I grew up in the mid-southern region of the United States, right in the heart of the Bible Belt. My family members were strong Southern Baptists. God gave me a father who took his role as Christian father and husband very seriously. As I have grown older, I can see how his love and care for my spiritual well-being and his own search for truth and goodness helped guide me home to the Catholic Church. He never stopped reading, learning, and practicing his faith. At his death, we knew the last page in his well worn Bible he had read. He was the first and most important of the signposts God planted for me along the way.
I had a distant cousin who was Catholic. We met a few times as children. I remember that it was discussed in hushed tones that her family was Catholic. I didn’t really know what my family meant by it, but I did glean two things from it: 1) you shouldn’t be one; and 2) being Catholic must be a wildly exotic thing to do! This brief signpost stuck with me all my life.
During my senior year of high school, I dated a Catholic boy for a short period of time. He went to the local Catholic high school, wore a uniform to school, had a big family and lived right next door to the parish church. I had been right, being a Catholic was exotic! This family looked so different to me. I remember we discussed our faith some, and he was as faithful to his beliefs as I was to mine. I wasn’t really sure what to make of that confidence. How could you believe all that extra stuff that Catholics add to the Bible and what’s all that ceremony about, anyway? The mystery of it I’m sure added to my attraction to this very nice Catholic boy. As it goes with naive young romances, I thought I would marry him. When a friend raised concerns about his being a Catholic, I remember saying flippantly, “Oh, I guess I’ll just become Catholic someday.” Little did I know then how prophetic and how long a journey that would be! That romance, too, proved to be a short-lived, but significant, signpost.
After college, in the 1980s, I married and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I got my first teaching job at a Catholic school. This two-year teaching position with the Archdiocese of Santa Fe proved to be an important signpost pointing the way.
The religious sister who was the principal was a loving and very patient educator with me. I have never forgotten her sweet spirit and her gentle help. I was a first year teacher, newly married, and living far from my family and the only culture I had ever known. It was a difficult adjustment for me. I did not, at that time, consider becoming Catholic, but I was beginning to see goodness and truth through the people around me. I didn’t think of them that way then, but I know now Christ was shown to me through the good Catholics I encountered. They were a signpost that kept me moving on my journey home.
We began our family, and I left teaching to stay at home and raise my children. My husband is not a believer, and while he did not interfere with my church attendance and the teaching of Christian beliefs to our children, he was not a participant in it. This started my search for a church that provided Christian education. It led me from my Southern Baptist denomination of 30 years to a new group of believers. The search itself taught me many things about the Reformation and the beginnings of Protestantism. This was new information to me, and it was the beginning of my interest in Church history.
I chose a small synod of Lutherans and stayed with them for 25 years, raising my children in the church and educating them through their parochial school system. I was certified through their religious education program and served as a called worker teaching for 10 years in the parochial school of our local church. The courses I took deepened my love for Church history and Scripture, while the weekly services gave me an understanding and appreciation for liturgical worship. It was during this period that I began to read C.S. Lewis extensively and through Lewis, G.K. Chesterton. Thus my Lutheran years served as an important signpost for me.
I will pause here because I want to share what was happening in my mind during my Lutheran years. First, I acquired an understanding of what Baptism is and what Baptism does. I embraced the sacrament and had my four children baptized right away. I looked at my own baptism, which I remembered distinctly, with a much better understanding of the grace given to me, rather than my previous understanding that Baptism was a confirmation of a decision to follow Christ that I had made earlier. Lutheran theology was helping me to understand sacrament as grace given.
But communion proved to be harder to understand. It was not hard to understand and believe in the Real Presence. That teaching was wonderful. The pastors who taught me said Christ’s presence in the sacrament had nothing to do with the minister and everything to do with God’s freely given grace at the moment of consecration. At the same time they said that I had never partaken of the sacrament in my Baptist church, because Baptists taught that it was just a symbol. But I knew those same words, “This is my body … This is my blood” were used in the church I grew up in. So my question to the Lutheran pastors was: If the minister was using the words of institution and it is all of God’s gift and has nothing to do with the minister, then how could the Lutherans say that I had never experienced the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper ordinance? Why is my Baptism accepted and my experience with the Lord’s Supper not accepted as authentic? I was never given a satisfactory answer during those 25 years. I finally quit asking the question out loud, but I never quit wondering the answer to it. I’ll return later to the answer I finally found.
As anyone who has spent time in any kind of church organization, problems of all sorts arise. There are procedural problems, doctrinal problems, relationship problems. In addition, in spite of stated principles, immorality of every type is found among Christian groups. Through the years I’ve seen it many times. Each time these kinds of things came up, my question was always the same: Who has authority here? How can these problems be properly dealt with?
I was beginning to see the necessity for a teaching authority. I don’t think I put it in those terms, but I was beginning to see that we Christians floundered without an earthly authority to articulate what the Holy Spirit is saying as He reveals the truth.
On a personal level, I was frustrated with trying to understand and read the Bible on my own. Deeply implanted in my heart was a love for God’s word and a desire to read it often and understand it. But on my own, I couldn’t make sense of it. I knew the stories, but I didn’t see the deeper connections. Bible studies at church became frustrating because I felt they were little more than comprehension questions about what I had read. I’ve always been a pray-er, but not a very good one. I needed help to know how to pray deeply. I remember one Sunday sitting in church thinking, “There has to be more to the Christian life and worship than this.” I think that my years of reading Lewis and Chesterton gave me a desire to know and experience more. These men were pointing me somewhere — Lewis in a quiet way, while Chesterton roared at me!
In January of 2017, I was reading and praying when it occurred to me, “Hey, I’m Catholic! Christ really did leave us with instructions and leadership for His Church. We don’t have to wonder how to be His people. He gave us the Church, and He really did build it on the rock of St. Peter.” Chesterton’s roaring was finally getting through to me through the gentle whispering of the Holy Spirit. The papacy was making sense. No longer was my conscience and my interpretation of Scripture or my current favorite Christian writer the final authority. What a relief!
So literally the next day I made an appointment with the RCIA director at the local parish and got enrolled into classes right away. I won’t forget the first Mass I attended — the very next Sunday. I sat down in the pew at Spirit of Christ’s beautiful parish church in Arvada, CO and looked up to see these words written in stone above me: “You are no longer strangers and aliens.” I was home! I then read everything I could find online about the beliefs of the Catholic Church. But this time, instead of reading what Protestants say about what Catholics believe, I read and listened to what Catholics themselves had to say about what they believe. I was astounded by how ill informed I was!
Three weeks into RCIA, I emailed the teacher: “What is going on here? I’ve been studying the Scriptures all my life. How did I miss all this good stuff? It is all starting to make sense! His reply was, “You are experiencing the fullness of your faith, Sara.” And indeed I was.
It was in RCIA that I found the answer to my 25-year-old question about Communion. I never asked the question out loud to the RCIA instructor, but as we studied the Catholic teaching of the Eucharist, I began to see the answer to my question, and I was surprised and even amused by the answer: The Lutherans were correct, I had never experienced the Real Presence in the Baptist Church — or in the Lutheran Church, either, for that matter! Jesus instituted the priesthood at the Passover meal before He went to Calvary to drink the fourth cup, the blood of the New Covenant, and to offer Himself as the Lamb of God. Jesus extended the authority to re-present the sacrifice of His Body to the priestly succession of His Church that night in the upper room. In truth, the priest has everything to do with the Real Presence!
I do believe I was encountering Christ during my Protestant years, but the Eucharist is a wholly different way of encountering Christ, and this way is found only in the Catholic Church. It is in the Catholic Church that the succession of the apostles’ priesthood is found, and if that is true, it follows that it is in the Catholic Church the Real Presence, the Eucharist, is found. I can write this down and understand the words, but every time I go to Mass, I am still inching my way towards an understanding of what Real Presence and Eucharist means for me and for the whole world. This will take a lifetime to understand, but now, at last, I know for sure where He is to be found!
Soon after I started RCIA, my oldest daughter started asking questions about what Catholics believe. I told her to go straight to the source for answers. “But I warn you,” I remember saying to her, “if you start listening to these Catholics, they are going to make a lot of sense.” Soon she was enrolled in RCIA, as well. We needed sponsors for our confirmation. Did I know anyone who was Catholic? I remembered that a friend whom I had taught with several years prior was Catholic. It had been a while since we had seen each other, so I got in touch with her and we met for coffee. We caught up on each other’s families, then I told her why I had called her. “I need someone to sponsor me because I am going to join the Catholic Church.” She was obviously not expecting that request, but she immediately threw herself into the task of sponsoring. She sponsored my daughter, and her sweet mother, whom I had known for quite a while, was my sponsor. My daughter and I were confirmed together on Divine Mercy Sunday (the Sunday following Easter) of 2018, and there, standing with us, were our devoted sponsors! Since then, another daughter and a son-in-law have been confirmed, and yet another son-in-law has returned to his childhood Catholic Faith. We are praying for all the rest of our family to join us someday.
Some may be wondering how my Protestant friends and family accepted the news. My immediate family accepted the news lovingly, my extended family was less enthusiastic, and to this day are not willing to hear my conversion story. My church friends were silent and absent. Two years have passed, and with it, tempers have cooled. Someday I believe that I will be able to share with them openly. I look forward to that time.
The decision I made in January of 2017 looks like a quick, impulsive decision to outsiders, but looking back, I see it was not quick or impulsive at all. It was a long, deliberate journey home that I didn’t even know I was on! I can honestly tell you that becoming Catholic was never in my mind until that day in January of 2017. The Holy Spirit prepared me for 55 years before He whispered the call to come home. When I heard it, it was the most logical and easiest decision I have ever made.
My father had demonstrated a life of devotion and had continued to grow in his faith. His life taught me to keep reading, studying and living my faith even when I didn’t understand or was not sure. At 18 years of age, I had said flippantly, “I guess I’ll become Catholic someday.” And that is exactly what happened to me, through the signposts the Holy Spirit used to show me the way home to the Catholic Church.