The story of my conversion is unlike any of those I’ve ever heard or read. Perhaps that is to be expected — each of us is a unique individual created in God’s own image. Yet, most other stories I’ve read follow a similar pattern. Say someone, a devout Christian in a Protestant denomination and quite happily so, comes across some teaching, either in the Bible or from Catholic sources, maybe from the Early Church Fathers, and realizes that this might be what the Catholic Church teaches. To prove himself wrong, he begins investigating. Low and behold, the more he investigates, the more he realizes the Church is right. He must come home to Rome.
My journey shares some similarities with that model; however, it wasn’t that I learned some unsettling doctrine, I wasn’t sophisticated enough for that. It was more a realization, a feeling, that something was deeply wrong with the Presbyterianism I had grown up in, not clearly understanding what it was, but knowing that I would have to find another church that I could trust to be faithful to the Bible. A church that I could be sure would not try to distort the truths I could plainly read in the pages of Scripture in order to gain popularity or the acceptance of the so-called intelligentsia. I had no idea where this search would lead. Had I known, I might have run screaming in another direction.
No part of it
First, some back story, as fiction writers put it.
Until I was about 18 years old my parents and I were pretty regular churchgoers; I was baptized at the age of seven at Bethel Lutheran Church in St. Clair Shores, Michigan. Shortly after that, maybe only a month or so, we moved into Detroit proper (rumor having it that our house was scheduled to be torn down to make room for the new I-94 freeway that would run through our property). I wasn’t at all happy about the move, but there was no choice. After the move, we attended the same Presbyterian church that my aunt and uncle were already attending. My parents saw to it that I was in regular attendance in Sunday School during my school years and I became an official church member around the age of 16.
About the time I finished high school and joined the Air Force, some family problems involving my aunt, uncle, and cousins boiled to the surface and, in an unfortunate way, engulfing my father and mother. I perceived that all of this was more or less stoked by the pastor of our church who was very much a child of the late 1950s and early 1960s and one who couldn’t see much wrong with any kind of sin. Whether this was true or not, it led, much to my regret, to a real break in the family. Once that happened, I swore that if this was what “God” and “church” were all about, there was no need in my having anything to do with it. During my entire enlistment, I never once went to church. It’s not that I became an atheist; although at times I thought I did, but rather, I became indifferent in the extreme.
At the end of my tour, after I came home from Vietnam, I went to college and got married. There were several times, early in our marriage, when my wife and I tried one church or another; I think I was subconsciously hoping that I might find God, but nothing ever seemed to be any better than the church I grew up with.
Giving Christianity a closer look
By the time I was in my early 40s, though, it happened that we were invited to attend First Presbyterian Church by a man I view to be my mentor in Christ who was my wife’s professor for her thesis in history. Dr. Fuller was teaching an adult Sunday School class in church history and, as much as I wanted to, I felt I couldn’t refuse the invitation. Dr. Fuller’s class lasted for three or four weeks and we enjoyed it. After that, the assistant pastor of the church was teaching another class and we decided to go to that, too. I don’t remember the topic, but in the course of one class, he said a couple of things that caught my attention: “If you don’t know what you believe, how do you know you believe it?” and “God isn’t just God on Sunday, but every day of the week,” I realized that there was more to being a Christian than I had ever realized and that I would have to start looking into this more seriously.
That might seem strange, since nearly all during my school years I had attended Sunday School and gone to church on a regular basis. Yet, for whatever reason in all that time, I never learned much about my Presbyterian faith and never understood there was anything more to it than Bible stories accompanied by rather cheesy illustrations.
Once I realized that there was a solid connection between faith and reason, I read everything I could get my hands on, especially from C.S. Lewis and other great Christian writers. My wife and I also became very active in the church, to the point where I eventually became a deacon and, later, chaired the board of deacons. Still, even though I was so active in a church in the Calvinist tradition and came from a Scottish (Scots) Calvinist background, I couldn’t have told you what that meant, except that the idea of predestination was lurking somewhere in the background of our confessions. I knew very little about the actual beliefs of the different Protestant denominations, much less my own. And, incidentally, I had no idea what Catholics believed, and was not much interested in learning.
Politically correct preaching
Then trouble struck when the senior pastor of the church, a deeply devout, Bible-believing Christian, whom we both admired very much, retired. It took a year or so for a new pastor to be selected. The man chosen had been serving at a large Presbyterian church in Detroit of all places. He was about the same age as the pastor of the church I attended while growing up. I should have known things wouldn’t go well.
Soon, everything at the church began to change; we were told from the pulpit that the Bible no longer said what it plainly seemed to say. In the new pastor’s sermons there was a lot of, “What this text really means is…” followed by some very heavy-handed revision leading to the most politically correct interpretation possible. Any mention of sin and redemption soon disappeared from his sermons in favor of what amounted to lectures on some current, very progressive, novel. My wife and I both knew this was wrong and that the Bible couldn’t be saying different things depending on who was doing the preaching. Sin hadn’t suddenly disappeared from the world. There were still certain acts that were wrong, whether society liked it or not. Since there were no signs that the new preacher would be leaving any time soon and since neither my wife nor I wanted to give up our newly rediscovered faith journeys, we began searching for another church, looking first at other Protestant denominations.
With our Presbyterian background, it was evident the local Baptist churches would not be a fit and it was also quite clear that the Episcopalians were having even bigger problems of their own. I had friends at a charismatic Evangelical church, but we also didn’t feel like we fit in there. We could find no suitable solution.
The refreshing truth
Then, much to my surprise, even horror, my wife began to point out that Pope John Paul II, in his encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, was saying some pretty good things — things that were hard to deny were true. She admired his courage in bucking the cultural trends and his willingness to take the heat from the intelligentsia for saying unpopular things. Then, in another remarkable coincidence, the construction company I was working for got the contract to build a classroom extension for the new Catholic parish just a few blocks from our house. This gave my wife the idea to call the parish and inquire about becoming Catholic. They told her about something called RCIA and, for good measure, gave here the schedule of Mass times. Since it was mid-August, 1994, it turned out that a new RCIA class was starting in just the next week or so. “How convenient,” she said, “we should look into this.” I suggested the Episcopalians, but to no avail.
If the Baptists were a tough sell to a Scots Presbyterian (even a poorly formed one), the Catholics were even harder. I could picture my poor, estranged, Scottish aunt turning over in her grave. I couldn’t imagine doing such a thing as converting to the Catholic Church; I didn’t even know for sure if Catholics were Christian. My wife pressed me, however, to come up with a suitable alternative, and I couldn’t. So, after two or three weeks of desperate delay on my part, we showed up for an RCIA class. Low and behold, it wasn’t too bad. Learning what it meant to be Catholic was interesting and I even learned a bit about Calvinism that day, which was covered by way of comparison with Catholic teaching. We went again the following week, and just kept going after that; there was always something interesting to learn, and I began to enjoy those classes greatly. Still, I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to actually become Catholic, so I kept trying to come up with alternative ideas, which my wife very easily shot down.
She also wanted very much to go to a Mass; neither of us had really ever been to one. I really tried to avoid this, because I wasn’t sure what would happen. I felt liked we would stick out like sore thumbs, not knowing the proper gestures and whatnot. For several weeks we just didn’t go to church at all. Finally, on the first Sunday of Advent I relented. We couldn’t just not to go church ever again. Fr. Juvy, a wonderful priest from the Philippines and pastor of the parish, celebrated Mass but I wasn’t overly impressed until the end. At that point, he announced, in his Filipino accent, “Today is the first day of Advent, so quit being your nasty old selves.” I was hooked. I knew, whatever happened, we had found the place. He wasn’t afraid to speak the truth we all needed to hear so badly.
We continued RCIA and tried our best to study on our own topics that were covered each week in class. We read everything we could find, not always from the best sources, but we were like sponges, trying to learn what the faith was all about. There were a few things not covered very deeply, such as the importance of Tradition and the Church Fathers, and we didn’t cover as in-depth as I would have liked the theology of the sacraments and their importance in Church life, nor did we cover Marian doctrines well enough for a Protestant convert. It is not that the classes weren’t good and helpful, but there is only so much time to cover an awful lot of material. It all seemed to go by very fast.
From that first Sunday of Advent until just a day or so before Easter Vigil, I never questioned that I would be received into the Catholic Church. However, beginning on Holy Thursday and going into Holy Friday, doubts began to cross my mind, even a slight sense of panic. What was I doing? I was turning my back on the faith in which I had been brought up. Was I doing the right thing? This was for real — what was I thinking? Each time a doubt began to arise I thought of Peter’s response to Jesus asking the disciples in John 6, if they, too, would leave Him. He said simply, “Lord to whom shall we go?” I knew in my heart, there was nowhere else I could go if I wanted a faith that wasn’t subject to change depending on the latest intellectual fads. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing, but if I wasn’t, I knew there was no better alternative.
So, I think my conversion story differs from most. It wasn’t that I came up with some great theological insight, or immediately fell in love with the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (I didn’t fully understand all that at the time). It was simply there was nowhere else to go; I didn’t want a faith that, on one person’s whim, could be boiled down to what might be taught in a college modern English lit seminar. I knew that if I wanted to continue to grow in my Christian faith — indeed, not lose it entirely — I could only do so as a Catholic. I completely understood Peter’s response to Jesus, there simply was nowhere else to go. We were both received into the Church at Easter Vigil in 1995. That’s another coincidence, by the way — we are both CPAs and Easter Vigil that year was Tax Day, April 15th. Remarkable.
As a postscript, our study of the faith has continued ever since. Soon after we were received into the Church, EWTN became available in El Paso and we watched it almost exclusively. What we learned through that channel was incredible and helped solidify us in our faith.
I’ll have to say, it’s been quite a ride, but worth every minute.