I am the fourth of five children who grew up in what would today be called an Evangelical home, though we didn’t call ourselves that. I don’t remember us calling ourselves anything but Christians, though I was aware that while most of the kids in my neighborhood were Catholics, we were Protestants.
I don’t recall hearing much, if anything, during my childhood or adolescence about sola fide, sola Scriptura, or the other doctrinal differences that sparked the Reformation. Rather, the differences, as I understood them, were more matters of culture and styles of worship. For example, Catholics thought it was OK to drink alcoholic beverages, but we didn’t. Catholics had to eat fish on Fridays, but we could eat whatever we wanted then. (Though you didn’t want to eat fish too often, or people might start to think you were Catholic!) I knew, too, that Catholic worship was much more complicated than ours, that they focused a lot on Mary, and that their churches were far more ornate. But on the whole, I don’t recall much discussion of the different beliefs of Catholics versus Protestants. They were who they were, and we were who we were.
Please don’t misunderstand me on this point: we were on friendly terms with our Catholic neighbors, and we did a lot together. Pretty much all of my friends were Catholic, since the hobby of the only other Protestant kid in the neighborhood was to throw rocks at me. (Though now that I think of it, a lot of the Catholic kids also threw rocks at me.) And we were always taught to have respect for honest differences of opinion. But while Catholics could be fine people, and could probably get into heaven, the idea that they might actually be right about some of those differences didn’t occur to me until I was into my teens.
In fact, the only real theological discussion I remember hearing my parents get into was with a Sunday school teacher from the Southern Baptist church we were attending at the time. As I recall, he was maintaining that all you needed for salvation was faith, while my father was adamant that you also had to live your faith by obeying what God commanded. Neither was Dad buying the Sunday school teacher’s argument that Baptism was a nice thing to do, but not really required. Nor his claim that once you had been saved (provided you were really saved) you could do nothing that would cause you to lose your salvation.
Now I need to pause in my narrative again to make clear that I don’t mean to paint a caricature, and I’m sure a trained Baptist theologian could make a far better case for Baptist beliefs than I remember the teacher making here. I’m just remembering fifty-plus years later how they sounded to a boy of six or seven. In any case, my parents eventually left the Baptist Church and started attending an Independent Church of Christ/Christian Church.
For those of you who may not know, the Independent Churches of Christ/Christian Churches, the non-instrumentalist Churches of Christ, and the Disciples of Christ all grew out of the Restoration Movement led by Thomas Campbell, his son, Alexander Campbell, and Barton Stone. Believing that what they viewed as “man-made creeds” caused unnecessary and sinful division in the one Body of Christ, these men left their Presbyterian and Baptist pulpits during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century to restore Christianity to the way they thought it was practiced in the first century.
Their disdain for creeds is expressed in Alexander Campbell’s maxim, “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent,” while their desire for Christian unity can be summed up in their adoption of another saying of disputed origin, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” (Not that either of these principles is anything like a creedal statement.) In their view, Christianity should not be divided, as Christ intended for there to be one visible Church. (They did get some things right!) They believed that these creedal traditions divide, but that Christians could find common ground by following the practice of the early Church, as best as it can be determined. This search for visible unity and for biblical simplicity is also shown by their unwillingness to use names of human origin, such as “Methodist” or “Lutheran,” opting instead for what the Church was called in the Bible: the “Christian Church,” “Church of God,” or “Church of Christ.”
Unlike most other Protestant confessions, the Restorationist churches have historically believed in the efficacy and necessity of Baptism by water for salvation. Moreover, they put much more emphasis on the centrality of what they usually call “the Lord’s Supper” than do most other Protestants. The particular congregation I left as I came into the Catholic Church called it “the central act of Christian worship.” So while the Restoration movement certainly doesn’t view Baptism or the Lord’s Supper as sacraments (they call them “divine ordinances”), there is enough similarity to Catholic belief here to make my own road to Rome a little shorter and less bumpy than it is for many Protestants.
As I moved out of childhood and into and through adolescence, I started thinking and behaving entirely too often in ways that give the word “adolescent” its bad name. Though I was still actively attending my church and its youth group, I was also becoming increasingly fascinated with the minds of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and other Eastern thinkers, and with girls. And I was finding all kinds of reasons not to believe in God — reasons that I was sure no one had ever thought of before, such as why, if He was all-good and all-powerful, He nevertheless allowed evil to exist.
Then one day, while feeding my inner nerd in a public library, I saw a book with a rather dirty and unattractive cover that I picked up, glanced at, and put back, then picked up, glanced at, and put back again, and again. I think this happened about five times. Today, I think my guardian angel must have been asking God, “What do I have to do? Hit him with it before he’ll take it?” The book was Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, and once I finally got around to reading it, I couldn’t put it down. I went on to read everything else by Lewis I could get my hands on. While not himself a Catholic, Lewis was nevertheless plainly in love with small-c catholic Christianity, and he was able to awaken in me just a little of that love. Meanwhile, I was still reading the Bible fairly often, though with no great devotion, care, or regularity. And one day I happened upon 1 Corinthians 3:11–15:
“For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”
“Wow!” I thought, “that sounds a lot like what I hear the Catholics call purgatory!” Not much later, I read in the same epistle, this time from chapter 11, verses 23–30:
“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”
That didn’t sound to me as if St. Paul saw the Lord’s Supper as a merely symbolic re-enactment, but as if it were something much more than that, though I couldn’t quite make out what. At any rate, it was beginning to look as if maybe some of these “mere human traditions” really had a divine basis. A few seeds had been planted in some pretty dry ground. It would be much later before fruit became visible.
I hadn’t paid enough attention in my high school biology class to know that abortion kills an already living human being, but the fact that it destroyed potential human life (as I thought it to be) was enough to shock me when I first heard about the Roe v. Wade decision. “What kind of a people are we becoming,” I thought, “when we start to think we have the right to take such a thing out of God’s hands and into our own?” I wish I could say that my outrage led me to learn more about abortion and maybe even to try to combat it in some way, but at this stage of my life, I let my own interests and concerns crowd out any active concern I might have felt for the destruction of this “potential human life.” The most I was willing to do was to offer a very muted and almost apologetic demurral when someone defended the practice in my presence.
Nevertheless, meager as it was, my pro-life inclination did do two things. First, it fostered in me a new respect for the Catholic Church, which stood fast in her defense of life when so many other Christian communions were succumbing to the spirit of the age, and which had taught so many of the leading lights in the pro-life movement. Second, it led me in my senior year of college to accept the invitation of a very intelligent and lovely young woman to accompany her and others on a bus trip to a convention in Milwaukee. The convention was of a group called “Life is For Everyone,” and Richard John Neuhaus (who was still a Lutheran pastor at the time, and with whose work I was slightly familiar) was to be the main speaker. The lovely young woman was Paula Richards, who a year or so later consented to become my wife.
Since this is my story, and not hers, I’ll just say that she grew up in a Christian home, and had been active in several Protestant denominations. After our wedding, she and I attended the United Methodist Church in which we were married and in which her parents were active. We both liked the music. (It’s hard to beat those Wesley brothers when it comes to hymnody.) And the style of worship, which was somewhat more liturgical than what I had grown up with, appealed to me as well. However, when the Methodist bishops, with little or no dissent, passed a resolution in support of the abortion license, we transferred our membership to the Christian Church I had grown up in, and in which my dad and one of my brothers served as elders. (If this leads you to think that differences in doctrine between the various Protestant denominations were not particularly important to us, you would be right. But that would eventually change.)
For the next twenty years or so we were quite active in the church, teaching Sunday school classes to the kids and leading Sunday evening youth groups. Since we weren’t especially happy with the published curriculum we were given, Paula wrote her own, which our pastor read and approved for use in the classes she taught. I was made a deacon, we made some good friends, and in short, we thought we had found the church that would bury us when our time came. As I said, doctrinal distinctives were not high on our list of priorities at the time. But Paula’s and my theological views were being shaped ever so slowly by our reading of Catholic and Orthodox authors, and by our interaction with Catholics and other Christians in the pro-life movement.
One person especially deserving of mention in this context was Chris Chambers, who was our mentor as we began sidewalk counseling in front of an abortion mill on Jefferson Avenue. He engaged me in several fascinating theological discussions and lent us a book called Surprised by Truth, which was edited by Patrick Madrid, containing the stories of converts to the Catholic Faith. I highly recommend it.
This kind of interaction between Christians of different denominations working together in pro-life action, in free stores, in homeless shelters, in prison ministries, and in other areas, has sometimes been called the “ecumenism of the trenches” and I can vouch for its ability to bring Christians at least a little closer together. If you’re interested, you can read more about that in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, jointly edited by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and his Baptist friend, Chuck Colson. That’s another book I highly recommend.
Through these influences, and through our continued reading of Scripture, Paula and I gradually came to cobble together some rather vague beliefs that bore a dim and distorted similarity to Catholic teaching. We thought that maybe, when a believer partook of communion, Christ became really and materially present within the believer. We thought that there had to be some kind of purging process after death, since few, if any, of us are quite pure enough to stand in the presence of God immediately after we die. We believed that Baptism was not just a sign, but actually worked, through the power of God, an inner change on a person, making him a new creature in Christ.
While we were aware that our thinking was a bit out of sync with the majority of our fellow worshippers, we didn’t worry too much about that. Within the limits of fallen humanity, we all loved the Lord, we all tried to live Christian lives, we prayed together, played together, and helped each other through the various challenges of life. Our minister’s sermons gave wise counsel on how to be disciples and how to effectively love God and one another. You could do a lot worse than that, and I remain grateful to, and fond of, the fine ministers and others who helped us in so many ways to grow in the Christian life.
But around the mid ‘90s we quit teaching kids and began to attend a Bible study for adults, which I also sometimes led. Because many of the study guides we used were written by teachers who were far more explicitly Protestant and Calvinistic in their orientation than Paula and I were, we were forced to confront head-on the causes for the 16th century schism known as the Reformation. We were already familiar with the doctrine held by many Protestants of sola fide (“faith alone,”), but we had thought it was a minority opinion, and saw little scriptural evidence to support it. What we learned for the first time was that for the Reformers, this doctrine was, in the words of Martin Luther, the article on which the true Church rises or falls. In fact, this was the doctrine that, more than any other, was used to try to justify splitting Christ’s Body yet again, after already being so wounded by the great East-West schism of the 11th century. We began to think, “If this is indeed the foundation on which the churches that grew directly or indirectly out of the Reformation are built, and if that foundation was as shaky as we have seen it to be, maybe the whole split ought never to have happened at all.”
We began to search more intently for the truth in these matters, mainly through our reading of Scripture, but also from other sources: books and magazines; EWTN, Sacred Heart radio (our local EWTN affiliate); discussions with our Sunday school classmates and others; and (for me, though not for Paula) through some internet forums where such things were discussed.
One of the things our particular denomination stressed was the idea that “where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” It became increasingly clear to us, however, that far from being true, this was not even coherent, since the maxim itself is nowhere found or implied in Scripture. Rather, in 1 Timothy 3:15, the Bible itself teaches that the Church is “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” Moreover, Ephesians 3:10–11 says that His intent was that, “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I began to think that if it is through the Church that heaven’s rulers and authorities are taught, then maybe the Church might have some things to teach me as well. What was even more important, she has the authority to teach me. I had read many times St. Peter’s saying that “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20 KJV) but now it was beginning to hit home. I began to think that, by “private interpretation,” St. Peter must have meant any interpretation that was not delivered through the Church, and that finding two or three, or a hundred, thousand, or million who agreed with a given interpretation didn’t make it any less private.
But that presented a problem. In order to receive the authoritative teaching of the Church, we must first be able to identify the Church. I couldn’t see how a Church that was at most invisibly united could teach authoritatively, nor did it any longer seem at all plausible to me that the Church went off the rails early in the 2nd century, recovered sufficiently in the 4th century to deliver the canon of Scripture, and then wandered in a Roman desert until the Reformers corrected the canon and paved the way for the Church’s full recovery in 19th century Kentucky.
What, then, were the plausible candidates for a Church which was one, holy, catholic, and apostolic? The question almost answered itself, though I did spend some time looking at the claims of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. While I saw much of great spiritual goodness, truth, and beauty in those Churches, the bulk of evidence from the early Church Fathers appeared to support early acceptance of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.
As it became clear how far our views were diverging from those of our classmates, and how much that divergence was causing distress in some of those classmates, with sadness we decided to leave that class. We still attended the morning worship services and remained involved in several activities. But the hour we used to spend in adult Bible study, and in which our two daughters still living at home attended Sunday school, was now spent in a nearby Catholic church trying to learn what the Mass was all about.
This went on for maybe a year, and the discomfort caused by our growing distance from our old church became ever harder to bear. At length, we made an appointment with our pastor to tell him that we were thinking of becoming Catholic. Bear in mind that this was a man whom I had known and admired for over thirty years, and that Paula had known and admired for about twenty. (We both retain our respect, admiration, and love for this man and for many others there today.) It was not an easy interview for any of us. He told us that, while he had welcomed many former Catholics, we were the first to move in the other direction in his long practice of the ministry.
Over the next few weeks, the pastor and I engaged in several e-mail exchanges. They revealed that, despite his long experience, intelligence, and good education, his knowledge of what the Catholic Church really teaches was lacking in several respects. Finding his arguments and his replies to my arguments unpersuasive, we decided to make the final break. We began looking into how one goes about formally entering the Catholic Church.
We asked a Catholic friend for recommendations for a good Catholic priest to shepherd us through the process. I had already met one of those priests, Fr. Paul Berschied, a few years earlier, and I knew him to be actively pro-life, so Paula and I began attending St. Cecilia’s Church in Independence, Kentucky. Our two daughters still living at home, Abigail and Mary, were required to attend Mass with us, but as they were both in their teens, we thought that beyond that requirement, they were of an age to decide for themselves what path to take. Since they were still very attached to the church we had been attending, we made long and hurried drives back after Mass to get them to their Sunday school classes.
Paula and I enrolled in both St. Cecilia’s RCIA program and in a course on basic Catholic doctrine taught by Fr. Philip DeVous at the Catholic Center in Erlanger, Kentucky. Meanwhile, Fr. Berschied very graciously offered to talk to Abigail and Mary, as well as to our eldest child, Rachel, and answer their questions, even though they were not yet considering entering the Church themselves. Though all three of them came to love Fr. Berschied, I can’t imagine how he managed the first couple of talks, where all three daughters were somewhat tongue-tied and perhaps even a little resentful of the upheaval their parents’ shocking behavior was causing the family.
My mom and dad had pretty much agreed with our earliest moves toward Catholicism, probably because neither we nor they recognized these for what they in fact turned out to be. And since Dad had passed away in November of 2000, he was spared the pain of our final break with the congregation he loved and had helped found. However, several difficult conversations still had to be worked through as we broke the news to my mother and to Paula’s parents, as well as to my brothers, who were both elders in our former denomination, though in different cities. My mother died in 2007, and though she never quite reconciled herself to our move, neither did she ever waver in her love for us. We likewise remain close to both Paula’s and my side of our family, though we are saddened that, so far, none of them has shown any interest in entering the Church themselves.
Paula and I were received into the Church at Easter Vigil 2005. Our joy, though tempered by the impending death of Pope John Paul II, and by the recent legalized killing of Terri Schiavo, was nevertheless great. Like so many others before us, we echoed and continue to echo the words of the Psalmist, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’” A year later, at Easter Vigil 2006, all three of our daughters joined us in the Church Christ Himself established. God is indeed good.