As I try to recount my journey into the Catholic Church, I feel as if I could write from so many different perspectives: history, the sacraments, the saints, Mary, or contraception. All of these words characterize, in part, my reasons for becoming Catholic. I feel like each represent a small book I could write. In this story though I want to connect how I believe my particular Protestant tradition prepared the way for my entrance into the Church. I pray it will encourage many more to fulfill the prayer of Christ “that all of them may be one as I and the Father are one” (John 17:21).
How did my Pentecostal upbringing help me convert to Catholicism? Pentecostals have a number of religious assumptions that support a Catholic view of the faith: (1) the belief that the Holy Spirit’s work in the book of Acts did not end with the Apostles, (2) the affirmation that a holy life is essential to salvation, and (3) understanding that physical things can transmit spiritual power (as through sacraments and sacramentals). So as a young man, I always held a reverence for these three Pentecostal spiritual assumptions. Whether an anointed cloth, a manifestation of glossolalia (gift of tongues), or a deeper conversion to Christ through a commitment to holiness, I was raised aware of God’s active presence in the world.
I grew up in central Florida in a Pentecostal home, though, like most Protestants, my family’s spiritual journey would lead us to various non-denominational churches and even to a Baptist church. My Pentecostal roots, I believe, contributed significantly to my ability to understand Catholicism. I was not raised with a vitriol for Catholicism, nor was I raised with what I like to think is a very “small” view of God, called cessationalism. Cessationalism limits God to “apostolic” times and restrains Him for the rest of salvation history to a type of deistic porch view applauding doctrinal purity.
Around the age of 14, I felt a call to ministry. At the time my family had started attending a Southern Baptist church and the youth pastor at the church was very gracious in spending time with me to develop my “call.” As I delved deeper into Scripture, I started to notice things that made me desire to reclaim my Pentecostal roots. Eventually, I started a Bible study that grew into what resembled a quasi-church meeting. A local Pentecostal church invited me to meet in their building, and subsequently I received a “license” to preach for the International Pentecostal Holiness Church. This, of course, resulted in an unorthodox senior year in high school. Your average high school senior parties his last year away; I, instead, studied, prayed, and preached “revivals.”
After graduation, I chose to go to Oral Roberts University, a charismatic multi-denominational school to study to become a minister. One day, while watching a charismatic TV program in my dorm room, I heard God say in my heart, “theological historical studies.” After a time of prayer, sensing that this was a major offered at ORU, I hurried to the registrar’s office and enrolled in the major. Little did I know that this degree would lead me to study the early and medieval Church, which would in turn inform my understanding of the Catholic Church. From this moment on, I would characterize my journey by a number of “turnings,” or moments where the Holy Spirit was directing the attention of my heart.
Turning to Christ
There was an annual ministry event held on our campus every year. In 2001, during my sophomore year, two of the speakers piqued my interest. They were delivering their messages on consecutive nights and I planned to attend both. I’ll never forget the feeling I had at the end of the second night. These two men had each claimed, “God said, such and such,” yet both of them contradicted each other. Their ideas were irreconcilable. Now this may be no startling realization for some, but for a young man – at the time a 19-year-old licensed preacher in the Pentecostal Holiness Church – the night brought this reality to my attention in a grave way. That night as I prayerfully walked through the campus I promised our Lord I would “follow Him wherever He led me.” I abandoned myself to Him recognizing that there was no one in my tradition in whom I could place my trust for safeguarding the truth. I had no idea that this promise would ultimately mean becoming Catholic.
Turning to Church history
My studies, under the direction of an expert on John Calvin and Trinitarian theology, concentrated on early Church history, in particular the pre-Nicene Church. The fruit of this work would culminate in a senior thesis: “Grace in the Theologies of Clement of Rome and Tertullian of Carthage: A Correlative Synthesis and Analysis.” The premise was simple, and by this time had been significantly influenced by Reformed theology: If the Church was corrupt at the Reformation and was worth completely “throwing off,” the germ of corruption had to show up early for it to grow into the “tree” of corruption that Luther and the other Reformers railed against.
At least, that was my assumption. It seemed reasonable that if, after 1,500 years of Christian history the Church was to start over, then the product had to be bad from its beginning. You fix a broken car but you replace a lemon. I look back now and wonder “why would I, rather than the early Church, have a more accurate interpretation of Scripture and the mind of the Apostles?”
Turning to life
Three years after graduating from ORU, I was a Bible teacher at an Assemblies of God high school, and my wife, Danielle, was pregnant with our daughter Leah. Danielle and I had become close friends in high school, and we married in 2002 – both with one semester left to study.
My daughter was born on February 5, 2006. I’ll never forget the overwhelming joy and love I felt. But, also, the fear of the Lord overcame me on that day. Until this point, I had been content to continue practicing Christianity in the tradition that I had inherited. I knew there were serious tensions in my faith but I had no internal drive to resolve them. However, it was another thing all together to pass that faith on to this innocent life. As I held my helpless daughter in my arms, I realized that I had run out of time. I had to investigate these tensions and find the true faith, where my children would be safe from the rising tide of relativism, secularism, and evil.
Turning to Mary
For many, Mary is the last hurdle to overcome in their journey to the Catholic Church. For me, she was the first. In fact, before Catholicism was ever on my radar, I remember prayerfully reading the words in Mary’s Magnificat that “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). I thought to myself, “Where in my tradition do we call her blessed?” It would seem that Mary was prophesying about the future, a future that I was not a part of. But why? Where could I find a church that, in every generation, preserved the honor of Mary? I became convicted that my disregard for Mary was wrong.
How could I be so callous to the mother of the One I love so much? What did this say about my theology? Did sola Scriptura, the belief that we can only know theological truths that are explicitly taught in Scripture, handcuff me from embracing the beauty of Marian love? Did my obsession with the text cause me to avoid the Person of Christ and subsequently His mother?
Towards the actual beginning of my conversion, I remember reading about the four Marian dogmas defined by the Catholic Church and thinking, “How are these opposed to Scripture,” and “on what grounds can I deny them?” I soon learned that the dogmas of Mary flow organically from a proper understanding of Jesus Christ. Marian dogmas safeguard Christology, especially the dogma of the Incarnation. If Christ is not fully man, then we have no hope of salvation because we have no access to the divine life of God. It is only through the humanity of Christ, provided by Mary, that we can share in His divinity and ultimately the life of the Holy Trinity. While one may not find the Marian dogmas explicitly taught in Scripture, they are certainly not rejected by Scripture. Further, if the Church is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15) then it is reasonable to believe them. So, I did.
Turning to the Church
A few months after my daughter was born, I stepped down from teaching and began a job in business. I had been working towards an MBA in the evenings, sensing this was coming, and so the timing was perfect. This afforded my wife and me the opportunity to go on our own spiritual journey. During this time, I struggled with my calling, still believing I was called to ministry but not knowing where I fit. While discerning my call, a respected Catholic friend counseled me and gave me the book Rome Sweet Home by Scott Hahn. After reading the book in one day, I felt as though the Catholic Church would be my home. As I related to my wife how Scott Hahn had raised some significant points about sola Scriptura and ecclesiology, she told me that we could be “anything but Catholic.” To be fair, her concerns were more about family implications and not theological; although, she did think that, amongst all our options, becoming Catholic was the “weirdest.”
I knew, of course, that I had to investigate Hahn’s claims. I dusted off Calvin’s Institutes, ordered a Catholic Catechism, and also Luther’s Catechism. I also purchased or borrowed a dozen other books from prominent Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox theologians alike. For the next several months, I spent every waking hour reading and praying that God would “throw me off this path if it was not of Him.” My Pentecostal faith had taught me that God would not give a “scorpion” if I asked for an “egg” (Lk 11:12) and so I concluded that He would not give me a harlot church if I was asking Him for His Church.
Turning to the Truth
Several books had a significant impact on my journey. First, they demonstrated to me by Scripture why the theory of penal substitutionary atonement is heretical. Penal substitutionary atonement is a theory that Christ was not only our sacrifice, but that He in fact paid the temporal punishment for our sins. At that time, I had held that position (penal substitutionary atonement) and remember being overwhelmed by the fact that if a prayerful student of Scripture with a theology degree could be a material heretic, then anyone could. They also helped me understand why the Mass was biblical and how it was truly a re-presentation of the one sacrifice at Calvary. After this, my wife and I began attending Mass and continued going for over two years before coming into the Church.
One particular book, On the Development of Christian Doctrine, by Blessed John Henry Newman, put the nail in the coffin, so to speak, of my Protestantism. In this book, Blessed Newman, in illustrious detail, depicts the first five centuries of Christianity, and gives numerous examples of similarities that the early Church shares with the present day Catholic Church.
During my journey I also had some very concerning questions about the nature of truth. I became frustrated because I noticed that as a Protestant I was forced to “make it up every morning” and prove every doctrine from Scripture for myself. But something is not true simply because I believe it.
I decided that I needed some time to research my lingering questions about the Catholic Church. For instance, on the one hand the Catholic says that he has the Church as his teacher, while on the other the Protestant claims he has the Bible. So, if they both have a teacher, what is the difference between the Protestant’s knowledge of doctrine from the Bible and the Catholic’s knowledge of
To give myself an opportunity to sort things out, I sold some property and used the funds to take off work. We moved from Florida to Texas where I studied graduate philosophy at the University of Dallas. It was there that I would find answers to my questions. I came to understand that a Catholic knows Catholic dogma because the Church teaches it. The Protestant knows his dogma because he agrees with a particular Protestant tradition’s interpretation of Scripture. Catholics, I realized, have the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, as an authority to guarantee what they believe is true. What freedom!
After coming to this realization, on November 23, 2008, my wife and I were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Our children were baptized a few months later.
Part of the Spirit-filled Church
Looking back, I believe my Pentecostal upbringing made it easy, even desirable, to believe in an apostolic Church. I would later learn that the Catholic Church is the largest gathering of charismatic believers in the world (with approximately 200 million Catholics involved in the Charismatic Renewal). I am especially grateful that my Pentecostal upbringing gave me a yearning for something that it could not satisfy. Let me explain.
As I mentioned in the beginning, the Pentecostal renewal can be tied to three assumptions. A Pentecostal church believes that they are connected to the apostolic church in virtue of their charism. I have learned that to think that what happened then in the early Church should be happening now is, in fact, a Catholic way of thinking.
Secondly, the Pentecostal movement generally brought with it an increased awareness of the necessity of holiness. Sadly, the emphasis of personal holiness has declined in Pentecostal circles in the last 20 years and I suspect without the Church as its ground of truth it will continue down the slippery slope of libertinism. But in the Catholic Church we hear of the universal call to holiness and have the witness of Mary and the saints as our pious examples. Moreover, the Catholic Church affirms that a person must die in a state of friendship with God in order to go to heaven. In the Pentecostal world, that would qualify you as a holy roller!
There is also the recognition that God uses matter as a conduit of grace. Pentecostals use “anointing oil,” “anointed prayer clothes,” and the like. Thus, my Pentecostal upbringing prepared me for the idea that God can redeem and use physical matter and that grace can flow through hands, oil, relics, and so on. [For further study, please reference the talk “The Road From Topeka to Rome” given by Dr. Paul Thigpen at the 2008 Deep In History conference available from the CHNetwork.]
I believe that there is a fourth effect of the Pentecostal movement: a longing for God’s presence. Our separated brothers and sisters in the Pentecostal world love God, love His presence, and crave to “be with Him.” However, without the Blessed Sacrament, one is left to conjure God’s presence in order to “feel” close to Him. In my experience, I noticed a general phenomenon of “those who got it” and “those who didn’t.” This grieved me a lot. I knew God was a God of mercy and grace and it didn’t seem fair that only spiritual juggernauts could “feel the Spirit” and those who were less inclined were on the outside looking in or were forced to “fake it” by imitating everyone else and raising his hands, falling into silence, or shouting as much as the person next to him.
A Pentecostal’s deep longing to encounter God is fulfilled in the Eucharist. When I received our Lord in Holy Communion for the first time I knew two things: first, that I had only tasted bread and juice before, and furthermore, this was as close to Jesus as I could ever come in this life. I knelt in silent prayer and wept, for at that moment I was completely satisfied. I had hungered and thirsted for righteousness and was filled! I wasn’t turned away because I wasn’t part of the “in crowd” that “felt it.” It was so beautiful to watch young and old, poor and rich, theologian and simpleton, come down and receive our Lord. This was truly the place of grace; a religion built upon the mercy of God.
The preacher to the Papal Household, Father Raniero Cantalemessa, has preached about the unifying power of the outpouring of the Spirit. Fr. Cantalamessa believes that, while in the early Church the Spirit’s outpouring was for the purpose of unifying Jews and Greeks, today it is for the unification of Protestants and Catholics.
So if you are reading this and long for Jesus, I encourage you to come home to His Church. Outside of His Church we are left to beg like the Syrophoneician woman in Matthew 15. Healing is the “children’s bread.” Christ in the Eucharist offers us the healing we need for our souls, for “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54). The “bread which comes down from heaven” is the only thing that will truly satisfy your longing heart. Think about your spiritual experiences. Have they really satisfied you? We must not be like some of His disciples who, at hearing Jesus’ words, “drew back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66). If you are a Pentecostal, I know you want to “walk with Him along life’s narrow way.”
Like the disciples, your heart is burning for him (Luke 24:32), but even when Christ preached the Gospel to them, their eyes were not truly open until He “took the bread and blessed, and broke it (‘this is my body’), and gave it to them” (Luke 24:30). After the disciples recognized Jesus, He vanished from their sight. Now, too, our Lord is not in sight. But His Apostles, through their successors the bishops, are present to us; and where the bishop is so is the Eucharist (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrneans, 8). Where the Eucharist is so is the satisfaction of our burning hearts, the quenching of our every thirst, the object of our greatest desire.
If you are Catholic and reading this, I hope this motivates you to share your faith with your separated Pentecostal brothers and sisters. Although their outward enthusiasm may seem attractive to you, we have what they want. We should not be ashamed of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. It is the source and summit of our faith.
More than anything, I am grateful for the many people who have enriched my life, especially my family, and my relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church, the rich and mysterious Faith to which He brought me home.