My faith journey began with listening to God. Some of my earliest memories are of church and prayer. My parents were devoted members of a non-denominational, charismatic Protestant community. Church, for them, was a place of impassioned prayer, whether speaking in tongues, dancing, clapping, and singing, or quietly weeping. I was encouraged to seek God and express my love for Him, so long as that expression was spontaneous. My parents disapproved of anything formal or liturgical. They referred to Catholics as “nominal” Christians, who performed empty rituals but lacked authentic spirituality.
For all my parents’ suspicion of tradition and liturgy, my childhood community still had a genuine reverence for baptism. When I was nine, in 1996, I witnessed a few baptisms at my church and asked to be baptized myself. My baptism is one of my clearest memories, not just in its physical details but in my sense of its reality. Although I had been taught that it was only an outward expression of my interior faith, I had a real sense that something had happened to me. It was simultaneously the most formal and the most spiritual experience I’d ever had.
Years later, I encountered echoes of that baptismal experience in Anglican liturgy. I attended a private Christian high school that used the Book of Common Prayer in its morning chapel services, and the beauty of that reverent liturgy surprised me. I loved praying aloud in Thomas Cranmer’s gorgeous prose. There, I experienced the energy of Christian truth with the beauty of language. Surprisingly, I found I could pour my soul into Cranmer’s words more fully and authentically than I ever could in the extemporaneous worship I’d grown up with.
At the same time, I began to discover Church history. I learned the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds in Bible class and read snippets from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. To my astonishment, I found out that true Christianity had existed — and, indeed, flourished — after the deaths of the Apostles and before the birth of Protestantism. This discovery contradicted my Protestant homeschool curriculum, which taught that true Christianity was essentially lost after the Apostles’ deaths (with the possible exception of St. Augustine), not to be resuscitated until John Wycliffe and Martin Luther came along in the 1500s. Just as the Wycliffes and Luthers thought of themselves as rediscovering the lost truth of Scripture, I felt I was rediscovering the lost truth of Tradition.
But it was more than just beauty and historical curiosity that attracted me. Liturgy and tradition offered an answer to the arbitrariness and inconsistency of my childhood church. It was a relief to learn that worship wasn’t dependent on my feelings. As much as I loved my childhood Protestant community, it was fatally unstable and fell apart when I was twelve. My parents never recovered from the loss of that community. It left me with many questions: How do I know that what I was taught about God is true? How do I choose which church’s reading of the Bible is right? How do I worship God if I don’t “feel the Spirit” at a given time? In Anglican liturgy and tradition, I had begun to find some answers.
This caused some tension with my parents. They didn’t like me reciting creeds and written prayers and reading about doctrinal minutiae. They had assumed the school’s “empty” rituals would roll right off me, since I’d been raised in their revivalist tradition. It caught them off guard when I fell in love with things they considered essentially worthless. But once they were assured that I still loved Jesus, they kindly tolerated it and chalked it up to my personal eccentricity.
Then, in college, I met real Catholics, both classmates and professors. They were not the superstitious idolaters or shallow “nominal” Christians I had heard about growing up. They were true believers, careful thinkers, and kind friends. My first-hand encounters with faithful Catholics directly contradicted the second-hand characterization I’d received.
Though I remained a happy Anglican at age eighteen, my interest in pre-Protestant Christianity was growing. I signed up for a history course on Ancient Christianity and was surprised by the writings of Ignatius, Perpetua, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Athanasius, and anonymous works like the Didache and the Martyrdom of Polycarp. These authors wrote confidently about things I had been taught were Medieval inventions: bishops, purgatory, the holy Mass, even the papacy. Not only were real Catholics different from what I expected, but the early Church, in original sources, looked a lot like the Catholic Church, not the loose network of “house churches” described by my former Protestant pastors. The early Church had a sacred ecclesiastical structure from the beginning, and it prized apostolic succession — a concept whose antiquity fascinated me.
Indirectly, the Ancient Christianity course also introduced me to the development of doctrine. One book in particular made a deep impression on me: J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines. Although Kelly himself was a Protestant and studiously maintained a Protestant perspective in his work, his book outlines a fascinating history of theological explication. I realized, reading his book, that Christian doctrine was not just a set of propositions clearly spelled out in the Bible itself, but the result of long and even painful centuries of study and controversy. It would be many years before I picked up St. John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine, but already I had a profound sense of dependency, of being beholden to these ancient bishops I had barely ever heard of, for my most foundational beliefs. I began to think maybe the nice, devout Catholics I’d met might possess something we Protestants didn’t.
But something — rather, someone — kept me from exploring Catholicism more actively at that time. While I was discovering Church history, I was also dating the young man I soon married. He was raised in a conservative Lutheran family and rigorously catechized in that tradition. When we talked about theology and doctrine, he appeared to have all the answers, chapter and verse. Whereas I was newly encountering the Church Fathers, he had read some of them before (especially St. Augustine), and he knew where to find some quotes that seemed to agree with his Lutheranism. Whereas I had a nascent interest in Catholicism, he had an entire catalogue of anti-Catholic arguments at his fingertips. Although I wasn’t ready to reject the idea of Catholicism forever (especially the doctrine of apostolic succession), I also wasn’t prepared to defend it. I just didn’t know enough.
Although he appeared to have all the answers, my then-boyfriend had the wisdom to see the weaknesses in his own arguments. He realized that there were problems with Protestantism in general and with Lutheranism in particular. So we agreed to journey together, starting from the tradition where he was rooted. I joined his church, where we were married and remained happily for several years. It was a conservative denomination, appreciative of liturgy and intellectual tradition, and comfortable while it lasted.
Intellectual Struggles with Protestantism
But our misgivings would chafe from time to time. At first, the most salient intellectual problem was sola Scriptura. Over time, the logical inconsistency of this key doctrine bothered us more and more. If sola Scriptura were truly essential to Christian teaching, why was it not articulated explicitly in the Bible itself? And if sola Scriptura were an indispensable Christian doctrine, how could it have gone so largely unnoticed for fifteen centuries? The Church Fathers appeal to Scripture continually in their writings, but they also appeal continually to tradition and to the authority of the Catholic Church. Although I can’t give an exhaustive discussion here, two books that effectively outline these inconsistencies are Sola Scriptura by John Whitehead and By What Authority? by Mark Shea.
Our teaching experience also brought out problems with sola Scriptura. My husband taught a high school seminar on the Gospel of John and the Epistle to the Romans, in which he and the students had to rely solely on the Biblical text for their arguments. They could not refer to outside interpretive sources. Surprisingly, he found it difficult to steer the students toward a Lutheran-friendly interpretation of Romans without presupposing certain Lutheran doctrines. Needless to say, this experience struck a blow to Lutheranism’s self-identification as the most Biblical denomination. It also led us both to re-read the New Testament more carefully, looking for its authentic meaning rather than for proof-texts. When read more holistically, the Bible often seemed to agree more closely with Catholic than with Protestant theology.
Beyond sola Scriptura, we struggled with the Lutheran Protestant doctrine of sola fide, which can also be described as “monergism” — the belief that our salvation is accomplished by God alone, with no active human participation. Not only does this doctrine necessitate some procrustean readings of the words of Jesus; it also contradicts the teaching of all pre-Reformation Christianity. The differences between Catholic and Protestant soteriology have filled many volumes, but I found the most concise and helpful resource to be Grace and Justification by Stephen Wood.
As we studied and reflected on these issues, we also discussed our concerns with Lutheran pastors and other knowledgeable Lutheran friends. Whereas I had once found Lutheran arguments impressive and convincing, I now found them circular and flimsy. They would assert sola Scriptura but, when presented with coherent Catholic interpretations of Scripture, they would fall back on sola fide, arguing that the Lutheran interpretation of Scripture must be the correct one because it teaches strict monergism. But when asked where sola fide comes from, they would claim it comes from sola Scriptura, without addressing alternative scriptural interpretations. In the end, when confronted with this circularity, the Lutheran apologists would assert a “pastoral” dichotomy. Sola fide must be true, they argued, because to believe otherwise inevitably leads either to “works righteousness” (the belief that we can save ourselves by our own efforts) or to despair (the belief that we can never be saved). I found this response unsatisfactory, partly because it sidestepped the theological question, and partly because it didn’t match reality. I knew too many Catholics, by this time, who were neither self-righteous nor despairing. If anything, they were more humble and joyful than most Protestants.
Alongside sola Scriptura and sola fide, we encountered the intellectual problem of ecclesiology. For Lutherans (and for most other Protestants except Anglicans), the Church is essentially a human institution — a tool for transmitting doctrine. Its structure is not a matter of divine revelation but of human expediency. St. Paul’s discussion of bishops and elders in his epistles are just suggestive guidelines, sketching out what to look for in church leaders generally.
But a study of the ancient Church starkly contradicts that view. Before the natures of Christ had been defined, before the New Testament was compiled, before there was even a coherent definition of the Trinity, the Apostolic Fathers were certain that God had established bishops and given them authority. The doctrine of Apostolic succession — that Jesus gave His Apostles the power to ordain bishops and ministers, and that they passed that on to their successors — is among the oldest doctrines we have. It is arguably as old as the doctrine of the divinity of Christ. (An excellent reference for tracing these developments is The Teachings of the Church Fathers by John R. Willis, S.J.)
When I realized this, I read the book of Acts with new eyes. A question that had vaguely disturbed me for years became clear: why did the twelve Apostles themselves have to travel in person to so many places across the world? If Christianity consists of a set of beliefs, why wasn’t it enough for the Good News just to spread, whether by preaching, letter-writing, or word of mouth? Of course, their word as eyewitnesses had special weight, but why was it so important for these twelve specific men to visit every possible city personally? There must have been something that only they, and no one else, could do. The doctrine of apostolic succession makes it clear: they went to ordain bishops by the laying on of hands, because only the twelve Apostles could do that. Apostolic succession also clarifies why the writer of Acts bothers to narrate the ordination of Matthias, and why the Apostles considered it necessary to replace Judas: his role was not informal or optional. It was an office that could not be left empty forever.
But again, for Lutherans and most other Protestants, literal apostolic succession is not essential: only correct belief is essential. Learning the truth about apostolic succession helped me realize more fully that the church I belonged to was not the Church of the Apostles or of the Church Fathers.
Spiritual Struggles with Protestantism
Alongside these intellectual problems, I encountered spiritual problems with Protestantism, most of which arose from Lutheranism’s deeply pessimistic view of human nature. According to Lutheran anthropology, human free will is obliterated by the Fall. Humans cannot desire God or will the good. Even a baptized Christian is merely “covered” by Christ, as in Luther’s famous image of the redeemed soul as a dung heap concealed under snow. In his teaching, a Christian’s holiest act is totally contaminated with sin. Indeed, for the strict Lutheran, there is no act that is not ultimately a sin. In a way, this removes a person’s responsibility for their own sin, because one truly lacks the ability to choose otherwise. Lutheranism actually encourages dwelling on our depravity, assuming it will produce greater dependence on God. But for me (and, I believe, for many others) it led only to presumption, which is a type of despair. If genuine transformation is impossible — if I will always be a dung heap underneath — then what is there to hope for?
This anthropological pessimism clashed with experience. As a classical schoolteacher, I met and worked with people whose goodness I could not reconcile with Luther’s “dung heap” theory of human nature. The Catholics I knew, in particular, were authentically humble but also morally optimistic. They had no problem admitting their faults, but they saw themselves as able and required to do better by God’s grace. Their view of human nature seemed far more consistent with reality, especially as I lived that reality in marriage and motherhood.
On the one hand, living the transformative power of sacramental marriage convinced me once and for all that Catholicism was right to call it a sacrament, not just an “institution.” It changed me from the inside out, in ways that ordinary “personal growth” could not explain. There was also the sheer goodness I could see in my babies and young children. I could not view them as little dung heaps destined for damnation unless Jesus tricked the Father out of seeing their true nature. They had real, essential goodness, given by God but nonetheless their own.
On the other hand, marriage and motherhood presented challenges. Despite loving married life and having a wonderful husband, I felt frustrated with the cycle of unnecessary petty conflict, of which I myself was so often the source. Eventually, I realized I could not improve my marriage without actually becoming a better person. Throwing up my hands and blaming total depravity would never help. To succeed in marriage, I would have to overcome my attachment to personal pride, and to do that, I would have to believe that it was possible. For the sake of my marriage, I had to change my beliefs and decide that God would give me the actual grace to change, not leave me as I was just to convince me of my own worthlessness.
Similarly, motherhood challenged me on a very personal level. So much of it went against my natural inclinations. For a contemplative introvert, it was hard to live perpetually in the presence of multiple tiny, loud beings who demanded all my attention, all the time. I had a choice: to be miserable because I couldn’t have the time and space I wanted, or to trust God to give me the grace to change. Catholicism offered a path forward, because it taught that I wasn’t condemned to wallow in my selfishness but could strive to conform my will to God’s and obey his call to become more generous and less self-absorbed. (Of course, I do believe that mothers need time to themselves. My mistake was not in taking time for myself, but in giving my time grudgingly rather than generously.)
It was St. Therese (whom I later chose as my confirmation saint) who initially showed me this path forward. I had heard her name a few times, and I looked up an audio version of her Story of a Soul. As I listened to it while washing dishes one day, I heard her recount her Christmas Eve conversion. She had the vice of being hypersensitive and bursting into tears over the slightest family tension. When I heard about the sudden grace she received to ignore her father’s callous comment, bypassing the temptation to take offense, I thought, that is what I need. I had stumbled on the answer to my biggest problems, and it had come from a distinctively Catholic source. Though I did not know it at the time, St. Therese would continue to accompany me on the rest of my journey.
By the time we had three children, my husband and I had concluded that Lutheranism’s foundational doctrines were inconsistent with both Scripture and Tradition. We felt it was time to begin active discernment, studying Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy to find the true church. We were halted, however, by my in-laws’ reaction to our choice. My own parents, as I mentioned, had simply dismissed my religious leanings as eccentric. As long as I was a Christian, they could tolerate whatever sort of Christian I wanted to be. But my in-laws’ family identity was closely tied to their Lutheranism. They felt that we were rejecting that identity by rejecting Lutheranism and worried that we risked sending our children to Hell by becoming Catholic or Orthodox.
We had expected a negative reaction, but not one so intensely emotional. In an attempt to smooth things over, we agreed to continue attending Lutheran churches and discussing our issues with Lutheran ministers. Although it was painful to drag out the family conflict, this extra period of discernment really helped to point us further on the path toward Catholicism. We had more discussions with Lutheran ministers, although by now the old arguments rang hollow.
But the accusation of idolatry still had some sting. Our relatives fought hard to convince us that Catholics were just making lame excuses when they called it “veneration” or “invoking intercession” or anything but worship. They saw themselves as calling a spade a spade, and us as rationalizing a heretical and potentially damning practice.
After dwelling on this issue, I felt it came down to two questions. First of all, whom should I believe about what Catholics believe and practice? Should I take them at their word when they say they invoke the saints’ intercession but do not offer them the worship due to God alone? Or do I believe Protestants, who insist that, because certain prayers to saints sound like worship to them, they must indeed be worship. This would be like a Muslim insisting that Christians worship three gods. We might claim that we only worship one God in three persons, but the Muslim could still reject our explanation and decide we were polytheists. It was only fair, I concluded, to let the Catholics speak for themselves about their own intentions.
The second question for me was, what is the fruit of prayer to the saints? If it is indeed a trick of the devil to turn us away from God and toward idolatry, then its fruits must be evil. But in my own life its fruit was closeness to God. As I asked for the intercession of St. Therese and the Blessed Virgin, I received grace from God to be happier and to love more generously. The more I thought about the words of the Hail Mary, the more it sank in that this prayer was a prayer of praise to God, of embracing His will, of living in His love. The fruit of this prayer was love of God, not neglect of God for idols.
I also realized that Catholics do not invoke the saints in a vacuum. They have a whole foundation of doctrine about who the saints are and who they are not. Specifically in Mariology, there is a clear definition of who Mary is and who she is not. Within these clear boundaries, it isn’t necessary to live in fear that the Salve Regina gives too much praise to Mary, because a faithful Catholic knows that Mary has exactly the appropriate power given her by God, no more and no less.
In addition to working out these issues, our extended discernment period also helped us narrow our considerations. We had been exploring both Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy from a distance. But when the stakes were raised by our family’s reaction, we realized that we had been considering Orthodoxy largely because it carried less baggage from a Protestant perspective. Nonetheless, the closer we looked, the more we realized that the Eastern Churches had plenty of their own baggage. Additionally, by this time we had learned the history of Roman papal primacy, attested by St. Irenaeus, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and continuing through Church history.
One Sunday morning, we were on our way to the Lutheran church we’d promised my in-laws to attend. We were living temporarily in Texas and didn’t know the area all that well yet. We found ourselves on the wrong highway and running very late for church. We looked at a map and found that we were very close to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Walsingham, and the Mass was just about to begin. This was the first Catholic Mass we attended as a family, and we have attended Mass weekly ever since. We still had some family conflict to deal with, and it would be another year before we formally began RCIA. But our first public Mass as a family was like crossing the Rubicon. Once on the other side, it felt as though our destination was finally in sight.
Life as a Catholic
Along with my husband and children, I was received into the Church early in the COVID-19 pandemic. There were no public Masses, but we could go to daily Adoration as a family, bringing along all our children, including our tiny newborn who, at the time, seemed perfectly healthy. One day in Adoration, a sudden impulse led me to ask our Lord for true charity. It was a quiet prayer, and the Lord answered it with a quiet feeling of assurance. Several months later, I found myself at my grandfather’s deathbed. I was holding the same baby, who by then was showing signs of developmental problems. My 90-year-old grandfather was a lifelong agnostic who had always gruffly rebuffed my mother’s attempts to evangelize him. While my husband cared for our older children, I sat by that deathbed for two days, nursing the baby, talking to my sometimes-conscious grandfather, and praying the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I hung a blessed rosary next to the bed and put some blessed icons and crucifixes around the room. At one point, when I felt doubtful and prayed for St. Therese’s intercession, it began to snow. (St. Therese herself once asked God for snow to reassure her about her religious vocation.) When the time came for me to leave, my grandfather and I said our last goodbyes, and, to my continuing amazement, he agreed to be baptized. I baptized him, and he died the next day, which was All Souls’ Day of 2020.
The overwhelming grace of his baptism sustained me through the months that followed — months of anxiety and physical exhaustion from caring for my youngest and searching for the cause of his struggles. Finally, just about a year after that quiet prayer in Adoration, I received my son’s main diagnosis, which results in lifelong physical and intellectual disability. Had I not been Catholic, I believe it would have destroyed me emotionally. But God had been preparing me for years: He brought me into His Church, inspired me to read about the Catholic spirituality of suffering, and placed me providentially at my grandfather’s side at the precise moment his heart softened for once in his life. Often, our Lord’s providence seems hidden and frustrating. But in this case, I saw my son’s disability as a direct answer to my prayer for true charity. And I saw my grandfather’s baptism, with all the circumstances surrounding it, as a direct affirmation that the Catholic Church is truly His Church, through which He most effectively saves souls.
Parenting a disabled child makes me appreciate something precious about my Catholic faith. While discerning Catholicism, I read two books in fairly close succession: Reformations by Carlos Eire and Adam, God’s Beloved by Henri Nouwen. In many ways they are very different — a detailed cultural history and a brief personal memoir. But one thing stood out to me in both of them. Eire talks about the difference between implicit and explicit faith. Implicit faith belongs to someone who practices and embraces a religion but may not be able to articulate exactly what he believes or grasp the tenets of his faith rationally. Explicit faith, by contrast, belongs to someone who knows exactly what he believes on a rational level and can articulate its tenets. The ideal is to have both. But many of us — especially those who are uneducated or intellectually disabled — have only one. From its early days, Protestantism emphasized explicit faith to the near-total exclusion of implicit faith. The faith of many Catholics just doesn’t count from the viewpoint of many Protestants, particularly the early Lutheran and Calvinist leaders.
Although he doesn’t use the same term, Nouwen describes implicit faith in Adam, God’s Beloved. The faith of Adam, his profoundly disabled friend who could not speak or walk or feed himself, was an inspiration to Nouwen. It was every bit as real as the faith of any theologian. As I read Nouwen’s book, Adam’s implicit faith became an inspiration to me. Then later, when I had my youngest son and learned of his permanent intellectual disability, I was ready to welcome his simple, implicit faith and awareness of God’s love. Since becoming Catholic, I’ve never worried about my son’s inability to comprehend and articulate a set of theological propositions. It’s enough that he lives within the love of God. It would have been very distressing had I been still confined within either of the perspectives I’d inhabited before — the hyper-emotional, unstable spirituality of my childhood, or the hyper-propositional theology of Lutheranism.
Now, living the Catholic faith, I find I am regaining that quality that was prized in my early childhood: attentiveness to God. Despite her shortcomings, He really speaks through His Church if we listen.