“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast!” I said to my husband, quoting Ephesians 2:8 as I sat on the bed while trying not to cry. I had always thought Catholics believed they had to work their way to heaven and was reeling in horror as he explained why he thought we should consider becoming Catholic. I continued battering him with objections about the Pope, Mary, purgatory, priests, saints, statues, the crusades, and Confession until he finally sighed and left the room. I didn’t want to touch, much less read, all the brochures and books he’d brought home, and I seriously wondered how we could stay married if he converted without me.
When Dane and I got married, we were nominally Christian. Although I had faith in a loving God, that faith was pretty much sidelined after I left home at eighteen. I did not pray, attend church, read the Bible, or live a Christian life. The choices I made in those years before I met Dane ended up causing me a lot of heartache.
Dane had a similar background. He believed in God and even had an important “come to Jesus” experience in his early twenties, but after a few months, with no real structure to build on, he fell back into his old ways. Then, after somehow surviving a fall from a three-story roof at the age of 26, he began to see that God must have a plan for his life.
As newlyweds, we decided we should find a church to join. Since we were living in my Texas hometown, I figured we should try my old non-denominational church. I was used to the fire and brimstone sermons, flashy entertainment, and impersonal atmosphere, but Dane was horrified by it.
We agreed to try the Episcopal church. I found it dry and boring. Nevertheless, we became officially Episcopalian. That lasted a couple of years until we lost interest and dropped church altogether.
Time went by, and our boys were born. And as often happens, we felt obligated to raise our sons in a church community. So once again, we set out to find the right one. Over the course of a decade, which included a move out-of-state, we tried several: Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, non-denominational, Bible churches, and Community churches. For a while, Dane was even made deacon of a church that met in a high school music room and whose members were obsessed with demons and the end times. We also attended megachurches so full of people you could hardly move. Looking back, I think we were looking for a church that agreed with what we already believed rather than something we would need to conform to. Looking back, I think we were looking for a church that agreed with what we already believed rather than something we would need to conform to. Click To Tweet
Although there were many good, well-meaning and God-loving people in those churches, and we did learn important things in them, it never took long for religion to feel pretty thin in those congregations. Everything seemed to hinge on the ability of the preacher to deliver emotionally compelling sermons week after week. “Where’s the meat to this?” we would wonder. And how did we know that this guy’s version of things was correct, when another Christian pastor down the road was teaching totally different things? Something was missing.
We also wondered how any of it could matter to our boys if it felt so irrelevant to us. We could read the Bible at home. We could pray at home and even watch sermons on television. Why go through the trouble to get everyone dressed and out the door to church?
We were like a lot of people who thought that the reason there were so many different churches was that people like to have choices and different worship styles. We had never considered anything about church history, where the Bible came from, or even the fact that we were considered Protestants. We weren’t protesting anything that we knew of. But even back then, I intuitively felt there was something wrong with all the divisions and denominations that disagreed with one another on everything from how to baptize to whether it was okay to drink alcohol. They couldn’t all be right because each one had points of contradiction with the others. After all, Jesus had prayed for His people to be one (John 17).
Our disillusion with church and our confusion about our true beliefs were magnified when the country’s economy took a turn for the worse in 2008. We felt our foundation shaken, and I was terrified of what would happen if all the dire predictions we heard came true. One night, as I watched the news, obsessing over what might come, Dane came into the room and said something sarcastic and cynical. I asked him if he even believed in God any more.
He said he wasn’t sure. I was distraught from the realization that we were no longer on the same page spiritually.
Thankfully, things soon began to become brighter. God was working in our lives, and we found ourselves drawn into homeschooling. This was a leap of faith that really forced us to think through our beliefs in ways we’d never had to before. It brought us into contact with many families who took their faith seriously. And although we shared many of the same convictions, I could sense an undercurrent of discord in our Christian homeschool group. We actually had to sign an agreement stating that we would not discuss our faith or the particulars of any churches we attended because it could cause dissension. We weren’t attending any church at that time, so I shrugged it off.
A couple more years passed, and we decided that maybe it was time to give church one last try. A friend of mine was attending a Baptist church in our neighborhood and had wonderful things to say about it. I was still longing for that elusive ideal church family, and Dane was feeling more hopeful, so we gave it a try. Surprisingly, we liked it. The people were welcoming; the pastor was pretty smart, and it seemed like a fit. But after only a few weeks, we found out we would be moving back to Texas because of Dane’s work. Well, we figured, once we get to Texas, we’ll just find a Baptist church in our new city. They seemed to be the ones who had it right. I was excited that we would be arriving in our new hometown on Easter weekend of 2013. “Finally!” I thought. “We’ll be back home in Texas and in our new Baptist church home.”
That Easter morning, we rolled up to the First Baptist Church and found a seat. It was a large church, and the energy level was high, matching my hopes. I tried to focus on what was coming, figuring there had to be a reason there were so many people there. The lights went down; a giant screen dropped from the ceiling, and they began to play a video of their pastor and some other people doing a rap skit. And it was pretty hokey and awful. Did we really need to be entertained to worship God?
That’s when something in me just kind of gave up. All our hopes, all our searching, and this is what it had come to. As we left that day, Dane and I didn’t even have to discuss it. We both knew it was over. Church was not for us.
Looking back, I can see that all those experiences were necessary parts of our journey. Without all the disappointment and frustration, I would never have been able to remotely consider the idea of becoming Catholic. I had grown up in a church that referred to the Catholic Church as the “Whore of Babylon.” To me, becoming Catholic literally had never appeared on my radar.
It was only a few weeks after our visit to the Baptist church that Dane decided to go home and help his mom, who was going to have surgery. While visiting his parents, his dad, who had recently returned to the Catholic Church, shared his insights and suggested that we should learn more about it.
After excitedly sharing his news with me and seeing that I was not reacting the way he’d hoped, Dane quietly dropped the subject. A few days went by. Finally, curiosity got the best of me. I picked up the book Dane had left on the kitchen counter, the one called Rome Sweet Home by Scott and Kimberly Hahn. I figured that truth is truth, and I should have no fear of this guy’s arguments for Catholicism. Imagine my surprise when, a few chapters in, not only did I not find anything I disagreed with, but things that had been bugging me for years began to make sense!
Each conversion story is unique, and usually there’s a particular aspect of the Church that draws the person in. For me, it was the Church’s teaching on life and human sexuality. As I read Kimberly Hahn’s story of how she discovered that contraception and abortion are fruits of the same tree, everything began to make sense. Many things that had happened in my own life, as well as everything that was happening in our very confused culture, boiled down to those truths.
As a non-Catholic, being on the Pill was a no-brainer. It seemed to be the responsible thing to do and was never even questioned. After all, it was my body and my decision when to allow God to bless us with a child. Somehow, I had never wondered how it could be healthy or moral to ingest a chemical that treated my fertility as if it were a disease. And not one doctor ever told me that the Pill is on the World Health Organization’s list of ‘Group A Carcinogens,’ along with tobacco and asbestos.
In that book, Kimberly goes on to explain how the sacramental marriage of a husband and wife is a mirror of the Trinity. The self-giving love they have for each other is so real that, in nine months, they have to give it a name. For the first time — but certainly not the last — I was struck by the truth and beauty of the Church’s teachings. The Church was not anti-sex as I had been told. The Church was pro-love and human dignity, and loving someone has nothing to do with using him. Using artificial methods to separate sex from the potential of procreation was unnatural and unhealthy, making it a lot easier for people to use each other without the “side effect” of making babies.
In his 1968 encyclical, Humana Vitae, Pope Paul VI accurately predicted the dire consequences that would come with the widespread acceptance of contraception. He concluded that it would lead to conjugal infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards; it would lead to lessened respect for the woman, reducing her to a mere instrument for the satisfaction of male desires; it would put undue power in the hands of public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law, and it would create the illusion that procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decisions of men.
The contraceptive mentality, which was actually forbidden even by Protestant denominations until 1930, has led to most of the social ills we see today: broken families brought on by so-called no-fault divorce, pornography addiction, disease, sex trafficking, and almost sixty million lives lost to abortion in the United States alone.
Understanding the truth about the contraceptive mentality brought some painful personal memories back to me. When Dane had had his vasectomy years earlier, I was not on board. Although we were overwhelmed with three small children and not having a support network, I had wanted him to wait before doing something permanent. At the time, I did not have the theological arguments to back up my instincts and persuade him that it was wrong to surgically alter his body to prevent the creation of new life. It is one of my life’s greatest regrets. Thankfully, Dane was later so moved by the Catholic Church’s teachings that he underwent a vasectomy reversal. Being open to the possibility of new life has changed the dynamic of our marriage for the better, even if we end up not being blessed with more children.
As the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not more than 100 people in the world who truly hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive the Catholic Church to be.” I had been one of those millions who believed all the misconceptions and even flat-out lies I’d heard about the Catholic Church, and now I was learning how wrong I was. That summer, Dane and I devoured every book we could get our hands on about Catholicism. And in the fall, we enrolled in RCIA classes at our local parish to learn more and begin the formal pro- cess for entering the Church.
When I look back on that time, I can still feel the swirl of emotions. Either we were really onto something, or we were flirting with heresy. Was it worth gambling our souls on something so risky? We were not the first to go from shock, to horror, to joy at the realization of the truth. Even though my heart and the Holy Spirit were guiding me, I was on guard. But the more I learned, the more the barriers I had erected came down. There was an answer, and a good one, for every objection I had.
One of the most pivotal things for me was when I learned where the Bible came from. Many Protestants beat Catholics over the head with it, claiming that the Bible condemns Catholic Tradition and teaching. The fact is, it is not possible for the Bible to contradict Church teachings, because the Bible is a Catholic book.
Jesus founded a Church, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that Church produced The Book. The Church Fathers discerned what the table of contents would be, and the final form was not settled until almost 400 years after Jesus’ ascension. Thus, if someone doesn’t trust the Catholic Church, then they cannot trust their Bible.
So how did the Apostles spread the Gospel for all those years before there was a book to hand out? With the help of Tradition. Paul had told the Thessalonians, “Shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). And, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
The idea of sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone, is self-refuting when you simply ask, “Where in the Bible text does it list the books that belong in the Bible?” It doesn’t. So automatically, you’re counting on the authority of the Church, which decided on the table of contents, to provide that information. While we’re at it, “Where in the Bible does it say that everything you need to know is written in the Bible?” It doesn’t. In 1 Timothy 3:15, it is the “Church of the living God” that is described as the “pillar and foundation of truth.”
With this new, factually-based understanding of the origins of holy Scripture, I began to see the Bible in a
whole new way. I found out about typology — how people and events in the Old Testament foreshadow people and events in the New Testament. For example, the sacrament of Baptism was foreseen in the Great Flood when God purged the wicked from the earth with water, and again in the Exodus when God’s Chosen People fled to freedom by passing through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Likewise, the Holy Eucharist was foreshadowed in the manna, food provided by God as His people wandered in the desert for forty years. He still nourishes us with mysterious, supernatural food as we journey to the Promised Land, praying, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The Bible is like a mirror, the Old and New Testaments reflecting each other.
As we continued our journey, not only did the Lord send the Holy Spirit to guide us; He also sent an unexpected friend. One night, when Dane and I were walking to the downtown square for a date night, we happened upon an elderly neighbor unloading groceries from her van. Dane asked if we could help, and she gladly accepted. As we carried the bags in through her house, it became apparent from her décor that she was Catholic. When we told her we were in the process of converting, she was thrilled for us. “There’s nothing like being Catholic,” she told us, and she meant it with all her heart.
Over the next few months that woman, Anne, became my mentor. She introduced me to Our Lady of Guadalupe and told me about Mary’s appearance in Mexico in 1531 that brought millions of indigenous Mexicans away from their demonic practice of human sacrifice and converted them to Christianity. In addition to that miracle, I learned not only was she the Ark of the New Covenant and the new Eve, she was our spiritual mother, given to us by Christ as He hung dying on the cross:
When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved standing near, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home (John 19:26–27).
Mary was closer to Jesus than any other human being. He performed His first miracle at her request. She always points us to her Son as evidenced by her last-recorded words in the Gospels: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Her “yes” to God was the perfect example of how we should all respond to our Creator. As they say, don’t worry about Catholics loving Mary too much. We could never love her more than Jesus does.
My perspective on everything began to change. Like so many people raised in America, I was taught that “rugged individualism” was to be admired and that all I needed was Jesus, my Bible, and my own interpretation of what that Bible said. It was basically all about me, me, and me. Looking at the world with my new Catholic eyes, I was beginning to see things very differently. Not only did I have a family in heaven made up of Mary and the saints, but the concept of my human family on earth started to seem more real, as did my obligation toward them.
Once you come unmoored from the Church authority established by Christ, it is a very slippery slope. With each splinter that breaks off, truths are lost and things become more subjective and relative to non-Catholics. Many denominations have decided it’s easier to fall off a cliff than stand for the truth. But for two millennia, the Catholic Church has not given in to the pressures of prevailing societal winds. When Jesus said to the first Pope, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18), He meant it.
Our months of learning and discovering were thrilling. At Mass, as I breathed in the incense and watched the candles glow, I was taken in by the beauty and mystery playing out before me. The liturgy touched all my senses, the spiritual and physical intertwined. The Word was alive and dwelling among us in the readings, the tabernacle, the priest, and the people. From crossing myself with holy water as I entered to being blessed by the priest at the end of Mass, participating in ancient rituals going back thousands of years made me realize I had never experienced true reverence for my Lord and Savior in a church before. I remember thinking, “Of course, Jesus. Of course your Church is full of beauty. Thank you, Lord.”
And then, there was the ultimate mystery: the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I finally understood what Jesus meant in John 6, and it changed everything. Those strange sayings had always been ignored, danced around, or completely contorted by every other church I had attended. Really, you couldn’t blame them, because without the Catholic Church, it was not possible to understand.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (John 6:53–56).
Nowhere else in the Gospels does Jesus use repetition like this to get His point across. And when many of His disciples were shocked and decided to leave Him, saying, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Jesus did not go after them and soften His teaching.
In Matthew’s Gospel (26:26–28), we see Jesus celebrating the first Mass at the Last Supper:
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a chalice, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
That was The Thing that had been missing from all those other churches: The Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. In the Mass, heaven reaches down to earth, and our voices join together with the angels and saints (see Hebrews 12:22–24). Then, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the words and actions of the priest, Jesus mysteriously makes Himself present under the appearance of bread and wine, just as humbly as when He became incarnate in the womb of a virgin and when He gave Himself up on the cross. The priest re-presents the one, perfect, unblemished Sacrifice on our behalf, and we are invited to join in the Supper of the Lamb. Through the Holy Eucharist, the Good Shepherd feeds His sheep, giving us our spiritual daily bread, every single day of the year.
By receiving the Eucharist, Catholics show that they believe what the Church teaches. They must be in a state of grace, cleansed of mortal sin, or they can bring judgment upon themselves (1 Cor- inthians 11:27–32). Catholics believe, as the earliest Christians believed, that it is no mere symbol.
To be cleansed of mortal sin and inwardly prepared to receive the Eucharist, Catholics receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation by confessing their sins to a priest, who acts in Persona Christi, in the Person of Christ. This practice was established by Jesus when He gave special authority to His Apostles:
“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:21-23)
As I prepared to be received into the Church, my first Reconciliation was one of the final pieces. I had to take a long, hard look at my life and make a thorough examination of conscience. This was yet another amazing gift of the Church. My previous understanding of the Ten Commandments had been pretty simplistic, but the more I learned, the more they were really fleshed out. Before, I would think, “Have I ever killed anyone? No, I’m not that bad.” But had I ever hated someone in my heart and wished evil upon him? Um, yes. Had I ever worshipped false gods? Not literally. But years had gone by without my speaking to or trusting in the God I believed in.
Forty-one years’ worth of sins can add up to a very long and interesting list. I was very nervous for my first Reconciliation. As I began to say out loud what I’d done, I began to feel overcome with emotion and regret. Hearing my sins out loud somehow caused me to really see them for the first time. The tears flowed, and I was surprised at the depth of my remorse. When I was finished, the priest absolved me and reassured me that God loved me and forgave me.
After my first Reconciliation, I could hardly wait to be in full communion with Jesus’ Church. The Church that had seven sacraments and 73 books in the Bible. The Church with the fullness of truth. Just one year after I sat so dejectedly at First Baptist, Anne was by my side as my sponsor as I was confirmed and received my first Holy Communion. Looking back at the beginning of my conversion, which will continue until the day I die, it is clear that it was by the grace of God that the scales fell from my eyes. Only His hand could have led my stubborn, prideful spirit home. Forty-one years earlier, He had begun a good work in me at my baptism on Easter Sunday, 1973. And at the Easter Vigil of 2014, He continued His work by bringing me into His one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, like Him, ever ancient and ever new.