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Conversion StoriesPresbyterian & ReformedReverts to the Catholic Faith

Home Again, Thanks Be to God!

Lynn Nordhagen
June 9, 2011 4 Comments

On January 24, 1997, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, I was received back into the arms of the Holy Catholic Church. Since I had made a profession of faith in the Presbyterian Church, I now made a renewed profession of faith in all that the Catholic Church teaches. For this I chose to read the profession of the Council of Trent, because it spoke the truth concerning specific errors I had embraced. Then I received the sacraments of Penance, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist.

I wrote to my friends in the Coming Home Network International:

 

“What can I say? It’s all beyond words somehow. I feel plunged anew into sacramental graces. Drenched!

“Penance, Confirmation, and Holy Communion — all within the hour, and then a peaceful prayer time alone with Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Visible, audible, touchable!

“‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life’ (1 Jn 1:1).

“Amen! I’ll write more later. Right now, I’m more or less melted by love and speechless in the light of His grace.

“Thank you, dearest Lord; thank you, St. Francis de Sales; thank you, dear friends. And now, please pray for me, that God may grant me perseverance.”

 

Almost five years earlier, on April 5, 1992, after a full year of diligent study and faithful attendance, I had stood before a Presbyterian congregation to make a profession of faith along with membership promises that included submitting myself to “the discipline and governance of the church.” I joyfully wrote the date in my Bible.

I was at the same time dedicating myself to serious study of God’s revealed Word, in the classical Reformed tradition, embracing all the “solas” of the Protestant Reformation: faith alone, grace Alone, Scripture alone, Christ alone, and glory to God alone. I had studied and read until I had become convinced of the truth of “TULIP,” an acronym for the distinctives of Reformed theology describing the human condition: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints.

 

Leaving the Church the First Time

At that point, I had left the Catholic Church not just once but twice. I had grown up Catholic, before and during Vatican II. I enjoyed sixteen years of Catholic schooling, living close enough to walk to school all the way through college. Our parish was known in town, deservedly or not, as the “Holy Land” because of having the grade school, two convents, a high school, a Jesuit university, and a very high percentage of Catholic families in the neighborhood.

I loved the Latin Mass, and in high school and college, I attended daily Mass and Communion. I was young enough to accept gracefully the changes of Vatican II, but not without some sadness. A wonderful Jesuit priest formed a group for a few of us interested high school students to study the documents of Vatican II. We loved our Church.

So how could I ever have left the Church I loved? Only for what I thought was more of God. The charismatic renewal came to our Catholic college campus, led by a Bible Belt Pentecostal preacher. Many of us were caught up in the emotional appeal of belonging to a group of Christians who were really excited about Jesus. Eventually the charismatic group split along Catholic/Protestant lines.

About the same time, I married one of the Protestant young men. For three years of our marriage, I remained Catholic, but I finally allowed myself to become disillusioned by the lukewarmness of so many cradle Catholics compared with the Pentecostal ardor in my husband’s church. So in 1974, I gave up on the Catholic faith, and naively hoping that the Holy Spirit would soon unite all Christians anyway, I became very active in this independent charismatic church, attending at least five meetings a week.

Over the next ten years of raising our kids in this enthusiastic atmosphere, I nonetheless became very restless and increasingly sensitive to the frequent misrepresentations of what the Catholic Church actually taught. I perceived more and more differences between the teachings of the independent church and orthodox Christianity. So in 1984, under the guidance of a loving priest, a former teacher of mine, I returned to the sacraments.

This was a difficult time for my husband, who was concerned about my confusing the kids and about his responsibility as spiritual head of the family. The fundamentalist teaching on submission left no room for a wife to worship elsewhere. The pastor counseled me to submit by staying “under the umbrella” of my husband’s spiritual protection, but I insisted that I must “obey God rather than men.” Although my husband and I felt the pain of not being able to worship together, I also experienced the peace and joy of being home again in the Catholic Church.

 

Leaving the Second Time

I wish I could say that was the end of my wanderings. But there followed several years of distressing events, including the serious illness of both my parents, my father’s death, and a difficult year of classroom teaching in a Catholic school. I sought counseling and became involved in a “Catholic” meditation group, which taught “Christian Zen” and other mixtures of Eastern philosophy and religion.

I had been devotedly practicing this meditation for some time when, through my kids’ involvement in pro-life activities, I began conversing with a Protestant coworker whose kids had been arrested. We soon discovered a mutual interest in theology. I felt quite up to the task of arguing doctrine with a Calvinist, since I had actually paid attention during my sixteen years of Catholic schooling and had already had my “fling” with Protestantism.

I felt secure in my Catholic faith, so I took on the apologetic challenge. Our lunchroom table debate went on for a year and a half, but I, the Catholic, didn’t win. I was not as prepared as I had thought. I had not really come up against the strong intellectual side of the Protestant Reformation before.

Now I was reading Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will, John Calvin on the Lord’s Supper, G. C. Berkouwer on faith and perseverance, and many other Reformed authors. In addition, I listened to hundreds of theology tapes by R. C. Sproul and others. I was outnumbered and should have asked for help, but instead I looked critically at the New Age stuff I was involved in, saw the sheer volume of intellectual ammunition on the Protestant bookshelves, and became convinced that they had Scripture on their side.

I felt compelled to submit to the truth, and I started attending the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), where I would later become a member. This involved more stress for my family, because I was rocking our boat again. I became very seriously concerned and argumentative about the doctrinal errors in the independent church where my husband and kids still attended. But over the next few years, my husband became satisfied that I was at least Protestant again, and we both made good friends in my Presbyterian church.

Even then, I grieved over giving up my belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and I harassed my friend at work about talking me into what I called “the Real Absence.” Eventually I made peace with the notion of a real presence being spiritually communicated to believers by the Holy Spirit in a special way during the Lord’s Supper. But there was always that tug in my heart for the real thing. Still, if the Catholic belief was idolatrous, I had to reject it.

For five more years, I delved into Calvinism. It was very comforting to know that God was absolutely sovereign over human decisions, and to believe that as one of the elect I was perfectly sure of going to heaven, no matter what I did, since it all depends on God. I believed in predestination by God’s decrees before the foundation of the world and that Christ died only for His chosen ones, because to think otherwise was to admit He was not in control of salvation. I was a deeply convinced Calvinist and was working on convincing everybody else.

 

Surprised by Truth

In April 1996, I read Surprised by Truth (edited by Patrick Madrid), the collected stories of eleven converts to Catholicism. I found myself saying, “You know that’s probably true. You’ve always known it.”

Another part of me would say, “Then how did you change your beliefs so thoroughly? And how can you even trust yourself to ‘choose’ any one belief system over another?”

I started reading and studying with renewed intensity. I read again Blessed John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. I read books on the Eucharist and on the papacy. I corresponded by email with the Coming Home Network International members and other Catholic apologists.

A turning point came the day I finally realized that I did not accept the principle of sola scriptura any longer and told my pastor so, because then my whole orientation to authority changed. The realization was also very depressing and unsettling, because I was still so unsure of many Catholic teachings. I became very fearful that this change would mean losing friends and upsetting family.

I could not see how I could be sure of anything ever again, especially my own trustworthiness in decision-making. I identified with Newman saying in his Apologia, “I had been deceived greatly once; how could I be sure I was not deceived a second time? I then thought myself right; how was I to be certain that I was right now?”

Another crisis arrived a couple of months later when I started visiting the Blessed Sacrament to pray for enlightenment. I was unable in conscience to genuflect, because I didn’t believe in the Real Presence. But one day, I realized that I didn’t believe in His presence in the Lord’s Supper at the Presbyterian church, either.

Immediately I felt an anguished doubt: He was nowhere on earth! Neither in the Catholic Mass, nor in the Protestant Lord’s Supper. I was alone. I felt cut off from any communion. That Sunday, I passed up the elements at the Lord’s Supper, then called and made an appointment with a Catholic pastor.

Doesn’t it seem that the Catholic Church is never in a hurry? It seems the more impatient I was to know and decide, the more the priest advised me to slow down, to “make haste slowly.” He assured me that things would all fall into place for me at the right time. It wouldn’t necessarily be easy, he said, but I would know that it was right and that the time was right.

How could I believe that all this exhausting effort was leading to something that was just going to “fall into place”? But after many months, when I was making a last-ditch effort to find a livable compromise, one that would please my husband, myself, my family, and friends, things did fall into place. One day, prompted by the priest’s gentle challenge about compromising, I knew what was right, and a great sense of relief came over me. I was ready for it not to be easy, just to be right.

 

Home Again

It was far from easy. I felt overwhelmed and fearful, I spent hours in desperate prayer, and I finally said many tearful goodbyes at my Presbyterian church.

One especially tough time was my meeting with the elders. I felt I had to honor the promises I had made to submit myself to their “discipline and governance,” and I had tried to stay open and candid with the pastor all during the many months of study, indecision, and conflict. When I told him I had finally made the decision to reunite with the Catholic Church, he said the elders wished to meet with me to hear my thinking and to admonish me from Scripture.

I had told the pastor about St. Francis de Sales, who was bishop of Geneva, Switzerland, soon after the Reformation. As a young man, before he was made bishop, he was responsible for the conversion of thousands of Calvinists back to the Catholic Church. He won their hearts with his gentleness and persistence in teaching the truth. When they would not listen to his preaching, he wrote leaflets and slid them under their doors. He lived among them at great personal risk and won them by his love.

I told the elders that I had decided to return to the Sacraments on the day the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of this apostle to the Calvinists, January 24. I felt that this saint had reached down personally through space and time, through the communion of saints, to rescue one more little Calvinist. My meeting with the elders lasted almost two hours. After we had gone over most of the issues, the pastor read me their admonition.

On my way home, although it was late, I stopped to pray in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, and Newman’s words expressed my feelings again, in his “Prayer for a Happy Death”:

 

Oh, my Lord and Savior, support me . . . in the strong arms of Thy sacraments and by the fresh fragrance of Thy consolations. Let the absolving words be said over me and the holy oil sign and seal me, and Thy own Body be my food, and Thy blood my sprinkling; and let my sweet Mother, Mary, breathe on me, and my Angel whisper peace to me, and my glorious Saints … smile upon me; that in them all, and through them all, I may receive the gift of perseverance, and die, as I desire to live, in Thy faith, in Thy Church, in Thy service, and in Thy love. Amen.


Lynn Nordhagen

Lynn Nordhagen was born and raised in Spokane, Washington, and graduated from Gonzaga University. She and her husband, Marvin, now live in Chattaroy, Washington. They have four children and six grandchildren. Lynn is editor of the book When Only One Converts (Our Sunday Visitor, 2001).

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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