I have often considered God’s providence in my Baptist upbringing. Throughout my adult life a thankfulness for the gift of a moral Christian upbringing has grown within me. And I count myself blessed that I recognized this soon enough to express my thanks to my parents before they entered into eternal life. They passed on to me the foundations of faith in the One Triune God.
I can attribute many of the best parts of my life to this gift of faith and morals from my parents. Certainly, I found the true Church because my dormant Baptist faith provided a strong foundation for Catholic catechesis. However, I wasn’t always happy as a Protestant. I simply dreaded taking part in the door-to-door outreach program that was promoted by our pastor. Also I learned to distrust the roller coaster of emotions triggered by the youth retreats I attended: a couple days of a mountain-top high that disintegrated into the gully of real life upon returning home.
Corey’s Early Life
My family attended a community church that was a member of the American Baptist Conference. I was baptized sometime in my tweens according to the Baptist norm. I count myself fortunate that our pastor and our church family were more interested in being Baptists than in being anti-non-Baptist. Although there was a constant undercurrent of evangelization, no other sect or denomination was singled out for demonization. So there was no specific anti-Catholic sentiment. In fact, in my hometown (Bremerton, WA), the more likely target for attack would have been the Mormons.
Our church had many committed adults who provided a strong Sunday School and youth program. In fact, for many years, my mother was the Sunday School Superintendent. So it goes without saying that our family went to church every Sunday and my brother and sister and I were present and accounted for in our classes. I’m no Bible scholar (though some of my contemporaries went in that direction), but I received a basic foundation in and familiarity with the Bible. By the time I was a teenager, I knew all the Old and New Testament stories of salvation history and they remain an inspiration to me. This is the great gift of a Baptist background for a Catholic convert. Particularly, a convert that grew up during the period of generally poor catechesis for Catholic children.
I attended the University of Washington in Seattle, receiving a degree in Computer Science back when it was a very new field of endeavor. I managed to avoid the loss of my faith in college by living at the University Christian Union (UCU) Men’s House. The rules at UCU required a certain level of engagement with your faith that prevented the common occurrence of a gradual slide into secularism. And, of course, it was helpful that my housemates shared an understanding of a good moral life.
There was a defining moment for me in college concerning the Bible and its interpretation. I had joined a couple of other students in Bible study and, at the same time, I was taking a “Bible as Literature” course. The issues of the literal meaning and the divine authorship that arose in the coursework spilled over into our discussions at the Bible study. I was unwilling to agree with the strict beliefs of sola Scriptura and that was the end of the Bible study. I surely did not hold an orthodox understanding of these things at that time. But in retrospect, it reminds me of the breaking of a badly mended bone so that it can be reset properly.
Katherine’s Early Journey
One of the friends I made at UCU introduced me to my future wife, Katherine. Katherine’s family had already made the journey to Rome. Her parents began their married life as Methodists, since Katherine’s mother had attended a Methodist church in her youth. When Katherine was in the third grade, and her family was living in upstate New York, her mother discovered, through a book on spiritual healing written by the wife of an Episcopal minister, some of the patrimony of the Church missing from Methodism: sacraments, liturgical prayer, plainsong, and the like. Though active in her Methodist church, she was drawn inexorably to move her family to Episcopalianism. And Katherine was happy to go. She loved the kneelers, the candles, the English choral chant, the panoply of a more incarnational form of worship.
In the late 60’s, when Katherine was in junior high school, her family moved to Seattle. They continued the practice of their faith at a downtown Episcopal parish. Then in 1970 there was a referendum on the Washington state ballot to legalize abortion in the state. It became clear to Katherine’s parents that many of their fellow parishioners together with the two clergymen who led the parish were in favor of the referendum’s passage. In fact, the rector joined the signers of an advertisement in one of the Seattle newspapers that encouraged voters to pass the referendum.
Katherine’s parents felt hurt and betrayed. Concerned about what to do next, Katherine’s father went on a weekend retreat to the Benedictine Westminster Abbey just over the border in Canada. When he returned home he told Katherine’s mother, “If there is Truth to be found, it is in Rome.” For a man whose upbringing was infused with antipathy to the Catholic Church, it was a remarkable statement. The next week Katherine’s family went to the local Catholic parish and never returned to their Episcopal parish. Katherine recalls that practice of worship at the Episcopal parish was “high church.” As a result, the most memorable result for her of the change to a Catholic parish was a degradation in the quality of the music.
In 1970, no parishes had RCIA programs although some had “inquirer’s classes.” Katherine’s parish, unfortunately, had no established program for converts and had no real idea how to catechize converts and prepare them for full communion. The pastor directed Katherine’s family to attend an inquirers’ course offered by a Jesuit priest at Seattle University, a Jesuit school. The text in use, The Documents of Vatican II, was completely obscure to Katherine’s parents and even more so to their three teenaged children. When the course came to an end, however, they were all welcomed into the Catholic Church without further ado. Katherine likes to say that she learned how to be a Catholic, including how to go to Confession, by watching old black and white movies with Catholic features to the plot, such as The Bells of St. Mary’s.
It was this lack of catechesis that would later serve Katherine and all her family so poorly. They all, in turn, eventually drifted away from the Church, each for his own reasons. There was no anchor of the knowledge of Truth to give them any reason to stay.
Early Married Life
I first met Katherine in 1977 when I worked for a full year between my junior and senior studies at the U of W. I knew she was a Catholic but, since she was just an acquaintance, that didn’t matter much. Later, in 1979 after I had graduated and begun my working career, that acquaintance flared into a short intense courtship and I despaired because of her religion. I wanted to marry her, but I was convinced that mixed faith marriages were a bad idea. I had no intention of converting and did not expect her to change either. Katherine had similar concerns. In the end neither of us could imagine not sharing our lives with each other: we threw caution to the wind and got engaged. (We have since remarked on several occasions that our Guardian Angels must be very hard working for our life together to have worked out so well.)
I took some group instruction on the sacraments (which was very good) during our engagement, but I did not feel drawn to the Catholic faith and no one suggested I give it a go. We were married in the Catholic Church at Katherine’s home parish. We started life together as a nominal Baptist and an under-catechized Catholic.
Our first home was in the Tri-Cities located on the Columbia River in the desert of Eastern Washington where I had been working during the year of our courtship and engagement. One of the Tri-Cities, Richland, had been a closed town during WWII. The Department of Defense ran it as housing for the workers who produced nuclear material for atom bombs. During the war, the DOD provided three houses of worship: a synagogue, a Catholic church, and a Protestant church. I had chosen Central United Protestant, the heir of the federally organized amalgamation of Protestant faiths, as my church.
Katherine’s original intent was to go to Mass and also go to church with me. The logistical difficulties of such a plan and her desire to share her life completely with me quickly surpassed her interest in maintaining her Catholic faith. In a couple of weeks, when Katherine’s resolve for dual practice faded, Central United Protestant became our first church home.
Our primary memory of Central United Protestant is one of blandness — not surprising when you consider its origin: to get eleven Protestant faiths to fit in one building would require keeping only the middle ground of each. So we began to consider alternatives and Episcopalianism seemed a good fit. Katherine was familiar with it from her childhood and it has more liturgical elements placing it closer to Catholic practice. I had already acquired an appreciation for the Book of Common Prayer as we had been allowed to use the marriage vows from it for our wedding. I also liked moving toward a less evangelical denomination.
We were rather chagrined, however, that the rite for Episcopal worship was being updated right about that time. Fortunately, we found a parish that offered worship in both rites each Sunday. We both fell in love with the beautiful language of the traditional rite in the Book of Common Prayer. As I recall, the rector was a good man, unaffected by modernism and relativism. We were rather comfortable with our choice of splitting the difference between my Baptist upbringing and Katherine’s Catholic practice.
We then started the decade of moves: ten moves in ten years. Our first move was to Syracuse in beautiful upstate New York. We found a very high church Episcopal parish near our Syracuse neighborhood: lots of incense, beautiful vestments, and much processing. It was a bit too high church for me and it only reminded Katherine of the real thing. When we made our second move to thirty miles out of town I abandoned any Sunday worship and Katherine attended Mass very infrequently.
We soon moved to Maryland so I could get my start as an independent software contractor. It was to be a temporary stay. Three moves and three years later we were ready to head back to Syracuse. During our sojourn in Maryland, both Katherine and I had simply ignored our faith. As we were preparing to return home, Katherine began to notice a loneliness for God. While still in Maryland, she began trying out parishes. She made her return to the Church after we returned to Syracuse. She went to confession at the cathedral and returned to the sacraments of the Catholic Church.
During the period when Katherine was thinking about returning to the Church, I was encouraging her to do so, even though I still had no intention of becoming Catholic myself. Another attribute of my Baptist upbringing was a good understanding of the role of the husband in the salvation of his wife. I knew that I would be called to account for either helping or hindering her on her path to salvation.
As for me, you can’t just show up as a stranger for an Episcopal liturgy and blend in with the crowd like you can in a Catholic parish. At least, not in the rural churches where we then lived. One would stick out like a sore thumb. Without the support of Katherine to cover my shyness, that’s something I like to avoid. I once tried out a small Episcopal church in the Syracuse suburb where we had moved (move #6) upon our return to the area. I felt very uncomfortable and did not return.
Then began what I like to call my “associate period” with the Catholic Church. In the professional society to which I used to belong, there are voting members and associate members. Analogously, I felt like I was a Catholic associate because I could not partake of the sacraments. I got in the habit of joining Katherine regularly for Sunday Mass from Advent to Christmas and from Lent to Easter and intermittently the rest of the year.
I was attracted to the solemnity and reverence of Catholic worship. It helped immensely that Katherine preferred cathedrals over regular parishes. The space is beautiful and there’s usually a good choir. At the Syracuse cathedral at that time, there was a priest with an excellent voice who chanted the canon of the Mass.
I learned to genuflect, kneel, and cross myself. Katherine was puzzled by the fact that I would genuflect towards the tabernacle before entering the pew, even though I did not hold a belief in the Real Presence. My reasoning was that if there were such a thing as the Real Presence, then genuflecting was a really good idea. If there wasn’t then it did no harm, but it did encourage a sense of reverence at a time when it was appropriate to be reverent. Perhaps I was just hedging my bets.
As I recited the creed each week, I remember internally asserting that I truly did believe each of the creedal statements. That is, until I reached “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” Sometimes, out of a sense of personal integrity, I would even stop speaking for that phrase and resume after it.
I was also drawn by the realness of Catholics themselves. The leftovers of Puritanism in most Protestant denominations can give a sense of artificiality. I did not find it scandalous that Catholics smoked and drank and knew how to party. Rather, I saw real people living real lives, active in their faith and doing the best they could with God’s help.
For the second half of this ten-year associate period, we had finally stopped moving and ended up in the Diocese of Arlington in Virginia. What a great place to convert! Solid, faithful priests, many of them young, most of them good homilists who preach the Truth in season and out.
By a slow process of osmosis, I began to understand that the Catholic Church was the true Church and I needed to do something with that knowledge. But I was working for AOL during its boom time in the late ‘90s and religion never managed to bubble-up to a high enough priority for me to pursue a change. Then, because of the bubble in the value of AOL stock, I was able to retire at an early age. With a lot of free time on my hands, I no longer had any excuse to put God off.
I tracked down one of the more engaging priests whom I had encountered in my associate period, Fr. Edward Hathaway. I knew that having been baptized, I did not need to go through RCIA if I could find a priest to give me private instruction and the remaining sacraments of initiation into the Church. I was rather prejudiced against RCIA as I had encountered it occasionally and found it rather dull. I was blithely ignorant of the work load of parish priests, so I unabashedly asked Fr. Hathaway to provide the instruction. Busy though he was, he graciously consented.
Since I had spent so many years attending Mass and for many of those years receiving very good catechesis from the homilies of good priests, there was little that was standing between me and reception into the Catholic Faith. Unlike the classic Protestant complaint, I was rather unconcerned about things like Marian devotion and praying to saints. Familiarity with actual Catholic worship taught me that Protestant concerns about Catholic devotional life were ill informed. Whether or not I would develop devotions to saints could be sorted out later. The main thing was to be in union with the True Faith.
There still was, however, the problem of the Real Presence. I can remember pondering this problem during Masses. In what way was Christ present in the consecrated host? Well, body and soul, fully human and fully divine, of course. (As I say, I had been listening during the homilies.) But what could that actually mean?
In the end, what saved me was the realization that I must act in faith and not worry overmuch about completely understanding all the details. Fr. Hathaway and I discussed the Real Presence of the Eucharist during my preparation for full communion. He gave good instruction, but it became clear to me that I already knew as much as I could learn from good catechesis and I still was not going to understand it the way I could understand the inner workings of a piece of software. I just needed to assent to the full teachings of the Church in faith.
In retrospect, it seems the height of folly and hubris to have thought otherwise. The generations of faithful Catholics that preceded me had done likewise. How could it be otherwise since the Eucharist is the great mystery of the faith?
After a few months of instruction, I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church on August 29th, 2001. That day is both the feast day of the beheading of John the Baptist and my birthday. It seemed fitting as an ex-Baptist to take St. John the Baptist as my patron.
Blessed to Be Catholic
The one stumbling block to my conversion has, of course, become the greatest gift of my life in the Church: the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. When I was a Baptist, I heard a lot about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. As a Catholic, my relationship with Christ is more personal than I ever imagined as a Baptist. No doubt I could’ve been a better Baptist, but even so, I could never have experienced the miracle of sharing in the life of Christ through the Eucharist. Knowing this and considering the fact that Protestants are living good lives just on the strength of baptismal and actual graces, keeps me careful not to squander the sacramental graces that I receive regularly.
Well before I converted, I used to think that the Catholic Church would present a safe haven from the evangelizing fervor I had learned to dread as a Baptist youngster. Catholics are not generally known for their evangelical tendencies. But, of course, that was silliness as Pope John Paul II made clear in his calling for a springtime of evangelization. The Church provides an incredible way for all Catholics to exercise our zeal for souls, even for those who are not called to evangelize in more direct forms. To be able to share in the work of redemption by offering all my human actions and sufferings to be united with Christ’s sufferings on the cross through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is simply mind-boggling!
Throughout my long journey, Katherine had been very patient. She learned early that even a gentle push was likely to backfire. So she settled for waiting in prayer. I was rather secretive when I first contacted Fr. Hathaway for instruction as I did not want to raise her hopes. I did eventually tell her what I was doing, but requested no questioning until I was done. She was, of course, very happy at the outcome, but she says that mostly she was thankful.
I have Katherine to thank for leading me home and she had her parents to thank for the same. About a month after Katherine and I were married, her parents left Seattle and settled their family in the Greater Boston area where they had both been raised. They eventually wearied of the changes in public Catholic worship promulgated by the “spirit” of Vatican II. Without a proper foundation in their faith, they had little motivation to look past some unfortunate local practices to the meaning of the Mass and eventually dropped the practice of their faith.
When I entered full communion, one of the first things I could share with Katherine in our now common faith was praying for her parents’ return to the fold. During the Clinton presidency, they felt a deepening disgust with the moral decline of American culture. After the terrorist attack of 9/11 they watched the televised funeral of Barbara Olsen, a well-liked television commentator who died in the attack on the Pentagon. They were deeply moved by the faith-filled homily given at the funeral by a priest of the Arlington Diocese. In time, their life resumed its daily routine, but nothing actually returned to normal in the months that followed. As Christmas 2002 approached they heard and responded to God’s call of “Enough!”, as He reeled in His line for the second time in their lives. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been 20 years since my last confession.” God is good.
Fund for Vocations
As I was indebted to Fr. Hathaway for his instruction, I started helping out around the parish — including video taping all the RCIA sessions, thus having to attend the very thing I had wanted to avoid. Also, Fr. Hathaway is not shy about asking for help, so he brought to our attention the dilemma of a man who wanted to enter religious life but could not because of his student loans. One must be debt-free to take a vow of poverty.
Responding to that man’s need got Katherine and me started in the apostolate that has become our life’s mission. We started this work with funds from our private foundation and when those funds were completely committed we started the public charity Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations so that other faithful Catholics could help. With their help the Fund for Vocations has issued grants that have enabled a total of 71 men and women to begin formation for religious life immediately rather than waiting many years until after they have paid off their student loans. Many, many more need the help of the Fund for Vocations. Currently we must turn away three out of every four applicants for lack of funds.
In our travels to meet our grant recipients, Katherine and I have been blessed to see the great resurgence in religious life that is now in progress throughout the United States.
As I draw my story to a close, I am again humbled by God’s providence: for Katherine to begin adulthood as a nominal Catholic and me as a Baptist and now to be helping men and women enter Catholic religious life is a surprising journey for our first thirty years together. At each step along that path God has provided the means to make the next step. He has placed the right people in our path at the right time. He has given us an affection for religious life and the resources whereby we could be helpful to those seeking religious life. And when the need exceeded those resources, He gently led us to reach beyond our training and found a charity for the benefit of building up His Church. We look forward with joy to the next thirty years.