When people ask me about my decision to join the Catholic Church, I like to divide the question into two. There’s the question, “Why did you become Catholic?” Then there’s the question, “How did you become Catholic?” The first question can be answered in a single sentence: I entered the Catholic Church because I became convinced in my head and in my heart that the Catholic Church is who she claims to be: the one Church that our Lord Jesus Christ founded to carry out His mission in this world and which is guided by the Holy Spirit to preach and teach the fullness of the Gospel.
The answer to the “how” question is a story, and it follows pretty closely the three stages of conversion noted by G.K. Chesterton: “It is my experience that the convert commonly passes through three stages or states of mind …. The first phase is that of the young philosopher who feels that he ought to be fair to the Church of Rome. He wishes to do it justice; but chiefly because he sees that it suffers injustice …. The second stage is that in which the convert begins to be conscious not only of the falsehood but the truth, and is enormously excited to find that there is far more of it than he would ever have expected …. And the third stage is perhaps the truest and the most terrible. It is that in which the man is trying not to be converted” (The Catholic Church and Conversion, Ignatius Press, 2006, pp. 72-77). If I may be allowed to sum up each of these in a word: fairness, discovery, and flight.
Beginning to be Fair to the Catholic Church
I like to say that the first stage started when I read C.S. Lewis in the 9th grade. But it really started long before that. I grew up United Methodist in Georgia, the son of two United Methodist “pastor’s kids.” In fact, three of my four grandparents were ordained ministers in the United Methodist Church. So I had been baptized as a small child and was active in Sunday school, children’s choirs, and eventually the church youth group. In the summer before I started high school, I attended a “Chrysalis Flight,” an intensive three-day Christian discipleship retreat experience for teens. I came away from that weekend with a desire to grow in my faith, and I picked up a copy of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Reading that book changed my life. It was like opening a door onto a whole new world. It was the first book I read that caused me to think seriously about my Christian faith, to think about it not merely as something good and true, but as the only explanation (among all the philosophies and religions of the world) that really explains everything. It was my introduction to apologetics, philosophy, and rational argument. I was hooked. I loved the simple profundity of Lewis’s style, his ability to take complex concepts and explain them in everyday language. I started reading every C.S. Lewis book I could get my hands on: The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, collections of essays and sermons. C.S. Lewis became my undisputed favorite author.
Through my reading of Lewis, I first encountered the doctrine of purgatory. As Lewis writes in Letters to Malcolm:
Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know” — “Even so, sir.” (C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964, pp. 108f.)
As a Methodist, I considered the idea of a post-mortem cleansing a logical conclusion from John Wesley’s idea of Christian perfection. If God is going to sanctify me by His grace, if He is going to work in me to make me perfect as He is perfect, then what happens if I die before that process is complete? Will God leave undone the good work He began? Or will He “bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6)?
About a year after I started reading Lewis, my dad came into my room one day and said, “You know, Benjamin, if you like C.S. Lewis so much, there’s another author I think you should read.” Then he told me about G.K. Chesterton. “There’s a book of his that is similar to Mere Christianity, and I think we have a copy of it downstairs. I’ll try to find it for you.” He came back a little later and brought me a copy of Orthodoxy. I started reading and was almost instantly conflicted.
I was a devoted fan of Lewis. He was not only my favorite author, he was my first literary love. But Chesterton seemed every bit as clever and insightful as Lewis, if not more so. I hated to admit it, but perhaps I liked Chesterton even more than I liked Lewis. By the time I finished reading Orthodoxy, I had resolved the conflict: though I retained my appreciation of C.S. Lewis, I had a new favorite author. I then began to read every Chesterton book I could get my hands on.
The more I read, the more I came up against the fact that Chesterton joined the Catholic Church as an adult. In many of his post- conversion books, he wrote things in defense of Catholicism that seemed to make sense to me, but I didn’t know enough about the Catholic Church to know what I really thought about it all. The more I read, the more I had to admit that I didn’t know much about the Catholic Church, but I wanted to learn more.
In high school, I also began reading some early Church Fathers and medieval theologians. The youth director at my Methodist church started a theological reading club for the juniors and seniors in high school. He called it the “Dead Theologians Society.” We met weekly to read and discuss such works as The Confessions of St. Augustine, On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius, and selections from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. The group was supposed to continue with readings from Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, and more recent theologians, but we never got that far before the group’s attendance dwindled and the project was abandoned. On my own, I was also reading St. Anselm. As a result, much of my early theological reading was decidedly Catholic. No one told me to be careful about what these authors wrote. No one warned me that Methodists didn’t believe everything that Augustine or Aquinas believed. I simply read these great thinkers, and found that what they had to say made a lot of sense. So, at the same time I was reading Chesterton, I was also getting a solidly Catholic introduction to theology.
I also experienced in high school my first encounters with the mischaracterizations of Catholic teaching. Let me give two examples. The first occurred in Sunday School, where I was participating in a “Disciple Bible Study” that covered most of the Old and New Testaments in 34 weeks of daily readings with weekly meetings to discuss. When we read Matthew 16:13-20, the famous “you are Peter” passage, I knew enough about Catholicism to know that this was the basis of the idea of papal authority. So I asked my youth director, who was teaching the class, “Why aren’t we Catholics?” He seemed a little surprised at the question, and one of the other students made a dismissive remark about the appalling behavior of the popes in the Renaissance. I didn’t know enough then to explain the Catholic position, but I instinctively knew that the sinfulness of individual popes in history was irrelevant to the question of teaching authority. (Infallibility is not the same as impeccability.)
Another example of the unfair mischaracterization of Catholicism came when I attended a Christian music festival with my youth group. One of the speakers at the music festival argued that Catholics were not real Christians, and he cited, among other things, their “superstitious” beliefs about communion. I remember being taken aback by his remarks, and I felt compelled to consult one of his books in the merchandise tent after his talk was finished. I encountered in his book arguments against Catholicism that, like his talk, seemed to misconstrue the Catholic position. Again, I didn’t know enough at that time to articulate a clear Catholic rebuttal of what he said, but I knew that his arguments rested on a faulty understanding of Catholic teaching. These experiences, and others, gave me a growing sense that the Catholic Church was frequently misunderstood and misrepresented by her opponents. I wasn’t yet ready to accept the Catholic Church’s claims, but I was beginning to have serious doubts about the arguments against those claims.
Discovering the Catholic Church
By the time I had started as a freshman at Asbury College, a non- denominational Christian liberal arts college in Kentucky, the question was in my mind, “Should I become Catholic?” The question was not yet an urgent one, but I gave it a lot of thought and prayer and study. Three things in particular helped me along the way to answering that question in college.
The first major help came in the form of books. I had already been reading the Bible, Augustine, Anselm, C.S. Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton. But now, at college, I had access to so much more. In addition to course textbooks and the resources of the college library, I was blessed to find several works of Catholic apologetics at local used bookstores. But the single greatest printed resource came from the college library’s book sale during my very first semester. It was 2003, and the college had ordered the second edition of the New Catholic Encyclopedia for its library’s reference section. This meant they were selling the original 1967 edition of the New Catholic Encyclopedia, nineteen volumes in all, for a total of $50. As a freshman in college, I didn’t have much money to spend, but I knew this was a good deal. So after thinking it over, I bit the bullet and bought the set. For the next four years, it sat on the back of my desk in my college dorm room. Whenever I had a question about some Catholic teaching or practice, I would pull a volume off the shelf and start reading.
Conversations with my college friends were the second major help I received in answering the question, “Should I become Catholic?” One of the advantages of attending a non-denominational Christian college was that almost everyone took their Christian faith seriously, but not everyone agreed on questions of theology. Many of my friends were some version of Methodist (whether United, or Free, or Evangelical), but one of my closest friends was an evangelical Presbyterian, raised in the Reformed tradition of John Calvin. So we frequently discussed and debated theological differences between Wesley and Calvin. One conversation in the cafeteria will suffice as a typical example. Someone raised the question of which of God’s attributes was most important. The Wesleyans at the table made a case for holiness as the fundamental divine attribute; my Calvinist friend, though clearly outnumbered, made a compelling case for sovereignty as more fundamental than holiness. I remember thinking at the time that the debate was fairly even, and perhaps there was something more fundamental than either holiness or sovereignty. So I looked up “divine attributes” in the New Catholic Encyclopedia,and found that there is something more fundamental: aseity (“from himself”-ness). As the Catechism puts it: “God is the fullness of Being and of every perfection, without origin and without end. All creatures receive all that they are and have from him; but he alone is his very being, and he is of himself everything that he is” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 213). So what distinguishes God from His creatures is not holiness or sovereignty per se, but the fact that God’s holiness and sovereignty (and all His other attributes) come from Himself, whereas any holiness or sovereignty that we humans might attain comes not from ourselves but from God. This distinction not only helped me see a deeper Catholic answer to a Protestant debate about divine attributes; it also helped me to understand the difference between worshipping God and venerating the saints. God can make someone perfectly holy, and that person is still not God, because the difference between God and His creatures is not one of degree but of kind: God’s holiness is His own, from Himself; any holiness that we gain is pure grace, a freely bestowed gift from God. When we wor- ship God, we praise Him for who He is in Himself. When we venerate the saints, we praise them for what God has done in and through them. As long as that distinction is preserved, the more we praise the saints, the more it redounds to God’s glory.
This argument about divine attributes was one conversation out of dozens. From purgatory to saints to discerning God’s will, there were numerous questions that my friends and I discussed and debated. Sparring with people from different theological traditions helped me better understand my own, and drove me to see what answers the Catholic Church offered.
Professors were the third major help I received in answering the question, “Should I become Catholic?” Several of my college professors had what I would call Catholic sympathies. They would say, although not in so many words, that they agreed with the Protestant Reformation as a whole, but they wished we had kept this one aspect of the Catholic Faith, or that one Catholic tradition. The trouble was that different professors had different sympathies. So, one by one, I started putting the pieces together. Whenever the subject of the Catholic Church came up in any of my college courses, I thought about it and related it to this question of becoming Catholic. In French classes, I was being exposed to a strong Catholic culture, with the celebration of saints’ feast days. In courses on ancient and medieval philosophy, I was reading more Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. Through music ensembles, I was being exposed to Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, and various musical settings of the Mass. One of my English professors was a Chesterton scholar, and I had many fruitful conversations with him in his office.
But probably the most influential Catholic sympathy came in a history course on Western Civilization. The professor sought to present a fair and balanced picture of the state of Catholic Christianity on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. He made a particular point of saying it was not all bad. Yes, there was corruption in the hierarchy, but medieval and early Renaissance Catholicism also witnessed growth and dynamic renewal through new religious orders like the Dominicans and Franciscans, the fervent work and prayer of traditional monastic communities, the founding of universities, and the patronage of the arts. The professor presented a complex and nuanced picture of pre-Reformation Catholicism.
Then he had us read selected stories from Boccaccio’s Decameron. One story in particular addressed the issue of corruption in the hierarchy of the Church, and turned the typical Protestant argument on its head. In the story, a Parisian Jew named Abraham surprises his Catholic friend by deciding to convert, even after visiting Rome and witnessing firsthand the corruption in the Church’s hierarchy. He explains that, from what he saw, the pope and the cardinals in Rome appeared to be doing their best to bring about the utter destruction of the Christian religion. However, since this did not occur, but instead Christianity grew and flourished, he became convinced that the Christian religion must truly be guided and protected by the Holy Spirit. From this story, and from the complex picture of pre-Reformation Catholicism that my history professor presented, I began to see that the sins of its leaders actually made the Catholic Church’s claims harder to dismiss. If the Catholic Church was merely a human institution, how could she survive — and thrive — with such weak and broken human leaders?
All of these ideas and experiences drove me to action. I had been reading books, debating with friends, and encountering Catholic sympathies in my professors. Now I needed to do something about it. So far it was all in the realm of ideas. I needed practical experience. So on January 9, 2005, the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, I made my first visit to a Catholic church for Sunday Mass. I looked up the closest parish to my college and found my way to St. Luke Catholic Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky. I was struck with how normal the Mass seemed. I am not sure what I expected, but the evident faith of the congregation dispelled any notion I had that Catholicism was merely a “dead tradition” or a bunch of people “going through the motions.” The Mass did not seem so different from the Methodist communion services of my upbringing. It was strangely familiar. Though I would not have said so at the time, in hindsight I would say it was like coming home for the first time. By this point in my journey, I had gone well beyond being fair to the Catholic Church. I was now growing rather fond of it, discovering that it was true, not only occasionally, but regularly. In fact, it was proving a dependable source of wisdom and truth. I was well on my way to answering the question, “Should I become Catholic?” The question was now urgent, and my answer was imminent.
Attempting to Flee from the Catholic Church
In the fall of my junior year of college, I began attending RCIA classes at St. Luke Catholic Church and started going to Mass every Sunday that October. I also decided to join the parish choir. These may not sound like the choices of someone who is trying to flee from Catholicism, but they were an attempt to immerse myself in the life of the Catholic Church to see if personal experience would confirm my private study. I was putting all my reading and argumentation to the test. Was the Catholic Church really what Chesterton said it was? Did my experience in a real Catholic parish match what I had read in Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and various books of Catholic apologetics? Did the Catholic Church look from the inside like it did from the outside? In a way, I wanted my picture of Catholicism to be proven wrong. It would have been more convenient to keep the Catholic Church at arm’s length, to admire and respect her while remaining Methodist. I was not exactly looking forward to the conversations I knew I would have with family and friends if I became Catholic. But my regular exposure to local Catholic worship and fellowship did nothing to overturn or contradict my years of study and prayer.
In my attempt to find a way out of joining the Catholic Church, I also started asking some trusted spiritual mentors, “Why aren’t you Catholic?” I was hoping that their reasons would be sufficient for me, too. They were not. I found them admirable, but not applicable to me. I even had one professor warmly congratulate me on my impending decision, and confess that he had often wished he had the opportunity to learn more about the Catholic Church.
The Unfathomable Final Step
As Chesterton says, “This note on the stages of conversion is necessarily very negative and inadequate. There is in the last second of time or hair’s breadth of space, before the iron leaps to the magnet, an abyss full of all the unfathomable forces of the universe. The space between doing and not doing such a thing is so tiny and so vast” (The Catholic Church and Conversion, Ignatius Press, 2006, p. 83). My story so far has been rather cursory and preliminary. This is intentional, because even on the eve of my Catholic confirmation, I was not able to articulate fully all the ideas, impressions, and experiences that went into my decision to join the Catholic Church. It was such an intensely personal thing, I botched more than a few attempts to explain it to family and friends. There were a thousand tiny reasons that all amounted to the conviction that the Catholic Church was right, its teachings were true, and for all its human element, it was truly guided and directed by the Holy Spirit.
There was also in this whole process a growing awareness of being providentially guided to this conclusion. I had been raised by my parents, and encouraged by my Methodist upbringing, to look for God’s hand at work in my life, and to follow Him with trust and confidence. I could now see enough of the past shape of my life to know what present decision I needed to make, even if I could not predict the future outcome. At the Easter Vigil of 2006, as a junior in college, I was confirmed and received into the Catholic Church.
Further Growth in the Catholic Church
Some of my family and friends were afraid that by joining the Catholic Church I would be entering a spiritually cold and dark place. I have found it to be quite the opposite: dazzlingly full of light and warmth. I have been fortunate to know some wonderfully kind confessors, wise spiritual directors, and dynamic homilists. I routinely have the Scriptures opened to me in new and compelling ways. I have made many Catholic friends and encountered in the Catholic Church inspiring examples of faith, hope, and love. I have grown in my Catholic faith and have found a fervor and tenderness in Catholic devotions. I am nourished by the Word and the Sacraments. God has been immeasurably good to me. My heart is full.
After graduating from college with a degree in Classical Languages, I was accepted into graduate school at the Catholic University of America, where I received my master’s and doctorate in Greek and Latin. In my time at CUA, I was further nurtured in my Catholic faith by daily Masses and frequent confessions at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and evening prayer at the Dominican House of Studies. I was also involved in a Gregorian chant schola and the young adult group at my local parish in Maryland. I have never regretted my decision or doubted my conviction that the Catholic Church is who she claims to be. In fact, after fourteen years of full communion in the Catholic Church, and worshipping at over 3,000 Masses in seven different countries, in seven different languages, I am more convinced than ever that I made the right decision, and that I am where God wants me to be. I am home.