I sat praying in a Catholic church at Holy Cross Monastery near Tombstone, AZ. This was unusual for me, since I wasn’t Catholic. I had accompanied my mother-in-law, who was mourning her husband. This had been a place they had liked to stop and pray. As I knelt, I prayed: “God, I don’t understand the Catholic Faith, but I’d like to. This is so strange to me — the candles, the images, the whole culture — but I’d like to understand. If there is anything good here to learn, show me, teach me.”
As we drove home to Texas, news of Pope Francis’ election was on the radio. I thought it interesting that he was from Argentina. I was thirty-six, married fourteen years, and serving alongside my wife at our Assemblies of God church. I would never have thought that, in a little over a year, I would be a Catholic.
Restless for Truth
About one year before my birth, my mother had begun attending a Spanish-speaking Baptist church after a profound conversion experience she had watching a televangelist. Until then, she had been Catholic, as was my father. Some of my first church memories were of Sunday School stories and lying on the carpet studying the wood grain under pews during long sermons. When I was in third grade, we moved from California to San Marcos, TX and began attending a Full Gospel Pentecostal church. I heard many sermons, attended numerous Sunday School classes, and responded to about five altar calls. I gave my life to the Lord as my personal Savior and believed that my sins were forgiven and I was saved from damnation, but I didn’t feel anything change inside.
As I was about to enter high school, I stopped attending church except for special occasions. After an awkward social period, I was introduced to the party lifestyle. It was then that I really began to question my faith. If I had lived all my life never experiencing an altered state of consciousness, what else didn’t I know about? I assumed that Christianity was lacking and sought to discover all the things from which Christianity had “kept” me.
Along with a wild lifestyle, I entered college with a strong spiritual hunger. I would search the bookstores and libraries for information about religion and spirituality, mostly Eastern. I dabbled in Buddhism, Hinduism, Transcendental Meditation, and eventually became strongly New Age. I thought I could find truth for myself through study, discipline, and meditation.
When I met my future wife, Heidi, in 1994, she also was heavily involved in the New Age. We became best friends and loved to talk about spirituality. Our relationship was ambiguous and rocky. We dropped out of college our sophomore year, lived in communal housing for a time, hitchhiked to a hippie gathering, and in 1996 tried giving up our possessions to travel the U.S. in a Volkswagen camper van. (We entered a little late in the game to be hippies, but we were trying.)
Our relationship and life began to fall apart, and in desperation, we gave up our travel after three months. She returned to her family in Virginia, and I went back to Texas. I was so tired and was sick of my life. After all my spiritual seeking, I decided to try going back to church with an open mind.
What got me thinking about Christianity again was a book I had read by Anne Rice in which her vampire character goes through a spiritual crisis over his existence and ends up having a long conversation with the devil about the origins of evil and sin. The theology in the book was horrendous — but deep — and made me realize that Christianity had many facets that I had never considered.
I decided to attend my mother’s nondenominational church again. This time I was not going to attend as a “bored teen.” I was going to try to see past the people (sometimes unfriendly), the music (not really interesting), the building (a school gymnasium) to what was at the bottom of Christianity.
In August 1997, I was ripe. During a preaching on the glory of God, I had a powerful conversion experience during which I was full of tears and experienced a life transforming vision that gave me the fear of the Lord. After kneeling at the altar (I don’t think there was even an altar call) and being prayed over, I got up from that experience hungry to read the Bible and to know who this mysterious, holy God was. If He was the God revealed in the Bible, I had to read about Him and try to understand what was known about Him.
When I phoned Heidi and told her I was Christian, she was upset. She thought I had sold-out on my beliefs and search for truth. She asked me what I thought about tarot cards, crystals, and reincarnation. I just told her that Jesus was alive and loved her and that she should try reading the Bible.
During the next few months, I mailed her worship music on cassette tapes, which she listened to on her drive to work. She said later that she would find herself raising her hand and praising God in her car. When she read about Jesus she felt His love and described feeling that He was in the room with her. She later moved back to Texas to finish college and gave her life to Jesus. She was baptized at the nondenominational church my mother and I were attending. My father was still attending Mass at the time. We didn’t have a close relationship, and because of the religious differences between my mother and father, we rarely discussed religion. I still don’t know how much my father had been catechized as a Catholic, or how devoted he was to living his faith during that period.
Heidi and I — both loving God and wishing to serve Him side by side — married in May 1999. We felt strongly called to work full-time in ministry and wanted to be missionaries, but didn’t know where to start. Our first child, Mattie, was born in 2001. I worked various jobs and ministry rolls. In 2003, I quit my job and took an unpaid position at a parachurch organization called the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City. It wasn’t easy for us to raise financial support for me to work there, but my wife and I felt that God wanted us to serve Him in ministry. IHOP is like a Protestant monastery devoted to continuous prayer and worship 24/7. I served in various roles including small worship team and dance ministry. It was a very charismatic environment. My wife and I became house church pastors and worked in healing rooms and on prophecy teams.
We felt God call us back to Texas at the end of 2004, thinking that we were going to start a ministry there. Instead, I completed my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting and worked with troubled teens at a shelter. For a year, we even worked at Father Flanagan’s Girls and Boys Town in San Antonio, house parenting seven high school boys in CPS custody. We became public school teachers, my wife teaching third grade and I teaching high school art and photography.
We were heavily involved at our local Assemblies of God (AG) church. We taught Jr. High and High School Sunday School and worked a lot with the youth on Wednesday nights. We became great friends with the pastor and his family and worked together on fundraisers and conference trips. My wife and I began to study to become credentialed in the AG. I took two years of part-time classes at an AG college, working towards a Master of Divinity degree, but stopped after learning that my three-year-old daughter was deaf and would need to get cochlear implants.
It was during this time period that I found myself kneeling at that Catholic church in Arizona.
A new journey
When I returned to teaching, I learned that one of my students had recently been confirmed in the Catholic Church. Interested, I asked him for a book recommendation on Catholicism. He gave me his Youth Catechism to read. As I read it, I found it beautiful, troubling at times, and well thought out. I found myself agreeing with many of the teachings and, when something to which I was initially resistant came up (like the Communion of Saints), I would find the Catholic explanations just as convincing — if not more — than my arguments against those doctrines.
I began a year-long study of Catholicism, during which I watched several Journey Home programs on EWTN. Some of the books that had the most profound influence on me during this time were The Catholic Faith Handbook for Youth, because of its concise explanation of Catholic teaching that cleared up many stereotypes I had; A Biblical Defense of Catholicism by Dave Armstrong, because it helped me understand that Catholic beliefs were not contrary to Scripture; and Four Witnesses by Rod Bennett, because it showed me what the Church originally looked like — and why — in the words of the first Christians and Church leaders.
I was excited and frightened embarking on this journey. Excited, because I felt that I had stumbled upon so much knowledge, beauty, and Revelation of my Lord Jesus. Frightened, because I felt this would be very troubling to my marriage, ministry, and church relationships. I had been exposed to anti-Catholic sermons, lessons, books, and videos that told me that the Catholic Church was the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation and that the Pope was the Antichrist. Even if my immediate family and friends didn’t hold anti-Catholic views, I knew that people in my town and congregation probably had heard and read some of the same anti-Catholic teaching.
I began to feel awkward around my Christian friends. I had never been one for small talk, preferring to discuss what was really going on in a person’s life. Now, I began to feel scared and awkward, because I didn’t want to have to share what I was going through in my life. I didn’t want to be a person that was trying to convince others that some of the things they had been taught were misleading misrepresentations and that the Catholic Faith was real and right. I didn’t want to be viewed as someone who was trying to “take” people out of my friend and pastor’s church back to Mass. I definitely didn’t want to be the person that would try to explain to my pastor and friend that I felt that neither he nor I had the authority to define doctrines and pastor a church based on our own opinions and interpretations of Scripture and/or the vote of a group of well-meaning but unauthorized believers.
My wife and friends became worried, but I just could not stop reading these books. I wanted to know Jesus and to understand the Bible. I wanted to know the Church Jesus founded, not just my twenty-first century American Protestant interpretation of it. I still have never felt that the vision God placed in my heart in my Protestant church background was wrong or somehow empty once I started learning about Catholicism, but rather, I could see it finding its rightful place.
During this year, my wife and I had many heated and passionate discussions. It saddens me to think of the emotional trauma this season had on our relationship. My wife was adamant that she did not want to be Catholic, nor did she want our kids to be. Although (on good days) she would listen to me share what was burning in my heart about Catholicism, she did not want to read any Catholic books. We weren’t perfect, but our faith had given us a strong vision together, and now it seemed like this foundation was shaking.
Through reading the Youth Catechism and hearing Catholic teachings firsthand — not through Protestant sources — many of my previous, negative judgments against Catholics were pacified. For instance, when I thought of “incorrect” Catholic doctrines, I always first thought of the Bible verse in which Jesus says not to call anyone on earth “father.” I assumed from this verse that Catholics must not read their Bible, or at least don’t value it enough to base their faith practice on it. Dave Armstrong’s book broke through my ignorance and helped me realize that I had never considered any alternative explanations than the Protestant arguments Armstrong explained that in the parable of “Lazarus and the Rich Man,” Jesus called Abraham “Father Abraham,” and, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote that he is a “father” to the Christians in the church that he planted. Paul says they do not have many fathers, but instead he claims to be their father.
It wasn’t long until I contacted the local priest to tell him that I was studying the Catholic Faith, and that I liked what I was reading! I remember once that year telling my wife during a heated discussion that I would wait five years until I became Catholic, just to make sure it was the right decision. A month later, I was emailing our local priest telling him that I longed for the Eucharist and would probably have to face the consequences of being misunderstood for it.
I entered the RCIA program.
One particular stumbling block arose when I would think about becoming an AG minister. When the occasion would arise to ecumenically interact with other ministers in the city, how would we know which interpretation of Scripture was correct? How could I know that what I taught was the best interpretation of Scripture? Could I authoritatively say that I was the man to help lead my neighbors to heaven, speak at their weddings, and comfort them at their loved ones’ funerals? The idea of having that responsibility on my shoulders frightened me.
With my new-found Catholic perspective, I felt that my understanding of the Christian Faith was no longer fragmented and abstract, but a continuous historic and physical Faith. I was not struggling to find and then piece together doctrines for myself. As a non-Catholic Christian, I had found my doctrines on topics like assurance of salvation or the Rapture and Tribulation had changed over time towards a Catholic understanding of these. If the Catholic Church was scripturally correct on these doctrines, what else did they know, and how long was I going to struggle to find these doctrinal positions on my own? Along with reading some great Catholic apologetics books, I trusted the Catholic Church on the areas of doctrine I still didn’t fully grasp.
Being an art teacher, I use an analogy based on art to help me understand what has happened to me. Being raised in a post-modern world, I was taught a pluralist relativistic view of life. My world was like a cubist/abstract painting with multiple points of view all stitched together. Just like a cubist/abstract painting, my life might be interesting, but it didn’t make much coherent sense. The modern man is asked to exist in an incoherent reality with multiple perspectives and “truths” being equally correct — but I just couldn’t stay there and have peace.
In visual art, to have a painting or drawing be in proper perspective, one must have a horizon and stable vanishing point. Artists like Picasso created cubist art that showed reality from multiple perspectives at once, losing clarity and coherent meaning in the process. When I decided to follow Christ, I felt like I found my horizon and a vanishing point. I could now see more clearly up from down, wrong from right, good from evil. Life was not relative. Although I knew Christ as the vanishing point, the existence of so many different Christian denominations, and, therefore, each person being asked to interpret the Bible on his or her own (creating a kind of “Bible relativism”), caused my vanishing point to continuously shift.
Becoming Catholic was like finding my steady vanishing point. It was a stable point in life rooted in the incarnation of Christ, passed down to today through apostolic succession, and currently in focus with the Magisterium and papacy keeping doctrine stable and not up for popular vote. My Christian worldview was steady now.
As more denominations give up orthodox positions on issues like contraception, gay marriage, poverty, universal salvation, and the existence of hell, I hope more non-Catholic Christians will see this as a ramification of the instability of a sola Scriptura Christianity. When people cast off the authority of the Church — that gave us the Bible — it is just a matter of time until people cast off the authority of the Bible itself. For Christians who dislike relativism, I would ask them to see that sola Scriptura and the resulting multitude of denominations is a form of Biblical relativism. Sola Scriptura allows one to say, “Well, you read the Bible and found that it teaches this view, while I read the Bible and found that it teaches this contradicting view. Because we both have the right to interpret Scripture for ourselves, we have to be OK with contradicting positions.”
Not just a memorial
During that same year, our AG pastor felt led while studying and preaching on the Book of Acts, to have our congregation take communion every week. He felt the Spirit say it would help to end divisions in the church. Ironically, he asked me to lead our AG congregation in the weekly communion service.
I researched, prayed, and prepared each week to lead our congregation in this remembrance. I would often quote 1 Corinthians 11 to the congregation:
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.”
(1 Cor 11:27-30)
It began to sink in that what St. Paul was describing was not just a “memorial” meal. People do not die from a memorial. What was I doing? Further reflection on the Bread of Life discourse in John 6 convicted me that communion was sacred and much more than I was taught growing up.
I brought these concerns to my pastor, but he encouraged me to continue to lead the congregation. Communion became the sweetest and most profound time of the Sunday service for me. Coupled with my study of the Catechism and the early Church Fathers, this weekly experience of communion was driving me to long for the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
One day in my one-on-one RCIA meeting, I told the deacon about the conflict I was feeling: leading an AG congregation in communion every Sunday when I knew it was not (and it was not believed by them to be) the Real Presence. He recommended that I stop leading communion in the AG church, because — reflecting on St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 — my conscience was now informed on this matter, and I believed Jesus to be truly present in the Eucharist.
The decision to stop leading communion at my AG church still troubles me from time to time. Had God placed me on a journey to lead that AG congregation and my family on a discovery of the early Church view of the Eucharist, and I simply ran ahead too fast for them? I do feel that it would have been wrong to expect my wife and the people in that congregation to convert with me, to have delayed my entrance until they discovered that desire for themselves. That would be presuming that they would eventually join, and I would be waiting with no guarantee. I still pray that my wife and the folks whom I used to serve will come to study, reverence, and understand the full significance of the Lord’s Supper and the fullness of the Catholic Faith.
Something that made the transition to Catholicism slightly easier for a Pentecostal was belief in miracles and the supernatural. I had already believed in the fact that Paul in the book of Acts had prayed over handkerchiefs and these were laid on the sick so they might recover. I already believed in anointing with oil as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Catholics have always respected the supernatural elements of faith, something that many Protestants rejected after the Enlightenment.
“That they all may be one…”
With my wife and children in attendance, I joined the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil 2014. I am overjoyed to take part in the sacred Mass every week receiving the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus in Holy Communion. It was a powerful and profound experience to feel back at home in the original Church Jesus founded. I have begun teaching fourth grade CCE and look forward to helping prepare Catholics for Confirmation.
No matter where I serve in my parish, I am overjoyed to love and serve my family, the domestic church. One of the most challenging parts of this journey is not having my wife alongside me. I can’t blame her for not reading the books I chose to read, or even in asking the same questions I had asked. I have tried to reassure her of my love and support for her continued desire to be a credential AG preacher. I currently attend an early Mass and then join my wife and children at the AG service. Sometimes my wife will accompany me to Mass. At times, I sit in on her Sunday School class as an encouragement. Although I will never be a pastor of a church as a Catholic, I know there are many opportunities in a Catholic parish to encourage, teach, and pray for people without becoming a priest or deacon.
It still vexes me to see so much anti-Catholic misrepresentation online. However, I understand; not too long ago I too used to think the Pope would be the second beast of Revelation! I pray that this ignorance will one day be illuminated by knowledge, love, and truth.
I feel a new freedom to lean upon the authoritative interpretation of Scripture in the Catholic Church. I no longer have to strive to have a cutting edge revelation and interpretation of Scripture that “wows” others. I feel free to focus on loving people, especially my wife and kids, and to seek to lay down my life for my friends. As a Charismatic Catholic, I believe the charisms of the Spirit are at work in a dynamic life-giving way. I pray with Christ that the Church will be one, that the Protestant lovers of Scripture would bring their knowledge to serve in the Catholic Faith, and that Charismatics would bring in their dynamic life in the Spirit to refresh the Church’s sacramental life.
It has not been an easy journey and the temptation was there to say as in the days of Jesus, “This is a hard saying. Who can bear it?” But Jesus is my great reward, and only He has the words of eternal life.