I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, Canada in a wonderful, loving family: my sister, my Mom and Dad, and a cat we’d adopted from the pound. It was an idyllic, carefree upbringing in a home that I affectionately describe as “Christian without Christ.” That is, we were morally Christians, raised with a strong sense of right and wrong, of kindness and generosity, and of doing to each other what we’d have done to us — we just didn’t know much about Jesus.
To be fair, we did go to church a few times. It was a tiny United Church which, in Canada, is an amalgamation of several mainline denominations that merged in the 1920s. Their teaching presented a rather watered-down version of Christianity, with Christ largely out of the picture. But I wouldn’t have picked up on such nuances in those days. Instead, my memory of attending church was the childhood anxiety that I might accidentally rip off too big a chunk of bread when we went forward for communion, that and the resentment I felt when Dad got to stay home watching The Three Stooges in his pajamas while Mom packed my sister and me into the family station wagon.
It was in high school that I finally “met Christ,” and it happened in a strange way: by encountering an alleged Wiccan. I met this Wiccan at a campfire get-together with friends. It was the beginning of summer, and we were hanging out, celebrating the end of our first year of high school. The Wiccan kid, a couple of years older than the rest of us and a friend of a friend, stood out immediately with his long hair and earthy wardrobe, and I was instantly drawn to the way he talked, the content of his speech. At one point that night, he said, “Did you guys know that everything is connected and that there’s more to life than just us?”
To the ears of an unchurched, irreligious fifteen-year-old, that sounded like high philosophy, and I was hooked. I hadn’t thought those thoughts before. Suddenly faced with the reality that, yes, there was more out there than just us, that there was, probably, a greater power, something holding everything together — I was suddenly taken with the idea. I remember rushing home that night, firing up my computer, and trying desperately to find something, anything, on the Internet about Wiccans. In those days before Google, the search was fruitless. Everything I found contradicted everything else, and nothing seemed straightforward.
But it was then that I considered God. I’d heard of Him, of course, at church, but I didn’t have a clue where to begin my search for Him. Still, I knew I wanted to search, so I said a prayer. I prayed, “God if you’re there and you can accept me, send me a sign.” Incredibly, for reasons I still don’t understand, I knew that if God were real, if He were out there, I’d have to approach Him in holy fear. Although I knew nothing about sin — the concept was foreign to me at that stage — I knew that I wasn’t exactly “worthy” of God and needed a measure of forgiveness. It wasn’t long before I received my answer.
Later that week, I was walking home with a friend. We rounded a corner and came face to face with a boy we had teased years earlier. We were nerdy kids, but we had found someone even nerdier to bully — the neighbour of a friend who now was all grown up and much taller than we were. My friend, never the bravest of our crew, took off running and left me alone on the street with this kid who, it was clear, was looking for a fight. I could tell he was on drugs; he looked angry, and I was quaking in my shoes. When he cocked back a fist and said, “Where do you think you’re going?” I panicked and shouted, “There!” pointing to a house just up the block. At that exact moment, completely by happenstance, a woman pulled back the curtain at one of the windows and peered out at us. The boy knew instantly that he was caught. He panicked and ran away. I went the opposite way and ran home, saved by the woman in the window — and by the grace of God.
I knew right away that I’d been given a new lease on life. I had been spared a punishment I deserved. We had bullied that kid, and now that he was grown up and bigger than we were, I had deserved to have my lights punched out by him. Instead, God had sent me the sign I’d asked for, a sign which clearly spared me from the punishment I was due. I knew poetic justice — or mercy — when I saw it. I surrendered my life to Christ, even though I hadn’t the faintest idea what that meant.
I proceeded, then, to do all the classic things that Christian converts did back in the early 2000’s. I bought a T-shirt. I bought a WWJD bracelet and thought it was the coolest secret club ever. And I bought a Bible and began reading at Genesis. By the end of Numbers, I was so bogged down that I gave up, until someone wiser told me that I needed to start with the Gospels. “Beg your pardon?” “With Matthew,” he said. Best of all, I got connected to a great youth group at a local Pentecostal church.
Looking back, I can draw a somewhat straight line from my first encounter with Christ to my running, arms agape, into the embrace of the Catholic Church. But in that moment, it wasn’t so clear.
One of my early memories as a Christian was when Calvinism crept into our youth group conversations. It began innocently enough — someone had read something somewhere — but quickly became a full-blown scandal, with Bible passages being hotly debated over Quarter Pounders at McDonald’s on a Friday night. In retrospect, I’m grateful for how we spent our time — debating theology rather than getting drunk like so many of our high school peers — but the debate nearly tore the youth group apart.
Back then, I couldn’t figure out how we were all looking at the same passages of Scripture and coming to different conclusions. How did this make sense? And why would God make the Bible so confusing, open to so many interpretations? In the end, it was a vicious debate, and more than one of my friends walked away from church back then, convinced by the Word of God that they weren’t amongst the “elect.” It was painful to see, and it’s painful to think about it now. I made it through, but I’d never forget the confusion caused by all of us trying, on our own, to interpret our Bibles.
I began university by attending a vibrant student church that met on campus at the University of Waterloo. I remember the first time I went, seeing a lineup of 200 students snaking down the sidewalk outside the campus nightclub. It was Monday night, and the church was to meet at seven o’clock.
Truly, I owe a lot to my years at that student church. Over the course of my university career, I was very involved with the church, from small groups, to setup and decorations, to sound and video production. Through friendships forged at the church, I met a beautiful woman named Maria, who later became my wife. I dug into my faith like never before, faced with a couple of questions I just couldn’t work out.
The first came from reading C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. In it, Lewis presents a picture of the afterlife which looks a lot like purgatory. Instead of dying and suddenly being in the glorified presence of Christ and the angels, the souls of the Christian deceased slowly make their way towards God on a bus ride towards the light, through a dark and solemn land. Thinking about what I had read, I realized that Lewis’s picture of heaven, and how we transition there, made a lot more sense than mine. I’d been raised, theologically, to believe that when I died, no matter what I had done in this life, I would instantly be face to face with Christ. My sins, of course, would be wiped away, and I’d be ready to be in His presence immediately.
But that never made sense to me. When I thought about it, I wondered how would I get ready? After all, I wouldn’t suddenly be free of all my bad moods, my hurts, and hangups the minute I died. How could I bring those things with me into heaven? Lewis’s analogy of the long, slow journey by bus made much more sense. I began to understand how Purgatory could be an opportunity to prepare my heart and mind to see God. But it didn’t fit into my Evangelical theology, and that would bother me for quite a while.
I had a similar experience with Confession. It occurred to me, after encountering a passage about it in a Bible study, that we didn’t do Confession. We were told to, right there in black and white in our Bibles, but we didn’t, and I couldn’t understand why. When I asked around — my peers, my pastor, and wise people that I trusted — no one seemed to know. We just didn’t do it, and no one knew why. Like my view of the afterlife, which didn’t jibe with what I’d been taught to believe, the confusion over Confession was something I just couldn’t shake off.
Building the Bible
A few things happened in my last couple of years at university that caused the nagging feeling that I was conscious of to grow into something I simply could no longer ignore.
I was working a tedious warehouse job during the summer between my third and fourth years and had heard about this brand new thing called podcasting. Only a few podcasts were available in those days, and I subscribed to one. It was a podcast about movies, television shows, and video games hosted by, it turns out, a priest. Although I don’t know what I’d imagined priests being like, I had assumed that they wouldn’t be real people, interested in hobbies like video games and TV. But through his podcast, the priest exposed me to the fact that Catholics, even Catholic priests, could be real people — and genuine about their faith, as I learned by listening to stories from his life.
Next, I began an internship. It was at the student church I’d attended for years. One day, the pastor called me into his office with an important question. Sitting me down, he asked, “Which is more important: the Bible or Tradition?” Years later, I learned that my pastor friend was on his own journey into rediscovering his former Catholic Faith as he worked on his Master’s degree, and I was his sounding board. But I didn’t know this then.
“The Bible,” I said instinctively, knowing what every kid knows in Sunday School, that the answer is always either “Jesus” or “The Bible.”
“But then who put together the Bible?” he asked earnestly. I was dumbstruck. It was a question I’d never considered.
He went on to explain that the tradition of the Church put the Bible together — that councils attended by bishops authorized by the Catholic Church — the Catholic Church! — lent credibility to the books that appear in our Bibles. It was these councils, led by the Church, that affirmed what would eventually make up our biblical canon. I was incredulous, but he was right. Tradition, he mused out loud, came first. It was responsible for putting the Bible together; therefore, it must be more important. I didn’t argue because I knew he was right. That was where our Bible came from. The original authors didn’t provide a table of contents.
That somewhat banal question, asked by a Protestant pastor, began in earnest a journey I’d been avoiding since my days in the youth group and our predestination scandal. After all, the Bible doesn’t tell us that it’s infallible, that it can be trusted as-is, that it’s the sole rule of faith that we should follow. I knew I believed these things as an Evangelical Protestant and that I’d learned them somewhere. But suddenly they seemed to be premises which were awfully flimsy. Where did the Bible say these things? And how did I know them to be true? To my horror, I didn’t have the answers. I struggled to find them.
Married and Muddled
In the meantime, life took over. Maria and I got married; we bought a house, and she changed careers. The family church we’d been attending, the outgrowth of the student church where we first met, moved in to share a space with an aging Lutheran congregation. Suddenly being in a building meant for worship, as opposed to our old space in a community center, meant we were suddenly much more “traditional.”
There was an altar, although we didn’t use it, and stained glass. There were an organ and pews, and we’d even occasionally see the Lutheran pastor, at the very end of our service. He wore a Roman collar and vestments. Suddenly, my simmering interest in tradition ignited.
Around this time, too, the issue of the meaning and mandate of Christian marriage began to be widely discussed in the Protestant world, with battle lines and hot debates quickly forming. On the topic of marriage, I needed to figure out where I stood, and I wanted to base my beliefs on the Bible. Our little church community was largely undecided, leaving it up to each individual’s own theology. But I didn’t know mine; I hadn’t given it much thought. When I began to dig into the Bible, into commentaries and literature written by everyone from respected theologians to practicing homosexuals, I realized that no one had a clear answer, and nothing made much sense.
Everyone, as far as I could tell, claimed to base their perspective on the Bible, and no one agreed. It was our youth group debate all over again. We could all use the same proof texts and somehow come to widely differing conclusions. With the youth group, it was something as fundamental as how God saved our souls. Now, it was a different question but just as fundamental. The stakes were high, and the answers were equally murky.
How was it that we could all look at the same Scripture and come up with different ideas? How could this be the system for understanding our faith as God intended it? Why was knowing how to follow Christ so confusing? I didn’t get it. There was something flawed in the way we used the Bible and the way we understood our faith.
Once again, I decided to do some digging.
Later on in my journey towards the Catholic Church, I came across a quote by G.K. Chesterton in his book The Catholic Church and Conversion that really hit home. I’ll paraphrase by saying that once you decide to be “fair” to the Catholic Church, you can’t help but convert. In other words, once a person decides to truly dig into the teachings of the Church in a fair, honest, and open way, it inevitably ends in conversion. You can’t help but become Catholic. I’d liken this to a mouse trap, but in this case, the “mouse” lives!
So anyway, I decided I needed to be “fair” to the Catholic Church. After all, I’d learned enough about Catholics from skirting around the edges to know that they believed some fundamentally different things from what I believed, and if they were the same Church that put together the Bible, then they must, I reasoned, still have some claim to authority. I decided that I needed to know exactly what Catholics believed, from authentic Catholic sources.
First, I found a list of books tailor-made for non-Catholic Christians. It included works by Scott Hahn, Steve Ray, and Thomas Howard, as well as some introductory theology by Frank Sheed. It was like turning on a faucet full blast!
To begin with, I had no idea what Catholics actually believed, and hearing about Catholic doctrine, tradition, and beliefs from actual practicing Catholics felt like drawing in a great big mouthful of air after realizing I’d been holding my breath. What I was reading was eye-opening.
I had held preconceived notions about the Catholic Church. However, they were largely unintentional, and they were quickly quashed as I began to read.
Why do Catholic call priests “father,” when Jesus said to call no man “father”? Well, if Jesus meant that literally, what do I call my Dad? And what about the verse where Jesus Himself calls Abraham our “father”?
Why do Catholics pray to saints? They don’t as if the saints are God. But they do believe that after a Christian dies, he is still part of the Body of Christ, and we can continue to pray for each other, to Christ, after we die. It’s either this, or Christ hasn’t conquered death.
Don’t Catholics worship Mary? No. They venerate her, putting her in a place of importance because she’s clearly prefigured in the Old Testament. She is the new Ark of the Covenant and the New Eve. As one of His last acts on the cross, Jesus tells us that she is our “mother” (John 19:25–27).
In the light of good Catholic teaching and an actual reading of what Catholics believe, my objections and misconceptions seemed juvenile. And I felt lazy, silly, for never having tried to understand what Catholics believed before. Now, as I began to get a better grasp, I was astounded at what I was learning.
Here was a Church that claimed authority not to only collect the books of the Bible together, but to interpret them as well. A Church which claimed unity under the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. A Church which drew a straight line from the first Apos- tles to the bishops of today, claiming an authoritative link to the very words of Christ, who said, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).
Suddenly, a Catholic Church came into focus that I had no idea existed — a Church which taught that the elements of Communion actually become the Body and Blood of Christ because, I learned, that’s what Jesus says in the Gospel of John (chapter 6). For all our “literal reading” of the Bible, we’d missed one of the most literal parts. Jesus says we have to “eat” His flesh, and when His followers throw up their hands in disgust, He becomes even more graphic, explaining that we have to “gnaw” His flesh! Then, when many of His followers walk away, declaring it a difficult teaching, He does nothing to stop them. Instead of clarifying for His disciples, as He’s often pictured doing, He simply asks, “Do you want to leave, too?”
Even more shocking is the evidence from the early Church Fathers. As a relatively well-educated Evangelical, I’d always been taught to treat my Bible as if it had fallen into my hands directly from its writers’ pens, as if the years between the texts being written and their arriving on my bookshelf simply didn’t exist. But they do exist, and in that time period, lots of important things were being written. Of particular interest are the early Church Fathers. Many of these Church Fathers lived immediately after the Apostles and had important things to say, vital perspectives on the development of the Christian Church.
Shockingly, these early Church Fathers were completely Catholic.
In the Fathers writings, we see ample evidence to believe that they understood Communion as Catholics do today, as the real Body and Blood of Jesus. We find appeals to the Bishop of Rome, lending significant credence to the position of Pope, the successor of Peter, even in the infant Church. We find widespread use of relics, prayers for the dead, and prayers to deceased Christians. We find a particular veneration of Mary, an understanding of infant baptism, and even a version of a worship service which looks shockingly similar to our modern-day Mass.
To my complete surprise, the early Church was Catholic.
Coming to a Conclusion
In hindsight, I can draw a pretty straight line in my journey towards the Catholic Church. It began back at that Evangelical youth group not many years after I first encountered Christ, when I realized that the system as I understood it simply didn’t make sense. If we could read our Bibles and interpret them in all sorts of different ways, if we couldn’t come to the same conclusion on life-impacting things like salvation or the definition of marriage, then that system was broken. Maybe it was never what God intended, anyway.
It became clear to me through reading the stories of other Catholic converts, from digging into the history of my faith through the early Church Fathers, and through studying the Reformation that I hadn’t fully understood my place, the place of the Bible, and the role of the Catholic Church in my Christian faith. Having been fair, having done the research, having studied and prayed and wrung my hands, I realized I had no other option than to become Catholic.
But the journey wasn’t all that smooth. I called up the closest Catholic Church and began RCIA, thinking that all Catholic churches were the same. It was the “universal Church” after all, right? The parish we ended up in, however, was rather sleepy. There was nothing for kids, nothing for families, and no real faith formation aspect to parish life. My wife, who had been tangentially along for the journey, made a heartbreaking observation one morning after Mass.
It was the first time she’d attended with me. We were splitting our time between worship services at our non-denominational church and Mass at the local Catholic parish. This particular morning, on the way home, she turned to me in the car and said, with a sly look on her face, “I saw a miracle happen today at Mass!”
I joked, “Honey, that happens every time; it’s called the Real Presence of Christ!” She rolled her eyes and replied, “No, it happened after the priest prayed the Eucharistic prayers. I closed my eyes when he started praying, and when I opened them up again, everyone had their coats on. That way, they could rush out the door as soon as they received the Host!”
I sighed. She was right, and I knew it. At this particular parish, the culture of Drive-Thru Catholicism was rampant, and it depressed us both. How could I be joining a Church that seemed so apathetic? Didn’t they know about the miracle of Christ present in the Mass and how every time the priest celebrates Communion he’s mystically linking us to the Last Supper? Didn’t they realize that we’re singing and praying in the presence of choirs of angels?
I’ve since met and spoken with many converts, and they have shared the same challenge that we faced. The Evangelical church we had attended was bursting at the seams with programming for kids, missions outreach, small group ministries, Bible studies, discussion groups, worship services, and all kinds of activities and programs to engage the congregation in good works. We built each other up as disciples of Christ. But such vibrancy can be difficult to find in Catholic communities. I’ve also learned that sometimes we need to build it up ourselves.
My wife and I did find a parish which took its mission of evangelization seriously and drank deeply from that well every week. She entered the Church the year after me.
There’s something else I’ve learned. As converts, we have special gifts to give to the Catholic Church. We have a perspective and zest for the faith that those who were raised in the Church often find difficult to capture. We’ve also seen what else is out there. With the Eucharist as the focal point, we’ve seen the fruits of robust children’s ministry programming, of youth groups and Bible studies and discussion groups — we’ve seen, firsthand, how these aspects of parish life can help to build up the whole Body of Christ and equip Catholics for their mission. The Catholic Church, in its individual parishes, certainly has work to do here, but it’s work in which converts like us can play a fundamental role. It’s one thing, I think, to become Catholic. It’s quite another to commit to being renewed, every day, as a disciple of Christ — and then to sharing that fire. God willing, that is what we’ll continue to do.