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Conversion StoriesPresbyterian & Reformed

Grace Upon Grace

Jeffrey Ziegler June 16, 2011 One Comment

“What shall I render to the Lord for all His bounty to me? I will lift up the chalice of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps 116:12–13).

What shall I render to You, O Lord, for all Your bounty to me? You created me out of nothing, You hold me in existence, You redeemed me by Your Son’s Precious Blood, You adopted me in the Sacrament of Baptism. You have given me an angel as a guide and protector and a Virgin Mother as an advocate and refuge.

You have led me to the fullness of faith in the Catholic Church, and through her, You call me into an eternal communion of life and love with You. Truly I can justly thank You, O Lord, only by offering myself to You day by day in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in union with the oblation of Your Son.


Early Years

I did not exist, and then I came into being, and this was Your doing, O Lord. You loved me into existence when You infused an immortal soul into the body that my parents had procreated. And so I was conceived, a sinner who shared the taint of original sin merited by my first parents.

You rescued me from the fate that befell so many hundreds of millions of my contemporaries — death from chemical or surgical abortion, death from the abortifacient pill or IUD or implants or contraceptive drugs, death from the burning of salt or the dismemberment of limbs. Through no merit of my own, You willed that I be born into a family where I was loved, in a place not afflicted by starvation or war. Six months after my birth, You baptized me, O Lord Christ, by means of a Presbyterian minister, and divine life flowed into my soul.

You allowed me to receive the rudiments of Christian formation at the Western Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Palmyra, New York. When I was in third grade, just before my family stopped attending church and I stopped attending Sunday school, I received from that congregation’s minister a Revised Standard Version of the Bible that would play such an important role in later years. Because of the graces that flowed from my baptism, I never doubted the inerrancy of Scripture, for which I thank You, Almighty God.

That year I attained the age of reason and thus began the long train of sins, which You have forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance and for which I must render an account at the moment of my death. And wasn’t there something more involved than the world and the flesh — namely, the Devil? Didn’t I tell a friend in fourth grade, in bizarre words that shock me as I recall them, that “Lucifer is the king of darkness, and I am the prince of darkness”?

Despite my sins, O Lord, You sought me out. At about the age of nine, I saw an advertisement in TV Guide for a television show devoted to the end times, and I watched that show. You inspired me to jot down the address at the end of that show and to write for further information. Thus I began to receive two pamphlets every month from the Radio Bible Class. I did not read the literature, but You moved me to keep it in a desk drawer.

As I passed through junior high school, I excelled in school, I excelled in athletics, and I became deaf to my conscience. I thought only of myself and never of You. Once You spoke loudly to me through my conscience as I was about to commit a grievous sin against charity, but I chose to ignore Your voice.


Encountering Evangelicals

At the age of thirteen, I became infatuated with a girl, but she didn’t like me. You inspired my mother (who probably saw my distress and wanted me to become more active outside of the home) to ask me either to attend Sunday school or to join the Boy Scouts. You gave me the grace to choose Sunday school.

The teachers, a married couple, were Evangelicals. They told me how to become a Christian, and on the afternoon of Sunday, September 25, 1983, I followed their instructions and those of the text we were using in that class. I confessed my sinfulness, my inability to save myself, my faith in the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the Cross, and my belief in salvation by faith alone. I accepted Your Son as my personal Lord and Savior.

You inspired in me, O Lord, an increasing hunger for Scripture and prayer. By Your grace, I delighted to memorize the Scripture passages quoted in my Sunday school text. I went on long walks, prayed to You, and at times knew the peace that only You can give.

You led me to open up the desk drawer and devour the material from Radio Bible Class. I would read the epistles of St. Paul in that RSV Bible I had received years before, and I recall how deeply moved I was by his description of Christian family life.

And so the years of high school continued, and You were there as a provident Father. I read Scripture (all sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible in 1986), I prayed for others, I attended Sunday school, I went to church, I tried to lead others to You. I continued to read the material from Radio Bible Class; I bought several Bibles, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, and many books by Evangelical authors.

On occasion, I listened to the radio program Focus on the Family. I subscribed to Christian Herald and Christianity Today magazines. I imbibed the anti-Catholic bias of much of my reading.

When I was about to sin, my Evangelical mind told me that I was saved no matter what I did, but my conscience told me that I should not sin. Often I rationalized and sinned.

My father supervised the book review section of a secular newspaper, and You moved him to bring home books on religion for me to examine. One book he brought home was Preaching the New Common Lectionary (Abingdon), and by Your grace I used it as a basis of prayer. As I meditated on the Scripture readings for Sundays and feast days, I understood the importance of the liturgical year and the biblical basis of feasts such as the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Presentation, and Epiphany.


Changing Attitudes Toward the Catholic Church

During my last two years in high school, You led me to pro-life books, and my revulsion for the Catholic Church was changed to a grudging tolerance, for I respected her biblical positions on abortion, divorce, and sexual morality. You allowed me to be moved by the attractive example of charity lived by a few large Catholic families that I knew. You permitted me to catch the flu during the winter of my junior year, and while ill, I turned on the television one Saturday afternoon and discovered Malcolm Muggeridge on Firing Line. He was a Catholic, and yet I thought, “This man must be a Christian.”

You led me to the Middle English of The Canterbury Tales, and I was struck by its Christian ethos, even though it was written by a Catholic. You led me to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris, and the prologue of the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. I was struck both by the apparent arrogance of Leo XIII’s authority and by the beauty and logic of St. Thomas’s Summa’s prologue.

I was convinced I was fully a Christian, a member of the invisible Church of the saved. But You gave me the grace to try to discover which denomination was most biblical. (I could not in conscience join the PCUSA because of its tolerance of abortion.)

By Your grace, I would spend an hour or so each week in the church library reading about the various denominations. There I also read parts of Eerdmans’ Handbook of Christianity. From that book, I copied a list of the major Christian authors throughout history — from Clement of Rome to Hans Küng (!) — and thought that perhaps they could help me in my search for the most biblical denomination.

I began my studies at Princeton University in September 1987. I joined Princeton Evangelical Fellowship. Its leader told me that he would eventually introduce me to dispensationalist theology, which he said was more biblical than covenantal theology.

I attended the Sunday services of the Presbyterian Church in America’s congregation in town, and I loved the strong, biblical preaching of its pastor, an ex-Catholic. He told me that he would eventually introduce me to covenantal theology, which he said was more biblical than dispensationalist theology.

You placed in my heart a hunger for the Eucharist, so I also attended Episcopal services on campus.

Father of mercies, by Your grace I recalled quotes from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy that I had read the spring before in Christianity Today, and I borrowed the book from the campus library. Every day after the conclusion of classes, I would read a chapter of it, and I loved it. Here, too, was a Catholic who seemed so Christian.


Introduction to Catholic Teaching

One day in September, I was sitting in a faculty department office, waiting to speak to a professor. You led me to pick up the campus newspaper, which I did not usually read because of its liberal bias. There I saw an advertisement for a course called “Introduction to Catholic Teaching,” taught on Wednesday evenings by Father C. John McCloskey III, a priest of Opus Dei who was then a chaplain at the Aquinas Institute (the name of the university’s Newman Center). He is now the chaplain of Mercer House in Princeton.

And so, by Your grace, I began to attend these short weekly classes in Murray-Dodge Hall in October. After one class, a thought came into my head that one day I might be Catholic; I developed a palpable revulsion to the idea.

That month, You moved me to borrow Humanae Vitae from the Princeton library. (I was only the second person to check it out — the first since 1968.) I read it, and it made sense to me.

On Wednesday evening, October 21, You led Father McCloskey to invite me to his office and give me a copy of Spiritual Journeys (edited by Robert Baram and published by the Daughters of St. Paul) and a catechism written by, among others, then-Father Donald Wuerl. Like many evangelicals, I thought that the Church taught that all non-Catholics would go to hell. Preoccupied with this issue of salvation and convinced that C. S. Lewis was the epitome of both intellect and sanctity, I asked Father McCloskey, “How could a C.S. Lewis be in hell?” Father McCloskey patiently explained the Church’s understanding of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“no salvation outside the Church”).

Fall break approached, and I stayed on campus to study. I often prayed in the Princeton University Chapel, a lovely neo-Gothic structure with stained-glass windows that portrayed figures as disparate as the archangels, St. Sebastian, Plato, John Calvin, and St. Thomas Aquinas. Only an Anglican could have designed it.

On Friday evening, October 23, You gave me the courage to pray in the Marquandt Transept of the University Chapel, where the Catholics had their daily Mass. It was the only part of the chapel with kneelers. Though I often knelt when I prayed in my room, I found it hard to kneel in a public place — like the sign of the cross, to me the practice reeked of Catholic tradition, ritualism, and salvation by works.

As I sat alone in the chapel that Friday evening, part of me wanted to kneel to pray, and part of me did not. Then the kneeler in front of me came crashing to the floor. I looked around to see if any disapproving Evangelical might be in the chapel. I saw none, and then I knelt to pray.

During that fall break, I spent much time each day studying material for my four classes: classical Greek, Latin, linear algebra, and ancient Greek literature. I was also able to spend more time in prayer and spiritual reading. I read much of Father Wuerl’s question-and-answer catechism, and most of the Catholic doctrines made sense to me.

I started to read or reread the works from that Eerdmans list, beginning with the letters of St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch. I was shocked to find that these two Apostolic Fathers not only mentioned but emphasized the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the necessity of submission to the hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons in order to maintain the unity of the Church.

I was shocked because I thought these were post-Constantinian additions to the original Christian faith. Now I saw that they were there at the close of the first century. And as I looked at the Greek text of St. Ignatius’s letters, I saw that the bishops, priests (presbyters), and deacons of the Catholic hierarchy were nothing more than the development of the New Testament episkopoi, presbyteroi, and diakonoi.

During that break, I also began to consider what a wonderful thing it would be if all the Christians at Princeton could worship together in one church. For the first time, the divisions in Christianity disturbed me. Then a thought occurred to me that perhaps it might be God’s will that all Christians worship together as Catholics. But I dismissed that thought, which I believe also caused me physical revulsion.

At the conclusion of the break, on Saturday evening, October 31, I did my laundry in the basement of Lourie-Love Hall, and You led me to pick up Spiritual Journeys. I became engrossed in the book, and story after story began to make a deep impression on me. Person after person converted to the Catholic Church after renouncing the private interpretation of Scripture and submitting his intellect to the Church’s Magisterium.

For the first time, I realized that when I read the Bible, I was interpreting it. Previously, I had believed that I was merely absorbing its obvious meaning.


Coming to Faith

The clock of the tower of Nassau Hall tolled midnight, and I took a walk from my dorm room to St. Paul’s Church on Nassau Street to the Aquinas Institute and back to Butler College. As I walked, You gave me the grace to think something like this: “Here I am, Jeff Ziegler, seventeen years old, with my own propensities to sins X and Y, and breathing this Marxist, materialist, secularist air, conceiving that I can interpret Scripture. And there is the Catholic Church, with twenty centuries of never-changing but ever-developing interpretation of Scripture. Who am I to go against the Magisterium of the Catholic Church?”

At that instant, You gave me the grace to know the truth of the Catholic Faith. I also knew that I could choose to accept or reject this grace. By Your grace, I chose to seek reception in the Catholic Church. I returned to campus as the clock struck one o’clock.

When I awoke the next morning, I did not go to the PCA service but instead attended Mass at the Aquinas Institute. I continued attending daily Mass and my instructions with Father McCloskey. On December 8, 1987, I made my first confession, was confirmed, and received my First Communion at the 7:30 p.m. Mass in the Princeton University Chapel.

“And from His fullness have we all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16). Grace upon grace, a Blessed Trinity, grace upon grace! If any one of the events described above had not occurred, would I be a Catholic today?

You know, O Lord Christ, how utterly impoverished I would be without frequent encounters with You in Confession and Communion; how blind my intellect would be without the teaching of Your Vicar on Earth, the pope; and how tepid my heart would be without the graces granted through Eucharistic adoration and devotion to Our Lady.

“What shall I render to the Lord for all His bounty to me? I will lift up the chalice of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps 116:12–13).

Jeffrey Ziegler

Jeff Ziegler, who holds degrees from Princeton University and the International Theological Institute, lives in North Carolina.

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

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