“You’re about to do what?!?!”
I was shocked that my roommate and good friend was planning on leaving our fervent, Bible-based, and “Spirit-filled” church for what I thought was a dead religion, Catholicism. When he told me this stunning news, I had been a campus minister with a non-denominational charismatic church for over four years, and my friend had been one of the more fervent and dedicated students. Like me, he had undergone a radical transformation through this group of believers that, as we thought, were following Jesus like the first Christians did.
Why would anyone in their right mind turn to a church that, as I viewed it, was spiritually dead? I had grown up in a Christian home, but my early experience had convinced me that liturgical worship did not lead people to the kind of life-changing encounters with God that I would later experience. I was baptized as an infant and confirmed in the Episcopal Church when I was in middle school. Although my parents took us to church every week, neither I, nor most of the other people at that church, seemed to even think about the Lord during the rest of the week. When I went off to college, I stopped attending church regularly. I would sometimes go to a Sunday evening service, but usually I attended because I felt bad about my sinful college lifestyle.
During my senior year, in the early 1990s, I had an adult conversion experience that came about primarily as the result of reading the Bible. I had had a discussion with an anti-Christian friend who sneered, “If Christians really believed the Bible, how come they never read it or do what it tells them to do? If they call Jesus ‘Lord,’ why don’t they obey Him?” Since I knew I was vulnerable to his criticism, I began reading the Scriptures. The truths that confronted me there led to my heartfelt conversion.
The next year, I went to graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and got involved with several evangelical campus ministries where people were very committed to living out their faith. In fact, the first event I attended with them was an all-night prayer meeting! I would later serve for eight years as a campus minister with this ministry, five years at UNC–Chapel Hill and three years at Duke University. Although that all-night prayer meeting was only an annual preparation for a student conference, I thought it was such a good idea that, after I became a minister, I encouraged groups of students to join me in praying through the night twice per month.
This particular ministry was also committed to diligent study and teaching of the Scriptures. They encouraged me to read through the entire Bible once per year. After doing that two times, I felt that I was deriving such incredible benefits from the practice that I started doing it twice per year. By God’s grace, I have continued that discipline, even after becoming Catholic, and have now read through the entire Bible over 45 times.
My only exposure to the Catholic Church at this time was helping to equip our students to lead people out of it and into a church we felt was more faithful to the Bible. One of our most frequently- used tracts was designed by an ex-Catholic and was touted by our leaders as being very effective in helping Catholics get “saved.” What the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said about anti- Catholics was definitely true of me: “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Roman Catholic Church; there are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church.”
I also had some exposure to Catholic doctrines when I began going to an evangelical seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, in 1996. My systematic theology professor, a man whom I greatly respected, acknowledged that Protestants agree with Catholics on over 90 percent of the faith. However, he quickly added that the parts we disagreed about were so serious as to be “fatal.” In my church history class, I had the great privilege of reading many of the early Church Fathers and important theologians from the first 1,500 years of church history: St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, St. Cyprian, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, and St. Thomas Aquinas (although of course we did not refer to them as “saints”). We focused mainly on their teachings that fell within the 90 percent of the faith that we held in common, but you can imagine what a shock it was when I later discovered that the Fathers were very “Catholic” in the remainder of their doctrines. It was difficult to accept the idea that all of these great theologians could be so easily duped into believing many doctrines that we Protestants considered to be unbiblical and heretical.
Inconsistencies aside, I had many wonderful experiences as an evangelical, and I am deeply grateful for all that I learned during those 12 years, such as the commitment to prayer and the study of the Scriptures. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Thomas Howard, a well-known evangelical who converted to the Catholic Church in the 1980s, when he said that evangelicalism is a wonderful nurse to prepare people to be handed over to the Church.
Another thing that I am thankful for from my evangelical years is the strong commitment to the truth and the importance of sub- mitting to the Lord. Because of these teachings, I would later have the resolve and the willingness to make the very difficult decision to quit my comfortable job as a minister and to trust the Lord to provide for my family, which at that time included three children, all under the age of five.
I only began to study the claims of Catholicism in 2001, after two students from our ministry, both of whom had attended those all-night prayer meetings, became Catholics. My friends might have been zealous in their faith, but I assumed they must not have known much theology since they believed that the Catholic Church might actually be the fullness of Christianity. I turned to Peter’s admonition to “always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that we have.” These friends had not been to seminary, so I naively thought that it would be a simple matter to show them the gross doctrinal errors that they were embracing. I felt confident that they would turn away from this deception once they read Luther and Calvin and other contemporary theologians in the stack of books that I was supplying them. I also agreed to read a few of their books, but only because I was fully persuaded that it would be easy to point out the errors in their teaching.
I was surprised to find out that much of the Bible that I so dearly loved made more sense from a Catholic perspective. Although I could list dozens of verses that really had an impact on me, the one that I could never explain is where St. Paul states that the Church of the living God is the household of God and the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). Since I wanted to continue in the ministry and did not want to bring division into my family, I tried with all my might to find somewhere in Protestantism where the Church functioned practically as the pillar and bulwark of the truth, but I came up empty. For years, I had essentially taught that the Bible is the pillar and foundation of the truth, but somehow I had never grasped the significance of this Scripture verse.
Friends who had grown up Catholic kept insisting that they had never heard anything about the Bible. According to their accusations, all they heard were traditions, and they were never taught the Word of God. One of these friends is now one of the most vehement anti-Catholics that I know. He told me that the Church did not encourage the reading of Scripture. I reminded him that each Mass is saturated with sacred Scripture, but the falsehood of his accusations really stood out when I researched what the Church actually teaches about sacred Scripture. I found the following paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. They are in a section entitled “Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church”:
131 “And such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life.” Hence “access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful.”
132 “Therefore, the study of the sacred page should be the very soul of sacred theology. The ministry of the Word, too — pastoral preaching, catechetics and all forms of Christian instruction, among which the liturgical homily should hold pride of place — is healthily nourished and thrives in holiness through the Word of Scripture.”
133 The Church “forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful … to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”
Given these challenges to my Protestant faith, I began to search for the truth voraciously. From 2001 through 2006, I read over 200 books about the Catholic Faith, with about 50 of them being Protestant critiques of Catholicism. I also read countless articles and written debates from various websites. In addition, I listened to audio debates, each two to three hours long, between top Catholic and Protestant apologists. I especially liked the debates because I got to hear both sides present their position and respond to the other side. I was so determined to find answers that, most days, I would study and pray in the pre-dawn hours before rushing off into the day.
The primary issue I wrestled with was authority: specifically, the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. The first issue I looked at in detail was one of the planks of the Reformation, sola Scriptura. The first Catholic book I read was a 600-page critique of this doctrine entitled, Not By Scripture Alone. At first, I was offended by this title since it seemed to put God’s Word in a negative light. However, one of the contributing authors stated early on that he loved Scripture and described how his whole life had been dedicated to studying it for five or six hours a day during his eighteen years as an evangelical and six years as a Catholic. He loved it so much that he would do anything to make sure that he was not teaching any doctrine that the Bible was not actually teaching. Does the Bible teach sola Scriptura, or does it exalt the authority of Scripture but also recognize the necessity of maintaining apostolic tradition as interpreted by an authoritative Church? Is this same Church also necessary to arrive at the proper interpretation of the Bible? While poring over dozens of books, I had to grudgingly admit that the doctrine of sola Scriptura is not, in fact, taught by the Bible. How ironic!
I then began to study the idea of Tradition and was surprised that I had overlooked the importance of such verses as 2 Thessalonians 2:15, where Paul exhorts believers to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” Here he even distinguishes between the oral Traditions that were delivered by word of mouth and the epistles that would later become part of the New Testament. Paul also commended those in Corinth “because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2). One reason I had overlooked what the Bible says about tradition was my habit of using the New International Version (NIV). In Not By Scripture Alone, contributing author Dr. Philip Blosser, a philosophy professor and a graduate of one of the bastions of Reformed theology, Westminster Theological Seminary, quoted at length from a Reformed scholar about how the NIV “de- Catholicizes” Scripture. All traditions that were condemned, such as “traditions of men” in Matthew 15, were accurately translated as “traditions.” However, when the same Greek word was spoken of in a positive sense, such as where Paul commands us to hold to traditions and commends believers for maintaining them, the NIV translators deliberately mistranslated it as “teachings.”
Other issues related to authority that I studied in great detail were the authority of Peter and the papacy as well as the role of ecumenical councils in proclaiming and defending the truths of Scripture. The biblical model of resolving doctrinal disputes is given in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. There we see the crucial role of Peter and the Apostles, as the council could declare that “it is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us” (Acts 15:28) in handing on for observance the decisions reached by the Apostles (Acts 16:4). Simon Peter had previously been called blessed by Our Lord when he accurately discerned, by the Father’s revelation, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. He is then re-named and given this amazing promise from Jesus: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not pre- vail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Books such as Steve Ray’s Upon this Rock and a scriptural handbook on the papacy titled Jesus, Peter, and the Keys helped convince me of the unique role of Peter and subsequent popes.
This mention of “keys” reminds me of a great statement about how many other questions and misunderstandings are resolved once we are convinced of the authority of the Catholic Church and her God-given role of teaching as the pillar and bulwark of the truth. A convert in England named Arnold Lunn had a tremendous insight when he wrote: “The Catholic key certainly unlocked most locks, and if the key stuck in a few locks, perhaps the fault was not in the key but in my use of it.” I found that when Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom exclusively to Peter (Matthew 16:19), He was bestowing on him a unique privilege that was to be passed on to his successors. Isaiah 22 provides the Old Testament background for how the idea of keys representing an authority that had already been passed down for hundreds of years before Isaiah lived. When I became convinced of the authority of the Catholic Church, many of the other issues, like devotion to Mary, were resolved.
I studied from every conceivable angle all the major issues, such as justification and whether it was by faith alone, the Eucharist, the other sacraments, and Mary. I was distressed when I saw that the only time Scripture uses the words “faith alone” is when James taught that man is “justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). No wonder Martin Luther seemed to hate this book, implying that it did not have the same status as other books in the New Testament.
When I considered the Eucharist, I was forced to admit that, as a “Bible Christian” who firmly held to the literal meaning, I was not taking passages such as John 6 in their literal and obvious sense. Jesus’ original audience took His words literally. Yet He did not rush after them to explain that He had only meant these words symbolically. When Our Lord spoke to His followers at the Last Supper, He did not say, “this represents my body” or “this will remind you of my body,” but “this is my body.”
Mary was another huge obstacle to me as well. I was greatly helped by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s teachings as he pointed out what the Church Fathers had taught about Mary as the “new Eve.” Since he had previously helped me understand how doctrines develop with his masterful An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, I once again had to admit the truth of Newman’s statement that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Certain Scriptures, such as Luke 1, were also instrumental. There we see that the angel Gabriel was sent from God to the Virgin Mary, saying, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” Then Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Finally, in her great Magnificat at the end of Luke 1, Mary declared that “henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.” Had I ever hailed her as full of grace? Did I acknowledge that she is blessed among women? Or was I like the generations of Protestants who accepted these Scriptures as God’s truth but in practice did very little to acknowledge and call Mary blessed? I found that all of the Marian doctrines were not so much about Mary alone or exalting her for her own sake, but about protecting the truths of who her divine Son really is or what our ultimate destiny is. The doctrines about Mary are an acknowledgement of all the great things that God had done in her, this most blessed of women who was chosen to be the mother of our God and Savior.
I also had a number of interesting encounters while trying everything I could to avoid converting. I went to hear one of the finest historical theologians in the world, “Dr. G,” who wrote a history of Christianity that was one of my assigned textbooks in seminary. According to the Dean of the Duke Divinity School, this author also wrote the definitive three-volume series on the history of Christian thought. “Dr. G” had taught at seminaries in Puerto Rico and Latin America, so I knew that he was familiar with the Roman Catholic claims. Since he was an expert in historical theology, I thought he would be the perfect person to disprove Newman’s statement about being deep in history. I approached him and told him that I was a Protestant minister who was seeking to avoid conversion to the Catholic Church. I was shocked when he asked me why I was resisting. I stammered out something about having been taught that the Catholic Church was wrong on so many important doctrines and asked if he could suggest some books that I could read. All he said was that I should never resist my conscience and that he would not recommend any books for me. Needless to say, this unexpected answer was not exactly the response that I had hoped or prayed for.
I met with one of the professors at the Duke Divinity School who knew quite a bit about Catholicism. He had recently been named “Theologian of the Year” by Time magazine and had previously taught at Notre Dame. Although he was more liberal than authors I normally turned to, I assumed that he would be able to suggest some good books to read. This professor was convinced about the truth of many Catholic teachings, yet he still remained a Protestant. When I met with him, he freely confessed that the Catholic Church was right about almost everything but that did not mean that I had to become a Catholic. Then, sadly, he quoted a Catholic priest who had stated that if anyone was considering converting to the Church, he should spend at least a year in a parish; then he would think better of it. Later on, during my first year in a Catholic parish, I found the opposite to be true.
So I tried a friend from seminary who I thought could help me. I remembered from my seminary days that he had been particularly vehement in his denunciations of Catholicism. He had grown up in a committed Catholic home, and his brother even founded a Catholic religious order. When I called him, I was surprised that he did not attack Catholicism. In fact, although he was now a Presbyterian pastor, he acknowledged that the Catholic Church did make very strong arguments. Imagine my shock when he called me a few months later and said he was resigning his pastorate and being received back into the Catholic Church!
As it became more and more clear in my mind where the Lord was leading me, I still needed a confirmation of that discernment and turned, as had been my habit, to fasting. One of the pastors of our church approached me and asked me to pray for him since he was about to begin a 40-day fast from all foods. I had always had a yearning in my heart to do this when hearing of other Protestant ministers who fasted for such long periods of time. Since I was at that time praying fervently about when and if the Lord wanted me to enter the Catholic Church, I asked the Lord for the grace to be able to join my friend on that fast. I thank God that He drew me to such a wonderful season of prayer and intimacy with Him. During the first four years of my journey when I was reading and asking questions about the Church, I was surprised by truth.
The fifth and last year when I began attending Mass, I was surprised by the presence of the Lord. I particularly remember being completely overwhelmed by the presence of the Lord during the second Mass I had ever attended in February 2004. The tears were flowing freely as we recited the Creed and confessed belief in a Church that was “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” I had found Christ’s true Church in the most unlikely and unexpected of places.
Without a doubt, the most difficult part of this whole decision was the fact that my dear wife, Michelle, did not feel that God was calling her into the Church at the time. In fact, the reason my discernment period to enter the Church was extended was because we were not in agreement, and it was causing stress on our marriage. We were both Protestant campus ministers; we had been married for only a year, and she was pregnant with our first child when I began reading my way into the Church. I explained to her that there was only one person in the world that I would rather avoid hurting than her, and that was God Himself. She understood and came to the Easter Vigil in 2006 when I officially entered the Church, but it was extremely difficult for her. For 11 years, we experienced the pain that Our Lord must have felt in the centuries after the Protestant Reformation when Christianity was split into thousands of different denominations. At one point, a few years after my conversion, I asked my wife to sit through the RCIA program for inquirers, which she did. However, that was not the Lord’s timing, but mine. I am extremely grateful, however, that God does have perfect timing. He later prompted her to give the Church another look, and with great celebration, she and our five children were received into the Church at the Easter Vigil of 2018.
Since my entry into the Catholic Church, it has been an amazing 12 years of powerfully experiencing the grace of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. The Lord has graciously made up for any small sacrifice I may have made for Him. I have seen firsthand the beauty of a Church that functions as a pillar and bulwark of the truth, not only in her teaching, but also in leading and helping the faithful to live holy lives. For these and countless other reasons, I agree wholeheartedly with the great quote from G.K. Chesterton about why he converted to Catholicism: “The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.”