The Drill Sergeant walked into the barracks and yelled, “Who wants to go to church? Be out front in 10 minutes!”
Being an eighteen-year-old raw recruit in desperate need of a break from military training, I decided to go. I assumed it would be a Protestant gathering; to my astonishment it was a Roman Catholic Mass. A sense of alienation set in as the Mass began; it was as if I had been transported to an alternate universe. I didn’t know what to say, what to do, or when to do it. However, in the midst of my confusion I was stirred by the deep reverence and quiet devotion. The Mass was an expression of holiness I’d never encountered. It conveyed the impression that an awareness of the holy permeated all the actions.
Pentecostal was the Protestant flavor of my upbringing, so I had no experiential or social framework to analyze or understand the Mass. Although Pentecostals also had a commendable concern for holiness and obedience to scriptural precepts, it seemed to my limited understanding that in order to maintain holiness and be sure one remained a Christian, it was necessary to adhere to a list of prohibited practices. The most common restrictions were summarized in what we laughingly called the “Big Five” – no dancing, smoking, card playing, going to the movie theater, or drinking alcoholic beverages. Catholics did all of these things and so were targets of disdainful, critical, condemning comments, and commonly used as negative sermon illustrations. I was taught, and believed, that Catholics were deceived, generally led dissolute lives, and likely weren’t “saved.” The first encounter with the Mass didn’t alter my thinking, but it did become part of a curiosity in Catholicism that took decades to flower.
Ill at ease
My early life in Christianity instilled in me a passion to know the truth in the biblical sense: intellectually and experientially. This eventually led me to pursue Biblical Studies as a college major, then to Graduate school at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and to ordination in the Assemblies of God, the denomination of my upbringing. My ministry included fourteen years as a pastor, seven years as a Bible College faculty member, and an additional eight years as an Independent Charismatic minister.
The Nicene Creed was a succinct expression of my faith, yet all the while I was theologically restless, searching, and ill at ease with some of the doctrines I was required to affirm, particularly those that dealt with authority, unity, the Eucharist (communion), and the nature of salvation. Since I took my ministerial responsibilities seriously, especially the teaching of Scripture, it was puzzling and increasingly frustrating that there were other ministers teaching from the same Scriptures, but reaching different conclusions – yet we all claimed to be led by the Holy Spirit and relied on theological/denominational statements that claimed the same authority. My obvious conclusion was: Somebody is wrong. From this came the further questions, “Who carries the full expression of truth?” or, “Who has the authority to state the proper interpretation of Scripture?” Often, before I approached the pulpit to teach the Word of God, I experienced a fear and trembling, not based in stage fright, but in the simple hope that what I was about to say was actually correct (James 3:1, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness”). The intensity of my restlessness ebbed and flowed over the years as I studied the doctrinal positions of various denominations and theological positions within the Protestant realm.
Then, one fateful day, I wandered into a Catholic bookstore. Normally, this would have been one of the last things I would ever do; even if it had been raining, I would have stood on the sidewalk and gotten soaked rather than set foot inside such a place, one with the smell of incense and the sound of Gregorian Chant wafting through the open door. However, the night before I had encountered EWTN while flipping through TV channels. I was surprised, to say the least, at the depth and clarity of the biblical teaching and was disarmed by the obvious devotion to Jesus Christ. The writings I encountered in the bookstore brought me to a shocking and embarrassing fact regarding my opinions of Catholicism: I had formed those opinions without having done any firsthand study of Catholic teaching. I had never read a single book written by a faithful Catholic in explanation and defense of the Catholic Faith, nor read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Instead, I had relied on statements passed on by other misinformed Protestants and poorly catechized, disgruntled ex-Catholics. I was judging and condemning without consulting any objective doctrinal source.
Those initial encounters were the impetus for a serious study that lasted several years. Yet, I approached this endeavor with my preconceived ideas and Protestant interpretive grid firmly in place. After all, I was a child of the Reformation and so wasn’t troubled by this inexcusable lack of objectivity. My attitude was that the issues had already been settled and I was on the right side, wasn’t I? My response to Catholic teachings, however, followed an unexpected route. It went from an initial, “This is not true,” to “This can’t be true,” to “I don’t want this to be true,” to “This is true.”
Like many of my fellow Protestants, I looked longingly at the church of the Acts of the Apostles, grieved over the (assumed) centuries of corruption and decline that followed, and rejoiced at the Reformation. In my yearning for “New Testament Christianity,” I made the mistake of giving little thought to the teachings and experience of the first generation after the Apostles, the very ones taught and appointed by Apostles, many of whom died as martyrs. I was faced with the reality of my unwillingness to listen to those who experienced the original developments of the early church. My denomination’s history spanned less than one hundred years. It was created, as many Protestant groups are, with a desire for reform (in this case, even a desire for reform of the churches historically associated with the Reformation), and in the belief that it had discovered a lost or neglected truth of the New Testament Church – the baptism in the Holy Spirit. This supposed forgotten dimension of the faith became the centerpiece for the formation of yet another denomination, one that claimed to teach the “full Gospel.”
An oft-quoted statement by Cardinal Newman, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant,” points to a crucial failing: I had a myopic view of church history. Out of delusional arrogance I failed to fully understand the implications of my historical view, especially as it related to the promises of Jesus to send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into all truth (Jn. 16:13), to be with His Church until the end of time (Mt. 28:20), and that the “gates of hell would not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18). My unconsciously held conclusion was that Jesus failed to keep His promises – resulting in the Church falling into error and corruption only to be rescued by the Reformers after fifteen hundred years.
Not a “works-based” faith
I discovered several scriptural clarifications that exposed as fallacy what I had heard about Catholic doctrine and practice. I also encountered Scriptures which contradicted Protestant teaching.
The first hurdle was the misconception that Catholics believe in salvation through works. Rather than merely trusting what I’d been told about Catholic belief, I turned to Catholic teaching itself. Through the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), one learns that Christians are saved/justified by grace alone: Our justification comes from the grace of God … [it is] free and undeserved … grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life … This vocation … depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative … The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it (CCC 1996-1999).
Indeed, in a clarifying response to the charges of the Reformation, the Council of Trent declared, “If any one says, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema.” Furthermore, we are not justified by faith that is alone (Jas. 2:14-26): “The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace … the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful” (CCC 2008; cf. Mt. 25:31-46; Jn. 14:20-21).
Once a wealthy ruler inquired of Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk. 19:18-23) The answer includes obedience: keeping the commandments, flowing from true faith. Good works are the means to “work out [our] salvation” if it is to be finally realized (Phil. 2:12-13).
A literal interpretation of Scripture
Secondly, I came to understand that belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist does have scriptural basis and a defense in Church Tradition. The words of Jesus in John 6:26-59 are taken literally by Catholics; in doing so, Catholics are following the early Church Fathers.
Ignatius of Antioch was a disciple of the Apostle John and a martyr; in his Letter to the Smyrneans (6:2-7:1), he refers to “those who hold heretical opinions” and stated “how contrary they are to the mind of God … they abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by His goodness raised up.” In another letter he says, “Therefore, be diligent to employ only one Eucharist so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is only one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and there is only one cup for unity in his blood. There is one altar as there is one bishop together with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow servants” (To the Philadelphians 4:1).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386 a.d.) clearly re-enforced this teaching: “Therefore, when He has spoken and says about the bread, ‘This is My Body,’ who will have the nerve to doubt any longer? And, when He affirms clearly, ‘This is My Blood,’ who will then doubt, saying that it is not His Blood? Once, by His own will, He changed water into wine at Cana in Galilee; is He not worthy of belief when He changes wine into blood? … the visible bread is not bread, even if it is such to the taste, but the Body of Christ; and the visible wine is not wine, even if taste thinks it such, but the Blood of Christ” (Mystagogic Catechesis 4:1,2,6,9).
These, and other references, reveal the early Christians’ belief that Jesus was not speaking metaphorically, but literally, when He said, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (Jn. 6:53-56). In other words, He meant what He said. Jesus was “murmured” against and abandoned by many of His followers over this very issue, because they also believed He was speaking literally – and He did not correct them. Even the Reformer Martin Luther admitted that the Real Presence was the teaching of the Church from its inception.
At every Mass, at the consecration, the miracle of “transubstantiation” takes place as the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus. The Catechism notes, “We do not believe in formulas, but in those realities they express, which faith allows us to touch” (CCC 170). A mere symbol does not grant grace; it is empty ritual. But the sacraments, based on the teachings and actions of Jesus and the Apostles, are true blessings, a means to impart grace.
Unity: Jesus’s fervent prayer
Thirdly, the prayer of Jesus in John 17 had long haunted me as I surveyed the state of the Protestant world. It records that Jesus intercedes for His disciples and repeatedly prays for their unity – a required ingredient if the world is to know the Gospel as truth. Consequently, unity and authority are of paramount concern, for unity is sustained and directed by authority. A Church led by the Holy Spirit, made up of Spirit-filled people, would by definition be consumed by these prayer concerns. There is then an inconsistency in claiming to be Spirit-led while furthering disunity and rebellion.
I once read the words of Sagoyewatha (ca. 1758-1830), also known as Red Jacket, a chief of the Seneca tribe. He responded negatively to the request of a Protestant missionary to work amongst his people by saying, in part, “Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agree, as you can all read the book?”
He further stated, “[Also] we have been told that you have been preaching to the white people in this place … we will wait a little while and see what effect your preaching has upon them.”
Sagoyewatha intuitively understood a painful fact: disunity and increasing fragmentation is a witness that brings disrepute to the Gospel. Jesus established a Church that was united under a hierarchy of bishops, whose authority is traced to the Apostles, and focused in its message and purpose, not a fragmented, chaotic entity that communicates to the unbelieving that the love of God is weak and His purpose in the Gospel is a failure. Those who remain divided are unwilling to consider how disunity has worked against the growth of the Kingdom.
When authority is rejected and unity is merely symbolic, confusion reigns and truth becomes relative. Instead of a church standing in powerful unity, Protestantism has so far birthed over 36,000 denominations. Admittedly some practices in the Catholic Church of Luther’s day needed correction, but others had brought about renewal within the Church without following the path of rebellion and pride.
Two foundational principles of the Reformation are “Scripture alone” (sola scriptura) and “Faith alone” (sola fide). The former rejects the authority of the Church and makes unity virtually impossible, and the latter denies the importance of good works. However, Scripture itself doesn’t support either principle, nor are they taught by the early Church Fathers. The Reformation leaders thought they could restore the “true church” and maintain doctrinal unity; but this type of rebellion is wrapped in deception and the results are an ever-increasing dissension, fragmentation, and chaos. The Apostle Paul said to beware of “those who cause dissensions … [to] avoid them” (Rm. 16:17) and appealed “that there be no divisions” (1 Cor. 1:10). The underlying spirit of Protestantism is one of division and disunity. Even the Reformers lamented what they unleashed, and a united, coherent, powerful witness to the world was lost.
Authority: the path to unity
Where, then, is the unity for which Jesus prayed to be found? I was initially uncomfortable, and humbled, by the answer: in the Church Jesus established, the visible, historic fellowship that by the faithful promise of its Lord has persevered for 2,000 years. This point is well stated by Dr. Scott Hahn in his book, Reasons to Believe:
The only candidate for such unity is the Catholic Church, which transcends all ethnic, national, and cultural boundaries. It is the only Christian body that professed one faith, undivided, unchanged, throughout the ages. Those separated Christians who profess “scripture alone,” on the other hand, have multiplied denominations into the tens of thousands. And those Christian bodies differ from one another on such key matters as the nature of the atonement and the meaning of charismatic gifts, the appropriate age for baptism and the optimum frequency of communion, the morality of abortion and euthanasia, the nature and function of the clergy, even the day of the week on which Christians should worship. Many of these interpretations are mutually contradictory and mutually exclusive … could such confusion be what Jesus and St. Paul meant by the Church’s unity? (79-80)
I also confronted the fact that I had previously brought theological presuppositions to the New Testament text that allowed me to ignore the possibility that Protestantism functions with final authority in the individual. The principle is played out in a familiar pattern: the person joins an organization or spiritual leader who agrees with one’s preconceived ideas. Others seek out those groups that provide the “spiritual” experiences on which, sadly, their faith is built. I was increasingly uncomfortable with the doctrinal pick-and-choose process and church affiliation based on personal whims.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker says;
Ironically, in rejecting an external infallible authority we are encouraged to embrace the most fickle and fallible of all authorities – our own judgment. We then cling to our opinions like a shipwrecked man clings to a splinter of wood, and before long, our opinions are unassailable. In the end we don’t have one objective, infallible authority but millions of subjective “infallible” authorities, and in this absurdity, we rejoice (St Benedict and St Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way).
The Church is the creation of Jesus, from whom it receives its authority; He gave authority to the Apostles to determine and institute doctrine, to declare the correct and false, to establish faith and morals. In 1 Timothy 3:15, the Apostle Paul says something to which I had never given proper attention: “if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” In Ephesians 3:10, he likewise taught that it was God’s intent “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” According to Paul the Church is the foundation of truth, the propagator and preserver of truth. There is only one Church that has fulfilled that role and remained doctrinally consistent for 2,000 years, the Catholic Church. The truth embodied there, the “pearl of great price,” had been hidden in plain sight all of my life; but it was hidden by layers of misinformation, theological suspicion, intellectual laziness, and religious pride.
The pearl of great price
I experienced a unique and profound blessing in this journey: my wife, Lois, grasped the truths discovered with ease and joy. She is more spiritually intuitive than I and has less of an ego. Her heart is open to God and, thus, she embraced the truth and insights of Catholicism with less struggle. I can honestly and thankfully say that the best person I know happens to be my wife. Consequently, by the grace of God, at Easter Vigil, April 3rd, 2010, Lois and I came into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
The word “convert” is a useful designation but we are somewhat uncomfortable with it because we have not converted to another faith. Instead, we’ve reconciled to the Church which is the expression of the fullness of the Faith. Contrary to the concerns of some Protestant friends we haven’t lost or given up anything; instead, we’ve gained so much more. For instance, there is no loss of the charismatic dimension. The Catholic Church fully recognizes the reality of biblical charisms. As someone has said, “We belong to the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world.”
In another sense, however, we have converted – from dissenter and Protester (the root of “Protestant”) to ones who bow in grateful, joyous, submission to the Lord Jesus and to the “pillar and bulwark of truth,” the Church He founded.
The Catholic Church teaches – and my wife and I have found by experience – that Jesus is truly present in the liturgy. He is beautifully active in sustaining and sanctifying grace that we receive in faith and obedience; as the Catechism says, “[T]he Church celebrates in the liturgy above all the Paschal mystery [Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection] by which Christ accomplished the work of our salvation. It is the mystery of Christ that the Church proclaims and celebrates in the liturgy” (CCC 1067-1068).
There is profound joy in the Mass; it draws you out of yourself, and peace is experienced in worshipping in a manner that focuses on God and His glory. It is not worship based on personal whims, or likes and dislikes, but on knowledge that one is sacrificially submitting to a liturgy saturated in Scripture, directed by the Holy Spirit, and historically united to Christians through the ages. The joy experienced is not of an earthly type based on the idea of fun, nor is it similar in content, style, and purpose to that of a rock concert or the theater. It is Spirit-induced joy, awe, and reverence. To enter into the Mass is to find that one has submitted to the forgiving Father who calls the prodigal home.
Although many friends and family remain supportive, our “reconciliation” hasn’t been without cost. There have been varying levels of rejection, from puzzlement to an avoidance of the subject, to embarrassment about our decision, and to angry or tearful words of objection.
My greatest area of difficulty was (is) the loss of ministerial position and income. I experienced it as a loss of identity. But what is the “pearl of great price” worth? Its discovery requires one to sacrifice all to obtain it. As a Protestant I preached about giving all for Christ, and sang the hymn “I Surrender All,” many times. Now there is a new reality to what that means. For reasons known to God, it involved a breaking and being stripped of position, source of sustenance, and reputation in order to consider what is of eternal value. Without the grace and sustaining power of God, I could not have come this far.
Let it be clearly understood that entrance into the Catholic Church is not a repudiation of our Evangelical heritage. We are humbled and thankful to God for the opportunity of service afforded us there; that tradition introduced us to the triune God, taught us to embrace the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, and nurtured a desire to be empowered by the Holy Spirit for worship and service. For this we are eternally grateful. Not only to God, but also to the family and friends who were His instruments on our behalf. We have the peace of having arrived at the fullness of truth, restlessness has ceased, a sense of peace is greater now than at any other time in our lives, and love for the Lord Jesus Christ is deeper and clearer.