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Finding Life in the Catholic Church

Dr. Matthew Harrison
May 16, 2024 No Comments

I was raised in a very structured Calvinist, Presbyterian home that included Sunday school and church, choir practice, handbells, youth group, Wednesday night suppers and vacation Bible school, Bible camps, and daily morning and evening devotions at the meal table — religiously. We had Scripture memorization and Westminster Catechism drills (longer and shorter versions). We were on a traveling puppet evangelization team. In short, our lives revolved around church life. I always did and still do regard my childhood as charmed. But despite that sheltered upbringing, tragedy still found its way into my home.

In November of 1973, when I was eight years old, my parents had their sixth child, Phyllis. Tragically, she was stillborn because the umbilical cord had wrapped around her neck. My innocent mind struggled to understand how this could happen, and, understandably, it devastated our whole family. What happened next, though, puzzled me greatly. At the small funeral which was held in the hospital chapel for Phyllis, I witnessed doctors and nurses crying over our lost sibling. It was profound, but even at age eight, I wondered why these medical staff, some of whom supported or even may have participated in the newly legalized abortion of the unborn, could then cry for my sister. Didn’t those babies deserve the same dignity as my sister? A seed was planted that day, watered with the many tears of my mother.

Laying the Foundation

Over the years, my interest in the sciences, and biology in particular, grew. I went to college and completed my pre-med coursework, with plans to attend medical school. While in college, I had a few Catholic friends, and I attended Mass a couple of times with them. However, I was angry because I felt as though the Catholics thought they were better than me, denying me communion, so I defiantly went forward and received the Eucharist, thinking it was only bread. I pretty much forgot about that event until I started to contemplate the Catholic Faith many years later.

After college, I applied to medical school, but I wasn’t accepted the first time I applied. Because of this, I got a job at Johns Hopkins University developing protocols for pediatric leukemia treatments, while also working as a home health nurse aide. After a year, I changed gears and went to Colorado to join the full-time staff of Young Life, working as a counselor with troubled teens experiencing teen pregnancy and teen homelessness. I also enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary to study Christian Family Counseling. While there, I gained important skills in working with this demographic, as well as learning how to see and love them, rather than focusing on their crimes and shortcomings.

With the dream of medicine still in my heart, though, I returned to the east coast to conduct research on Alzheimer’s Disease at Duke University while working as a physical therapy assistant. During this time, I was attending a Presbyterian church with friends, but I met this bubbly Catholic Cajun girl who had just moved up from southern Louisiana for a critical care nursing internship. I had never met a Catholic who was so dedicated to his or her beliefs. Kathleen was not a great apologist and didn’t have complete answers to many of my questions, but she had an unwavering faith. I was fascinated with this new species of Christian.

Marriage and Medical School

I had always been able to easily counter arguments in favor of Catholicism, but Kathleen had a great uncle who was a diocesan monsignor and an uncle who was a Discalced Carmelite friar; she was formed well enough to resist the basic tenets of Protestantism. As we started to spend more time together, talking about our very different lives and beliefs, we began to fall in love. I had been an avid member of Intervarsity and Campus Crusade for Christ, so I was confident I could lead her to the “truth” of the Reformation. During this time, I applied to medical school a second time and was rejected again. I was told I needed to get a master’s degree to prove I could do graduate level work. So, I decided to return to The College of William and Mary where I had earned my undergraduate degree, while Kathleen returned to Louisiana to take care of her dying grandmother.

After her grandmother’s death, Kathleen moved back to Virginia so we could continue discerning marriage together while she lived in a nearby town, working as a nurse. I earned my master’s degree in biology, but was rejected a third time to medical school. Frustrated, I decided to actually move to the medical school in Richmond, get a research job, and stay until they got tired enough of me to admit me. I researched and published on brain receptors in rats and applied a fourth time. I finally was accepted.

After applying for and receiving all the canonical approvals from the Church, Kathleen and I were married two weeks before the start of medical school in 1994. We had gone through pre-Cana (marriage preparation) classes and agreed on most topics, such as birth control, abortion, and raising the kids Catholic. However, I still thought she would become Presbyterian. I would attend Mass with her, but I was also part of a Presbyterian church. The “mission” of our marriage was “to live the broken body of Christ and strive towards unity in His Church.”

A Pro-Life Ethic

During medical school, my commitment to pro-life medicine solidified. Throughout medical school, I had to fight against instruction that promoted supporting the relativistic convictions of patients rather than helping patients ethically navigate health care decisions. Birth control, abortion, euthanasia, neglecting abstinence counseling, and many other topics were left up to the patient alone, forcing many students to practice medicine against their consciences.

Thankfully, this changed when I moved on to my residency. Kathleen and I practiced Natural Family Planning (NFP), and when we moved to begin my residency position in Family Medicine in Mobile, AL, we became a certified Sympto-Thermal Method teaching couple. My first week in residency, I was faced with a 16-year-old girl requesting birth control from me. I had to pause and pray. I told her I could not in good conscience prescribe a harmful medicine to her, especially one that would support an immoral lifestyle. As a family practitioner, I practiced medicine with a holistic approach, caring for mind, body, and soul. Following this, I approached my director and told him that I could not prescribe birth control or make referrals for procedures such as abortion or sterilization. He respected my right of conscience, and I went on to complete my residency.

During this time, I would listen to my wife teach the Rosary and the tenets of her Catholic faith to our growing family. Our third child was born during my residency. Kathleen was pregnant with our fourth child when we moved to North Carolina, where I joined an NFP-only general practice. In this new practice, we started to have many Catholics come under our care. All of the local priests came to us, as well as the many large, homeschooling Catholic families.

When our kids reached school age, we opened King of Mercy homeschool and were able to incorporate our religious beliefs into our curriculum. Kathleen was becoming stronger in her faith, while the Methodist church I was attending was becoming more progressive and deviating from my beliefs. Our local priests asked us to teach NFP to couples in marriage preparation, and they went on to have me teach sessions in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) regarding the Church’s teachings on birth control, sterilization, in vitro fertilization, and end-of-life care. I thought it was pretty progressive of these priests to allow a non-Catholic to teach in their RCIA and pre-Cana classes.

I became more interested in Catholic ethics. During our second year in North Carolina, an influential pro-life leader was coming to town, and I was asked to host him. I spent several days with this amazing man, who was wholly dedicated to the defense of the unborn. Over the next five years, my practice partner, Dr. Danny Holland, and I offered free prenatal care and delivery services to abortion-vulnerable women. We would pray outside of the abortion clinics and set up referral services through the crisis pregnancy centers to deliver free care.

In 2006, a young woman came into the office after taking the abortion pill and immediately regretting it. She wanted to reverse the abortion. God delivered an idea to me to use progesterone to do exactly that. We had progesterone in our office because Dr. Holland was a certified NaPro Fertility Consultant, having trained at the Pope Paul VI Institute in Nebraska. She received the treatment, and her baby survived. Today, that baby is a healthy 16-year-old girl.

If I had gone straight to medical school out of college, I never would have gained the experience and wisdom to understand how protein receptors worked, to understand the plight of a teenager in pregnancy, or to see this medical dilemma with a “can do” culture-of-life medical approach.

Following this, though I was still a Protestant, I became a medical advisor for Priests for Life and started working with others on delivering this protocol to more women hoping to reverse their abortions. Ultimately, I teamed up with Dr. George Delgado, who had also discovered the reversal protocol separately, and began collecting abortion reversal stories, publishing a case series of reversal treatments in 2012. Eventually, Heartbeat International took over Dr. Delgado’s call center, and they have been able to expand the network of providers able to deliver this treatment. To date, they have over 2000 providers in 86 countries, and the Abortion Pill Reversal protocol has saved over 4000 babies, with numbers growing daily as medication abortion services expand.

Surrendering My Skepticism

Meanwhile, in the midst of this work, I was struggling with my faith, trying to sort out the truths of Kathleen’s and my seemingly opposing churches. I had debated topics with multiple priests and catechists. I had attended multiple conferences. I had been to Rome and stood two feet from Pope John Paul II while searching for answers. I led Catholic medical missions to Mexico, Ghana, and Vietnam, but I still could not bring myself to accept the Catholic Faith.

One patient whom I met on a mission particularly touched me. It was a very frustrating and unorganized day in the makeshift clinic we had put together in bush country. Hundreds of patients, some of whom had walked two days to see us, were tired and hungry and needing help. I was tired and hot and second guessing this trip. I asked God to show Himself to me and convince me that I made the right decision to come. A little boy then came in to see me. He was about eight years old, dirty and malnourished. He had scaly skin and a large wound in his head, called a Buruli ulcer. This is a chronic wound that requires surgical treatment plus special antibiotic treatment. It was eating into his skull. The village children teased him and poked him in one eye with a stick, leaving him blind in that eye. His mother had abandoned him, and his grandmother was reluctantly raising him. He was seen as a curse in this village, where many still practiced animist religions. When I asked his name, his grandmother told me, “Emmanuel” — literally, “God with us.” It struck me right in the heart. My prayer was answered, and we did all we could to cure this little boy. We offered to take him to the United States for treatment, but ultimately, we could not do it. We did get him to a regional Buruli ulcer center, but sadly, he died six months later. However, this encounter gave me a real heart for the places God meets us and helped me to understand how we are to see Jesus in each of our patients and be Jesus to them.

Despite these experiences, I was still struggling with my faith. By now, I had stopped going to Protestant services and was fully integrated into the life of our parish. In fact, people were surprised when they found out that I wasn’t Catholic.

Maybe it was pride or my inborn stubbornness, but when I really examined the root issue, it came down to the Eucharist. As a scientist and medical doctor, I could not bring myself to consider it even a possibility that bread and wine could become God — so vulnerable, so physical, so present, and so seemingly inanimate.

Continuing to wrestle with my skepticism, one day, I received a call from our priest asking me to investigate a possible Eucharistic miracle. The priest said he was looking for someone who was scientifically sound, who would honestly evaluate the Host and not be tempted to be biased based on religious belief. I accepted the task and traveled to investigate a Host that had fallen to the floor, then was placed in holy water. When the priest went to properly dispose of the Host, it had a bloody and fleshy appearance. I was fascinated and took a sample to a pathologist. The first test came back positive for the possible presence of blood, but further testing revealed that it was a bacterial growth. This type of bacteria glows very red, and the Host had become puffy with the absorption of water and bacterial growth. I delivered my report to the priest, but the event made me think very deeply about my ability to believe, especially amid my other experiences with Eucharistic miracles.

I had been to Orvieto, Italy, and studied other Eucharistic miracles, where the accidents remaining after the transubstantiation had actually conformed to the physical appearance of the Body and Blood of our Lord. I saw the stained altar cloth in Orvieto and marveled at the multiple accounts of AB blood type, the universal blood type recipient found in these Eucharistic miracles. I thought how appropriate that blood type would be, given that Christ longs to receive everyone into His kingdom. I really wanted to believe, but my data collecting brain wouldn’t let me.

All of these factors made me think about the multiple times where Christ had said we must have the faith of a child to receive the kingdom of God. I had studied Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper and even gone to several of his conferences. I decided that if there is no way possible for me to believe, then I would have never gone to investigate a possible miracle in the first place. All this time I had been waiting for God to physically change bread and wine into flesh and blood, but what God changed instead was my heart. I believe my subconscious was wanting to believe, but my conscious intellect was blocking that belief.

Another shift in my faith took place when we went on mission to Vietnam. While there, we experienced a frightening incident as we were driving in the middle of the night to the leper colonies. The priest in the car started praying the Rosary while our lives were in danger, and I joined in my desperation. This was the first Rosary I actually prayed, and I felt real comfort come over me. That we were saved from an almost certain collision and death affirmed my trust in praying for the Blessed Mother’s help, and today, the Rosary is a daily devotion for me.

Prior to this, I would always sit with our family as my wife led our seven children in the Rosary, rebelliously not wanting to “pray to Mary,” but wanting to be with my family. As a Protestant, I had confused worship and prayer, not understanding the “communion of the saints,” which not only includes those on earth but also those in heaven. When I really studied the Rosary, I realized how scriptural it was and had little argument with it. If I would be honored to have Billy Graham pray for me, why wouldn’t I want the prayers of Jesus’ own mother? I started to realize I could never love Mary more than Jesus does. When praying the Rosary and meditating on the mysteries, it started to feel like the times when I would sit with my best friend’s mother and talk about her son’s adventures. But instead of seeing my friend’s antics through the eyes of an immature friend, I was able to see those same stories through the eyes of a loving mother. That was now how I was learning to pray the Rosary, seeing the passion of our Lord through the eyes of a grieving mother, or the joy of the presentation at the temple through Mary’s eyes.

A Final Spiritual Offensive

As our children were growing older, with one in college, I knew that I needed to make a decision regarding my faith. Therefore, I told my wife that I was going to attend the upcoming RCIA classes in order to truly investigate the questions I had regarding the faith. Little did I know that my wife had enlisted multiple priests to start a novena of novenas, offering 81 Masses for the intention of my conversion. At the time I told her that I was going to start RCIA, they were already 13 Masses in, but she didn’t reveal this spiritual offensive to me until after my Confirmation on Pentecost in 2015. I remember my first Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the first sin off of my lips was that of pride. The second was receiving our Lord in the Eucharist while I was in college without recognizing that it was actually the Lord Himself. Now that I knew that specific sin was grave, it weighed heavily on my heart until I confessed it. Wow! It was such a relief, and I could finally know and acknowledge His presence in the Eucharist!

It was after this that I came into full communion with the Church through the Sacrament of Confirmation in the Traditional Latin Rite, a stark contrast from my prior faith. I chose the saint that I had only stood a few feet from as my confirmation saint: Pope St. John Paul II. Not many can say they have met their confirmation saint!

That same year, my son decided to attend college seminary and discern a call to the priesthood. He is scheduled to be ordained in June of this year (2024), and a second son will be starting his first year of major seminary in the Fall. Since the time of my reception into the Church, my faith has only grown. I truly feel that my faith is complete in the celebration of the Mass.

I am eternally grateful for the wonderful Christian upbringing of my parents and extended family. They gave me such a strong foundation in faith and Scripture. They love my wife and family very much. In fact, my wife has broken many of their stereotypes about Catholics. Even though they do not agree with us theologically, they remain continually supportive and loving, for which I am truly grateful.

I still feel like a baby Catholic and am looking forward to the spiritual journey ahead. Thinking back on the road that led me into the Church, I invite any Protestants who are considering the Catholic faith but are held back by fears to just relax and rest in the Lord. Take a deep dive into the history of our Christian faith and read the early fathers. Go and sit and attend a Mass and observe. Sit in an adoration chapel and just ask the Lord to guide you into His will.

Dr. Matthew Harrison

Dr. Matthew Harrison is a Family Medicine physician and has delivered inpatient, outpatient and obstetrical services throughout North Carolina. He is medical Director for 3 pregnancy centers and the Belmont Abbey Student Health Clinic. Dr. Harrison is an Adjunct Clinical Professor for Campbell School of Osteopathic Medicine. He performed the first abortion pill reversal in 2006 and has helped grow a network of over 1200 providers in 86 countries, saving over 5000 babies. Dr. Harrison has assisted penning laws to protect women’s rights to reverse their abortions. He’s a founding member of the Charlotte Catholic healthcare professionals and has been involved in multiple overseas medical missions in Africa, Vietnam, and Mexico. Dr. Harrison is married to Kathleen and they have seven children.

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