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Dressed Down by Three Pastors for Investigating Catholicism

Joe Ward
March 9, 2023 No Comments

I parked my car at the church and sat with my thoughts for a while. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this meeting to which I had been summoned. All I knew was that the Executive Pastor wanted to meet with me about a recent prayer request I had written during service a few weeks prior.

When I signed in at the church office, I was immediately greeted by another pastor, one whom I had been meeting with regularly in a sort of discipleship position. I had known this pastor for a long time. He was the worship leader when I began attending the church almost 10 years ago, after moving across the country for employment. I quickly joined the worship team, playing a variety of instruments under his leadership. Additionally, my wife and I, along with several other young couples from the church, began a small group, led by him and his wife. We would grow together, learn together, laugh together, and weep together. Some couples came and left, but overall, our group was strong and intimate.

The pastor thanked me for responding to his text to meet with the Executive Pastor, explaining that he would be sitting in on the meeting. We walked down to the office together, where I was greeted by the Executive Pastor. Entering, I was also greeted by the Pastor of the Spanish congregation. I was then told he would also be sitting in on this meeting. I began to feel a bit uneasy as the four of us sat down and the Executive Pastor opened with a short prayer.

I had no idea that I would be sitting in a meeting like this for simply filling out one of those prayer request cards in the pews. I had no idea what it would mean for me to make it known that I was looking into Catholicism and to request prayer for God’s will to be done.

I had been performing for worship for years. I had studied the French horn in college and had started with that, along with whatever the church needed me to play — not including drums; I am not good at drums. We had recently hired a new Worship Pastor, and he had pigeonholed me into playing lead guitar. The previous Worship Pastor was then able to move into more of a counseling/discipleship position, and I had begun meeting with him regularly.

I’m not sure how they found out that the prayer request card was mine, since I had submitted it anonymously. But it didn’t matter. There I was, sitting in a room with three pastors who had a lot to say to me. The meeting began with questions about my story, how I came to Christ, and how I came to be in the room with them.

I am one of five adopted children. My adoptive parents are both Protestants, but from distinct backgrounds. My mother was raised Mennonite, and my father was raised Methodist. Interestingly enough, my siblings and I grew up in a Reformed Presbyterian Church, and that is where I acquired my theology.

My father insists that I accepted Christ as a child, in our living room, although I have no recollection of such a singular conversion event.

However, something about my acceptance of Christ just stuck with me. I had many traumas growing up: neglect, adoption, and sexual abuse, along with growing up with siblings that also had their own traumas, resulting in my becoming a young man filled with rage, guilt, and shame: rage against the past, guilt for the things I had done in my rage, and shame for feeling that there was something wrong with me due to the things done to me and the things I had done.

Through all of this, I leaned on God. Consequently, I had many small conversions throughout my life as I was convicted — by myself, by God, or even by the devil. There were many moments when I would commit my life to God, leaning hard into the understanding that there were so many things outside of my control, but that ultimately God was in control.

Steeped and schooled in Calvinism, I entered college, where I studied music education. I ended up getting into the same school that my father had attended, and he suggested his old church from his time in college. It turned out that the same pastor was still there, after all these years. College was lonely at first, but eventually, I made good friends at this church and joined Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.

While I came from a Reformed tradition, I wasn’t opposed to other Protestant ways of thinking. To me, a church was much more about the community and the worship style. I had friends at this college church, and I tolerated its worship style, so I was happy to get plugged in there. It was a small community church that was much more charismatic than I had previously experienced. Here, I was exposed to the concepts of gifts of the Spirit, speaking in tongues, people dancing with streamers… the whole nine yards.

It wasn’t my cup of tea, but as I said, I tolerated it. I would often get into theological discussions with my friends and colleagues, which I quite enjoyed. It was here that I began to digest and defend my own theology. Exposed to many different ideas, ultimately, I came out of college a stronger Calvinist than ever before.

After graduating college, I took a job across the country as a General Music Teacher for a company that contracts with schools that either can’t or don’t want to pay for their own in-house music teachers. I was excited to get away from where I grew up and to put down roots elsewhere. Through a bit of networking, a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend kind of thing, I was able to stay with a family for a few months while I got on my feet. They went to an Evangelical Free church on Sunday, and I went with them. This is how I came to attend the congregation whose Executive Pastor’s office I found myself sitting in.

Shortly after moving across the country, I flew back to get married. My wife and I had met in 9th grade, in algebra class. We began dating in the 11th Grade, and we continued to date long-distance throughout college. I had proposed to her before moving, the plan being to get married over the Christmas break. The Presbyterian church I grew up in had had a change in leadership, which resulted in many people — including my family — leaving the church. We ended up getting married in a local Baptist church on Christmas Eve.

My wife had grown up Catholic in an environment of lukewarm Catholics. I had inherited my anti-Catholicism from my faith tradition, as most Protestants do. There were many evenings when I would go back and forth with her and her family about this or that peculiar Catholic doctrine or dogma. Ultimately, my wife and I were married with no Catholic presence, and with no desire to practice Catholicism.

The Evangelical Free church my wife and I were attending was a standard, run-of-the-mill Evangelical-style church with a modern worship style. I had a complicated relationship with it through playing for worship. I came from a liturgical church that used an organ and sang out of a hymnal. I had studied music in college and have a deep love for music. I have never been particularly into contemporary worship music, yet that is what I ended up playing most of the time. Honestly, I was just happy to serve and to play, even if the style wasn’t my favorite. But it did begin to wear on me after a while.

This particular Evangelical Free church was pretty much a Baptist church with a few Charismatic tendencies. I found that most of the common cafeteria-style theology that was implicit in the “free” of the Evangelical Free churches couldn’t stand up to the firm five points of Calvinism. It became ever more clear to me that people were just choosing which doctrines they agreed with the most, and that is how they formed their theology. Either that, or they just resigned their understanding to those who they perceived as smarter than they were.

We had been attending this church for a while and were encouraged to take their membership class to become full members of the church. At this time, my wife was struggling with doubts about the resurrection and what it meant to be saved. I was also struggling, not with salvation, but with the church’s statement of faith that they were asking us to assent to. As an Evangelical Free church, they oddly took a few stances in their statement of faith that I did not agree to, specifically eternal conscious torment in hell. At this time, I had been toying around with the theory of annihilationism and did not feel comfortable affirming this.

The membership class consisted of a few weeks of going through what the church believes, the responsibility of members, tours of the building, etc. At the end of the class, we were to fill out paperwork and have individual meetings with the elders of the church. After my wife and I met with the elders, they decided that, at that time, due to our doubts, we should not continue seeking to become members of the church.

It was at this point that I felt the desire to move on to something more traditional and established. I began to investigate the more “serious” traditions, such as Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism — and for the first time, Catholicism. I’m not sure how Catholicism snuck its way into the list. Its appearance frightened me, causing me to do something that I had never done, and now will definitely never do again: fill out a prayer request card in the pew and drop it into the offering plate.

I do not remember the exact words, but it was something to this effect: “I am struggling and feel a strong pull to seriously look into Catholicism. No matter what happens, please pray that God’s Will will be done in my life.”

The Executive Pastor was concerned that someone on stage in front of his congregation was openly looking into Catholicism. The three of them proceeded to inform me of how Catholicism is different from just returning to a more liturgical or traditional denomination like the Presbyterian church I came from. They reiterated all of the caricatures of Catholic teaching that I had inherited growing up: “Catholics believe in a works-based salvation, they worship Mary and other dead saints, and they believe in other unbiblical things, like purgatory.” I was tracking with them for a while until we reached a topic with which I was well versed, baptism.

I mentioned before that I grew up Presbyterian, and while Presbyterians do not hold to the same view of baptism that Catholics do, they do baptize infants. I was not baptized as an infant, but chose to be baptized as a young adult. This was a solemn event at a local lake, where both my pastor and the candidates wore vestments. So when the topic of baptism came up in this meeting, in the context of mentioning all the things Catholics do wrongly, I suddenly found myself siding with the Catholic view of baptism, at least as it pertained to who should be baptized.

This was a topic I had studied and discussed before, long before the idea of Catholicism had entered my mind. As a result, this meeting became more of a debate about topics such as believer’s baptism, household baptism, the great commission, the necessity of baptism, etc. It began to set in that, within the household of Protestantism, I had serious theological conflicts with the church I found myself in.

Our meeting concluded with the resolution that I would no longer be allowed to perform on the worship team, while Catholicism was something I was still openly looking into. While this hurt me deeply, I understood where the Executive Pastor was coming from as the shepherd of his flock. This was also the last time that I would meet with the other pastor, the leader of our small group, and the man whom I had been meeting with in a counseling/discipleship capacity.

I left the meeting feeling sad and confused, but most of all, curious. It was clear to me that I had to do some research. I felt that the Scriptures and interpretations that the pastors had brought up in defense of their position on baptism were utterly weak in comparison to the robust view I grew up with. I also understood that most Protestants do not baptize infants. So I asked myself a very dangerous question for a Protestant to ask: “What did the early Church believe about baptism?”

I love debate. It is my preferred method of learning information. I can read and listen to apologists explain their stances and their arguments, but there is something much more powerful about watching ideas come up against each other. So I began to search out debates. There is a famous one between R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur on infant baptism which I had already seen and devoured. While a few other Protestant denominations practice infant baptism, the only other people that were actively participating in debates were Catholics.

The first Catholic-Protestant debate I ever heard was one between Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid and Reformed Baptist apologist James White on sola Scriptura. This debate seriously rocked my world. As a Protestant, sola Scriptura was in the air I breathed; it was an unchallenged assumption. In the cross-examination, the debate turned to the topic of the canon of Scripture, which made a lot of sense to me. There is one specific line that Madrid delivered, which has stuck with me ever since. White seemed to be getting frustrated that Madrid kept pushing him to explain how he knew which books belonged in The Bible. Here is his challenge: “If you want to get in front of this audience and say ‘Bible alone,’ then you’d better be prepared to tell us what the Bible is.”

This was such an influential point that it caused me to want to dig deeper and identify what other unchallenged assumptions I was making. So I continued to dig. We continued attending the church as normal; I just wasn’t performing in worship any more. Then I started getting comments from people asking why I hadn’t been up on stage in a while. I deflected the questions and comments for a time, then the church had to close its doors due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. This was actually a blessing in disguise for several reasons.

First, having to shelter-in-place did open up time for me to listen to debates. And boy, did I listen! If there is a Protestant-Catholic debate on the internet anywhere, I’ve undoubtedly heard it. Some of them I have listened to upwards of 10 times.

Secondly, I was able to find resources like The Coming Home Network. Some of those talks I have listened to so many times that I could probably recite them back to you. One example is William Marshner’s talk, “How Do We Know the Early Church?” There are many other resources I could name, such as Ascension Presents, Catholic Answers, Pints with Aquinas, Steubenville, and others. But the one resource that had the single greatest impact on me was a new series called On the Journey with Matt and Ken (now called On the Journey with Matt, Ken, and Kenny). I began listening to the first episode, which had just come out. They continued with new episodes each week. In the meantime, I would usually listen to the same episode several times before the next one was available.

Of course, there were other resources and debates that I was consuming. But when I began Episode 1 of On the Journey I was a Protestant, and by the time I heard the ending music of Episode 93, I was ready to be a Catholic. I felt that they really accompanied me along my own journey, and I cannot thank them enough.

Another way that COVID-19 was a blessing in disguise was that it brought an important question to the surface: What does it mean to go to church? When restrictions began to lift and people started to return to in-person services, there were still a few people who didn’t feel comfortable returning. This caused a bit of dissonance in my church because, on the one hand, we were being told how important it is to come to church and to be together. On the other hand, it was completely understandable that people did not feel comfortable returning. Some actually preferred watching church online. One of my good friends even commented to me how much she really enjoyed “Pajama Church.” Our church had moved its services online, so we could still hear the worship music from the small, masked-up, socially-distanced worship team. We were still able to hear the Executive Pastor preach his sermons. So the question became: What was the difference?

It couldn’t just be getting together as a community. There was something more. So that nasty little question arose again: What did the early Church do? It didn’t take long to find the answer. This is where my Eucharistic hunger began. There are some Catholic teachings that are so clear in Scripture that, once you read them, you either have to ignore them, explain them away, or accept them as true. The case for the Real Presence is one of those teachings. I became convinced of it quickly. In fact, it happened so quickly that, when my wife and I attended one of the first post-pandemic in-person services at our church, and they were having their monthly Communion, something happened. Over the time we had been attending, the church had tried a handful of different models for doing Communion. On this particular day, the trays that held the little communion cups, which were a small plastic cup of grape juice with an oyster cracker sealed at the top in foil, were out in the lobby where the snacks and coffee usually greet you when you enter.

This was odd, and my initial thought was, “Why are they using the communion trays to hold snacks?” It wasn’t until I got closer that I realized we were supposed to just take one as we entered and sit with it until it was time for communion. The irreverence was shocking. There were even some cups lying on the table and the floor. My wife and I turned and left the church.

It was clear to us that, while they were most likely just trying to make Communion work within the COVID-19 regulations, this church did not hold this “ordinance” with the same reverence that we did.

As we continued our research, many other dominos fell. The biggest of these, which crushed everything else, was authority. This was another teaching that I found to be so clear in Scripture, strongly backed up by history, the early Church, and really… common sense. All my life I had bounced from church to church, all of them doing their best to make sense of their own theology. Some had more robust ideas than others, but ultimately, they were their own authority, granted to them by themselves, because it wasn’t given them by any verse in the Bible.

This resulted in a sort of Christian pluralism. There was this idea that we were all wrong in some way, and that there was no way to know for sure who was right on this or that doctrine. Some people thought that if they could just unlock the correct Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic words, then they’d get it right. Some people just threw up their hands, saying, “It doesn’t matter, really; all you need is a personal relationship with Jesus.” There were these ideas, other ideas, and everything in between. I realized that I had come from a tradition that simply took for granted that Christianity existed in this fractured state and that, somehow, that was how it was supposed to be.

In reality, I came to see that our Lord Jesus Christ established his visible, hierarchical Church, founded on the Apostle St. Peter. This Church has recognized the canon of Scripture and has the authority to interpret it and to safeguard the Deposit of Faith until Jesus returns to take Her to Himself. As it says in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum:

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed. It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. (Dei Verbum 10)

I had made up my mind. My wife and I began looking for a Catholic parish to make our home. After visiting a few, we settled on one, and I began RCIA. My wife and I also began meeting with the priest to work on convalidation of our marriage, since we were not married in the Catholic Church. After a few months, I made my first Confession. A short time after that, I received my first Communion, my wife and I had our marriage convalidated, and our baby boy was baptized, all on the same day in February. I would go on to be Confirmed later that May, and we have been practicing Catholics ever since.

It has not been an easy journey. Eventually, once everything opened up after the pandemic, people started noticing that they weren’t seeing us at church. When asked where we were going, it slowly came out and spread around that I had converted and my wife had reverted. We lost friends, we lost our community, and we lost a large part of our lives. What hurt the most was that people that I looked up to and respected began telling me how disappointed in me they were. As someone with the attachment wounds that I have, and the fear of abandonment, that was crushing to hear. But I take heart when I ponder this passage: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15). Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Our Lady of Peace, pray for us.

Joe Ward

Joe Ward was born and raised in upstate New York. He moved to the Bay area of California 10 years ago and has been working as a General Music Teacher and Music Program Director. As a recent convert, he is passionate about Theology and Apologetics and would love to someday pursue a career in those fields. He and his wife have a little boy and have just welcomed a baby girl into their family.

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