It should have been the happiest day of my life. And, it was — until I made the phone call home. It started with the excitement of, “I am engaged! I am getting married!” and ended heavily with, “Do you denounce the Catholic Church? You know you are giving up your rights to heaven?”
I was born into a Catholic family. We went to Mass every Sunday and most Holy Days of Obligation. I received all my Sacraments, went to Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade, but I just didn’t get it. And to be honest, by the time I graduated from high school, I couldn’t care less. I was far more interested in parties, friends, and fun. I saw no place for the Church and its rules in my life. I truly did not know what it meant to be a child of God, and I was looking for God’s love in all the wrong places. I was raised in the times when catechesis was … well … somewhat less than on point. I was a “cultural Catholic” who had not allowed Jesus to change my heart. My parents had given me the Faith, sent me to Catholic schools and did all the other things they knew how to do. They really gave me the best gift possible by keeping me in the sacraments, but I definitely didn’t understand the value of that gift.
While I was distancing myself from the Faith in high school, my parents were having a deep conversion back to it. My dad attended a life-changing retreat called Cursillo and suddenly wanted our family to say the Rosary together on a daily basis. My brother and I were weirded out and begged him, “Just don’t become a deacon.” Well, we must have had the gift of prophecy, because guess what happened about eight years later? He became a deacon! God does have a sense of humor.
At 19, I met a tall, good-looking guy named Jim. He treated me better than any of the guys I had dated before. I knew I wanted to marry him, but he was not Catholic. Jim would ask me all kinds of questions like, “Why do you have a pope?”; “What does Vicar of Christ mean?”; “Why do you worship Mary?”; “Why do you have to confess to a priest?” My answers typically went like this: “I don’t know. We just do.” I told him that I was pretty sure we didn’t worship Mary, though I had no means to apologetically defend why we pray all those Hail Marys. Funny, at that time, my dad was teaching RCIA at our local parish and attending seminary to become a deacon. He could have answered all those questions, but in my pride, I never went to him. We didn’t have the internet to find answers together, so Jim was digging through the encyclopedia to research Catholicism. That encyclopedia stated that the Catholic Church is the Church Christ started in AD 33, but I was too far removed from religion for this to mean very much to me; I just wanted to be with this guy with whom I had fallen deeply in love.
So when Jim proposed and my dad asked where we would get married, it became a big deal. That whole “Catholics get married in the Church because it is a sacrament” thing was beyond my scope of knowledge or understanding. We just wanted to keep it simple and have it outside of any church building, so as to not be divided by religion. We were trying to avoid disunity in our families, but precisely in that effort, we created a tremendous amount of pain and discord.
I knew so little about the faith of my childhood that, when my father asked me if I was denouncing the Catholic Church, my answer was, “I do not even know what that means, nor if I even have the authority to do such a thing.” My father’s conversion was causing his convictions to grow deeper, and he was nearing his time of ordination as a Catholic deacon. His reply to my answer was, “Becky, I do not even know if I can attend your wedding if you do not get married in the Church.” I was devastated, and I didn’t understand any of it. It was supposed to be the most exciting time of my young life, but it was tinged with hurt, sadness, and rejection. Thankfully, my dad was not yet ordained, and his spiritual director gave my parents the encouragement and approval to be part of the wedding and to do what it took to keep our family together. I could never, ever be more grateful to that priest for having the heart of unity and familial love. My parents participated and seemed to enjoy the wedding, despite how hard it must have been for them. For our sake, they buried their hurt in God’s gift of humility. As a parent now, I have the utmost respect for that decision to love rather than fight for what, ultimately, was right.
While on the Catholic front, relations were tense and painful with my parents, Jim and I were growing in our faith. In the two years following when Jim and I had met, we had started going to a non-denominational campus ministry and a non-denominational church on Sunday mornings, where communion was practiced weekly. We were also going to a Bible study with other newly married and engaged couples. Through praise music and learning about the love Jesus had for me, I had a conversion of heart. I was suddenly hungry to know more about the Bible and this Jesus who I had seen hanging on a crucifix for all of my previous life. I was finally getting to know that God-man who had so selflessly died for me. The Gospel was coming alive for me, and as my faith grew, my desire to be Catholic waned. I had a real and emotional encounter with the Savior, and I kept going back to where I felt Him stirring in my heart. I found Him best in the praise and worship music in the non-denominational church. When we decided to go deeper, our little Christian church painfully rejected my infant baptism and would not let me become a member until I consented to be baptized again as an adult. Finally, with some hesitation, I chose to have a believer’s baptism, with Jim performing the submersion.
For the next fifteen years, Jim and I wandered through many different churches. Beginning in non-denominational and Southern Baptist traditions, we then journeyed back in history to a Calvinist system of theology at a Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America). This was when our theological knowledge really started to grow, as our pastor would teach with “big words.” I can see now how the Lord was preparing us to make an intellectual conversion. Jim, unbeknownst to me, was really digging into Church history, and the Lord was planting seeds in his heart that would later bloom in a very big way. I was just happy to be in a great community with great friends and receiving high level teaching. I was very involved, and my relationships with those women were real, deep, and fulfilling.
Then, one day, Jim heard of an incident from our church that shook him so firmly that he called me and said, “We will never again set foot in that church.” I had already been fighting him on leaving, because all of my friendships were there, and I knew that to leave a church is to lose friends. That sort of thing just happens. I also knew, though, that I could no longer argue with him. Our church crisis was growing deeper.
We were Reformed Christians, and all of our children had been baptized as infants. This limited our options for churches. We decided to land at a Southern Baptist church, under a Reformed pastor, until we could “figure out” where we needed to be. We loved the people, the community, the Bible, and history lessons in the sermons, but there was one big problem: If we decided to become members of this church, our kids would have to choose baptism on their own and make a public profession before they would be allowed to partake in the Lord’s Supper or be listed as a member. Recalling my own experience of 15 years previous, Jim really struggled with telling our kids that their infant baptism was not valid. We were torn by the notion that two pastors, supposedly led by the same Holy Spirit and working under the same system of theology as Calvinists, could have differing conclusions on a “non-essential” like Baptism. A “non-essential” should not keep people divided from the table — but it did, and it was frustrating. Who was right? Who was wrong? Did it matter? Could this chaos and confusion and these painful divisions in this Protestant paradigm really be what God had planned for us?
Privately, Jim’s study and journey continued. He had dropped a couple of hints to the effect that “maybe we should just be Catholic; then we don’t have to figure this all out.” I chuckled and dismissed the hints as a joke on our situation. But Jim was spiraling downward and experiencing a crisis of faith, and he knew he had five sets of baby blues looking to him to lead them in faith. That was no small weight on his shoulders.
Then, one day, Jim seriously sat me down and told me that he thought we should look into the Catholic Church. I cried. I was scared. Been there done that. I never felt or knew Jesus there. I didn’t want to go back to that legalistic place. I didn’t want to lose my once-saved-always-saved theology. I didn’t want people to assume that, because I was Catholic, I wasn’t a Christian. And I didn’t really know any Catholics who were living like Christians. Now, that was all a little dramatic and not quite true, but those were my very real emotional responses.
Soon afterward, we attended Mass, where I was both closed off and very pridefully ugly. I thought we’d go and Jim could get this “Catholic thing” out of his system. But I was moved by the homily, and I quietly felt a new seed of faith being planted. I pondered in my heart how we would indeed return to the Faith of my childhood.
For the next couple of weeks, Jim asked me questions, ostensibly to support my Evangelical/Presbyterian beliefs with Scripture, “because sola Scriptura is true, right?” First, there was, “Where in the Bible does it say we are saved by faith alone?” Oh, I was so sure I knew this one — sola Fide. I googled “faith alone,” and up popped James 2:24: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (my emphasis). OK, OK … well … surely I could still reconcile that one, somehow?
Then he asked me to find where the Scripture says that the Bible is the sole rule of faith. I couldn’t even begin to defend that one. Jim was kind enough to show me the passages where it tells us plainly that the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15) and that the disciples were taught the traditions (1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15) that were handed down by word of mouth.
With some simple and logical questions — and I believe the graces of my Confirmation — the fire hydrant of God’s grace was turned on. All the prayers, all the Holy Hours, all the Masses, all the sacrifices, and the fasting of all those praying for our conversion overcame me like a fountain of mercy. I was finally open to those graces, and the floodgates were opened wide. I was full speed ahead. I fell quickly and deeply in love with Christ in His Church. All the questions we had had for so many years — contraception, faith alone, infant Baptism, communion, sanctification, the Bible, the dignity of every human person, the limited atonement — were all finally being answered. God’s mercies felt like an ocean with no borders. I fell deeply in love and felt deeply loved.
I cannot say that this journey was painless and did not involve some loss. The reality of how divided the Body of Christ now is became so evident that my whole body ached for unity as Jesus prayed in John 17. My closest friends, being in an anti-Catholic system of theology, rejected our conversion of heart. Those relationships have since disappeared into the past. I had to remove myself from certain relationships, which had to be incredibly hard on them, because it looked, from their perspective, like we were making a shipwreck of our faith. I know that those friends genuinely loved me and were afraid for me and my family. I forgive them, and I understand why they were so fearful. But as I told one dear loved one, “I am pretty sure that Satan would not lead us into a place where we would seek holiness and to be more like Christ.” I am with Peter when he says:
Peter began to say to him, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many that are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:28–31).
I do not expect nor desire the riches of this world, but I know that we have been richly blessed by the eternal in our earthly life — the here and now. I also have a firm hope in the not-yet, as I continue to walk faithfully in the sacramental life. The Lord is gently and graciously forming me in the fullness of the Faith that I have wholeheartedly accepted as a loving Father’s gift. In God’s great mercy, not only was I reconciled to the Church, but alongside my husband, my dad was able to be the one to help me through the process. After hours and hours of phone calls, and with all the patience of Job, my dad answered my questions and helped me to understand so many teachings that I was struggling to let go of after 17 years as a roaming Protestant.
God redeems all things in the most glorious fashion, you know. My dad served as deacon during our marriage convalidation ceremony, preached the homily (making me cry like a baby!), assisted as Jim was confirmed, and offered both Jim and me the Precious Blood for the first time. All of this redemption took place on our 15th wedding anniversary. Isn’t God the most loving Father, ready to heal us in every way?
In the last years before returning home to the Catholic Church, I constantly heard the phrase “Rest in Christ, it is finished.” During that time, I never quite felt rested, because I continued to wrestle with the interpretation of Scripture — who had it right, and even if I was an elect child of God. But one of the first gifts God gave me amid the storm of rejection and lost relationships during our early months of reversion was the peace of knowing that I could, indeed, finally rest. It was as if my heavenly Father was holding me, his prodigal daughter, and telling me to rest in the bosom of my Mother, the Church. Nowadays, I kneel in humble thanksgiving after every Mass and tell the Lord, “Thank you for calling me back home.”