My story begins at a very long-standing, originally Puritan New England Congregational church in Wethersfield, Connecticut. My parents became members there when I was three years old, so I was raised in an atmosphere of ostensibly faithful biblically based Protestant Christianity. I sang with the choir, rang with the hand bell choir, went to church school, attended vacation Bible school, went on youth trips, and attended religious education classes there until I went off to college. While music, so prominent in our congregation, should have played a supporting role to real sacramental worship, worship itself becomes difficult when most of the sacraments are hobbled, abrogated, or ignored. I ended up being closer to music than to God through my years in that congregation, becoming convinced that, no matter what they believed about themselves, people generally took their music more seriously than they did their faith, its profession — or worse still, God Himself. As for matters of doctrine, even the church’s ministers shied away from making definitive statements or failed to answer congregants’ doctrinal and moral questions.
During the eighties and nineties, a lot of issues formerly left unspoken came to the forefront in modern Protestantism. However, as a sixth grader, I had little interest in discourse on whether remarriage after divorce was doctrinally permissible and, if so, under what conditions. The blinders of youth made me shrug off the great debate over the admissibility of homosexual/SSA congregants and clergy, essentially declaring, “I’m not in that situation; I don’t have friends grappling with it; the issue doesn’t really affect me.”
But there was one rather critical issue that did apply to me, and it was one that that nobody was talking about. I was once again making my way through the Gospel of John, and unlike before, I took a close look at chapter six. Jesus made some ideological enemies in that chapter, when He told people that they needed to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. Many of His listeners and devotees, unaware of the larger context in which Jesus was speaking, did the only seemingly appropriate thing: they flipped out because their radically God-worshiping, miracle-working, circuit-riding holiness revival preacher had just instructed them to cannibalize Him. Not only that, but upon hearing their initial murmurs, He had stepped up the statement, declaring that anyone who didn’t cannibalize Him couldn’t be with the One True God their nation was dedicated to and had spent some two thousand years, with varying levels of success, serving, worshiping, and trying to understand. Jesus lost most of His followers over this encounter, which was unusual, given His otherwise consistent reputation among the contemporary religious establishment for bending the perceived social rules to bring outsiders back into the fold.
The matter bothered me because nobody ever talked about the observance of what our church referred to as The Lord’s Supper. This monthly observance, according to the church’s charter, was “representative of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary.” That word, “representative,” bothered me. After some thought, I realized why: not once had the sixth chapter of John been proclaimed or discussed, much less sermonized. If there were any reason not to openly examine the passage, it was the airtight, unilateral nature of Jesus’s declaration. He was so adamant and clear that one might easily assume no review was necessary. Yet the opposite was the case. Our church silently alleged that Jesus had misspoken; millions of Christians misunderstood; saints of the ancient, unified Church died in vain defending the teaching. In a broader sense, it was assumed that being united into Jesus through His Body and Blood to share in His soul and divinity was just a big misunderstanding.
Appreciating this divergence demands a working grasp of the Protestant tradition in which it occurred. It may be difficult for lifelong Catholics to understand how rigorously some Protestant churches teach and preach from the Bible. In the sola Scriptura tradition, many devout Protestants read the whole Bible with their children and, having completed it once, go on to repeat the process indefinitely until the children grow up and are on their own, so the Bible is fully examined, familiar, and in every way a known quantity. Vibrant Protestantism continually compares life’s experiences, dilemmas, and choices to the biblical standard and calls for a “holiness tradition” of voluntarily separating oneself from what does not conform to Scripture, fastidiously taught as the only standard of true Christianity. While many Catholics follow similar practices, Protestant expectations for how many chapters of Scripture children should memorize, their ability to interpret and apply some of the denser Pauline passages, and their ability to cite supporting verses and concepts to back a moral claim were simply more rigorous than anything I’ve ever seen among Catholics.
Regardless, it was this very practice that caused me to analyze whether and how The Lord’s Supper squared with the sixth chapter of John. Without that training, I probably would not have reached the crisis point so early in life. To me, it should have made all the sense in the world to everyone involved: I was doing exactly what I had been taught to do. So it mystified me that the more I asked about it, the less anyone seemed to say or know about the matter.
Nobody gave me a clear answer about what John six had to do with The Lord’s Supper. The church’s pastors and religious education leaders answered my question about real Body and Blood with their own question: Why wouldn’t a representative reminder of Jesus’s death be sufficient? I pressed them about Jesus’s insistence, and several ordained, well-experienced ministers insisted with straight faces that Jesus was “speaking metaphorically.” I asked exactly what the good Lord had meant, and they stated that it was a matter of widespread and varied interpretation. One, however, added a ridiculous caveat: that it wasn’t a “holiness or salvation issue.” Another told me that, at my age, I wasn’t supposed to be partaking of The Lord’s Supper anyway, insinuating that the issue shouldn’t matter to me. I told him there was no iniquity, lawbreaking, or imminent danger in feeding even a two-year-old a tiny cube of bread and a few milliliters of grape juice — because that is, after all, what (according to him) The Lord’s Supper consisted of. They relented by granting me an exemption to participate before I turned fourteen, which further reinforced their complete ignorance of the reasoning behind my inquiry. Even worse, I smelled a cover-up. In debriefing the events with my parents, they declared that they didn’t see the interpretation of the “Body and Blood passage” as a lynchpin of salvation. I thought this meant that I should avoid making trouble for them at church, so I stopped asking church leaders about the issue.
The leaders had admitted that interpretations varied, so my interest was still piqued, and I needed to delve deeper — but not in a way that would get me noticed at church or cast my parents in an uncomfortable light. I had a Catholic friend from school, named Mark, whose family was very pro forma in religious practice, but doctrinally not very fervent or evangelical. Mark knew enough from CCD (his parish’s religious instruction classes) to tell me that Catholics believed — or, at least, he explained, were supposed to believe — that the bread and wine literally became the Body and Blood of Christ. He considered it a big farce, even though he treated the weekly sacrament respectfully and participated every Sunday. I went to Mass with him one week, at which point his family clarified that, being Protestant, I was not allowed to receive the actual Body and Blood of Christ with them. So far, everything added up. But I also suspected I’d need to look at the practice from the inside, rather than standing on the outside. That is why, due to a seemingly random confluence of events, at 13 years old, I decided to join a Catholic school.
My parents did not give in easily. In this battle of wills, a student’s academic effort was completely withdrawn, a very tense parent-teacher conference occurred, and eventually I joined the ranks of Corpus Christi Catholic School. There, the marvelously more supportive and challenging environment convinced me to go on to attend a Catholic high school. This was not what my parents had in mind for me. In a second battle of the epically stubborn MacPhail family, my parents told me I had to pay for half of my education at any non-public high school — then, incredulous, saw me secure a 50 percent scholarship to Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford, Connecticut without any support from them. After a simmering, quietly contentious summer at home, the fall of 1994 began four years of schooling that would not only answer the questions about John six, but would change my entire outlook on life.
I participated in soccer, cross country, and track; honor society; a music program which culminated in a performance at Carnegie Hall; and an international exchange program that took me to England. But the most important part of the entire experience was the religious education and my daily attendance at Mass. The religion teachers, both lay and religious, were men and women of peace, prayer, knowledge, wisdom, contemplation, and patience. They were not mystically inscrutable or unimaginably unusual; they were people doing their very best to imitate Christ. In class, they methodically connected biblical texts with tradition, context, and practice in a way that gave depth to all three. I didn’t have to ask about how the sixth chapter of John related to the Eucharist; that was answered within the first six weeks, confirming my earlier suspicions: that the Protestant clergy and teachers hadn’t failed to answer my questions because there was no valid response, but rather because they were either ignorant of or prejudiced against the Catholic viewpoint.
Assuming that it was ignorance on the Protestants’ part as the more charitable attitude, I threw myself into further biblical study from a Catholic perspective. While it was difficult for me to let go of typically Protestant literalism in certain areas, I slowly began to appreciate biblical elements that had previously made little sense. Prefigurements of the Body and Blood of Christ such as the manna in the desert, the ravens’ feeding of Elijah, the widow of Zarephath’s oil, and David’s unshakeable reverence for the Tabernacle showbread all pointed toward the same thing, as well as telling their own important stories in salvation history. Authorship, style, and cultural markers revealed how God the Father has always reached out to those ostracized from society, crossed racial and class lines in the name of grace, and provided a way for persevering servants to gain what mattered most.
My intellectual curiosity received an important underlying message from each of my teachers, supervisors, and mentors along the way: it’s important and good to know and understand biblical accounts, but the true failing is not applying them to how you live. Every one of these fine men and women acknowledged that my biblical familiarity exceeded theirs and that I could cite chapter and verse more effectively than they could. However, they gently communicated that truly living a Christian life had more to do with acting in radical love than it did in knowing the textual citations. “The one who calls to simple people is Wisdom, not Knowledge,” one of the monks was fond of saying, referring to Proverbs 1:20–33. In the quiet minutes before and after Mass, I came to consider what he meant in saying that to me. I concluded that I had amassed considerable knowledge, but that knowledge is not equivalent to intimacy with God. This school community’s collective witness showed me that a holiness lifestyle is catholic — open and available to all — while its evidence may produce a wide range of results across a spectrum of profoundly faithful people. There were three things I knew by the end of my sophomore year: first, regardless of my lack of formal profession, I was Catholic at heart; second, I would seek the Lord at Mass every day that I could; and third, I had to make sure that my perceptions of Catholicism and Protestantism weren’t caricatures drawn from small or unusual samples.
I continued to attend church with my parents and to participate in all the branches of church ministry that my hometown congregation had to offer throughout high school. However, despite several wonderful experiences, such as the Promise Keepers rallies, teaching vacation Bible school, and studying biblical commentaries from a variety of authors, there were issues that reminded me very clearly why the Kingdom of God is just that — a kingdom — not a democracy. Being a junior member of the church board, watching a youth program too weak and unmoored to prevent it from being a venue for inappropriate teenage behavior, and watching the “politics of religion” marginalize and drive away holy people, I still felt that Jesus and the sacraments were clearly not the focus of congregational worship, scriptural study, or organizational administration at the old Congregational church.
But at the end of high school, my parents were firmly resolved that I’d had ample opportunity to answer questions of doctrine and that I should return to the Protestant fold by attending an evangelical Christian college. My father offered to pay for my tuition at any accredited Protestant college, and I swallowed my pride and began to research which one would be the purest example of Protestant Christianity. I could have opposed my parents again, but I knew that I had to find out what Protestantism at its best really was. I chose a moderately strict, academically rigorous Christian university in the midwest and genuinely believed that traveling 830 miles from my home town could and would show me an entirely different world, in which non-Puritan derived, small church Protestantism would vindicate itself. In retrospect, it might have been my last attempt to avoid having to confront my parents’ stubbornness in an eternal and meaningful sense — asking myself how and why they insisted upon persisting in professing beliefs that never derailed their personal faith walks but also never squared with history and could never justify their church’s chief affliction: having taken the focus off of Christ, whole and present in the Eucharist.
Those years in middle America were agonizing. The college town and the surrounding area were, beyond any doubt, the quaint and tragic towns and counties that inspired John Mellencamp’s great albums of modern despair, The Lonesome Jubilee and Scarecrow. There were very real people who loved me as best they could, and I’ll forever remember them fondly. The university, unfortunately, was a place where examining the lives of others was not merely a pastime but an intricate occupation practiced inexorably and fastidiously. It gave ample perspective to the occasionally enigmatic Pauline pronouncement on wisdom in the context of Christian freedom: “ ‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say — but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’ — but not everything is constructive.” (1 Corinthians 10:23 NIV)
At length, I encountered about eight other students who paid more attention to their own holiness than they did to that of others. We existed on the outskirts of the institutional society. When I had the opportunity to move on, I took it, leaving after only two years into a four-year degree. I also told my parents that, unfortunately, there was no way I could in good conscience continue to affirm Protestantism. I asked them for their blessing to become Catholic, but they did not give it.
Many things happened over the next ten years. I graduated from college, lived off the grid with a friend from school, helped my father beat cancer, tended bar, waited tables, substitute taught, and found a lot of satisfaction as an employment readiness counselor and a “blended program” virtual high school teacher. I also went to Mass as often as I could, which during my teaching years was weekly rather than daily. I listened to a lot of old Scott Hahn tapes (the cassettes seemed old, but the exegesis was timeless) and read commentaries. I also began to confront the possibility that I would always be near enough to Catholicism never to lose touch, but also never close enough for anyone to understand why I wouldn’t cut ties and move on.
An elderly woman in the local parish had been diagnosed with late stage brain cancer. A small group of rosary warriors, as we called ourselves, gathered at her home to pray with her every week after Mass. The first week, we asked for the Lord’s will to be done quickly: to heal her or to take her home for eternity. And then we prayed. Several weeks went by, and with each week, the medical news remained the same: not long now. She had decided not to spend money she didn’t have on treatment that might, according to medical accounts, afford her up to six more months of life, because those extra months might be witheringly painful. We kept praying.
Five weeks after we’d first met, we gathered at her house once more after Mass. She announced that her weekly medical exam, which had happened several days prior, had been most unusual. The doctors had said something was wrong with the brain imaging machine and told her to return for another try the following week. We all calmed each other and reminded each other that machines actually do break down or malfunction from time to time, but there were sly smiles; edges of mouths crept upward whenever eyes met. Meanwhile, we continued to pray.
The next week the doctors sent her to a different facility to be evaluated by physicians unacquainted with her prior condition. The following Sunday, she proudly announced that all the doctors had, much to their own amazement, declared her cancer free. “I wasn’t amazed,” she said later, “just grateful.” In scriptural language, that was a full-size mustard tree, replete with birds’ nests.
In the fall of 2008, I began RCIA without telling my parents. As underhanded as it was in the context of honoring father and mother, I decided that, if they denied me the opportunity to finish, then I would simply have the priest call them and ask them what their objections were — in which case they could hear from someone other than me, from whom they had already heard plenty. But it never came to that.
Very early in 2009, I met Sherri, my future wife, in the St. James the Greater parish hall following Eucharistic Adoration and night prayers. We had both been on more than a few disappointing first dates, so we interviewed each other mercilessly, tackling a lot of tough issues and, in the end, pleasantly surprising each other. We audited each other’s lives via friends and family alike, and everyone agreed: it was a good match. I told my parents that it made no sense for me to live life as a Protestant holdout in the middle of a Catholic community that they had come to love and approve of, and they finally relented. They did not attend the Easter Vigil Mass to see my first Communion and Confirmation, but on certain issues, sometimes quiet acceptance is all the consent one is ever going to get.
The hardest part of becoming Catholic wasn’t doctrinal at all; it was practical. Protestantism and American culture have one dominant feature in common: they first focus on the self, leaving others and the broader community as secondary concerns. But being a good husband and father, Catholic or not, requires giving up the idea of putting oneself first in almost everything. It requires an understanding of how small one person truly is, both in front of God and in the face of the challenges inherent in almost any significant leadership role. I had to spend some time getting cut down to size, mostly privately, in the murkier corners of my mind. Being Catholic takes it to an even higher level: confession and life-long commitments like marriage and openness to life really keep me aware of my humanness and challenge me to look at myself in the bigger picture. Fortunately for me, that bigger picture is a life-sized mural of God’s kingdom reflected here on earth. Linnea, 10, Nyah, 8, and Ian, 5, are reflections and variations on the themes the Lord has brought forth in Sherri and me. Beyond the blessings they bring to us, they have also unknowingly become the Church’s best evangelists. Gradually, my parents began to attend Mass with us whenever they visited, and they have made special trips for and contributions to everything from first Communions to All Saints’ Day celebrations.
With Fr. Tito, the stability of our parish, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Baltic, Connecticut, with the prevalence of Catholic homeschooling and the prayers and sacrifices of many individuals that high school teacher of mine would call “the quiet, tiny saints who live between the feasts,” my family doesn’t have to wrestle with the current embroilments faced by the broader church. There is a particular beauty to the way Christ’s church has transcended the ages when practiced in true love, respect, and openness. This beauty cannot be explained so much as it can be experienced. I pray everyone can and does find it, even if that journey scares them and costs them a lot of hard work. I may have set out on this journey to prove things to myself, but I’ve found that I want to tell other people something much deeper than my conversion story: that God’s will is still done; that genuine holiness does exist; that there is a peaceful place for everyone in His kingdom. In embracing the Lord daily in the Eucharist and living with Christlike sacrifice, it is now truer than ever before: in the middle of a culture of death and chaos, there is a way to “…find rest for your souls,” as Jesus once said. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:29b-30).