My dad took me to my first Royals game when I was eight years old. It was 1976. Big John Mayberry hit a home run for us, we beat the Oakland A’s, 7-6, and I was hooked.
For the next several years, growing up in a small town in Kansas, I listened to Kansas City Royals games on the radio every night and dreamed of becoming a Major League Baseball play-by-play announcer. Little did I know, that first Royals game 43 years ago would bring me to Royalty — at the feet of the cross of Jesus Christ and His Church.
My parents met at a small college in Winfield, Kansas, where my dad taught and my mom, fresh off the train from Michigan and wearing a sweater in 100-degree August heat, was a student. There was no scandal. From what I’ve gathered, it was pretty much love at first sight, and they were quickly married. St. John’s College was a part of the higher education system of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS). The name is somewhat misleading because there are LCMS churches in all 50 states. The denomination got its name from the German immigrants in the 1830s who settled south of St. Louis.
My dad later became a school administrator in Independence, Kansas, my hometown since age 4, where my mom and sister still live. My three siblings and I all remained Lutheran into adulthood. In fact, my oldest brother is a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor. I was the only one, it turns out, who strayed from “Missouri.” We went to church every Sunday of the year. That was non-negotiable. Independence is sort of a Norman Rockwell kind of town in the Midwest: A quaint downtown, a great fall festival and smart, thoughtful people. Missouri Synod Lutherans — conservative, well-mannered, dedicated — played an important role in the faith community of Independence. And it has been my experience, during my 40 years as a Lutheran and since, that the people of the LCMS are the salt of the earth. It was a wonderful church to grow up in, in a wonderful town to grow up in.
I was a good enough student and had a flair for the dramatic. At age 12, I was cast in the fall festival musical and went on to participate in some 25 plays and musicals growing up. That love of the theater, along with this fascination for baseball, got me thinking. Maybe broadcasting. Maybe sportscasting. Maybe I could be the play-by-play announcer for the Royals… At age 16, I landed a job on weekends at the local radio station that carried Royals baseball games. Both of my brothers had worked at the station part-time. For me, it was the start of a career. I ran the board during Royals broadcasts and waited for my chance to say, “This is KIND AM & FM, Independence, Kansas” at the top of the hour (live!). And then I’d wait an hour to do it again. I was having a great American childhood and thinking about the important things in life, like friends, and girls, and high school football games, and that one hour a week at Zion Lutheran. God was good to me. I was… cordially aware of Him.
There are more similarities than differences between Missouri Synod Lutherans and the Catholic Church. Lutherans are, by and large, liturgical. Most churches have stained glass, and their clergy wear vestments. The LCMS only ordains men, is pro-life, strong on traditional marriage and holds solid confessions on the Holy Trinity, Baptism, sin, death, and the Resurrection. Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk who kicked off the worldwide Protestant Reformation, didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. He kept many elements of the Mass, a veneration to the Blessed Virgin Mary that few Lutherans realize today, and held to a “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist (in, with and under the bread and wine — consubstantiation, not the transubstantiation of the Catholic Church).
And Lutheran kids go through confirmation, just like Catholics.
I started the two-year confirmation process that eventually led to our first communion. Some Lutheran churches let kids commune closer to age 7 or 8. But down through the years, getting to take part in the Lord’s Supper was the result of finishing confirmation. I always say the following with a little tongue in cheek, but in Lutheran confirmation class, we primarily learned why were weren’t Catholic! To be fair, confirmation in my day was structured around Luther’s Small Catechism, the part of the Lutheran Confessions that are considered the “correct exposition” of the Bible, with a heavy emphasis on orthodox Christian teachings that Catholics would have no disagreement with: Obedience to the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the reality of heaven and hell. Yet throughout, Luther’s protestations against the Church in the 16th century, however justified, served as the theme of confirmation. We knew why we were Lutheran. We knew good and well why we weren’t Catholic.
Baptized as an infant, I was now a confirmed and communicant Lutheran. But what I mostly cared about was whether the Royals were going to win the division. Or at least finish the season above .500. Church was a comfortable part of my idyllic Midwestern upbringing. But baseball…
One development did start to chip away at that cordial, comfortable Lutheran upbringing: other Christians. Many of my friends were Evangelical. They attended Baptist and Pentecostal and non-denominational churches. They were much more vocal about their faith. They held Bible studies. I used to tell them that confirmation class was kind of like a Bible study because it was too hard to explain otherwise. I hung out with their youth groups. They prayed and talked about Jesus. We didn’t do that so much in Lutheran circles. But I didn’t mind it; I was kind of intrigued.I became convinced of basically this: That if I say I believe this stuff, I need to live my life like I truly believe it. And not just for an hour a week. My spiritual awakening...was real. Click To Tweet
At that time in my life — and I gather this is somewhat typical — I started to question my faith. Not the Christian part; I was being drawn by something other than the predictable comfort of the Lutheran experience. As wonderful as it had been, I was seeing from others that there was more to this God, Jesus and the Bible thing than what I knew in that old brick Lutheran building. I went in a couple of different directions on the high-low church scale, attending both my friend’s Episcopal church, where his dad was the priest, and the local Nazarene church. I met evangelicals in college and started to connect. Then, through a series of conversations with my girlfriend at the time, whose entire family had left the Catholic Church to become Baptist, I became convinced of basically this: That if I say I believe this stuff, I need to live my life like I truly believe it. And not just for an hour a week. My spiritual awakening, akin to what an evangelical might describe as “being saved,” was real. I was on fire for the Lord for the first time in my life. I started really praying and reading Scripture, attending Bible studies and youth groups. It wasn’t at an altar call, but it was certainly real. I can even name the date: December 28, 1988. That day changed my life forever. It was like going to that first Royals game 12 years earlier, because both led me home to the Catholic Church.
The Lutheran Church taught me the great truths of the Christian faith. Evangelicals and other Protestants taught me how to relate those truths to others. And at this point, I hadn’t given Rome much thought. Except I had. Throughout this spiritual journey, I still seemed drawn to liturgy, structure, history and — this is key — sanctuary. Over the course of the next few years, I tried to have it both ways, celebrating zeal for my faith with a structure that came with a liturgical and confessional church. I stayed Lutheran. In fact, right after college, and probably seeking some comfort after the break-up with my girlfriend, I spent a weekend at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where my brother had studied. Was God calling me into the pastoral ministry, too? By this time, I had fully melded this new zeal for Christ with a growing desire for something. Something more, something eternal. Sound familiar?
I also had that budding broadcasting career. My time in radio led me into newspaper reporting in college. I came back from that weekend at seminary convinced that God, indeed, was not calling me into the pastoral ministry — at least not then — and I went after my first TV job. It happened soon after graduation for me as a sportscaster at a tiny station in Kansas, then on to a successful run as a co-host of the first morning show in the Pittsburg, Kansas/Joplin, Missouri market. From there, on to the Lynchburg/Roanoke, Virginia market and eventually back to Kansas City (home of the Royals!). At this point, I had no designs on working for the Royals and no thought of becoming Catholic. But then I got the call.
The Royals wanted to know if I would be interested in hosting a charity gala for the club. It turns out they identified me as a “friendly” media man in the local media, always saying something nice about the team. These were the very, very lean years. The Royals were losing a lot of games.Mike Sweeney...was a five-time All-Star for the Royals, a devout Catholic, and a prince of a man. Weeks after I started with the Royals, Mike invited the entire front office to a Mass being said at the stadium by the local bishop. Click To Tweet
If you spend any time in Catholic sports circles, and any Catholic circle, really, you’ll eventually come across the name of Mike Sweeney. Mike was a five-time All-Star for the Royals, a devout Catholic, and a prince of a man. Weeks after I started with the Royals, Mike invited the entire front office to a Mass being said at the stadium by the local bishop. That was so Mike. He didn’t care if people were Catholic or even believers. He just wanted to include everyone. Out of respect, I attended. And so did plenty of others. I should mention that, by this time, my Christian attitudes had become more and more oriented toward history and liturgy. And my curiosity about the Catholic Church had certainly grown. A fan of comparative religion studies, I had watched EWTN for years. That included many episodes of The Journey Home. I was fascinated by the stories of those who had left other faith traditions to become, of all things, Catholic. Or those who had returned to the Church.
One day, in my office, a few months after that stadium Mass, The Journey Home popped into my head. It was the off-season and pretty slow around the old ballpark. So yes, I’ll admit I was doing this on work time — God forgive me. Actually, I believe the prompting of the Holy Spirit moved those next several mouse clicks. In the course of the following half hour, I learned about Marcus Grodi and his conversion from Protestant pastor to Catholicism and about his fellow convert, Scott Hahn. I saw the conversion stories on the Coming Home International’s website and found, simply by the title, one written by a Missouri Synod Lutheran. His name is Todd von Kampen, he lived in Omaha, Nebraska, and he and I have been in touch ever since then. His personal story of conversion hit home with me, and I felt numb for the next two days. Could I really be considering this?
When I tell my story these days, I’m very aware that it involves a lot of “cool” features. Baseball, broadcasting, a dramatic moment where everything changed. But my story also included for me some very real theological considerations.
Luther said the Reformation stood onCatholic teaching of faith and works being opposite sides of the same coin made so much more sense to me. Click To Tweet two main pillars: Sola fide (faith alone) and sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), a tremendous emphasis on being saved by grace through faith and not through works, and that everything we know about the Christian faith can be found in the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. During my “summer of conversion” in 2007, I first read Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home, then one Catholic conversion story after the other, listened to Catholic radio and sought direction from priests and religious. Reading those stories, I came to understand Catholicism in a much clearer way because I was reading about the faith from … Catholics! For instance, the Catholic teaching of faith and works being opposite sides of the same coin made so much more sense to me. In fact, in 2000 the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation declared as much, saying there were no longer grounds to condemn each other and that their beliefs on faith and works were more similar than different. (The LCMS did not participate in the joint declaration.) I also figured out that the Church’s authority in interpreting Scripture and declaring Tradition made that much more sense.
Finally, that sanctuary I was looking for became glaringly obvious when I understood the Eucharist and its primacy in the history of Christianity. I found sanctuary in the Real Presence of Our Lord.
I think it’s fair to say I had become “as Catholic as I could be without, God forbid, becoming Catholic.” The Masses at the stadium had started up again, and I attended most of them, the only non-Catholic there. I’m not sure I got a special dispensation, but I ended up being the sacristan. I even kept the Mass kit in my office. Mike dubbed it “The Toby Tabernacle.”
Of course, I wondered what I was going to tell my Lutheran family about all of this. Oh, and what would I tell my dear wife, Barbara, the girl that I was supposed to be with all along, whom I met after the ugly breakup?
Barbara and I have just celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary. We have five kids ranging in age from elementary school to college (see, we were Catholic all along!). Barbara has always been a Christian and had her own spiritual awakening in college. She agreed to be married in the Lutheran church, and we raised our kids in Lutheran schools. Her journey had taken her from Disciples of Christ to a Baptist church and now the LCMS. And I was about to lay this on her: “I’m wondering if I’m supposed to become Catholic?” I would eventually have the guts to ask her. When I did, she basically said, “Well, maybe.”
One Sunday morning, after trying to figure out a way to skip church for the first time in my life, I was reading Stephen Ray’s Crossing the Tiber, and he was describing a friend who had come to believe he was Catholic in his head. Stephen told him to take the next scary step and actually go to Mass. Right then, I told Barbara, “I gotta go to Mass.” She said, “Go.” It was just as beautiful as Stephen’s friend described in the book. The next day, I called a local parish and told a priest that I was investigating whether God was calling me home to the Catholic Church. His reply: “What a holy quest!”
The next Sunday, I (sheepishly, secretly) attended my first RCIA class. Barbara told me she wasn’t there yet in her heart but approved my attending. I brought the materials home. She came with me the next week, and we never looked back. At Easter Vigil 2008, our entire family came into Holy Mother Church. During RCIA, our fourth son was born. He was baptized that night. We joke that he became Catholic 25 minutes before we did.Better than winning a World Series in 2015, better than just about anything, becoming Catholic been the greatest thing that’s ever happened to us. Click To Tweet
Better than winning a World Series in 2015, better than just about anything, becoming Catholic been the greatest thing that’s ever happened to us. A few months into our lives as a Catholic family, we had been sitting in church. Barbara smiled and leaned over to me. “We’re home,” she said. She was right, I thought. “Safe at Home.”