My Earliest Formation
I was born in the summer of 1964, and raised as the daughter of a Pentecostal turned Baptist minister in Moundsville, West Virginia. I had an extremely happy childhood, and do not remember a time when we did not attend church. We traveled to many revivals, tent-meetings, and even to big arenas to hear well-known Evangelists preach. My mother and father had been so devoted to these events, that they did not let anything stand in the way of a Holy Ghost meeting, as they liked to refer to them. Not even extreme weather. When I was around five-years old, we ended up in a serious car accident on the way home from a tent-meeting, in which our car went over a steep embankment. I can remember hearing my father cry out to God: “Lord, save us!” And the Lord did. None of us even had so much as a scratch! Our car was not quite so fortunate.
My father was the pastor of a few different churches throughout Ohio and West Virginia during this time. He began as a Pentecostal minister, and would later go on to pastor a Baptist church. My father never attended a seminary, although he received his preaching credentials under the teaching of another Evangelist via postal-mail. I remember as a young girl, my father worked hard at his biblical studies. He continued to work full-time as a carpenter to provide a decent living for his family, but on many evenings, he would slave over a stack of books for long hours.
I had always enjoyed attending church as a girl. I had an immense love for Jesus, even then. Music played a large part in our services, as well as getting up in front of the congregation to sing. I remember actually writing little songs to Jesus, proclaiming my love for Him. At one point, I told my father that I wanted to be a minister when I grew up (women being called to preach was fairly common in the Protestant world). Even then I had the desire to win souls for Christ.
An Unsettled Heart
As much as I loved attending church in my youth, there were issues that I found troubling. The Pentecostal services seemed to revolve around the congregation’s perception of the Holy Ghost. In many of our services, order would be quickly lost, and chaos would seem to take over. It would be quite common for the singing and the testimonials to get so charged that wigs might go flying and dentures could sometimes be seen sailing through the air! There would be dancing in the aisles, and everyone would be completely lost in their own act of worship. I remember many times feeling tremendous anxiety in these services, but I had been taught that these actions were what happened when one would receive the Holy Spirit. If you weren’t active in the hymn-singing and hand-clapping, then it was obvious to everyone that you were not yet “saved.”
This observation would inevitably lead to the “forced” altar call, which always made me feel extremely uncomfortable. This occurred when whoever was doing the preaching would “receive” a message from God that He wanted you to come and kneel at the altar to be prayed over. I found this totally embarrassing, and would slide down in my seat, hoping and praying that this preacher would not select me! I wondered why our Lord would choose this form of humiliation to “convert” someone.
I can see now that it was all conducted with good intentions. These were simply individuals who loved God and hungered to be filled with His Spirit. But try as I might, I just could never understand it, nor did I observe anywhere in the Bible where the Apostles or Christ ever acted in these ways. We had the Lord’s Supper in our churches, maybe once a year. Of course we used crackers and grape-juice. I also remember occasional “feet-washing” services. In contrast to the Catholic tradition on Holy Thursday, commemorating when our Lord washed the feet of His Apostles and demonstrated His love for them, and how they were to do the same for one another (Jn 13:12-17), this was again seen as a literal action of the Holy Ghost. There would be splashing and knocking over of pans, and dancing all the more. My mother always compared this to how the Apostles had been filled with immense joy! This confused me even more, because I had never remembered reading anywhere in the Bible where the Apostles acted in such a way.
Like countless other Pentecostals, I am sure, we did not encourage things such as: women having short hair; men having long hair; risqué forms of dress; rock music; cigarette smoking or drinking alcohol; sports events; nightclubs; gambling or card-playing of any kind; or swearing. Baptism would come around the age of twelve, when the age of accountability would arrive, but only when one would feel the need. Some (although not all) did not see the necessity for Baptism. We missed all correlation to this being the sign of the New Covenant, which had replaced the previous act of circumcision (Gn 17:9-14, Acts 15:16, 1 Cor 1:16).
Another thing I found lacking in my church-life as a child was the understanding of the Crucifixion. I remember when I was very young, I asked a young adult in our congregation what Christ dying on the cross really had to do with me. Her only response was that Christ did it in my place! In fact, that is what most members would say when asked. I always thought that this meant that maybe after death, we would all be pinned to some individualized cross in the bowels of hell, and that the ones who were saved would not have to do this! I honestly never got an explanation of the meaning of the sacrifice at Calvary; the Crucifixion wasn’t talked about a lot. It seemed as though what was most important was raising the hands, singing and clapping, and just simply closing the eyes and praising God for His love for us. I find no real problem with this, but I think I would have benefited from a detailed explanation of what exactly took place from that Holy Thursday until the Ascension.
The World’s Empty Promises
As time went on, I eventually grew tired of being made to go to church; television, radio, rock music, and public school would change me to the very core. It seemed as if the evil one had won during those teenage years. Only every now and then would I come back down to earth and actually behave in a rational way. At that point, my father was pastoring the Fork Ridge Baptist Church, which I very rarely attended.
Tragedy struck on November 24, 1980 when I was sixteen. My father had a massive heart attack on a hunting trip. He had been out quite a distance in the woods, and by the time he made it to a nearby cabin, it was too late. He passed away as he was phoning for help. My mother and I were devastated, but we managed to survive.
Like many young adults, I left God, and the life I had known as a Christian. After years of living a rock and roll lifestyle, I soon began to feel an emptiness within me. I knew there had to be more to life. The nightclubs and music just didn’t bring the happiness that it once did. I ended up in a brief relationship and became pregnant when I was twenty-three. On November 30, 1987, I gave birth to a beautiful son, Ian. His father had no desire for commitment, so, with the help of my family, I raised my son alone.
A Mysterious Beckoning
As time went on, I would regain direction in my life through parenting and resuming my education. I went back to school as a psychology major. However, my strenuous job forced me to leave college before receiving a degree. My son and I continued to do well for the most part, minus a husband and father. As I finally grew up, I began to realize that there was still something missing inside of me. Oddly enough, this missing piece was shaped exactly like God!
In desperation one day, I actually found myself praying the “sinner’s prayer” with Pat Robertson, after watching an episode of The 700 Club. It was strange; after this, I found myself beginning to change in subtle ways. I began to remember the Lord. I began to pray again and seek His assistance in my life.
After browsing through the cable channels early one morning, I stopped on a televised Catholic Mass at St. Ann’s Basilica, in Scranton, PA. That beautiful grandmother of our Lord sought me, and played a major role in my conversion into the Catholic Faith.
Like my family, I really knew nothing about the Catholic Church, and at the time, I could not tell you the reason why I was so attracted to this new television show (although I know the reason now!). I truly admired the utter reverence that these Catholics had for whatever it was that they were doing. I also loved that it was in such an organized manner — which was a total contrast to the Pentecostal services of my youth. Soon, I memorized the prayers of the Mass and even found myself singing some of the songs. There was something so inviting, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I soon began to look forward to watching the Mass every morning.
I began to wonder how I would go about attending a Catholic church – and SOON! This question would keep tugging at my heart. When I think back on it, it is so amazing how God opened doors and led me to a few very special people who guided me to where I needed to be.
I was working a temporary job at the time. Through bits and pieces of a random, overheard conversation, I found out that a co-worker of mine was a Catholic. I couldn’t believe it! I explained to her that I felt attracted to the Church, and was wondering how I would go about becoming a Catholic. I asked her if she thought that it would be okay for me to attend a Mass even if I wasn’t Catholic. She assured me that it would be fine, and she proceeded to tell me about the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA program. She told me that I would need to call the local parish for information. Well, my excitement somewhat faded at that point and some anxiety began to set in. I wanted to call so badly, but I was afraid. I put it off, but the desire to attend Mass never left me.
About a month or two later, the next door would be opened. My son, Ian, began a friendship with a boy from school that lived close by. One day this boy invited my son over to his house to go for a bike ride. I ended up chatting about the day’s events with this child’s mother whom I had already met a few times before. She mentioned some things she had done after returning home from church. I am still not sure what it was that made me ask, but I asked her which church she went to. It was none other than the local Catholic church that I had been too afraid to call!
When I left the home of these dear friends that day, I had the Sunday bulletin of St. Francis Xavier complete with telephone numbers and schedule in hand! Now I did not have the excuse of not knowing the telephone number and I made the call. I enrolled my son in the the children’s religious education class (CCD) and I joined RCIA soon after.
Then another incredible thing happened. I wanted to attend Mass after my son’s CCD class, but once again was still somewhat fearful. I remember while waiting in the car for him, I couldn’t shake this feeling of being watched. Possibly even a better description would be, that I seemed to be aware of a presence nearby that was absent from my view. I would soon learn what that Presence was. Of all sources, I learned of it through a couple of Mormons who had been attempting to persuade me to join their church.
During one of their home visits, they began briefly discussing how the Mormon faith is different from the others. I was shocked when I heard one of the young men say that Catholics believed that the bread and wine at their Mass actually became the Body and Blood of Christ! Of course he was quick to let me know that the Mormon faith did not believe this, but I could not get these words out of my mind. Suddenly, it all made sense to me. I knew what that strange attraction had been from that televised Mass! I knew what I had felt in the parking lot of the church! I knew what they said was true. I believed this beyond a shadow of a doubt — and I have believed ever since.
Treading New Ground
I did eventually make it to a Mass. A dear member of my RCIA class was going to attend one morning to hear her son do the reading at the children’s weekday Mass. She invited me to go along. Even though my knees were trembling, I went! The moment we entered the vestibule, I noticed her dabbing her finger in a little glass dish containing water, just inside the door. She then made the sign of the cross (that thing that you see many Catholics do in the classic, vampire movies). I asked about the meaning of this. She explained to me that this was holy water, and that it was blessed. She said that it was to bless us, and remind us of our Baptism. She told me that I could bless myself with it. So I did. By this time, I wasn’t sure my legs would hold me up, because they were trembling so badly! I noticed her making a kind of bowing, only with her knees bent, one touching down on the floor. She said that she was genuflecting, because Jesus was present. At that time I still did not fully understand what she meant, but I did it also.
When the Mass began, it was almost exactly the same as I remembered it on television. I actually knew what to expect after that. It was kind of strange, because I had felt that mysterious feeling again, the same one I had felt in the parking lot. I would soon come to welcome this feeling, and would ultimately feel more at home there, than any other place I would ever be in my life. My son and I soon began to attend regularly.
I fell completely in love with this church! Being a lover of music, the gothic sound of the pipe organ affected me in a profound way. I loved the incense, and did not feel nervous about kneeling here, the way I did during the altar calls as a child. This new experience, complete with “bells and smells,” won my heart completely!
Ian and I were received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 1999. A few of my Protestant family members actually attended. I really don’t think that they understood much of what was going on, but they were still kind enough to attend (a true miracle). I can honestly say that this was the happiest night of my life. For on this anticipated night, my son and I received the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus in the Eucharist. My life has never been the same!
Effects of Schism
I do not recall the Catholic Church even being mentioned at any time during my childhood. But I have to tell you that I didn’t realize just how anti-Catholic many of my friends and family members were, until I became one.
One aunt told me on the telephone before the Easter Vigil that she would rather I not belong to any church at all, than to become Catholic. A cousin told me she didn’t think that Catholics went to heaven. Since I could tell they were unknowledgeable regarding the Catholic Faith, it was hard for me to understand how they could remain so steadfast in their resistance to any attempts of explanation! I love my Protestant family and friends more than words can even describe. As intelligent as they may be, they were shaped very early on in small, Protestant churches, and have had no exposure to Catholic teachings. They may not even be as familiar as they should be in the doctrines of their own particular denomination. But still the same, nothing can compare to their immense love for the Lord. I feel there may be instances in which some individuals’ hearts are so hardened due to misinformation, that we may never be able to reach them, regardless of how well we explain the Faith. This is when we must step back and allow the Holy Spirit to do the work.
I have heard a couple of my family members say in the past: “If someone is not called to preach, then they won’t be able to preach!” They believe that if one is meant to be a pastor, then he must have been called from birth, and they tend to frown on seminaries and theological training. They feel that the Holy Spirit will give them the words to say, despite that they have no formation in Hebrew or Greek — the languages in which the early texts of their Bibles were written. They know nothing of the era or context in which the Bible was written, or the sending of priests through the laying on of hands. If any topic is not mentioned in the King James Bible, it is simply not necessary. Many are not familiar with Tradition, the Protestant Reformation, and do not know even one of the many reasons as to why Mary is honored. Sadly, they reject any consideration to the literal meaning of what Jesus said in regards to eternal life coming to all those who eat His Flesh and drink His Blood (Jn 6:47-55), which is, the very essence of our Catholic Faith. They will argue this to the end as being a “symbolic” statement and seem to forget about those followers of Christ who did take this “hard saying” literally, and thus refused to follow Him any longer (Jn 6:66). As important as their salvation was to Jesus, He just let them walk away without telling them that He hadn’t really “meant” it quite that way. Why would He do that if indeed He had only been speaking symbolically? How grateful we are that others did believe, and continued to take Him at His word for over two thousand years!
I will be forever grateful to the Pentecostals who taught me about Jesus, and demonstrated such love for His Holy Spirit! In becoming Catholic, I have only built onto what was already instilled in me. But, as we have all seen, many anti-Catholics only go by what they have heard from other non-Catholics, and what they “think” the Catholic Church believes. Many times they have no desire to know about historical truths.
Everyone would have to agree that Christ did not establish over 30,000 different denominations. It is clear from the Bible that He established one, universal Church, with one leader and mission that would endure: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).
Christ desired unity among His disciples – not separation. Many biblical passages show this again and again:
I urge you, brothers to watch out for those who create dissensions and obstacles, in opposition to the teaching that you learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ but their own appetites, and by fair and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the innocent. (Romans 16:17-18)
I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. (1 Corinthians 1:10)
…one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; one God and father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-5)
Home At Last
I have truly longed for all fullness of truth, not for the best music or the loudest preaching. I long for the Church that history has shown is the true Church that Christ built over two-thousand years ago upon Peter the rock. Thank God for those Apostles and their teachings which came straight from the mouth of Christ, as well as those earliest preachers that came soon after, having been taught by them. How fortunate we are to have those historical writings to show that the early Christian worship services are what we recognize as our Catholic Mass today (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1345). In my additional research of the early history of the Church, I have found a treasure beyond words!
After fourteen years, I have continued to grow in the Faith. I soon began teaching CCD in that same parish that my son attended as a child! I have also been fortunate enough in the past to have been an RCIA sponsor. What a joy that was to be able to stand with another person who was making the journey into the Church! As anyone who has been through this knows, it has NOT been an easy journey. And yes, I too have lost friendships and a few close relationships with family members. But I have gained so much more!
We must be knowledgeable in the Faith, as well as in our early Church history. After that, we must pray! Pray and offer up all of our sufferings, uniting them with the sufferings of Christ on the cross (Col 1:24-27), that we may achieve that salvific understanding that is missing. We must offer our very all, so that others may experience that same grace to accept that fullness of truth, new as it may be.
God bless all who are considering this same journey!