“May He guide thy way, who Himself is thine everlasting end: That every step, be swift or slow, still to Himself may tend.”
As I set out to do the unthinkable — to study the claims of the Catholic Church — I clung to this prayer, fearful that the enemy of our souls would deceive and render me useless for the kingdom of the Christ I had come to know and love.
I was raised in a Jewish home, one that celebrated many of the Jewish traditions, at least in our younger years. I remember having a special sense that the one God was our God and that we were His people. Yet as we grew and went out on our own, much was left behind. Eventually my brother, David, became an atheist, and I, perhaps, an agnostic.
In the summer of 1975 (we were now in our thirties), I visited David. For years, David had been searching for truth, for the meaning of life, and to know if there really was a God. Many times I had thought to myself:
What makes you think there is such a thing as truth?! … that there is one thing that is truth? And what makes you think you could find it? Wouldn’t it be like looking for a needle in a haystack? And how would you recognize it?
But even if there was such a thing as truth, and you could find it, and you knew when you had it … and even if the truth meant that there is a God — then what? How would knowing that make a difference in your life? I figured that I am because of what is. If what is means there is a God, then therefore I am; if what is means there is no God, then therefore I am. My knowledge or lack of it doesn’t determine what is, so why know?
In our conversation during this visit, David told me he had come across an article that said there are Jews — Jewish people — alive, on the face of the earth, who believe that Jesus Christ is the Jewish Messiah — the Messiah! — that the rest of us were still waiting for. I’ll never forget the shock that went through my system at that moment. I thought back to all the years we had sat down at the Passover table in expectation of the Messiah’s coming, knowing He was the only hope we had. And now David was telling me that there are people — Jewish people — who believe that He came?
I said to David, “You mean they believe He was here — on earth—already? And nobody knows? The world is not changed. And He left?”
Now what? There would be no hope, nothing left. It’s insane. And besides, you can’t be Jewish and believe in Christ.
Meeting Jewish Believers in Christ
Within three months of that conversation, I had moved to California and met some of these Jews who believed in Christ. They didn’t just believe that Jesus Christ was the Jewish Messiah, but that He was God come to earth! How can anyone even compute that?
How could a man be God? How could you look on God and live?
One life-changing night, I was together with a group of these Jewish believers, all Christians — all Evangelical Protestant Christians. They told me that God required the shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sin, and they explained how, under the Old Testament sacrificial system, individuals would come daily to offer animal sacrifices for their sins: bulls, goats, lambs.
If it was a lamb, it had to be a male, one year old, and absolutely perfect, without blemish or spot. The individual would put his hand on the head of the lamb, symbolic of the sins passing from that individual onto the animal. That lamb — which was innocent but symbolically had taken upon itself the sin of that person — was slain, and its blood was shed on the altar as an offering to God in payment of that person’s sin.
I couldn’t understand why God would put an innocent animal to death for my sin. It began to get through to me, nonetheless, that sin was no light matter to God. These believers explained further that those animal sacrifices were temporary, that they needed to be repeated, and that they could not perfect the one offering them. Those sacrifices pointed to the One who would one day come and take upon Himself, not the sin of one person for a time, but the sins of the entire world, for all time.
And with that, they pointed me to one verse in the New Testament, John 1:29, when Jesus came and John the Baptist looked at Him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The Lamb of God — the final, once-for-all sacrifice to which all Old Testament sacrifices pointed. It shattered me.
I couldn’t believe what I had just begun to understand. My biggest hang-up was the thought that a man can’t be God! But I realized that night that if God exists, He can become a man! God can be anything or anyone He wants to be; I’m not about to tell Him how to be God!
It was not long after that that I gave my life to Christ. God transformed my life overnight. I knew little if anything about Evangelicalism, or Protestantism in general, for that matter. I had become a Christian. I had a relationship with the God of the universe and a reason to live for the first time in my life. I wanted to take a megaphone to the moon and shout to the world that God is and that everyone could know Him.
Views of the Catholic Church
My first Bible study as a new Christian was taught by an ex-Catholic, who himself was taught by an ex-priest. So I was taught from the start that the Catholic Church was a cult, a false religious system leading millions astray. For years, I myself taught against the Catholic Church, trying to help people, even whole families, by bringing them out of such “manmade” religion into a true relationship with Christ through the only Christianity I knew and believed with all my heart.
It was about a year after my commitment to Christ that David called to tell me that he too had come to believe that Christ was God. For him, this belief meant he must give his life to Christ. But he was not ready to commit himself to any church at the time (though he had been attending a Baptist congregation).
The increasing number of Protestant denominations and splinter groups stood to David as a poor testimony to Christ’s words that He would build His church. Where was the unity? How, he would ask, could sincere, born-again, Bible-believing Christians, indwelt and led by the same Holy Spirit, come out with such varying interpretations of Scripture?
These and other concerns led David to the study of the Catholic Church. I was horrified and frightened for him. How could he be a true Christian and buy into that!
It was Christmas 1978 when I visited David again. He took me first to meet the monk with whom he was studying and who I was sure was an agent of the devil on a mission to lead my brother astray. Then we went to a midnight Christmas Eve Mass. It was the first time I had ever entered a Catholic church.
I sat in shock through the entire Mass and also through the car trip home. When I could finally speak, I said to David: “It’s like a synagogue, but with Christ!”
He said, “That’s right!”
To which I answered, “That’s wrong!”
Christ fulfilled the Law, I reasoned; all that ritual and stuff was done away with. I was sick inside. How could David fall for that?
Did he have some hang-up? Was he drawn to the liturgy, to the aesthetics, from our Jewish background? Could he not see Christ as the end to which it all pointed?
David entered the Catholic Church in 1979. Our phone bills between California and New York were hefty over the years that followed. The more he plunged into what I believed was error, the more I devoured what I knew was truth.
Graduate Studies and New Ministry
Having completed the Bible institute at my church, I entered graduate studies at Talbot Theological Seminary in La Mirada, California, while serving as fulltime chaplain of a women’s jail facility in Lancaster, California. My deepest desire upon graduation was to be on staff at a local church teaching women, helping them to raise godly families and to reach others with the Gospel.
The God who gives us the desires of our hearts is the same God who brings them to fruition. Upon graduation from Talbot in May, 1990, I was called to the staff of an Evangelical Friends (Quaker) church in Orange County, California, as director of women’s ministries. Doctrinally, the Friends denomination did not align fully with my beliefs, since they had done away with Baptism and Communion. This particular church, however, under the leadership of a new pastor of Baptist (and ex-Catholic) background, had reinstituted both for this single congregation within the denomination.
In the fateful month of transition from the jail ministry to that local church, I had time to visit David in New York. It was June, 1990. In one of our marathon conversations, David asked, “How is it that Evangelicals don’t seem to want to work toward unity? Didn’t Jesus pray that we’d all be one?”
I saw red. “Yes, Jesus prayed we’d be one, as He and the Father are one … but not at the expense of truth!”
With that, David asked me if I had ever seen the publication sitting on his table entitled This Rock, which he described as a “Catholic apologetics” magazine. I could not even fathom those two words modifying each other. I never knew Catholics had a defense of their faith — no Catholic had ever told me the Gospel. Moreover, I never knew Catholics cared that anyone else should know it.
I took the magazine back with me to California out of curiosity and also out of some measure of respect for people who would want others to know what they, at least, believe is the answer to life — even if they are wrong. Inside was a full-page advertisement that read: “Presbyterian Minister Becomes Catholic.”
There’s no way, I thought to myself. I don’t care what he called himself or what he functioned as; there’s no way this “Presbyterian minister” could have been a true Christian if he entered the Catholic Church. How could he have known Christ and been so deceived?
I ordered the four-part tape series of this ex-Presbyterian minister (whose name was Scott Hahn). It included a two-part debate with a professor from Westminster Theological Seminary on the issues of justification (faith alone vs. faith plus works) and authority (Scripture alone vs. Scripture plus Tradition). Hahn’s concluding statement summed up two thousand years of Church history and climaxed with a challenge.
To those who will look into the claims of the Catholic Church and judge the evidence, he said, there will come a “holy shock and a glorious amazement” to find out that the Church which they had been fighting and trying to save people from was, in fact, the very Church Christ established on earth.
“Holy shock” are the only words to describe what went through me at that moment. Oh, no, I thought, don’t tell me there could be truth to this. The thought paralyzed me. I couldn’t believe what I was thinking. And it came at a most inconvenient time. In two weeks I would begin at the new church.
I reread the doctrinal statement of the Friends denomination I was about to enter. It included the story of its founder, George Fox, whose dramatic conversion in the seventeenth century filled him with a deep love for God and a zeal to counter the abuses of his day. In his desire that God be worshipped in spirit and in truth, Fox did away with the only two sacraments, or “ordinances,” that Martin Luther had left — Baptism and Communion — lest faith be placed in the elements of wine, bread, and water rather than in the God to whom they pointed.
I loved the heart of George Fox, but I believed he was wrong. Baptism and Communion were clearly commanded in Scripture, though I believed they were symbolic. The thought seized me: What if Luther did what Fox did? What if Luther, out of love and zeal for God’s honor, also discarded what God intended?
My stomach sank as my fear rose. Were my thoughts from God? Were they from Satan? I knew only that, before God, I had to find out what the Catholic Church taught.
During the next two years on staff with the Friends church, I ordered books, tapes, even a subscription to This Rock magazine, though I dreaded the thought of anything Catholic coming to my mailbox. When I told David of my search, he challenged me concerning the doctrine of sola Scriptura. “Ros, where does the Bible teach sola Scriptura?”
The very question annoyed me. I had heard it before and chose to ignore it. “If,” I said, “you truly knew Christ, if you believed Scripture to be the very Word of God, if the Holy Spirit were operative in your life, illuminating and confirming His Word to you, you wouldn’t even ask such a question. Why would you have as your focus challenging the authority of Scripture rather than clinging to it as your food?”
He tried to assure me that he did believe the Scriptures to be the Word of God, inspired, inerrant, and authoritative. “But,” he asked, “where does the Bible say it is the only authority? And where does Scripture say the Word of God is confined to what was written?”
I ran through several verses of Scripture (2 Tim 3:16–17, 2 Pt 1:20-21, and others). But none answered his questions. In fact, they posed a further question: “How do we know the New Testament is Scripture? Those verses can refer only to the Old Testament, since the New Testament was not written yet, at least not in its entirety.”
As I delved into the matter, I came face to face with the fact that the Scriptures nowhere teach sola Scriptura.
Without revealing the nature of my search, I asked several pastors and Bible study leaders the same question. No one had an answer from Scripture. Each one came up with the same verses I had already examined. When I countered that those verses really don’t teach that the Bible is the only authority, each person reluctantly agreed.
“The verse that eludes me at the moment” never came to anyone’s memory. How amazing, I thought. We are teaching the doctrine of Scripture alone, which Scripture alone does not teach! Still, neither does that prove there is another authority!
But the thought hovered: Evangelicals were teaching a doctrine outside of Scripture while denying that anything outside of Scripture was authoritative. Something was wrong. And if we were wrong about this, could we be wrong or blind about other issues?
How is it, I thought, that Protestants accept the canon of Scripture — believing that God, who inspired Scripture, also led by His Spirit chosen men of the fourth and fifth century councils to recognize that which He inspired — and yet discard or disregard what those same men believed about other major doctrines: the Eucharist, Baptism, apostolic succession, and more? Further, not only in the first four hundred years prior to the completion of the canon, but in the following one thousand years until the invention of the printing press, the faith was preserved, being passed on orally from one generation to the next.
Again, how is it that in these nearly five hundred years of Christianity since the Reformation, with the canon in hand and with printing presses galore, the faith has been splintered into thousands of denominations, each with its distinctive and competing doctrines, each “holding forth the Word of life”?
Discovering Catholic Truth
I began reading all that I could, whenever I could, until I knew after two years that I needed to leave my church in California and devote myself to finding out whether the Catholic Church was what it claimed to be. I moved to New York and began what turned out to be a two-and-a-half-year intensive and heart-wrenching search. For months, I read every Evangelical Protestant work I could find against the Catholic Church. I wanted to be rescued from the fate of becoming Catholic.
To my deep disappointment, I discovered that these authors, for the most part, were fighting something other than the Catholic faith. They were arguing against what they thought the Catholic Church taught, and it seemed their various understandings or misunderstandings reflected the Protestant perspective from which they came. Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s insight in the book Radio Replies (1979) became evident to me:
There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.
Each discovery of Catholic teaching led me to reexamine a multitude of Evangelical doctrines. And with every thought that drew me closer to the Church, a sense of death, of mourning, ripped through me as I considered being severed not only from my congregation in California but also from the only form of Christian faith I had known and loved for eighteen years.
Prior to my leaving California, one very beloved pastor with whom I shared my quest asked: “If there were no Roman Catholic Church, would your understanding of the New Testament lead you to invent Catholicism?”
My answer at the time was simple: “That’s what I’m setting out to find out.”
One year later, I would say, “No, I wouldn’t come up with Roman Catholicism, but nor would I any longer come up with Evangelical Protestantism.” I had become a Christian without a home. I could not fathom being Catholic, but neither could I return to the Evangelical setting from which I came.
Three books were extremely helpful to me along the way: John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Liturgy and Personality, and Karl Adam’s The Spirit of Catholicism. The more I read, the more I began to sense a beauty, a depth, a fullness of God’s design for His Church beyond all I had known.
On every issue, including those three most famous cries of the Reformation — sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura — I came to believe that the Catholic Church was in harmony with Scripture. All that I read of Catholic teaching and life drew me to the Church. Yet most of what I observed in that Church made me want to run from it. Where was the Church I read about? Where was the Church called “home”?
One Sunday, as I sat in the back pew of a Catholic parish I had visited for the first time, I heard the priest say what I had never heard any Catholic say before. At the conclusion of the Gospel message, he said to the congregation, “We need to tell the whole world!” My heart stood still. It was the first time I had sensed a passion for souls from the pulpit of a Catholic Church.
I burst into tears. Since the day I met Christ, I’ve lived to tell others of Him. I thought: If the Catholic Church is true, why aren’t Catholics evangelical? Evangelical is not a synonym for Protestant. To be an evangel is to be a messenger; it’s to reach out to a lost and hurting world to tell them the good news of Christ — that there is a Savior who came for sinners and who gives life to all who will come to Him.
I met with that priest, Father James T. O’Connor, pastor of St. Joseph’s in Millbrook, New York, at the beginning of March, 1995. In two meetings, he helped me immeasurably with some key areas of difficulty, particularly concerning the Mass and the sacramental nature of the Church. I realized soon after that the question of three years before was answered at last.
My understanding of the New Testament would not lead me to invent the Catholic faith, but my understanding now would lead me to embrace it as true to the Scriptures much more than it would lead me to embrace the Evangelical Protestant faith. Moreover, I knew that, before God, I needed to enter the Catholic Church, which I did that Easter of 1995. I had found the Church called “home.”
I’m still a bit awkward. I feel as if I’ve embarked on an enormous ocean and don’t quite know how to navigate yet. But I know it’s true. It is not doctrinal differences only that separate Evangelical Protestants from Catholics; it’s a whole different way of seeing. My entire world has opened up. All of creation has taken on new meaning for me.
I have embraced all of the Church’s teachings because I have embraced that Church which Christ Himself established two thousand years ago. It is that Church, founded on the Apostles and prophets, the mustard seed grown into a tree, that has preserved and passed on the faith once delivered to the saints; that has stood the test of time through every age, every heresy, confusion, division, and sin. And it is that Church that will stand to the end of time, because it is truly His Body and, in its essence, therefore, holy, immutable, and eternal.
Moreover, gift upon gift, it is the Church that has restored to me the reverence, the majesty, the awe I once knew as a child in the synagogue. I said to David at one point, “I feel like I have God back.” How strange a statement from one who came to know Him so wonderfully and truly through Evangelical Protestant faith. Yet, in the freedom and familiarity of the Evangelical expression and worship, a sense of the transcendence of God is often lost. It is good to bow before Him now.
And yet I have come to see that God, who is transcendent, has given us in His Son and in His Body, the Church, more of Himself than I could ever have imagined — not more than Christ, not other than Christ, but the whole of Christ.
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Rom 11:33)
As long as God gives me breath, I want to tell the world of such a Savior and of His one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.