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Conversion StoriesPresbyterian & Reformed

The Gentle Persuasion of Scripture… and My Wife

Fr. Paul Key
January 16, 2011 4 Comments

I was a child of the manse. My father was a Presbyterian minister and my mother the director of Christian education. I had a good Christian upbringing and after college served as a lay Presbyterian missionary in Caracas, Venezuela.

When I returned at the age of twenty-six, I was ready to get married. While studying in an institute in Chicago, I was also actively chasing four Protestant women, all of whom looked eligible. There was one fascinating young lady, however, whom I considered safe to talk with since she was Catholic and therefore obviously not an option.

I still remember the night we were seated on old chairs in an old building on the west side of Chicago. As Patricia and I were carrying on one of our delightful conversations, I realized all of a sudden that the level of conversation was at a totally different level from what I had expected. We began evaluating very rigorously our personalities, our theologies, and particularly the fact that I was planning to be a Presbyterian minister.

I told her that I could not imagine her wanting to marry a Presbyterian minister-to-be. But she replied that the Lord had told her this would happen on the very first night we met. (Later, our spiritual director concluded that the Lord had sent Pat to get me. The worst part of this whole process was having to admit to my wife that she was right, but I have a pretty good wife to admit that to.)

After a brief time of testing our convictions, we were married. Three days later we were both enrolled in the Master of Divinity program at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Patricia completed the whole program — Greek, Hebrew, and all — plus thirty-six hours of her undergraduate residency requirements while being pregnant the second year.

We raised our first son during the third year. She graduated second in the class. Since I was not first, I obviously married up.

Embracing Catholic Teachings

My wife is very gentle, but when she sees untruth, she goes after it. She gently began explaining to me the biblical foundations for the Catholic Church. She even corrected our Protestant professors in seminary. But we survived and went on into the pastorate.

I very soon got into trouble for all the right reasons. As a good Protestant, I started preaching from the Bible. Our seminary professors had encouraged us to use the ecumenical lectionary, which brought me into contact with all kinds of passages that I might have avoided otherwise. As a result, I found myself slowly realizing that my wife’s claim that the Catholic Church was the biblical Church might be true. Emotionally this was very hard to admit, let alone admit to my wife.

Many Baptists consider Presbyterians to be almost pagan and ignorant of Scripture. Since our congregation was near to both an Evangelical Free and a Baptist seminary, we often had seminarians attending worship and Bible studies. I don’t like to lose arguments, so to stay one step ahead of their biblical challenges, I kept busy studying Scripture.

I rarely lost a biblical argument to the Baptist seminarians. But in the process I found myself accepting more and more the Catholic understanding of Scripture. Let me give you just a couple of quick examples.

To a Reformed Protestant, the distinctions of sola fide, sola gratia, and sola Scriptura are almost the equivalent of the Blessed Virgin to a Catholic. Protestants at times seem almost to worship these three pillars.

I once attended a conference where these three great distinctives were posted on an enormous banner in front. When the conference was over, I wondered where salvation by faith alone was found in Scripture. So I began searching.

To my dismay I discovered that the origins of this phrase came from Martin Luther’s mistranslation of Romans 3:28. The word “alone” is not in the Greek text here. Luther added it because, he said, he felt it was to be presumed — but more likely because it was needed to defend his radical reforms.

I also began to study the relationship of faith and works. My evangelical friends said that if you allow works any role in salvation, you are becoming Roman Catholic. But I knew a couple of Scripture passages that seemed to imply that works do indeed play a role.

Consider, for example, Matthew 25:31–46, in which the vision of the Last Judgment includes the separation of the sheep from the goats. Here Jesus says nothing about faith and everything about works of love and compassion. I also knew of James 2:14–26, which explicitly teaches that faith without works is dead.

I decided to read the entire New Testament looking for such passages. When I did, I found a plethora of verses emphasizing the importance of works, including Matthew 7:21–23 and 16:27; Luke 10:25–37 and 12:9; John 3:20–21; Romans 2:1–16; l Corinthians 3:8 and 6:9–10; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Galatians 5:19–21; Ephesians 6:8; Revelation 2:23; 20:12; 22:12; and many others.

I was sensing deeply that I was in trouble. I began keeping a list of the places in Scripture where I thought the Catholic Church seemed to be right. When this list reached twenty, I knew I was in trouble.

When the list eventually reached thirty, I converted. With the eyes of faith I have cultivated since becoming Catholic, that list has grown to over seventy, and it’s embarrassing to admit how blind I was. But then I’m getting ahead of myself.

Essential Issues

Another issue that became overwhelming was the sacraments. Protestants generally teach that sacraments are but empty symbols and do not communicate power. Yet I kept finding Scripture passages that indicated they were intended to contain power. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11:27 and John chapter 6, it is very clear we are talking about the reality of Jesus’ Body and Blood in the Eucharist and not just symbolic ideas.

I eventually found passages for each of the seven sacraments that indicated the same reality. From my Protestant prospective, these verses weren’t supposed to be there.

Another associated issue (particularly difficult for a Protestant to deal with) is Eucharistic adoration. As I was getting closer to becoming Catholic, our spiritual director, who was also our referee in marriage, strongly encouraged me to spend some time in Eucharistic adoration. Having never done this, let alone considered doing it, I asked him what one did in Eucharistic adoration. He said, “Just talk to Jesus.”

Most cradle Catholics may not understand how difficult it is for Protestant converts to practice Eucharistic adoration. In many Protestants’ eyes, this is out-and-out idolatry. But having received this instruction from a man of my spiritual director’s stature, I couldn’t escape.

So I went into the chapel with my Bible, really irritated but obedient. I decided that if this devotional practice had any validity whatsoever, there must be something about it in Scripture. Turning to the explicit Eucharistic passages, I started reading John chapter 6 and was shocked.

Just before the section where Jesus talks explicitly about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, I found a passage that is suggestive of Eucharistic adoration. John 6:40 reads: “For this is the will of My Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” Now, when do you and I see Jesus?

I have to testify to you that since that day, I have found my times of Eucharistic adoration to be incredibly fruitful, insightful times of grace. The entire aspect of the sacraments and the power of the Eucharist in Catholic tradition have been personally overwhelming.

My Wife’s Role

Maybe one of the most important issues very central to my own heart that led to my conversion was marriage and sexuality. We worked hard in my Protestant congregation to build strong Christian marriages. From the pulpit and the classroom we offered lots of Christian formation, Bible study, marriage formation, and marriage enrichment. I became increasingly uneasy, however, as I realized that the resources and foundational concepts I was promoting, though they were scriptural, tended to be Catholic.

For example, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the family is an incomplete society needing the state for its support in temporal matters and the Church for its support in spiritual matters. One of the implications of this teaching is that a husband and wife should not expect to carry all the emotional and spiritual weight of a marriage. There is simply too much going on between a husband and wife — and there was too much going on between Pat and me.

Pat has a strong personality although she looks very gentle. You just don’t want to get her angry. One evening, we were having one of our serious disagreements. I had been preaching this stuff on marriage, saying that every couple needs to have a spiritual director or someone they can have as an impartial, informed third party for difficult times.

That night, she looked at me and said, “Why don’t you do what you preach?” Recognizing that she had me, I said okay, and that’s how our Jesuit spiritual adviser entered our life.

I found myself casting about looking for wherever I could find truth. Of course, Scripture was most generally present, but when you’re living with a Catholic, you look at every other option first. And though Pat was gracious and patient, she also had a good strategy.

About once every six months, when I was having a difficult pastoral or maybe counseling problem, she would say: “You know, Paul, if you would be Catholic with all the resources of the Catholic Church — spiritual direction, Confession, the sacraments, all the Catholic theology — you would be so much more effective.” Now, if a wife says that just once every six months, that is not too much. But over eighteen years, that adds up to thirty-six interventions. I finally avoided the whole issue by getting into a building program.

I thought I could justify to Pat and to myself ignoring all these issues while I was immersed in this building program. Around this time, Scott Hahn’s conversion tape was released, and my wife — who never misses an opportunity — obtained it. But with architectural drawings in hand, I said, “I’m not interested,” and avoided listening to the tapes for almost three years.

Day of Decision

After the building program was complete, I truly found myself Catholic and decided I needed a day of personal reflection and retreat. On October 15, 1991, I drove off to my favorite hiding place along the Mississippi River fortified with a book of Catholic doctrine by Frank Sheed and two sets of Scott Hahn’s tapes. After reading a few chapters and listening again to Scott’s tapes on “Common Objections,” along with his series on Mary, I fully realized that all my biblical arguments had disappeared.

It became clear that day that if I remained where I was, I would be compromising. I would be stagnating spiritually and facing spiritual death. When you can see the consequences of your behavior, clearly you have a better chance of making a decision.

So I drove home and said to Pat, “I’m either going to stagnate and die or change.” Then together we decided that we needed to make some radical changes. I resigned from my pastorate and moved to Steubenville, Ohio, to study Catholic theology and become immersed in the very strong Catholic community there.

For the entire first week at Franciscan University, after listening to Father Mike Scanlan orient the new students, I was in tears because I realized how stubbornly I had been avoiding what I had clearly seen for eleven years. Then at the Easter Vigil Mass in 1992, with my wife and children and friends from the Master’s program standing up and cheering in the back, I was received into the Catholic Church.

The Lord has truly blessed us. Through gentle leadings as well as remarkable signs and wonders, He has guided and provided whenever and whatever we have needed. Yes, in this journey we have learned in unexpected ways the importance of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. He has humbled me repeatedly, asking that I give up everything — money, position, power, even for long periods my wife and family — all to help me rediscover how much you and I can totally depend upon Him.

After a number of years of study and intense struggles, trying to discern how I might be able to continue to serve the Lord in the Catholic Church, I was hired by the Diocese of Lubbock, Texas, as director of evangelization and of their Spiritual Renewal Center. In 2007 I was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Tyler, Texas, and I now serve in college campus ministry.

In the Catholic Church, we have the richness and the fullness of the tradition, the wisdom of pastoral practice, the wholeness of biblical theology. Now we must prayerfully and charitably help each other learn it and apply it. It continues to be an incredible journey, and I give the good Lord thanks for everything He has done for us.

Fr. Paul Key

Father Paul Key was ordained a Catholic priest in 2007 for the Diocese of Tyler, Texas. He is now engaged in campus ministry at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.

This story appears in the book Journeys Home, edited by Marcus Grodi (CHResources, rev. ed., 2011).To order the book, click here

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