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My Heart Was in the East

Alan Orser
May 27, 2021 No Comments

My journey from Baptist pastor to Catholic convert was an amazing, agonizing one, with numerous twists and turns along the way. From the outset, I want to say that I will always be grateful to my Baptist heritage for the excellent grounding in the Scriptures it gave me and the foundation it provided for living a life that pleases Jesus Christ. I have not dispensed with my Baptist roots. Instead, I have built upon them.

Beginnings of Faith

At age ten, I came to faith in Jesus Christ through an after-school neighborhood Bible club my mother and her friend offered for children in Sudbury, Ontario. I remember saying what Baptists refer to as the Sinner’s Prayer with my mother one night as she tucked me into bed. I would later come to know that Catholics refer to that prayer as the Jesus Prayer.

At age twelve, I was baptized by immersion at First Baptist Church in Sudbury. I still remember the sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence lingering with me the entire day.

Shortly after that, my family moved to Owen Sound, ON. Unfortunately, my teen years were turbulent ones, and I drifted away from my faith in Jesus. However, a dramatic turnaround occurred in the summer of 1974.

The Jesus People movement was coming onto the scene, and that caught my interest. Also, my mother brought home a copy of Ken Taylor’s The Living Bible, which was becoming very popular among Protestants. As I read the Bible in contemporary language, especially the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Christ, I had a revelation that Jesus had died not only for the whole world, but for me personally. I became convicted by the Holy Spirit with my need to turn my life around, and I resolved that, from then on, I would live my life in full-time service to God.

The Cherry Tree

In 1979, two significant things happened in my life. I decided to enroll as a student at the conservative Evangelical Ontario Bible College in Toronto, ON, with the goal of obtaining a Bachelor of Theology degree. I also started picking what I shall refer to as “cherries from the Roman Catholic cherry tree.”

Prior to leaving for Ontario Bible College, I had discovered in the local Christian bookstore in my home town a book by a famous Catholic theologian on the nature of the Church. That was my first cherry, and I was mildly surprised to find a Catholic book being sold in a conservative Evangelical bookstore.

At Ontario Bible College, I continued picking cherries from the Catholic tree. I enjoyed reading Henri Nouwen’s Out of Solitude and purchased from the school’s bookstore The Confessions of St. Augustine. Again, I was mildly surprised to find these works offered at an Evangelical Bible school, but never gave much thought to the tree from which the cherries had come. When I graduated from Ontario Bible College in 1983, I decided to attend the University of Waterloo in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON since, with my transfer credits from the Bible college, I would be able to obtain a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies in just a year. While there, I did a directed reading course at St. Jerome’s Roman Catholic College, which was located on the campus of the university. The course allowed me to pluck more Catholic cherries as I avidly read works by Simone Weil, Jean Vanier, and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk. I also very much enjoyed Revelations of Divine Love by Mother Julian of Norwich. I still did not, however, inquire deeply about the nature of the tree from which I was plucking the cherries.

One memory stands out from my Catholic cherry-picking days. I was heading home to Owen Sound on the bus and found myself sitting next to a young man who was training for the priesthood and who also lived in my city. I remember feeling an instant connection with him as we talked during that long trip.

Turning East

Having received a solid undergraduate foundation, I needed to choose a Baptist seminary where I could earn a Master of Divinity degree, required of all Baptist pastors in the Baptist Federation of Canada. I decided to go farther east, specifically to Eastern Canada’s Baptist seminary at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. I chose the seminary because of its conservative and Evangelical leanings.

During my years at Acadia Divinity College, I was far too busy to pursue any Catholic leanings. But it was there that I met and married my wife, Sandi, while assigned to a Baptist church in Dartmouth, NS for a course in pastoral field education. Sandi was completing her Ph.D., prior to becoming an English professor at two Halifax universities.

Upon graduation from Acadia Divinity College, I became the pastor of a small Baptist church in Mt. Uniacke, a small bedroom community not far from Halifax, NS. I continued to read various Catholic books in my spare time and got on extremely well with the Catholic clergy in the community. I also developed a close friendship with a Catholic layman who would have an impact on my life as I saw his character and Catholic convictions lived out in daily life.

Remarkably, I would stay at the Baptist church in Mt. Uniacke for twenty-seven years, until I retired from active pastoral ministry in September, 2016. It was during the last few years of my tenure as pastor that my journey to the Catholic Church would begin to accelerate.

Turning Toward Eastern Europe

During my days off, I loved to prowl the thrift stores of Halifax. In one such store, I stumbled across Randall Sullivan’s book The Miracle Detective. Sullivan had been a seasoned reporter with Rolling Stone magazine, and he had set out to investigate the Marian apparitions around the world. As a result of his investigation, he ended up becoming a Catholic Christian.

I was impressed by Sullivan’s scholarly treatment of the subject and intrigued by the attention he devoted to an alleged Marian apparition site in Europe. In another visit to the same store, I discovered two more books that delved deeply into the events taking place in that European town.

As I read these three books, I found myself becoming intrigued with the concept of spiritual motherhood, which is a subject not found in Protestantism. As a Protestant, I firmly believed in the Virgin Mary as the mother of Jesus, but only mentioned her in my sermons at Christmas. Once the Nativity scene was packed away, I didn’t talk about Mary again until the following Christmas.

I shared the view of many Protestants that Catholics worship Mary, but as I read the books about Marian apparitions, I discovered a deep longing stirring in my heart. If I had a spiritual mother, then I sure wanted to know more about her, this woman who was everybody’s mother.

I had a strong sense that Jesus had His hand on my shoulder and was guiding me in the way He wanted me to go. The longing to go to the site of the alleged apparitions was growing in my heart, but a Baptist pastor does not go off to a bastion of Catholicism in eastern Europe without being absolutely sure of what he is doing.

My wife and I agreed that I had to have a sign that I was to go.

The sign came when Sandi and I attended a leadership conference at a Protestant church in Halifax. While there, we learned about contemplative prayer, and the speakers freely acknowledged that this kind of prayer had been part of the Catholic monastic tradition for centuries. I was quite surprised when one speaker spent part of his allotted time talking about his changing view of Catholics. He even gave up a great deal of his time in order to have us watch an extended video greeting by Pope Francis, in which the Pope reached out to Protestants and asked them to pray for him. My wife and I agreed, I had my sign. I was to go to on pilgrimage.

In 2014, I was turning sixty, and as a birthday present, Sandi offered to send me with a group of Catholics from the Moncton, New Brunswick area, who were making a pilgrimage to the apparition site. Making this pilgrimage with a group of devoted Catholics was one of the most joyful experiences of my life. Although I’m sure it was something of a novelty to have a Baptist pastor travelling with them, I was treated with kindness, love, and unconditional acceptance by my fellow pilgrims.

In this eastern European town, I was introduced to the Catholic way of life. I was astounded to see that it was like having church all the time. St. James parish is located in the center of the village, and the activity never seemed to stop. Masses were being offered throughout the day in various languages. Adoration (contemplative prayer) was offered in the afternoon. With evening came the recitation of the Rosary, followed by a Holy Hour. Long lines of pilgrims stood before the confessionals. Everywhere I turned, everything pointed to Jesus Christ. I was impressed that even after people understood that I was a Baptist pastor, no one attempted to convert me to the Catholic Faith.

I left with the firm assurance that Mary was my true mother in the faith. I would later discover that my newfound revelation was firmly rooted in sacred Scripture, Catholic Tradition, and the teaching of the Catechism.

For example, in John’s Gospel, Jesus said to His mother from the cross, “woman, behold your son.” Then He said to John, the representative disciple of the Church, “behold your mother” (Jn 19:26-27).

I had always interpreted this text as a dutiful son making sure His mother would be cared for after His death, but I came to understand that because Jewish law stipulated that a woman in Mary’s position should be cared for by relatives, the arrangement Jesus made with John was His statement that His mother was now the mother of the Church, everybody’s mother.

I also learned that there is a significant difference between worship and veneration (showing honor toward Mary). After all, Mary herself said, “from now on will all ages call me blessed” (Lk 1:48 NAB).

The Call of the East

Upon returning home, I began seeking out Fr. Mark Cherry, the priest at St. Thomas Aquinas–Canadian Martyrs Roman Catholic Church in Halifax. I had met him at an interdenominational ministry event prior to my pilgrimage.

Over the next few years, Fr. Cherry and I met many times and developed a friendship. He answered the questions I posed and often sent me away with articles to read that related to the matters I had raised concerning the Catholic Faith. I was also in touch with the Coming Home Network, and Jim Anderson was fielding my questions as well.

In addition to my struggle over Mary, I grappled with other “biggies.” These included:

  • The Communion of Saints
  • The Eucharist
  • The Liturgy of the Mass
  • Papal Authority
  • Confession of sins to a priest

Space won’t permit me to recount how I resolved each of these issues, but I will deal briefly with some of them:

As a Baptist, I had always held the view that the Lord’s Supper was symbolic and memorial. I could not understand the doctrine of transubstantiation, which states that the bread and wine become the actual Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Then I began to take a deeper look at John, chapter six, where Jesus declares Himself to be the Bread of Life (see Jn 6:22-66). I had thought He was using figurative speech, but as I read the text with fresh eyes, I realized chapter six of John’s Gospel is a narrative, not an allegory or a parable. The listeners understood that Christ was speaking literally and became offended, so much so that they left the gathering. It is noteworthy that our Lord did not call His listeners back and explain, “I was only using a figure of speech when I said I am the Bread of Life.”

As a Protestant, I thought that in the Eucharist, Catholics were sacrificing Christ over and over again, as if His death on the cross had been to no avail. I came to realize that this was a misunderstanding. The sacrifice of Christ is being re-presented to us as a living sign, in which the mystery of His Real Presence literally comes to us in the Eucharistic offerings of bread and wine.

I was surprised to learn that this had also been the view of the early Church. My readings from works of the early Church Fathers supported this. The doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist had been the norm until the schism of the Reformation.

I didn’t have too much of a problem with the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. After all, the Book of Hebrews reminds us that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). The Catholic Church believes in a living Church in which the people of God who are now in heaven intercede for us. Protestants often misinterpret seeking the intercession of the saints in heaven as praying to the dead, but I came to believe that asking someone in heaven to pray for me is no different from picking up the phone and sharing a prayer request with a fellow Christian or asking someone who is regarded as a prayer warrior to pray with me about a particular matter.

I also noted that my Protestant friends, while maintaining that the people in heaven have no awareness of matters here on earth, often gave evidence that they believed otherwise. I would hear such comments as, “Uncle Charlie is looking down on us”; “Grandma is listening to us right now and having a good laugh”; “On my birthday, I felt as if my father were near to me.” I realized I couldn’t have it both ways when it came to the Communion of Saints.

At first, I struggled with the liturgy of the Catholic Mass. As a Baptist, I had been used to an informal order of service, with my sermon as the high point. I slowly began to appreciate the beauty of the liturgy, with its ancient prayers, and understood that the worship was not all about me. The Mass is all about lifting up the King of kings and the sacrifice He made for sinners.

I’ve come to love the drama of the Mass as well. When I was a Protestant pastor, I did not ask the people in the pews to become engaged in what was going on, other than to sing the hymns and listen to what I had to say as I prayed for them and preached. When I started attending Mass, I found myself involved in a back- and-forth exchange of responses with the priest and sharing in various expressive actions, such as making the Sign of the Cross and kneeling.

As a Protestant pastor, I set the preaching agenda for each Sunday, but in the Catholic Church, the priest follows the liturgy the Church has established for each Mass. I came to understand that, when I came to Mass each Sunday, the liturgy was Christocentric, meaning that wherever Catholics gathered throughout the world for the Mass, we were all involved in the same journey with Christ as the liturgical year took us from His birth to His death, Resurrection, and Ascension into heaven.

A real eye-opener for me was the role of the Bible in the liturgy of the Catholic Church. As a Protestant, I had just assumed that the elevation of sacred Scripture was unique to Protestantism. After all, didn’t we Protestants have big Bibles opened wide on our communion tables, and didn’t the pulpit, where the Word of God was read and proclaimed each Sunday, occupy the central position at the front of our sanctuaries?

I was delighted to find out that at any given Sunday Mass one could expect to hear two readings from the Old Testament (the First Reading and the Psalm) and two from the New Testament (the Second Reading and the Gospel). Furthermore, the liturgy is designed in such a way as to take the faithful through most of the Bible in a three year cycle, if one attends both Sunday and weekday Masses or makes use of a missalette (a booklet of daily Scripture readings and ritual for each Mass).

There was one final step in my conflict-ridden journey. I knew that before I could consider becoming a Catholic Christian I would need to be very grounded in my faith. As a Baptist pastor, I faced an enormous credibility issue if I failed to conduct a proper and thorough investigation.

On the internet, I discovered the Institute of Catholic Culture, led by Fr. Hezekias Carnazzo. The Institute was offering a webinar on the Catholic Catechism led by Monsignor Charles Pope, a well- known Catholic writer. Under Monsignor Pope’s tutelage, I came to appreciate the beauty of the Catholic Faith and felt that I had at last found the fullness of truth for which I had been searching. I read through the entire Catechism in the course of a year.

It was 2018, and I was a spiritual basket case. After years of study, prayer and reflection, I was still torn between my long-held Baptist beliefs and the discoveries I was making in the Catholic Church. The inner conflict was taking a toll on me, and I longed for a resolution.

I made another pilgrimage to the same apparition site and asked my mother Mary to pray for me that I would be given a clear and certain word of direction. I returned home without having re- ceived that word.

Advent had arrived, and Fr. Mark and I decided to get together for lunch on a Wednesday. Earlier that morning, I received a call from Fr. Hezekias Carnazzo with the Institute of Catholic Culture in which he encouraged me to step out in faith and make a decision for the Catholic Church. Then, during the course of our con- versation at lunch, Fr. Mark said to me, “I think you need to make a decision.” I responded, “are you looking for more converts?” Fr. Mark replied: “I’m happy with my little flock, but I just think you need to make a decision one way or the other. You are more prepared to be a Catholic than anyone else I have met.” Instantly, I thought of the Scripture verse, “on the testimony of two or three witnesses, a fact shall be established” (2 Cor 13:1 NAB).

I went home still thinking that I had not received a clear and certain word from God. (The reader can be forgiven for thinking me deaf to the Spirit of God.) I continued to pray. Finally, I made up my mind. Even without the final word I sought, I would become a Catholic. I phoned Fr. Mark and asked for a brief meeting with him prior to Eucharistic Adoration that night.

Having made my decision, I knew I had to share the news with the Protestant pastor of the church I had been attending with Sandi in Halifax, where I had retired. I was not expecting him to be supportive of my decision and was astounded at his reaction. He said, “I’ve known for about eight months that your heart was in the east.” That seemed an odd thing to say, so I asked, “what do you mean, east?” My pastor replied, “Rome.” Then he blessed me and wished me well as I began an adventure that took me along an ancient way.

That evening, I arrived at Fr. Mark’s office and told him tearfully of my decision to become a Catholic Christian. When I told him that my Protestant pastor had said he knew my heart was in the east, Fr. Mark looked stunned. He asked me to repeat what the pastor had told me. Then he said, “I’m going to show you something.”

Fr. Mark picked up his copy of lectionary readings and turned to the Scripture reading for the coming Sunday. He had made notes in it as he prepared his homily. One of the Sunday readings was to be from Baruch 5:1-9, which reads, in part, “rise up Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children. Gathered from east to west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God” (Baruch 5:5 NAB).

Over the top of the phrase, “look to the east,” the priest had written the word “Eucharist.”

Fr. Mark proceeded to explain to me the significance of the east in the Catholic Church. He noted that:

  • Traditionally Catholic churches are built facing east.
  • In the Book of Ezekiel we read, “There was the glory of the God of Israel coming from the East!” (Ezek 43:2 NAB)
  • In the Christmas story, the wise men come from the east, following a star from the east (Matt 2:1-3).
  • Christ said of His return to earth, “just as the lightning comes from the east and is seen as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt 24:27 NAB).

The struggle and turmoil were over. I slumped in relief. God had given me a clear and certain word. My mother Mary and my other prayer partners had not failed in their intercession for me. I had made the journey home.

I was confirmed as a Roman Catholic Christian at Easter Vigil 2019 and am now active in St. Thomas Aquinas-Canadian Martyrs Roman Catholic Church, Halifax, as a greeter, lector (reader), Alpha team member, and soon-to-be Bible study leader.

People often want to know how my wife, Sandi, reacted to my decision to become a Roman Catholic Christian. As one might expect, she was troubled by my decision. It helped that our pastor was so supportive of me and had given me his blessing.

The Holy Spirit also spoke to Sandi about the matter following a healing Mass that was led by Fr. Mark Cherry. She experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit during the service, and His presence continued to linger with her as we went home. In the morning, Sandi shared with me that she had heard the Holy Spirit telling her, “What has happened to Alan is my doing. You are both exactly where you need to be at the present time.”

I’ve made the journey home, but my journey with Christ, the King whose glory is coming from the east, continues. Praised be to Jesus Christ!


Alan Orser

ALAN ORSER is a blogger and resides in Halifax, NS. You are invited to contact Alan. He welcomes any questions and on request will provide information on accessing his televi- sion interview with Mary TV. Email him at [email protected]. To view his blog, Explorers of the Way, go to: explorersoftheway.wordpress.com.


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