From the earliest days of dating my wife, Bobbie, I had told her that I believed I was called to the ministry. Theology is my passion. I enjoy the infinite journey into the depths of God and liken the study of theology to someone attempting to drink an endless ocean. Once you taste of the cup of theology, your thirst only increases and cannot be quenched until you consume the entire ocean. The further you go, the deeper it becomes. I love to wade into the ocean of theology, drink of its riches, and gather a canister of it to share with others.
In December 2013, I was having a crisis of conscience at my workplace. I was experiencing a measure of difficulty in performing my duties as well as a realization that the work I was doing was of little lasting value. Bobbie suggested to me that I step down and begin seminary training. I consulted my Baptist pastor, and he suggested I enroll in the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS). I also entertained the idea of enrolling at Redeemer Seminary, a Reformed institution. (I was raised and baptized a Presbyterian, and my parents were in support of this course.)
It was a whirlwind of changes. I stepped down from my position, retaining a lower position, applied at SWBTS, and began school in just over a month. I was excited at the prospect of deepening my faith, growing in theology, and pursuing a vocation I viewed as “valuable.” I entered the seminary that January believing that I knew exactly where I was going and where I would end up. I would become a Baptist pastor, probably an associate pastor with the aspirations of being a senior pastor one day.
For the first three months, I was enthralled with my classes, resonated with fellow students, and soaked up every bit of theology offered to me. But in April, something unexpected happened in my New Testament class: my Presbyterian upbringing interrupted my enthrallment. Theological topics such as election, predestination, eschatology, and sacraments came up in the class. What I had learned about these topics in my upbringing had a strong hold in my deeper parts. It came out in intense, sometimes heated, discussions between myself, other classmates, and the professor. I found myself defending what I was brought up to believe without knowing why I believed it. By the end of the semester, apart from feeling isolated, I felt as though I was not in the right school to match what I believed theologically. Was I really Reform-minded? Was I really a Calvinist or a Preterist, as my classmates and professor accused me of being? Or was I still a Baptist? I found myself in a theological quandary which would consume me over the summer.
Try Another Angle…
At the beginning of summer in 2014, I began to consider what I believed theologically and with which denomination I should identify. I asked my wife and my parents about it, as well as my former Presbyterian pastor. I studied the differences between Dispensational and Reformed theologies. I read books, listened to recordings, and had discussions with my current pastor, former pastor, and family members. In the end, I realized that I held to the Presbyterian theological view over the Baptist view. However, I did not want to change schools. I enjoyed SWBTS thoroughly and had made some friends. However, one Sunday in late July, on our way to church, I came to a conclusion and blurted, “I think we need to change churches.” Bobbie, in her grace and patience, having followed my self-examination closely, offered her wisdom promptly, “Then you also need to change schools.” She was right. It was naïve to think that I could endure an education in opposition to my beliefs. But time was short. I scrambled to change from one school to the other before fall semester began. Also, I needed to find a position at work which would fit my new school schedule. Thankfully, I was able to transfer to Redeemer Seminary and register for classes just days before the semester started, and a position at work opened up for me. My journey had taken a turn, but I was grateful to God for His direction and help, to my wife for her love and support, and to my parents for their support.
Rather dizzy from the rapid change, I still felt a measure of freedom as I entered Redeemer Seminary. I looked forward to my faith growing, allowing me to wade deeply into the ocean of theology which had lapped at my toes from childhood. I truly believed, once again, that this was where I was supposed to be and that I would one day become a Presbyterian pastor. During the fall semester, I also became involved in our new church and became friends with the new senior pastor. The dialogue I experienced in the classroom with students and teachers and outside the classroom with my pastor, friends, and family was intoxicating. I embraced my faith and beliefs strongly.
Now, About Church Unity…
During the spring 2015 semester at Redeemer, I began to investigate the topic of ecumenism. The version of ecumenism I encountered in seminary was one of an inter-religious dialogue between denominations, encountering the beauty of theology and traditions in each denomination, and not placing them in positions of mutual exclusivity. In one class, I encountered Anglican ecclesiology which promoted tradition and Scripture together like a dance. Being of the sola Scriptura persuasion, this concept was quite foreign to me. For the first time, I glimpsed the benefit of certain traditions in the church, in teaching, and in practice. Though I did not realize or acknowledge it then, as I studied the different denominations’ beliefs and practices, I was loosening my hold on sola Scriptura.
Then a couple of professors brought to the table certain Catholic teachings and traditions as acceptable and legitimate. Furthermore, one professor stated in class, referring to Protestant church history, “Your church history is Roman Catholic.” This was shocking to my ears. Nevertheless, I was resolute in my desire to continue my pursuit to become a Presbyterian pastor. I concluded that I could appreciate various traditions and practices in other denominations, even the Catholic Church, but still hold firmly to Presbyterian theology.
But one Sunday in April I had an idea. We were driving home from church when I engaged Bobbie in a discussion. “The division of denominations in our church is wrong, even harmful,” I asserted, “Why did God allow His Church to become so divided and fragmented?” Bobbie listened patiently. I continued, “What if God allowed the divisions of the Church for something beneficial? The Church is a body made of many parts, and each part has a purpose or a gift. What if God allowed the Church to be divided so that each denomination would exercise a specific gift?”
We discussed this at times throughout the rest of the day. In the end, however, I was convinced that the division caused by the Reformation was not a good thing. The world sees Christians as divided and factious, not a united body as the Scriptures describe it to be. The Church should somehow be visibly united. I decided to take upon myself a research project with the end goal of finding a way to unite the denominations. In my mind, of course, this uniting of denominations meant a uniting of all Protestant denominations. I believed wholeheartedly in Reformed theology, and I believed that the Catholic Church was in error, according to the accusations leveled against it by the Reformers. I was unsure how to engage in my research project, but I hit on the idea of interviewing many church leaders, pastors, and priests from every major denomination — including the Catholic Church.
Study: The Interviews Begin
When Bobbie and I walked into the priest’s office at the local Catholic parish, I thought I knew exactly how my interview would go. I had a list of questions of an ecumenical nature to ask the priest, as well as several other questions concerning which I was curious how he would answer. One of the questions I asked was, “What is your view of the other denominations?” He answered, “The other denominations, the other Christians, are wayward Catholics.” What? I could tell that answer shocked my wife more than me. I immediately remembered my professor from school stating that our church history is Catholic. I understood that the priest meant that the original Protestants (and those born into Protestantism) effectively departed from their Catholic faith and heritage and were in effect “wayward.” I continued to interview him, asking him about the strengths of other denominations, about Catholics worshiping Mary, about transubstantiation, and about the Sacraments. Every answer he offered was not only sufficient, but near invulnerable.
We left the priest feeling as though our foundations were rocked. Bobbie turned to me and asked, “Are we becoming Catholic?” I responded with trepidation, “I don’t know.” I didn’t even want to think about it or acknowledge the possibility. But I could not stand firmly on what I believed following that interview.
Two weeks later, in the middle of June, I interviewed a Baptist minister. I asked him the same main interview questions that I had asked the priest. When I asked the question about other denominations, the pastor wanted to know what denominations I was referring to. I responded with the usual denominations such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and I added the Catholics at the end. He said that the other Protestant denominations had their strengths and good things they were doing, but when it came to the Catholics he said that they weren’t even Christian. Based on my interview with the priest, I could only conclude that Catholics were certainly Christian if they believed what he said. I had difficulty with this interview. The Baptist minister highlighted the dividing lines between Catholics and Protestants in a way that seemed irreparable. How was one to even try to unite these two conflicting belief systems?
I lined up a few more interviews for the weeks ahead. In the meantime, I theorized as to how I might find common ground between the denominations. It wasn’t Communion, because of all the opposing views of symbolism, transubstantiation, and everything in between. It wasn’t Baptism, because of the opposing views of symbolism, effects, requirements, and grace conferred. It wasn’t the Scriptures, because of the opposing interpretations. What about the Creed? The Nicene Creed? After all, we say the Nicene Creed in church every Sunday and so do many other denominations, including Catholics. We can all agree on the Creed right? But what about the line, “I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church?” What does each denomination think “catholic” means in that line? My church taught that it means “universal” (and has an asterisk with a footnote in the bulletin defining the term thusly). But, the priest said that “catholic” in the Creed means the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the “one” means united within the Catholic Church, according to the priest. I concluded that I could not find a way for each denomination to agree with each other on the meaning of the Creed, either. I continued to mull this dilemma, and it occurred to me that someone must have written about this already. So I did a search on the internet. I typed in, “Christ founded a visible church.”
The Internet Search
The first link that appeared was to a website named “Called to Communion” which facilitates dialogue between Reformed Christians and Catholics. The article that appeared had the same name as my search: “Christ founded a visible church,” by Bryan Cross. I read the entire article plus some of the 500 or so comments following. The article shattered everything I thought I knew regarding division, unity, authority, tradition, Protestantism, and Catholicism. My research and hypotheses took a mortal blow as point by point the article tore it all down. Moreover, the article had support which I could not obtain: the early Church Fathers. Following the blow to my research, I came to the realization (or more aptly I was humbled) that I did not have the authority to draft any kind of document that would legitimately promote the fracturing of Christianity that occurred at the Reformation. This realization of lack of authority extended to my pursuit of a pastoral position. I could no longer with any confidence think that I had the authority to interpret, teach, and preach the Scriptures to any future congregation, let alone the congregation I was in and for which I had just become a pastoral intern.
Over the next week, I pored over the remaining 400 or so comments on that article, as well as other articles on the site. I also read many Church Fathers’ writings to see what they said on various subjects. I estimate that in the months of June through August I read over 5,000 pages of articles, writings, Scriptures, and other material. As I studied the early Church writings, I came across many statements that were glaringly Catholic. Subjects such as transubstantiation (though that exact word was not used until later times), confession, penance, intercession and relics of the saints, devotion to Mary and other saints, Apostolic succession, promotion of unity, judgment against schism, and more were found within many of these documents.
I didn’t know what to do with this information. It was all so new to me. I turned to my pastor and asked him for help. I also asked the same question to a Presbyterian pastor who was a Catholic until his late youth. The question was: What do I do with the early Church Fathers’ writings when they say something overtly Catholic? They both answered nearly the same way, saying that I should take from the Fathers whatever supports my beliefs and disregard the rest. That didn’t settle well with me nor with my wife, who listened to me talk daily about what I was learning and researching. I was at a loss and felt conflicted. I did not want to leave my church, my school, and enter into a foreign land where no one would follow us. After all, my parents and my sister and her husband went to the same church as we. They supported my schooling and pursuit within the Presbyterian denomination. What would they think if we entered into the Catholic Church? I would soon find out.
Is Someone Praying For Us?
One August day, while I was at work, pondering everything that I had read, suddenly I felt someone praying for me. I felt it so strongly, that I had to stop working and just focus on this feeling. It was as though someone was praying that I might know the truth, and that I might find what I’m looking for. Because it felt like we were on the road to Catholicism, it occurred to me that the only people who might be praying for us would be the only Catholics we knew: our next door neighbors, Phil and Joyce. I decided to call and ask them to come over so that I could inquire if they were praying for us. With Phil and Joyce sitting on our couch that evening, I asked them, “Have you been praying for us, and if so, what exactly have you been praying?” Joyce replied, “That you might know the truth,” and Phil continued, “And that you might find what you are looking for.”
Phil and Joyce had no idea as to what we were going through, other than that we had met with their priest back in June. They didn’t know that Bobbie and I felt like we were being dragged by God into the Catholic Church. They listened intently as we told them of the previous two months, and they offered answers to several questions about beliefs and practices that we didn’t understand. They also provided more reading material (those 5,000 pages weren’t enough!) to help with other questions we might have. After they left that night, Bobbie and I looked at each other, not knowing what to say.
The two weeks following that night were certainly the most difficult of this journey. We felt impelled towards the Catholic Church and repeatedly assured each other that we didn’t want to go. My parents became more involved at this point, and understandably they were against our projected path. We had many arguments and disagreements.
Then I was once again faced with a decision to be made concerning school. Would I stay or go? This decision involved more than just a change in schools, but also a change in vocation. If we joined the Catholic Church, I could not become a priest. My desire to teach theology would probably have to be squelched. This caused much stress for Bobbie. She did not know what we should do. Lastly, I had to decide if I was willing to step down as pastoral intern at my church. It was two weeks of loss: loss of friends, loss of intimacy with family, loss of vocation, comfort, and foundation.
I had begun this journey with confidence and a measure of certainty about our future. We had hopes for my vocation, for our faith, and for the road ahead. Then, in the beginning of September, we exited our car and walked to the entrance of the Catholic church. This two-year journey had ended, and a new one was beginning as we walked through the door. I also decided to transfer to the University of Dallas, a Catholic institution.
When we first arrived at St. Joseph Catholic Parish to attend RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), we had no idea what to expect. We had already researched, prayed, and worked through many of the barriers our Protestant minds had encountered regarding the Catholic Church. We entered a class called, “RCIA Inquiry.” This class was led by a joyous and kind elderly woman who had been leading it for many years. She welcomed us into the room, offering us the hand of friendship and the love of a mother. She had heard of us previously as she asked, “Are you friends of Phil and Joyce?” We were taken aback by the fact that they already knew who we were, and honestly, it kind of set us on edge. We were already far out of our comfort zone entering this class and would be stretched even more in the classes to come. Nevertheless, that first class was our foot in the door and the beginning of this part of the journey.
The next week, after we had sat, prayed, and talked for a moment, our teacher asked us if we knew about the Rosary, the Hail Mary, or the Mysteries. We had already worked through many barriers in our Protestant minds, but we had not approached this one. Throughout most of our lives, we were taught that Catholics worship Mary and commit idolatry regularly. We were taught that praying to the saints or to Mary is wrong, and one should always pray to God alone. Nevertheless, we knew we would have to work through this issue going in. However, it was the most difficult one we had to work through.
Consider the impact of living in a religious culture that teaches you most of your life of the errors and failings of another religious culture. We are talking about years of formation and thinking one way is right and another wrong. Yet this is formation from a false understanding of the Catholic tradition concerning the veneration of saints and Mary. That week, the teacher recited part of the Rosary in class to show us what it was like. It was difficult; our defenses were up. My wife and I discussed it after class, both expressing our difficulty with these types of devotions. However, we believed in the Catholic Church, despite our difficulty, so we kept our eyes on our Lord, present in the Eucharist.
We finished the Inquiry portion of RCIA a few weeks later. The leaders asked us if we wanted to continue, and for us there was no turning back. So we were ushered into the RCIA Candidate class. It started with a potluck one night. We gathered there with our children, and Phil and Joyce joined us as well. Until this time, Phil and Joyce had been our mentors, helpers, and guides. Since the day we had considered becoming Catholic, they were there with open arms and a loving embrace to help us — just as they had been praying for us for years. RCIA was now an experience filled with fellowship, food, and even a trivia game. During the potluck, we were to find out who our sponsors would be. We expected to have sponsors we did not know. To our surprise and joy, we were told that Phil and Joyce would be our sponsors. They had been, and continued to be, so important to us every step of this journey.
Now the Hard Part: The Wait
During our first month in RCIA, we had continued going to our old Presbyterian church off and on. We had not told our friends there of our decision to join the Catholic Church, but we did not want to leave them abruptly without explanation. It takes a lengthy conversation to explain our conversion and to discuss how this means we aren’t losing our salvation or faith. The question then came up between Bobbie and me about receiving Presbyterian communion. We asked Father Keith about it. He advised that if we are sincere in believing what the Catholic Church teaches about the Eucharist, then we should abstain from receiving communion anywhere else. This made us hunger all the more for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The next six months seemed very long.
Our patience waned as we desired to be in full communion with the Church and to receive the Sacraments.
Our conversion brought us much loss and pain. Our friends and family didn’t understand. Many arguments and disagreements occurred, and we lost friendships. (My wife was able to retain hers — thank the Lord!) Add to this no access to Christ in the Eucharist during that period of waiting; it was very difficult. I’m not complaining about the process or the time it takes to be received into the Church. It was just a difficult time for us. If it were not for Phil and Joyce, I am not sure how we would have made it through RCIA. I do know we would still have followed through, because this was the most important decision of our lives, but it would have been significantly more difficult without them. We survived by keeping our eyes on the intimacy with Christ which we would gain in time.
Full Communion Within Our Grasp
Finally, we were only a few weeks away from the Easter Vigil. We attended a one-day retreat at the church on a Saturday. On this day, we would receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Sacrament of Reconciliation was something I had read about, and I eagerly looked forward to receiving the grace. For me, walking through the confessional door was the hardest part. Father Keith agrees that entering into the confessional isn’t easy, but the joy you experience from the grace received eclipses your reservations. My wife and I entered into the confessional separately and solemnly, and came out relieved and joyful. I was so refreshed by the experience that I had to be reminded to do my penance. We finished the retreat refreshed and joyful, yet still with heavy hearts from the losses mentioned above. Soon, however, we would taste of the Bread of Life.
Nothing characterizes the Catholic Faith more, in my opinion, than what took place at the Easter Vigil. Everything about the four marks of the Church (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic) was presented in a tangible way during this event. We are one Church, united by one faith, set apart for one God, universal in culture and in family, and led by the successors of the Apostles, gathered together in Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. The family element was so abundantly clear at the Vigil. For, though we had lost friends and intimacy with family, we saw that God gave us new family and friends. One of my coworkers came to the Vigil to support us, the loving elderly woman from RCIA Inquiry was there for us, my youngest sister came to sit with us, and even one of my professors from the University of Dallas came down to support us. I cannot tell you how much that touched Bobbie and me to be supported in such a way. We felt united by our common faith, not just in a spiritual or abstract way, but tangibly. It brings tears to my eyes to reflect upon the love we experienced all along our journey and especially at the culmination of the journey.
True Christian Unity at Last
There we were, kneeling before the altar upon which the Holy Spirit had descended to change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord. Our whole embodied soul reflected in awe of the presence of our God and Savior in front of us, and our hunger and thirst was about to be satisfied. At the appointed moment, we rose from our seats and proceeded toward the priest. With a contrite heart and an open mouth, we feasted upon our Lord, receiving Him into our bodies and souls. The heavens opened up and time stood still as we all communed together — with those present, with those who had gone before us, and with those who will join us in the future. By the grace of God, we had entered into full communion with the Church Christ founded. Our decision to enter in, receive, participate, and commune with the one true Church is the most important decision of our lives.
God has led us to this point; we do not know where He will lead us from here. We will continue to write about our spiritual journey, hoping and praying that our experiences and stories will encourage you, bless you, even challenge you as you continue on your own journey of faith.