Conversion StoriesPresbyterian & Reformed

The U.S. Supreme Court Helped to Lead Me Home

Charles Johnston
September 6, 2017 13 Comments

Whenever I talk about my conversion it’s usually in the “elevator format” — you know, the pre-packaged presentation you’d give if you were crunched for time. Of all the reasons I cite for my decision to leave behind the version of Christianity that I’d known for 31 years and embrace the fullness of truth in the Catholic Church, the Eucharist and the papacy are always at the top of the list. It really is difficult boiling down such an involved and difficult decision to just a couple of points. G.K. Chesterton nailed it when he said, “The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.”

The one motivator that usually misses the cut — and it’s a shame, because this is what initially started me on the road to Rome — is the U.S. Supreme Court. It may not be what convinced me of the truth of Catholicism, but it started me on the path.

Beginnings

I was born in New York City in 1984 and baptized three weeks later at First Presbyterian Church of Hackensack, New Jersey. My parents were deeply religious and devoutly Christian. My father was a Scottish Presbyterian, and my mother is an Irish Catholic. It could’ve been a powder keg situation, but as far back as I can remember, I never heard my parents fight about religion. They both loved Jesus and focused on what they held in common rather than the doctrines that separated them. Whether by accident or design, I’d be raised as a Presbyterian like dad, and my older sister would be raised Catholic like mom.

This was how it worked in theory, but in reality we were pretty much an interdenominational household. Sure, my dad was “Presbyterian,” but he’d never say that he was. When asked he’d say, “I’m a Christian,” and if pressed on what denomination he belonged to, he’d respond by saying he just loved Jesus. To him, denominations were just a man-made division in the Body of Christ. He was right, although not in the way he meant it. My mother also never pushed Catholic doctrine on us Protestants; she just focused on the uniting principles of our common faith.

On Sunday, we’d go to First Presbyterian or Sacred Heart, in no discernible pattern. Sacred Heart had an 11 a.m. Mass, and the Presbyterian service was at 10:30. It didn’t matter to either of them which church we went to; one way or another, no matter where we were, we went to church on Sunday. That is one of the lessons that they taught me that I’m most grateful for, because even in my late teens and early twenties, when God was really kind of an afterthought, I still went to church every Sunday. Even on vacation, mom would say, “God doesn’t take a vacation from us; why should we take a vacation from Him?” I truly believe it’s what kept me in contact with God so that, when I got serious about my faith, I didn’t have a long road to travel back to Him.

When we were out of town, we’d always go to Mass on Sunday. It was just a known quantity. You didn’t have to worry about what kind of church you were walking into; you knew that, if it was a Catholic Church, it would pretty much be in line with what you expected. That’s not to say I didn’t sit through some poor liturgies and homilies, but it was still a recognizable liturgy. Later on in life, I came to appreciate the universality of Catholicism. Whether you’re in Paris or New York, you would be seeing the same sacrifice of the Mass unfold before your eyes.

When it came time for school, I was enrolled at Our Lady Queen of Peace School. I wasn’t the only non-Catholic child in my class, but we were a small minority. The nuns that ran the school made sure that we were quiet and attentive during Mass, which was a weekly occurrence. When I was in first grade, OLQP closed, and we moved to Our Lady of the Visitation, about five miles away. I stayed in Catholic school until I was in third grade. From that point on, I attended public schools. While in Catholic schools, I went to all the religion classes with my classmates. I was only exempted from Sacramental Prep.

Exploring Faith

The rest of my childhood went on in a pretty regular fashion. We continued going to church as a family, alternating Protestant and Catholic services. But as I got older, I started getting more into my faith and identifying more as a Protestant. It was my firm belief that everyone belongs to a denomination or a particular theological school, and that people and churches that identify as “non-denominational” actually fall under one of the thousands of existent denominations. I was determined to find out which theological category I fell into.

This led me in the direction of Luther, Calvin, and Knox. I’d heard the term “Protestant” before and vaguely knew that it meant to protest. But if I was a Protestant, and that means I’m protesting, then what exactly am I protesting? This line of thought led me to read and research these reformers and the Reformation as a whole. Reading works from their side of the aisle, I came to believe they were completely justified in breaking from Rome. Rome had lost her way, had committed apostasy (at some unnamed time between 315 and 1517). The Reformers were justified in shaking off the chains that had bound them and formed new ecclesiastical communities, much in the way that America’s founders were justified in abandoning the old system of monarchy and implementing a republic.

In my teenage mind, I placed Luther and the other reformers in the same lofty position that I held Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and Washington in the newborn United States. Those men gave us political and social freedom from the tyranny of a runaway monarchy, and Luther brought theological freedom into the world from a tyrannical papacy.

Anyone who has ever read the Declaration of Independence knows that, according to the Jeffersonian school of thought, the authority of a legitimate government derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed,” and that, in a republic, the people are the sovereign, only lending their sovereignty to their representatives. One of the major mistakes that I made in embracing Protestantism was to put the founding of a republic and the founding of a church on the same level, as if authority for both were derived from the same source; but more on that later.

In these years, I never considered myself anti-Catholic. I would defend many of the doctrines of Catholicism. Also, everyone on the  maternal side of my family was Catholic, so if someone started telling me about how all Catholics were bound for hell, we were going to have a fight. Some of the charges were plainly absurd, like claiming Catholics worshipped Mary, or that the Pope is the Antichrist — although occasionally the accusations really did bother me, but I’d never show it. I knocked back those charges like I was the White House Press Secretary.  Even though I didn’t believe in doctrines like the primacy of Peter, papal infallibility, the Real Presence, or any of the Marian dogmas, I’d never admit it publicly, because that would be dishonorable to my mother and sister. I was like a defense attorney defending a client, not because he believed the client innocent, but because he believed that he deserved a defense. In private, I’d talk to my grandfather for hours about how he could believe all that, since he was so knowledgeable about the Bible. But in public, I was an apologist for Catholicism. To say I was conflicted would be an understatement.

During one of these many conversations with my grandfather, he shut me down with a single sentence. He asked me if I took the Bible as the literal word of God. When I said that I absolutely did, he said, “John chapter 6.” I asked him what about it, and he said to read it and come back with an interpretation that was in line with my theological beliefs. This challenge went unanswered from the time it was laid down until I realized that I was Catholic and joined RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), a gap of close to 15 years. John chapter 6 was just one of the many things that I saw as holes in my theology, but for the most part I ignored them.

Closing in on Rome

I continued on in non-denominational churches, but couldn’t really get involved at a deeper level because I felt like I was living a lie. Whenever I really thought hard about what I believed, there it was: John chapter 6. I couldn’t shake it, so I resigned myself to believe it. After all, “If Christ said ‘This is my Body,’ who shall dare to say it isn’t His Body?” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem).

I never once found a church that I agreed with one hundred percent of the time. Since they all taught, to some degree or other, that biblical interpretation was a matter of personal belief, I couldn’t see how they could dictate a statement of beliefs. To me it was a logical fallacy. This distance from a church family led to a diminishing faith. I still believed in God, but in real life, He was replaced by more pressing matters. Catholicism was still a bridge too far because of other problems I had, not the least of which was my romanticized and Americanized idea of the Reformation.

I’d tell myself that even if I accepted the doctrine of the Real Presence, that doesn’t necessitate my conversion to Catholicism. After all, didn’t Luther teach a version of transubstantiation? Or even Anglicans had a form of the Eucharist, and I could be an Anglican without turning my back on the freedom fighters of the Reformation.

Around this time, I began getting very involved — some would say almost obsessed — with politics. I’d watch pundits on TV at night, I’d read newspaper editorials in the morning, and listen to talk radio in between.

Of all the different subsections of politics, I found the U.S. Supreme Court to be the most interesting. I loved reading the opinions of Antonin Scalia, and by reading them, I developed a deep appreciation for Originalism. This is a constitutional law philosophy that attempts to interpret the Constitution based on the original intent of its framers. It is the very opposite of jurisprudence that sees the Constitution as a “living document” that evolves with the times.

By the time justice Souter retired and Chief Justice Rehnquist passed away and President Bush had nominated Roberts and Alito (both faithful Catholics), I was starting to see the Reformation in a whole new light. But still I resisted. How could giants of originalist thought, men like Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia, embrace what I believed to be an undemocratic monarchy: the papacy? And now two more Originalists, who were also papists, would be joining them on the bench. How could these four men, men who were dedicated to individual freedom, limited government, and federalism belong to a church that is not free, and has a megalithic, centralized, and tyrannical monarch as its head? What was wrong with them? The final push came when I found out that a few years previously, in 2003, Judge Robert Bork, another giant of Originalist jurisprudence, had converted to Catholicism.

I decided to finally brush off the cobwebs of the latent Catholicism that I’d suppressed for years and give it another look. After much study and prayer, I found that I had improperly conflated the founding of a republic with the founding of a church. Sure, a republic derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, but a church derives its authority from God Himself. Christ told St. Peter that He was founding a Church (Matthew 16:18), and He delegated His authority to the Church (Matthew 28:18-20). But where did Martin Luther get his authority to start his own church? This question gnawed at me. What if the Reformation wasn’t a reformation at all, but was in fact a rebellion against God’s just authority on earth? To be sure, there were abuses in the church, and even very unholy Popes, but just because there are problems in a human institution with a divine charter, that doesn’t give you the right to write your own charter. After months of wrestling with this issue, I came away believing that what I had believed was wrong, that Martin Luther wasn’t a religious version of a Jefferson or Madison, and that the Catholic Church was the Church that Christ founded.

The day I came to realize this, it was almost like an epiphany. I decided that I was going to enter the Catholic Church.

From speed bump to roadblock

Now that I knew I wanted to become Catholic, I had to find out how to do that. I called my local parish and found out about something called RCIA, which started in the fall and continued until Easter Vigil. I was also told that I had to pick a sponsor, and that the sponsor had to be a practicing Catholic. If I didn’t know a sponsor, I would have one assigned to me.

“Mom’s a practicing Catholic; I’ll ask her to be my sponsor” — that’s what I thought to myself. I was unaware at the time that the Church’s Canon Law does not allow a parent to be an RCIA sponsor. I called mom up, and she agreed to do it. Then she asked me, “What did your father have to say?”

Now, up until this point I had kept my wrestling with Protestantism and Catholicism to myself, simply because it was a personal struggle and I’m a private person. I worked with my father in a business we owned together. I would see him everyday, and we ate lunch together on most days. But over the last year or so of discerning this pull towards Catholicism, I hadn’t mentioned this subject to him at all. It wasn’t intentional; it just didn’t come up. When I told my mom this, she said I’d better tell him before I proceeded. I agreed, and even though I was 21 and didn’t need his permission, I still wanted his blessing. What happened next came as a complete shock.

I called my dad and told him of my intentions, and he went off like a rocket. Considering how loving he was to his Catholic wife and daughter, and how conciliatory he was toward his Catholic in-laws, this reaction completely blindsided me. He accused me of trying to hurt him, and that it was all just to get under his skin. To him it was more about family than religious affiliation. He was a Presbyterian, as was his father, and his father, and so on. For me to jump ship was the same as forsaking the family name. Where he got the idea that I would change my religion just to tease him was beyond me. He said that he had nothing against Catholicism per se, but that he was dead set against my becoming one.  (I do like to swim against the stream, however. Everybody in the family is a Yankees fan, so I loved the Mets. Dad was a Giants fan, so I went with the Jets. Looking back he must’ve seen the pattern.)

With my head spinning, I called the parish office and canceled my interview with the pastor. My plans of becoming Catholic died with a single phone call.

Because I valued my relationship with my father so highly and looked up to him in every way, I never even considered converting once I’d been shot down. Nevertheless, I was conflicted between my belief that Catholicism was the fullness of truth, while the commandment to honor my father and mother seemed to rule out my conversion.

I went on to get married and start a family. Years went by, and all that time I considered myself a pseudo-Catholic. If someone asked what I believed, I’d tell them “technically I’m Presbyterian, but I believe more in line with Catholicism.” I attended Mass pretty regularly but really gave up hope on becoming Catholic, and it tore me up inside. I spent a lot of time studying and researching various dogmas and doctrines of the Church that I either didn’t understand or just plain didn’t believe.

I would later realize that this time in the spiritual desert was very formative, an overall positive experience. Had I just entered the Church as a 21-year-old, I don’t think I’d be where I am today on my spiritual journey. It was the yearning for the fullness of truth and the completion of communion with the Church that drove me to study and learn, and grow in faith. I now consider those years that I spent reading Thomas Aquinas, Scott Hahn, Peter Kreeft, and G.K. Chesterton, watching old episodes of Archbishop Sheen’s television shows, and watching endless YouTube videos by Catholics and anti-Catholics alike, as an extended formation period. God knew what He was doing — I can see that now — because I probably wouldn’t value my full communion with the Church as much as I do, had it come easily.

Just as Thomas Paine said, “Yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value” (Thomas Paine, The Crisis, vol. 1). He was referring to a different struggle, but it still rings true.

By the time I actually came into the Church, I had a firm grasp of and a deep belief in what the Church teaches and could say, on that Holy Saturday that still lay years in the future, with zero reservations, “I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church teaches, believes and proclaims to be revealed by God!”

A second chance

About ten years after my initial attempt at conversion, my family received devastating news. The skin cancer that my father had been battling since I was a child had come to a critical point. Over the years, the surgeries had become longer and more invasive, even including radiation treatments. Now the cancer had spread to an area that had been previously radiated and was attached to his skull. Surgical removal wasn’t an option, and the doctor said that apart from experimental treatments, the prognosis was that he had less than a year to live.

In early March 2014 my mom called and asked if I was sitting down. “The doctor said your dad will be dead in less than a year.” Mom had a terribly blunt way of breaking news when she was upset. My head started spinning, and then I cried. It was something that shouldn’t have surprised me, because the doctor hadn’t seemed too hopeful after one of his almost monthly cancer removal surgeries a week earlier. Dad had been battling skin cancer for years. But now, here it was, we were staring at the end of the line.

The family got together and reaffirmed our decision that “It ain’t over till it’s over,” as Yogi Berra so famously said. We would seek alternate experimental treatments, we would move to Mongolia if that offered a chance at survival. We found out about an FDA trial going on in California, so we loaded up in a few cars and started driving. I rode in the car with my aunt and uncle from my mother’s Catholic side of the family. We were having a light discussion and then it turned to faith. They knew of my heavy Catholic leanings, but I had never told them of the veto my father laid down years before.

As we were talking about the sacrificial nature of the Mass, my phone rang. It was my dad, in the car in front of us. He asked me if I still believed that the Catholics were right. At this, I started to laugh. We hadn’t broached this subject at all in the last ten years, but now he’s asking me out of the blue — and while I was discussing Catholic theology! When I told him that there hasn’t been a time in the last ten years that I didn’t believe that Catholicism was true, he shocked me once again. “I’m sorry for how I reacted last time” (last time being a decade ago), “but if that’s what you truly believe, you have by blessing and encouragement to become Catholic.” Like I said before, I didn’t need his permission, but I desperately wanted his blessing, and there it was.

After I picked my jaw up from the floor, I got misty eyed and went quiet for a few moments. Once I had collected myself, I looked at my uncle and said, “I’m converting to Catholicism.”

When I returned home from California, I informed my wife of my decision. She wasn’t surprised; she even told me that during our courtship she had just assumed that I was Catholic. She was more surprised to find out later that I was actually Presbyterian. By this point in our seven-year marriage, she was surprised that I hadn’t already gone ahead and made official what had been in my heart for years; I had never discussed with her my father’s “veto.” She was very supportive of my decision, but I had a feeling like she was worried about something that she wasn’t letting on. I assured her that my conversion would have no bearing on her, that I wasn’t going to force her to convert with me, and that put her at ease. Her religious upbringing was in a very devout household and of the non-denominational/Baptist variety, in which she still happily worships to this day. My wife’s spirituality reminds me very much of my father’s own “give me Jesus and nothing else” theology, and it works great for her.

After seeing doctors in California and being told they couldn’t help, we found out about another trial in Houston, Texas, so once again we got in our cars and started driving. The next ten months were spent in Texas, my dad getting treatments and me getting in a lot of prayer time.

The final push

By this time, my zeal and desire for conversion had morphed into something else. Catholicism had become an intellectual pursuit. I’ve always been a bookish type, and I’ve always enjoyed studying new and interesting things, but I’d turned my pursuit of Jesus and the truth of His Church into nothing more than study. I became disconnected from the very reason that I began looking into the Catholic Faith in the first place — or, as Jesus said in the book of Revelation, I’d forgotten my first love (see Revelation 2:4).

I had also became spiritually lazy, settled into the life of believing what the Church taught but not being bound completely by its rules. For example, I believed in the efficacy of sacramental confession, but since I was just a “pseudo-Catholic,” I didn’t have to actually go to confession. Win-win, or so I thought.

One day, while driving home and listening to Catholic Answers Live, the host and guest were talking with a caller about the reasons that non-Catholics can’t receive the Eucharist. It was all the standard apologetics reasoning, and I found myself nodding along. But then he finished with a sentence that struck me to my core, and even years later I can repeat it almost verbatim. He said, “The real question is why would a Protestant want to receive Communion in a church they didn’t agree with? They don’t believe in the same Eucharistic theology as Catholics. We are all Christians, but there are some real and substantial differences that still divide us. It would be like saluting the flag of a foreign nation. But what if a Protestant did actually believe in the same Eucharistic theology as the Catholic Church? To him I’d ask, ‘Why aren’t you Catholic? Why are you withholding your allegiance and submission to the authority of the Church you believe to be true?’”

After some more reading, and studying, I discovered something in the documents of Vatican II:

Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church.

Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.” (Lumen Gentium, paragraph 14)

This was shocking to me, not because I thought it meant that Protestants couldn’t be saved — I had read enough of the Catechism and Vatican II documents to know that this wasn’t the case — but because I knew exactly what it did mean. Even before I googled and read lots Catholic apologetic articles on this statement, I knew it was referring to someone exactly like me. I believed in God, His Son, His Church, and all the teachings of the Church, and yet for reasons of convenience I had “refused to enter” it.

This new revelation sent me into a tailspin. Why was I playing games with God? During my decade-long discernment process, I had made several promises to God, promises that I’d search for the truth and follow it wherever it led me. After many stops and starts, including investigating most of the major denominations of Christianity (I didn’t venture outside Christianity because I was already convinced that Jesus was who He said He was; I just didn’t know who was right about the other details), every path led me to Rome. So now here I was, convinced of the truth. And with my father’s blessing and encouragement, I had no more excuses. I set my mind to the task at hand, I would finally swim across the Tiber River.

Tragedy

I had resolved to join the Church as soon as everything with dad settled down. In my mind this felt kind of like another delay, but in reality I didn’t know if we’d be in Houston very long, and most RCIA programs run for at least six months. My family and I had this rosy assumption that dad would receive his treatments and we’d all head home by summer’s end with him in perfect health again.

But by late summer, my father’s health was failing. After showing signs of strength, including a family pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he began to get weaker and weaker as the chemo started taking its toll on his body. By fall, he hardly left his bedroom except for frequent trips to the hospital. As things began deteriorating for him, I spent more time than ever in prayer. I prayed for him to get better, but even more, I prayed for him to have the strength to bear whatever was coming next.

After multiple bouts of pneumonia, and CT scans showing the tumors growing despite the severe chemo regime, the doctors told us what we had hoped never to hear. We’d reached the end of the line. We were to take dad home and arrange for hospice care, because nothing more could be done without putting him in unnecessary, and unhelpful, pain and discomfort. That day was December 18, 2014. By December 20th, my father was gone.

They say loss of a loved one can have one of two effects on a person’s spiritual life. Either they’ll pull away from God, or they’ll draw closer to Him. In a very strange way, in my opinion at least, the death of my father was probably the single most important event in my spiritual life. Everything I believed about God and the afterlife went from a theoretical and intellectual pursuit to a very real and tangible reality. Was the promise of eternal life true? Was Jesus who He said He was? And would I really see my father again?

Because I’m naturally a skeptic and a part time pessimist, I was surprised that I answered Yes to all three of those questions without hesitation.

I took great comfort in the conversation our Lord had with Martha when they discussed her brother Lazarus, and I answered exactly as she did without a doubt in my mind.

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world’” (John 11:25–27).

I would read this verse so much in the days and weeks after my fathers passing that I could quote almost the entire conversation by heart. It was the source of my deepest comfort, and I knew I would see my dad again.

After recovering from the trauma that I hear is common after the death of a loved one, I renewed my efforts to join the Catholic Church, almost a full decade after my initial try.

RCIA

As excited as I was about making my conversion official and being able to partake of the sacraments, the idea of sitting for a few hours every week and going over basic catechesis and beginning theology sounded as fun as watching paint dry. I wanted to avoid what I imagined to be a religious version of court-ordered driving school at all costs. I also suffer from extreme stage fright, and self-diagnosed social anxiety. At a party or in a small group, I’ll talk all night, but in large groups or crowds, I don’t even like raising my hand.

I called up my local parish to talk to the head of RCIA and adult formation. I told the lady that I wanted to join the Church and asked could I skip the whole RCIA process because I knew what I was getting into. I’d been studying for over ten years, had a good grasp on the Church’s teachings, and was going into this with both eyes wide open. I was informed that it was possible to forgo RCIA but that was up to the pastor, and that since RCIA didn’t start until the fall (it was currently March or April) she would like to conduct an interview before we brought it up to the pastor. I was informed of some adult confirmation classes taking place and suggested that I attend a couple of them, then we would have the interview. The classes were informative, and the interview went very well. She agreed that I was well enough formed and told me that skipping RCIA wouldn’t be a problem, although she still recommended it because “its more than just classes, it’s a spiritual journey, with lots of prayer and discernment involved.” But since I felt I knew better, I still pressed to ask the pastor for an exemption.

This started a series of events that made it very clear to me that God wanted me to attend RCIA I was told that the next group of adult confirmations from my parish were a few months away, unless I wanted to be confirmed with a large group of children, and I said I did not (in Phoenix, Confirmation takes place at the same age as First Communion). Since we had months to go, there was no rush to talk with the pastor. It was around mid-summer and I still hadn’t heard back about skipping RCIA, so I emailed the RCIA director to ask if she’d talked to the pastor. She hadn’t yet, but promised she would as soon as he got back from his summer vacation.

My first experience in RCIA reinforced my desire to be received outside the normal process. My fear of public speaking had me extremely uncomfortable on that first Sunday, when our classroom had about 60 people (some 25 candidates, catechumens, sponsors, and presenters) seated in a circle and going around the room making introductions. The question was, “What’s your name, and why do you want to be Catholic?” Everyone was telling wonderful stories about what brought them to this point on their faith journey, I was very unprepared for this turn of events and was upset with myself for not foreseeing this likelihood. When my turn came, all the ideas that I’d been formulating vanished. I stood up, stated my name, and then blurted out something along the lines of, “I’m here because I renounced Martin Luther and submit to the authority of the Pope.” Very true, but lacking any kind of tact. That’s how my first RCIA meeting went. I was very ready to end it and just get my waiver.

A few more weeks went by. Fr. John hadn’t returned from his summer vacation yet, the RCIA director recommended I start attending the classes until Father decided whether to grant me a waiver or not. I started the classes fully intent on getting my waiver, being received into the Church and being done with it all. Then we received some shocking news during the Sunday Mass announcements. Fr. John was resigning as pastor of the parish. He had suffered a medical emergency during his week off and was trapped in his hotel room, causing further physical damage, and would be unable to return to our parish. By this time, I was about a month into RCIA, and the RCIA director told me she would talk to the Associate Pastor about my situation. I went on a family vacation in late September and got word that another priest at our parish had died (we had three before I came along), and now we were down to one priest. I was informed that we’d be getting an interim parish administrator until the bishop could appoint a permanent pastor.

During this time, I was asked to bring a sponsor for my Confirmation, and that he would have to attend all the group meetings and retreat days with me. I only knew one person who fit the criteria of being Catholic and willing to sit for several hours with me every Sunday, and that was my mother. Unfortunately for me, I was informed that according to Canon Law, one’s parent could not also be his Confirmation sponsor. The RCIA director would assign a volunteer from the parish to be my sponsor. I was upset because I was counting on having at least one person that I knew well at this meeting every Sunday, and now I’d have none. The person appointed to be my sponsor ended up being one of the most likable men in the parish. His name was Kevin, he hailed from Great Britain, and we got along great. We would talk about faith, family, and even politics. We saw eye to eye on British politics, so that was a bonus. He was busy with work most weeks, as was I, so we ended up just catching up and going over any questions right before the main class started on Sunday morning.

When the parish administrator arrived, he said that the decision to waive my RCIA attendance should rest with the new pastor, who would be appointed soon. During this period of waiting, I was attending RCIA weekly. It wasn’t the boring driver’s ed that I thought it would be. We were given weekly presentations after the 9 a.m. Sunday Mass. We would then break out into small groups to discuss the presentation, all the while enjoying coffee and donuts. I couldn’t believe it, but I was actually enjoying myself!

Around Christmas, we had our new pastor, and things were looking less bumpy around the parish. Everyone seemed relieved that the situation was settling down, and the RCIA director asked me if I’d still like to get a waiver from the pastor. I suddenly thought to myself, “Then what would I do for three hours every Sunday morning?” Considering that I didn’t want to spend any time at RCIA, this thought simultaneously shocked and amused me.

I truly believe that the reason divine providence “forced” me into RCIA was that, up until that point, my conversion had been almost entirely intellectual. I was convinced of the truth of the claims made by the Catholic Church, but it took those months of RCIA to move my conversion from my head into my heart. It was during those weeks of Sunday morning classes that I fell deeply and madly in love with Christ’s bride, the Holy Catholic Church.

Received

Easter came early that year, and I remember thinking that I was getting cheated out of several weeks of RCIA meetings because of the Gregorian calendar. That thought made me laugh, because I had never wanted to be in RCIA in the first place, and now here I was lamenting the fact that it was ending a month earlier than most years! I was happy to find out that it wouldn’t end at Easter, but would continue each Sunday until Pentecost, so I would get another seven weeks of learning and discussing my favorite topic, the Catholic Church.

On Easter vigil, we gathered in the morning to rehearse where to stand and what to say. I was relieved to learn that I wouldn’t be required to state anything other than my name and some “I dos” and “amens.” Anything more than that and I probably would’ve collapsed from stage fright. I left the rehearsal and went to work, but the whole time I was thinking of what would go on as soon as the sun went down. I was so close to the finish line, and just beyond it I would be receiving my Lord and my God in the form of the Holy Eucharist.

I arrived with my family (and more than a few extended family) an hour early and went to the preparation room to put on my white robe while my family went to their assigned seats. I met with Kevin, and he asked me, only half jokingly, if I was having second thoughts. I guess the anxiety was written all over my face.

We went to the courtyard for the Service of Light, then followed the Easter Candle into the church. I had been to Mass many times during the last year; I had started going every Sunday to Mass rather than bouncing back and forth like I’d always done before. But I had never attended an Easter Vigil. It was an experience that I’ll never forget.

First, the deacon sang the Exultet, proclaiming the new Pasch of Christ, and while I knew that “this night” of which he sang of was the night before Christ rose from the dead almost 2,000 years ago, I kept thinking of how my ten-year journey was coming to a climax on this night! I got goosebumps when he sang the part,

“This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death

and rose victorious from the underworld.

Our birth would have been no gain,

had we not been redeemed.”

I had never heard such a true and beautiful line before.

One of my favorite parts of the Mass is the singing of the Gloria. Since we don’t sing that beautiful prayer during Lent, it had been forty days since I had heard it sung. So when the choir began it, I had tears in my eyes as I sang along.

By the time I stood in front of the altar, while Fr. Robert anointed my head with oil and conferred the Sacrament of Confirmation on me, I was so overwhelmed with the emotions of the night that I felt like laughing, crying, and yelling hallelujah, all at the same time.

Even though the Mass went on for over three hours, it felt like it flew by. After years of stops and starts, setbacks and theological discernment, I was finally home.

Since Converting

“Welcome home” that is what people say to a new Catholic, as if the Church was their home their whole life, and they just hadn’t realized it. I’d heard it said to many people while reading forums, or during TV programs featuring converts, but it never felt right to me. I’d been a Christian my whole life, but had never truly felt at home until that night, when I was received into the Church. Several people came up to me and said, “Welcome home,” and it felt so right!

In all my time in church, I had never felt that I had a pastor. I was somewhat of a homeless Christian, and when I’d hear people talking about sermons or homilies from their pastor, I could never relate. There were plenty of preachers and priests that had preached wonderful homilies over the years, but I couldn’t relate to any of them as “my pastor” — until I was received into the Church. Now I have a home parish, and it really feels like home. And now I have a pastor of my own.

Father Robert had come along late in my conversion journey, but he’s had a tremendous impact on my spiritual life. His love for the Eucharist and reverence while celebrating Mass have inspired me in ways that I can’t even explain. He is truly my pastor, and my parish is truly my home.

In the time since my conversion, I’ve been trying to share the truth of Catholicism and my love for it with as many people as I can. This has mainly taken the form of writing for several Catholic websites, starting my own blog, and making weekly videos about the Sunday Readings at Mass.

Not long after my reception into the Church, my wife and I found we’d be adding another member to our family. I told my wife that I’d like to have the baby baptized at my parish. I had wanted to have our other children baptized from the time they were born but didn’t think the Catholic Church would allow two non-Catholics to have their child baptized there. But when I no longer considered myself a Presbyterian, we had them dedicated at my wife’s church. Even during my Protestant days I still believed in the importance of Baptism, its validity in infants, and its regenerative effects. Not having my own children actually baptized felt like a failure in parenting on my part. Then, when discussing the new baby, a lady at church told me I could have all three baptized at once (in one day, not simultaneously) and so I discussed this with my wife. My son was four at the time, so I decided for him. But my daughter was seven, so I asked her if she would like to be baptized. She got so excited that it made me even more proud of her than usual. The new baby was born three weeks early and had difficulty breathing, so he was rushed by ambulance to another hospital in town, where they had a NICU unit. After twelve very long days, we got to take him home with no lingering effects. He was born on November 1 (All Saints’ Day), and I took that as a good sign, so I prayed the Litany of the Saints every day at his bedside while he was in the hospital. After we got him home, it was only a couple weeks later that I had the joy of having the three of them baptized in my home parish by Deacon Ernie. It felt so good to have them safe in Jesus’ arms.

Like many people of my generation, I spend a lot of time online. When I came across the following quote, I became more enthusiastic about engaging in the new evangelization through the World Wide Web:

The Internet can offer magnificent opportunities for evangelization if used with competence and a clear awareness of its strengths and weaknesses. Above all, by providing information and stirring interest it makes possible an initial encounter with the Christian message, especially among the young who increasingly turn to the world of cyberspace as a window on the world. It is important, therefore, that the Christian community think of very practical ways of helping those who first make contact through the Internet to move from the virtual world of cyberspace to the real world of Christian community.

At a subsequent stage, the Internet can also provide the kind of follow-up which evangelization requires. Especially in an unsupportive culture, Christian living calls for continuing instruction and catechesis, and this is perhaps the area in which the Internet can provide excellent help. It [the internet] can certainly provide a unique supplement and support in both preparing for the encounter with Christ in community, and sustaining the new believer in ​the journey of faith which then begins (Pope Saint John Paul II).


Charles Johnston

Charles Johnston lives in Arizona with his wife, Frankie, and their children, where he
owns a construction business.  His blog is
nowthatimcatholic.wordpress.com.


The Coming Home Network International