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The Corpus & the Cross: My Conversion to the Catholic Faith

Jackford Kolk
April 3, 2013 2 Comments

I was baptized and grew up in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), a Calvinist denomination in the Dutch Reformed tradition. I cannot express how much I learned from this faith tradition and the inexpressible value of the foundation it provided for my life. If it had not been for my parents’ dedication to Christ, teaching me to know and love Him with all my being, I doubt I would be as dedicated to Jesus and His truth as I am today.

An enthusiastic young Christian

Thanks to my parents, I fell in love with Jesus at a young age; I still remember asking Him to come into my heart around age six or seven. I also learned to take Scripture seriously and to allow it to shape my life, rather than let my life shape my understanding of it. Another incredibly valuable lesson I learned from my Calvinist upbringing was that God is rational, meaning that everything about reality is also subsequently rational; God created us as rational beings so that we could better appreciate and participate in the rationality of everything He made. This is one of the true strengths of the Calvinist worldview.

In high school, I was an enthusiastic young Christian. I knew the Bible astoundingly well, prayed all the time, and was in several Christian peer groups, including my youth group’s worship band. I remember making a commitment at one point to read the Bible every morning before I went to school. I don’t remember exactly how long that lasted, maybe a few months at most (like most Christians, my life is a constant tale of spurts of zeal intermixed with stretches of laziness). However, this promise inadvertently exposed me to Catholic teaching for the first time.

One Saturday, I realized that I had not spent time with God in prayer and in meditation on His Word during the past school week. I had neglected to spend time with my Lord and God, the one who calls Himself “the Bridegroom.” Thinking about it in terms that I could better apply to my life, I thought, “If I had a girlfriend, how would I make up for forgetting to spend time with her as planned?” I would take the time I had right now to take her on a special date, giving her the attention she deserved. Therefore, since I had neglected God in a similar manner, I decided to spend the better part of that day making it up to Him by spending several hours in prayer and Scripture study. As it turns out, my primitive, natural understanding working to fix a relationship is actually a fairly accurate description of the Catholic practice of penance, 
which is probably why I never had any problem accepting that practice upon becoming Catholic.

After a while, my mom came upstairs to check on me. I explained what I was doing and why. She told me it wasn’t necessary, but I insisted on doing it anyway. For whatever reason — I assure you, she was not at all prone to emotional outbursts — she said in a strong, almost tearful voice, “We’re not Catholic! We don’t believe in penance!”

She then turned away, closed my door, and went back downstairs in a huff. I pondered that statement for a moment, fairly perplexed. I had no idea whether or not what I was doing constituted “penance,” but what I did know, was that I was fixing a relationship. I believe I may have even said aloud to myself and God, “Well, if this is penance, I do!” Content with that assessment, I went back to my Bible-reading and praying.

Shaken up during college

At my first institution of higher education, Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, I gave practically every church in the small city a try. They were almost all Christian Reformed, but I nevertheless had the toughest time finding a church in which I felt welcomed or even noticed. Eventually, I stopped trying and for about two and a half years, suffered through a very dark time in my life. I kept praying, but mostly just to beg God to make my life better (especially by letting me meet and fall in love with my future wife). Although I tried to at least finish my prayers with, “Not my will, but yours be done,” it was still a dry time for me.

I had started my college career as a pre-seminary, English-Writing major, based on my love for writing, God, and the Bible. Before the end of my first year, I had dropped the “pre-sem” label and switched to English-Literature, because I had not liked the theology classes I had taken (Calvin’s Institutes, which I failed, and a basic Bible overview class) and I enjoyed the historical, linguistic side of English which emphasized the classics like Chaucer and Shakespeare.

By the end of my time at Dordt, I was only certain of two things: the “God and me” lifestyle wasn’t working for me (I needed a faith community to encourage me along a Christian path) and I had not yet met my future wife. In fact, the girl with whom I had been infatuated for about six years had finally explained to me, in no uncertain terms, that she would never, ever be interested in me.

The latter sent me into a bit of an angry depression for a few months as I was heading into my fourth year. When school started, one of my classes required me to read Heart of Darkness. I had the presence of mind to see that that book was probably the worst thing I could read when facing a depression. That, coupled with the unexpected news that I would not be able to graduate by the end of that school year, led me to pull out, pack up, and go home to Seattle to re-evaluate my educational goals.

When I returned home to Shoreline, Washington, I got a job at Target for the Christmas season and took a few classes at Shoreline Community College. While at Dordt, I had visited my brother at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I learned that they had recently created a film department. I was a movie enthusiast, so I decided to take a film class and a theater class at Shoreline. Since being a writer held rather nebulous, financial prospects, I wanted to see if some aspect of performance arts might be worth pursuing. I enjoyed the film class immensely and decided to transfer to Calvin to pursue Film Studies the following semester.

Objections arise

Orientation at Calvin included a brief introduction to the Five Pillars of Calvinism, commonly referred to as “TULIP” (which I had learned “all about” at Dordt, so I didn’t pay them any more thoughtful attention then than I had four years before). TULIP stands for Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. I had even begun referring to myself as a Calvinist by the time I started at Calvin College.

As it turned out, a friend of mine from Dordt, Tom, had just begun attending Calvin Theological Seminary, which shares a campus with Calvin proper, so I resumed hanging out with him. Over the next few years of talking to him about what he was studying, I slowly began to understand the TULIP doctrines and I realized that I didn’t actually agree with any of them. As a good Protestant, I knew that I could question every tenet of the faith that I had been brought up in and still be a good Christian, so as I gradually began to doubt Calvinism, I never questioned my relationship with God, nor His love for me. I also never posed those objections to Tom. Rather, I pondered them in my heart. I slowly and unconsciously ceased referring to myself as a Calvinist, but never re-labeled myself in a different denomination.

A capricious and hate-filled God?

Eventually, Tom began dating Rebecca, my future wife’s roommate, which meant that he and I hung out at their on-campus apartment a lot, watching movies, doing homework, and talking. Tom and Elisa, my future-wife, were practically theological opposites. They would ceaselessly debate TULIP, especially Predestination and Limited atonement. It was no longer an occasional theological conversation spliced into the daily chatter; now, it was drawn out, in depth discussions. In walking with the two of them as they made their cases to one another, listening to and digesting both positions, I found myself not only unable to defend the Calvinist position, but uninterested in doing so. That was when I truly started to realize that I did not believe any of the Five Pillars of Calvinism (FPC). I began making arguments in favor of Elisa’s Wesleyan position, pointing out the inconsistencies and ramifications of Tom’s as I saw them. It was at that point that an “either/or” proposition regarding Calvinism first began to dawn on me.

The question revolved around the interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6, “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened … since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold Him up to contempt.” So much of this passage flies in the face of FPC. First, if those who cannot be restored “have once been enlightened, … tasted the heavenly gift, … become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come,” then, according to FPC, either they were among the Elect and therefore cannot ever fail to be restored (based on the “P” of TULIP), which directly contradicts the passage. Otherwise, they were never part of the Elect in the first place, making God an evil trickster who not only deliberately wishes utter torment and damnation upon those who have no choice but to sin (based on “T,” “U,” L,” and “I”), but He goes above and beyond that kind of heartless condemnation and makes their torment eternally more painful by forcing them to first taste bits of heaven before tossing them back into the pit of hell. Thus, I either had to accept the Calvinism that was being presented to me, and in the process necessarily believe that the God I loved and whom I thought was all-loving, was actually far, far more capricious and hate-filled than any of the ancient Greek or Roman gods, or I had to reject the Calvinism in which I thought I had believed all my life.

Ironically, though, it was a lesson that I learned from my Calvinist parents and teachers that allowed me to break with Calvinism: I had to let what the Bible said shape me; I could not let the traditions of my upbringing reshape the Bible. I simply wanted to believe the truth of God, and I knew with a growing certainty that Calvinism was not it. I knew that the God I loved, the God who loved me first so much so that He willingly offered His own Son in my place (see 1 John 4:8-10), could not do the things that Tom was ascribing to Him. I knew that His love would not allow Him to commit such callous treatment of His beloved creations, His adopted children and those to whom He offered adoption, even if they rejected it.

Approaching the liturgy with an open mind

When Tom and Rebecca stopped dating, I kept spending time at her and Elisa’s place, because Rebecca let me use her computer for homework, which happened to be kitty-corner to Elisa’s computer. The two of us were night owls; we stayed up late completing projects and talking. Fairly soon we started dating and going to church together, and because of Elisa’s love of liturgy, we mostly attended a nearby, liturgical CRC congregation called Church of the Servant. Their liturgy was structured according to the basic outline of the Mass, but most of the parts were written — or at least tweaked — weekly.

At the beginning of my college career, I had been turned off by liturgical worship. It felt impersonal and forced, so I never attended a liturgical congregation more than once. I had even attended Church of the Servant one time when I first transferred to Calvin and had avoided it from then on, but when I began spending time with Elisa, 
little by little, she explained what she had learned about the meaning behind the liturgical structure in a Christian Worship class at Calvin. She explained about the back-and-forth conversation between God and His people. With her example, I began to open my mind to it. It still felt odd at first, especially at Church of the Servant, where I wondered who had chosen the words that the congregation would recite, which often resulted in having to ask myself if I agreed with what I was saying each week. Elisa tried to explain the different parts of the liturgy to me at that time, but they wouldn’t sink in until much later. But I did learn and I began to appreciate the idea of a give-and-give-back conversation between us and God.

“That makes perfect sense.”

Then in the summer of 2006, Elisa graduated and moved back to the Ann Arbor, MI area while I stayed at Calvin to finish up one final semester. That’s when life really started getting interesting. We were two hours apart, but we talked over the phone and via instant message every night and I drove out to see her most weekends. Being from different faith traditions, we had casually discussed in which tradition we would raise our kids, but since I had become disillusioned with Calvinism, the decision seemed fairly simple — we would be Wesleyans. But, then, she discovered Catholic Answers Live.

Doing homework and getting good grades was not a piece of cake for me; I needed to work hard and stay focused. However, Elisa was so fascinated by what she was learning from the Catholic Answers Live radio program that she sent me podcast after podcast, saying, “You have to listen to this!” To this I would usually respond, “I don’t have time. I have too much homework to do. Could you just explain it to me?” Therefore, when I visited her during the weekends, she would explain the Catholic viewpoint to me on issues like purgatory, Mary, the papacy, etc., always prefacing it with, “Well, I’m not sure I agree with them, but here’s what they believe and why.” She did such a great job laying out their reasoning that I almost always responded with, “Huh. That makes perfect sense.” I think I was more resistant to the Marian doctrines, asking more clarifying questions along the way, but once I understood the Catholic case for each teaching, I saw no reason not to accept it.

She definitely talked me into the Catholic Church before she talked herself in, but, somehow in my heart, I could tell fairly early in her discovery that she would give her full assent sooner or later. I knew that she really did agree with all that the Church taught; she just wasn’t ready to leave her faith tradition — and more especially her faith community — yet. I, on the other hand, for years had been hundreds of miles away from my childhood community. In addition, my parents had since stopped going to that church and began attending a Pentecostal church. The only interpersonal reason for me to remain non-Catholic was Elisa and her family. Intellectually, I just wanted to follow the truth, and it became clearer day-by-day that God’s truth was found in the Catholic Church.

The Mystical Body of Christ

I was realizing that the Catholic worldview was probably the most internally consistent and coherent system I had ever run into. The common thread I saw woven in each topic was the Catholic conception of the biblical idea of the Body of Christ. From reading the Bible, I knew that, primarily, the Body of Christ referred to the Church as a whole, the entire Christian community, but I always thought it was just a title, like “Church” or “community.” But in listening to Catholic radio, I began to see that the Body of Christ is much, much more than that. The Church taught that we truly, mysteriously become members of Christ’s Body just as certainly as each cell in the human body is a member of that person’s body. Because of the hyper-reality of our unity with Christ, through Him and with each other, the Catholic understanding of every other doctrine made even more sense.

For instance, because we are members of the same Body, our prayers for each other here on earth are actually the prayers of Jesus, the “One Mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5) who is the head of the Body (see Ephesians 4:15-16). Not in that we pray and Jesus relays those prayers, but we actually are Jesus’ Body praying as He prays. For the same reason, the prayers of “those also who have fallen asleep in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:18) are also the very prayers of Christ, and we are still in communion with them through the unity of the Body of Christ, because “He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (see Matthew 22:32, Mark 12:27, & Luke 20:38). Just as Jesus calls Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — long deceased by the time of His ministry — “the living,” so too are the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us among the living. I came to see that if those faithful departed are still living and united to Christ, even bodily death cannot stop them from participating in the life of the Body through the same intercession of Jesus’ prayers to the Father.

I repeatedly saw how the belief in the mystical Body of Christ shaped practically every other teaching of the Catholic Church — Baptism, Communion, the ministerial priesthood — everything! With this new, deepened understanding of the Body of Christ, I likewise finally saw how all the seemingly disparate things I had previously believed as a Protestant were all linked and gained a new fullness. I had believed them all, but they had seemed disjointed, unfinished. But now, whatever questions I had about any of them were answered and fulfilled by this unifying theology.

I also came to understand the reality that the Mass is a participation in the Eternal Now of Heaven. I began to feel the presence also of the “great cloud of witnesses” at every Mass (Hebrews 12:1). I felt they were a real, living, vibrant, loving people! No matter where we attended Mass, no matter our physical surroundings, I knew with a sense (explicable only as the knowledge of the soul) that the same saints were always around us, always worshiping God along side us at every Mass. This was something I never experienced in any Protestant community. That, to me, was what made the Catholic Church truly catholic (i.e. universal), as well as truly one in the mystical Body of Christ.

Christ’s Body

By 2007, I had learned that the Catholic Church taught that the host (the bread-like wafer) truly became the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ at the moment of Consecration during Mass, but I had not yet been able to wrap my mind or heart around that idea. I knew that the Church also believed that the Eucharistic Presence of our Lord Jesus was reserved under the guise of that consecrated host in every tabernacle in the world. That year, Elisa and I spent a fair amount of time praying in the Eucharistic Chapel at Christ the King Parish in Ann Arbor before our Lord’s Eucharistic Presence.

During one occasion, I noticed a strange, cross-shaped case with brown stained-glass panels in the corner of the chapel. At the time, I had no idea that it was a reliquary, much less one that contained a piece of the true cross on which Jesus actually died! For months, I had sat in the chapel praying, trying to understand how the large circular wafer in front of me could be Jesus. I often prayed, “Lord, I don’t know if that’s You, but if it is I adore You in it,” all the while deliberately not looking at this “ugly” cross-shaped box in the corner, because, while I knew it was probably meant to help people think of Christ’s loving self-sacrifice on the cross, its ugliness seemed only to distract me from His Presence in the Eucharist.

At the Good Friday Liturgy of 2008, I learned what that “ugly” cross contained. I was struck to the heart. To suddenly find out that this ugly thing that I had disdained and avoided had actually touched the very skin of my God made me feel utterly ashamed and remorseful. Something that was crucially involved in the moment of human history at which our God died so that we might live, still existed and had been just a couple feet from me — and I had ignored and even despised it! I suddenly felt like the Jews cursing Jesus as He died for them. I looked at that cross and saw God reaching through time to connect me to His saving Passion and I had repeatedly turned my back on that trans-temporal gift. I wept that night and will never forget that moment.

The Easter Vigil the next night was the final straw for both Elisa and myself. We were awestruck by the liturgy and decided that night to be Catholic by that time next year — and we were! Three months after being joined in marriage, we were confirmed at the Easter 2009 Vigil Mass and we have never regretted it.

We have since made a number of great Catholic friends and become members of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. I am also considering becoming a lay-member of a religious order and hoping to get the formation necessary to become a Lay Ecclesial Minister. I have begun a modest apologetics website and blog as a way of trying to slowly expose my non-Catholic friends and family to the fullness of the Faith that we have found in the Church of Rome.

Jackford Kolk

In June 2012, Jackford quit his job and is now a full-time father of one. He is currently in the process of discerning a vocation as a Lay Dominican and, when he has time, writes blogs and articles on his websites, Macarian Apologetics and Soul Trek: TNG, to help facilitate a better understanding of the Catholic Faith.

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