AtheistAtheist/AgnosticConversion StoriesHistoryMethodistSecular

History Brought Me Home

Dustin Mantz
June 26, 2012 9 Comments

I was born and raised in the small town of Huntsville, about 60 miles north of Houston, Texas. I was not brought up in a particularly Christian household. My mother had attended Sunday worship services in various faith traditions throughout her childhood, all stemming from Calvinistic theology with an evangelical twist. My father was a disfellowshipped Jehovah’s Witness, who rarely spoke of any sort of faith. So, as one could imagine, I grew up in a rather secular household with some moral standards, but no moral lawgiver.

Giving God a chance

When I was 15, I started dating a young woman whose grandfather was a United Methodist pastor and, although he had left the active ministry, she still faithfully attended the church that he had previously served. After much poking and prodding, I gave in to her invitations and attended a service with her. Since I grew up in a secular household, I had developed some anti-Christian sentiments over the years. However, something spoke to me at that service. The “low liturgical” feel of the United Methodist Church (UMC) service appealed to something deep inside me.

It wasn’t long before I started on my spiritual walk. I developed a deep love for Christ and was sure that He could be found within the pages of the Bible and the walls of the UMC. Some years later, at the age of 17 or 18, I defected from the UMC, entering back into a world of secularism and turmoil. I began working in nightclubs and bars, either bartending or as security. I will spare the nitty-gritty details, but it lead to a life of drug and alcohol abuse. I realized I was headed in the wrong direction, to say the least, and thus felt that a change of scenery was in order.

I called a dear friend working as a tattoo artist in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. After explaining my situation to her, she informed me that her roommate had just moved out and that I was welcomed to the spare room. I took a position as a guitar repairman and sales associate at a local music store. It was there I met my future wife, Meghan.

Enter: Meghan, the Cradle Catholic

When Meghan and I met, she was not particularly deep in her faith, but made it clear to me that she was Catholic and wasn’t leaving to go to any other church. Throughout our relationship, we started to realize that we both needed to return to the Lord, for the benefit of our own souls and for the benefit of our marriage. So, one Sunday morning we got up early, got dressed, and headed to Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church for what was advertised as the “contemporary” worship service. Now, mind you, there wasn’t much contemporary going on there (maybe some songs that were written in the 1990s or 2000s, as opposed to the 1800s and 1900s). However, the traditional, low liturgy remained, and the pastor was an amazing homilist. While my wife longed for something more, we both agreed that the sermons we heard were wonderful and we would not go “church shopping” for a while. Unfortunately, that particular congregation was experiencing a deep schism over some moral issues and we could already feel that we were being pressured to take sides.

At that time, I was working in EMS. I began having trouble reconciling the things I saw in the back of my ambulance and what I knew to be true about God. After seeking council from the UMC pastor, he introduced me to the genius of C.S. Lewis in his work The Problem of Pain. I then took on Lewis’ Mere Christianity, The Abolition of Man, and The Screwtape Letters.  This ignited an apologetic fire within my heart, for which I had to continue providing “wood.” I started combing through the church’s small library, which mostly consisted of works by John Wesley.

I jumped feet-first into William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, Lee Stroble, and many other Protestant Christian apologists. I devoured John Wesley’s theology and, as soon as I found out his works were available online, I read every single one of his sermons — twice! I fell in love with the UMC, while my wife longed for her Catholic liturgy and the Eucharist. To satisfy her need, we began attending the local, Catholic parish, even as I continued attending the United Methodist Church. Around this time I felt the Lord calling me to ministry, specifically ordained ministry within the UMC. I started looking into their diaconate formation programs and came to the quick realization that I was nowhere near its educational requirements. I began looking at United Methodist seminaries while my wife longed for the Catholic Faith. She encouraged me to “just look into” the Catholic Church, but I let her words go in one ear and out the other.

I delved deeper into theology and Scripture study. I worked diligently on meeting the requirements for the diaconate. I had my letters of recommendation from friends and my pastor, I sent in my letter of intention to the bishop, and had started my studies. At work, theology books covered the floorboard of the ambulance. As my partner and I sat waiting for a call to come over the radio, I spent hours hovering over this book or that book — perhaps even the big and intimidating Book of Discipline, which is the basic equivalent to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I continued on my journey, determined to change the world through ordination in the UMC.

Encountering a Church Father 

It was then that Augustine of Hippo entered my life. Who would have thought that a man who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries would have such a profound impact on little ol’ me? I started reading Augustine’s Confessions and found myself hanging on the edge of my seat, screaming inside, “This is me! This is me!”

And then, I found out he was — gasp — a Catholic! All of a sudden, everything my wife had been saying about looking into the Catholic Church, about the saints … it all came rushing back to my mind in a heartbeat.

It was with Augustine that my Catholic search started. I became skeptical of every denomination. I went from thinking that the United Methodist Church had finally got the Bible right, to rigorously questioning every Christian theology, every doctrine, every leader, and every church. I started looking into, not only the Catholic Church, but also other Protestant claims to truth. I started studying all this theology and was thinking to myself, “Okay, I can see how all of this can come from Scripture, but what about the early guys? I mean, if Augustine in the 300s was Catholic, there had to be something there, right?”

With this thought, I purchased a copy of Catholicism for Dummies and the Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, which contained the life-changing Letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans. While reading through the used copy of the Early Christian Writings I had bought off Amazon.com, I found there was only one sentence underlined in the entire book.  It was the famous phrase “Where the bishop is, let there people be in much the same way wherever Jesus Christ is there too is the Catholic Church.”

This was earth-shattering, to say the least. Here was a man writing in the earliest times of Christendom speaking of the Catholic Church, and I could find nothing in historical writings of the United Methodist Church. Furthermore, all these Catholic doctrines that I was having trouble overcoming, such as the Eucharist, purgatory, and the veneration of Mary, I read about it in the earliest, existing Christian writings! There was nothing about sola scriptura in these early writings, since the full canon of Old and New Testaments had yet to be compiled. Now, I wasn’t merely faced with Augustine and Ignatius, but after careful study of the Ante-Nicene Fathers and the Post-Nicene Fathers, I came to realize that every single Catholic/Orthodox belief could be found in the earliest years of Christianity. The beliefs might not have been profoundly worded like in the Catechism of today, but they were there, and they were believed.

Between “The Rock” and a hard place 

So there I was: stuck between a rock and a hard place. I could either continue to violate the truth that I had found within historical searches by remaining a member of the United Methodist Church, or I could start the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) and be received into the Catholic Church. Although I would need to give up on my diaconate formation and leave the only church I had ever known, I was becoming more and more disheartened with the UMC due to some of their changing positions regarding traditional Christian truths. I met with my United Methodist pastor, almost as an emergency. It wasn’t just to chat, or a wishing-him-all-the-best-because-I-was-becoming-Catholic kind of meeting. It was a meeting through which I hoped he would make me look like a fool for even thinking the Catholic Church was an option. God bless the man! As it turns out, he did not have much to say about the Catholic Church, other than he was sure they were wrong. As he described some of the Church’s “follies,” I realized that many of the ideas he held were misconceptions that the book Catholicism for Dummies cleared up with ease, not to mention the heavier stuff I had began to read.

Then came an interesting twist. Dr. Peter Kreeft, devout Catholic and Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, came into my life in the strangest way. During my journey of conversion, I worked in the medical wing of a local prison. Although we had continuous changeover, one, particular inmate stood out to me. He was a sickly fellow, dying of cancer, and in prison for a crime he committed 40 years ago, but still just as bright-eyed as ever. When the Catholic chaplain would visit, this inmate made sure that he had no medical appointments scheduled so he would have the opportunity to make his Confession. After Confession, he did the most beautiful thing: getting down on both knees — on that terribly hard, concrete floor — he would touch his forehead to the ground, come up, and receive the Eucharist on his tongue. The utter beauty of the gesture struck me; it was much more reverent and deliberate than the communion services we had at the Methodist Church.

When that inmate was given medical release, so that he could be with his family in the last weeks of his life, he left behind a little booklet from the Knights of Columbus Catholic Information Services on “The Holy Catholic Church,” written by Dr. Kreeft based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (the information in this booklet can be found in Kreeft’s book Catholic Christianity). He had such a way with words that I immediately ordered every booklet the Knights of Columbus had available on their website! All were written by Kreeft and each dealt with a different facet of the Catholic Faith.

By this time, I had finished Catholicism for Dummies and, while it was a great start, I still had many questions unanswered. I went to the local public library, and there they had A Summa of the Summa, a summary of St. Thomas Aquinas’ great Summa Theologica by none other than Dr. Peter Kreeft, and Karl Keating’s wonderful book What Catholics Really Believe. I devoured Keating’s book that evening and it stirred up questions that had never crossed my mind. Why did I believe that the books in the Bible were divinely inspired while others, such as the letters of Clement to Rome or the Shepherd of Hermas, were not? Lo and behold, I learned it was the Catholic Church that decided which documents were inspired and would be included in the canon of Scripture. It was the Catholic Church who first fought the many early heresies against the Gnostics and Arians. I saw no Baptist pastor standing up against Arius, no Anglican priest writing letters of admonition of Gnosticism and defending Christ’s divinity.

The Truth at whatever cost

I had finally reached the point where a decision had to be made. One Sunday morning, my wife and I decided against attending the Methodist service and instead went to a Catholic Mass. My heart was heavy for I knew this would be the life-changing day. I had to decide whether I would stay with the Methodist Church or swim the Tiber. As my wife and I sat in that front pew, I paid no attention to the words being spoken, and couldn’t even tell you what the homily was about or which Scriptures were read that day. I was absorbed in prayer, asking for guidance and answers, for faith and fidelity to the Lord whom I wished to serve with all my heart, soul, mind, and body. I looked up from my fervent prayer at the moment the priest was elevating the Sacred Host. The Sacred Host appeared to be glowing, and the priest had an indescribable, holy appearance.

At that moment of elevation after the Consecration, I gave it all up to God. That evening, I formed my letter of resignation to the United Methodist Church, expressing concerns over political matters, morality, and, most importantly, the forsaking of both ecclesial and secular history. I told my wife that I would be converting, and she expressed joy, but also that concern that I might be doing it for her and not on my own accord. When I informed family and friends of my decision, I received both positive and negative reactions. I remember telling one friend who immediately blurted out, “Why would you want to join up with a bunch of pedophiles?” However, the toughest part was telling my UMC pastor, who had become a dear friend, that I would be entering the Catholic Church and ending my walk into UMC ordained ministry. I knew it had to be done if I were to embrace the fullness of the Faith.

I called the parish my wife and I had been attending and inquired about the RCIA program, and was told it was led by the pastor, Father Stephen, whom I had met many times during my work at the prison. That Wednesday, I attended RCIA and immediately felt at home. I met privately with Fr. Stephen to assess my knowledge of the Catholic Faith in order to see if I would be ready to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation that Easter, or if I would need longer to prepare. To this day, I still chuckle thinking about how completely off track we wound up at that meeting, discussing the forgotten impact of C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Hillaire Belloc over coffee. In the end, after several hours, he made the decision to pass on the recommendation of Confirmation to Cardinal DiNardo, the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. I was received into the Catholic Church on Easter Sunday 2009.

Living at peace in the fullness of Truth

Three years later, my wife and I have two wonderful boys and still attend the parish in which I was instructed and confirmed. I actively participate in the RCIA program by sharing my conversion story and answering questions for catechumens and candidates wishing to enter into the Church. But my love — oh, my greatest love — is acting as a catechist for the 11th and 12th grade students. These souls are reaching the ages where faith becomes tough: questions abound and it seems as though there are few answers. It is heart warming and ever so gratifying to see my students open up in joy when they learn more and more about the truth of their faith and find that, just because they have questions, doesn’t mean there aren’t answers.

Currently, I am doing my best to live out the vocation that God has made for me as a husband and father. I am discerning a call to the diaconate in the Catholic Church and have several more years before I could potentially enter the formation process. I am happier than I have ever been.

In the end, philosophy brought me from atheism to theism, theology brought me into the United Methodist Church, and history brought me home.

 

The Coming Home Network International