On the rare occasions when I attempt the impossible task of imagining what heaven might be like, I envision saints — but not the dour, stern, serious saints of so much artwork. I imagine smiling saints with a humorous twinkle in their eyes. Saints such as Aidan, Cuthbert, Columba, and Patrick; an eighth-century pilgrim to the Holy Land from Byzantium (more of him later); and closer in time and experience, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman.
Why smiling saints? Because, looking back along my path to the Catholic Church, I can see the instances of humor that God used along the way, glinting like flecks of gold sprinkled in a vein of quartz.
Unlike the Celtic saints and the pilgrim who were Catholics in the undivided Church, I, like Cardinal Newman, was an unexpected convert from Anglicanism. Saints, circumstances, history, and my heritage — no doubt at God’s instigation — united to bring me not only across the Atlantic, but the greater distance across the Tiber.
I was born in England, the son of a Baptist minister. My parents emigrated to the U.S. when I was young, and my father pastored churches in upstate New York, New Brunswick, Maryland, and West Virginia. My sister and I grew up on his excellent, Bible-based preaching, and I will forever be grateful to my parents for the loving Christian home they provided.
My parents recall that my first profession of faith came at age 7, and baptism at 10, but I cannot remember a time when I was not a believer. Being a Christian has always been a natural part of me.
We moved often, and though the flavor of the churches varied, all were Baptist. We had little contact with other denominations. The Catholic Church was rarely mentioned.
If I ever thought of Catholics, it was as fellow Christians who had somehow gotten a little off-track, perhaps never having fully escaped the Middle Ages. Catholics weren’t bad or evil, just poor souls who had to work unduly hard to earn their salvation and who were overly attached to Mary. (She was never referred to in our home as the “Blessed Virgin.”)
It was curious, then — and perhaps the first incident of divine humor — when, after I completed my freshman year at the University of New Brunswick, my parents moved to Maryland and I transferred to Mount St. Mary’s College (now University) in Emmittsburg — a Catholic college! I didn’t choose “The Mount” for religious reasons, however, but because of its academic reputation and its modest size.
Although I was a pre-med student, my course of study included several required theology classes. My term papers, unsurprisingly, evidenced my Protestant viewpoint. One was returned covered in comments: “See me,” “Ask me about this,” “Talk to me.”
Even so, the tolerant priest gave me an “A.” I think God was chuckling then, but I wasn’t about to consider seriously the Catholic Church, and I didn’t follow up on the priest’s red ink invitation to discuss the issues.
After graduating from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, I pursued residency training in West Virginia. I attended church when my hectic schedule allowed, but my spiritual life languished. For two years I dated a Catholic nurse, but spiritual matters didn’t really enter into our relationship, which ended when I relocated to upstate New York to enter private practice.
The practice didn’t pan out, and I moved west to Montana to work in an urgent care center. My parents followed soon after. My father retired from the pastorate and became organist at a local Episcopal Church.
I wasn’t attached to a church, and so, with trepidation — fearing terminal boredom — I accepted his suggestion to experience liturgical worship. To my surprise I found that it touched something deep inside and connected me to generations of Christians past, particularly English ones.
Because of our frequent moves and unsettled existence, finding spiritual roots and my heritage became important. I loved traveling to England, worshiping in ancient cathedrals and parish churches where people had praised God for centuries.
About this time, I embarked on my second vocation as a writer. I addressed medical topics but also wrote Christian articles, short stories, and novels. A shift from science fiction to historical fiction produced an interest in the Celtic and Roman eras, and I obtained a master’s degree in Celtic Christianity from the University of Wales. I think it was another instance of divine humor that my second novel, Imperial Legions, was written by an Episcopalian and published by a Southern Baptist press whose senior editor was a Messianic Jew who attended a Lutheran church!
More importantly, a beautiful veterinarian in Florida read one of my articles in a Christian magazine, and she wrote to me. Correspondence led to long-distance dating and finally marriage. Olivia’s spiritual journey had been quite different from mine: She’d grown up Lutheran (God’s “frozen chosen,” as she put it) before becoming Baptist.
Years of discontent
After our marriage, we continued to attend the Episcopal Church, although Olivia found that the liturgy, rather than connecting her to God, seemed to separate her. Yet paradoxically — perhaps because of her European (Swiss) roots, she too felt a deep connection to the past in Britain’s old churches.
Still, we remained Episcopalians for several years. And then the Episcopal denomination began to disintegrate. Decades of theological decline, modernism, and liberalism took their toll, resulting in the acceptance on the denominational level of a practically unitarian “gospel” of humanism, self-indulgence, and immorality. The Gospel of Christ that emphasized sin, the need for repentance, redemption, and transformation of life by Christ, was increasingly replaced by a message of “inclusiveness” and “tolerance,” which (since God didn’t really care about trivialities such as sin, morality, and sound doctrine) meant accepting people as they were and leaving them there.
The predictable result was the propagation on the denominational level of heterodox teachings and behavior, made most evident in the ordination as bishop of a man who had left his wife and children for a male lover. Dismayed by these trends, many faithful clergy, parishes, and members began leaving for more conservative Anglican bodies, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Rome.
To me, the process exposed disturbing flaws in Anglicanism. Doctrinal pronouncements now rested with the laity; the Bible was reinterpreted to suit current social trends; the traditions of the church were dismissed as relics of past cultures; erring bishops and clergy could go their own way without fear of discipline. There was no pope or Magisterium to say no. There seemed to be no pillar of definitive faith and morals.
The final nail in the coffin was learning that the Episcopal denomination belonged to the pro-abortion Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. I recalled a powerful comment that I had read: “Real churches don’t kill babies.” How could any church calling itself Christian support the murder of the unborn?
Since our parish was unwilling to take a stand, and my personal letter-writing campaign to the bishop of Montana proved fruitless, we decided to leave. We tried several churches of various denominations, but none seemed quite right. One Sunday we visited a Catholic church.
Discovering the Catholic Church
We weren’t expecting much — Mary worship, perhaps — and sat near the back in case we needed to make a quick getaway. We didn’t need to do so, however, for to our surprise, the Mass seemed to be quite Christ-centered.
We began to attend regularly, both at home and while traveling. Olivia particularly loved Notre Dame de Paris in France and the deep spirituality we sensed there. We found the same Christ-centeredness. We spoke with several priests, who were devout, godly men.
I read many conversion stories and gained insights from people who had made vastly different journeys to Rome. The Surprised by Truth series proved to be an excellent compilation of such accounts. From the nineteenth century, I read Cardinals John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning. From the early twentieth century, John Stoddard, Ronald Knox, Vernon Johnson, Frederick Kinsman, and Selden Delany. Contemporary converts included Alex Jones, Dr. Scott Hahn, Stephen Ray, Dr. Thomas Howard, and David Currie.
For a more personal opinion, I talked to a retired Episcopal bishop, a recent convert to the Catholic Church, to obtain the opinion of someone more theologically educated than I. Was the Catholic Church truly the Church that Christ founded? His studies had convinced him so. Knox, Newman, Manning, and also Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson were theologically astute Anglicans who had reached the same conclusion.
Could God possibly be leading us to the Catholic Church? Although we felt a pull, the Tiber is a wide river to cross, and there was no family support — quite the opposite, resulting in some intense conversations and disagreement. It meant breaking away from my familial worship ties and setting out like St. Brendan crossing the ocean in his little boat, dependent on the wind of the Holy Spirit in search of a more personal faith. Being of a somewhat intellectual nature, I couldn’t go on feelings. I needed facts.
And so I began to study further. Although Christian books were part of my normal reading habits, I had read only from a Protestant perspective. I had never sought the Catholic side of the story.
There were many aspects to evaluate.
Re-thinking Church history
There was, for example, the history of the Reformation, of which I was largely ignorant. I’d acquired a naïve, simplistic impression of “good” (enlightened, holy) Protestant Reformers squaring off against “bad” (superstitious, repressive) Catholic authorities.
On examination, though, the Reformers didn’t seem so good. They weren’t of the quality, say, of Francis of Assisi, who saw the need for Church reform in his own day and went about it with humility. The Reformers didn’t seem particularly holy and couldn’t agree with each other on various theological issues. When the chance came to work with a pope who truly wanted reform — Adrian VI — they wouldn’t have anything to do
In particular, the Reformation in my homeland, England, seemed to be based less on religious principles than on Henry VIII’s desire for a male successor and the craving for wealth that he shared with his nobles. When he closed the monasteries, Henry didn’t distinguish between those that were faithful and those that were decadent. The bottom line was money and submission to the Crown.
Yes, the Catholic Church needed reform in morals and discipline, but the Reformers went further, changing doctrines and dogmas.
I had never seen the divisions between the many Protestant denominations as being particularly relevant, but my perspective began to change. If the Holy Spirit were truly guiding the Reformation, then why didn’t He tell the Reformers the same things? Why did Luther teach one doctrine, Calvin another, Zwingli a third, and on and on?
On a logical level, it didn’t make sense. Every denomination claims to possess authority and truth, yet so many conflicting and varying opinions can’t all be true. For example, Baptism is a sacrament for Anglicans, an ordinance for Baptists, and dispensable for the Salvation Army. An Anglican may believe in a symbolic Eucharist, a spiritual Eucharist, or a Real Presence. Surely these are not matters for opinion. Surely it matters whether the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ — for it cannot both be and not be.
The doctrines of sola Scriptura (scripture alone) and sola fide (faith alone) upon further examination also seemed to rest on shaky foundations. The doctrine of Scripture alone is not found in Scripture; rather, Christ himself said He would build a Church that would be the pillar and bulwark of faith (see 1 Tm 3:14-15).
As for faith alone: Well, Christ also made it explicit that judgment will be based on what we have done in His name (see Mt 25:31–46). We are told that good works “benefit everyone” (Titus 3:8), which must include those who perform them. Even one of my heroes — missionary physician Wilfred Grenfell, who was not a Catholic — once wrote, “By and by it will not be ‘What did you know?’ that we shall be asked [by God], but ‘What did you do?’”
Regarding Catholic faith and doctrine, it didn’t take long for me to discover that many of my impressions were wrong. I read books explaining the Catholic faith, finding Dr. Alan Schreck and James Cardinal Gibbons particularly helpful. I also read anti-Catholic books to see how their arguments squared up against those of the Catholic authors.
Once I began to understand what the Catholic Church really taught (as opposed to what I had thought it taught) on issues such as the papacy, the Eucharist, and the relationship of faith and works in regard to justification, it seemed to harmonize better with Scripture and make more coherent sense. The sacramental nature of Catholic belief seemed a much richer, deeper, fuller understanding of reality than those traditions that lacked (or had dispensed with) sacramental concepts.
Then, I wondered, what did the early Christians believe, those who were the successors of the Apostles? Were they more Protestant in their beliefs and outlook, or more Catholic? So I began to read the Church Fathers.
I found, as Cardinal Newman had discovered long before, that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” I began to feel a closer connection to the Body of Christ as it has existed across almost two thousand years.
In the autumn of 2006, Olivia and I vacationed in England, where I acquired Frederick Cowles’ 1933 book Dust of Years: Pilgrimages in Search of the Ancient Shrines of England. (God surely placed it in a used bookshop for my attention!) Cowles, a Catholic, lamented the mutilation of many holy sites during the Reformation and by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans. Through this book I came to see these familiar places through different eyes.
Of course, the ancient parish churches and great cathedrals I loved — Salisbury, Wells, Hereford — had been Catholic before being taken over by the Anglicans, but this knowledge had registered in my mind only on a superficial level. It somehow had never really struck me that they had been built by Catholics for Catholics. England was Anglican — now. But the indisputable fact was that England had been Catholic long before she became Anglican.
In addition, my favorite Celtic saints — Cuthbert, Aidan, Patrick, Columba — about whom I had co-authored a devotional, Walking With the Celtic Saints, had been Catholic, too! Despite wishful Anglican thinking today, there had never been an autonomous Celtic Church in direct continuity with the Anglican Church formed at the Reformation. The Church in England — the ancient Church, the British, Celtic Church — had always been part of the one Catholic Church. (A book I read by the non-Catholic historian J.C. McNaught, The Celtic Church and the See of Peter, made this quite clear.)
Once again, I could almost hear God chuckling. Cardinal Newman, too.
Among the conversion stories I had read was that of American Protestant Evangelical Fr. Dwight Longenecker, whose experience mirrored mine. Leaving his Evangelical upbringing, he eventually realized his dream of pastoring an Anglican church in England. Nevertheless, he felt a call to the Catholic Church, a move that would have spelled the end of his dream.
Troubled by doubts about what he should do, Longenecker expressed his frustration to God while attending Mass at a nearby Benedictine monastery. “All I wanted to do,” he prayed, “was to serve You in the ancient church in England.”
Then God replied: “But this is the ancient church in England.”
That was what I wanted, too: the ancient church of Britain.
Hesitation and resolution
Even so, I hesitated, reluctant to be the first member of my family to become Catholic. As if to reassure me, I read that one of Cardinal Manning’s secretaries was a certain Fr. Thomas Seddon. Whether or not he was a distant relation, I have no idea. But there aren’t many Seddons around, so even encountering the name was unusual.
In an antique store in Bath I purchased, and began to wear, an eighth-century bronze cross. A pilgrim to the Holy Land from Byzantium had probably once bought it as a memento. Back home, I mentioned it to Catholic author Colleen Drippé, a long-time pen-pal.
“Why don’t you ask the pilgrim to pray for you?” she suggested. (Little did I know that she had been praying for years for me to become Catholic.) So I did — and I expect Colleen was amused at the thought that I unwittingly contributed to my conversion by invoking the pilgrim’s intercession.
Back home, God’s humor continued to crop up in unexpected ways. While in Bozeman, Montana, for a dog show in which our black German Shepherd, Finzi, was competing, I bought a Royal Doulton plate depicting Salisbury Cathedral. Then I found one dating from about 1860 with an unusual cross-like pattern that I learned was called “Rome.” Salisbury to Rome. Did God use English china as a sacramental?
I could delay no longer. Despite some lingering nerves (the attitudes and feelings of a lifetime die hard) I met with the parish priest in Billings, who impressed me with his humility, kind demeanor, and ability to answer my questions. He introduced us to the RCIA director, who cheerfully shepherded us through the RCIA program. (Olivia, by God’s grace, had been journeying along with me.) Their encouragement and friendship were an added blessing.
Instead of a mélange of contradictory teachings and viewpoints, we found a unified whole traceable back to the Apostles and a Church that was built, not upon the opinions of a single man — such as Luther or Calvin or any other denominational founder — but upon Christ and His first followers. We found a Church that stood for life and that had defended the Faith for two thousand years.
Of course, we encountered surprise and disbelief among friends that we would want to join a Church with so many “errors” (as if Protestant denominations were somehow error-free). We explained that we were not renouncing our denominational upbringing as though it had somehow become evil or harmful. Rather, while remaining thankful for how God had used our prior traditions, were now building and expanding upon them. The process was one of growth, not replacement; of addition, not subtraction. One immediate result was a richer closeness in our marriage.
To be sure, the Catholic Church contains sinful, erring humans. But the Church is, certainly, the best place for sinners to be. What matters is that she is Christ’s Church — and the Church of Francis of Assisi; the Celtic saints; Newman and numerous Anglican converts; teachers such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Ignatius; and untold thinkers, heroes, martyrs, and holy men and women. Among them, no doubt, were some of my English forebears.
We joined the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 2008. As we made our profession of faith and received Confirmation, it was like entering the company of friends. I could almost hear Columba and Cuthbert and Aidan saying, “Welcome home,” and I thanked them for their help.
As we partook of the Eucharist as Catholics for the very first time, we felt a sense of joy and a commitment to growing closer to God and doing His will unlike any we had felt before.
In the Catholic Church we have found a home, our heritage, and our ancestors in the faith: ancestors from all nations, as the Catholic Church is truly universal. Some of that great communion of saints — including my pilgrim friend — must be chuckling at how God brought us here. And God, seeing that He appears to have an English sense of humor, must surely be smiling, too.