As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Many Americans seem to be either mad pagans or mad puritans” (What I Saw in America). I have been in both extremes but found balance and fullness in the Catholic Church. It’s been a long lumbering ride down a road chock full of potholes, sloth, dabbling in two cults and three denominations, but I finally made it home to Rome at the Easter Vigil in 2008 at the age of forty.
In 1969, at the age of one and a half, I was baptized and confirmed on the same day at St. Sarkis Armenian Orthodox church in Dearborn, Michigan. That day essentially ended my association with a liturgical church for about forty years with the exception of an occasional funeral or wedding. But the “imperishable seed of the liturgy” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1228) must have been planted when that incense and ceremony surrounded me. It just took a long time to sprout. My parents divorced when I was five, and since I was living with my mother, we went to Protestant churches, mostly Methodist and Presbyterian. She was a “church shopper,” but seemed to shun the liturgical churches partly, I think, because of the divorce, and partly because of a bad experience in the 1950s with her Catholic cousins, who she said “treated her rudely.”
At the age of eight, I remember looking into the sky with my mom and saying “there must be an end to the universe.” This was my first memory of having a notion of God or a Creator.
“Saved” at Bible Camp
When I was eleven my mom sent me to a Bible camp in Michigan, and I was baptized (again). I think I said some formula of the Sinners Prayer right before we got dunked in the lake. I cried, and it was a significant emotional event for me. But I thought, “This is it? I’m ready for Heaven? It doesn’t matter what happens anymore?” The concept of “once saved, always saved” struck me as incomplete even at that young age. There was no formation or follow up above and beyond the few days at camp and my mother wasn’t taking us to church regularly. With no further formation, sacraments, or godparents, and only the Bible, what was an eleven-year-old to do?
I began to stay with my father in Michigan at age thirteen, and he would take me to a Presbyterian Church’s Sunday lectures for singles. He thought it would be good for me to hear adults talking about God and practical matters related to faith. He also knew a Methodist minister, so we would go there now and again, but my father was frustrated with the minister friend because he had liberal views on social issues. Looking back, I recall my Dad saying mostly good things about Catholics such as “I like the Church, but they should let priests get married” and “date a Catholic girl, they are from more solid families.” But he never made a move toward the Catholic Church. Maybe if there had been Google or Catholic Answers at this time (80s-90s), I could have found the answers to his questions about Catholicism, and we would have explored the faith together.
At twenty-three, I left Michigan and got a job out of state. On the job, I met a devout, self-described “sola-Scriptura Calvinist.” He was always trying to get me to go to his church. I had read a book by an atheist that argued that the verse “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16, NAB) was talking about the Old Testament not the New Testament. I was curious what my colleague’s reaction would be, because I wanted to remain intellectually honest with him and myself. I remember this retired Marine, always confident and joyful, looking down at the ground like he didn’t know what to say. I’ll never forget it. He never answered the question. I learned the answer a few years ago while listening to Catholic radio. The Bible is like a Constitution. You need a “court” of authority to determine the meaning of Scripture. We can’t have everybody determine it based only on reading the text — and Timothy wasn’t even talking about the New Testament. I think my friend knew that deep down. He was mildly anti-Catholic, but when I reached out to him recently after twenty years, he was pleasant when I told him about my conversion and said his son’s in-laws were good Catholics. His attitude had softened.
I met a woman whom I dated and became engaged to. She went to an Episcopal church, and I went with her one or two times per month. That seed planted at my baptism and confirmation was trying to sprout in that Episcopal church but I was turned off by the unorthodoxy that I perceived (things like woman priests). My fiancé used to go to a Catholic church occasionally, but I never went with her on those days. I sometimes wonder if maybe I would have converted much earlier if I had gone with her then on one of those days she went to a Catholic church and maybe everything would have clicked.
In 1996, we broke it off and I returned home to help my father who was ill. Within a year of my return, my dad died, my 27-year-old cousin died of acute pancreatitis, and my uncle was hit by a truck and killed. I was a wreck, but I had no faith foundation to turn to. I remember my father when he was dying told me that if you haven’t led a spiritual life consistently, it’s hard to just turn it on when you need it. A faith life provides the muscle for dealing with life struggles he told me during his illness. He confided in me that he didn’t have it, because he hadn’t developed “faith muscle.” I felt the same after this series of deaths. I was vulnerable and emotionally tired.
Caught Up in Cults
At this time, I started reading a newspaper put out by a cult and was intrigued by the reasons they gave for their economic and political conspiracy theories. They didn’t mention God much and there was no prayer life involved. Also, they displayed a lot of anger and intrigue. I was a freelance writer and offered myself as a shill, but they were manipulative and ignored my offer. Instead, they kept demanding money and my time to hand out flyers at malls. My pride saved me — a rare time when pride saves. I was turned off. They couldn’t manipulate me but they tried hard. I stopped talking to them. They were very smart and highly educated, but they had no faith — not in Jesus anyway. This group was a good example of “reason, but no faith.”
Another extreme I encountered at almost the same time involved a fundamentalist Bible group that I met in a restaurant. They were “end of times” folks. There were six members, and they told me that I was the seventh they needed to make the perfect number in the group. They were, like the other group, angry, full of intrigue, and judgmental. One man went on a rant about how Catholics were wrong because they called priests father. An unsound attack on the Church, but I didn’t know any better, because he was reading it in the Bible!
Ironically, I saw one man reading a book called Ecumenical Jihad by Peter Kreeft. I always remembered that intriguing title, but didn’t know at the time that he was a convert to the Catholic Church. This fundamentalist group was a good example of “faith, but no reason.” I stopped talking to them soon. Both of these groups had things in common; such as they displayed no fruits of the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23). After seeing both extremes I was exhausted. I think if a Catholic had explained the faith to me at that moment and shown me that the Church is the balance of both faith and reason, I would have converted then. But the Internet was in its infancy, I hadn’t heard about EWTN, and I didn’t know any Catholics. I got a job offer out of state and left for Texas in November 1998. I never entirely gave up on a belief in God, but I was showing no fruit because I had no formation to help me grow in Christ or His Body, Mother Church.
When I moved to Texas, the opulence and material wealth in north Dallas was quite a culture shock for a Rustbelt, Michigan transplant. It has so many churches, bars, shopping, and restaurants. I began to “church shop.” I went to Jack Graham’s Prestonwood Baptist church as well as Chuck Swindoll’s church (he has an orchestra, and I learned that good music was a “piece of the puzzle” for me). I also attended “bishop” TD Jakes’ church.
I met a woman; we became friends, dated, and got engaged. In 2002, we went to Rome and I was in awe like never before or since when I saw St Peter’s Basilica. Nothing compared to it, not the Grand Canyon — nothing! This was a baby step toward the Catholic Church for me. Then in 2003, the idea of which church we should attend and be married in came up. She and her family were cultural Episcopalians, so we decided on an Episcopal church called Christ Church Plano. It seemed very close to Catholic to me. I was happy to go with her. Within a year it would be in the national news. The pastor of Christ Church stood alone against the other USA Episcopal churches because of changes in policy on social issues. I had never felt comfortable in a house of worship before until that church. I really felt like this was it. I thought they had the liturgy, and I thought they had true doctrine. It was exposed when a new bishop was elected and he promised changes in values. The pastor of Christ Church Plano wanted to leave and start his own church. There was separation, confusion, and chaos. I remembered a Bible verse from Corinthians that my mom used to repeat: “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33). I remember being really sad, because I had finally found a church in which I was comfortable, but it was dissolving. As it dissolved, so did my relationship to the woman, and we broke up.
Drawn to the “Uncomfortable Church”
We broke up a few months before Pope John Paul II died. I was drawn to the Pope as he courageously lived and then died. Also, at this time, I was in the local library and just happened to walk by a book by Ray Flynn, ambassador to the Vatican, John Paul II: A Personal Portrait. I read the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. Also, some of my favorite politicians were Catholic whose faith seemed to help form their political views. So I decided to begin attending Mass at a church in the area. I never felt more uncomfortable in a church than I did in Catholic Mass as an outsider! But somehow I was drawn to it.
I called the RCIA coordinator at nearby parish soon after John Paul II died in April 2005 and told her I wanted to come to the RCIA class. She said, “Sure, we start in September so let’s touch base over the summer.” I couldn’t wait. I told her thanks, but I would have to defer because I was going to move to Las Vegas for one-year assignment for my job. I couldn’t go to RCIA in Las Vegas because I was working all days and 60 hours a week. (I thought I could go to talk to a priest or the RCIA person and immediately be “in” the church like in the Seinfeld episode where George wants to convert to being Latvian Orthodox to impress and woo a woman).
I moved back to Dallas after the year was up in Vegas. I went to a happy hour with some old friends. In the same north Dallas restaurant was a happy hour for the Catholic singles group. I walked over and I met a friend, Brian, and he invited me out and we struck up a friendship. Lesson for others and me: reach out, seek seekers out, invite, talk to, and engage them. Brian reached out to me and we had conversations and questions were answered. I had made up my mind at that point and I had been looking into RCIA, but meeting Brian and finding out about Catholic radio really made a difference for me. We can’t assume everybody has the answers or even knows where to look, even in this age of the Internet. I wonder how my life would have been improved had I become a Catholic at twenty instead of forty, but everything in God’s time.
In my journey to the Catholic Church, I had to overcome a number of objections. One struggle was when I looked at the statues in Catholic churches. They would make me cringe a little because of the Bible verse “do not make any engraved images” (Deuteronomy 5:8). I came to understand though, through the explanation of G.K. Chesterton that we make the statue to remember the saint, not to worship the saint. We needn’t abandon culture, art, and sculpture because that is not the intent of the verse. I have found the Church’s balance and common sense on this and many issues to be so real and “of God” because we combine both faith and reason.
Another objection I had was confessing sins to a priest. Doesn’t the Bible say to confess straight to God? I learned, though, of the passage in John 20:21-23 that says “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” I thought, ok that seems clear to me but why don’t Protestants see it that way? I couldn’t find an answer. I wanted to be intellectually honest with myself and it was only two months before Easter Vigil 2008. I emailed the pastor of a large Presbyterian church that I previously attended when I lived in Michigan. I told the pastor “I have a friend who is Catholic who says that John 20:22-23 is biblical support for the Sacrament of Confession. What do I tell this friend?” I was a little nervous about his answer. He responded a couple of weeks later and told me “we believe like R.C. Sproul believed that Jesus was indeed telling the disciples that, but that it ended with the disciples.” “That’s all you got?” I thought to myself. What about the Church age? How do you explain that? More importantly for Presbyterians, where does it say that in the Bible? Jesus said, “Whoever listens to you listens to me,” which for me laid the groundwork for continuity. I have found the Catholic Church’s answers to be sound on this and so many topics.
After working through these and other struggles, I was overjoyed to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church at Easter 2008. Being a Catholic is a life of learning and because Jesus wants both our whole heart and whole mind, we owe Him no less. And, finally, it’s fun to be Catholic! Because Christ who knows what we need gave us the Church, we have the seasons, sacraments, the feasting and fasting. All these things make for human happiness and balance. I found my spiritual home, a home that is open to all humanity.