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From Asbury, to Anglo-Wesleyan Pastor, to Catholic Convert

Brook Thelander
July 13, 2023 No Comments

I grew up in a small town in southern Nebraska. My parents divorced when I was very young, and my mother remarried when I was six. My family was a fairly normal one as far as blended families go, but we had no church involvement.

Shortly before I began high school, my older brother experienced a profound conversion to Christ at the Nazarene church in our community. I was curious about what had caused the change in my brother. I soon met the young pastor of the church, a Vietnam veteran and Black Belt martial artist. He quickly shattered my view of ministers as persons who were weak. A few weeks later, I found myself kneeling at the front of the church, praying to Christ and asking him to become the Lord of my life.

When I was a junior in high school, I began to sense a call to a ministerial vocation. I wasn’t sure what that would look like, but it led me to MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, a suburb of Kansas City. Two years later, I married my wife, Connie, and continued my studies, graduating with a degree in Biblical Literature and Practical Theology. I developed a passion for preaching and wanted to continue my studies at a seminary. I enrolled at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, in 1985.

It was at Asbury that God started me on my journey to the Catholic Church, though I did not know it at the time. By accident, I read Robert Webber’s little book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. The book tells the story of Webber’s journey from a fundamentalist heritage into the Anglican Church and the beauty of its liturgy. Reading Webber’s story and the stories of others who had migrated to Anglicanism resonated deeply with me. My Nazarene heritage exposed me to the biblical call to holiness of heart and life and to a deep reverence for Scripture, but it lacked an emphasis on the sacraments and the liturgy as important means of grace. While at Asbury, I began to discover the importance of the Anglican liturgy and the Eucharist to John and Charles Wesley, leaders in the Wesleyan tradition, of which the Church of the Nazarene is a part. That led me on a further search to discover why this liturgical and Eucharistic emphasis had largely been abandoned in churches where I had served.

After graduating in 1989, I began doctoral studies at the Toronto School of Theology (TST) in the University of Toronto. The TST is a federation of seven theological schools that share resources and faculty. Three of the schools are Catholic, two are Anglican, and two are affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the United Church of Canada. This was a diverse theological community in the heart of a cosmopolitan city, giving me the opportunity to place my Wesleyan theological commitments into conversation not merely with other Protestant traditions, but also with Catholics.

I had developed a pretty strong anti-Catholic bias by this time, much of it largely inherited from my environment and unquestioned. Most of my experience with Catholics involved persons who, at least by my impression, were not serious about their faith. However, during my first semester, I found myself in a seminar with several Catholic students. Many of my stereotypes and assumptions about Catholicism were challenged by real-life Catholics living their faith.

Transcendent Beauty, Prayerful Liturgy

I put all those experiences on the back burner, because I was committed to teaching at a Nazarene university. A couple of years later, two experiences became foundational in my ongoing journey. My apartment in midtown Toronto was a few blocks away from St. Paul’s Anglican Church, a beautiful structure that often opened its doors at noon so that people could pray or simply sit in silence to enjoy the wonderful stained-glass windows and architecture. I had walked past this church hundreds of times during our years in Toronto but had never gone inside. One day, however, something compelled me to enter. I sat near the back of the large sanctuary, where I could gaze at the massive stained-glass windows behind the altar. As I sat there in the silence, without warning, I began to weep. I was overcome with emotion and did not know why. I believe now that this was my first experience of architecture as a means of grace, of beauty as a vehicle of the transcendent that is an important part of the Catholic faith.

A second experience occurred while I was writing my doctoral dissertation at Emmanuel College, the United Church of Canada’s theological school at TST. My daily routine involved walking from my apartment each morning to the college, where I would study and write at a small desk on the college’s third floor. Each morning, just before 10, a student would walk the halls and ring a bell, signaling that Morning Prayer was about to begin in the chapel. After experiencing this for several weeks, my curiosity prevailed. I walked to the chapel and found a seat. In the short span of 20 minutes, the Morning Prayer liturgy became an epiphany to me. The structured way the liturgy was designed to foster encounter with God spoke deeply to my soul. I found myself returning frequently during those months while completing my dissertation.

Finishing my studies in 1995, Connie, our two children, who were born in Toronto, and I moved back to the United States, where I began a ministry assignment in a Nazarene church in Potomac, Illinois.

Both my educational and personal experiences piqued my curiosity about the ancient Church. From the time I was a new Christian, I had always had a desire to connect to the taproot of the Church and discover how the earliest Christians lived and worshiped. However, Catholicism was not yet on my radar, because of several unquestioned assumptions that were still part of my theological outlook. One of those assumptions was the belief that the Catholic Church had fallen into error and corrupted the Gospel, thereby requiring the Reformation that Martin Luther set in motion in the early 16th century. While not ready to embrace Catholicism, my search for the ancient Church led me to explore more deeply my own heritage in the Wesleyan and Anglican traditions.

At about this time, I learned of a new church that was starting up in Boise, Idaho. The people who were starting the church were interested, as I was, in recapturing the liturgical and sacramental dimensions that were important features of the holy life of our founders, John and Charles Wesley.

Greener Pastures on the Green?

In the mercy of God’s providence, the church — Epworth Chapel on the Green — called me to be its first full-time pastor in the spring of 2000. From the beginning, we tried to wed the Wesleyan emphasis on the holy life with the beauty of the Anglican liturgy and sacraments as key components to nurturing the life of virtue. Many people came to our church who had been raised Catholic but had left. In some cases, they had been deeply hurt or wounded by persons in the Church, but still hungered for the sacraments and the transformative power of the liturgy.

In time, several of these former Catholics informed me that, while they loved our little congregation and were very happy in it, God had used me to help them to see that they needed to return home to their Catholic faith. At this point, my journey to Rome began in earnest, although it was now largely out of frustration. I couldn’t understand why God would use me to help these people return to their Catholic faith!

Through the years, I had read and appreciated Catholic writers like Henri Nouwen and G.K. Chesterton. I remembered Chesterton’s words that the first step toward conversion to the Catholic Church involves giving the Church a fair hearing. I realized I had never been willing to do that. Over coffee one morning, a former parishioner who had become Catholic gave me a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and encouraged me to reach out to the Coming Home Network to learn the stories of other Protestant ministers who had come into full communion with the Church.

From that day onward, I began to read voraciously and became interested in the stories of others who had crossed the Tiber: Scott Hahn, John Bergsma, Jim PapandreaDavid Anders, Peter Kreeft, St. John Henry Newman, and many others. I began watching episodes of The Journey Home on EWTN, captivated by the stories of those who had been led, sometimes against all odds, to embrace Catholicism. I discovered a website, Called to Communion,  that featured scholarly dialogue between persons from the Reformed tradition and Catholics, many of whom had converted from a Reformed background. The writings of Dr. Bryan Cross were especially compelling to me in that forum. Through the influence of these sources, I was well on my way to Rome in my mind. But the Lord knew I needed to make the journey in my heart, as well.

In the spring of 2015, as I was asking the Lord what He wanted me to pursue for my Lenten observance, I heard an inner voice that said: “I want you to go to Mass.” I immediately rejected this impulse, saying, “What is the next option?” Again, I heard the inner voice: “I want you to go to Mass.” Again, I balked. After more than a week of this inner dialogue, I relented. I had no idea where I would go or  what I would do. I felt somewhat ignorant of Catholic protocol and what I would need to know in order to participate meaningfully in the Mass.

Despite this, I found myself downtown in the day chapel at Boise’s St. John’s Cathedral early one weekday for the 8:30 a.m. Mass. I arrived early enough that I could sit near the back in a single seat next to a pillar, where I hoped no one would notice me. Then the spiritual warfare began. The enemy did not want me in that chapel. I was worried about what others would think of my presence there. However, as I looked around it became apparent that people were there to worship and were not concerned about the stranger in their midst. I drove home thinking to myself that I had done what God had asked of me and that was the end of it.

But the next morning I found myself inexplicably in that chapel again, preparing for Mass. In those days, Father Camilo Garcia was a frequent celebrant. That day, as Father Camilo recited the words that would consecrate the bread and wine into the Eucharist, and elevated the consecrated host, the hair on the back of my neck stood at attention and I found myself whispering, “That is truly Jesus Christ.”

I had long ago learned the Church’s teaching about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, but, on this morning, God used Father Camilo to bring the truth of the Church’s teaching home to me with full force. I knew in a different way why the Church teaches that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life.”

Each day, I would return home thinking that my attendance at Mass was finished, and very soon I would find myself at Mass again, unable to explain what was happening in my life.

Pastor Comes Clean

After several weeks of this inexplicable activity, I confided to a woman who regularly attended Mass that I was a Protestant minister who was struggling to discern whether God might be leading me into the Church. She suggested that I meet with Father Gerald Funke, then the rector of the Cathedral. Father Funke listened to my story with empathy and concern. At one of our meetings, he suggested that I consider joining him and others who prayed the Liturgy of the Hours each morning before Mass.

Within a week or two, I was standing with Bill Molitor and a small group of folks who prayed the Morning Office. From the beginning, this group welcomed me. A few weeks after I had joined them, I was overwhelmed when they gifted me with the four-volume set of the Liturgy of the Hours. Their generous gift allowed me to enter more fully into Morning Prayer. I found myself praying the Morning Office even when I was unable to attend Mass.

This small prayer community, together with others who regularly attended morning Mass, adopted me into their circle of friendship. Through the next few months and years, they prayed for me and helped me in my ongoing discernment. Their friendship continues to be a great blessing in my life.

A Question of Authority

Like many who have entered the Church before me, perhaps the biggest disconnect for me became the issue of authority.

My Protestant model of Scripture as the sole authority for faith and practice had weakened and ultimately collapsed through the years, under the weight of historical study and pastoral practice. One problem with establishing written revelation as the sole authority is that written texts presuppose some form of human interpretation. The question is: whose interpretation? To whom do the Sacred Scriptures belong, and who has the authority to interpret them so that the Deposit of Faith remains intact and perpetuated through the centuries? If Scripture alone is the sole authority, and one’s conscience can be bound only by Scripture, ultimately the individual Christian becomes the interpretive authority with respect to doctrine and practice. However, an authority is only as good as its ability to resolve a conflict. Without a visible, living Magisterium, disputes regarding the interpretation of Scripture can be ongoing and unresolvable. This partly explains the proliferation of hundreds of denominations and independent groups in Protestantism subsequent to the Reformation. Their model of authority is one that is inherently divisive, in my view, and it played out as such for me in almost three decades of pastoral work.

These and other problems with sola Scriptura led me to investigate the Catholic claim that Christ founded a visible Church and invested His interpretive authority of Sacred Scripture in the human leaders of that Church. I found this claim to be increasingly persuasive.

A related issue with respect to authority involves the process by which the Bible came to us in its current form. The New Testament did not fall from heaven in shrink-wrapped packaging, nor did it come with an inspired Table of Contents. Bishops and leaders of the Catholic Church, meeting in councils over a period of many years, discerned the divine inspiration of the 27 books that became our New Testament. This placed me on the horns of a dilemma. I claimed the Bible alone as the sole authority in matters of faith, and yet I was depending on Catholic tradition to define the canon of Scripture. I realized that if I could not trust the infallible guidance of the early Fathers and Bishops of the Catholic Church to determine which books were canonical, then I could not be certain that the contents of the canon — the Bible that I used and preached from — were inspired and infallible.

After almost three decades in ministry, I was confronted with two crucial questions: what is the Church, and how do we know and discern the truth? As a Protestant, I had inherited a view of the Church as the invisible conglomeration of all who have faith in Christ. I did not believe the Church to be the visible organism of unbroken succession of Bishops coming from the Apostles.

I discovered that my view of the Church as an invisible reality shared traits with Gnosticism (a heresy that rejected material reality as evil and located truth in a hidden, spiritual realm) and Docetism (an ancient heresy that denied Christ had a physical body). I began to see that my view of the invisible Church led to the realization that no denomination possesses divine authority or interpretive authority to which all Christians should submit. Scripture alone could bind the conscience. But if the Church is not the visible organism based on apostolic succession, then no person or denomination has any greater interpretive authority than another, so no interpretation of Scripture is more authoritative than anyone else’s. This was an increasingly painful reality for me during almost three decades of Protestant ministry.

I finally came to believe that the Catholic Church is the visible, hierarchically led, divinely appointed institution established by Christ to be His continuing presence in the world. The Church is the fulfillment of the Davidic kingdom in the Old Covenant. She is the “new Israel,” the “Israel of God,” as Paul tells the Galatians. However, the Church is more than a human institution. It is Christ’s Body, not in a metaphorical sense, but in a real sense. It is a divine organism, and as such is an object of faith, such as we recite in the Creed when we affirm belief in “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.” Christ and his Church are inseparable. Thus, Paul could remind Timothy that the Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The Church is the divinely ordained and divinely guided truth-telling organism in matters of faith.

Faith Received, Not Reinvented

For me, the implications of this were staggering. During the last several years of my search, while I was discerning my personal path to the Church, I met many persons on a similar journey. Their viewpoints often went something like this: “I won’t become Catholic because I don’t agree with the Church’s teaching on contraception,” or the Eucharist or Marian dogmas — fill in the blank.

This inverts the equation, in my view, because it continues to place the individual in the seat of authority with respect to how we discern divinely revealed truth. I came to see that the more fundamental question is whether the Catholic Church is who she claims to be, i.e., the organism founded by Christ to safeguard, teach, and pass on the Deposit of Faith infallibly. If the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth — and I had come to believe that it is — then I don’t get to decide what is and is not valid Christian dogma. Christian faith is handed down. It is something that is received, not constantly reinvented. The fundamental question is not whether one agrees with the Church’s teaching on issue x, y, or z before becoming or remaining Catholic. The fundamental question is the source of authority in determining divinely revealed truth.

It took me many years to realize that my understanding of the Catholic faith was based on a caricature, a distorted picture I inherited without ever questioning any of that picture’s underlying premises.

During this journey, I was forced to admit to myself the truth spoken by the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen when he observed that there are millions of people who hate what they mistakenly believe the Catholic Church teaches, but relatively few who hate what the Church actually teaches. I had inherited, and uncritically accepted, every anti-Catholic bias in existence. I have now come to believe (with Chesterton) that while there may be hundreds of reasons why a person would become a Catholic, the ultimate reason for such a decision is because Catholicism is true.

Time would not permit me to explain fully all of the contours of my journey that have led me to this decision. Even if I were to do so, my reasons would likely not be compelling to those who do not understand or agree with my decision. This is because all of us live our lives based on some perceptual framework, a lens that shapes how and what we see in life. We become comfortable in our views, and we unconsciously reject evidence or experience that creates anomalies or problems with those views. Perhaps Mark Twain said it best: “It’s not what we don’t know — it’s what we do know that just ain’t so” that causes problems for us.

This was my experience for almost 30 years as a Protestant pastor. I have since come to believe that the claims the Catholic Church makes for itself are true, namely, that it is the visible Church Christ founded, and that the fullness of the Christian faith subsists in her teachings and practices.

Ironically, I have not had to reject or abandon much of my wonderful heritage in the Wesleyan tradition in order to become Catholic. On the contrary, I continue to give thanks for that heritage and bring much of it with me as I embrace the Catholic faith.

I owe a great deal to the godly persons who introduced me to Christ and nurtured me in the faith. My Protestant heritage bequeathed to me a love of Sacred Scripture and the importance of a vital, living, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I have been blessed and inspired by countless persons who have led exemplary lives of sacrificial obedience to Christ. I have been privileged to pastor churches filled with persons who loved me and gave generously of their time, talent, and treasure in order to proclaim the Gospel to the world.

My coming home to the Catholic Church is motivated by that same spirit of obedience. I believe there are compelling reasons to do so. But, in the final analysis, I am on my way into the Church because I love Jesus and want to obey him — in radical obedience — motivated by love — at any cost. This is what my Wesleyan heritage taught me. This is what I now seek to do in this season of my life.

It’s a frightening prospect in some ways, because pastoral ministry is all I’ve ever known. My identity is bound up with pastoral life, and that has come to an end. The prospect of finding a new vocation and a new income as I approach my 60th birthday seems daunting at times. I’ve served my congregation here in Boise for 22½ years, more than a third of my life. However, I am consoled by the fact that I believe I am doing what Christ asks of me.

The hymn, “Be Still My Soul,” is especially meaningful to me when it says:

Be still my soul, thy God doth undertake, to guide the future as He has the past;

Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake; all now mysterious shall be bright at last.

I am profoundly grateful for God’s faithfulness to me in the past, and I’m trusting that He has a plan for me as I embrace this new chapter of my life. I was confirmed on Shrove Tuesday of 2023 by Bishop Peter Christensen in the Diocese of Boise. In addition to my family, many friends and former parishioners were in attendance, including a friend who made the trip from North Carolina. Many Catholic friends also supported me with their presence and hosted a wonderful reception following the Confirmation. I received my first communion on Ash Wednesday, making it a memorable beginning to the Lenten season. In the intervening time, I’ve had the privilege of sharing my story with a group of men at Boise State University, and my wife and I were blessed to attend a retreat sponsored by the Coming Home Network in March. It has truly been a blessing.

Brook Thelander

Brook Thelander recently finished a book that will be forthcoming from Wipf and Stock Publishers, entitled It’s About Time: Encountering Jesus Through the Seasons of the Church Year. He continues to pray while discerning what should come next in his vocation. Currently, he and his wife attend Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Boise. This story first appeared in the Idaho Catholic Register.

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