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Taste and See: My Journey to the Catholic Church

Gina Gentile
December 14, 2023 No Comments

I was baptized as a baby on Palm Sunday, 1975, at First United Methodist Church in Dayton, OH. First UMC was my grandparents’ church, and my parents attended there when I was a young child. I learned about Jesus and God through Bible stories shown on flannelgraph in Sunday school. My grandmother would pray with me before meals, and before bed, when I would spend the night with her. Following her example, I would pray by myself for my family and extended family each night at bedtime. Through these early experiences, a belief in God was instilled in me. I believed He was real, but didn’t know how to incorporate him into my life beyond just asking him for things when I prayed.

By the time I was a teenager, I had no interest in going to church, but during my sophomore year of high school, the Lord used the circumstances of friends and the ups and downs of life to start drawing me to Himself. The high school scene was filled with partying, and I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this. As I watched friends wholeheartedly embrace the party scene, I began to feel alone, and on a deeper level, unknown.

I started going to Young Life, an Evangelical ministry to teenagers. At Young Life’s weekly meeting, I met college age leaders, who built relationships with me. I will forever remember walking down the stairs after school one day and hearing someone call out my name. It was a Young Life leader, Kathy, whom I had only met on one previous occasion. I couldn’t believe she remembered my name! There was something different about Kathy — a deep joy and contentment. I wanted that too. I felt like I had what most teens wanted: good grades, a stable home life, and friends. But there was something missing. The more that I went to Young Life and spent time with Kathy, the more I suspected that it had something to do with God. My developing relationship with God was very transactional. I made deals with God constantly — “Help me get through with these tests and this track meet this week, and I won’t ask you for anything ever again” — only to find myself praying the same prayer the next week.

A Personal Relationship

In June of 1991, when I was 16, I went to a week long summer camp with Young Life. I went looking for answers to questions like “How can I know God?” and “How can I have Him in my life?” Every night of that week, a speaker shared who Jesus was. I learned that Jesus was God with skin on, and that he came to earth and experienced everything humans experience — everything that I was experiencing. He knew what it was like to struggle and have difficulty and be betrayed by friends. Feeling so unknown, it was very appealing to think that Jesus knew the real me, understood me, and yet still loved me. I knew that sin separated me from God and understood that Jesus’ death on the cross was what made it possible for me to have a personal relationship with God. I asked Jesus for forgiveness for my sins and for him to live in my heart on June 21, 1991 and “became a Christian” that night. I remember having such peace and knowing that somehow “everything was going to be okay,” because the Lord was close and intimate — in my heart, not distant and uninvolved.

While the Young Life leaders and friends were happy for me and there was much excitement over a new believer, I remember thinking it strange that something so significant as becoming a new creation, crossing over from death to life, and going from condemned to forgiven could occur without any tangible expression of it. I was told that the angels were rejoicing, but it wasn’t tangible. There was no sign or symbol or anything outward, and I found myself wishing there was.

After high school, I went to Miami University, knowing that I needed to find a faith community. I landed in Campus Crusade for Christ, known today as Cru, and its athletic ministry, Athletes in Action, because I ran track and cross country. God provided friends and mentors during those years. I learned how to study the Bible and how to apply it better to my life. There were many “mountaintop experiences” through Cru’s ministry. My faith was strengthened through Bible studies, personal discipleship, retreats, conferences, and Spring Break trips.

While at Miami, I took a History of Architecture class. We examined and learned about structures from primitive times to the modern day in this class. I was surprised by how many churches were included. It was the first time I was exposed to the idea that a space can be used to draw people to God and that our physical surroundings can aid our faith. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I recognize that these were Catholic churches using architecture as a way to express invisible realities. The class left a lasting impression on me.

Up to this point, the only Catholics I knew were ex-Catholics who had left the Church to become Protestant, or Catholics who were not practicing their faith. What I knew of Catholicism was what I had been taught by Protestants. These ideas included that Catholics relied on the traditions of men rather than God’s word, that they added books to the Bible, and that they had to work for their salvation.

After graduating from Miami and then Physical Therapy school, I began attending an Evangelical church in the Dayton area that had an active young adult ministry. I met Steve at this church, and we began dating. When I met him, Steve was a divorced dad with a six year old son. We dated for a year, then got married. I worked full time as a physical therapist until we welcomed a son in 2005, then another son in 2006.

When I was pregnant with our first son, I knew in my depths that motherhood was God’s call on my life. The primitive prayer for my son that I prayed for many years was that God would be “real” to him. I wanted God to be part of my boys’ everyday life and tangible to them, not distant and detached. I realize now that as I prayed that for my sons, this was also a prayer for myself. When I discovered “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8), this became my prayer for my sons. It perfectly expressed what I meant for God to be “real” to them. Little did I know how much this verse would come to mean to me, too.

An Unwelcome Development

Around 2013, it felt like the ground shifted beneath me. By that, I mean that the things that had brought me joy and fulfillment, such as studying the Bible, serving in church, and learning about God, became flat and stagnant. I was unmotivated to do anything religious. I couldn’t even make myself do those things.

This was deeply disturbing for me. From out of nowhere, I felt like I was losing my faith. What was once so effortless now felt impossible. I questioned myself constantly: Did I not believe in God any more? Why was everything so flat, so dark? Why did I feel dead inside? Was this a denominational difference? Was I not evangelical any more? What had I done wrong? What was wrong with me? Why was I in a relationship with a God who felt so absent to me? What was the point of it? What was supposed to sustain faith? As I read back through my journal from this time, I am struck by my uncertainty about my standing with God. As a Protestant, there was no means of objective certainty in your standing with God, only your own faith and belief in your standing.

Because this was so foreign, and being a rather reserved person, I did not share with anyone what I was going through. I didn’t know anyone who had gone through such an experience, and I was embarrassed that it was happening to me. Furthermore, I knew what the response would be if I shared my experience at my church. I had sat under the teaching of my pastor long enough to know that I would be told this experience was essentially my fault. I expected to be told that I hadn’t studied enough, hadn’t prayed enough, hadn’t served enough, hadn’t given enough, or hadn’t been in fellowship enough. I know that I’m imperfect, but I had not willfully gone looking for things other than God. I couldn’t bear to be told to try harder. So while everything on the outside of my life looked good, I felt like I was withering and dying on the inside. That combination was unsustainable. I needed the outside and inside of me to match up, and I needed to not have to care about what anyone thought of me.

A New Direction

I had read about the practice of spiritual direction, which initially sounded offensive to me. Why would I let another person direct me in my relationship with God? Wasn’t the Holy Spirit supposed to do that? I was extremely uncertain if this practice was considered acceptable, or if it would expose me to false teachings. But I was so desperate that I searched through the Evangelical Spiritual Director’s website and reached out to one in another state. She agreed to meet with me over Skype. We began meeting in 2015, and I wept through the first several sessions as I recounted my faith history and spiritual difficulties. In spiritual direction, I drank from a deep well of grace. The director taught me about the ideas of consolation and desolation, that my desire for connection with God was from Him, that I hadn’t done anything wrong, and that my desire for God pleased Him. She introduced me to other spiritual disciplines like lectio divina, visio divina, silent prayer, the daily examen, and fixed hour prayer (Liturgy of the Hours). God worked through these practices. I was experiencing Him in more ways than just through studying the Bible and in the type of prayer where I did all the talking.

I wondered why I had never heard about Spiritual Disciplines before. A pastor from my church had told me that, in the Reformation, when it came to these spiritual practices, the Protestants “threw the baby out with the bath water.” I didn’t really know what he meant because I had not studied Church history. But the more I learned about these practices, the more I recognized that they had origins in the Catholic Church — but of course, becoming Catholic had not crossed my mind.

As my faith was slowly recovering and evolving with spiritual direction, I was still having a hard time going to church, because it seemed to me that the Evangelical message was that you should believe in God because He will make your life better and you will be happy. On some level that may be true, but the Christian life seemed to be about a lot more than that when I considered the life of Jesus. Our family had gone to the same church for 19 years, and I thought maybe it was time to move on. During “worship,” I watched semi-professional musicians sing and play instruments on a black stage with screens and lights, where anything from a concert to a lecture to a theatrical production could be performed. I then received information from the sermon to apply to my life so that I could improve it.

While I know that God can be present in any environment, I longed for a space that encouraged a sacred sense. I wanted a space that drew my senses to God and aided a holy encounter. I began to look for another church and attended several different denominations. While some things were different, there was a core similarity to them that told me that, eventually, I would be feeling the same way there as I did at my current church. So I resigned myself to feeling stuck. It was becoming so difficult to worship in this environment, I started watching the online service at home on our couch, because I couldn’t bring myself to go in person.

In the summer of 2019, I read an article related to a current event by Leah Libresco Sargent. Her short bio caught my attention when it said she recently converted to Catholicism. I thought, “Why would you do that?” I watched a video of her speaking about her conversion on YouTube, and it struck me that she appeared to only consider Catholicism. No Protestant denomination was proposed as an option. I knew vaguely that the Catholic Church believed itself to be the Church that Jesus founded. I also knew that there was a book called the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Wanting to understand why Catholics believed this, I began to read it. 

I was astounded with the reverence for Christ I found in the Catechism, and how Christ-centered it was. From there, I started reading about Church history and the writings of the early Church Fathers. I discovered that the history I was presented with as a Protestant was incomplete and inaccurate. I found writings, which, while not inspired like Scripture, were by faithful men who left a record of the Church’s practices and beliefs, concerning such things as Baptism and the Eucharist. These were the beliefs and practices of Christians from the beginning, not distortions that sprang up hundreds of years later. As I read, I became convinced that the Catholic Church was the Church that Jesus founded.

Prior to reading about Catholicism, I was not aware of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Ultimately, this is what solidified my desire to become Catholic. Through this sacrament, the invitation to commune with God in objective certainty was offered to me. This was the tangible way to experience Jesus and participate with more than just my head and emotions. How had I not taken Jesus at his word when He said, “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me” (John 6:55–57)? This was the fulfillment of “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8), which I had so desperately longed to experience.

Despite this deep attraction, there were some issues that I needed to understand better. The first was Catholic teaching on justification. As a Protestant, I was taught that a person is saved by grace alone through faith alone in a moment, when you acknowledge your sinfulness and ask Jesus to come into your heart to be your savior. This moment was like flipping a switch. It provided instant justification before God and a declaration of righteousness, but not actual righteousness. The words “salvation” and “justification” were also used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but it was evident that they were being used in a different sense. Rather than a singular moment in which justification and salvation were completed, a progressive process in which we are made righteous in a lifelong transformation was described. Stephen Wood’s Grace and Justification: An Evangelical’s Guide to Catholic Beliefs (Family Life Center Publications, 2017) helped me to understand how Catholics see the relationship of grace, justification, and sanctification. Acknowledging that initial justification is by grace, justification actually makes us inwardly righteous. Catholics view sanctification as part of the process of justification and not a distinct period after justification. I began to internalize a salvation that was not just “going to heaven when you die to spend eternity with God,” but one of a moral transformation as I cooperated with God to make me fit for heaven.

Additionally, I wanted to understand the role of Sacred Tradition. As a Protestant, the Bible was my sole rule of faith. I accepted this “truth” as self-evident. Was the Tradition of the Catholic Church man-made and an accretion to the simple gospel that Jesus preached, as I had been taught? Christian Smith’s book How To Go From Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps (Cascade Books, 2011) challenged me to consider Tradition in a new way. These ideas from the book included that Jesus did not write books or manuscripts and that Scripture does not say that Jesus instructed his disciples to write down his teachings. “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20). Smith points out that Jesus seemed content to convey his message orally. “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23) and “I would rather not use paper and ink; instead I hope to come to you and talk with you face to face” (2 John 12). St. Paul and St. John reveal that they were teaching people, in person, what they had learned from the Lord. Smith notes that the early Church grew and functioned effectively through relying on authoritative, apostolic oral Tradition. As I considered the information from the book, that there was no way to mass produce the Bible until the 1500s and that most people were illiterate, Tradition began to seem plausible, given the rapid spread of Christianity in those times. Not to mention, how did I even know which ancient writings were Scripture? How did I know that 1 Thessalonians was inspired but the First Epistle of Clement was not? I realized that I was already relying on Catholic Tradition whenever I quoted Scripture, because it was the Catholic Church which defined the canon of the Bible through Church councils.

When I became curious and asked a question of the Catholic Church about her beliefs on an issue, such as the Marian dogmas or praying to the Saints, she had an answer for me in her documents and great minds throughout the centuries. Soon, I saw that history, reason, and theology sided with the Catholic Church’s position.

However, even though the Catholic faith was good in theory and on paper, as a practical matter, I did not know a single Catholic devoted to his faith. I prayed that God would bring a faith-filled Catholic across my path. That fall, Megan, a speech therapist, began working at the same school where I worked. When I learned that she was getting married, I looked up her wedding website and read the story of how she met her fiancé. They had met at something called Eucharistic Adoration. I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded very Catholic. I could tell that she and her fiancé were very devout. Soon afterwards, I was able to speak with Megan privately. I shared that I thought God was leading me to the Catholic Church and asked if I could talk to her more about it. She agreed. We spent lunches during the next two school years discussing questions about Catholicism — everything from what a Feast Day is (and that there’s no actual food formally involved) to different Religious Orders. Megan listened and offered her perspective. I was able to catch a glimpse of what practicing the Catholic faith was like. I was so thankful that God had brought a Catholic who loved her faith into my life. Megan will always be a reminder of God’s faithfulness to me.

Coming Home

At this point, I knew that I wanted to be Catholic, but it wasn’t a straightforward path into the Church. My husband, Steve, had observed my faith struggle over the years and supported me in my exploration, but he did not have the same convictions. I was prepared to continue to go to the Evangelical church with Steve in addition to attending Mass on the weekends. Over time, as I shared what I was learning, Steve began to warm up to the Catholic faith and began attending Mass with me. When it came time for RCIA to begin, he agreed to go so that he could learn more and decide for himself. Ultimately, Steve decided that he also wanted to become Catholic. This was one of the most meaningful gifts he has given to me. I will forever be thankful to God for working in Steve in this way. Shifting a faith paradigm is difficult and unexpected in a marriage. I realize that it does not work out this way for all couples and am deeply appreciative of where we are now.

The last issue to be resolved was the matter of Steve’s divorce. For us to become Catholic, he needed a Decree of Nullity for his first “marriage.” He completed the paperwork, and we began RCIA in the fall of 2020.

Waiting for the Tribunal’s decision was difficult. Despite the anxiety of this time period, I appreciated the Church’s willingness to determine the validity of her members’ marriages. I had lost a Protestant friend at the time of our marriage 20 years earlier, because I was marrying a divorced person. I had been told by other Protestants that my husband should not have married again and instead continued to try to reconcile the previous relationship. I had also been denied leadership positions in Christian groups because I was married to a divorced person. Around that time, I read the guidelines regarding remarriage according to our Evangelical church. It seemed that our circumstances did not fall under their conditions for remarriage. The question came to mind: Why had our Protestant pastor married us when we didn’t meet these conditions? I sent an email to ask him and shared my concerns, but received no response. I did not pursue it further because, in some ways, I was afraid to know the answer. Because of these incidents over the years, I had lived with uncertainty about my marriage’s acceptance before God, despite the fact that we loved and were committed to one another and our family.

With this lingering uncertainty in the background of my mind over the years, there was relief in knowing that the Tribunal would look into the facts and conditions of Steve’s first relationship to determine if a valid marriage had occurred. The Easter Vigil came and went, while we watched the rest of our RCIA class enter the Church and we waited for a decision. In May of 2021, we received the letter from the Tribunal declaring Steve’s first marriage null, and we were free to enter the Church. We convalidated our marriage and were confirmed at a Wedding Mass held just for us, which happily coincided around the time of our 20th Wedding Anniversary. I was finally home.

As I write this, it has been almost two years that I have been Catholic. I continue to learn more about Catholic teaching and partake regularly in the sacraments. I never want to leave the Church where Jesus is present to me in a substantial way. And if, by God’s will, I would go through another period of desolation, I now have a rich history of Saints who have gone before me and experienced the same thing. They are a source of inspiration and consolation to draw upon, and they will pray for me! The Lord has provided everything we need in His Church to truly taste and see that He is good.

Gina Gentile

Gina Gentile is a wife and mom living in Dayton, OH. She offers her story with thanksgiving to God and in hope of encouragement to the reader.

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