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Conversion StoriesMethodist Protestant Church

The Long Road Home

Matt Gerald
December 1, 2022 No Comments

I was a member of the Methodist Protestant Church for over thirty years before becoming Catholic. This is a small regional denomination with its headquarters in my home state of Mississippi. It was at one time a fairly large denomination in the United States. However, in 1939, most of the Methodist Protestant Churches joined some other Methodist denominations to form The Methodist Church. The delegates from Mississippi refused to be part of this merger and went back to Mississippi to continue the Methodist Protestant Church. This denomination is now present in a few southern states as well as in Belize, in Central America. I knew none of these historical details as a kid. I just knew it was my church, and I loved it.

Grace in the Form of a Mississippi Denomination

I have nothing but wonderful things to say about the members of my former denomination. It is a church steeped in Wesleyan tradition and calls for people to give their lives completely to Christ and strive for holiness. It is full of people who have hearts burning with the love of Jesus, people I love dearly, including some in my own family. I’m extremely grateful for the strong Christian upbringing given to me by this denomination. This Church is where I came to know and have faith in Jesus and accept him as my Lord and Savior.

Much of my childhood was spent living on a small farm in Brooklyn, Mississippi, in the 1980s and early 1990s. I had wonderful parents; my dad was a contractor/farmer, and my mom was a family physician in a nearby town. Our local church was just over a mile from our house. This was the community my dad was raised in, and our church was the one he grew up in. In fact, he helped construct the current church building. My family roots run deep, both with this local church and the Methodist Protestant denomination. Both of my grandparents (Grandpa and Granny) and five uncles were all pastors in this denomination. One of my uncles and his family were Methodist Protestant missionaries in Belize. Two of my first cousins are currently Methodist Protestant pastors. At the time of this writing, I am 48 years old. There has never been a time in my memory when a direct relative of mine wasn’t the pastor at my previous church.

In my childhood, we were what I would call a typical American family. We weren’t overly religious at home, but when Sunday morning rolled around, my parents, especially my dad, made sure we were at church. There was no debate; if we were home, we were going to church. Like any kid, I’d dread a long sermon, even staring at the clock sometimes. As I got older, I loved it more and continued to love the sermon into adulthood. I have wonderful memories of singing gospel songs, Sunday school, Bible school, Bible camp, dinner on the grounds, hearing relatives preach, an entire extended family all on the same page theologically. There was a sense of family, comfort, and love of Jesus.

As a teenager, after my grandpa died, my younger brother, Luke, some cousins, and I took turns spending the night with my grandmother. Granny was a woman who loved the Lord; she had a deep personal relationship with Jesus and wanted others to know Christ as well. She helped to teach me to pray and to read Scripture. We did not go to bed without reading a devotion and praying together. As a teenager, this had a profound impact on my life. Granny taught me what a relationship with Jesus looked like. I loved her dearly and cherish the memories of her and the things that she taught me. Whenever we were sent to help Granny — little did we know — Granny was the one helping us.

Growing up in rural Mississippi, Catholicism was completely foreign to me. My exposure to the Catholic faith was minimal. My parents were very good friends with one Catholic couple, I worked for a Catholic couple while in high school, and I knew a couple of Catholic kids at school. That’s it. All I knew was that they were nice people, but when it came to religious beliefs, they were wrong, although I couldn’t tell you why they were wrong; I just knew it. Looking back with the help of grace, I realize that the couple I worked for planted seeds, thanks to their kindness, generosity, and the fact they never opened their business on Sunday until they had been to Mass.

Grace in the Form of a Wife

It was always my hope to get married, live in this community, and raise my children in the Methodist Protestant Church. Then, my senior year in college, I started dating a beautiful young lady named Maureen; she was from the Mississippi coast. There was only one problem: Maureen was… gulp… a Catholic. I liked this young lady so much that I even followed her to Mass. I’ll never forget the first time I went with her. After going into the church, so beautiful with its stained-glass windows and statues, she pulled down a kneeler (I had no idea what a kneeler was) and began praying. Everyone was quiet. I just sat there in confused silence, because at my church before worship started, everyone visited. I didn’t remember much about Mass, but I remember the stillness and quiet before Mass. It puzzled me. Later, I learned that these people aren’t being rude; they are simply praying and preparing their hearts and minds for worship.

Maureen and I fell in love, and she became my wife. My dad was concerned about the potential problems, and I assured him that we loved each other and that things would work out. I honestly believed that, after we were married for a while, she’d see the truth, and join the Methodist Protestant Church. We did, however, marry in her Catholic Church, officiated by her priest. He was very gracious, and at no point did he, Maureen, her family, or anyone else ever pressure me to become Catholic. They accepted me and loved me for who I was — a Methodist Christian.

After marriage we rotated between churches. She would attend church with me, and I would go to Mass with her. We did this for many years. We did have one problem. I am a nurse anesthetist, and I went to anesthesia school in Columbia, South Carolina. When we got to South Carolina, of course, there were Catholic churches, so Mass was no problem for Maureen. But there was no Methodist Protestant Church for me. I tried multiple churches, both United Methodist and Baptist, thinking they would be most similar. The Baptist churches were closest to what I was used to, but still theologically different. The United Methodist churches were liturgical, and I was not used to that. I remember reciting the Apostles’ Creed at one of the United Methodist churches. This is something we had never done at my church. The part about the “holy catholic church” left me puzzled; Maureen was puzzled, too. Why was I saying I believed in the catholic (little c) Church while attending a Methodist church?

I still had zero thought or intention of ever becoming Catholic, but eventually, in South Carolina, I gave up on finding a church like mine and just went to Mass with Maureen. We also had our first child (Nathan) in South Carolina, which led to a disagreement between Maureen and me on baptism. We both believed in infant baptism, but I was hesitant to have him baptized in the Catholic Church. I wanted my uncle to baptize him. I did ultimately agree to have him baptized in the Catholic Church; nevertheless, problems were beginning to arise.

After anesthesia school, I was blessed to get a job in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, close to where I grew up. We even rented from my parents in Brooklyn for the first year. My parents gave us some land. I had a plan: we’d build there, keep rotating churches, and I just knew that, eventually, Maureen would cave in and join my church.

During this time, we ended up not building a house in my community, but buying a house closer to my job. Before moving, I had a disagreement with my uncle, who was the pastor at my church. This disagreement had nothing to do with church. My uncle was an awesome pastor, and a wonderful Christian man. I love and respect him very much. We eventually reconciled. I only bring it up for one reason: I had briefly quit going to my church. I want to be clear. This misunderstanding had nothing to do with me leaving the Methodist Protestant Church. In fact, after we made up, I happily went right back. It caused me to realize something. If I didn’t go to my church, then there was no Methodist Protestant Church for me to attend.

Grace in the Form of a Priest

I continued to go with Maureen and take our children to Mass. After moving back to Mississippi, we had begun attending St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Hattiesburg. By this time, I had been going to Mass for many years with Maureen. Misconceptions I had about the Catholic faith began to disappear. Although at this point I still did not understand or agree with many Catholic teachings, one thing was sure: these folks were Christians. I also came to realize that many people, myself included, had false beliefs about the Catholic Church.

St. Thomas parish had a very outgoing and friendly Irish priest named Father Tommy Conway. He was the perfect priest for this time in my life. He is still loved greatly by our family. In fact, he recently presided over Nathan’s wedding.

During these years, my heart began to soften to the remote possibility of becoming Catholic. But I didn’t tell anyone, not even Maureen.

Grace in the Form of My Dad

At this point, I need to clarify something. I make more references to my dad than my mom. This is not because I loved one parent more than the other. It’s because I knew my mom would be fine if I ever became Catholic. I didn’t know how my dad would respond. I loved my parents. Even as an adult, it would break my heart to hurt my dad. Every son wants his father to be proud of him, and I was no different.

In Nathan’s second-grade year, this was when he would receive his first Holy Communion. By now, I had come to the realization that Maureen was never going to leave Catholicism. Again, she never pressured me to become Catholic, but I had a strong desire for family unity. Rotating between two churches just wasn’t working, and I had started going almost exclusively to St. Thomas without becoming Catholic. To be honest, I knew it was going to bother me greatly for Maureen and (eventually) the kids to receive Holy Communion while I stayed in the pew. I did not believe this is what Jesus wanted. After all, Jesus himself prayed for unity (John 17:20–22). I was Christian, my family was Christian, and Catholicism (at that time) seemed simply to be another denomination of Christianity. Was it time for me to become Catholic for the sake of my family?

About then, I shared with Dad that Nathan was going to be receiving his first Communion soon. Out of nowhere, Dad says to me, “Son, you should become Catholic; you don’t want your children wondering why they go to Communion, and you don’t.” I was floored! This was a grace of God, given to my dad.

I joined RCIA and came into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2007, over ten years after I first went to Mass with Maureen. When I walked into the Easter Vigil Mass, there was my dad, sitting by Maureen and the kids. I’m sure he didn’t want me to be Catholic, but love is a choice; love is an act of the will. Dad made the choice to show up and support me. What an amazing example he set for me!

So, end of the story, right? Not at all. To be clear, I didn’t become Catholic because of some personal revelation or great conversion. I just wanted our family together. I completely went through the motions of RCIA, just checking off boxes. I was there physically, but my heart wasn’t in it. After Easter Vigil, I became a cafeteria Catholic. I chose what I wanted to believe. I didn’t need any church telling me what to do. I knew what was best for me. I certainly felt I was a good Catholic: I went to Mass most Sundays; I professed Jesus as my savior. There were lots of folks out there worse than me, right? And yet, I was not living the sacramental life; I was not living in a state of grace. I was very successful at work, coached my kids in sports, and tried to be what I thought a good husband, dad, and friend should be, but I was filled with arrogance and pride. Everything was about me. I needed a major dose of humility, I needed to repent, and I needed a real relationship with Jesus. I went on living this way for close to 10 years after coming into the Catholic Church.

Grace in the Form of Everything

Slowly but surely, God put things in my life that I had to think about. I once received a personal handwritten letter in the mail, I believe from a concerned relative, although I’m not positive, since it was unsigned. The letter was full of reasons they believed I should leave the Catholic Church and told me why I was wrong. On another occasion, I had a relative look me in the eye with what appeared to be disappointment and tell me I would always be Methodist Protestant. I sometimes had Protestant friends at work ask me questions about the Catholic faith, and I wouldn’t know how to answer them. To be clear, most of these years, I would have gladly left Catholicism and gone back to my previous church if Maureen had been willing to do so as a family. Thanks be to God, that never happened.

I had no boldness or conviction about the Catholic faith. I dodged every Catholic question I could. Frankly, in many ways, I acted ashamed of being Catholic. You may wonder how I knew so little about my faith if I went through RCIA. I assure you, it’s possible if your heart isn’t in it. I don’t blame the RCIA program at all; the blame for this is squarely on me. I wasn’t ready to let go of my will and do God’s will.

Eventually, I had enough of not knowing my faith. I decided to start seeking answers. Sometime in 2016, I began getting serious about studying Catholicism. I found a radio show called Catholic Answers Live. This is a Catholic call-in radio show where the hosts welcome all calls about the Catholic faith. The hosts were mostly Catholic lay apologists, and they answered calls with boldness, confidence, and grace. These men also knew the Bible inside and out. They were absolutely on fire for Christ, and they were Catholic. I’d never heard lay Catholics speak this way before. I couldn’t get enough of listening to this show. They had an answer for every question, answers that just made sense. I also started reading and listening to conversion stories. I learned that even many Protestant pastors had given up their livelihood to become Catholic. Former Protestant pastors believing in the Catholic faith? I let that sink in.

Then I discovered the early Church Fathers. Learning what these men believed about the Eucharist shocked me. I read John 6:48–68 and St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Smyrnaeans. Ignatius was the third bishop of Antioch and learned from John the Apostle himself. He was bishop of the same Antioch where believers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). A specific quote from St. Ignatius caught my attention: “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 8). St. Ignatius wrote this letter and others around 107 A.D., 10 years after the death of St. John. Many other difficulties I had (the papacy, Mary, abandoning sola Scriptura, purgatory, the intercession of Saints) began to disappear as I studied. I started watching EWTN and became hooked on the Journey Home program.

In Matthew, chapter 16, Jesus said “the gates of hades will not prevail” against his Church (Matthew 16:18). In other words, there was never a time since those first Apostles that Christ’s Church was not present. In Matthew 18, Jesus says if your brother sins against you, and you and he cannot settle it otherwise, you should take the matter to the Church (Matthew 18:15–18). The Church of 2,000 years has never stopped instructing us to take it to the Church if your brother sins against you. In order to have such authority, this Church must be a real, concrete, visible body of believers.

The Methodist Protestant Church was founded in 1828. What Church would my ancestors have taken a disagreement to before that? I supposed they would have taken it to the Methodist Episcopal Church — but wait, that church was founded in 1784. So where before that? Well then, I guessed they would have taken it to the Church of England — but wait, the Church of England was founded in 1534. So where would my ancestors have gone before 1534? Well, I discovered they would have taken it to the Catholic Church.

I discovered also that the Church Christ founded would be universal. In fact, the word “catholic” means “universal.” Jesus said to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). Therefore, not only should his Church always exist, but it should be everywhere. I’ve yet to travel anywhere in my life that did not have a Catholic parish or cathedral on some nearby corner. The Catholic Church, over the last 2,000 years, has spread worldwide, just as Jesus instructed. My local church may be St. Thomas, but I’m at home at Mass anywhere in the world.

Not long before I started making these discoveries, we were assigned a new parish priest, Father Mark Ropel. Just as God placed Father Tommy in my life at just the right time, God also placed Father Mark in my life at the right time. Father Mark gives very challenging homilies, and my ears were finally open to listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

I was seeing and hearing truth upon truth, receiving grace upon grace, and my eyes were being opened. I began to realize that I needed to go to Confession. Now, in the past, I had struggled greatly with the idea of confession to a priest, but one Bible passage convicted me. The risen Jesus had appeared to the Apostles, who were hiding behind closed doors for fear of being arrested, and breathed on them (John 20:19–22). Jesus said to the Apostles: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22–23). No matter how I read that verse, it said what it said. Jesus gave the Apostles authority to forgive and retain sin on his behalf. How could the Apostles know which sins to forgive or retain, unless someone told them what their sins were? Scripture also says we should confess our sins to one another. In context, this is immediately after it says to call for the Church elders (James 5:14–16). I had never in my life as a Methodist considered confessing my sins to anyone except God directly. Yet God’s word says we should.

I had only been to Confession once, and that was when I went through RCIA close to 10 years before. I won’t go into my confession during RCIA, except to say it was pitiful on my part with no real thought or sincerity. Back then, I was checking off boxes. So, this would be a lifetime confession for me, and I was scared to death. I called and made an appointment with Father Mark outside regular confession times. I remember the exact date: the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 2016. This was no coincidence. I believe the Blessed Mother had been praying for me. I had been doing an examination of conscience for days prior to this, writing down my sins as I remembered them.

I know reality isn’t based on feelings, but I was beyond nervous. I’m not ashamed to say there were tears of repentance. When I finished, I had no idea what Father Mark would tell me, but I’ll never forget what he actually said: “Welcome home.” No harsh tone, no judgment, just kindness, compassion, and mercy. I experienced the love of Christ, and my eyes were truly opened to grace. Grace flooded into me that day. I knew that I was not confessing my sins to Father Mark; rather, I was confessing them to Christ. The priest is used by Christ as a means of grace, so that we, as beloved sons and daughters of God can hear audibly that Christ has forgiven us.

This confession was six years ago. Several months later, I went to a Cursillo weekend, which helped continue to set my faith on fire. By God’s grace, my life has been and is being transformed daily. I still fall and sin, as we all do, but I can honestly say that it is my heart’s desire to serve God and to share his love with others in my everyday life. God has given me a boldness and desire to share my faith with others. Our marriage is stronger than ever. Maureen and I have been blessed with 25 years of marriage, three wonderful children, and now a beautiful new daughter-in-law. I am so thankful God sent Maureen into my life, and our faith has become the cornerstone of our marriage.

We have discovered many wonderful Catholic friends, people who have been the hands and feet of Christ to us. I have become an active participant in parish life at St. Thomas. Maureen and I are part of a couples’ prayer group, I’m in a weekly men’s group, and I go weekly to Eucharistic Adoration to spend time with our Lord. I am strengthened by Christ through the sacraments (most especially the Holy Eucharist and regular Confession), Scripture study, prayer, the Rosary, and learning about the lives of the Saints.

Our Lord has showered us with many treasures. I truly feel like the man from the parable in the gospel of Matthew: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). What I now realize is I have not left the church of my youth; I have simply gone back to its fullness, gone back to its source. I have been brought home to the ancient Church of the Apostles, thanks be to God.

Matt Gerald

Matt Gerald is a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), who practices in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He has a bachelor’s degree in Nursing from the University of Southern Mississippi (1996) and a master’s degree in Nurse Anesthesia from the University of South Carolina (2001). Matt, his wife Maureen, and two of their three children live in Brooklyn, Mississippi, in the same house in which he was raised. Matt and his family are parishioners at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Hattiesburg.

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