I lacked any experience of the Catholic Faith growing up as a child and had little until about six years ago. I was introduced to Jesus and the Christian faith by my mother, who had a “born again” experience when I was six. She turned to Christ and told me about it. But there was no mention of the Catholic Church in a positive context. In fact, my grandmother, coming from a Puritan background, once commented that Fulton Sheen was one of those “Catholic wizards.”
As I grew into my teens I had no desire to belong to an antiquated, superstitious, oppressive, and deeply flawed and human institution. That’s how I viewed the Catholic Church.
My father had left and faded away from my awareness while I was just a boy. He and I didn’t speak for almost twenty years, until we reconciled before his death. As I reached adolescence, I felt no need of a man I barely knew, much less a Church that was non-existent in my experience and formation.
I mention my lack of a relationship with these two — my father and the Catholic Church — because it played a significant role in my rebellion as a youth. But I’m grateful to say that, where my father had failed his son, much later God the Father would fill the gap.
If the Catholic Church and heaven were anything like a shining city on a hill, I could not see them. All I knew was that my mother had encountered a man named Jesus in her wilderness. As I scanned the horizon, all I saw was my rebellion and brokenness over a fractured family, and the history of human hurt and suffering. If there’s a God, I thought, He shouldn’t run the world this way.
Very early on, then, in my teenage years, I rejected God and the Church. I did, however, delve into substitutes. “Progressive” philosophy and politics, underground music and art, drugs and moral heathenism filled the growing void in my heart and mind.
Even worse, as I grew older, declining Western civilization seemed to reward me for these indulgences. I started working with music professionals and was paid to engage in radical left-wing environmental activism. Any reason or logic I encountered at the university level was overshadowed by my moral debauchery and relativistic ideology.
As my body and soul drifted farther from any standard of authentic human living and spiritual reality, I was having some success in life that masked the lies I was living. I worked with three Grammy award winners and had a constant platform to spout anti-Christian ideology via radio, press, and other media. They were major media outlets, too; it seemed only appropriate to deconstruct what Judeo-Christian values had accomplished using them. Family, the Church, a traditional understanding of man and woman, traditional morals — nothing was exempt from my post-modern reinterpretation.
Just as there is good fruit when we turn our life toward Jesus, there are deadly fruits when we rebel against Him and the way that leads to life. St. Paul says “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). In those days I never would have guessed that these “wages” could be more than just effects on the mind or heart.
Not only can sin kill a sharp mind and a contented heart; it can literally take a person’s life. I lost multiple good friends to drug overdoses. Their deaths should have acted as a red flag and proof that there is no real glory in debauchery.
I was too far from God to realize that hope is stronger than fatalism. Fatalism, without God, reduces human life to mere existence. From the perspective of fatalism, a person’s life could end tragically without purpose.
Yet even then, humans seemed more valuable than that. It appeared only reasonable that there should be something more. But it was more than reason that drove me to hope for something more. Hope seemed like a necessity for life.
While all this was happening, I never accepted atheism. I did, however, study major world religions and some cultic and pagan practices. It was obvious that something existed beyond this material world, and a little ray of light always struggled mightily against all the darkness with which I was saturating myself.
This ray came from a prayer I prayed with my mother when I was six years old. I had seen her change her life, pray, and worship. I remember these words popping out of my mouth one day: “Mommy, I want Jesus to live in my heart.”
I knew from that moment on, with every fabric of my being, that He was real. Although I let go of Him and tried to run away as an adult, He never let me out of His sights. How heartened I was to read years later about St. Augustine’s spiritual experiences with his own mother!
By the time I was twenty-seven, the time of confrontation with Christ was coming. My ideologies were proving empty. Politics had no real answers for how to solve the human condition. My romantic relationships were rarely more than indulgence and failure, and secular philosophy had no saving grace, just dimensional reflection.
A series of events landed me in jail. It wasn’t the first time, but this time was different. I had grabbed a Bible — I’m not sure why, but I think I could sense that all I was, was about to be challenged. I turned myself in and spent a few days in a cage. Looking back, I see it now as the most beautiful thing that has happened to me other than the chance at salvation.
I was broken. I remember thinking that something had gone terribly wrong. For some reason, the guard allowed me to take the Holy Book in with me, even though it was against the rules.
I read large portions of the Scriptures and found it to be the only thing offering respite from my desperation and failure. It was like water in a desert. When I finally got out, the grass seemed a different shade of green. Perhaps, I was simply seeing that it was green for the first time.
Later when I faced the judge regarding my previous wrongdoing, she asked me where I stood. I told her of my realization of guilt and repentance. I mentioned that I wanted to help others and to teach.
She paused and looked right at me, probably trying to discern my sincerity and comparing my plea to the thousands of others she had undoubtedly heard just like it. Then she said: “Go do what you should do. I exonerate your record.”
For the first time I had experienced mercy from the justice system, and it was just the beginning of God’s many mercies to me.
From heathen to Christian to Catholic Christian
Becoming Christian was a total paradigm shift. I had to reorder just about everything I knew. As I did this, I could only do as St. Paul had done after the road to Damascus: throw myself into this new reality and purpose. I could now forgive and be forgiven. I could now see and appreciate the truth, beauty, and goodness in the world.
My first year was one of repentance and discovering my new heart and mind. Soon I was ready to start working for Evangelical and Anglican denominations. In the following years I was a music director, Bible study leader, guest speaker and lay pastor.
Training in evangelization and missions, I studied ferociously. I developed ministries and did church planning, spoke at large cathedrals, and led retreats for house churches. All the while, I was blessed with mentors and others whom I myself mentored. It was a beautiful and wonderful new life. I continued to study the truth with fervor and prayed that God would mold me and take me — all of me.
In my past life, when the Hound of Heaven had pursued me to catch me in my brokenness, I had wanted to surrender to His love. I now realized that I must also open myself up to who He really is. But I had no idea how dangerous that attitude was.
It wasn’t dangerous in the same way as the behaviors that I had engaged in before my adult conversion to Jesus. It was dangerous in the sense that God will actually show us who He is regardless of our preconceptions — even if only partially because of His vast immensity. As He continued to show Himself to me, something unexpected happened.
I was a history major in college. Of course, at that point I was more of an expert on sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll than on history. Yet, I loved to gain knowledge and find truth.
If you want to stay a Protestant, you shouldn’t start researching Church history or praying to know what the early Church was like — or even to know what the word “Church” actually means. My Christian faith was mildly comfortable. Then, I encountered the Apostolic Church and the early Fathers of the Church. Once again, my life was about to be turned upside down.
As I studied the early Church and avidly read the Fathers, I encountered a new language about Jesus, the Church, and how we should actually be Christians. Even more astounding to me was how clearly and directly this new language spoke to my heart and mind.
I also started meeting a new type of Christian, true Catholic ones. I began sneaking into Catholic churches (well, the doors were unlocked) and observing the art there. Finally, a church that believed in art!
I had heard that Billy Graham was asked once who was the most effective evangelist of all time (other than the Apostles). He made a reference to Pope John Paul II. I’m not sure exactly how that conversation went, but the comment prompted me to begin reading JPII. I discovered that the early Fathers were not the only ones to write of the Holy Spirit with insight and clarity, but this man did as well. This man who was the current leader of — gasp — the Roman Church!
But where would all this study lead me? I felt I couldn’t blindly jump into a different denomination or tradition, much less one that is so intensely stigmatized and criticized by the evangelical Protestant brand of theology. So I had to proceed cautiously.
Turning points and tipping points
I would have made little real progress in my journey into the Catholic Church without a certain disposition and preparation that God had been fermenting within me for at least a year or two. I had learned to open my mind to what God was telling me: not in the sense that I believed anything I heard or read, but quite the opposite. I became more discerning and critical of sources.
I wanted to be sure about my faith and what I believed. When I opened my mind and truly searched, I found a great peace, joy, and stability in orthodoxy. By orthodoxy I don’t mean the Eastern Orthodox Churches, but what the Catholic Church was teaching about faith and Christ as compared to unorthodox theology and ideology. The more intelligently and purposefully I opened my mind, the more orthodox I became.
Many speak of the heart’s conversion to God. While this of course is essential, in Luke 24:45 we read that when Christ was with His followers after His resurrection, “He opened their minds to understand.”
Where my heart had not accepted true Catholic doctrine and teaching, I would pursue with my mind. Where my mind struggled, I would open my heart. One would follow the other when praying for discernment and conviction from the Spirit. When they sought God together, it was a wonderful symphony. I would not have become Catholic had my will not been open to their playing together to the tune of truth.
The Book of Acts and the early Church fathers were my foundation of study. After all, to learn what something is you must go to its roots. Then I branched out to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paying attention to scriptural citations.
Next I delved into what I call the “power saints,” St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who both spoke powerfully to me and almost never in contradiction to one another. John Henry Cardinal Newman became a mainstay in my diet as well, and I still read him often. Then I supplemented with encyclicals and other Church writings. I didn’t even breach contemporary writers such as Hahn, Kreeft, or others until my decision was made, although their positive contribution is obvious.
It is important to mention that my heart was sincerely being moved. I was starting to see the Catholic Church as a beautiful garden in full bloom. Studying it, looking at it, and praying for it made me want to walk within it.
I had treasured a dream in my heart that Christ’s Church could be glory-filled, pure and holy. I was starting to realize that my dream just might come true. Not only because the Church and believers are in Christ supernaturally, but also because He instituted a tangible something here on Earth.
This time as I scanned the horizon, I saw gardens, gardens of fruit. Beyond the gardens, there was the elusive city, the City of God! Leading me there was not just a conceptual Church, but a real, tangible, yet holy thing.
I have compiled an incomplete but important list of doctrinal issues that influenced me to consider leaving behind much of what I had grown to accept as a non-Catholic Christian.
Authority and unity. The need for spiritual authority seemed only logical, as it reflects a reality of heaven. Why doubt the need for authority in the Church if the King uses it in His Kingdom and Christ displayed it on earth? Additionally, human history shows that structured authority is natural to our race.
Regarding unity, Jesus’ prayer on the night He was betrayed sealed the deal for me. “That they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me and I in you” (Jn 17:21). If I were to admit that Christ’s Church could not be unified as He instituted it, then that would show humanity’s flawed state to be greater than Christ’s power and word. The Catholic Church is the only Church that maintains its integrity in Him and by Him unified.
The Pope. I came to understand that Peter is the rock (see Mt 16:18), and Peter’s role as leader of the Church seems almost to be assumed in Acts.
I saw too how the early Church often sought and heeded the words of the bishops of Rome. As these bishops were Peter’s successors, this reality offered more proof of papal authority.
I also came to realize that through anointing and apostolic succession, the popes are continually guided by the Holy Spirit. Hence, the truth that the seat of Peter is infallible could be arrived at by reason. And I knew from personal experience that humans are capable of having moments of holiness.
Sola scriptura. Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:15 that the Church of God is the pillar and foundation of truth. Scripture debunks sola Scriptura. I realized as well that the hermeneutics used for non-Catholic biblical exegesis was wildly inconsistent and led to heresies. The Bible had to be interpreted by what canonized it, followed it, and complemented it: the Church.
The Protestant Reformation. Simply put, the Holy Spirit didn’t have it wrong for 1500 years. I had to trust Jesus when He promised the Holy Spirit would lead the Church (see Jn 16:13). It was earth-shattering for me to read the history of the Protestant Reformation, especially in England. I was heartbroken to learn of the instigators’ motives and the subsequent schism and bloodshed. Not the fruits of the Spirit.
Mary. I wanted what Christ had given us at the foot of the cross. While not minimizing Christ’s role as Savior, I understood that in order to be a child of God and a brother to Jesus, I would have to get to know my family. Not only my Christian brothers and sisters, my personal spiritual father, and all of Christendom, but my spiritual mother and father in Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
I began learning about Mary’s roles — New Eve, Ark of the New Covenant, Mother, and Queen, among others — and discovered these roles are scripturally supported, doctrinally sound, and theologically definable. In addition, I personally discovered her intercession to be powerful. Just as the Queen Mother would interecede before Davidic Kings, Mary intercedes on our behalf with her Son, Christ the King.
Communion of saints. As Christians we believe in eternal life. So knowing that we don’t cease to exist when we die, I realized the communion of saints helps make sense of the mystery of life after death. I hope that entering heaven is a Rubicon that I will cross, so that when I do I’ll be more alive than ever. As I tell my Protestant friends: Yes, I speak to “dead” people! But these “dead” saints are actually more alive than they ever were on earth! (See Lk 20:34–38.)
Other issues. With regard to moral teaching on contraception, sexuality, social justice, human dignity and equality, and care for the poor and imprisoned, I finally found in the Catholic Church a Church that was consistent and loving. With regard to women’s ordination to the priesthood and homosexual lifestyles, I finally discovered a Church that would take a stance, understand all sides, and maintain biblical integrity.
Philosophically, nothing could rival what I was learning: the relationship of faith and reason; the need for an informed conscience; the nature of man and woman; the drama of redemption history; the splendor of truth, beauty, goodness, and the created order, to name just a few subjects.
The Eucharist and transubstantiation. Accepting Christ’s Real Presence, when the bread and wine become His Body and Blood, was for me at first not the result of study, but rather purely a moment of grace. Kneeling in a church one Sunday, it just hit me like a brick: If God is all powerful; if He is all and in all, the Alpha and Omega; and if faith like a mustard seed can move a mountain; why then shouldn’t I accept with faith that He is able to be truly present in the Eucharist under the appearance of break and wine?
I didn’t know it when I first realized this truth, but it would be a major factor in my choosing the Catholic faith. I found the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist in John chapter 6; the multiple accounts of the institution of the Eucharist in the Gospels and St. Paul; the foreshadowing of the Eucharist in the Genesis story of Abraham and Melchizedek; and on and on. As I studied the history of the Church, I found early Christians being accused of cannibalism because of their insistence that the Eucharist was truly Christ’s Body and Blood. And I encountered apostolic Fathers with direct connections to the Apostles speaking explicitly of the Eucharist as the true Body and Blood of Christ, not a symbol.
I realized that if I was truly to accept everything Christ taught and established, then communion with Jesus in His Body and Blood was unavoidable. I searched and searched and found that the one, holy and apostolic Church taught and preached Christ’s coming in the Eucharist. It was time to choose. It was time for another sweet surrender.
Another new beginning
Many other experiences, prayers, and moments of revelation led me to become a Catholic. For example, in a matter of two weeks, three people who knew nothing of one another, from different parts of my region, all referred me to the same priest for catechesis. He was gracious and agreed to meet with me.
The Very Rev. Father Drew Morgan, C.O., National Director of the Newman Institute and Provost for the Pittsburgh Oratory, was my catechist. I owe him a great debt for his time, theological prowess, understanding help, and true Catholic catechesis.
We met privately for a year, covering both the essentials and the nuances of the faith and sacraments. I came into the Church in a private ceremony just before Easter by permission from our bishop, and only a handful of close friends and relatives were present. After my first Confession, which took more than forty-five minutes and many tears, I received the sacraments of Confirmation and my first Eucharist on February 17, 2007. (The priest said my confession was rousing and an inspiration! Funny how I felt quite depleted but completely free.)
I was received into the Church at the Pittsburgh Oratory, a great spiritual resource. The monks there host reverent, rousing, intellectual, and spiritual Masses; hours of adoration; classes in religious instruction; and much more. They have a beautiful new research library and online kiosk dedicated to the works of soon-to-be canonized Cardinal John Henry Newman. It’s an excellent place for scholars and available (via kiosk) for anyone interested (go to www.newmanstudiesinstitute.org).
I lost friends, a job, and a community when I made the leap. I am fortunate that despite a few difficult conversations I have kept my family and regained friendships with a few doubters whom I valued. It broke my heart to leave so much that I had grown to love as a Protestant: the ministries and people who love Jesus passionately. Meanwhile, I gained a universal Church and new parish communities as well as some new friends, given by God to me in a timely way.
By providence I developed quality work relationships quickly with a diocese and moved into parish work, including RCIA, youth ministry, and young adult ministry. I also began speaking, teaching, and giving musical concerts. God placed wonderful Catholic leaders in my life to give advice, offer research direction, and provide a helpful letter when needed. It’s a great honor to serve the Church Christ started.
I had been an alien in a land that didn’t always teach what Jesus taught. But my new beliefs brought me home, and I found the deepest sense of peace I had ever experienced. It was a peace found in one Church that had taught, ever since His death and resurrection, all that Christ is, a Church that the gates of hell cannot prevail against and that is leading us to glory and sanctification!
I felt freedom and joy knowing what my heart, mind, and body were made for: union with God my Father. I was home. I had become a Catholic.