It is strangely ironic that as I recall the events that led me back to the Catholic Church, the words “I was raised Catholic” come to mind. I wonder how many times over the course of twenty years I have said those words, usually at the beginning of a personal testimony or even during an introduction. I also wonder how many times I have been on the receiving end of those words.
In many of the Evangelical Protestant or fundamentalist churches of today, more than twenty percent of the members or regular worshipers can say, “I was raised Catholic.” At banquets or meetings, I recall many times sitting around a table, attempting to meet and learn about the other people sitting with me. Inevitably, someone would say those words. Heads would start nodding seemingly everywhere, and the smiles would begin. Additional words weren’t required, because each of us understood.
We had escaped, we believed, from a Church that taught works for salvation and tradition over Scripture, a Church that had never told us about having a personal relationship with our Lord. Each of us would say, “We never heard the Gospel until we began to attend” such and such church.
Now, after being away for over twenty years, I understand what the Catholic Church truly teaches about works in relation to salvation. I understand not only the need for Tradition but also how it acts as the glue in the foundation of our faith. To my shame, I am now aware how week after week for twenty-two years, I had heard the Gospel read and preached at Mass but I never listened to it. “They hear, but they do not understand” (see Is 6:10). Lord, forgive me.
For many Protestant denominations, their specific or unique theological emphases have been formulated only over the past hundred years, some more, many less. Usually, each group was formed after splitting away from another group over a particular theological, doctrinal, biblical, or moral issue that was debated and then either implemented or rejected. So often, at least it seems to me, each newly formed denominational group leaves something behind in the process. I think the Reformers would be shocked to see how the denominations they founded have evolved in their ever-widening theologies.
Catholic New Testament theology has developed for nearly two thousand years. The consistency and depth of teaching within the Church should be something to be marveled at, not criticized. Unfortunately today, even in the Catholic Church herself, we find priests, religious, lay teachers, and organizations who do not follow the teaching of the Church, which only leads to more confusion among lay Catholics as well as non-Catholics. Can there be any question as to why many lay Catholics don’t know their faith?
To Christians of other traditions, the Catholic Church, especially the Mass, seems strange or antiquated. It’s not until they take the time to learn and begin to understand what the Church truly teaches that they see that much of what is practiced, both in obedience to Sacred Tradition as well as in cultural Catholics’ devotions and customs, is based on what was delivered, taught, and practiced in the first centuries of apostolic Christianity. The Jewish roots of the early Christians can be clearly seen in these traditions.
On the other hand, most Protestant denominations have been established rather recently, with their own traditions being based on what their first-generation Protestant leaders and members practiced.
The specific tradition that I recently left, the Assemblies of God, was formed in 1914. Most of those in the first generation passed on, leaving the second generation to hold true to what was then established. The third and later generations, many coming from other Christian traditions, then questioned why things are done the way they are. The second-generation people fought to bring the denomination back to the roots they inherited, while the later generations pushed to change in ways that seemed important to them and their families.
All this happened in the twentieth century. When you contrast the changes made in less than one century in this one new Christian tradition with the consistency following twenty centuries in the Catholic Church, it should make you pause.
Who would have thought fifty years ago that some mainline Protestant traditions would be considering, and in many cases accepting, abortion, same-sex marriages, and practicing homosexual clergy?
Once again, the Catholic Church, in spite of the attempts of dissident groups whose motives are often suspect, has remained consistent in its call to all Christians to remain faithful to the faith and teaching that have been handed down, from generation to generation, for nearly two thousand years.
My Wandering Begins
When I was twenty or twenty-one, I began indulging in some heavy drinking and experimenting with drugs, and I almost entered a marriage that would have proven disastrous. Why? I don’t know. God, however, was faithful, even though I most certainly wasn’t.
A string of circumstances led me to a Southern Baptist church in Louisiana. Those circumstances became the bulk of my testimony whenever I would joyfully tell how I “became a Christian.” Today, as I look back, I am very grateful for how God worked in my life to open my heart to His love and grace. But now my conclusion is different: He saved me, but He saved me from me.
At this small Southern Baptist church, I found people who cared for me, loved me, and shared their lives with me. Outside of my own family, I never realized people acted this way. Many nights I would be at one of their homes, sitting at the kitchen table and asking questions about the Bible. They always had time for me.
There I discovered Jesus in a way that was totally different from what I had experienced as a Catholic, and I believe this is one reason why Catholics leave the Church. I don’t mean to oversimplify this, but I think what draws many away is hearing clear, directive, confrontational preaching for the first time — not a short homily demanding little or no response, but a thirty, forty, even sixty-minute sermon, which fully develops a scriptural text into a practical application that leads to a climax requiring a “Yes!” or a “No!”
This is why, I believe, so many “born again” ex-Catholics say they had never heard the Gospel before. What they are really saying is this: “I was never put in a position to say ‘yes’ before.” At least this was true for me.
But another aspect of most Evangelical Protestant churches is also important: the feeling of involvement. In the Southern Baptist church I began to attend, Sunday school was followed by the morning service. In the evening, another time of teaching called Training Union was followed by the evening service.
On Wednesday we had midweek service. On Thursday, we had visitation to the people who had visited the church on Sunday or who recently had moved into the area. Throughout the week were Bible studies and committee meetings. With all of this I began to feel involved, to feel needed — that I was “somebody.”
I have learned that the same opportunities for involvement have been there all along in most Catholic parishes. Many things are going on, ministries to be involved in and therefore ways to feel you have something to offer. But I wonder how many former Catholics, now so heavily involved in their new Protestant churches, made the same efforts to be involved in their former parishes? More than attending weekly Mass, I mean. How many taught religious education or worked with the teens, college students, singles, young married couples, widows, converts, those who are grieving, those who are in need, or others?
In April, 1974, I became a Baptist, joining the church I had been attending. I preached my first service at a youth revival in June of that year. I remember working for days on that sermon and being so nervous when the day finally came. I arrived at the church early and sat anxiously in the first row.
With my back turned to the congregation, I had no idea how many people were entering behind me. When it came time for me to preach, I approached the pulpit and turned to see the building absolutely packed. I had never seen the church that full before.
In spite of my heart pounding and my knees shaking, I began a one-hour sermon that probably included every piece of Bible knowledge I had accumulated since April. Anything and everything I had ever heard was in that message. At the end, I gave an altar call, and a teenage girl came forward and gave her life to Christ. It was one of the most exciting nights of my life, and I felt sure I was where God wanted me.
While helping with the youth group, I met a young woman named Jeannie, and within months we concluded that God was calling us to be married. I discouraged any of my family from attending our December wedding. This of course was just another “hurt” in a long list of “hurts” that I would cause for my parents.
The excuse I gave was that the wedding was in Louisiana, a long way from my parents’ home outside of Chicago. There were still six siblings living at home, so it would have been very difficult and expensive for them to come.
But the real reason I persuaded them not to come was because I was embarrassed by them — not by them personally, but because they were Catholic. In my heart, I truly wanted them to be there with me, especially my mom and dad, but I didn’t want to introduce them to my new church family. My anti-Catholic feelings were starting to emerge. I was beginning to enjoy my new zealousness, and I didn’t want to be challenged by two Catholic Christians.
I enrolled in a Bible college, and for the next few years, my anti-Catholic views and at times hatred for the Catholic Church were the dominant part of my life. I had just enough knowledge of the Catholic Church to be considered an “expert” by many of my fellow Bible college students, but not enough to be able to discern the errors that I was hearing about the Church.
From 1974 to 1985, I served in several Baptist churches in Louisiana, Washington State, and California. I was always involved in lay ministry and church leadership. I served in pulpit ministry, preaching when the pastors were on vacation or ill. I also taught Sunday school classes as well as adult Bible studies.
When we moved to Arizona in 1985, my wife and I took the opportunity to join an Assembly of God (Pentecostal) church. We remained there until April, 1997, when I finally resigned my positions as deacon and secretary/treasurer of the board of directors.
My Heart Starts to Turn for Home
I think the beginning of my restlessness with the Protestant form of worship — basically prayer, a greeting, singing, announcements, an offering, more singing, more prayer, a special song either by the choir or an individual or group, a message, and finally some opportunity to respond to the message — was the realization that this was all about “going to get something.” If the songs weren’t the ones I liked, it could ruin the whole service for me.
Participating in the leadership team, I always tried to make sure the emphasis was on worshipping God regardless of how we felt. But so often it still came down to how we felt. I believe this is the source of the standard line heard among dissatisfied Christians: “I’m not being fed.”
Without knowing it, I was beginning to think there had to be a better way. I remember talking to the pastor shortly before I announced I was leaving, and he admitted that he felt under much pressure — that he was carrying the service on his shoulders. He didn’t want it that way, but he felt like he was performing.
Then in the spring of 1996, my family began preparing for our first visit in ten years back to my home near Chicago. I am the oldest of nine children — six boys and three girls. Most of my brothers and sisters were small children when I left home at the age of nineteen, so I didn’t know them very well, and the thought of seeing them became an ever-increasing problem.
I was the only one who had left home, and I was the only one who wasn’t Catholic. Over the years, I had always found excuses to avoid returning, and by now my anxiety verged on paranoia.
The reason for this particular trip home was the wedding of my brother Paul to his fiancée, Katherine. I had missed many of my brothers’ and sisters’ weddings, but this time, my dad insisted that all of his sons be in this wedding.
Paul and Katherine were graduates of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, where Paul had received an M.A. in theology. I remember thinking, “What a sap! He spent all that money and time earning a degree in Catholic theology. I’ll bet they didn’t open the Bible once during the whole two years he was there.”
We arrived a few days before the wedding, and of course everything was in chaos. I made a point of stealing some time alone with Paul to discuss his education and to convince myself he was really a Christian. During our discussion, the subject of Mary came up.
We talked about the different doctrinal beliefs about Mary that Catholics must hold, and at first I thought he was kidding. This had to be a joke that he had been saving for months to spring on me. Then I realized he was serious.
Thoughts flew through my mind. My brother isn’t a Christian! Two years at that school, and he thinks Mary is equal to Jesus!
At first this discussion only led to anger, but slowly I began thinking again about the Catholic Church. At first, the thoughts weren’t things I cared to share with anyone. But slowly over the days before the wedding, God began softening my heart.
As far as I was concerned, the wedding rehearsal was a disaster. I wouldn’t cooperate by bowing before the altar as I came down the aisle. I goofed off the whole time, making jokes about everything the deacon was saying or trying to do. I was a total distraction to those around me. That was the first time I had been in a Catholic church for a long time, and I thought it was all a joke.
The morning of the wedding was an exciting, beautiful day. I had gotten over all the fears and apprehension of seeing my brothers and sisters, not to mention relatives that I hadn’t seen in twenty years. I was even looking forward to seeing everyone at the reception afterward.
At the church, I began seeing people whom I never thought I’d see again. We laughed and told stories, amazed at how years could vanish in moments. We gathered in the church and waited for the bride to arrive.
I noticed that my brother Don was acting as if he wasn’t feeling well. He started to get anxious for fear of disrupting the wedding, which made him feel worse. We tried to calm him down, but he kept getting worse.
I put my hands on his shoulders and prayed for a healing touch and calmness to come over him. It was the first time I was able to do “my thing” around all these Catholics.
Praying for my brother helped me to focus on the wedding, to think about God, and to make a commitment to Him that I would take the upcoming ceremony seriously. When Katherine arrived, the wedding began. In a few minutes, I would begin a journey that I never thought I would take.
My Journey Home
I was enjoying the wedding Mass, looking around, making eye contact with cousins who had arrived late and who appeared just as excited to see me as I was to see them. I was feeling at home, very comfortable in a very strange place. When it came time for Communion, I had no intention of going forward to receive, but I sure wanted to.
Being in the wedding party, I was sitting in the front row. To my surprise, after the priest gave Communion to Paul and Katherine, he came straight to the wedding party in the front row. I was second and was caught off-guard. When the priest came to me, obviously assuming that I was Catholic, he said, “The body of Christ” and I instinctively said “Amen” and received the Host.
I knew (and know) that I should not have done that. But the moment I received the Host, something happened in my heart: I instantly believed in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
It seemed so “right.” Why had I ever doubted this? A hunger was born inside of me, and a need to rediscover the Catholic Church began.
Without making a big announcement — “I am rethinking the Catholic position” — I began reading books and magazines, listening to tapes, anything I could find at my parents’ home. Eventually I found a copy of Pierced by a Sword, a novel by Bud Macfarlane, Jr. The title was intriguing, and the book cover surprised me. Here was a Catholic novel dealing with the end of this age, something I had become quite “informed” about as an Assemblies of God Christian.
As I read, it I thought, “But where’s the Antichrist?” There was no mention of a temple being rebuilt or any talk about the Rapture. There was a lot of talk about Mary, but what did she have to do with the end times?
I also struggled with the novel’s main characters. How was I going to accept or believe that God might use characters who drank and smoked? Not just a little — a lot! Even the priest in the story drank and smoked, and yet he was portrayed as a good priest.
This was too much for my Assemblies of God scruples to handle. “Christians don’t drink or smoke,” I said, “and if they do, they sure don’t do it where they can be seen.”
In Pierced by a Sword, the author intersperses information and statements from the many reported visitations or apparitions of Mary. He also slips in a lot of Catholic theology and philosophy. I kept saying, “Where is this guy coming up with this stuff?” I probably threw the novel down six times, each time saying something like, “I’ve got better things to do than read this.”
But I finally became totally absorbed in the book. I couldn’t stop reading it. I was getting up early, staying up late, trying to have some quiet time or find a quiet place to finish this book. Nothing else mattered; I had to finish this book.
In the end, it was a story of hope. It particularly helped me understand the Catholic teaching on the communion of saints, which in just a few months would prove to be an unexpected comfort. I probably could have picked up any number of other books lying around that also could have affected my life. But God, who understands me better than I do myself, knew which one I needed to pick up and read.
If I had just read that book and left it at that, I would have returned to Arizona and never thought again about becoming Catholic. But my heart was driven to take another step. After our vacation, I wrote to Bud Macfarlane Jr. to tell him about the impact of his novel on my life.
In addition to an autographed copy of Pierced by a Sword, Bud sent me a copy of Surprised by Truth, edited by Patrick Madrid, a book of testimonies of Protestants who had come home to the Catholic Church. This I devoured. I had no idea there were other Protestants who not only were thinking about becoming Catholic but who actually had become Catholic.
One of the wonderful ways that God encouraged me during this difficult time was in the way people would make contact with me. I was reading Surprised by Truth and happened to finish the chapter written by Marcus Grodi, the founder and president of the Coming Home Network International. The very next day, when I returned from lunch and listened to my messages on my answering machine, there was a message from Marcus saying how Bud had given him my name. Even more than a great story, Pierced by a Sword was used by God to bring people like these Catholic brothers into my life. It started a chain of events that in many ways was miraculous.
Beginning in the fall of 1996, Bud and Marcus became my support team by telephone, mail, and email. Their wisdom, along with a ton of tapes by Scott Hahn and other great teachers — which I had purchased or borrowed and listened to multiple times — plus a great deal of research and prayer eventually brought me to a crisis point. I had to announce my resignation and my return to the Catholic Church. If I did not, I was being disobedient.
One thought, I believe, really helped to speed up my return home. I heard Jeff Cavins — a former Assemblies of God pastor and then host of the Life on the Rock program on the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) — speak about living a life of rebellion during his years away from the Church of his youth. I knew exactly what he meant. Our stories were different, but this mindset of rebellion, I believe, is true not only for me but for a whole generation of former Catholics.
I had been limited in my ministry, my relationships, my joy, because I was in rebellion. Once I understood this reality, accepted it, and began to experience true repentance, my joy began to return and my days away from the Catholic Church were numbered.
Jeannie and I began the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) classes at our local Catholic parish in June, 1997. On Saturday afternoon, August 9, I made a confession — my first confession in at least twenty years. Then on Sunday, August 10, I received the Eucharist, legitimately.
On Saturday, November 22, 1997, I had the privilege of watching my wife and her RCIA class make a profession of faith and receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, and then First Holy Communion. We were now able to receive the sacraments together as husband and wife.
So much has happened in such a short time. There were many times during this process that I became discouraged and wanted to forget about it. “Do I really want,” I asked myself, “to walk away from this ministry for which I have devoted years of preparation?”
However, each time I doubted, God would send someone, usually someone I didn’t know, often over the Internet, who “just felt led” to write me a letter sharing their story or to offer encouragement. For all of you who made contact with me, thank you. God has truly continued to bless my wife and me as we stepped out, leaving many years of ministry and friends behind, but filling our lives to overflowing with new friends, brothers, and sisters in Christ.
I had the privilege of serving under some godly men during my years away from the Church. These men provided friendship, wisdom, and many wonderful memories. These were close friendships with men that I loved and still do. And each time I had to say goodbye, I felt as if my heart was being torn out of my chest.
Today I have fallen in love with the Catholic Church. When I think back to the words, “I was raised Catholic,” I can only say, “Thanks, Mom and Dad — I love you.”