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Conversion StoriesPresbyterian & Reformed

From Darkness to Light

Fr. Slider Steuernol
February 11, 2011 One Comment

I was a staff member with Campus Crusade for Christ and had become a part of a 50 man and woman team called The University Ambassador Team which had prayed and done research together in an attempt to discern which country in the world the Lord might be directing us in a ministry of evangelization of college students. We were committed to stay three years in any country to which the Lord might lead us.

I had just graduated from Wheaton College, the Alma mater of Billy Graham. The summer after my graduation I was on my way to Arrowhead Springs in California for new staff training. Peter Gilquist was the person who had gotten my attention and challenged me and some others to take three years to go and share the gospel with other college students who had never had opportunity to hear it. Peter was the Campus Crusade director at Northwestern University. I first met him when he came to Wheaton’s campus to give some training to students in personal evangelism. I was particularly interested because I had become a Christian at the University of Michigan and had transferred to Wheaton the middle of my junior year. I especially saw the need on secular campuses for someone to be there who could reasonably articulate the Christian faith to students who were looking for the ultimate answers to life’s questions. Anyway, Peter challenged me to learn my own faith story and an outline of the gospel called “The Four Spiritual Laws,” which Bill Bright had used so effectively on college campuses. My first experience of using the “Four Laws” and sharing my own faith story was at O’Hare airport where a group of us went one day to take religious surveys and share the gospel.

It was in the spring of my senior year at Wheaton (1965) when Pete asked a group of us to go with him to a nearby Catholic seminary called Maryknoll (a missionary order). He had become acquainted with the Abbot of the seminary and the Abbot had invited Peter to bring some Wheaton students to come and teach some of the seminarians how to pray conversationally in small groups. They were used to praying more formal or liturgical prayers and didn’t understand the spontaneous prayer style of evangelical Protestants. While were were there we were invited to attend Mass with all the seminarians. The sermon was about the need for Catholics to begin reading the Bible for themselves. I was told this was the first Mass in English (instead of Latin) at the seminary. Only later would I come to understand the historic significance of this event . It was in the years of 1962-1965 that the Second Vatican Council was held in which many sweeping changes occurred in the Catholic Church. It would come to be know as a period of updating and renewal in the Catholic Church, a window through which blew a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit.

Back in San Bernardino a seasoned Campus Crusade staff member, Bud Hinkson, had had a vision for taking 70 men and women anywhere in the world to evangelize college students. He based his vision on the Luke 10 text where Jesus sent out 70 men to evangelize. Seventy of us were picked to be a part of this Team and after training together for a year, it was an Anglican bishop from England visiting Arrowhead Springs who invited us to come to England.

In the autumn of 1967, 50 of us embarked on the cruise ship, S.S. France, for England. I found myself leading a team to Southampton where we commenced to evangelize students at the University of Southampton. It was more difficult evangelizing English students because they were exposed to Christian education in the public schools and it was generally taught by agnostics and atheists. So, by the time students came to college they were fairly convinced agnostics. We did find that if we spent some time with them answering their questions and showing them the reasonableness of faith in the resurrection, that many of them became very committed Christians.

We were careful not to talk about Christianity or the church, but the person of Jesus. It was in February of 1968 that I accompanied the C.C.C. folksinging group, the Forerunners, to Grenoble, France, to help follow up their concerts in the Olympic Village for the “68” Olympics. It was there that I met my wife to be, Jacque. She was from England and was studying at the U. of Grenoble and living with a French family. She thought we were athletes from the Olympics because of our official looking parkas. While seeking an autograph for her brother, so she claims, she got set up with an appointment with one of the girls in the Forerunners.

The next summer, back in England, I took Jacque to a Wheaton Men’s Glee club concert in London. Jacque had been educated in a Holy Cross Convent School and she had great affection for the Catholic Church. It didn’t take me long with my superior knowledge of my Scofield reference Bible to show her the errors of her Catholicism.

I remember sitting down with her Dutch father and opening up to the letters of Galatians and Romans and showing him that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works as the Catholics believe. I also had my evangelical handbook to the errors of the Catholic Church by Lorraine Boettner which I would share with Jacque. “Can you imagine that Christ could be crucified over and over every time Mass is said in the Catholic Church? This is what Catholic doctrine teaches,” I shared with her.

Jacque and I were married in a “neutral” Church and were not sure her father would even show up for the wedding. I also made sure that I shared my “testimony” with all the Catholic guests at the wedding rehearsal dinner. Without realizing it I had become anti-Catholic and honestly believed that it would be with great difficulty that anyone could be “saved” in the Catholic Church.

During my time in England I went through a time of doubt and it was Ernest Gordon’s, Through The Valley Of The Kwai, the true story of what happened to p.o.w. s who were forced to build the bridge over the river Kwai during World War II, by their Japanese captors. A few men found a Bible in a trunk and began reading it and their lives and the life of the whole camp was miraculously changed. You can imagine my surprise when I left England to attend Princeton Theological Seminary and became the assistant for two years of Earnest Gordon, the Dean of Princeton University Chapel, a huge Gothic cathedral church in the middle of Princeton University’s campus. I helped start a Christian Coffee house on Princeton’s campus and even baptized students in the Woodrow Wilson Fountain, in the middle the campus. All this time I was evangelizing and not thinking too kindly about the Catholic Church.

Things began to change a little in my heart and mind when I had a course where we studied some of the Vatican II documents. The most significant attention grabber was when I read Hans Kuhn’s book, The Church, for a course. Hans Kuhn was a very influential Catholic theologian during the Vatican II Council.

I remember reading about the importance of adult believers’ baptism and thinking that this guy sounded more like a Baptist than a Catholic. My Catholic thinking went into hibernation until some years later. I had been the pastor of a Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. for 4 years in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. During the years following seminary I had grown much more ecumenical in my thinking. I was still centered on the gospel and the uncompromisable truths of the Christian faith, but I was more open to God being at work in others who might not have such a monopoly on the truth as I used to think I had. I was troubled, though, with what I perceived as a moral vacuum in the leadership of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. The Church’s position on abortion really troubled me, and the endless debate about the ordination of practicing homosexuals was so divisive at presbytery meetings, and really, throughout the Church. There was no time for talking about evangelizing the world or even knowing Jesus better in one’s life. Radical feminism was everywhere in the Church and one would not dare to address God as “Father” in a presbytery meeting. As I was feeling this kind of frustration, a fellow pastor told me about a Catholic retreat center he had attended and found such respite for his soul. It was a Trappist Abbey about an hour from my home. I decided to go and to work on some sermon outlines for the next year. I also went with a restlessness in my spirit. I had been born as a new Christian at the University of Michigan with a longing heart for God. My goal as I left Wheaton College was “to know Him and to make Him known.” I used to sign my name with Colossians 1:28,29.

“Him we proclaim, warning every person and teaching every with all wisdom that we might present every person mature in Christ. For this I strive with all the energy that He mightily inspires within me.” The other part of the equation was the Great Commandment to “love the Lord with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul and strength.”

I obviously was not able to do this but I longed to do so. This holy longing had resurfaced in my life again as it did periodically. This was my state as I arrived at the guest house at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Lafayette, Oregon, in 1985. I was planning to stay for a few days. The Abbey is located on 1100 acres of rolling forested hills laced with numerous hiking trails. The setting was beautiful and as I drove down the long drive I began to experience a stillness and peace that ministered to my restless soul. Upon arrival I was shown one of the 10 guest apartments which overlooked a couple of small ponds. The guest-master informed me that I was welcome to meet with one of the monks for some spiritual direction if I would like. This sounded good to me so I signed up to meet the next day with Fr. Peter. Fr. Peter was the novice master and as soon as I met him I knew there was something special about him. I shared some of my inner yearning for the Lord and that I had reached a plateau in my spiritual life and needed some renewal of my spirit. Fr. Peter suggested a couple of books that dealt with contemplative prayer. I soon discovered that contemplative prayer is a form of monastic prayer developed in the first centuries of the Church. It was a way of praying where one ceased from any kind of mental discursive prayer, which was all that I knew, and attempted to silence one’s mind and spirit and simply rest in the presence of God without asking or interceding for anything. It was a way of entering into one’s heart and just be present to the Presence within, i.e. the presence of the indwelling Trinity. This indwelling Presence was a gift of God’s grace given through faith and baptism, a gift of every baptized Christian.

The next few days were so exciting for me it is difficult to put them into words. A whole new dimension of prayer opened up to me. One of the first books I read was Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism. She was an Anglican and the book was a survey of Christian mystics through the centuries. As I read the book I became aware of the incredibly deep spirituality which existed in the Catholic Church spanning the centuries prior to the Reformation. Here were scores and scores of godly, Christ-centered men and women who possessed a love for Jesus that was as deep, and even deeper, than my Protestant spiritual mentors who lived in the 400 years since the Reformation.

It was primarily in the monastic orders of the Church that this contemplative spirituality was most evident.

St. Augustine nicely summed up the goal of contemplative prayer, “Our whole business in life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen.” 1985 began a new spiritual journey for me. My wife, Jacque, has since said that what peaked her interest in my new found prayer emphasis was when she would find me, on my day off, sitting on my prayer bench in my study for long periods of time.

It was a year later that Jacque found herself at the Abbey for a long four day weekend. I had placed her name on a waiting list, because there were only rooms available for 8 guests at one time.

From the moment she stepped out of her car until she returned home four days later, the Holy Spirit met her and guided every moment of her retreat. Her skepticism about my prayer, and the Catholic books on prayer I was reading, disappeared, and she began to eagerly read with me. Our spiritual lives converged for the first time on a deep level. It is not that we were so far apart before as that now we were together on the first page of a wonderful new chapter in our lives. Even as I write this, 15 years later, I am in Baltimore for a national board meeting of Directors of Continuing Education for Roman Catholic Priests, and my wife is on retreat for a long week at the Trappist Abbey – her favorite place of respite. In fact, she often has told me that she would rather stay a week there than to spend a week in Hawaii. Now, she has never been to Hawaii but I am convinced that if she had been she would still say the same thing. Her schedule for the last 15 years has been to go to the Abbey one day a month. She gets up at 5:00am and I don’t see her until 9:30 in the evening. During this time she meet with her spiritual director, the novice master at the Abbey. She then goes for two long weekends (really about four days) each year , and a one week retreat. This is the maximum anyone is allowed to spend at the Abbey. She still manages to return on special occasions. She is such a familiar face there that one of the monks has referred to her as Saint Jacque.

I, too, have been a regular at the Abbey, though more sporatic. I first met with Fr. Peter Mccarthy, who was the novice director at the time. He got me started in my contemplative journey and I continued to meet with him. For the first few years he was my spiritual director and then we moved into more of a spiritual companionship relationship. This friendship has grown through the years as he moved from Novice Director to Abbot after the death of Abbot Bernard a few years ago. It was in 1993. I was visiting the Abbey for a couple of days and in the afternoon I stopped by the guest dining room for a cup of coffee. Abbot Bernard was also helping himself to some coffee. I had met the Abbot on a couple of occasions but had never really talked with him for any meaningful time. On this occasion we exchanged some pleasantries with one another and then somewhere in the conversation I remember saying, “If I could become a Catholic priest, I would do so in a moment.” I do not remember how this even came up in our conversation. The Abbot looked at me and said, “Are you serious?” I shrugged and said that I didn’t even know it was possible. (I was really taken back by his reply to my half joking inquiry.) Abbot Bernard said that it was possible and that a group of Episcopalian priests had been give permission by the Vatican to become Roman Catholic priests and to remain married. They had done this under a provision granted by Pope John Paul II in 1980 entitled, “The Episcopalian Pastoral Provision.” Abbot Bernard asked me if I would mind if he did some checking for me. I said, “Yes.” A couple of days later he phoned me and gave me the name and address of the Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Portland. I thanked him and said that I would write. Up to this conversation with Abbot Bernard I had not thought with any seriousness of becoming Catholic. At least outwardly. Inwardly a real transformation had been in the making for several years since I made my first retreat at the Abbey. The first thing that happened was that I was relating to Catholics who knew and loved Jesus on a level of commitment and service that I had not witnessed before. To be a Trappist monk was some kind of commitment! And the Trappist charism is to pray; to be the beating heart for the Body of Christ. I had often used and preached on discipleship, but this was a level I had not witnessed before. I also began to realize there was a rich historical witness to deep monastic spirituality. If was not an aberration in the Church. Evelyn Underhill’s book, Mysticism, is a rich and wonderful survey of Christian mystics in the Church going back through the Reformation to the earliest stages of the Church. I had always naively believed that after the disciples died out the Church had become corrupt, especially when it was protected and promoted under the reign of Emperor Constantine. I remember during my new staff training with Campus Crusade, John Brawn and Hal Lindsey were wondering aloud what happened to the Church after it was incorporated into the Roman Empire and became so corrupted by paganism that it was unrecognizable . John Braun and some of the other teachers in Campus Crusade saw the official Church as an ecclesiastical “shell” with no or little life inside. Their question was, “Where was the true Church through the centuries before it resurfaced during the Reformation?” In fact, John Braun, Peter Gilquist, Jack Sparks, and several others eventually left Campus Crusade to attempt to find the historical true Church. Many years later their quest led all of them to knock on door of the Orthodox Church in Constantinople, in Egypt, and finally, in Damascus as they were eventually welcomed into the Antiochean Orthodox Church. They had come home. They had found the true Church!

This was the discovery I was making. The true Church always existed in the Roman and Orthodox Church and in both branches the heart and inner life of the Church was to be found in the monastic orders, especially in the years when the hierarchy of the church was more a political appointment than a spiritual calling.

I began to read the lives of the Christian mystics: Thomas Merton, Jon Ruusbruk, Richard Rolle, John Tauler, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Cathrine of Sienna, Cathrine of Genoa, Therese of Lissiux (The Little Flower), Elizabeth of the Trinity, Dionysius the Aryopogite, the Desert Fathers, St. Anthony, the Hesychyists,St. Augustine, The Philokalia, and many others . I was overwhelmed with the depth and breath of the spiritual lives of these Christian mystics. The Church was always there in its rich multi-layered life! For me this was real revelation. We as Protestants did not need to reinvent the Church using our Bibles every Sunday. It has always been there, warts and all, and the gates of hell have not prevailed! Another area of growth and revelation for me was sacramental/liturgical. I found that I was nurtured as a new Christian in a non-liturgical background. I was always made to feel suspicious of liturgy because it smacked of the “shell” of the Church bereft of inner life. One of my Princeton Seminary professors once said of ministers, “The more you wear (liturgically) the less you know. “And likewise, I reasoned, the more candles, bells , incense and icons, the less the Holy Spirit. I felt the same way about the sacraments. Baptism was to be by immersion and was to be an outward testimony of an inward change. It was a time to preach to gospel to unbelievers and backsliders. The Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, as I came to know it, was in my early Christian years, merely a Zwinglian visual aid to help us remember the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. As a Presbyterian minister, the Eucharist was a real spiritual presence of Christ under the sign of bread and wine. This Presence was a spiritual presence which disappeared after communion. The bread and wine could then be thrown out. But now, I was reading about liturgy and the identity of the true Church as the people of God gathered around their Bishop to celebrate the Eucharist. The presence of the Bishop and the centrality of the Eucharist was the mark of the true Church at the end of the first and beginning of the second centuries. A fresh and probably first reading of Irenaeus of Antioch and other Apostolic Fathers convinced me that the early Church was liturgical, hierarchical, and centered on the celebration of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper). And, much to my amazement, the early Fathers’ belief about the Eucharist was that it truly was the real Body and Blood of Christ. It was more than a visual aid; more than sign or symbol. Somehow, mysteriously, the bread and the wine actually became and becomes the REAL Body and Blood of Christ. Thomas Aquinas attempted to define it and called it transubstantiation; the Orthodox Church has preferred not to attempt to define it and has always called it mystery. I prefer mystery myself. It is a deep mystery how the bread and wine become the real body and blood of Christ, but the reality is that they do and the Church for the first thousand years always held firmly to this belief about the Eucharist. As this understanding of the sacrament and other sacraments of the Catholic Church began to register in my mind, I set sail on an inward journey towards the Catholic Church. I also began to greatly appreciate Catholic Tradition, simply defined as the action of the Holy Spirit in the history of the Church. Tradition and Scripture were one revelation . It there was ever a dispute, Scripture had precedence. This gave the teaching of the Church a moral authority which has allowed Pope John II and Pope Benedict XVI, to stand against a culture of death and speak the truth. My sad experience as a Presbyterian was the moral vacuum at the top. The Presbyterian Church allowed the culture to set the agenda for the Church and often capitulated to its politically correct agenda. I was growing tired of fighting battles over abortion, ordination of practicing homosexuals, inclusive language in the Trinity, greater and greater tolerance of cultural moral standards, etc. It also seemed that the Church merely paid lip service to the early Creeds of the Church, opening the door for a theological pluralism which did not take seriously enough the unique revelation and salvific work of Christ on the cross. Evangelism was not taken seriously by the Presbyterian Church as a whole.

Another uniqueness of the Catholic Church which was winning me over was its universality and historicity. It covered the whole world and all celebrated the same divine liturgy each Sunday and read the same gospel. No matter what language, the liturgy always was celebrating the paschal mystery of the saving passion, death, resurrection, and return of Christ! And this Church was the original Church. It was truly the mother Church. The Protestant Church was a “protest”-ant Church, and if there was little left to protest against, why not come home! In my mind the justification by faith alone issue was now a non issue, which has since been born out by the Catholic and Lutheran signing of the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” in Europe. It was really a matter of semantics, a great misunderstanding.

And so, I wrote a letter to Archbishop Levada telling him of my desire to become a Catholic and a Catholic priest. It wasn’t long before I found myself meeting with the Archbishop and sharing my faith journey up to that time. Archbishop Levada was very welcoming and gracious and receptive to the idea of my seeking to become a priest. After meeting with him on three different occasions, Jacque and I decided that we felt that God was leading us to resign from the Presbyterian ministry and become Catholics. It was on Jan 2, 1994 that I preached my last sermon and said good by to my Presbyterian family. On Monday, Jan 3, Jacque and I were received into the Church at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey. Archbishop Levada welcomed us in and Abbot Peter McCarthy was my sponsor. What a glorious day! Two weeks later I began three years of formation at Mt. Angel, a Benedictine Seminary just outside of Portland, OR. What a wonderful three years I spent.

I would commute from Gresham, a suburb of Portland, where we had lived since 1981. Many times I would share with Jacque the exciting things I was learning about my new Catholic faith. Often I would say to her how I wished that my Presbyterian minister friends could sit in on the classes and read the books and documents I was reading. They would be amazed at the orthodoxy of the Catholic faith. I know this should not be surprising but it would be to many. Everything is centered on the centrality of the gospel and Pope John II had been calling the whole Church to a “new evangelization” following Pope Paul VI’s lead. The documents I was reading on evangelism and its priority in the Church was so energizing to me. The one that really got my blood pumping was put out by the Catholic Bishops in the United States in 1994 entitled, “Go and Make Disciples.” It easily could have been written by Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. The emphasis was on three goals: 1) To create in Catholics such an enthusiasm for their faith that they would share it with others 2) To take the gospel to unbelievers – those who had not yet heard the good news, and 3) to take the gospel to culture and change the culture with the values of the kingdom of God.

In my assignment as Director of Continuing Education for Roman Catholic Clergy in the Archdiocese of Portland, I have been promoting the study and use of this document. We even have a Director of Evangelization in the Archdiocese and he is totally focused on the implementation of the document in the Archdiocese. My seminary training was not without questions. I have struggled with the Marian doctrines and how to incorporate them into my faith life. I have come to a new and deeper appreciation of Mary. Where I have struggled has been in incorporating her into my prayer life. It has been challenging enough to deal with the Trinity and adding Mary to the mix as intercessor has been interesting and stretching. Even as a priest I am still processing some of the personal devotional practices that have come out of the Middle Ages. It wasn’t until a year and a half through seminary that word came from Cardinal Ratzinger’s office, the Congregation for the Faith, that Pope John Paul II had approved my becoming ordained as a priest. What jubilation! The date was set by Archbishop Levada, November 30, 1996, the Feast of St Andrew. This seemed very fitting to me seeing that St. Andrew was the patron saint of the Presbyterian Church.

Fr Steuernol obit

Before my ordination, Archbishop Levada was asked to become Archbishop of San Francisco and Bishop Francis George was made Archbishop of Portland. He was only Archbishop of Portland for nine months before being made the Archbishop of Chicago. But, he stayed in Portland long enough to ordain me. What an incredible experience. It was held in St. Mary’s Cathedral and many from my former Presbyterian parishioners came, including the new pastor. There were also several Presbyterian ministers in attendance. Archbishop George welcomed all the Presbyterians very warmly and truly made the ordination an ecumenical event. The Cathedral was full and the mass media was well represented. A full color picture of Jacque and me even appeared on the front page of the Sunday Seattle Times the Sunday before Christmas. To my knowledge, I am the only Presbyterian minister to be ordained a Catholic priest in the United States at this time. There are about 100 married priests, most of whom are former Episcopalians. There is a good group of Lutherans and a few Methodists. Currently I am the Director of Continuing Education for all the priests in the Archdiocese of Portland. I also am pastoring St. Agatha Church in Portland , which has a school. How is it going? Every day I thank God for his incredible grace in allowing me to find my way home to the Catholic Church and to actually be able to minister as a priest. I know how fortunate I am and how many others would like to be doing the same thing. In spite of the current problems with sexual abuse among the clergy, I am convinced that the cleansing going on will truly help the Church to become stronger and to more fully participate in the “new springtime of evangelization” to which Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI are calling the whole Church.

written by Fr. Slider Steuernol

Fr. Slider Steuernol

Fr. Steuernol died in June 2010. He “collapsed and died during a priests’ retreat at Mount Angel Abbey. He was 66.”

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