I had no choice. My conscience compelled me to come into full communion with the Catholic Church.

Double gulp! How will I break the news to my father? How do I join? How will I “get” things like Marian devotion?

I swallowed my pride and plunged into the turgid waters of the Tiber. In 1993, at age 34, I began RCIA. My ex-girlfriend’s brother Paul was my sponsor. The priest who ran the classes later became Wyoming Diocese’s Bishop Steven Biegler. Nine months later, I was confirmed by then Rapid City Diocese’s Bishop Charles Chaput.

During my confirmation, I had another religious experience. Within milliseconds of being anointed with the oil of the Sacrament of Confirmation, I was struck with an overpowering urge to teach Bible study. When Tim moved on from Rapid City, he asked me to take over his Bible study class. I met with Bishop Chaput about it, and he approved it. During our discussion, Bishop Chaput asked about my background. I told him about my father. Bishop Chaput said his favorite Scripture professor at the University of San Francisco had been a Lutheran, Dr. John Elliot. I said I’d ask my father if he knew him. I called Dad that night to inquire. His response was, “Jack? I graduated from seminary with him.” I taught Bible study in Rapid City from 1994 to 2014. I had to stop at age 55 because of a stroke.

Before my stroke, I had vigorously worked to return the favor to God and His Church for my newfound blessings. During the spring semesters of 2003 and 2004, I taught religion at St. Thomas More High School. From 2003 to 2005, I served as Religion Consultant for the Emmy Award-nominated CBS-TV drama series, “Joan of Arcadia.” (It was a 21st century version of a Joan of Arc style girl hearing God’s voice and trying to act on His messages.) In January 2005, I was a guest on The Journey Home. From 2001 to 2006, I served on the Board of Directors of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. The chairman was former Lutheran Dr. Robert Louis Wilken.

Today, I love being Catholic. It saved my spiritual life. In a way, it also saved my physical life. When I had my stroke, in the ICU I “coded out” seven times. When I emerged from a coma, a priest was seated at my bedside giving me the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. When I opened my eyes, he nearly jumped off the chair. I remember hearing him say, “I’ve gotten this far, so I may as well continue.”

Ten weeks later, I was discharged. I was told I’d be in a wheelchair for life. Lots of prayers later, I advanced to a walker, then to a cane. Even though I stagger, I walk. I rarely use a cane. I drive. I work full time.

However, I didn’t get off scot-free. I’m permanently unable to swallow, and my right leg is semi-paralyzed. But four doctors have told me I’m a miracle. I thank God.

I still cherish my Lutheran upbringing. It helped lead me to the Church that Jesus Christ founded. Jesus has certainly been with me as I have stumbled along with fear and trembling.

“Someday we’ll all be Catholic.” I went in and never came out. Hallelujah!


Ben Eicher

BEN EICHER was a trial lawyer for 18 years before departing the practice in 2003. He moved on to be the religion consultant for the Emmy-nominated CBS-TV drama, “Joan of Arcadia.” He now writes a weekly column for a Nebraska newspaper, pens novels, and does legal research for Rensch Law Office in Rapid City, South Dakota. He is also a licensed attorney in the Rosebud Sioux Tribal court system. He has also appeared on The Journey Home.


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