Throughout my life, almost every time I have had a quick, guttural, “absolutely not” reaction or attitude toward something, God has turned it around on me and made me change my mind. I think because deep down I feel drawn to certain things, but I want to defy myself (my conscience) or God out of pride. For example, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do, but I’ll tell you one thing: I will never become a teacher” (yes, I ended up getting an Education degree and teaching). I will never become Catholic…and here I am writing my Catholic conversion story. So now, when I start saying or thinking, “I will never [fill in the blank],” I get worried, because that could very well be a sign of exactly what God wants me to do.
Even as a child, I sensed there was more
I was blessed to have been brought up in a very strong, Protestant Christian home. When I was born, my family was attending a Presbyterian church, but for most of my childhood we attended a small, tightly knit, Christian Reformed church. We went to church every Sunday, had family devotions almost every night, went to Sunday School, listened to Christian music, and spent most of our free time either taking part in church activities or socializing with friends from church. When I look back on my upbringing, I am nothing but grateful to my parents for laying such a firm foundation for me, because it gave me something to fall back on and look to throughout my life.
In a lot of ways, my story is the classic conversion story: Protestant upbringing, a long period of questioning, some rebellion, coming back to the Protestant church, more questioning, then considering Catholicism — and here I am! But the more I think about it, the more I realize that deep down, I have always been Catholic. There has always been a little seed of Catholicism within me, which caused me a great deal of confusion and distress at times before I officially became Catholic. I am a thinker, a questioner, and I always had lots of questions about the things I was taught.
For example, I was taught that, in order to be saved, you simply had to believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins and accept Him into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior (of course, you had to really mean it when you said it). Then, once you did that, no matter what, you were saved — forever. You would go to heaven, because you were saved by God’s grace, through faith alone.
One sunny afternoon when I was probably about seven or eight years old, I was swinging on the swings in my backyard with my next-door neighbor friend who was Catholic. I was concerned about her salvation (well, everyone’s salvation for that matter), so I asked her the “big question”: whether or not she was saved. We talked for a while about Jesus, heaven, sin, and salvation, and, by the end of the conversation, I convinced her to say a prayer with me, asking God’s forgiveness for her sins and asking Jesus to come into her heart. When we were finished praying, I remember experiencing an awkward okay-so-where-do-we-go-from-here? moment. That was years ago and I still remember the awkward silence after that prayer. I had felt a big sense of accomplishment for getting her to say that all-important prayer, but deep down in my subconscious, I wondered if that was really all there was to do. I think I knew that there had to be more to being a Christian, and over the years, I had my doubts. It seemed too simple an answer for such a complex mystery.
Right before I went into middle school, my family and I moved three hours from my childhood home. It was a big adjustment and one of the hardest parts of it was trying to find a new church. After about two years of searching, we ended up at a large, non-denominational church, which my parents chose because of its strong biblical teaching and active children’s and youth programs. My older brother and I attended the youth group fairly often, and I would say that this is when I really started to feel out of place in the Protestant world.
One night at youth group, a youth leader asked me if I had ever been baptized. This was the kind of church that only baptized people once they were ready to make a public profession of their faith in God. I, however, had been baptized in the Presbyterian Church as an infant, and then grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, which also practiced infant baptism. So, I answered the youth leader, “Yes, I was baptized as a baby.” He then told me that I hadn’t understood what I was doing when I was baptized as an infant and that I really should get baptized again at that church.
This conversation made me very uncomfortable, annoyed, and borderline upset. I insisted that I didn’t think it was necessary for me to be baptized a second time, and that I had made a public profession of faith at my previous church, which served the same purpose as the baptism that he was encouraging me to do there. This same person brought up the baptism issue to me several more times, and every time I answered him the same way — that I did not see the need to be baptized again when I had already been baptized. It really bothered me that he would not let it go.
Keeping guilt at bay
Over time, although I stayed involved in the youth group through my first year of high school, I felt more and more disconnected there. I would try to honestly express my thoughts — and sometimes my doubts — during the discussion time, but often felt very alienated as a result of doing so. It seemed like the rest of the kids there just weren’t on the same planet as me, even though a lot of them went to public school like I did. I was entering a stage in which I wanted to experience the world around me as fully as possible and didn’t want to feel sheltered.
During most of high school and college, I acted and thought like a Christian when it was convenient, but I really just wanted to do what I wanted to do. I knew that I was forgiven, so subconsciously I didn’t really see the big deal with breaking the rules here and there when I felt like it. I read my Bible and prayed, especially when I was going through a hard time and never completely abandoned my faith — it was good to have it there to fall back on when I needed it. I also had a habit of interpreting Scripture to match what I was already doing, as a way of keeping my guilt at bay.
When I look back, I realize that my behavior was a symptom of being taught that every individual had the ability to interpret Scripture. That sounds like an excuse, and I don’t mean it to be, but I wonder if my actions might have been different if I didn’t think I had that authority. I can sympathize with Protestants who might be doing that same thing now.
Deep down, even though I had ways of making everything work in my head by maneuvering God’s Word, my soul was not at peace. I had doubts about whether or not I was saved. At times, I felt myself wanting to raise my hand or go up to the altar at church when the pastor would ask if anyone was ready to commit his or her life to Christ, even though I had already done so. In fact, I did stand up at a youth retreat at one of those moments, and had several people come stand around me and pray for me. I knew that I that I was a sinner, that I desperately needed to turn back to God, and, yet, I kept falling back to my old ways, every single time.
I decided to attend a Christian college near Philadelphia, because I wanted my faith to play a bigger role in my life and I thought that might be easier if I was in a Christian environment. Soon after I got to college, I had an experience I will never forget. Being away from home was a huge adjustment for me those first few weeks, and I felt so alone. One night, after crying in my bed, I heard a voice. It was something I had never heard before — it wasn’t the usual voice in my head and it wasn’t as if someone was in the room. It was another voice from somewhere within me, and it simply said, “Elizabeth, I’m here.” Immediately, I felt a wave of calm wash over my entire being. I knew it was God. I knew that He was real. Right then, I felt as if I should ask Him into my heart, because this time it was definitely for real (maybe it had never been real before); so, I did. At that point I felt as if I really knew that I was saved.
It saddens me that I had so many doubts about my salvation, but now I know that they were there for a reason. I can attribute those doubts to the “Catholic seed” that was slowly budding in my heart. I later learned the Catholic teaching on sin, how it separates us from God, and that we actually can lose our salvation as the result of choosing to sever our relationship with God. It now makes sense to me that I wanted to turn back to Him again and again, and why I felt the urge to go up during altar calls! I knew that I needed to be forgiven again and again, and I knew that my salvation was a process, not a one-time thing like I had been taught. But, because I had that thinking so deeply ingrained in me, doubts about whether or not I was “saved” made me very uncomfortable for so many years.
I wish I could say that my life completely changed as a result of that night. I definitely made some adjustments in my thinking, but no major changes to my lifestyle. My faith became a purely intellectual thing for me — something that I could talk for hours about and enjoy studying and learning more about, but that didn’t make much of a difference in my day-to-day decision-making. What that experience did do, though, was force me to ask more questions and think more deeply about religious beliefs. I started to really search for truth.
At some point during my time in college, I stumbled across Jesus’ prayer in the garden right before He was arrested. His words struck me to the core: speaking about the Church, He asked God “that they may all be one” (see John 17:20-23). I felt a deep sadness after I read that, because I wondered how Jesus must feel about the fact that Christians are divided into so many different denominations. Up until that point, I naively thought that the differences between the denominations were probably over such silly, minor issues and that, essentially, we all believed the same thing. (This was the idea I adopted when I would talk to another Christian who held a different belief than I did.) After reading those verses in John, I started dreaming about the possibility of a universal church in which we could all be one, just like Jesus had wanted; I thought it would be so nice if it could happen on this side of heaven.
Because my then-boyfriend, Ben (who is now my husband), and so many of my friends from back home were Catholic, I was wondering why it was such a big deal whether or not someone was one denomination or another. Therefore, I decided to take a class on the Reformation in order to fulfill my theology requirement. I learned the basic historical facts about what had happened at the time of the Protestant Reformation, but I don’t remember learning about the Catholic Church’s teachings (either that, or they just didn’t sink in).
As a result of the class, however, I started to sense that our different religious backgrounds could become an issue for my boyfriend and I in the future. I thought the best solution would be to find a “middle ground” — a church that combined the higher-liturgical feeling of the Catholic Church with theological beliefs that I could accept (although, I must admit, I really didn’t know too much about Catholic beliefs at that time). One Sunday toward the end of my senior year, I attended an Episcopal church. After the service, I talked to the priest about my reasons for visiting. He told me that there were lots of people in his church who were coming from mixed backgrounds and that his church could be the perfect place for my boyfriend and me. I tucked that idea away for the future.
While at school, I took a class called “Sex and Gender” for my psychology minor. One day, our professor had a married couple speak to our class about Natural Family Planning (NFP). (NFP refers to methods of achieving or avoiding pregnancy by cooperating with a woman’s natural fertile and infertile periods). The couple did an excellent job explaining how it worked and all of the benefits that it added to their marriage. Something about this really struck a chord with me; it just seemed like a better alternative to birth control. There were several times over the course of the next few years that I went back and referenced the materials that the couple had passed out that day. It interested me because it felt very…right. Little did I know that NFP would play a major role in my upcoming conversion to the Catholic Church.
After college, Ben and I both moved back home. A few months later, we broke up — and it felt like it was for good. This was an extremely hard time for me. I had so many doubts and questions about what the future held. I would often go to my parents’ church (the one I had attended with them in middle school and high school) and would try to get involved in the young adults’ group, but never really felt a part of it. It always seemed like they were trying too hard to cater to people and to make church “cool” or “trendy” in order to increase attendance. I finally decided to stop attending when they put a coffee shop in the lobby of the church — this crossed a line; it made the whole place feel more like a marketplace than a church.
Having gone to a Christian college, I had attended lots of worship services with a full band, dancing, light effects, the “whole thing,” and I think I was just tired of all that. Deep down, I was yearning to go to a church that actually felt like a church, a place that would make me think of God when I was there. I started attending the traditional service at a Presbyterian church. My boyfriend and I got back together several months later, and I convinced him to come with me one Sunday, saying that the traditional service might be the perfect compromise for our different backgrounds. He liked it, and we ended up becoming members. Interestingly, when we took the membership classes and learned what the Presbyterian Church taught, he had some objections. I persisted and he ended up deciding to join anyway.
Our time at the Presbyterian church will always be a good memory for me, because it was when we started to attend church as a couple. It got us talking about spiritual things more than we ever had before, which brought us closer together. We were married in that church in October of 2010.
The “Catholic seed” within me seemed to sprout a little bud during the planning of our wedding ceremony. We both knew that we wanted it to be as traditional as possible: we wanted tons of candles; we wanted the kneeler up on the altar; we wanted the Our Father sung; we wanted the organ. I even wanted the organist to play Ave Maria, which had always been one of my favorite songs, during the prelude to the ceremony.
The spring following our wedding was when “the Catholic question” was raised. My husband and I were driving past the Catholic cemetery near our home where his great grandparents are buried. He turned to me and said, “Hmm. I guess I won’t be able to be buried there, because you’re not Catholic.” (I have since learned that this was a misunderstanding, but I’m grateful for that misunderstanding, because it got the conversation going!) I just sighed and said I was “sorry about that,” or something along those lines. He proceeded to say that he had been thinking more and more about faith, and he thought that when we had children someday, he might want to raise them Catholic. I was shocked and got extremely upset, because I thought we had dealt with this roadblock a long time ago.
What I didn’t understand, though, was that what we had done was not much of a compromise at all. I was already baptized Presbyterian and, therefore, did not have to adjust my beliefs at all. He was the one who went out on a limb for me. (And when I look back, maybe I shouldn’t have wanted a compromise in a matter of faith anyway.) However, I felt that if we were to baptize and raise our children Catholic, I would have to become Catholic, as well. I promised my husband that I would at least look into the Catholic Church’s teachings (I sensed that I probably didn’t know that much about Catholicism). We agreed that no matter what happened, we would have to go to church together as a family — we would not go to separate churches.
If the Catholic Church is right about one thing, then…
It was around this same time that some of our Catholic friends talked to us about NFP. Even though I had been on “the Pill” for a while, for some reason I always felt wrong about the fact that I was taking it. It just didn’t feel natural for me to be taking that pill every day. I became excited to learn more about this “NFP thing” that the sweet couple had talked about back in college.
My husband and I read and talked about NFP for a few weeks, and I quickly became convinced that the Catholic Church had this right. When I learned about the Church’s reasons for being against contraception, everything “clicked.” The teaching on this subject was one of the most logical things I had ever encountered. It was almost as though someone had written down all of the beliefs that, deep down, I had always held, but had just never articulated. My husband and I decided that I would stop taking the Pill, and we would try “this whole thing” out.
What I didn’t realize was that my heart was softening toward the Catholic Church. Subconsciously, I was starting to think that if the Church was right about this, it might very well be right about other things, too. I kept reading, kept looking things up, and kept searching for the real truth. I also kept praying that God would show me where I was supposed to be.
I had some very tough conversations with my parents at various points in the discernment process. When I first mentioned all of this to my mom, she told me she was “just really disappointed.” I could tell she was also hurt and she must have felt as if I was telling her that she and my dad had failed in some way. They were both concerned about what was happening. As time went on, I found myself defending the Catholic teachings to my parents, out of a respect for truth. I sensed that they had so many misunderstandings similar to what I had before I started my research.
When I look back, I think that the whole time, I wanted the Catholic Church to be right. I wanted it to be true so badly, but I was just really scared of what the implications would be if I were to discover that it was true. My heart and my mind were opening more and more to the idea that perhaps some of the teachings of the Church were actually something with which I could be comfortable. Perhaps up until that point, my opinions were based solely on what I had seen modeled by the Catholics I knew without considering whether or not those behaviors were reflective of the Church’s actual teachings! This probably sounds like a no-brainer — of course you shouldn’t judge a Church only on behaviors of certain people who attend it — but it was a big step for me.
I also started to be more and more open to attending Mass every once in a while. We would sometimes even go to Mass and then drive over to the Presbyterian church afterwards. The more I attended Mass, the more it made sense to me, and the less Presbyterian church felt like “church.” I started to love the beauty of the Mass and wanted to learn about the symbolism behind every little thing I was seeing and hearing. Any question my husband couldn’t answer, I would have to look up. It was just all so beautiful to me, and I had never seen or experienced anything even close to it in any of the Protestant churches I had attended.
Eventually we went to talk to a priest. When we left his office, I was even more open to the Church’s teachings than I had been before! He gave us several CDs to listen to, and one of them was “The Conversion of Scott Hahn,” a former Presbyterian pastor. We listened to all of them — one right after another (I was eating them up!) — but Dr. Hahn’s was the one that really hit me, because he had come from a very similar faith background. He explained the ways in which he had reconciled so many of his previous beliefs with the Catholic teachings. Every point he explained made so much sense to me. By the middle of the summer, I had finished his book Reasons to Believe.
No matter what I listened to or read, everything seemed to point to the Eucharist. It was clear to me that this was the most central Catholic teaching, but it was really hard for me to wrap my head around! At first, I thought there was no way the Catholic teaching of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist could be true, but that it would be really nice if it were. The more I read about it, prayed about it, and thought about it, though, the more I wanted it to be true. I started thinking, Man, too bad this isn’t true, because it would be so amazing. As I continued my discernment, I came to the point where I asked myself, What if this is true? Eventually, noticed that I had begun defending the Real Presence in discussions with other people. By the end of the summer, I had come to the point where I knew it was the truth and, because I knew it was true, I had to partake of it. The rest of my issues would sort themselves out. They all seemed peripheral, compared to the reality of the Eucharist. I had to become Catholic.
With that approach in mind, I decided to start RCIA in the fall of 2011. As the class journeyed through the different teachings of the Church, I realized I had already accepted most of them. God had been doing amazing works in my heart and mind without me even being aware of them. Each time I encountered a difficult teaching during the RCIA process, I would try my best to understand it, but what I eventually realized was that I needed to have faith — more faith than I had ever had to have before. When I was a Protestant, I could rely on my own intellect and abilities to help me interpret Scripture, but now, as I slowly transformed into a Catholic way of thinking, I found myself having to be reminded that interpretation was not my responsibility. There were already two thousand years worth of people who had infallibly interpreted these things for me, and all I had to do was trust that this was so.
Once I accepted that, it was like a huge weight was lifted. The pressure was off of me to have everything figured out. My beliefs could be formed and guided by the Church, so I didn’t have to keep trying to find a church that fit my beliefs. It was the complete opposite of the way I had always seen it. Looking back, I think that so many of my uncertainties, doubts, and fears were rooted in the fact that I was trying to interpret things for myself, even though I knew I didn’t have all the answers.
That September, by God’s grace, my husband and I found out we were pregnant. I saw God’s precious plan unfold: I would become Catholic, and then, a few months later, we would baptize our baby into the beauty of the Catholic Church. This anticipation added a new dimension to my learning process, because I now felt that I needed to learn these truths in order to be able to teach them to our child.
The Refiner’s fire
In the spring of 2012, when there were only a few weeks left before Easter Vigil, our RCIA group took a day-long retreat to a monastery. Most of the day was to be spent in quiet contemplation. The monastery was surrounded by rolling farmland as far as the eye could see — it was one of the most quiet and peaceful places I have ever been. I walked up the long, dirt road and sat down on a shaded bench, which overlooked the land around me. It was here that I did an examination of conscience to prepare for my first confession. As painful as it was, I did my best to remember each and every sin I had ever committed, and I wrote them all down in a notebook. By the end of the day, I felt that I was ready.
About a week later, I met with a priest from one of our local parishes to make my confession. He led me downstairs to the basement of the church where we could sit and talk comfortably, face to face (this was already a huge relief for me, since I was still adjusting to all of the super-Catholic-feeling things, like the confessional). He must have sensed how nervous I was and told me not to worry because there was probably nothing he hadn’t heard before. I breathed another huge sigh of relief! I started to read the sins from my notebook and we talked about many different things. My first confession lasted an hour and a half, but the time flew by. It was one of the best and most honest conversations I have ever had.
When we were done with Confession, the priest raised his hands and pronounced the words of absolution. I immediately felt so light, so clean, and so free. Then he reminded me of the Parable of the Prodigal Son and, even though I new it by heart, it felt as if I was hearing that story for the first time. For my penance, he graciously told me that, just as the father and son had done in that parable, I should have a celebratory feast with my husband that night. We would be feasting with the angels and the saints in heaven, who rejoice when even one sinner repents (Lk 15:10). Like the prodigal son, I had finally returned home to God, my heavenly Father, who forgave me and welcomed me back with open arms. That night, I burned page after page after page of the sins I had written down. Every time I feel even a tiny bit of one of those past sins creeping back into my memory, I think of that fire, that joyful feast, and my heavenly Father’s forgiveness.
I feel as though my life is a walking example of God’s infinite patience, infinite kindness, and unconditional love. I was never to the point of eating pig’s food, but I definitely returned to God from far, far away as did the prodigal son. It is hard to say what was the “best part” of my conversion, since it was really all one experience, but I think that the first confession, and hearing the priest’s words of absolution, was important for me because of all my years of doubts.
The fullness of Faith
The seed God planted in me so many years ago was beautifully completed when, after years of secretly feeling that something in my soul was incomplete, I finally received the Eucharist. I will never forget that first time I received our Lord in Communion: I wept, perhaps the most pure, joyful tears I have ever cried, because I was truly home. I received Jesus, not only “into my heart” (as I had previously thought was the only necessary part), but in a physical, real way — His actual Body and Blood received into my body. As I type this I realize that I should be receiving Him as much as possible. When you stop and think about what you are actually doing during Holy Communion, it is the most profound, beautiful thing you can possibly do here on earth.
I would be lying if I said that I don’t still struggle with some things that the Church teaches. Some things have been easier for me to accept than others. However, I continue to ask God for more faith, faith to know for sure that, because Jesus Himself established this Church that I am now blessed to be a part of, I can safely trust all of the things that it teaches. Being Catholic requires more faith than I ever had to muster up when I was a Protestant, but that is one of the best parts of it: it truly feels as though I am constantly contemplating heavenly things — things that are too big for my human mind to ever fully grasp. The Catholic Church is full of beautiful mysteries of which I will probably only begin to scratch the surface in my lifetime.
I truly believe that there is a reason God wanted me to become Catholic, and I am in the process of trying to discern where and how He wants to use my particular background, passions, and gifts to serve Him in His Church. Lately, I have been seriously considering going through training to become a Creighton Model NFP teacher, so that I can share that aspect of the beauty of the Church’s truth.
In Philippians, Saint Paul writes, “…I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6). When I think about my life, and the way it has unfolded up to this point, I can see that God began a very good work in me a long time ago, and every day I see signs of His continued work in my life. Thanks be to God for never having given up on me, and most of all, for showing me the way home, to His Church!