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Magnet of Truth: From Baptist to Catholic

Noel Culbertson
March 2, 2016 17 Comments

The Catholic Church was never on my radar. I had no hatred or malice for the Church, more of an American ignorance and apathy toward it. But like many a road that leads to Rome, I was on it long before I knew it. We were happy in our Baptist congregation, involved in ministry, studying the Bible, and surrounded by wonderful Christian friends, but along the way we were wooed by the great Bride of Christ. As G.K. Chesterton puts it, “He has come too near to the truth, and has forgotten that truth is a magnet, with the powers of attraction and repulsion.”

I grew up the second of four kids in a wonderful Christian home. Both of my parents had powerful evangelical conversion experiences in high school, my Dad coming from a Christian Science background and my Mom from a nominally Catholic background. I cannot remember a time when Scripture study was not a part of our family life. We sang the Greek alphabet as kids, had family Bible studies, and attended church regularly. My Dad had a voracious love of the Scriptures. He studied Jewish history, mapped out the Gospel accounts in chronological order, and even translated the New Testament from Greek … for fun. Our family was always involved in ministries at our Baptist church in Southern California. I had a gift for memorization that won an awkward kid a fair amount of attention in AWANA (a Bible verse memorization program for kids). By the time I was in sixth grade, I had memorized hundreds of Bible verses.

During my high school years, I went on a mission trip through nine countries in Europe. I was devoted yet naive and had no real concept that the whole point of the trip was to “save” Catholics. Our mission leaders talked about all of the people in Europe who go to church every week, but have no personal relationship with Jesus. I knew plenty of people in my own Baptist congregation who fit that description so I thought nothing of it. We toured Europe sharing our Four Spiritual Laws, often in front of cathedrals we would later tour.

The following year our family moved to Washington State and I began work at a Christian Camp nearby. (I had a love for the ministry because my Dad had come to Christ at a Christian camp.) We worked with a number of Christian denominations and saw many lives ignited by the gospel message. We had daily prayer with the staff and in my time off I worked with the high school staff and taught Sunday school for kindergarteners. I was constantly involved in ministry activities.

An Engagement & Unexpected News

In the beginning of 1999, I began dating Stan, who had attended Christian college with my sister. Half a year later we were planning our wedding. We were to be married just after he returned from his upcoming six-month deployment with the US Navy. However, six weeks before he deployed, at a doctor’s appointment for an unrelated issue, I found out I was pregnant. I was shocked, embarrassed, and humiliated. How could I let this happen? What would people think? I had let down my parents and so many others who looked to me as a witness to the faith. In that moment the temptation flashed into my mind, “You could have an abortion, and no one would every know.” It was a startling thought for someone who was adamantly prolife, but it was a dizzying temptation in my moment of humiliation. I knew I had to tell someone to “make it real” and to dissolve the temptation in the light of the truth. Stan was at work for another six hours, with no way of contacting him. I went to my sister’s house (her husband was also on staff at our Baptist church) and asked if we could talk. Immediately after confessing to my sister, the power of the temptation was gone. A few hours later, Stan and I talked and in the following days he told my parents and our pastor, and I wrote a letter to the staff at the camp repenting of our sin and asking for their forgiveness. It was an extraordinary experience of the power of confessing your sins to someone with some authority to retain forgiveness — of exposing and repenting of our shortcomings out loud and thus receiving God’s grace and freedom through that confession. Two weeks later we were married. Two weeks after that Stan deployed. He returned after a six-month deployment and two weeks later our first beautiful daughter was born.

Questions & Unsettling Notions

As the years passed we remained very involved in our Baptist congregation. I headed up women’s ministry, Stan was a deacon, and we had a weekly Bible study in our home. One week in our adult Sunday school class, in which we were discussing the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-23), Stan asked about the seed that fell on rocky ground. He mentioned that it sounded like it refers to someone who had been saved, “received the word with joy,” but then “falls away” or loses their salvation. Now, if you’d like to see a room full of “once saved – always saved” Baptists turn on you, this is a good way to do it. On our way home that afternoon, we mused about the hostile reaction to what seemed to be a fairly clear biblical account. But then we were not really willing to bet our eternal salvation on a hunch, so the incident fell like a seed on our rocky path.

In our home Bible study we were going through the Book of Acts. Each week, Stan and I would read a chapter, research all of the best commentators we could find, and then discuss it with our Bible study group. It became more unnerving the more commentators we read. They each had a different take on the passages, and not just personal reflections, but often opposing theological views. How could we be sure that we were reading the right interpretations? We had, of course, been choosing which to agree with based on our understanding of the Scriptures, but these commentators had years of study under their belts yet still had dozens of different views on how the passages should be interpreted. How could faithful believers, who were not disposed to spend several hours each day studying, know which interpretation was correct? Then came Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem.

Acts is a picture of the early Church in action and as Protestants we were always trying to get back to an authentic early Church experience. But in studying the early Church in the Book of Acts, it didn’t look much like my Baptist experience. They met in council and spoke with authority to all the other churches about issues of faith. Where was that in my denomination? We had no councils, nor did we have the ability to define with authority matters of faith and morals. Again, these unsettling notions remained as seeds on our path as we navigated a busy life with faith, kids, and a bunch of deployments.

A Surprise Announcement

In 2003, my Dad announced, much to the horror of my Mom and surprise of our Baptist friends, that after several years of studying he was going to enter the Catholic Church. This tore my Mom up, devastated our pastor who had been very close to my Dad, and shocked the congregations whom my Dad had taught often through the years. For me, it didn’t seem like the huge tragedy others thought it to be. My Dad studied more than anyone I had ever known. He asked questions that stumped pastors and seminary professors in his quest to know Christ. Since he had been meeting with a couple of priests for a few years, they had directed him to more resources and answers than he could dig through in a lifetime. He’d grown deeply in prayer with the help of these Carmelite priests. The Catholic Church seemed like a great fit for someone like my Dad, who studied so much. I viewed it as more of a personal preference, that we were all Christian — the people who loved the Bible were Baptist, the ones who were drawn to ritual and study were Catholic, the ones who were charismatic were Pentecostal, etc. Out of respect for my Mom’s struggle with his conversion, my Dad shared very little about his conversion with us unless we asked directly. It must have been a terribly isolating time for him.

Several years later, after hearing a news story regarding Pope Benedict XVI and contraception, and knowing better than to take the news media’s word about any denomination’s teaching at face value, I asked my Dad about the Catholic Church’s deal with contraception. I knew very little about it, only that they taught something against using contraception. It seemed like such an odd place to draw a line in the sand. My Dad’s brief explanation of the Church’s reasoning was shockingly reasonable. But what struck me most was that every single Protestant denomination had held the same teaching as the Catholic Church on contraception until 1930 after which each denomination in turn changed its teaching with the times. I had never even heard anything about this in our denominational history. It was a non-issue; it was simply a given that people had always used whatever form of contraception they wished without being in opposition to any teaching of the faith. It was another seed on our path.

Catholic Influences

In early 2010, part way through our seventh Navy deployment, I was chaperoning a field trip for my daughter’s class. I was paired up with Janet, another mom I hadn’t met before. Throughout the field trip Janet and I talked about religion, the spiritual state of the nation, and all of the subjects generally frowned upon in polite conversation. We got along famously and talked for several hours after the field trip was over. I ran into Janet and her family again a few weeks later at the hardware store and she mentioned that she thought my Dad went to their church. I asked, “Oh, you go to St. Cecilia’s?” It was their parish also, and they asked me what I thought of my Dad being Catholic. I said I thought it was a good fit for him, and that I was happy for him. She then asked what my Mom thought about it. I said, “Well … not so much. It’s been really hard for her.” (My Dad had now been Catholic for about seven years.) She recommended a book by a former Protestant minister who had converted to Catholicism. Because the book addressed how the former minister’s wife struggled with his conversion, Janet thought it might be a help to my Mom. I thanked her and finished my errands.

A month or so later Stan returned from overseas, and we were prepared to spend some much needed family time on a road trip to several national parks. While driving through our town a few days before our trip, I decided to stop by the Catholic parish to ask them where I might find this book Janet had recommended. I had never seen a Catholic bookstore (or a priest or nun for that matter). When I arrived the doors were locked, but I noticed someone moving boxes around the side of the building. I walked around to ask her if she knew where I could find the book. She said that she didn’t have a copy of the book, but had a conversion CD by the same author if I was interested. (I had planned to read the book before deciding if I should give it to my Mom. I knew what kind of firestorm might follow if I gave her a Catholic book, especially if she thought it actually had come from my Dad.) The lady at the parish was cleaning out her office and asked if I would be interested in any other CDs. I told her I would, and she loaded me up with more than 30 CDs and a Seeker’s Catechism. I thanked her and headed home.

A few days later we left for our road trip. On our first drive through the night, after the kids were asleep, we popped in the conversion CD. We were dumbfounded. How could we have missed all of this? At every rest stop we were scouring our Bibles to confirm that all of these verses were really there. We read passages such as Matthew 16:13-20, John 6, Isaiah 22:22-23, John 20:23, 1 Timothy 3:15. Of course they were there, some I had memorized back in my AWANA days, but now they all came together and had a place. They were like tumblers in a lock, nothing was being pressed to fit; it fitted the lock and opened the door. It was like being handed the answers to every question about the faith I’d never thought to ask and yet felt I should have thought to ask them years ago.

The most profound revelation for me was that, according to the Scriptures, Christ clearly founded a Church and it had His authority and protection (Matthew 16:13-20). Jesus granted Peter the power to bind and loose on earth and in heaven. Since we know that nothing impure can enter heaven, we know that whatever this Church, founded on Peter, binds on earth would not and could not be counter to Christ. Then when Jesus says the gates of hell will not prevail against this Church He gives His word that this Church would be specially protected. If this was true, then it meant that Christ had founded a Church and it was still present today, not in a simply mystical way, but in a real and visible way. It was very clear through my own experience that denominations struggle with unity because they lack authority. Someone who disagrees with the biblical interpretations of the pastor can simply break off and start another church, and they often do. But here the Catholic Church stands with authority given by Christ, as it has for two thousand years, led and protected by the Holy Spirit. If this claim is true, I had to come in line with the Church and not the other way round. The scriptural evidence especially on the issues of the authority of the Church, Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist (John 6), and the necessity of faith and works rather than faith alone (James 2:14-24) was staggering. By the end of our road trip we had listened to more than 30 hours of Catholic teaching and spent countless hours pouring over the scriptures.

When we arrived home, we got ahold of as many Catholic books as we could, including several on the early Church Fathers of whom we had never heard, and began reading. We studied the Bible with new eyes, having removed the Baptist lenses we didn’t know we had. We continued to study for months with a growing conviction that the Catholic Church was really what she claimed to be — one, holy, catholic, and apostolic — but we had yet to attend Mass. After some discussion we settled on a date to attend our first Mass, with the intention that we would keep going to our Baptist church. Then we could slowly attend Mass more over the coming months to lessen the blow to the Baptist community I had been a part of for nearly 18 years.

I then told my Mom that we were considering becoming Catholic. We had always been close and generally talked every day. She went to all of my prenatal appointments when Stan was on deployment and we even went grocery shopping together. But when I told her what we were considering, she was speechless, which shortly turned to hysteria. Following this, she could no longer talk to me without tears often accompanied by shouting. She even went to counseling to try to get a handle on what to her felt like utter betrayal.

Ships on Fire

On August 1, 2010 we attended our first Mass. Stan, knowing what a hardship conversion would mean for our family, prayed for divine direction. At Mass we listened to the prayers, responses, and readings which all poured out from the Scriptures. The Responsorial Psalm rang out as if speaking right to me: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart.” In his homily the priest spoke about Cortez and his men landing in the Americas. They encountered so many hardships that the men wanted to return home to safety and comfort. However, Cortez burned the ships and the men had to move forward to complete the mission they had been chosen to do. I leaned over to Stan and said, “I think our ships are on fire.” Then came the consecration and we watched as people from every age, race, and social status received Christ. The room literally filled up with Christ. I turned to Stan again and this time there were tears streaming down his face. This Navy Chief could not speak about it for several weeks without being moved to tears. It was the reality of all we had been studying. We never went back to the Baptist church. Within days, the life and friendships we had before fell suddenly silent. In the loneliness of those days we dove deep into the Scriptures and Catholic teaching. I was introduced to Catholic writers like Fulton Sheen, Karl Keating, Frank Sheed, Pope John Paul II, and especially G.K. Chesterton who would become one of my jovial and genius guides on the path of conversion.

A couple days after our first Mass, a member of the parish told us about a Catholic conference in a nearby town the following weekend. That Friday afternoon we arrived early to the conference and ended up having dinner with Tim Staples from Catholic Answers, who was one of the speakers. We tripled the number of Masses we had attended to date, prayed our first Rosary (very awkwardly), and were connected to a number of resources for our journey. We also ran into an old friend, who after recovering from his shock at seeing us at a Catholic conference, offered to bring us more CDs and books. The following week he dropped off dozens of CD sets as well as the three-volume set of the writings of the early Fathers and much more.

Struggles with Authority

The main theological issues I struggled with were did Christ really found a visible Church with His authority and, if so, was it still in existence today. Being a Baptist, the Bible verses I had never seemed to notice especially struck me, particularly Matthew 16:13-20 and 1 Timothy 3:15. In my study of the Scriptures over the years I had focused much of my study on Paul’s epistles rather than the Gospels. I think this was because they occurred after the Resurrection; therefore they were more relevant to the living of the Christian life. In studying the Catholic Faith, I was starting to see how little I had regarded the words of Jesus in relation to the structure of my faith as a Baptist. I had always believed that the Church was an invisible, Mystical Body of all believers who had a personal relationship with Christ, not an actual visible Church with a hierarchy. Reading Matthew 16, it seemed clear that Christ gave particular authority to Peter and the Church he would lead. If Jesus said, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven” then whatever Peter bound in this Church would have to be infallible or it would make Christ a liar.

Then I began reading some of the early Fathers of whom I had never heard before beginning my study of the Church, and began to study how the Church believed, thought, and taught in the first centuries. I had no idea that writings from the disciples of the Apostles existed. It was equally shocking to read what they had to say about the authority and structure of the Church. St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John, said in a.d. 107, “You all should follow the bishop as Jesus Christ does the Father. Follow too the presbytery as the apostles, and honor the deacons as the command of God. Let no one do anything that is proper for the church without the bishop. Let that Eucharist be considered valid that is under the bishop or performed by one to whom he entrusts it. Wherever the bishop appears, let there be the fullness [of the church] as wherever Christ Jesus appears, there is the catholic church.” I became convinced that the Bible and the earliest accounts of Christianity in the world were profoundly Catholic, not Baptist, in their structure.

Janet, whom I had met on the field trip, and her husband became our sponsors through the RCIA process. It was wonderful to be united in faith with my Dad in the Catholic Church. It is difficult to put to words the thrilling and terrifying adventure of conversion. Chesterton describes it thus: “It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it. But when that affection has passed a certain point it begins to take on the tragic and menacing grandeur of a great love affair.” Our family entered the Catholic Church together at the Easter Vigil Mass in April 2011. Both our girls received the Sacrament of Baptism, and the entire family was confirmed and received our first Eucharist together that night.

Joys and Sorrows

The years that have followed have been a great and growing love affair with Christ and His Church. They have included the most heart breaking and joyful moments of my life. Just eight months after we were received into the Church, my Dad fell seriously ill and would need a transplant to survive. Ten days after that, my Mom was driving and her hand fell off the steering wheel. A few weeks later she underwent brain surgery for a terminal brain tumor. Both my parents moved into our home where we cared for them. The Lord provided a powerful time of healing and reconciliation with my Mom during those months. Once after one of our long talks my Mom said, “I know you are experiencing Christ in the Catholic Church… I just don’t know why God would do that!” It was a long way for my Mom to come, and we both got a hearty laugh from her closing line. In September 2012, I lost both of my parents just three weeks apart. As I watched my parents receive last rites as they died, I saw the Church’s sacraments pour out God’s grace on them. My Mom had been baptized and confirmed Catholic, but she had been attending Baptist churches since she was 18. The day before she died, a parish priest came and anointed her. There were no words to express the weight in my heart as the Church militant and the Church triumphant prayed together with us. It was a moment when the veil between earth and heaven is so thin you can nearly see through it. The following year, my 84-year-old Grandpa was baptized and entered the Catholic Church.

The Christmas following my parents’ deaths we attended Midnight Mass, followed by the Feast of St. Stephen the Martyr on December 26th. It struck me again, that even the calendar of the Church encompasses the human experience of faith. We experience the peak of joy at the birth of Christ immediately followed by the depths of the sorrow at the death of the first martyr. Our lives are a compilation of feasts and fasts, yet neither are in vain. They both hold vigil in our lives. God works in both according to the good for those who are in Christ Jesus. He directs our paths through both joy and sorrow with His word and His very self in the sacraments to sustain us. In His great mercy, Christ directed our path to Rome.

To doctor one last line from Chesterton to summarize my experience to date, “I know that Catholicism is too large for me, and I have not yet explored its beautiful and terrible truths. But I know that [Protestantism] is too small for me; and I could not creep back into that dull safety, who have looked on the dizzy vision of liberty.”


Noel Culbertson

Noel Culbertson is a member or St. Cecilia Catholic parish where she volunteers in the RCIA program and various parish ministries. She and her husband, Stan, live on Camano Island in Washington State where they are raising their two teenage daughters.


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