After four years of struggling and searching, I asked my friend, “Pray for us to know the church God wants us to join.” To which she responded, “You could consider the Catholic Church.” Internally, I laughed. My husband and I were looking for a Bible-based church, and the Catholic Church in my mind was not even a church! But the last laugh was God’s: less than three years later, we came home to the Catholic Church. How did this happen?
My husband, Bruce, and I were life-long Lutherans; I attended a small Lutheran high school, and we both graduated from a Lutheran liberal arts college. Following graduation, we were married, and one year later Bruce, as a Lutheran, began a 14-year teaching and coaching career at a Catholic high school. During these years, we were blessed with our three daughters.
In 1984, I began a 15 year career in parish education at a large ELCA church, where we were members. Shortly thereafter, at a local Billy Graham crusade, my husband and I publicly recommitted our lives to Jesus. Afterwards, I had an insatiable desire to read Scripture, and a huge inner struggle began between infant baptism versus adult baptism, or baptism by desire. I scoured the Bible and was positive that I knew the truth — that infant baptism was not right — because, after all, I had studied the Scriptures! Ironically, as a Lutheran parish educator, I made sure the Sunday school children were taught Luther’s Small Catechism’s meaning for baptism, which allowed infants to be baptized. I had many heated discussions about baptism with a close Catholic friend, but she wouldn’t budge on Catholic teaching, something which I didn’t understand.
For almost 17 years, I was part of a non-denominational Bible study, inviting Catholic friends, hoping this would “save them.” During this time, Bruce and I were becoming dissatisfied with the ELCA in regards to sexuality and life issues … condoning behaviors that were sinful according to the Scriptures. Now what? If we stayed, we would be agreeing with the ELCA. So we began “trying out” denominations, searching for the one that followed biblical truth as we saw it! For more than four years, we prayed about this. Many Sundays, at an Evangelical Free Church, we would place a prayer card in the offering plate, asking for the Lord’s guidance. But something kept us from committing to this church.
These were “desert like” years. We would ask, “Where shall we go this Sunday?” The churches were Christ centered, led by godly people, but something was missing. In the fall of 2000, our youngest daughter started college on a volleyball scholarship, and we spent many weekends traveling to the games. We would attend Lutheran, Baptist, Evangelical Free, and non-denominational churches, reading their doctrinal statements to see if we agreed with them. Wasn’t unity one of the last things Jesus prayed for? With thousands of different denominations, it certainly didn’t feel unified!
We desired to be under the authority of a church, not under a pastor. “If we join a church because we like the pastor’s beliefs, homilies, etc., what happens if he leaves?” Would we still follow the teaching of that particular denomination? And then there was the problem of opposing doctrines such as “once saved, always saved” versus “salvation can be lost,” or “infant baptism” versus “believer’s baptism,” or (referring to our Lutheran communion) “consubstantiation” versus “only a symbol.” With totally opposing statements such as these, we knew both could not be true, and believing something didn’t make it true. People thought the world was flat … but that didn’t make it true. It became evident that truth existed, whether we believed it or not. We needed to find the truth, but which denomination had it?
I left my church job and began working at our local Christian pregnancy clinic as the “abstinence until marriage” director. I had found my calling, along with a wealth of information about sexuality, marriage, chastity. I couldn’t get enough! Each time we got in the car to travel to another volleyball game, I was loaded down with tapes and CDs. The speakers were from varying faith backgrounds, and my husband seemed to enjoy them as much as I did. We began to learn more about the theology behind marriage and the Trinity. The Lover (God) has a Beloved (Jesus), who returns with a Spirit of Love (Holy Spirit). We realized the one-flesh union of marriage was sacred and holy; an image of the Holy Trinity; the unity and community of love that exists within it. I started to call marriage a sacrament … hmmm, just like the Catholics!
The pregnancy clinic’s director introduced me to “Theology of the Body,” Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching. We began to understand the Church’s teaching on sexuality, contraception, and how our masculine and feminine natures are complementary. How the Bible begins and ends with marriage. Jesus’ first miracle was at a marriage feast. How our marriage was to reflect the total gift of self and sacrificial love that Jesus gave to us as His spouse.
One day, we listened to St. Edith Stein’s hypothesis on Original Sin. A knife pierced my heart as I was convicted of sin, understanding how we had denied God children that He may have wanted us to have, not trusting Him by sterilizing our union. It hurt! We got on our knees before the Lord to confess and tearfully repent. We understood the root sin of contraception, which explained so many of the ailments in our culture, and our confusion over our femaleness and maleness, selfless sex versus selfish sex — which so often ends abuse, divorce and other maladies.
In the fall of 2002, our eldest daughter, Karin, was moving to Colorado to teach. She had grown weary of my constant chatter about sexual integrity, Theology of the Body, etc., and said, “Just let me listen to these CDs and decide for myself!” With a 14 hour drive ahead of her, I handed her the stack. After listening to them, her initial response was, “This makes so much sense!” She really was starting to blossom spiritually, and she joined the same non-denominational Bible study that my husband and I were attending. Our conversations would revolve around what she learned in Bible study and how the Theology of the Body was evident in what we were studying. She also began struggling with the frustrations of finding a church … there seemed to be such casualness, a lack of reverence in many worship settings. She was also praying, “Lord, where do you want me to go?”.
That same fall, Christopher West (a Catholic layman who has popularized the Theology of the Body), was speaking in our area. I was so excited to hear him in person! I was asked to give him the 70-mile ride from one speaking engagement to another, and the poor guy had to listen to me talk about what was happening to me. He said, “You have been bitten by the Theology of the Body ‘bug’ … just keep saying Yes to God, Vicki.”
One night, my husband and I listened to the tape, “Father Larry Richards Explains the Mass.” It explains why people bless themselves with holy water, or genuflect, why only the priest or a deacon proclaims the Gospel during the liturgy, what the priest’s role is in the consecration — and most importantly, that the Real Presence means the transformation of the bread and the wine into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus. This is what the Church has taught from the beginning of Christianity. Everything made sense and had such deep meaning, once we understood where in the Bible or sacred Tradition it came from. When the tape ended, I asked Bruce, “Does this make you want to receive Jesus in the Eucharist?” “Yes,” he said. I just heard Yes come from my husband’s lips. Was this happening to both of us? After that incident, I would lie awake at night thanking God that he allowed my husband and me to be on this journey together!
Another light bulb moment occurred when Mass was celebrated at a pro-life conference. I observed the archbishop and four priests washing their hands with water, and after the consecration, consuming the “sacrifice of the Mass” before the people “received” it. This is what God had instructed the Old Testament priests to do when sacrificing for the sins of the Israelites … so different from our Lutheran tradition, where the congregation “takes” communion first and the pastor “takes” it last. Even the language of “take” versus “receive” spoke to my heart.
In August of 2004, the first Theology of the Body conference in Pennsylvania was held, and my daughter Karin and I attended. Before we went, I was in one of the Catholic bookstores, and Bishop Samuel Aquila (then Bishop of Fargo, North Dakota, where we lived; later, he was named Archbishop of Denver, Colorado) came in. We had met only once, but I couldn’t wait to tell him that I was attending the Theology of the Body conference. Suddenly, the bookstore manager asked the bishop if he would give us a blessing. Everyone went down on their knees, including myself, since I didn’t want to be the only one left standing … and the bishop gave me my first priestly blessing. So now I was leaving on this adventure blessed by the bishop of our diocese!
Karin and I were two of only four Protestants among 80 Catholics. We felt so loved and welcomed. The first night, a song was sung which used familiar words from Scripture and those spoken by Pope John Paul II at the beginning of his pontificate: “Be not afraid.” They spoke to my excited but trembling soul, giving me peace. It was like being wooed by a lover, a courtship period — exciting and scary, wondering if this is the One I have been looking for — or Who has been looking for me.
Each morning, the conference began with Mass. There was holy water at the entrance but we didn’t have the nerve to put our fingers in it. We observed what was happening, and as people went to receive Communion, we saw how incredibly reverent they were. Their bodies “spoke a language” that revealed their spirits: the Theology of the Body right before our eyes! The week was a mountaintop experience that gave us a beautiful understanding of the Church’s sacraments, especially the Eucharist. The Scriptures teach that we are saved by grace alone, and not by anything that we do, making infant baptism easy to understand. Mary, Mother of the Church, is our Mother as well, and through her Yes our Lord received His flesh (John 1:14: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us), which ultimately unites us to her Son and to the Father. And since the saints are one with Christ, and we become one with Christ in the Eucharist, we are all united as one at every Mass. This is the Communion of Saints which we confess in the Creeds, the unity that Christ prayed for! As we all began to understand the Theology of the Body, with an open and receptive heart, there was a conviction of sin and a purification process that took place, untwisting the lies of our culture and world.
We learned that Martin Luther believed that, because of our Original Sin, we are like a heap of dung that would only be covered with a layer of snow (representing Christ), but the old sinful state remained. The Catholic Church has always taught that, because God made us in His image, we are good, and our goodness is covered by Original Sin. Our baptism removes the Original Sin, bringing us back to a state of goodness. This was an amazing revelation to me. In my Lutheran confirmation classes, deep down, I had bought the “dung covered by snow” theory. I realized that it didn’t matter what the Lutheran Church had taught; my baptism was the same as what the Catholic Church had taught all along! Karin commented that she too had believed what Luther taught. That made me sad. That evening, a lovely lady invited me to Adoration. (I didn’t have a clue was that was!) I prayed for healing for myself and for Karin. Karin didn’t sleep at all that night, and the next morning said, “Do you know why I didn’t sleep? All night long, I kept realizing ‘I am good, you are good! We are good’.” This was a huge blessing from God — an answer to my prayers!
The Theology of the Body teaching was transformational, mind blowing. The week quickly ended. Now what? I realized I was Catholic on the inside, but wasn’t sure what Bruce was thinking. We had arrived at the first Sunday after returning from this awesome Theology of the Body experience. Where should we attend church? There was an unspoken tension.… I wanted Bruce to lead. As he backed out of our driveway, I prayed, because I felt confused and discouraged, “Please, God, show me if I am crazy to want to become Catholic. I need encouragement and a sign from You!” I didn’t say a word — I wasn’t sure where he was taking us, but all of a sudden he parked by the Newman Center, and without speaking, we went in and sat in the back, so we wouldn’t be noticed. During the Mass, I watched the priest in awe. As the people received the blessed Eucharist, it was like the Bride going to her Bridegroom, and the people’s “Amen” was like an incredible altar call! Did they realize that the Lord of heaven and earth was within each of them? Oh, how I yearned for that!
That same night, Karin called to say that she too had attended Mass at the cathedral in Denver, and the homily was about Mary, summarizing what we had learned at the Theology of the Body conference. Little did we know at that time that it was August 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, which Pope Pius XII had defined as dogma in 1950, the year Bruce and I were born! Although the Church had always taught that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven when her life on earth had ended, the timing of the dogma was important. It pointed to the fact that, like Mary, our bodies and souls will be reunited and “assumed” into Heaven at the end of time. The body is sacred! In other words, following a time in human history that witnessed countless attacks on the dignity of the human person (two world wars, Stalin’s regime, etc.), the world desperately needed a reminder of the dignity of the human person. One could say this was a precursor to Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. That Theology which was right now guiding Karin into the Catholic Church!
The pull to the Catholic faith was so strong, it truly felt like my insides were iron being drawn to a magnet. As we began to share with people about our journey, they would ask what parish we were going to, but we would say it wasn’t about a parish. We knew we were Catholic long before we stepped inside a church. We were not being drawn to a person or a group of people, but to Jesus Christ and His Church. We were now not running from something, but we were running towards Someone named Jesus!
Now our journey had transformed into the engagement phase; it was time to make a decision. This was a difficult but exciting step. Pope St. John Paul II’s words, “Be not afraid,” helped again. It was something we knew could separate us from friends and even family. It was very hard on our parents, who had grown up hearing horrible things about the Catholic Church that concerned them deeply. Becoming Catholic meant holidays would be different, our funerals would be different. It was a hard thing to do, yet it was the only thing to do. Especially when we knew whom we were obeying. So in the fall of 2004, my husband and I started RCIA classes (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) in Fargo while our daughter Karin began taking them in Denver.
In February of 2005, Bruce and I went to Denver for Karin’s special day. The Saturday before her Confirmation, we were allowed to receive our first sacrament with her RCIA class. The three of us received the Sacrament of Reconciliation — a real blessing and an extra dose of grace! The next morning, at Mass, through tears of joy, Karin Joy received the Sacrament of Confirmation and the Eucharist. Four weeks later, at the Easter Vigil, Bruce and I, too, were received into the Church.
As Catholics, we were blessed to have Pope St. John Paul II for seven days. What a wonderful experience to witness his death and funeral as Catholics! Without the Theology of the Body, we may not have seen the Truth of the Church. Thank you Pope JP II!
It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it. But when that affection has passed a certain point it begins to take on the tragic and menacing grandeur of a great love affair. (GK Chesterton)