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From One Worldwide Church… to the True One

Dan Severino June 10, 2011 5 Comments

I was born, baptized, and catechized a Catholic. When my parents married, my father was nominally Catholic and my mother consequently converted, taking on the sole responsibility for the religious formation of us children. I don’t remember how faithfully we attended Mass, but I do remember going to Sunday school regularly.

Though I wasn’t a devoutly religious child, I was always inclined toward God. I wanted to please Him, so I made a conscious effort to obey my parents and tell the truth. I tried to read the Bible but didn’t understand it, so my interest waned. I remember being inspired for a time by my First Holy Communion and Confirmation to participate regularly in the sacraments and daily devotions.

The Worldwide Church of God

During those childhood years, my mother became a captive audience to radio and television evangelists. Then shortly after my confirmation, she decided to become a member of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG). I was content being Catholic, and if my dad had been more devout, I probably would have stayed, but I wasn’t strong enough or equipped to go against my mother’s direction.

Since the Worldwide Church of God isn’t a well-known denomination, it’s likely that few readers have met a member or convert from this sect. We should begin by giving a little of the background and history of this group.

The WCG today is a much different organization from what it was in the mid-sixties when I began attending with my mother. Herbert W. Armstrong founded it, believing that he had been called by God to restore the gospel that had been lost since the first century a.d. Under his leadership, the WCG espoused an eclectic mix of doctrines.

The central definitive doctrine was the observance of Saturday as the seventh-day Sabbath. The members of the WCG also held to the sacred calendar of the Jewish people, celebrating the Days of Unleavened Bread by removing all leavened products from their homes. Christmas and Easter were not observed because they were not biblically ordained festivals.

Members also followed the dietary restrictions of the Jewish people and did not eat pork products. We would diligently read the ingredients of items such as bread and crackers to make sure they were made with vegetable shortening and not animal fats.

Prophecy and the return of Christ were always in the forefront of the group’s teaching and evangelization. Mr. Armstrong and his son, Garner Ted, spoke daily on their radio program, The World Tomorrow. The program got its name from the expected thousand-year reign of Christ that included a worldwide secular utopia.

Many sermons on prophecy were preached. The Catholic Church was looked upon with great suspicion. Part of the prophetic package included the belief that the United States and Great Britain were the descendants of Israel, and therefore the Old Testament prophecies that mentioned Israel were thought to be speaking to our nations.

There was no belief in the Trinity. God the Father and God the Son were separate beings, with the Holy Spirit being only the power of God. The WCG held to sola scriptura, but not to sola fide. A Christian was required to keep the Ten Commandments for salvation: If one didn’t keep the seventh-day Sabbath, one couldn’t be saved.

Members of the WCG were discouraged from reading materials from other religious organizations, for fear they might succumb to the devil’s clever arguments. The WCG also believed in divine healing and preached that reliance on the medical profession was a sure sign of a lack of faith.

When I graduated from high school, I was accepted into the WCG’s own Ambassador College. This beautiful campus in Pasadena, California, was a combination of restored millionaire mansions and elegant new structures. My four years at Ambassador College provided many great memories.

Culturally, it was a very rich experience. Many world leaders and other influential people were invited to speak before the student body. Upon graduation, many students went into the WCG ministry. My talents, however, were musical, and though the dean of faculty encouraged me to remain as a part of the music faculty, I chose to return home to Pennsylvania, where I continued my musical studies. There I became involved in the local WCG congregation and even did some preaching.

Changes in the WCG

After Mr. Armstrong’s death in 1986, his handpicked successor began a series of changes that rocked the WCG, causing it to split into different factions (though schisms had been regular during my thirty-plus years in the WCG). These changes included a gradual openness to more traditional Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, as well as a relaxation of the WCG’s strict Sabbath rules.

I was always one to support the leadership of the WCG, so when the church changed its attitude toward medical doctors, I had no difficulty following along. Hadn’t St. Luke been referred to as the “beloved physician” (see Col 4:14)? When WCG changed its views on the nature of God, softening its literal interpretation of the anthropomorphic descriptions of God and becoming more Trinitarian, I again found no problem in this.

In the spring of 1995, the WCG split into two separate groups. Those holding to the traditions of Mr. Armstrong called themselves the United Church of God (UCG); those who agreed with the changes instituted by Mr. Armstrong’s successor stuck with the WCG. My wife and I stayed with the WCG; my mother went with the UCG.

It was a difficult time. Everyone had longtime friends who were now separated because of differing understandings. Every faction claimed loyalty to Mr. Armstrong. Many members became bewildered over what to believe; many quit religion altogether.

Those who stayed with the WCG, however, felt a tremendous excitement. They felt they were relieved of the burdens of the Old Covenant. The WCG took to a traditional Protestant view of justification by faith, but they didn’t go so far as to say faith alone, and this is where a new round of debate began.

The range of belief available within Protestant denominations concerning justification, or almost any issue, is quite large. In the same way, various WCG church leaders leaned toward Calvinistic theology, while others were more Arminian. Some took up the motto “No creed but Christ.”

Some believed that the Bible was totally without error; others leaned toward the position that only the principles concerning salvation were without error. I mention this for an important reason: The liquid nature of the WCG at this time meant that I could finally study theological issues on my own in good conscience. Since the WCG had a range of beliefs on most issues, I felt free to study and come to my own conclusions. So I began reading various schools of thought.

Yet another big change in the WCG was the introduction of the worship leader. This move was made to follow the pattern of successful contemporary Protestant churches. Success was defined as those with strong growth in membership numbers.

My Growing Interest in Liturgy

Being a worship leader was a large responsibility and one that couldn’t be taken lightly. The success of the service was determined by the success of the worship leader. In time, I was placed in charge of our congregation’s worship activities and all our worship leaders.

Not being satisfied with contemporary Christian worship, I began looking at alternatives. The WCG provided an Internet discussion group, where all worship leaders in our worldwide congregations could share and debate ideas. Liturgy soon became a major part of our Internet discussions.

Since the Protestant world accepted the practice of Advent, I began to develop an Advent program for our local WCG congregation. Some WCG members still didn’t feel comfortable with Christmas, so we just called it Incarnation Day.

I became more and more interested in liturgy. Since I was classically trained in music and not inclined toward contemporary Christian music, I developed a strong interest in religious music of the past.

At first, it was the hymnody of the church in its Protestant tradition. This step led me next to the Masses of Bach, Beethoven, and Schubert. Finally, I became exposed to the wonderful liturgical works of the Renaissance and medieval styles of music. My wife and I loved a CD of the chants of St. Hildegard von Bingen. As you can see, my musical exploration brought me in closer and closer contact with Catholic culture.

At this same time, we were talking on our Internet forums about how often we should participate in the Lord’s Supper (the service we had in place of the Eucharist). Our old WCG tradition was to take it only once a year. Most thought we shouldn’t celebrate it too often because we would begin to take it for granted.

My theological research at this time was making me aware that even the Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin believed that the Lord’s Supper should be taken weekly. My religious sentiments naturally inclined me to awe and great reverence for God. Contemporary Christian music and contemporary Christian churches were missing something. The awe and reverence were replaced with a shallow emotionalism that just didn’t ring true. Something was missing, but I didn’t know what it was.

I thought if I would just go back far enough in time, I would find out where and why things got off track. I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the WCG. My studies were taking me farther back in history, and the WCG was bringing me current Protestant thought that I just couldn’t accept. My local WCG pastor recommended that I just keep my mind on Christ and not let these things bother me.

That answer wasn’t satisfactory. I hungered for more. I wanted the truth.

Reconsidering the Catholic Church

One evening while driving home from work, pondering my quest for the truth, knowing I would eventually leave the WCG, the thought came to me, “Before you die, you’re going to become Catholic again.” I didn’t reject the thought, but I thought I would first become some type of conservative Protestant.

This was the light bulb moment for me. This was the moment when I needed finally to consider what the Catholic Church had to say in defense of her theological positions. The doctrine of justification by faith alone wasn’t a return to the theology of the early Church as I had always assumed. It was a theological idea formed to assuage the guilty conscience of a talented but troubled Augustinian monk. Upon further study I found that what Luther taught wasn’t a return to the ancient belief of the Church but actually a new doctrine.

Shortly before this time I had finally found a book that might answer my questions on the worship of the early Church. It was The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth by Dr. Scott Hahn (Doubleday, 1999). I remember having listened a couple of months before on our local Christian radio station to an interview with Dr. Hahn and his conversion to the Catholic Church.

The specific details of the conversation escape me, but I remember his enthusiasm. At the time, I was not aware of any Protestants converting to the Catholic faith. I assumed it was always Catholics becoming Protestant.

This was a “hmmm” moment. The Lamb’s Supper was a captivating read. I read it in one day. Dr. Hahn’s book convinced me of the importance of the Eucharist in the early Church and therefore of its necessity today.

His enthusiasm expressed in his writing is infectious, and it gave me a strong shove in the direction of the Catholic faith. But then I thought of the complexities that so drastic a change would bring to my personal life, so I backtracked a bit. Even so, I held onto the central importance of the Eucharist.

Since I was in charge of leading our worship, I thought of ways of bringing the Lord’s Supper weekly to our local WCG. Our pastor told me that the people were not ready for such a drastic change. It wasn’t the direction of the WCG, and I should just forget about it.

Learning to think like a Catholic takes time. On this, God allowed me to struggle. One day while studying, I concluded that the Catholic Church was the most biblical of all churches.

Unfortunately, this made me try for a while to become a Bible-alone Catholic. This position works well for the Real Presence in the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration, or the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In my mind, the Catholic scriptural position on these doctrines was far more persuasive than any Protestant position.

To understand the Marian doctrines, however, one must think like a Catholic. One must accept the scriptural approach of St. Augustine that the New Testament is concealed in the Old and the Old Testament is revealed in the New. To do this, one must accept Tradition, and to do this, one must give up being a Bible-alone Catholic. This move requires a real paradigm shift and takes a while to accomplish.

I was finally ready to seek out a priest. I thought we should call the local priest and talk to him in the privacy of our home. My wife called the Catholic church.

She told the priest we wanted to return to the Catholic Church. He said, “Mass is tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. See me after Mass.”

Whoa! I didn’t feel that ready. But the next morning we arrived at St. Matthias parish in the little town of Evans City, Pennsylvania. We entered the church, made the sign of the cross (for the first time in about thirty-five years) and sat way in the back.

I was very nervous and mentally uncomfortable. At the first sight of the huge cross in this little rural church, I was repelled. It was too personal, too vivid, and too real.

As the Mass progressed, I became more and more uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to make of these feelings. I was confused.

After the Mass, the priest invited us to his rectory to talk. My wife and I were so nervous we could barely make an intelligent conversation. After leaving, we shared our experiences and discovered that we felt the same way.

Final Steps Back to the Church

After meditating on the experience, I knew I wasn’t ready immediately. But I also knew that according to all my study, the Catholic Church was the Church established by Jesus. I had to follow my head in spite of my conflicted feelings.

My wife and I decided not to tell anyone in our WCG church about visiting the Catholic priest and attending Mass. One of the unusual things about being in the WCG at this time was that a good percentage of the people would visit other Protestant churches and tell of their positive experiences. However, no one talked of going to a Catholic church.

Membership in our local WCG congregation, which was about eighty-five after the major split in 1995, fell to about forty a year later. It was only in the mid-twenties in the summer of 2000. Since WCG members believed that Christians could be found in any Christian church, there was no compelling reason for many to stay.

Loyalty to the WCG wasn’t high. Some resented the WCG for the whiplash caused first by believing they were the only true church and then by being told there were Christians everywhere where people believed in Christ as their personal Savior.

I finally came to the conclusion that perhaps God wanted me to really want to come back to the Catholic Church. It was as if God were saying to me, “You left me for thirty years, and you want to just hop in a pew like nothing happened! Not so easy, Dan.”

In my studies, I became more convinced of the truth of Catholic doctrine. But the fear of repeating the experience of our first Mass was haunting. What if it would happen again? I didn’t know much about limbo — but I felt as if I were living in it.

One evening during this time, we were having a Bible study at our home. I was absent due to my work, but my wife was there. The minister made it a point to talk about the imputation of righteousness and not infusion. My wife just sat there and let the minister talk.

After this, we knew we were reaching critical mass. A decision needed to be made. We did the only thing we knew to do. We prayed.

We decided we had to face our fear and go to a Mass. After this Mass, I was much more comfortable and so was my wife. My wife and I made our plan to let the people know we were going to return to our Catholic roots.

We met with our local priest, who then made all the arrangements to have our marriage sacramentalized. On Saturday, August 26, 2000, we were married in the Church and then together received the sacraments after an almost thirty-five-year absence. We drove to our honeymoon destination, and the first question we asked the motel owner was “Where’s the nearest Catholic Church where we can attend Mass?”

We’ve been living happily ever after.

Dan Severino

Daniel Severino lives with his wife, Pauline, in Valencia, Pennsylvania. They have two children and two grandchildren. Daniel is in charge of a music studio and is involved in a music publishing company.

This story appears in the book Journeys Home, edited by Marcus Grodi (CHResources, rev. ed., 2011). To order the book, click here.

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