“I was born and raised in a Catholic home.” This sentence, repeated in all too many ‘conversion’ stories, must be included in mine. It seems so much more tragic to preface a testimony with this sentence, than to relay a happy conversion story that starts, “I was born and raised a staunch Calvinist, but then…” Why? Because when the story concerns a cradle Catholic, it signals that something was missing from what should have been the most wonderful, grace filled Christian experience available on earth.
Yes, the good news is that many of these Catholics are coming Home! But the disturbing news is that these people have felt the need to leave the Church of their youth in order to recognize God’s love.
Often, in an attempt to assuage the guilt of having left the Church over such issues as clerical abuse, lack of spiritual formation or coldness in his or her local parish, an ex-Catholic will turn against the Church and become viciously anti-Catholic. This happened with me. I was not really anti-Catholic when I left the Church; nor did I leave for any heavy doctrinal reason, I left for emotional ones. At the time of my departure, I was very pro-Catholic and longed for the Church to meet my spiritual needs, but was angry that it didn’t.
I left the Church in 1992, joining a small, loving Protestant church. Eventually I would become an elder of this church, lead men’s Bible studies, and host weekly prayer meetings. Independently of anything taught from the pulpit of this church, I grew even angrier and proceeded to build a doctrinal ‘case’ against Rome. Every evening, my grudge against the Church was edged toward full-blown hatred as I reveled in the writings of professional anti-Catholics such as Dave Hunt and James G. McCarthy. Many a dark night slipped by as I continually “let the sun go down on my anger.” Woe to the unprepared Catholic that crossed my path at this time! Woe to my Catholic family members! McCarthy and Hunt’s books allowed me to build an air tight case against the Church, but it seems that I never considered that if air could not get in or out, neither could the Light. And so, in the darkness of my prejudice, I grew as a misshapen plant. I bore bitter fruit on twisted branches.
I wrote anti-Catholic tracts and opened a post office box with the intent of distributing them. I spent long hours in the library researching local Catholic history in order to compile a “spiritual map” of my community. On a large street map, I marked the location of each Catholic church with an “X” (Eight X’s in all.) This mapping was done in order to target these Catholic churches for intense intercessory prayer campaigns. I wasn’t praying for anything as noble as an increase in vocations in the Catholic Church, I simply wanted all the Catholic churches in my community to be emptied. I went to many of these churches, anointed the buildings with oil, and prayed for the salvation of the members there.
Something Truly Miraculous
In the midst of all this, something truly miraculous happened. I heard a sermon by a Fundamentalist pastor who seemed to hate the Church as much as I did. In a pivotal moment of my spiritual life, I listened to him and comprehended just what I had become. Suddenly, as when Nathan the prophet confronted the murderous King David, I could almost hear God say, “You are that man, Mark!” It was as if someone had held a mirror up to my face and I saw that I had become terribly disfigured. Hate had turned me into a monster. As I listened to this local anti-Catholic preacher, I can vividly remember wondering what heaven would be like, filled with only the “righteous” like him and me? I came to the conclusion that heaven would be a miserable and perfectly wretched place if that were so!
Within a month of hearing this sermon, I picked up a book by an ‘obscure’ Catholic named Mother Teresa. A Simple Path challenged my whole conception of Christian service. Here was an elderly nun selflessly giving her whole life to Christ, but there was just one problem: she prayed the rosary! What was I to do? I knew that the rosary was an instrument used in ‘idolatrous’ prayers to Mary; how could this woman serve God, and Satan too? For the answer, I turned to Dave Hunt’s book, where he reassured me that, “her [Mother Teresa’s] evangelism leads no one to Christ…” For some strange (and merciful) reason I didn’t buy Hunt’s counsel this time. I began to wonder, Am I just gathering around me a great number of teachers to say what my itching ears want to hear?
I shared Mother Teresa’s book with my pastor, a kind and compassionate man whom I love deeply, and he was so moved that he preached a sermon on it. Contrary to Dave Hunt’s assertion, people in this Protestant congregation were brought closer to Christ because of this sister’s witness. Seeing this, I knew I had to radically alter my opinion of at least one Catholic, a tiny religious sister from Calcutta.
I was being devastated by all that was being revealed to me about my prejudices. I was horrified by the prospect that some of the very people I had been persecuting, may have in fact been ‘saved.’ I, of course, had no intention of going back to the Catholic Church, but at least I would be more charitable in my assessment of Catholics. Not wanting to concede too much, however, I resolved to re-read Dave Hunt’s book to see what I could salvage of my case against the Church.
Sola Scriptura: Hunt or Luther?
I started reading A Woman Rides the Beast for a second time, but this time something was different. Whereas in the past this book made me feel smug about my escape from the “Whore of Babylon,” it now caused my case to collapse in ruins. This book is so internally inconsistent and mean spirited, that I could only shake when I read it again. If Hunt had written in the same manner about the Jewish people, he would be termed an anti-Semite and be featured on Nightline. Consider the following quote from his book, “Those conditioned to believe that wine had become Christ’s blood were able to believe Hitler’s myth of blood as well.” How could I be so blind to his prejudice?
As I studied this book, something else became apparent. In his rush to pummel Catholics, Hunt also wounded Luther. With his assault on Luther’s ‘heretical’ belief in the Real Presence, he shook my trust in sola Scriptura. Why? Because Luther and Hunt both believe that Scripture alone should be used to determine doctrine. Yet, while using Scripture, both men were at opposite ends of the spectrum on what seemed to be a key doctrinal question: Is Christ physically present in the Eucharist? Hunt said this belief was “a fantasy” and “a foolish heresy” and cited many Scripture verses to support his belief. Luther disagreed, as he explained in, A Treatise Concerning the Blessed Sacrament and Concerning the Brotherhood:
There are those who practice their arts and subtleties to such an extent that they ask where the bread remains when it is changed into Christ’s flesh, and the wine when it is changed into His blood; also in what manner the whole Christ, His flesh and blood, can be comprehended in so small a portion of bread and wine. What does it matter? It is enough to know that it is a divine sign, in which Christ’s flesh and blood are truly present — how and where, we leave to Him. [Emphasis added]
Hunt claimed that Luther had been unable to jettison this belief from his Catholic upbringing, but Luther’s writings clearly show that he used Scripture to support this belief, as is shown in the following quote from his Small Catechism:
What is the sacrament of the Altar? It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and drink. Where is this written? The holy Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, together with St. Paul, write thus: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the night in which He was betrayed, took bread; and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you; this do in remembrance of me.” [Emphasis added]
Hunt had a problem, and so did I. Using Scripture alone, we had come to an impasse. Sola Scriptura did not seem to be a valid method for solving this important doctrinal dispute. Either Hunt was right or Martin Luther was right, or both were wrong. In any event, sola Scriptura had failed to weed out an error in doctrine. One or both were teaching a lie, but whom? What Luther (using Scripture) saw as the Body and Blood of our Lord, Hunt (using Scripture) saw as a fantasy and heresy.
I saw that it ultimately came down to a stand off between Dave Hunt and Martin Luther’s interpretations of Scripture. I started to wonder, Am I just following the “traditions of men” by trusting Hunt, or am I following the intentions of Christ? This question started to burn inside of me. How would I resolve it?
Matthew 18: Our Lord’s Instruction
I was dismayed to discover that I could not even bring this disagreement to the ‘church’ as instructed by Jesus in Matthew 18. In this discourse to the disciples, He had outlined a three-step procedure to use if one had something against a brother. Included were the consequences to be incurred if one would not submit to correction. I reasoned that Hunt’s charge of heresy would qualify as having “ought against a brother.” Jesus’ solution was not to take this problem to the Scriptures (Remember, that’s how we arrived at this impasse), but instead to take it to “the church.” It suddenly became clear that I couldn’t do this. Why not?
Well, quite frankly, which Protestant church would I have brought it to? Dave Hunt’s church? The Lutheran church whom he had also charged with heresy? Or perhaps a ‘neutral’ Protestant denomination like the Baptist church? If the Baptists, then which Baptist church? The Regular Baptists? The Southern Baptists? The American Baptists? Which one of the 30,000 plus Protestant denominations should I bring it to?
Which Protestant church would be given the final authority to cast one or both of these men out as “tax collectors and sinners”? And if they were cast out, what would stop them from simply starting up another church, a church custom tailored to their own particular teachings? The end result could be denomination number 30,001 and denomination number 30,002 and a direct repudiation of Christ’s command that this excommunication would be binding “in heaven and on earth.”
I began to see that in spite of the Protestant insistence on the Bible being the “court of last appeal,” sola Scriptura was an unworkable doctrine. Without an authoritative Church with the authority to bind and loose (in heaven and on earth), Jesus’ solution for conflict resolution in the Church was ludicrous. I reasoned that Jesus loves us too much to give us worthless solutions, therefore this authoritative Church must exist today, just as it must have existed from the time He issued the command. This Church also must have been exercising this authority throughout Christian history, definitively judging heresies such as Gnosticism and Pelagianism as being contrary to the truth.
I read the Church Fathers and saw that the belief in the Real Presence could be traced back to the early martyrs; the early Church consistently held that the Jesus was really present in the Eucharist. From this discovery I developed an intense hunger for the Eucharist which would not dissipate. I wanted to belong to a living Church tradition with a sense of being joined to a family that had its beginnings in the Upper Room, and which had continued to defend the Faith until this present day.
During this time, I discovered that I didn’t have to search for a church to weigh the merits of Luther’s doctrine. Jesus Christ had already established a Church which had done just that. In the end, Dave Hunt had done what the Catholic Church had failed to do. He had destroyed my trust in sola Scriptura.
With these revelations came a necessary pruning. As branch after twisted branch of prejudice was cut off, there was great pain and turmoil. I know that were it not for the love of my wife and the grace of God, I would not have survived the process. I did not want to leave the wonderful people at my church, and, as sad as it might sound, I did not want to leave the comfort of the dark little box into which I had tried to squeeze the richness of Christianity. On another level, I did not want to commit my life to a Church with which I was still angry. And to be even more honest, I did not want to eat the “wheelbarrows full of crow” that people would be lining up to feed me. Not surprisingly, this thinly veiled pride was the last obstacle to be overcome.
But I learned to lay my pride and anger aside as I prayed about Jesus’ question in Luke 6:46, “And why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” I slowly came to the following conclusion: If someone is serious about obeying Christ, and if that person makes an honest and careful study of both Scripture and Church history, he or she will ultimately feel compelled to come into the bosom of the Catholic Church or suffer the utter misery of living a life of compromise.
My return to the Church happened on a quiet evening at the local monastery. There was no fanfare, no grand ceremony. I sincerely stated my intention to obey the teachings of the Church by making a Profession of Faith, and then went to confession with my family. Together with our fellow Catholics, we received our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament during a public Mass. After a four-year rejection of the Eucharist, I could only weep. The sublime nature of the moment was heightened by the realization that this church was marked by a small ‘X’ on my map.
On the edge of the woods near the monastery stands a statue of Jesus with arms outstretched. A detail of this statue had caught my attention while compiling my map two years earlier: the statue had no right hand. Such was my suspicion of the Church, that this missing hand was proof to me of Rome’s diabolical nature. The Bible had much to say about the importance of God’s mighty right hand, and here was a symbol of the Catholic Church’s negation of God’s power. So, “X” marked the spot.
I pointed to the statue during one of my first meetings with the priest who brought me home. “See,” I challenged, “Christ has no right hand!” Father Gabriel turned calmly towards me and said, “Mark, you are His right hand.” My thoughts turned to Mother Teresa and my own stumbling journey to this place, and conviction followed. I had been so intent upon making God do my will that I hadn’t even considered following Christ’s insistent call to humble service. The sheer arrogance of my approach to “healing” the spiritual wounds of my community became brutally apparent. Now, when I leave Mass at this monastery, I can see this statue that still challenges me to continue this lifelong process of dying to self.
Floating high above the Church of the Immaculate Conception, the symphony of bells calls the Catholics of this small Midwestern town to worship on this February morning. Far below the bell tower, the sanctuary slowly fills with people as I let my prayers ride upon the sound. It is a miracle that my wife and I are here today. A short year ago, I had told my Protestant pastor that I was going to pray for the Catholic people during Lent, that they would come to know the Lord. Now, here I am in this Church, eyes clouding with tears, heart filled with peace and wonder — a Catholic once again.
I have become graciously undone. All the things I thought I knew, all of my clever reasons for ridiculing these people, lies mercifully in ruins behind me. Heaped there also is my self-righteous facade, the victim of the Truth. This morning, with nothing else to give God but my ragged self, I will offer that to Him again. In a short time, He will give Himself to my wife and me in a very real way. The priest will say, “The Body of Christ,” and we will say, “Amen!” We will proclaim that which the Church has proclaimed for two thousand years: that Jesus is really and truly present in the Eucharist. Sitting here now, with the sounds and the sights of Catholicism above and around me, and with the expectation of the Eucharist before me, I am filled with awe. What a year. What a tumultuous and glorious journey.
As I write this, I am preparing for Ash Wednesday. Soon, the priest will place ashes upon my forehead as a symbol of repentance, death and resurrection. As he inscribes a Cross upon my forehead with an ash blackened thumb, he will say something like this: “Repent and believe the Good News!” I will gladly bear upon my brow the symbol of our precious Savior’s life-giving death. This will be the first time I will have participated in this solemn ceremony in five years. It will be nearly one year to the day since I voiced my commitment to pray for the Catholic people during Lent, that they might come to know the Lord. Isn’t it amazing how God answers prayer?