Anglican & EpiscopalianConversion StoriesPlymouth Brethren

I’ve Been Becoming Catholic All My Life

Fr. Peter Davids
December 2, 2019 No Comments

There has never been a time in my life when I was not surrounded by a faith centered on the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper/Breaking of Bread. I would eventually come home to the fullness of this faith.

I was born in Syracuse, New York, the second of three sons in my family. My parents had an English background, my father having been born in England. More importantly, they had met in a Plymouth Brethren meeting and had planted the Plymouth Brethren assembly (as their churches were called) in Syracuse. For the Plymouth Brethren, worship means the Breaking of Bread, and all adult males “in fellowship” can participate verbally in that meeting. My early life was centered around the Eucharist and the Bible, which my mother started reading to me at age one. Later, we would read a chapter after dinner every evening around the meal table, each of us reading a verse. My father taught a Bible class in our home every Wednesday night. My “naughty” act as a child was sometimes sneaking part of the way downstairs so that I could listen to the teaching and see a bit through the railing. I am very thankful for my upbringing, which, although not without problems, solidly rooted me in a very Protestant and very individualistic Eucharist, but nevertheless was centered on the Eucharist.

My father’s company moved his whole department to Lynchburg, Virginia, when I was 10. At age 15, I realized that “it was time to get serious about my faith,” as I put it to myself. This was not a conversion, but a realization that I could not simply float along with the family, believing without resistance, but had to step into my faith as a committed “adult.” I approached the elders of our assembly (those other than my father, of course) and asked to be baptized and to “come into fellowship.” For North American Brethren, Baptism is only a witness to faith, not in any sense a sacrament. Because the congregation was moving to a new church building and the elders did not wish to repair the baptismal tank in Melrose Chapel, I was “received into fellowship” immediately and so began to partake in communion and even read a Scripture or “give out a hymn” in the worship service. Three months later, my father baptized me, and in so doing inaugurated the baptismal tank at Fleming Chapel.

Soon after my baptism, the elders chose three “likely young men,” my older brother (5 years older), Dick Adams, and me, and started us preaching once a quarter in the evening “gospel service,” with other youth providing music and the other parts of the service. We did well and were moved to Sunday morning, to the “Family Bible Hour,” the main preaching service (so long as one understands that, for true Brethren, all preaching services are optional, for worship is the Breaking of Bread). On the Sunday after my 16th birthday (November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated), I preached my first Sunday morning sermon. It was well received, and I still have a tape of it. I play it if I need to be humbled; homiletics was not a Brethren strong point.

The next summer, I was at what was then Carnegie Institute of Technology on a summer science program, helping a PhD student in electrical engineering with his research. Of the 20 of us in the program, 18 were atheists or agnostics, one was Catholic, and I was, in my own eyes, the only Christian. Sadly, I never talked with the Catholic about his faith. About halfway through the six week program, I was walking to my dorm from the dining hall with an atheist colleague on each side and felt an unexpected shock inside, hearing a voice in my head: “You don’t want to be an engineer, do you!” It was a statement, really, not a question, and I saw in my head a picture of me behind a large desk, somehow chained to that desk, and with a slide rule. Now, my father was an electrical engineer, my brother was in university studying electrical engineering, and I was already deeply into amateur radio, having built my own equipment. The thought had never occurred to me that I did not want to be an electrical engineer. But I saw that picture and knew, “No, I don’t want that.” The voice responded, “But I have called you to study the Bible.”

Now the Brethren, to my knowledge, did not believe in dreams and visions. Furthermore, my father had always studied the Bible at home and had a significant biblical library. So, as far as I knew, there were no pastors in the Brethren; even full-time workers (who itinerated) had studied on their own. I had only heard of one school where one could study the Bible, Philadelphia College of Bible. Still, I went to my dorm room and wrote my weekly letter home, saying, “I am not going to the engineering schools we talked about, but to Philadelphia College of Bible.” I had simply obeyed. Only two days later, on Sunday, did a visiting preacher at the chapel I attended in Pittsburgh quite unintentionally add to my purpose: I was to study the Bible in order to teach the Bible. I was entering my final year of high school, and I would write my paper for Advanced English Composition on 1 John. I also took an extension course from a Bible college in Roanoke in a Lynchburg church. In the fall of 1965, I entered Wheaton College (a better place, I thought, to study the Bible) where, three years later, I would graduate with a degree in psychology, but with all the languages and support courses for a Bible major — and a wife. She had graduated in 1967, three months before we married, and served as my “legal guardian” for the first two years of our marriage.

I should comment on each of those items. First, I graduated in psychology because the Bible department was in a bit of disarray. At Wheaton, one automatically had a Bible minor, and I had soon learned about seminary and doctoral biblical training, so psychology was a good choice for me for both personal and, as I would later learn, vocational reasons. I would learn, for instance, that body and mind/soul affected one another and should be unified. God was preparing me to find bowing, kneeling, and other postures in church part of meaningful worship. I also learned about how one changes people’s behavior, something I have used as a priest in the confessional: two minutes of brief counseling about how to stop a given sin and move towards holiness.

Meanwhile, Wheaton College Chapel was teaching me that great music and the arts can be part of worship. It was teaching me that worship can be holistic, not “all in your head.” Additionally, the support courses included not only Greek and Hebrew, but also Ethics and Philosophy of Religion. All of these were well taught, the latter two by the late Dr. Stuart Hackett. He was a realist philosopher, in actuality something of neo-Thomist, although he never gave any indication of Catholic leanings. I had no idea then that God was preparing me to read, understand, and relish Catholic theology some 40 years later.

Finally, my wife, Judy, whom I met when I was 18 and married at 19, was herself a staunch Plymouth Brethren. That common faith was what made me acceptable to her. But she had had her own experiences with God and as a pre-teen had promised God that she would “be His missionary,” going anywhere He sent her. She would need to make good on that promise as we lived our lives together.

After Wheaton, we moved to Deerfield, Illinois, where I earned my MDiv at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. There I deepened my theological and biblical understanding and widened my world view. I had entered Wheaton as something of a fairly rigid Fundamentalist, and I left Trinity very much an Evangelical, open to interacting with the arguments of those from any denomination. I developed this way because of two professors, both Plymouth Brethren (especially Dr. Walter Liefeld) and one Baptist professor, Dr. Richard Longenecker. When I left Trinity in 1971, I had a diploma, experience working in the psychiatric ward of a hospital, and our first daughter. I also had the experience of God providing for us when we discovered that my wife was pregnant and would have to quit teaching (which was required in those days).

Leaving Trinity, I spent the summer in US Army Chaplain School, becoming a Plymouth Brethren chaplain in the US Army Reserve (although I would only serve with regular Army units in Germany). I then traveled with my wife and daughter to Manchester, England, where I spent another three years working on my PhD at the University of Manchester. I still had almost no contact with Catholics, other than the biblical studies books they wrote. But, while we attended Ford’s Lane Evangelical Church, a Plymouth Brethren assembly in Bramhall, I did have contact with evangelical Anglicans, including my thesis supervisor, Rev. S.S. Smalley. The head of the department, Prof. F.F. Bruce, was Brethren. England was good for me, for I felt culturally at home; it was much harder for my Houstonian wife, for she had a toddler when we arrived and a preschooler and another toddler (our second daughter) when we left. But through more miracles of God’s grace, we left without debt and with the coveted PhD. And we were still married — perhaps the greatest miracle of all.

My first teaching position was in Germany, at what was then called Bibelschule Wiedenest, located in a valley about 60 km east of Cologne. The institution was a missions agency as well as a theological school. It was both Plymouth Brethren and Baptist; those groups had been forced together into a union by Adolf Hitler — ecumenical unity by decree. It was totally a German institution in every way, so after eight weeks of language school (for me, on top of some basic German I learned for thesis research in England), we were dumped into total immersion in the German church and cultural world. This would change our lives in three ways: (1) I discovered Christian social concern; (2) we became involved in the German form of the charismatic movement (which is contemplative); and (3) we discovered the Christian spiritual tradition, immersing ourselves in its literature from the Desert Fathers through Henri Nouwen. We did all this in the context of our interest in Christian community. What sticks in my heart is my reading Carlo Carretto’s Letters from the Desert and being haunted by his description of kneeling alone in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on the sand floor of a chapel in Algeria. That was foreign to me, but it tugged on my heart. A little later, at a week-long fasting retreat, I felt that God unexpectedly spoke to me and told me to become an Episcopalian.

When God speaks, He has a plan. So a year later (1976), we headed to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where, sight unseen, I had been hired as the biblical studies professor at a new evangelical Episcopal seminary, Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. At TESM, besides learning a lot about praying for funds (and trusting God’s providence would meet our needs) for the seminary and the challenges of a new foundation, God was forming us in other ways. Our third daughter was born (March 1978), but died of SIDS 40 days later. My wife’s obstetrician heard about this and, as a devout Catholic, had two Masses said for Elizabeth. This deep experience of loss transformed us both, and it gave me a pastoral heart. This would eventuate in my being ordained deacon and priest in the Episcopal Church 18 months later (October 1979).

My first Eucharist was a healing Eucharist — and, yes, a woman was healed. Furthermore, while confession is not common among evangelical Episcopalians, during the next two Lents, I did a self-directed Ignatian retreat (in the form used by those who cannot leave the active life) and during Holy Week went to an Anglo-Catholic priest for confession. Furthermore, during my preparation for teaching classes, I resolved the doctrinal issues I had with the Catholic Church: for example, Fr. Raymond Brown’s commentary on John 6 resolved issues over the Eucharist, and studying Revelation 12 gave me a new appreciation for Mary.

Also, the Summer of 1980 found me attending the National Catholic Charismatic Conference for Priests and Deacons in nearby Steubenville, Ohio. The main speaker was an Episcopalian, which was a draw, but what I received from the talks and small groups was the deep experience of these Catholic priests and deacons as brothers, and then the brokenness of the Church when, in the final Mass, we Episcopalians had to process out of the tent to celebrate Eucharist in a room by ourselves. We wept, of course, but our Catholic brothers and sisters did as well. There was more, but the main thing I took away was the fervent hope that ecumenical talks would succeed and the knowledge that if I ever left the Episcopal Church, it would be for Rome, not Geneva (where John Calvin had presided).

God has never let us stand still for long, and in 1982 we left Trinity for Berkeley, California, where my wife earned a MCS degree, and then on to Regent College, Vancouver, BC, Canada, where I taught for five years and we both were tutored in spiritual direction (by a Plymouth Brethren scholar who was deeply and personally immersed in Teresa of Ávila!). We were also involved in church renewal movements. But God kept us moving, first to Regina, Saskatchewan for two years of teaching, then back to Vancouver. When my main job in Vancouver rained out in 1995, we felt called to join the faculty of the Schloss Mittersill Study Center in Austria and help rebuild theological education in central and eastern Europe. We were also involved with the Vineyard movement in the German-speaking world, which included some Catholic groups. Furthermore, the Catholic pastor in Mittersill was himself very welcoming. Our children were not with us on this journey, for we were now empty-nesters. Even our son, born in 1980 while we were at TESM, stayed in Canada.

In 2002, we would go from Austria to Houston, TX, where my wife was called to help build pastoral care for pastors in the Association of Vineyard Christian Fellowships. I realized then that I needed to lay down my ministry to support her. She would be ordained a year later as a Vineyard pastor. Yet four years later, she moved that ministry to Canada, where we lived in New Brunswick, teaching at a small university. I was involved in the Anglican Diocese of Fredericton. Back in Pittsburgh, the Episcopal di- ocese I officially belonged to was splitting. I stayed Episcopalian, because that is what the Anglican bishop wanted. However, as the splitting was going on, I heard that Pope Benedict had established the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. “If I have to leave the Episcopal Church,” I thought, “that is where I am going.”

Not long later, the university we taught at ran out of money for our jobs, so January 2011 found us back in Houston. A department chair at Houston Baptist University had asked me to apply for a job, and I was accepted. Besides teaching, I became an “honorary assistant” in the same Episcopal church I had been in before. Yet, now that we were settled again, we started looking in earnest for a community with our spiritual or “monastic” values. Perhaps, I thought, Episcopal Franciscan Tertiaries. But God drew my attention to a concert in an Anglican church by John Michael Talbot. Judy and I were both drawn to the Brothers and Sisters of Charity and ended up going to their regional gathering in May 2013. We knew God was calling us to that group, for they integrated all our core values. But they were Catholic. I struggled with this, for it meant we could not share in Communion.

Finally, driving home from a meeting one evening, I said to God, “OK, Lord, I’ll suck it up and be an Episcopalian in the Domestic expression of the BSC, painful as that is. You are calling me.” In my head a voice said, “But why not…?” I knew that the rest of the sentence was “become Catholic.” I did not tell Judy, who was in the car, any of this. She flew off to Canada to visit our children spread across that country, and I explored the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. No promises of ordination or ministry were made; I was only told that I would have to lay down my ministry and be received into the Church, then see what God would do. “That’s God,” I said. “Die and see what God resurrects. I’m in.” I applied. My wife, Judy, was not part of this, and, in fact, was resistant. But God brought her around in October at the Gathering of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity. (That, however, is her story to tell.) We were received into the Catholic Church in Our Lady of Walsingham, Houston, February 16, 2014.

Two weeks later, the rector, fresh back from leading a pilgrimage to Rome, excitedly told me that God had so worked events in Rome that the Ordinariate needed my experience in theological education, and I was on the fast track to Catholic ordination.

But first things first: we made our temporary profession in the Domestic expression of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity in October 2014, at Little Portion Hermitage in Arkansas. Then I was ordained a deacon (December 13, 2014) and a priest (December 19, 2014) in the Catholic Church at Our Lady of Walsingham and appointed the first Director of Clergy Formation (Vocations) in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.

Looking back, just over four years later, I can sum up the result of all this in the words that I said to a fellow priest from the Archdiocese of Galveston–Houston as we got ready to process in the Easter Vigil at Our Lady of Walsingham in 2015: “I feel like I am living a dream that I did not know that I had.” I had never heard a confession during 34 years as an Episcopal priest, but I heard two or three the day I celebrated my first Mass in the Catholic Church, and hundreds and hundreds since. God brought my spirituality, biblical, and psychological formation together to prepare me, and I leave the confessional with thanksgiving for how He worked. I had celebrated Eucharist in the Episcopal Church, but in the Catholic Church my Brethren sense of the Breaking of Bread as the center of worship became my daily experience as I feel the wonder at every Mass that “I get to do this,” and almost feel like dancing as I distribute the Body of Christ to those coming to receive. (I do restrain myself, but congregants often comment on how I smile.)

Now that I am a Catholic, I am joined in one body to those spiritual masters that I had read for decades. There are 2000 years of church history I am living into. I had never found a community in the Episcopal Church that would integrate what I had learned from St. Francis and St. Benedict, from charismatic experience and the contemplative tradition, but now I had found that in the Brothers and Sisters of Charity (where we are now permanently professed). In fact, we are living in a garage apartment in St. Clare Monastery. I had hardly attended a Catholic Mass before the summer of 2013, but now I get to celebrate Mass in two versions of the Latin rite (the typical version that is most common, and the Ordinariate version, each with their version of the Roman Missal) and in the local Byzantine Catholic church (I was granted bi-ritual faculties in 2018). I breathe out of both lungs, both east and west.

While I had grown to accept the basic truths about Mary over my years as a biblical scholar, I had hardly had any experience in Marian devotion, but in the summer of 2016, I had an experience at Creighton University, where I was taking some further formation at the direction of our new bishop, the Most Rev. Steven J. Lopes, in which I, in a sense, met Mary and some of the issues of my childhood and youth were healed. I am, indeed, living a dream I did not know that I had.

There have been pains and struggles: one book contract that I had was dropped by the press when I became a Catholic; none of our children or siblings have followed us into the Catholic Church, nor do they wish us to talk about our Catholic life; and, given that I entered the Ordinariate before they had a pension plan and that the retirement age was dropped to 70, we live on limited income without anything like a full pension — but ask St. Francis or St. Anthony of the Desert or numerous others how God supplies. We live in a deanery with huge parishes (even the smaller ones have 2000 families) and two or three priests per parish. Those parishes are delighted to find another priest at their service. Age also brings health issues, especially for my wife, and we feared cutoff from our former friends and colleagues. But we have not experienced cutoff from most of my Evangelical and Anglican friends. I am still involved in publishing projects with a number of them. Some are intrigued, perhaps even drawn, by our journey. I feared that this might divide my wife and me, but while not initially welcoming my journey, it should be clear from the above that she entered the Church with me. Judy now offers spiritual direction and pastoral counsel in St. Clare Monastery. That was the work of the Spirit, for she is a woman of that Spirit who used Scott Hahn (Rome Sweet Home) and numerous friends and advisors, including the Brothers and Sisters of Charity and the Bishop of Little Rock to draw her “home.”

God did not start late in life drawing me to the Catholic Church. He began virtually at my birth. He prepared me step by step; He was in no hurry. I have narrated some of the key points, but I could not narrate even those in detail or tell all the stories. Many less critical events have been left out. Yet it should be clear that God slowly and surely drew me home. There were the key events; there were insights here and there as I studied and taught Scripture. Then He created the opportunity, and here I am, living the dream I did not know I had and expecting it to get even better.


Fr. Peter Davids

FR. PETER H. DAVIDS has been married for 51 years to the former Judith (Judy) Bouchillon whom he met and married at Wheaton College. Together they have three married children (and one who died of SIDS) and nine grandchildren, all of whom live in Canada. Judy is a spiritual director and pastoral counselor, whose ministry is based in St. Clare Monastery in Houston, Texas. Most of Fr. Davids’ current ministry is in the Archdiocese of Galveston–Houston, although he is bi-ritual and so also assists at St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church. He is known for his expertise in the Catholic Epistles, on which he has written most of his 10 books, but has taught the whole of the New Testament, and also the Old Testament, History of Christian Spirituality, History of Christian Worship, and many other topics.