God’s grace guides us all. He doesn’t push people to do anything, but rather uses elements in that person’s own world and circumstance to open and close doors, providing guidance and wisdom.
I came to know Christ personally in 1984, when I was 14 years old. I had attended a summer youth retreat in New England, where I became convinced of the reality of the existence of a personal God. Afterwards, I returned home to an apartment in New York City, with a new reality before me, a newfound zeal.
My parents didn’t know how to relate to this. I was raised by an Episcopalian mother and an atheist father. Their son, who had previously been bullied and was overweight, was now a religious zealot, a “Jesus freak.” My mother’s faith had led her towards political activism and the liberal causes she espoused, particularly that of women’s rights. My father’s lack of faith brought our already fragile relationship to the breaking point as he resorted to mockery and demeaning slurs. My love of Christ disrupted our family dynamic.
High School Leadership
A couple of years passed, while I adjusted to my new faith in Christ. For the most part, I kept my faith from other kids at school. But during the summer before my junior year, I was challenged to step out of my comfort zone, to live fully for Christ, no matter the consequences. I knew that I had to become more outward in living my faith and had committed myself to do a number of things to this end, including immersing myself in Evangelical Christian culture, learning the musical genre of Christian Rock and wearing clothing with creative evangelical messages. More importantly, I began to participate — to my parents’ chagrin — in a number of Christian youth groups.
My high school had an extracurricular Bible study group that met daily, in the early mornings. The leader, Ian, was a member of a Black Gospel church. We studied the Gospels together. Over the course of the school year, we grew in friendship and knowledge of our faith, to the point that, when he graduated, I inherited the position of high school Bible study president.
The following year, I went into full-throttle evangelical mode, leading the Bible study and providing additional helps, such as songbooks, a lending library. I expanded its hours and wallpapered the city-block-sized public school with fliers. Some of my secular friends were disdainful of my new direction, but there were others who commended me for my forthrightness and boldness, even if they disagreed with me.
Outside of school, I found myself committed even more to attending my Episcopal parish, which incidentally had become more charismatic in its worship style. I was a speaker in my Episcopal Youth Cursillo weekend and also branched out to many different youth groups outside of my Episcopal parish. On Friday nights, I would travel by subway, ferry and city bus to participate in an Evangelical youth group in Staten Island. As president, I wanted to ensure that my Bible studies were correct; I knew the responsibility teachers carried.
One of the side effects of living in this particular Christian bubble was that not one person I encountered had a positive experience of the Catholic Faith. There was a Catholic bookstore near me that I had occasionally browsed through, but for the most part I took for granted that, if someone claimed to be Catholic, with all its man-made rules and practices, he would be oblivious to the true Gospel, which freely offered a personal relationship with Christ. We disdainfully dubbed that approach “Churchianity.”
Some of our group even passed along comic books that promoted the claimed testimony of a former Jesuit priest, Alberto Rivera, whose testimony was woven with fantastic tales of Church corruption through the centuries. We counted our blessings to be free of such craziness.
Discovering the Charismatic Renewal
It was 1988, the year I graduated from high school. I was astounded at the growth in my faith walk in just four years’ time. What surprises did God have in store for me at Rutgers College in central New Jersey?
Since my senior year in high school was such a blessing, I sought to continue my trajectory, being active in my Christian pursuits in college as well. During the college’s Activity Fair, I signed up for all the groups with a Christian focus. At this large university, there were roughly a dozen such groups, some of which were from nationally recognized ministries.
However, at this one table, I had a good conversation with Eric, a member of a group called University Christian Outreach. I discovered that this group offered daily morning prayer. It took place off campus, at a Christian fraternity house that was just one block from my dorm. Sign me up!
The next morning, members were surprised to see this stranger at the door at the scheduled time. I followed them into the basement, anticipating a worship experience similar to what I had in high school.
We stood in a well-lit, furnished basement room with a cross up front. I was handed a paperback book of the Psalms and a binder of worship songs. The group began by chanting two psalms from the paperback psalter, accompanied by the strums of an acoustic guitar. Then a student read a passage from the Gospels, after which he shared a brief encouragement for the day.
Following this, the group exploded into charismatic prayer. Songs at high decibel levels flowed into other songs. Hands were raised. What sounded like gibberish (praying in tongues) abounded and lasted another twenty minutes.
I was blown away. I had rarely experienced this level of worship enthusiasm, even with all the groups I had attended the prior year. My home Episcopal parish had been experimenting with charismatic expression in its liturgies, but not like this. I was curious, drawn to this group, knowing the importance of keeping my faith vibrant in a college atmosphere, where temptations to sin abounded.
This group offered a series of off-campus classes to introduce students to charismatic prayer. I swiftly embraced it. I had picked up the guitar and learned to lead worship in such settings. I also attended a men’s group, a dedicated group of students that met weekly to grow in faith. Church-hopping, checking out the many different denominations (and non-denominations!), I was drawn into ever more contemporary and free-flowing expressions of worship.
About six months into my involvement, I stumbled across a reality that utterly floored me. The majority of the students, including the residents in the Christian household that held morning prayer, were — to my utter disbelief — Catholics! How could this be?
They were the children of devout Catholic parents involved with a charismatic covenant community located about forty-five minutes away. Many Catholics introduced to charismatic prayer had opted to band together, pool their resources, purchase real estate, and move into houses adjacent to each other, in order to continue their respective faith walks with a level of support they weren’t finding in their original parishes.
This gave me hope for our Christian faith. No longer would I speak negatively about Catholics. I attended a reunion with my old high school Christian friends and let them know my discovery that even Catholics — yes, Catholics — can be saved! They were incredulous.
Mary — for Protestants!
It was Christmas 1989, and one of the presents I received was a book about Mary, her apparitions, and the Rosary … written by a Protestant! This author had been touring different mainline churches to share his experiences, his belief that Marian apparitions were a real phenomenon, and that Protestants could very well benefit from the Rosary. My mother had purchased this nearly blasphemous item on a whim, evidently thinking that her religious zealot son could benefit from such a notion.
I was taken aback at her apparently thoughtless gesture. Didn’t she know that there were Catholics who worshipped Mary? Didn’t she understand the powder keg of idolatry and blasphemy that lay within these pages? That, thankfully, some Catholics (like those in UCO) were breaking free from the shackles of Mariology and embracing true freedom in Christ? I forced a smile and thanked her, having no desire to delve into its pages.
One day, however, I picked it up and read it in one sitting. I found myself pulled into the author’s story. He was making the point that Mary was a gift to the entire Church, first by being faithful to her calling in bringing Christ into the world, who in turn brought salvation to humanity. Later, when Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross united Christians as brothers and sisters, she was given to John as His mother (see John 19:26-27). In this case, John represents all Christians; she is our mother, too.
Again, if she desired to share the Gospel with the world, pointing to Jesus, centuries after her walk on earth, would Jesus disallow this? This same Jesus who obeyed Mary’s request at the wedding feast of Cana (see John 2:1-10), who is bound to love her because of His obedience to the Ten Commandments?
Perhaps He would, perhaps not. We are, I maintained, not privy to knowing the relationship between the two. It was at this logical standoff that I realized there was a way to know with certainty if these Marian doctrines held up logically: I could actually “test the spirits” (see 1 John 4:1-3) and pray the Rosary!
I found myself again at that Catholic bookstore, approaching the cashier with a cheap set of rosary beads in one hand and a booklet, “Praying the Rosary for Non-Catholics,” in the other. “They’re… for a friend,” I found myself saying.
I devoured the booklet immediately. I knew the moment of testing was about to begin. Terrified, I knew that I would never know for certain without trying it for myself. “Lord,” I prayed on a park bench, “I am only trying this because Scripture recommends testing the spirits. Please don’t take offense. Please protect me no matter what, and if it is false, please make it evident to me, and I will never do it again.” Then I picked up the beads and prayed, as directed by the booklet, starting with the mystery of the Annunciation.
I fell in love. I found that, instead of placing Mary in the place of God (a grave sin), I was actually invited to love Jesus even more intimately by getting to know His earthly family, witnessing His story from her vantage point. She had been with Jesus ten times longer than the disciples. Jesus situated her in a place of great honor, because she acquiesced to God the Father’s will for her life, leading to the salvation of humankind. Yet the honor given to Mary is in an entirely different category compared to the worship owed to God.I found that, instead of placing Mary in the place of God (a grave sin), I was actually invited to love Jesus even more intimately by getting to know His earthly family, witnessing His story from her vantage point. Click To Tweet
The presence of Mary was uniquely strong for me. I suddenly remembered that she was prophesied to have her own cross to bear, that proverbial sword piercing her heart (see Luke 2:35). She was not immune to the sufferings of His Passion, dealing with the emotional agony of witnessing her adult child suffer. Such sorrows have now been transformed into glorious victory.
Later, I shared my experiences with some friends. Word spread quickly. A few other Protestant friends were curious, so I shared with them, too. Soon afterwards, even these others began praying the Rosary too. That summer, several dozen of us were vacationing at the outer banks of North Carolina, and beachside Rosary walks were led by four of us who happened to be Protestants.
A Non-Catholic Catholic Apologist
Even though I had a newfound respect for the Catholic Faith, I had resolved that I wouldn’t join it. Nevertheless, the following school year, I attended a month of RCIA classes before deciding that it wasn’t for me. My Episcopal faith, which had become dormant, was revitalized due to my love of the Rosary (Episcopal Rosary groups do exist) and my recognition that liturgy was powerful. I was content.
I discovered a parish that was warm and had excellent sermons. Then I discovered that the testimony about Alberto Rivera, the subject of those anti-Catholic comic books that I had devoured just three years earlier, was actually a fraud, according to a series of articles in decades-old issues of Christianity Today. I was furious that such falsehood was being sold in Christian bookstores.
The next several years, I was a defender of Catholic teaching without actually being a Catholic. I was a bridge between the two factions, a peacemaker. I had the notion that Catholic doctrine could be explained to my non-Catholic friends with Scripture and logic, and even if we could not come to a new consensus, healing would result.
The hardest issue, the one I really wrestled with, was the Eucharist. On the one hand, I was convinced that there was nothing wrong with taking the Bread of Life discourse (John 6:26-58) as a metaphor for “accepting Jesus Christ into your life as personal Lord and Savior.” The notion that Jesus could be actually present in the Sacrament was bizarre to me, a return to medieval thinking. As I later had to acknowledge, this was a knee-jerk response, not really based on the Scripture.
Jesus had every opportunity to not scandalize his flock, to clarify that He was speaking metaphorically, to increase His numbers, but He did not. Every time he could have clarified that he was speaking of “accepting Him into your heart as personal Lord and Savior,” he chose to add more confusion, using non-metaphorical terms (i.e. Greek trago = “munch”; see John 6:53-56) and saying that He who “munches” His Body will have eternal life. So scandalized were the crowds, that many left Him — and Jesus let them leave. His disciples would have left as well, but they didn’t have anybody else to follow (see John 6:67-69).
I didn’t want to pursue further about how to interpret this passage. I was adamant that, even with harsh language, it had to reflect the importance of a personal relationship with Christ, and nothing further. The concept of taking the “Bread of Life” to mean transubstantiation was, for me, a bridge too far. But my interpretation of the passage was about to be put to the test.
In my senior year of college, 1992, UCO helped organize a local conference focused on Catholic evangelization. A celebrity priest was the emcee, as well as two popular speakers in the Catholic charismatic scene. I was intrigued by the final offering on the agenda: Eucharistic Benediction. I had never heard that term before, but a traditional form of worship mixed with charismatic prayer appealed to me.
The talks were well received. It was in a moderate sized arena with hundreds of Catholic faithful in attendance. The Catholics were inspired to learn and share their faith, and I, as a good-will ecumenist, was encouraging them to do so.
Eucharistic Benediction was scheduled last. To say I was unprepared for it was an understatement.
The priest came out with some golden circular thing in a solemn procession with a communion wafer inside. The entire arena, in nearly domino-fashion, kneeled, following the progress of the procession.
I didn’t kneel, however. I was scrunched on the floor, taking in all the reverence around me. I wasn’t prepared. I had never seen Eucharistic reverence on this level. Just as I was getting comfortable with the notion that Catholics can be Christians despite the silly notion that Jesus was fully present in the Eucharist, I was confronted with hundreds of devout Catholics expressing their fervent worship, acknowledging that Jesus truly is present among us.
I was torn. Either Jesus was truly present in this little wafer within this golden container, or the thousands of rank-and-file parishioners, with whom I had spent the entire weekend truly supporting in an ecumenical manner, were all bizarrely crazy. There was no third option. My desire to find out had reignited. I knew I had to put my research into overdrive.
That day I had purchased Spiritual Journeys, telling the stories of many notable Catholic conversions. I devoured the book in days. Over and over came a singular theme: that the Catholic Church, for all its failings, all its historical missteps, for all its liturgies filled with lukewarm parishioners… this was home, with Jesus as the central Resident.
The interdenominational churches I had attended in the past were fun, and I was learning about God. It was almost like they were a Beatles convention. There would be lots of fun music and entertaining lectures. But wouldn’t a devoted Beatles fan prefer being a guest at Sir Paul McCartney’s house? Such an environment would be much different. Music would not be playing 24/7. His family members would not be impressed by his own celebrity. But there would also be an unparalleled level of intimacy. I saw how this would be preferable to me.
All of this was enticing, but I still could not commit. I had one final issue: I believed that women could and should be ordained in the clergy. Because of my upbringing, I believed that a prohibition of women clergy was, at root, misogynistic. I understood that the early Church had such a prohibition, but I attributed it (see 1 Timothy 2:11-14) to an outdated cultural climate that we no longer share. The Episcopal rector at my college parish was, in my opinion, a great homilist. I couldn’t in good conscience join a denomination that would have prevented her from completing what I presumed was her calling.
Then I graduated. I had felt a mix of both accomplishment and overwhelm. Suddenly, I had these life-altering choices before me. I was about to enter the workforce, and even with Christ in my life, I felt aimless. With such pressure, I found avenues to pray even more.
One time, while before the Blessed Sacrament, I sensed God asking me what my greatest concerns were. There were three: first, I wasn’t certain what occupation I was to pursue, because my major had a lot of options, and we had just entered a recession. Secondly, I didn’t know if I was called to marriage, and if so, I had no idea how to find a wife. Thirdly, I was still on the fence about the Catholic Faith, although my experiences with Eucharistic Adoration were growing increasingly profound, since I was unable to shake my personal disdain for the Church’s prohibition against women in the priesthood.
Later that day, I sensed God speaking to my heart: these issues were secondary. There was an overarching concern that was the root of these three: I did not know what it meant to be a father. Such a revelation caused my mind to race.
My relationship with my earthly father had always been mixed. When I committed myself to Christ at fourteen, I had caused a great division between us. Much of my insecurity about my future was rooted in his harsh words. No wonder I was anxious about my future occupation and had apprehensions about marriage. If I were to be called to that vocation, I would eventually become a father, and since my own relationship with my Dad was so negative, I was afraid that I would instill those same abuses on my own children.
But the final issue, that of my entering the Catholic Faith, was where I couldn’t connect the dots. I had scars from the faulty relationship with my father, yet God had used those experiences to move me closer to His loving embrace. While I was grateful to find Him in these diverse Christian churches and youth and young adult groups, could I stay right where I was and truly serve God? In that moment, I was seeing myself hindered from receiving the Catholic Eucharist — something that I was growing more convinced was uniquely Jesus Himself, and the root of my trepidation to join and partake — but equally there was my own ignorance as to what it meant to be a father. I just could not see the connection.
“Lord, I just don’t see how my not knowing what it means to be a father has anything to do with this prohibition against women-in-the-priesthood!”
Wait! Did I just say that?
There it was — the connection was obvious, and I was shaken to my core. I needed to look beyond personal talents, towards the deeper designs of God and His creation. We are all created male and female, and this points to the reality of how God relates to us. In the life-giving act, fathers provide the seed, and the mothers nurture it to life, just as God (while beyond gender, is identified as Father, by Jesus Himself) creates life, while Mother Church nurtures us and prepares us for maturity.
I also began to see that the priesthood was more than homiletics, counsel and administration. A good speech could be made most anywhere, and some of the great faith writings were given by women who are now Doctors of the Church. Good counsel could be done in professions that open themselves to do so. Administration is used in every business. Women are not prevented from these professions, and if they are so inclined, they can pursue them without restriction.
I had a vision of all of the liturgies that have ever been celebrated, as being part of a great stage play, where even those of us in the congregation have a role to play; no part is too small. Priests are there in the role of Christ — in persona Christi, as they say — even up to the crucifixion. The role of priest is limited to men, not because women were not worthy, but because Jesus was a man, and needed a representative in this role that could demonstrate His role in the salvation of humankind, without distracting by way of novelty.
This is substantively different from being a mere minister. The key to understanding the importance of women in the priesthood had everything to do with this distinction. And at that moment, I knew. That last domino had dropped; I would be Catholic.
And so it happened. At the Easter Vigil 1993, I was officially, beautifully and reverently welcomed into the Catholic Faith. My family reluctantly attended. Of course, my mother couldn’t help but try to persuade me otherwise, even after the ceremony, but that’s who she is. Over the years, my relationship with my parents has ebbed and flowed, but God remains good.
Shortly after my conversion, circumstances conspired to move me away from my supportive community. I was forced to grow in faith where there were few young adults with the zeal I had been blessed with. I lent my guitar skills to a couple of local interdenominational youth groups while holding firm my Catholic position. I eventually met a Catholic woman who would become my wife. Today we have two wonderful children. I even learned to craft parody songs from my personal experiences, pleasing many. All in all, I have found that God truly is a faithful Father, whose love is beyond compare, whose faithfulness truly knows no bounds. My life did not end with the decision to entrust my life to Him; rather, it was the beginning of an amazing adventure, a ride I am still experiencing. May God be praised, Hallelujah!