I grew up in the rural community of Bethlehem, Kentucky — a great place to call home around Christmas. For as long as I can remember, my family attended a small country church. I don’t remember ever not knowing and believing the stories of the Bible.
During my high school years, I began to have some questions about matters of faith. In the tradition in which I grew up, the answer to any spiritual question amounted to “What does the Bible say about that?” Thus, I started to read the Bible on my own.
Sometimes I had questions that were beyond what I felt comfortable discussing with my parents. Thankfully, someone came into my life to fulfill that need. He was a Methodist pastor in a neighboring town. He and his wife welcomed me into their home whenever I wanted to discuss something. Around the same time, my cousin Lisa introduced me to contemporary Christian music, which was of great benefit to me during those awkward teenage years. In particular, I discovered the Christian rock band Petra. I still often play their CDs in my car or when I’m weightlifting.
When high school graduation time came, I received a scholarship to attend Campbellsville College (now Campbellsville University), a Southern Baptist affiliate about 100 miles south of my hometown. For the first time, I was surrounded by people my own age who took their Christianity seriously and encouraged me to do the same. I found a church to attend while I was in Campbellsville, and the youth director invited me to serve as his assistant.
Some people enter college with a definite career plan, but for others, a plan emerges during those years. I didn’t fit into either group. Three and a half years went by. I had changed majors a few times; graduation day approached, and I still wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. I knew it was time to get out of the comfort zone of Kentucky, at least for a while. I had spent a few months working at a summer job in Massachusetts, so I knew the east coast fairly well, but this time I decided to try going west.
I heard about a Lutheran organization in Omaha that invited people — mostly recent college graduates — to work for a year in various non-profit organizations around the city in exchange for a place to live and a stipend for living expenses. It sounded intriguing, so one spring weekend, just before graduation, I flew out to Omaha to see it for myself.
When I arrived at the Omaha airport that night, one of the residents of this Lutheran community was there to welcome me, a tall, blond man named Carter. He took me out for a late-night snack, and he described the history of the organization. The house had once been owned by the Catholic parish next door, which had used it as a convent. It was a big, two-story brick house with eight tiny bedrooms and a chapel. The nuns had moved out years earlier, and the parish had sold the house to the Lutherans. Then Carter said something memorable. He spoke of the many prayers that had been offered up in that house over the years and stated that he believed the house was sanctified by those prayers. By the time my return flight landed in Louisville Sunday evening, I knew that I would soon return to Omaha.
The following September, I moved into that repurposed convent in Omaha, along with four other people about my age and a semi-retired Lutheran pastor, who served as our spiritual director.
Each evening at the house, upon return from our work assignments, my housemates and I took turns preparing the evening meal. Once a month, we had a community-building activity off site. On one of those monthly outings, we went on an overnight visit to a Benedictine retreat center in Schuyler, Nebraska, about seventy miles from Omaha. Yes, that’s right — a Lutheran community living in an old convent and visiting a Catholic retreat center. Something about the St. Benedict Center fascinated me, and after that first visit, I went back there a number of times on my own.
On one of those visits, I wandered into the center’s little bookstore, and one book on a clearance table caught my eye: Any Friend of God’s is a Friend of Mine: A Biblical and Historical Explanation of the Catholic Doctrine of the Communion of Saints, by Patrick Madrid. The title was a mouthful, but it sounded interesting, and I had just enough cash in my wallet, so I bought it. I didn’t read it right then, though. That would happen much later.
Let me back up a little. A year before I moved to Omaha, while I was attending a friend’s wedding, I met a beautiful young woman named Bonnie Peterson. We kept in touch and eventually began a long-distance romance, living as we were in separate states. After I moved to Omaha, I made many trips to St. Paul, Minnesota, where Bonnie was attending college.
When my year with the Lutheran community was about to end, I received an offer of a permanent position with the organization to which I had been assigned. Bonnie and I married the following summer, just after she graduated from college, and she joined me in my newly-adopted hometown of Bellevue, Nebraska, just south of Omaha. She also found a job with the Lutherans, in a church preschool.
Before long, though, we felt the urge to move closer to our families, which was a bit of a challenge, with one family in Wisconsin and the other in Kentucky. I accepted a position with a financial services corporation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and we bought an old fixer-upper house in nearby Marion. Although we didn’t know it at the time, the choice of that particular house triggered a series of events that would draw us closer to the Catholic Church.
Across the fence from our new-old house was a larger house that had been divided into apartments. One Sunday afternoon, I saw a young man moving in there. I went over and introduced myself. Michael was a recent college graduate who, like me, had just accepted a job in Cedar Rapids. Over the next few weeks, he came to our house often, and in the course of one conversation, he mentioned that he was Catholic. Until that time, my exposure to Catholicism had been quite limited, and I wanted to know more about my neighbor’s religion. I remembered the book that I had picked up earlier in Schuyler and started to read it.
When I finished Patrick Madrid’s book, I realized, with just the slightest hint of uneasiness, that everything in it made sense. He had included his email address in the back of the book, so I sent him a message, and he graciously responded with suggestions of other reading material. The back of the book also included an advertisement for Envoy magazine, a journal of Catholic apologetics, so I ordered a copy, all the while telling myself — and Bonnie — that this was purely a quest for learning.
One day, at our home, I mentioned to our neighbor Michael that I had begun studying the Catholic Church — in a strictly academic way, of course! He said, “I’ll be right back” and went to his apartment. He returned a few minutes later with a stack of books to loan to me: the Catechism of the Catholic Church, The Baltimore Catechism, Butler’s Lives of the Saints; and a few others.
Not long after that, Bonnie slipped the next piece of the puzzle into place. The husband of another teacher at her school had also become interested in Catholicism. I was eager to compare notes with someone close to home, so I called Mike — yes, another Michael — and we realized that we had made some of the same discoveries. One Sunday afternoon, we met at the café at Barnes & Noble, and before we realized it, four hours had passed. It was good to have a companion on the journey … but where was this journey headed? Why would I want to be Catholic when I was content where I was? Was there something in the Catholic Church that I needed, something that I longed for without realizing it? What had started as a purely academic pursuit was making me increasingly uncomfortable.
Early in my studies, a couple of Latin terms came up: sola Scriptura and sola fide, Scripture alone and faith alone. Until then, I hadn’t realized just how much my understanding of Christianity had relied on those concepts — especially sola Scriptura, the belief that the Bible is the only authoritative source of doctrine for Christians. How had the early Church functioned before the New Testament, as we know it today, was compiled? And why had I never thought about that? Without knowing it, I had always approached the Bible the way many people do: as if it had dropped out of the sky on the day of Pentecost. I soon found out that there was debate as late as the fourth century, long after the Apostles had passed away, over what books should constitute the New Testament. I also became more aware that many intelligent, faithful people disagreed on their interpretations of the Scriptures, often on important topics.
Our neighbor Michael and I continued our conversations by email after he moved away. The topic that came up most often was the Eucharist. I had always understood communion, or the Lord’s Supper, as purely symbolic. There was one email dialogue with Michael where I quoted a passage from 1 Corinthians: “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup” (1 Cor 11:27-28 NABRE). Only later did I realize that those verses make no sense at all if communion is purely symbolic. I had caught the seat of my pants on my own pitchfork!
The other topic that I kept running into was apostolic succession. It caused me to think back to something I had heard from a friend during my college years. The analogy went something like this: imagine an ice cream truck driver making his rounds through a neighborhood, and he sees a police car. He thinks to himself, “That’s my true calling!” He puts a rotating light and a siren on his ice cream truck and starts handing out speeding tickets. Of course, those tickets are not valid because no one has conferred on him the authority to issue them, no matter how strongly he feels “called” to be a policeman. At the time, I thought it was a silly analogy, but years later, it came back to me.
Taking a step back from apostolic succession, I saw that the underlying question was, “What exactly is the Church?” I had always understood the Church, in the broadest sense of the word, to be simply the collection of everyone around the world who believed in the Holy Trinity, no matter what label they put on their local assemblies. My studies were seriously challenging this “invisible church” idea. In particular, St. Ignatius of Antioch was often quoted: “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Epistle to the Smyrneans, ch. 8). This passage is often cited as the first known use of the word catholic to describe the Church, and clearly, St. Ignatius understood the Church as visible and hierarchical. At the same time, I ran across a verse of Scripture that I hadn’t noticed before, in the First Letter to St. Timothy: “But if I should be delayed, you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth.” If anyone had asked me what was the “pillar and foundation of truth,” (1 Tim 3:15 NABRE) I would have said, “The Bible, of course.” Yet here the Bible itself was saying that about the Church!
Gradually, our friends and family found out about my new interest. Some were supportive; others were clearly uneasy about it. I hadn’t realized until then that many people had a bitter distaste for the Catholic Church. I remember one heated discussion at a friend’s home in Minneapolis, which prompted him to send me an eight-page letter explaining the “errors” that he saw in Catholicism. (I responded with a 20-page letter, single spaced, with 73 footnotes.) People sent me anti-Catholic materials in the mail, sometimes with no return address.
Michael, the neighbor who had got me into this mess, moved away. The other Mike and his wife, Kimberly, were received into the Catholic Church in 2003. Around the same time, I heard about a conference called Defending the Faith, to be held that summer at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. Mike and I agreed to take a road trip to Ohio. My quest for truth was becoming a “journey” in a literal sense! From the afternoon we arrived in Steubenville, and for the next two days, everything I had been studying over the past two years came to life. The speakers, the Masses, the Holy Hour on Saturday night — it was almost too much to take in all at once. Yet I don’t want to make it sound like some sort of religious emotional high. I had initially been drawn to the Catholic Church by truth, but at the conference, I began discovering the goodness and beauty of the Catholic Faith in a way that reading about it could not duplicate. For some people, that process happens in reverse: they’re initially drawn to the beauty and goodness of the Catholic Faith. Philosophers often call these three qualities — truth, beauty, and goodness — the transcendentals. For me, truth had to come first, and the others followed.
Patrick Madrid’s book had been the starting point of my studies. While we were on a break between sessions of the conference, I was standing outside the bookstore, and guess who was standing next to me! Of course, I struck up a conversation with Patrick Madrid and reminded him of the emails we had exchanged. Mike and I also had the chance to speak to Marcus Grodi from the Coming Home Network and Scott Hahn of Franciscan University, whose conversion stories are now legendary.
As Mike and I drove home on Sunday, somewhere along the way, I said, “I wonder whom I should choose as my patron saint.” We looked at each other and burst out laughing. Then, while I was taking my turn driving and Mike was reading his Bible, he came across Revelation chapter 12, read it aloud to me, and said, “This says Mary is our mother!”Then, while I was taking my turn driving and Mike was reading his Bible, he came across Revelation chapter 12, read it aloud to me, and said, This says Mary is our mother! Click To Tweet
I knew my journey had reached a point of no return. All evidence aligned in favor of the Catholic Church. There were still many things I didn’t quite grasp, but when you’ve accepted apostolic succession and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, you’re practically there!There were still many things I didn’t quite grasp, but when you’ve accepted apostolic succession and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, you’re practically there! Click To Tweet
Mike and Kimberly had joined a large suburban parish in the Cedar Rapids area. I called and set up an appointment with a pastoral associate there.
The time had come to update friends and family on what was going on. Most accepted it, although typically with some questions and concerns. Some of these questions were totally reasonable, such as, “What was lacking in your life that you have found in Catholicism?” and “Have you sincerely valued the Bible more than any other resource?” Bonnie and I were still attending another church in Cedar Rapids. The pastor didn’t fully agree, of course, with the direction I was headed, but he was as supportive as he could possibly be, and I will always be grateful for that.
I started going to a men’s Scripture study group at another Cedar Rapids parish on Wednesday nights. One man from that group had an impressive knowledge of the Bible and Catholic doctrine. He and his wife became mentors on my journey. I also started attending an early morning Catholic men’s fellowship. Those gentlemen encouraged me greatly on my journey.
I was received into the Church at Easter Vigil Mass on April 10, 2004. Bonnie was there to support me, even though she wasn’t ready to take that step herself. Having read Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s book Rome Sweet Home, I knew of the pain that Kimberly had experienced when Scott left his Presbyterian ministry and joined the Catholic Church. I didn’t want that for Bonnie. I assured her that even if she never decided to become Catholic, everything would be fine. But when the time was right, Bonnie made her own journey into the Church.
That night, when I was confirmed and received the Eucharist, my family wasn’t there, nor were many friends. I don’t remember feeling any sadness about that. Instead, I saw it as my chance to say, “I choose you, Lord. I choose you and your Church, even though my family and friends don’t understand. There’s still much that I don’t understand, either, but I’m trusting in You.”I choose you, Lord. I choose you and your Church, even though my family and friends don’t understand. Click To Tweet
When I decide to do something, I tend to jump in with both feet. I went back to Steubenville that summer, this time with Bonnie, and I got involved with the planning of our diocesan men’s conference. It still wasn’t enough, though. I wanted more. As a married man, the priesthood and religious life were not options for me, but maybe I could be a pastoral associate or serve the Church in some other vocational capacity. A year after I came into the Church, I resigned my corporate job to work fulltime on a master’s degree in religious studies, confident that God would provide for our financial needs. It was a reckless thing to do, yet it seemed right at the time. The reality would prove much different from what I expected.
Some Catholic colleges and universities have remained faithful to Church teaching, yet there are many that have embraced “academic freedom” at the expense of their Catholic identity. Time and time again, I heard people with advanced theology degrees questioning and even openly denying fundamental truths of the faith. On occasion, I mustered the courage to speak up, which accomplished little more than labeling myself as a troublemaker. By the end of the year, I withdrew from the master’s program and walked away defeated, wounded, broken, and unemployed.
For the first time, I began to wonder if I had made a huge mistake. The joy that I had experienced as a new convert faded away. I began to understand why people leave the Church, especially in college. As frustrated and discouraged as I was, though, I never seriously considered leaving the Church. Somehow, I knew that what I had experienced back in Steubenville, and through the witness of the faithful Catholics in Cedar Rapids, was real. The words of St. Peter, possibly the most profound theological statement ever spoken, came to me: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Where else could I go but to the Church that our Lord Himself built? Besides, I was not going to admit that the people who had tried to keep me out of the Church had been right! There was one other matter to consider, too: Bonnie had just enrolled in RCIA. I had my God-given role as the spiritual leader of our home to fulfill.
Being a full-time student had left a six-month gap in my employment history. I applied for a number of jobs and received a series of those dreaded “Thank you for your interest” letters. For the interim, I started working as a security officer and eventually ended up patrolling a college campus on night shifts.
That was one of the lowest points of my life. Most of the time, God seemed distant. My prayers, if you can call them that, sounded like, “I trusted you, Lord! Why aren’t you here? I gave up everything for you, and this is what I get? Surely You made me for more than this!” I felt like such a failure. My efforts to serve the Church in a vocational capacity had crashed and burned, and my business career appeared to be ruined as well.
Looking back, I see that I had forged ahead on my own, doing what seemed right in my own eyes. It was as though God was saying, “Yes, I made you for more. This isn’t the life for which I created you. Let go and wait on me.” I believe that what kept me from completely losing my bearings during that time was continuing to attend Mass, receiving the Eucharist, and going to Reconciliation, even when I didn’t feel like it. The sacraments gave me the strength to continue learning the Catholic Faith — not just learning about it. My formation slacked off, but it didn’t stop entirely. As the dust settled from my bad experience with graduate school, I began to recognize that in any institution like the Catholic Church, made of human beings, all of them as imperfect as myself, some disorder is to be expected.
As trite as it might sound, the darkest time of night is just before the dawn. On a cold January day, I received a phone call from a staffing agency where I had applied. A non-profit organization in Cedar Rapids needed someone with my qualifications on a short-term basis to audit some files. This position was expected to last a few months; I remained there for seven years, working my way up to assistant controller. The long, dark night gave way to a new day.
With my professional life back on track, the time had come to reassess where my journey was headed. I had joined the Knights of Columbus a few years earlier, and I began to attend meetings more often. Before long, I was invited to be a local council officer, and then I was appointed as district deputy. In 2016, I was chosen as one of eight delegates to represent Iowa at the Knights of Columbus Supreme Convention in Toronto. That was truly the experience of a lifetime. Seeing so many cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people from as far away as Poland, all gathered together, reminded me of how “catholic” — in the most fundamental sense of the word — the Church truly is.
A short time later, I was called to interview for a new position with the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin. The offer came in mid-summer, and in early August, I began working for the Diocese, which has been a tremendous blessing.
I haven’t departed from the Christianity of my early life. The firm grounding in Scripture and the warmth of Christian fellowship that I experienced in my rural Kentucky upbringing, the bold witness of my friends in college, the respect for liturgy and social ministry that I learned while working for the Lutherans, the evangelistic zeal I experienced at my suburban mega-church in Omaha — all of these experiences prepared me for a deeper expression of Christianity in what I once considered a most unlikely place, the Catholic Church.