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Conversion StoriesEvangelical

From Evangelical to Evangelical Catholic

Jason Shanks January 18, 2011 One Comment

For the first two years of my college education, I had a girlfriend. Faced with the obvious long-term implications, I began wrestling with the question, “What in God’s eyes defines two people as married?”

Looking for answers, I sat down with the leader of an “interdenominational” Protestant organization on campus and asked, “Why must we be married in a church? Why can’t a couple just declare that they are married in their dorm room? Where in Scripture does one find the vows? Where in Scripture does it say that we need to exchange rings?”

His response shocked me: “Nowhere in Scripture does it require vows or say that one has to be married in a church.” He suggested I might consult with another pastor but, in his opinion, a couple need only be married by the Justice of the Peace to be married in the eyes of God.

A bit taken away, I asked, “Then why do most Christians get married in a church with vows? Why do they exchange rings?”

But even before he answered, I had answered my own question: “Because it’s tradition.” Later, I argued the point with my family.

Tradition! I couldn’t believe it. The ring on the finger of the Protestant pastor I so admired was not the product of “Bible alone” theology but of tradition, and a Catholic one at that!

Though none that I knew would ever acknowledge it, I had discovered that Protestants held to a tradition not found in the Bible. Starting here, I began to see the inconsistencies of Protestant faith and practice. My “Bible alone” theology had broken down. (Later I would realize that I was arguing for marriage to be recognized as more than a couple’s mutual agreement — as a Sacrament.) So here my investigation began: at the Sacrament of Marriage.

The Scandal of Disunity

The next point in my move toward the Catholic faith was the disunity of Christendom. During my junior year, my best friend and mentor stepped into my life, Biff Rocha. Biff was and is a great man to whom I owe so much of my life. He really put me back together, for I had hit rock bottom emotionally and spiritually. He was Catholic and was there to answer many of my questions.

For spring break we decided to go to Washington, D.C. During our long drive there, I noticed a very interesting thing. On every intersection there were four different churches, one on every corner. The denominations ranged in name, and most of the major ones were represented. Some were breakaways from the same denomination to become, for example, the second or third Baptists.

In the midst of all this disunity, I sometimes noticed that the Muslims had a mosque or the Buddhists a temple. Eventually I became so disturbed that I turned to Biff who was driving and said, “I don’t think Christ wanted this.” How had it gotten this way? But I filed these thoughts away and moved on with the trip.

Once I was back at Miami University, sitting in a Bible study, one of the members made the comment how we are totally, one-hundred-percent evil — that we can do no good. My knee-jerk response was this: “Well, then, why are we having a Bible study? If I am totally, one-hundred-percent evil, than any interpretation I derive from Scripture will be evil, too. Wouldn’t it be better for me not to study the Bible than to make it evil?”

I was so upset. I later learned that this concept is called “total depravity.”

I remember returning to my room and, seeing my roommates, exclaiming, “That’s it. I am throwing everything and anything I have learned about Christianity out and starting over. I’m going to find the truth no matter where it takes me.”

Since I was going to stay in Oxford, Ohio, for summer session, as was Biff, I asked him if he wanted to read and research together all summer. And so we did. I read dozens of books. He would point me in a direction and I would read, but he would not give me the answers. He wanted me to find it for myself.

Investigating the Reformers

So I started with the Reformation. Why had we broken away? I read Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other reformers. I narrowed the Reformation down to five crucial issues: faith alone, Bible alone, grace alone, Christ alone, and indulgences.

I knew through my reading that the Catholic Church of today agrees that the way indulgences had been sold during Luther’s time was wrong. The Council of Trent corrected this abuse and confirmed that to a certain extent Luther was justified in his anger about that particular matter. I then learned that the Catholic Church agrees with grace alone and Christ alone. So the last two remaining issues were faith alone and Bible alone.

I discovered that Mary, the communion of saints, the Eucharist, and Confession were not the critical issues of the Reformation! Martin Luther believed in the veneration of Mary, held to the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and retained the Sacraments of Baptism and Confession. So I ignored these issues, even though I did have some strong objections to them at the time, I knew that these weren’t the reasons the Reformers broke away.

Faith alone and the Bible alone became the focus of my research. These issues are crucial in any investigation into the Church. After reading the Epistle of James and reading Martin Luther, I knew that faith alone could not be correct.

It was not an either/or between faith and works, but a both/and. Faith and works are two sides of the same coin. The Catholic Church rejects works alone just as much as she rejects faith alone. Nowhere in Scripture does it argue for faith alone but for an “obedient faith,” a faith that works itself out through love. You cannot have one without the other.

Even though “alone” is not present in the original Greek text of Romans 3:28, Luther added it in his German translation because he said it was implied. On the other hand, the only place in Scripture where “faith alone” is mentioned is James 2:24: “See how a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (emphasis added).

Don’t panic, this isn’t to advocate a works-alone position, but a faith-and-works position. I realized that to “accept” Christ we have to do a work. It may be minimal, it may be small, but we have to “do” something. We have to say a prayer, ask Him into our lives. Our faith leads us to action, and our action increases our faith.

After reading Luther, I concluded that many Protestants today would disagree with him. He thought that all we need to do was “believe.” He also said, “We are a dunghill covered with snow” — a statement of total depravity even before John Calvin taught it. Faith alone, therefore, was for me no longer an issue. Luther was wrong.

The next issue was “Bible alone.” I found that Protestants actually do not practice it. The marriage issue showed me that. Even though there were many non-biblical traditions in the Protestant world, they still claim that the Bible is the final authority.

My mind began to overflow with other pertinent questions: How did we get the Bible? Where did the canon come from? Where in the Bible does it say the Bible is the final authority?

Where in the Bible does it define the specific list or canon of books to be included? What did the early Church do before the canon was defined? Did they pass things on orally? Was it the Church who gave us the Bible or the Bible that gave us the Church?

Why do Protestants accept such doctrines as the Trinity, for example, which are not spelled out in Scripture? There were many heresies in the early Church regarding the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity, all based on different interpretations of Scripture. It wasn’t until the Church councils of the fourth and fifth centuries that the orthodox doctrines we now hold were defined.

If Scripture is so easily interpreted, then why was there such a catastrophic division amongst Christians in a.d. 1054 over, among other things, the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son?

Where in the Bible does it say one needs to “accept” Jesus Christ as “personal Savior”? It doesn’t. According to the New Testament, the early Church brought people into relationship with Jesus through Baptism. Baptism was the means to salvation (see 1 Pt 3:21).

Where does the Bible say we must go to church on Sundays? It doesn’t. It was the bishops of the early Church that changed the primary day of Christian worship from Saturday to Sunday.

The celebrations and holidays that most Christians observe today are not in Scripture; they were established by the Church. This is the reason the Jehovah Witnesses don’t celebrate such holidays and, along with the Seventh-day Adventists, go to church on Saturdays like the Jews.

I also began to see the ramifications of “Bible-only” thinking. Luther believed that every person was his own priest, “the priesthood of all believers,” and as such could interpret Scripture for himself. He believed that the Holy Spirit would lead all men to the same truth.

Later, however, he was upset when this didn’t happen. Among other things, disputes arose among his followers and the other Reformers over whether infants could be baptized. I began to see how this emphasis on private interpretation has led to the widespread disunity that now exists amongst Christians. Without a trustworthy, Spirit-led authority structure, there is chaos.

Even though I was coming to accept Catholic conclusions, I found myself in, what we call in the Coming Home Network International, “no man’s land.” After concluding that I no longer agreed with Luther’s reasons for breaking away, I realized that I could not remain a Protestant. But I was certainly not ready to become a Catholic!

The Church Fathers Bring Me Home

So I thought I’d go back to the writings of the Apostles and early Church Fathers in the hope of finding a simpler church unencumbered with traditions and rituals. I went back expecting to find a Protestant Church. But, boy, was Blessed John Henry Newman right when he wrote: “To become deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

When I read the Fathers of the Church, I realized that they were celebrating the Mass; they believed in the Eucharist; they had Confession; and they were anointing the sick. I discovered that they believed in the primacy of Peter and they were appointing priests. They weren’t part of a Protestant church, but a Catholic one.

Uh, oh! I had concluded that I would never be a part of any denomination or church. Yet here I was confronted with the fact that I might have to become Catholic.

The icing on the cake for me was John chapter 6. Now as I read it, I was reading with different eyes. I asked myself, “What did the people present think Jesus was saying? Did they think He was speaking with symbolic language?”

No they didn’t. His Jewish audience and most of His disciples left him as He repeatedly said, “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood to have eternal life.” If He were only speaking figuratively, then why did most of those present consider His words a very hard teaching akin to cannibalism?

I realized that the Catholic Church was being more faithful to Scripture. They were not reading into it. They were being systematic and consistent in their theology. And it was here I concluded that to remain Protestant was not being true to myself. In mind and spirit I had become Catholic.

I can remember the reaction of my friends when they returned to school for our senior year. Many were not pleased; one in particular rebuked me. For me, however, ridicule and taking a stand for what I thought to be true was nothing new.

Later on, all my friends came to support my decision, even though personally none of them agreed with my conclusions. As a Catholic leader within an interdenominational campus Christian organization, I began to see things in a different light. The usual jokes about Catholics no longer went unnoticed.

I wanted to be confirmed in my senior year, but my schedule would not allow it. After graduation, I lived with my parents for a year and started attending RCIA at the local Catholic parish. Every Sunday at Mass, I would watch the people take the Eucharist and yearn for the day when I too could partake. I also ached to be reconciled with God and His Church.

I especially couldn’t wait to experience the great release of Confession. My first confession was an amazing experience! The priest was awesome.

It is enough for you to know that for some time I had felt much guilt, sadness, and pain for the many sins of my life. In the confessional, as the priest absolved me of my sins, I felt the hug of God. I was forgiven.

I walked out and sat in a pew crying for joy. From the moment I left the confessional that day, my pain was over. I was reconciled!

And so on Easter, 1999, I was confirmed in the Catholic Church. I received the Eucharist for the first time and cried at that event as well.

Discovering the Church of Today

That next summer, I went down to visit Biff in Houston, Texas. We decided to go to Confession. I had either never listened, had forgotten, or was never taught how to do it properly.

My initial Confession experience was more informal and laid back. It had been like having an accountability partner. But this priest wanted it to be formal, and I didn’t know what I was doing.

He proceeded to yell at me within the confessional for not knowing what to do. I left and felt so mortified I couldn’t attend Mass. Instead I went to a quiet area and pleaded with the Lord: “Is this what You have called me to? Why this? Where are You in the midst of this Church?”

You see, I knew the Church of the books. I knew the Church by reading the saints and Church Fathers. But now I was discovering the Church as it is today.

Then God in His mercy reminded me of the reasons I had converted. I had not converted to make me feel better, but for issues of truth. I remembered the Eucharist and the truth of John 6. I knew there was work to be done, and I had hoped to help.

Please know that since then I have met and worked with many incredible men and women of God in the Catholic Church, people who sincerely desire Him and yearn to bring Him into the lives of others. The Church doesn’t teach “pro-choice,” although some Catholics choose to believe it. The Church doesn’t teach the use of contraception, although some Catholics choose to do so. The Church doesn’t teach being apathetic towards one’s faith, although many Catholics are.

As in many Protestant traditions, the people don’t always do or follow what their Church believes or teaches. As Blessed John Paul II was constantly challenging Catholics, we need to open our hearts and minds to Christ.

Biff describes Protestants and Catholics in terms of weight lifting, an analogy that has been helpful to me. He said that the Protestants have a dumbbell and are using that dumbbell for all it’s worth. They are using it hours on end, once or twice a day. And they are showing results. This “dumbbell” is the Bible.

Catholics have a full weight facility with machines, weight benches, the full regimen! And while some are showing growth, many are taking their weight facility and training for granted.

Now would it be better to make Catholics limit themselves to a dumbbell? No, because it might still remain on the rack. It would be better to take the Protestant working the dumbbell and give him a whole workout facility. The Catholic Church is where the fullness of the faith resides. This is where the abundant life is to be found, whether some people take advantage of it or not.

Let truth be your search, if you let truth be your guide, I believe you will one day be Catholic. And I will be there to welcome you home. You may not know this yet … but you will.

May the grace of God, the love of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you now and forever, Amen!

Jason Shanks

Jason Shanks is a cofounder of Catholic Youth Summer Camp, Inc., a summer high adventure camp for junior high and high school students. He also serves as the Cabinet Secretary and Secretariat Leader for Evangelization and Parish Life for the Diocese of Toledo. Jason received a Masters in Theology from the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, with a concentration in Evangelization. He also earned a Masters in Nonprofit Administration from the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. Jason and his wife, Melissa, have two children, Nora and Xavier.

This story appears in the book Journeys Home, edited by Marcus Grodi (CHResources, rev. ed., 2011). To order the book, click

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