I was baptized and confirmed in a nominally Catholic home. My dad’s 30-year career in the U.S. military and the diplomatic service led us overseas among many moves as our 6-child family grew up, spending years in Panama, Cuba, and Colombia. Despite a Jesuit education into high school, by the time we returned to Washington, D.C. in the late 1960s, I was a high school student growing rapidly disillusioned with my faith and with the Catholic Church. If you remember, the American Church was in what I now understand as its “post-Vatican II phase”, and our parish in suburban Washington, DC was particularly “loopy.” On one memorable Easter Sunday, the pastor drove a VW bug up the main aisle of the church, dressed in a bunny suit. By the time I was a cadet at West Point, I had come to describe myself as an agnostic, but perhaps more for the fact that I enjoyed sleeping in on Sunday mornings instead of attending mandatory religious services.
The Church of Christ
A few years later, I decided to leave the Army and West Point, and started attending an informal, evangelical Bible Study as a grad student at the University of Florida in Gainesville. This led me to the Crossroads Church of Christ, where I rededicated my life to Christ. The Crossroads Church was leading a breakaway movement from the traditional Churches of Christ in the 1970s, which led to its eventual estrangement from this denomination, but I learned all this later. Like many Churches of Christ, it embraced a goal that energized me — to take seriously the primitive beliefs and practices of first-century Christianity. The congregation had a large and active campus ministry, with hundreds of
college students, and thousands of members — one of the few biracial churches in the Deep South.
I later made the decision to pass up law school and entered the church’s training program in preparation for Christian ministry. After several years of training, I was hired as a campus minister at the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ in Tucson, Arizona, near the University of Arizona campus. I took classes in Old Testament archaeology and biblical languages at U of A, and led a campus ministry that grew from one lukewarm student to over 400 students in four years (mainly through outreach to unchurched students on campus). I was later promoted to evangelist, and our church continued to grow from about 250 members to over 1000 people. There were definitely challenges and turmoil in this small congregation, especially with the rapid growth. Many of my wounds, however, were the self-inflicted kind. I was often thoughtless and rigidly insistent on my own way (as a spiritual leader, it’s easy to confuse your own insight with divine will). My arrogance and brashness hurt many people. I have apologized many times for those early mistakes and sins over the years; my actions no doubt turned some away from Christianity, which I deeply regret.
After my first year in Arizona, I returned to Florida and got married back at the Crossroads Church, and my wife returned with me to Tucson. Let me just say I did not realize how little we knew each other until after we had been married. I cannot describe the struggles and difficulties we both suffered along the way in what was a very rocky relationship. Years later, and after much difficulty and struggle, my wife finally left the marriage, filed for divorce, leaving me to care for our two boys. This marriage would be annulled years later, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Disillusionment and departure
We moved from Tucson and eventually were hired by the Boston Church of Christ, where I edited a church magazine, led a campus ministry, and trained to be their theologian in residence. I completed a master’s degree in Old Testament theology from Harvard Divinity School. My time at Harvard was an opportunity for personal reflection. In addition to my formal studies, I began a serious pursuit of the Eucharist in the early Church and began to recognize the sorry state of mainline Protestantism. From the biblical texts to those of the fathers and doctors of the Church, it was growing clearer to me that there was an unmistakable distinction between the early Church they described and the church of which I was a minister. There came a point where I could no longer preach and teach with conviction that when we observed the Lord’s Supper, we were supposed to be only remembering the death and Resurrection of Christ. I saw in the words of the earliest Christians that something more profound was going on in the experience of Holy Communion. I can still recall staring at the communion tray — neatly filled with cups of grape juice — as it passed by me one Sunday, and wondering just how far that experience was from Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: “when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘drink of it all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant’” (Matthew 26:26-28). The Church of Christ’s goal was the restoration of original Christianity; it was becoming apparent to me that we were denying our own religious history. Furthermore, if we were wrong in this basic teaching, could there be other errors in our theology?
I also became more concerned that the severely regimented behavioral expectations in the Crossroads Church of Christ were becoming even more extreme and abusive in the Boston Church of Christ. I started speaking and writing about this phenomenon, a type of “Christian cultism” that combined the classic behaviors of religious cults with a veneer of a conservative Christianity. After a number of years of wrestling with all of these issues, both theological and behavioral, I finally made the decision to resign from my ministry in Boston. The decision caused a fair amount of controversy, as I had developed a profile as an author, preacher, and speaker worldwide within Churches of Christ. I finally began to speak out about our experiences in what was rapidly becoming an unhealthy group, eventually being interviewed by The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and such television programs as ABC’s 20/20, the Sunday talk shows, and other news shows. With a background in Old Testament apocalyptic theology, I began to realize there were many other cultlike groups that had a Christian worldview, many of which were apocalyptic in their worldview. I began a ministry to help people who had been recruited into these groups and their families. I served as an advisor and consultant for law enforcement dealing with such groups, notably serving (unpaid) with the FBI in the Branch Davidian group activities in Waco, Texas, in the early 1990s, and the Heaven’s Gate group later that decade. Through this ministry, we helped hundreds of people get their children back from destructive cults, but it took a toll. The legal, security, and psychological costs were considerable. I also relocated my family from Boston to the Washington, D.C. metro area and began working fulltime in technology. To this day, I am thankful that there was an opportunity for me to retrain my skills to support my family in a new career.
Consolation for the onward journey
How I kept a Christian faith in the midst of a divorce, a change in career, and the loss of any religious community is still something I wonder about. I now realize it was only through the comfort and guidance of the Holy Spirit. I also came to deeply appreciate the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis (which was the first story I had ever learned to read in Hebrew) and adopted that story as my own. As many know, the Joseph story is one of abuse, imprisonment, alienation, and evil that happens to Joseph, but he kept his faith, did not surrender to bitterness and discouragement, and eventually ended up a key leader in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Ironically, he was able to help the very family members who had sold him into slavery years before. At the end of the narrative, there is that poignant moment when Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers, and they were terrified that he now stood with all the power of the kingdom, even the power to sentence his brothers to death. Joseph finally declared, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, and for the salvation of many” (Genesis 50:20).
Looking back on my life to that point, I could only reflect with great sadness on all the things I had lost and suffered — a wife, a marriage, the humiliation of having to end my career in Christian ministry. It was almost overwhelming, but each of these trials served to refine a faith that needed to mature. When all the religious trappings disappear, you discover just how real God’s presence and comfort can be. As my life went through these changes, I again returned to some foundational questions: Is my faith in God worth keeping? Where is the Church of Jesus Christ on this earth? Steadily, almost imperceptible in progress, through Bible reading and prayer, I felt a growing desire to reinvestigate the Catholic Church.
Meeting others who have made the journey
When my sons grew up and went to college, I moved to Colorado, reenergized in my search for God and His Church. Several visits to other Protestant churches convinced me that I wanted something deeper. I yearned to find a group of people who believed Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (6:53). I knew that my former practice of merely commemorating the sacrifice of Christ, however noble and good-hearted, was not sufficient to fulfill Christ’s command.
With hesitant steps, I started attending Mass and was rediscovering my Catholic heritage. Like many who leave the Catholic Church in their teens and early 20s, I did not really know that much about my Faith — especially how scriptural it is! One particular event stands out in my memory as pivotal. While reciting the Creed at Mass, my mind was reformulating each “I believe” declaration as a mental checklist. As each statement was recited, I mentally affirmed that propositional truth, as if checking it off; “I believe that”, “I agree with that,” etc. At the end when we said “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic,” I knew I was not far in belief from the Catholic Church.
It was about this time I also became aware of the ministry of the Coming Home Network International, and the work that Marcus Grodi and other Protestant-clergy-turned-Catholic were doing. I felt as if there were a fellowship of believers “coming home” to the Catholic Church, and I received great encouragement through e-mail, phone calls, and access to recommended literature. There were others before me who had taken this journey — I was not alone. In many ways, similar to those whose conversion stories I would read, it was as if I had to learn about the Catholic Church for the first time, clearing away misconceptions, doubts, and misinformation about Catholicism. Some doctrines were challenging to wrap my head and heart around. The Catholic doctrine of Mary was difficult — I had been raised in South America and found some of the excesses of Marian practice there to be disturbing. In Panama and Colombia, there seemed to be no real distinction between Mary as the Mother of God and Mary as a co-equal with God, reminiscent of the male-female pair of gods that is typical in some primitive South American religions. I had to clear away some presuppositions and experiences and be willing to look again at the biblical record.
Even with my own confusions about Catholic doctrine lingering, I faced what was happening in my own denomination during my lifetime. Though the Churches of Christ claimed to be restoring the early Church, their growing friction, factions, splits, and divisions were disheartening. It was clear to me that there must be a different organizing principle other than individual opinion employed to keep believers together. While the early Church that I read about in the New Testament had its differences — some of them quite profound — there was a leadership and a structure that nevertheless kept them together as one.
Moving to Colorado Springs in 2004 saw many doors reopen that I felt had been permanently closed. With some encouragement from my college-aged sons, I started dating again. Wow, was that terrifying! I was granted an annulment from my first marriage. I met a wonderful woman who was a member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Colorado Springs (and, of course, to this recovering Protestant, you know she had to be named “Mary” — who says that God doesn’t have a sense of humor?), and we began to attend Mass there regularly as we fell in love. In a moment that still brings tears to my eyes, Fr. Damhorst, a Jesuit priest who had tenderly and patiently guided my thinking, my study, and my steps back into the Faith, received me formally back into the Catholic Church. Prior to my confession and acceptance into fellowship, “Fr. Joe” and Mary encouraged me to take a 3-day Ignatian retreat to clear my head, make certain of my decision, and reflect upon God’s guidance and direction of my life.
So many things that had been lost were now found and reborn in redemptive ways. Without Mary’s encouragement, I never would have made it. In addition, family and relatives who had been alienated by my Protestant Bible-thumping were now quietly encouraging our progress. After I had been dating Mary for some time, we were married on August 4, 2006 by Fr. Damhorst at St. Patrick’s.
Finding my ministry as a lay Catholic
Along with Fr. Damhorst, the pastor of St. Patrick’s, Fr. Noonan, began showing me a vision for ministry as a lay Catholic. With encouragement from Mary, we explored the possibility of training to serve as a deacon in the Church. The priests at St. Patrick enthusiastically supported my candidacy. Fr. Noonan gave me materials to answer my voracious questions. When he shared Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, with me, I devoured it, marked it up, and came away even more certain of the clear, scriptural foundation of the Catholic Church.
The confidence of Father Damhorst and Father Noonan that there was still “something left in the tank” rekindled my own vision for greater service as a Catholic. It would take five more years of difficult study and formation, as there was a lot for me to “unlearn.” The formation process challenged my preconceived notions about the Scriptures, the Church, and how much I really knew about ministry. This biblical scholar had to learn that the ministry is about service to people, being tender and not full of self, and washing the feet of many, instead of prattling on about what some word means in Greek or Hebrew. That distance from head to heart can be a million miles, and it might take decades to travel.
But God is merciful and patient, abiding in hesed — meaning steadfast love and loyalty. Sharing the formation experience with Mary made the challenges easier to face. In June of 2011, I was ordained as a deacon in the Catholic Church. God had not only led me home, but He had also placed upon me a wonderful and humbling ministry. After all the mistakes and failures, no human agency would (or should) have trusted me with such a task — and every day I am reminded that I am not its equal.
I am grateful to Bishop Sheridan of the Diocese of Colorado Springs, who not only had a vision for my service, but who ordained — and continues to encourage — me as a deacon. It is also humbling to be a part of the Permanent Diaconate Formation Program in our diocese, serving as an instructor in the Sacred Scripture classes that the candidates and their wives receive. Our formation director, Fr. Larry Brennan, has been a genuine vessel of grace. Every time I reflect on why I should ever be in this position of great trust as a teacher, he usually says something like “Rick, sometimes people who come back have a better appreciation than those who never left.” He models so well for me what grace in action is all about. His love for the Catechism — it is the heart of our formation program — has inspired a greater love and respect for this great treasure of teaching that we have been given.
It has been a singular honor to serve liturgically, deliver homilies, and teach at Our Lady of the Pines Parish in Black Forest, Colorado. The parish members have been patient with me as I figured out that Protestant sermons and Catholic homilies are generally quite different (especially in length!). Every now and then, someone will even say “Amen” during a homily, which I still appreciate. The parishioners have come to love our Sunday Sacred Scripture classes, nudged between the morning Masses. Imagine that, “Sunday School” in a Catholic church! God continues to show us new opportunities for service, and my eventual desire is to serve fulltime as parish administrator and deacon when I retire from my technology career.
What once seemed to be only a series of closed doors has been transformed into a wide variety of opportunities and blessings. Mary and I wake up each day more in love than ever; we have the joy of having her father, Norman, living with us, and our participation in all the church activities is a shared joy. Being at church events, writing books and articles, leading retreats, parish missions, and outreach efforts to my separated brothers seem to take up every moment we can find. Though there are times of remembrance that bring sadness God has healed the pain and bitterness of failure, and replaced it with the confidence of knowing that His grace has indeed been poured out on my life. What had been meant for evil, God has truly turned around for good.