Skip to main content
AgnosticConversion StoriesEvangelical

A Twentieth-Century Centurion Swears Allegiance to Christ

Monsignor Stuart Swetland
January 18, 2011 3 Comments

From my Navy days fighting terrorism in the Middle East through my years debating politics at Oxford, Christ called me ever closer to His Church and finally into His priesthood.

June 14, 1985, began as a routine day at sea for the crew of the USS Kidd. Having just completed some joint naval exercises, we were in the Aegean Sea, en route to a port visit in Haifa, Israel. I was standing watch as the duty officer.

Suddenly, the calm of the day was interrupted by reports that an American passenger plane, TWA Flight 847 out of Athens to Rome, had been hijacked to Beirut by two members of the radical terrorist group Islamic Jihad. On board were more than 150 passengers, mostly Americans — including five Navy divers. Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert Stethem would soon be tortured and shot in the head.

President Ronald Reagan planned to take decisive action. In less than forty-eight hours, we were off the coast of Beirut. Before long, other ships and Special Forces, including the then-secret Delta Force, began to join our growing flotilla.

My role was initially to serve as landing officer for the helicopters using our flight deck. But two hours before we were to launch, the captain summoned me into his cabin.

He told me that a team of Navy SEALS was going to create a diversion ashore, drawing the enemy’s fire before swimming out to sea. I was to command a small boat to pluck them from the water at high speed. The captain told me we would probably come under heavy fire and that the chance of casualties was greater than fifty/fifty.

I chose the best unmarried men I could find for my three-man crew; then I prepared. I had been briefed on events in Beirut. I knew what the terrorists had done to Petty Officers; a great anger began to take hold of me.

My anger gave way to hatred — hatred toward the cowardly thugs who had killed my shipmate. I was glad I had been chosen for this mission, even though it put my life in danger. I wanted to kill the terrorists who had killed Stethem.

We launched our operation at midnight, but almost immediately everything was put on hold. I found out later that President Reagan was waiting for further intelligence on the location of the hostages. He didn’t want to leave any American behind. For the next two hours, we sat in the water, circling at our launch positions, waiting for the “go” command.

Praying the Hate Out of My Heart

Then I did what I think every soldier, sailor, Marine, or airman has done throughout history: I prayed. As they say, there are no atheists in foxholes. A recent convert to the Catholic faith, I had learned to pray the rosary by reading the works of St. Louis Marie de Monfort, and it had been the one form of prayer I had always been able to use under any circumstances. It did not fail me that evening.

As I prayed, the words of the Our Father struck me as never before: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Forgive? How could God possibly ask me to forgive the thugs who had tortured and killed a brave American sailor?

My mind drifted to the sorrowful mysteries. Jesus is crucified: “Father, forgive them!” He exclaimed as the nails pierced His sacred flesh (Lk 23:34). I thought of His admonition from the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies” (Mt 5:44).

How could God demand such forgiveness? Surely this teaching had exceptions. As we circled in the choppy ocean waters off Beirut, I rediscovered what I already had come to know and believe: The gospel of Jesus Christ is true, and it does not admit of exceptions.

If I had died that night, my salvation would have been in jeopardy. I had hated those terrorists from my heart. I wanted them dead.

I didn’t just want to protect and free innocent hostages — a worthy effort in which one can accept the death of an aggressor as an unintended consequence. I wanted to send the hijackers and their accomplices to hell.

If I had died in that state, hell is where I would have found myself.

But the “go” command never came. Before sunrise, President Reagan aborted the military operations, and negotiations eventually led to the release of the remaining hostages.

Thanks be to God! For that night, floating in the darkness off the coast of Beirut, I had another conversion: I learned the meaning of mercy, forgiveness, and love. In those hours, God gave me the actual grace — the supernatural power — to help me let go of my hatred and wrath.

But I relied on another grace that night: the grace I had received in becoming Catholic. This grace allowed me to know and to believe in the truth of the teaching of Christ and His Church. In those moments before battle, if I had for a moment doubted that the Word of God as revealed in Scripture and Tradition was true, I believe I would have resisted God’s call to “love your enemies,” probably the most difficult command in Scripture. Without the faith to believe that the teachings of Christ and His Church are infallibly true, I would not have had the courage to change that evening.

God’s grace not only saved me from myself that evening. This conversion from hatred to love — one of many in my life — brought me closer to discovering my call to the priesthood.

“Why Did You Become Catholic?”

The day that I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church was the most joyful day of my life. At the Easter Vigil in 1984, in the small chapel of Oxford University’s Newman Center, I was confirmed and received the Eucharist for the first time. The moment I received the Host, I knew that I was being united with Jesus Christ in every possible way: physically, spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. I knew that I was following the will of the Father more closely than I ever had before.

But becoming Catholic was about the last thing I had expected to do while at Oxford.

Often when someone asks me why I became a Catholic, I answer with a clever line stolen from some famous convert. A favorite is G. K. Chesterton’s quip, “To get my sins forgiven.” Another favorite is the short affirmation: “Because it’s true.”

Sometimes it’s more an accusation than a question. If the person asks, “Why did you become a Catholic?” with the emphasis on Catholic, he has a problem with the Church. If the emphasis is on you, he’s usually an intellectual elitist who believes that no educated person would become (or remain) Catholic. If the emphasis is on become, the questioner finds it possible that a person raised in the Church would remain in it, but inconceivable that someone with my background would choose to become Catholic.

I love to challenge such prejudices, because I too once held them. When I “went up” to Oxford, as the English say (the expression assumes that everyone is coming from London, thus going “up,” north, to Oxford), my religion could have best been described as lapsed Protestant with strong anti-Catholic biases. In many ways, I was a functioning pagan steeped in all the fashionable ideas of modern American ideology. Politically and economically, I was a conservative with a libertarian tendency. I was a pretty typical product of my background.

A Born-Again Conservative in Revolutionary Times

I was born on May 15, 1959, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the youngest of three children. My parents were and are devout Christians, and I was baptized a Lutheran soon after birth.

When I was three, my parents moved to rural northeast Pennsylvania. There wasn’t always a Lutheran church close at hand in those parts, so for the next decade, I attended Methodist and Baptist churches as well — each Evangelical, with a strong sense that the Bible was literally and inerrantly true. My family attended church every Sunday morning, participated in Sunday school (where my parents often assisted or taught), frequently attended midweek services on Wednesday nights, and encouraged prayer and Bible study at home.

At the age of six or seven, I committed myself to a personal relationship with Christ, as much as one can as a small child. I deepened this commitment at twelve, when, as a member of a Baptist community, I was re-baptized. A few years later, when a Lutheran community began in our small town, I again recommitted myself when I was confirmed as a member there.

On each of these occasions, I was truly converting in the sense of going deeper into my relationship with Christ. I was really “growing in the Lord,” a process that I believe parallels our Lord’s own growth in age and grace and wisdom (see Lk 2:40, 52). This ongoing conversation is a necessary part of spiritual maturity.

But there was something missing. As I grew spiritually, I began to question many things.

From my earliest memories, I have always been fascinated with moral questions, especially those that touch on economic and political issues. Perhaps this is because I grew up during the revolutionary times of the late 1960s and early 1970s in a house with a politically active conservative Republican father. (My earliest political memory is of my dad’s bumper sticker in 1966: “Don’t blame me. I voted for [Barry] Goldwater.”) My elder siblings and my dad argued constantly about Vietnam, the draft, the voting age, women’s rights, civil rights, and a host of other issues.

Looking for the Right Answers

It was natural for me to search for answers to the questions that were being argued daily on television, in the newspaper, and at our dinner table. Having been taught to search for the truth in the Bible, I began to study it to find out the “right answers.”

Even in my late teenage years, I questioned what seemed to be contradictory answers to the most basic questions from people who all claimed that God loves us and had given us the truth in Scripture.

My mother and sister, for example, were working hard for women’s rights because they saw the biblical truth that all people were created in the image and likeness of God and thus deserved equal respect. As an educator and administrator, my mother was a pioneer for women in leadership roles, although she never received the same pay as her (often less-qualified) male counterparts. But many Evangelicals condemned her and others like her for failing to be “submissive” according to their readings of St. Paul’s epistles. Devout Christians read the same texts and came up with opposite conclusions!

On many issues, from the sublime (the meaning of Holy Communion) to the ridiculous (whether men could wear their hair long), I found believing Christians at odds, despite their reliance on the same Bible. Who was to decide among them? How could I decide what was right?

Encounter With a “Peace Church”

If I had stayed in my rural hamlet, these issues might never have been enough to cause me a crisis of faith. But the larger world beckoned. Partly because I wanted to get a free, high-quality education, partly because my parents had instilled in me the important notion of service, and partly for the prestige of it all, I entered the United States Naval Academy (USNA) as part of the Class of 1981.

Those in the admissions office informed my parents that they did not think I could handle the academy academically and not to expect much. But I was born stubborn, so I needed to hear no more. I threw myself into my studies (majoring in physics) and graduated first in my class, winning a Rhodes Scholarship in my senior year.

But my time at USNA was not good for my faith. During my plebe (freshman) year, I searched for a place of worship. The naval chaplaincy provided a generic Protestant service that I enjoyed but didn’t find comforting or challenging. So I began to look for a “civilian” church to attend.

I was in for a shock. When I attended a Lutheran church in the Annapolis area, I was greeted coldly. After a couple of weeks, they told me I wasn’t welcome back if I was in uniform — that the congregation was a “peace church” that had taken an anti-war stance during the Vietnam conflict. Since plebes had to wear their uniforms, I couldn’t attend this church.

This rejection left me reeling. My home community had celebrated my military scholarship and sent me forth with a blessing — and here were members of the same denomination, reading the same Bible, condemning me for being in the service. Who was right? How could I know?

The Crucible of Doubt

Being a typical eighteen-year-old, this was all I needed to quit practicing my faith. For the next four years, I was, at best, an irregular churchgoer. I stopped praying, and instead I threw myself into my work and studies. I did not resolve these faith issues; I just bracketed them, dismissing Christianity as a religion that was hopelessly confused.

When I arrived at Oxford in October 1981, I had an opportunity to study beyond my technological background. Former Rhodes Scholars from the Navy, including Admiral Stansfield Turner and Secretary of the Navy James Woolsey, had convinced me to study P.P.E. (politics, philosophy, and economics) at Oxford. I decided that this was the time to search for answers to the ethical and moral questions that had always interested me. In fact, my tutors at Oxford challenged me to do just that.

Among the first books they had me read were René Descartes’ three works A Discourse on Method, Meditations on the First Philosophy, and Principles of Philosophy. Descartes challenges the reader to place all of his beliefs in the “crucible of doubt.” This methodological doubt means that one should question why he holds any and all beliefs, even belief in the existence of God, in creation, and in himself. Through this method, Descartes reaches his famous “Cogito ergo sum” — “I think, therefore I am” — as the basis for a philosophical argument for the existence of God and the universe. I set about applying this method in my life.

Radical doubt is dangerous. By rejecting all received wisdom and tradition, you place yourself in an intellectual void. Only later would I understand that we are not isolated atoms, but rather beings born for and in community. We need to remain connected to that communion with the living and the dead and with the wisdom of the ages. As Chesterton said, “Belief in tradition is just applying the principles of democracy to the dead.”

Rubens_Adoration-of-the-magi-smConfronting Christianity’s Claims

Having begun to ask myself (and others) to justify all beliefs — moral, intellectual, and religious — I soon found myself face to face with the basic claims of Christianity. I could no longer simply bracket them.

There God’s grace worked in me, especially through certain Christians He placed in my life. As I began my studies at New College in Oxford, a group of young men and women, several of them believing Catholics, befriended me. During our next three years together, their influence, their patience, and especially the witness of their lives helped lead me into the Church.

Having inherited all the anti-Catholic prejudice of a typical Evangelical Protestant, I resisted what was becoming plain to me: that there is a wisdom in the teaching of the Catholic Church that is explainable only by its greater-than-human inspiration. As I searched for answers to the questions my tutors asked me, I kept finding that the best responses — the most reasonable, well articulated, and convincing — came from the Catholic tradition. The writings of the saints (especially St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas and those influenced by them, such as Blessed John Henry Newman, Elizabeth Anscombe, and John Finnis) were superior to those proposed by other sources.

It seemed to me that Catholic thought about social questions — for example, the issues for war and peace (especially the just-war tradition) — was clearer and better thought-out than other arguments that I was studying. At first, I thought this was a coincidence. But as time went on, I could not deny that something different was behind the writings of these men and women.

On my own, I began to examine the basic assumptions of the Christian faith. First, did Jesus exist? Yes, this is well documented. Next, is He who He says He is? I had to admit that I agreed with C. S. Lewis’s ideas that He was either “liar, lunatic, or Lord.” But how could I judge the authority of His claims?

Did Jesus Really Rise?

After much thought and study (and just a little prayer; to this stage I wasn’t yet seriously praying), I decided that the central claim of Christianity is the claim of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. The truth of the biblical witness seemed to me to hinge on this claim. So how should one judge the authenticity of the Resurrection?

I tried to approach the biblical texts as I did other ancient texts. At this time, I was also reading Julius Caesar and Thucydides for their insights into military strategy and tactics. Most thinkers accepted these texts fairly straightforwardly. Was Scripture less trustworthy?

The text I first found most compelling was 1 Corinthians chapter 15. Here St. Paul tells of all those who had seen and experienced the risen Lord: more than five hundred witnesses, many of whom were still alive when Paul wrote the letter (about twenty years after the events).

This letter seems to be an authentic testimony to the truth of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The hundreds of witnesses lend credibility to Paul’s own experience of the risen Lord. If these others had not really experienced the convincing proofs of Jesus’ resurrection, Paul would quickly have been seen as a fraud.

As I studied more, I was startled by the overwhelming evidence for the Resurrection, especially in the life of the early Church. Almost to a person, those first believers went to a martyr’s death for their firm and certain belief in the Resurrection. No other explanation made sense of the data.

Could it be that Jesus really had not died? No, the medical evidence in John’s Gospel of “blood and water rushing from His side” shows that He really died. And even a cursory reading of Roman history shows that no Roman soldier would so botch a crucifixion as to allow a condemned man to survive.

No, for anyone “with eyes to see and ears to hear,” the accounts of the Resurrection and the lives of the men and women who had witnessed the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were convincing evidence of the authenticity of that startling event.

The Church’s Teachings All Ring True

In addition, there were existential, subjective reasons for me to believe. Throughout my sojourn away from practicing the Christian faith, I had never been comfortable in denying what I had experienced in prayer and worship as a child. On some level of my being, I knew that I had encountered the living God in my life.

I could not “unhear” that Word that had spoken to my heart as a child. Now my mind was united with what I knew connaturally in my heart all along: that Jesus is our risen Lord!

With this rediscovery, I began studying the Scriptures closely, looking for a community of believers in which to worship. I found one in an Evangelical Anglican Church in Oxford. But after a few months of worshiping there, I found I needed more than just that wonderful community’s charismatic preaching and singing.

I now really knew, on an adult level, that the Scriptures were true. I wanted to find a community that also believed this and was trying to live it daily. I also wanted to answer the many ethical, moral, and political questions that still intrigued me.

As I studied and prayed more, I kept encountering the issues that divided Catholics and Evangelical Protestants.

I read of how Jesus commissioned His Apostles to forgive sin in John 20:22–23. But where and how was this power exercised today in the community?

Scripture talked about anointing the sick in James 5:14–15. Yet only Catholics seemed to take this text seriously.

What Jesus said about Holy Communion seemed very straightforward to me, especially in John 6. Yet Evangelicals speak of the Lord’s Supper as only symbolic.

The Scriptures talked about the transformative power of God’s grace, so that one can speak like St. Paul of total transformation of oneself to become like Christ (see 2 Co 3:18). But most Evangelicals believe that Christ’s righteousness merely covers our sinful nature instead of transforming it.

Sacred Scripture speaks of the intercession of the heavenly host on behalf of God’s people on earth (see Rev 8:2–4). But only Catholics prayed to the saints and angels as intercessors and friends.

Then there were the moral teachings of the Church, which seemed to make more sense to me each day. As I examined the alternatives, secular and religious, no other ethical system had the same internal consistency and tight argumentation that I found in the Catholic moral tradition of natural law.

In addition, the Catholic moral tradition answered the question of how to decide moral issues — by appealing to the teaching authority given to the Apostles and to their successors (the Magisterium of the Church). This teaching authority made sense of God’s love and desire to lead His children into all truth.

Still another influence was the example of the Catholics I knew as friends, who lived their faith with a peace and joy about them that I didn’t find elsewhere in the world. In fact, it was a peace and joy that “surpassed all understanding” (see Phil 4:7). I knew that I needed and desired that same peace and joy.

Sensing the Real Presence

I began seeking private instruction in the Faith from Oxford’s Catholic chaplain. For two and a half years, he patiently met with me each week as I struggled to learn what the Catholic Church teaches. I examined every aspect of the Faith that I could handle.

I attended lectures on questions of faith and morals held around the university. I visited with Father Thomas More Mann, a saintly Franciscan who introduced me to a side of the Church entirely new to me: its outreach to the poor and vulnerable. I began to pray seriously and to attend Mass each day. I loved to pray before and after Mass in the chapel in front of the Tabernacle.

Growing up, I had been exposed to different theologies of the Eucharist. To the Baptists and Methodists, it was only a symbolic remembrance. Lutherans believed in “consubstantiation”: Jesus is present “with” (“con-”) the substance of bread and wine, but only in its “use” at Communion. The elements remained bread and wine at all times.

In fact, I once watched my Lutheran pastor return extra communion hosts to the bag for a later use after they had been consecrated. When I questioned him about this practice, he told me that they were no longer consecrated because Jesus was present only in the “use.” When I pressed him to explain how this was possible and how this squared with Jesus’ own words, “This is My body; this is My blood,” he told me that it was a mystery that we couldn’t hope to understand.

As I prayed in the chapel day in and day out, I had a very real sense of Jesus’ abiding Presence in the place. When I finally got to the Church’s teachings on the Eucharist, I grew excited: I had already been experiencing the Real Presence in my own private prayer in the chapel.

The Church Is a Truth-Teaching Thing

Once I became conceptually aware of what I had connaturally experienced with the Eucharist, I began truly to hunger and thirst for our Eucharistic Lord. But before I could receive Him, I had to be honestly able to say that I believed what the Catholic Church believed. So I redoubled my efforts to study the teachings of the Church, trying to come to terms with them, particularly her sexual ethic, which seemed so idealistic. It was beautiful but seemed impossibly demanding.

By this time, my friends knew I was examining questions of the Faith. I was trying to see whether I could accept every aspect of the Church’s teaching. But my friend Dermot Quinn pointed out to me the futility of this approach.

Even if I could study every detail of every teaching, he observed, and come to say honestly that I agreed with the Church, this would not make my faith truly Catholic. What made a person Catholic, Dermot insisted, was not just belief that the Church taught the truth in matters of faith and morals, but the belief that the Church is a “truth-teaching thing.”

In other words, the most important question I had to answer was this: Is the Catholic Church who she says she is? Is she the Church founded by Jesus Christ, containing all that Christ’s believers need for their instruction and sanctification?

If I believed this, I should be (had to be!) Catholic. If I did not, it really didn’t matter whether I happened to agree with particular Church teachings.

The choice before me was clear. I had come to believe that the Church was who she claimed to be. The fact that I still had difficulties with some of her teachings didn’t really matter. As Newman said, “A thousand difficulties do not make for one doubt.”

I didn’t doubt that the Church was the Mystical Body of Christ extended through space and time. I was confident that the Church’s teachings in faith and morals were true even if I didn’t fully understand why they were true, because I believed that God had endowed His Church with a special charism of the Holy Spirit that ensured that her authentic teachings in matters of faith and morals are, at least, not false. So I was ready to be received into full communion.

I knew then, as I know now, that my life as a Catholic would partly be spent in coming to a better understanding of my faith. I would need to do theology (“faith seeking understanding”) to know and live the truth better.

This point needs to be emphasized: If God truly loves us, then He must ensure that we have a way of knowing what He is like and how we are to live. A loving father wants to be known by his children and teaches his children how to live and how to love. Any father who didn’t would be negligent.

I had come to know and experience that our loving Abba is no “reclusive” father. He has provided us, His children, with a way to know how we should live. The teaching office of the Church ensures that in every age we have access to the fullness of truth that has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ, who empowers the Church’s official teachers, the bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome, to teach with a greater-than-human authority in the areas of faith and morals.

He does this out of love for His children. But like all children, we must attentively listen to our Father and seek to understand His teachings if we are to live them out.

It is also very important for us to have confidence and trust in this function of the Magisterium of the Church. This is especially true when it comes to accepting and living the difficult and demanding teachings of the gospel. When faced with temptation, often coupled with intense emotions, we have a tendency toward rationalization.

In such difficult times, we must have at least moral certitude about the teaching authority of the Church. One of the great injustices that dissenting theologians, pastors, and teachers have done to God’s people is to place uncertainty in people’s minds, doubts about Church teachings and even about the very authority of the Church to teach. This makes it easier for us to use our difficulties and doubts as excuses not to live up to the demands of the gospel.

Answering the Call

That June night in 1985 off the coast of Beirut, I needed certainty that God did in fact demand that I love my enemies. I needed confidence that God’s promises to me would be fulfilled. I needed to know that God’s grace was sufficient for me to follow the gospel’s call to love. Without this confidence, I could well have lost my soul.

Once received into the Church, I was soon back in the Navy, serving as a line officer aboard frigates and destroyers. I found it challenging to try to live as a devout Catholic in the military. It was particularly difficult not to be able to attend daily Mass.

At sea, we would often go two months without seeing a Catholic chaplain or making a port visit. But I was determined to serve the Lord as I served my country. It was the height of the Cold War, and it was easy to see that the Soviets and their empire needed to be contained. As I was soon to learn firsthand, innocents needed protection throughout the world, especially from the threat of terrorism that was (and is) affecting so many.

Throughout my time of service, but especially after the events of the summer of 1985, an old desire began to reemerge in my soul. When I was five or six, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said a minister. Of course, I had put away such “childish thoughts” as I grew, especially in light of my struggle with faith.

But now these thoughts began to reemerge. I discussed these feelings with spiritual advisers, who recommended that I wait three years after my conversion before acting on them. Converts often can be overly zealous in their desire to serve the Lord.

I loved the Navy. But over time, I became more and more convinced that God was calling me to a higher form of service: the priesthood. I wanted to share with others the joy I had experienced: the joy of knowing God’s forgiveness, the joy of receiving Him in the Eucharist, and the joy of knowing the truth revealed to us in His Word.

So I resigned my commission in order to enter the seminary. I was ordained a priest on May 25, 1991, and I had the honor to serve much of my priesthood as a Newman Center chaplain on campus. As a “Newman convert” myself, I felt right at home in this capacity.

Each day God challenges me to go deeper into the mystery of His love. In hindsight, I see my life as a constant call to just such an ongoing conversion. At times, I’m faithful to this call, and other times I fall far short of a proper response to His grace.  What has been true all through my life is that the Lord continues to be kind and “merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk 18:13). My greatest joy as a priest is sharing that kindness and mercy with others — even with my enemies.

Monsignor Stuart Swetland

Monsignor Stuart W. Swetland, S.T.D., currently serves as the Most Reverend Harry J. Flynn Endowed Chair for Christian Ethics and Chair of the President’s Committee on Catholic Identity and Mission at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap