“And now our feet are standing within your gates, Jerusalem.” (Psalm 122:2, NAB)
No other verse describes my conversion to Catholicism better than this passage. Although I’ve had the privilege of standing within the literal gates of Jerusalem, I rejoice much more over having the privilege to stand within the gates of the spiritual Jerusalem, the Catholic Church.
Who is Jesus?
I was born into a Christian family and, at the age of two, my family moved to Israel so that my father could work at the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. When I was four, my parents divorced and I moved back to the United States with my mother. I didn’t have much of a spiritual life at this early age; in fact, I remember how happy I was as a seven year old when my mother told me that we weren’t going to have to go to church anymore. My mother converted to Judaism and, shortly after, we moved to Israel for a second time. Though I was a small child and didn’t have any real Jewish convictions, I was expected to perform certain Jewish rituals, especially on the Sabbath, since I was the “man of the house.” During this second time in Israel, I was indoctrinated by the society in which I lived to have a hatred for Jesus. This lasted until I was twelve years old and moved back to the United States to live with my father.
At the time, my father was a non-denominational, charismatic Christian. I began to attend church with him and, by God’s grace, on December 31, 1996, I was baptized in a Trinitarian charismatic church. Finally, my participation in Christ’s Mystical Body began.
For a short period of time, I was interested in God and wanted to follow Him, but this eventually turned into a nominal lifestyle, especially when I became a teenager. By the time I was nineteen, I moved from Louisiana to New York City where I met my wife, Leslie. In New York City, I began to live a profligate lifestyle. After going through an incredibly traumatic experience at the age of twenty-two, I hit rock bottom and began to cry out to God for help.
In God’s mercy, He answered my call. In His providence, He sent two non-denominational Christians to the store in which I worked. I was delighted to learn they were Christians and accepted their offer to attend one of their preaching events that night. At this event, I met a man who converted to Christianity in prison, after killing two men. Thank God for this man; though he sinned greatly by taking the lives of two people, by God’s grace, he saved mine! In a kind and generous gesture, he gave me a study Bible during this event. I recall being so impressed by the fact that someone cared enough about me to give me a Bible that I read it from cover to cover in a little over a month. My life completely changed from that moment, and I’ve never been the same. I began to have a relationship with Christ, and all who knew me saw that I immediately became a completely different person.
Considering Infant Baptism
After nearly a year of being involved in a Bible study on Staten Island, New York, I moved back to Louisiana in 2007 and began to attend a local Southern Baptist church. I began to study the Bible intensely and became convinced of the five points of Calvinism after nearly a year of moving back from New York. After several additional years in the Baptist communion, my wife and I learned that she was pregnant with our first child, so I was forced to study the question of infant baptism.
I considered the fact that in the Old Testament children were brought into God’s covenant by receiving the sign of the covenant, based upon the faith of their fathers. For example, Abraham was justified by faith (Rom 4:3), prior to circumcision, but then he was instructed to give the sign of the covenant, circumcision, to his infant son, Isaac (Gen 17:11-14). This demonstrated that the reception of the sign of God’s covenant does not require faith on the part of the individual who receives the sign, provided they are too young to exercise faith and their parents are part of God’s covenant. Likewise, I realized that since Baptism is the New Covenant version of circumcision (Col 2:11-12), I should not withhold the sign of the covenant from my children, simply because they are incapable of exercising faith. Furthermore, I knew how seriously God reacted when Moses withheld the sign of the covenant from his child (Ex 4:24-26), and for this reason I could not withhold the sign of the covenant from my child if I wanted to be obedient to God.
After becoming convinced of the biblical necessity of infant baptism, especially after listening to a debate between a well-known Presbyterian and Baptist on this very issue, I joined a Presbyterian communion and had my daughter baptized in 2011. At this time, I began to study Church history, especially the early Church Fathers. I was curious to know what happened in all those years before the Reformation. I began to read historical theology and Church history books written by well-respected Protestants. I also devoured Church history lectures that were available on the Internet, particularly the ones by Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Covenant Theological Seminary. As I studied the Fathers of the Church, I became painfully aware that they did not believe some of the fundamental doctrines which triggered the Reformation, but rather believed the Catholic view in regards to these doctrines.
Faith and Works
During this time of study, I learned that the early Church Fathers did not believe in the Protestant doctrine of justification, which meant the Reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, were wrong. The Reformers, such as Luther, believed that justification was a one-time event, which did not actually make the sinner righteous in God’s eyes, Rather it left the sinner as unrighteous and merely considered righteous before God, based upon the merits of Christ. Luther even believed that justification was by faith alone, apart from works. The Catholic view is that the sinner is actually made righteous when he or she is justified, by the grace of God. It also teaches that there are degrees of justification and not simply a one-time event (Council of Trent, Session 6, Canon 24). Furthermore, it teaches that justification is by grace, through faith, but not necessarily faith alone. Initial justification (when a person goes from being unrighteous to righteous) is by faith alone, though it is a living faith that works through love (Gal 5:6). Subsequent justification is by faith and works, though always by God’s grace. Luther believed that when Paul wrote in Romans 3:28 that a sinner is justified “apart from the works of the law” meant that faith alone is the instrumental cause by which a person is justified. However, after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we know that Luther’s understanding of Paul’s use of the term “works of the law” was flawed, in that Paul was referring to Old Testament Mosaic laws, such as circumcision, the Sabbath day, etc. Paul’s use of this phrase did not include good works done by God’s grace after initial justification, as James was referring to when he said that the sinner is not justified by faith alone but by works (Jas 2:24). Thus, James was not contradicting Paul; they simply were dealing with two different issues, Paul with the Law of Moses that was unique to the nation of Israel alone, and James to the good works that are obligatory on all people, everywhere.
As I studied the Church Fathers, they seemed to side with the Catholic view of justification rather than Luther’s view. For example, St. Augustine affirmed the Catholic view of justification when he wrote: “Now, if the wicked man were to be saved by fire on account of his faith only…then faith without works would be sufficient to salvation. But then what the Apostle James said would be false” (Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, chapter 107; NPNF 1, volume III). He further states: “Unintelligent persons, however, with regard to the apostle’s statement: ‘We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law,’ have thought him to mean that faith suffices to a man, even if he lead a bad life, and has no good works” (A Treatise on Grace and Free Will; chapter 18; NPNF 1, volume V).
From this we see that St. Augustine clearly did not agree with Luther’s interpretation of Paul’s view of faith and works. In fact, he explicitly stated that works are meritorious after justification when he wrote: “When St. Paul says, therefore, that man is justified by faith and not by the observance of the law, he does not mean that good works are not necessary or that it is enough to receive and to profess the faith and no more. What he means rather and what he wants us to understand is that man can be justified by faith, even though he has not previously performed any works of the law. For the works of the law are meritorious not before but after justification” (On Faith and Works, chapter 14, 21).
He further states that eternal life itself is a result of good works, not simply faith alone: “Wherefore, even eternal life itself, which is surely the reward of good works, the apostle calls the gift of God…We are to understand, then, that man’s good deserts are themselves the gift of God, so that when these obtain the recompense of eternal life, it is simply grace given for grace. Man, therefore, was thus made upright that, though unable to remain in his uprightness without divine help, he could of his own mere will depart from it” (Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, chapter 107; NPNF 1, volume III).
How Does the Holy Spirit Lead Us Into All Truth?
Quotes like these, among others, can only be explained from a Catholic perspective; they simply don’t fit within a Protestant paradigm of justification. This led me to ask the following questions: Who determines whether a doctrine is heretical or not? How can I know if the early Church was right about justification, the Eucharist, the papacy, the canon of Scripture, etc.? Or if the Protestants were right about these matters? I could not look to Scripture alone to settle the matters since the canon of Scripture itself was one of the matters I was trying to determine: Who has the authority to determine which books belong in the canon? I couldn’t say that the Holy Spirit speaks directly to each Christian on this matter because different Christians have different canons. For example, Catholics follow the Greek translation of the Old Testament made in the late second century B.C., which includes books such as Tobit, Judith, Baruch, Wisdom, Sirach, First and Second Maccabees, and additions to Daniel and Esther. Most Protestants omit these books from the canon. If a person believes the Holy Spirit directly reveals the canon to every Christian, either one has to say that Catholics aren’t Christians or that Protestants aren’t Christians for the same reason. If this approach is taken, one must then ask how they are able to determine who is a Christian. Some might answer, those who believe the gospel, but this is problematic because one must know which books are canonical first before they can judge what is the authentic gospel, especially with all of the false gospels in circulation during the first few centuries of the Church. For this reason, it became obvious that the Holy Spirit does not directly reveal the canon to each believer, but must have established some other reliable means of determining the canon.
I later learned that the Holy Spirit gave us the Apostles and their successors, to lead us into all truth (Jn 16:13), and He guided His Church to determine the Catholic canon through councils such as the Council of Hippo (393 a.d.), the Council of Carthage (397) and the Council of Rome (382), as well as the Ecumenical Councils of Florence (1442) and Trent (1545-1563). As I began to delve into the question of authority and apostolic succession, I also began to ask the question: How does one determine who is in schism? It is stated clearly in Scripture that there is such a thing as schism and that the Church should remain united. With all of the divisions in Christianity, I began to wonder which communions are in schism from the Church established by Christ. These questions also forced me to consider the matter of authority and apostolic succession.
Who Has the authority?
Throughout this time of searching, I was still actively intending to become either a pastor or a priest, and was investing much of my efforts toward this end. In which church could I be confident?
As I studied the issue of apostolic succession in order to be a part of a Christian community with historical pedigree, I began to consider Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy. At that time, Catholicism wasn’t an option, primarily because I was previously indoctrinated with many misunderstandings about Catholicism, which made me extremely anti-Catholic (even going so far as to say the Catholic Church was the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation).
I ruled out Anglicanism after I realized they did not have a magisterium that could definitively determine what is heretical and what is not, who is in schism and who is not. I began to study Eastern Orthodoxy and, reluctantly, Catholicism just so that I could make sure I had looked into all the options. I loved much about Eastern Orthodoxy, and still do, but I realized the fatal flaw of Orthodoxy is also that they do not have a magisterium that can determine what is heretical and what is not. It is true that the Eastern Orthodox believe an ecumenical council can determine such things, but I was not able to find an answer to the question: Who determines what is an ecumenical council, and why haven’t the Orthodox Churches had an ecumenical council since the eight century? I learned later that the reason they are not able to determine what constitutes an ecumenical council, is because it is the Pope who determines such things, and they are not in full-communion with the Bishop of Rome.
As I considered Catholicism, I began to read and listen to Catholics explain their faith. After listening to some lectures by Scott Hahn, especially on the papacy, I became convinced the Catholic magisterium was the answer to all of my questions. The nail in the coffin, so to speak, was when I first properly understood Matthew 16:18-19, in which Jesus gives Peter the keys of the Kingdom. I learned that the concept of the keys of the Kingdom is derived from Isaiah 22:22. In the Old Testament, the king who ruled over the kingdom would appoint a person to bear the keys of his kingdom. This person would have the same authority as the king in his absence. It is similar to the concept of an ambassador. For example, since a president cannot be in more than one place at one time, he may delegate an ambassador to speak for him. So, when Jesus gave Peter the keys of the kingdom, He gave him His authority in His physical absence. Once I understood this, I began to realize that Scriptures like “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk 10:16) and “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:13) were not meant to apply to the Apostles alone, but are applicable even to their successors “to the close of the age” (Matt 28:20).
These ideas were further unlocked through the words of the disciples of the Apostles themselves. Pope St. Clement I, in the late first century — while the Apostle John was still alive — was contacted by the Corinthian church and asked to settle a disputation going on in their community as if it was common knowledge that the Bishop of Rome had universal jurisdiction over all the churches and the authority to settle disputes in these churches. In this epistle to the Corinthians, Pope St. Clement I acknowledges that the Apostles appointed successors in order to govern the Church after their deaths, as he wrote: “Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier….Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry” (Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3). This and other writings from the Church Fathers convinced me that the Catholic magisterium is the one Jesus put in charge after His departure with the authority to determine the canon, which doctrines are heretical, who is in schism, and which councils are true ecumenical councils. I still had many problems with the Catholic Church, but after studying what Catholics believe, my criticisms began to wane one by one.
The Wedding Feast of the Lamb
On the first Sunday of Advent, 2011, I began to attend a local Catholic church and fell in love with the liturgy from my very first Mass. The vestments, the candles, the incense, the Eucharist as a sacrifice — all resonated with me and it became obvious the Mass is the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s temple worship. I was fascinated by the resemblance between what takes place in the Mass and the description of the liturgy in heaven, particularly in the Book of Revelation. The incense (Rev 5:8), vestments (Rev 15:6), lampstands (Rev 1:12), an altar (Rev 6:9), the Sign of the Cross (Rev 7:3), and liturgical chant (Rev 4:8) were all in St. John’s vision of worship in heaven, and are all in the Catholic Mass. I became intrigued with the fact that what I was participating in, though not fully at the time since I was not able to receive the Eucharist, was heaven on earth — a real participation in the worship that takes place in heaven.
I also became fascinated with the Catholic doctrine of redemptive suffering, something that was very important to me with some of the suffering I’ve experienced. I rejoiced to learn that, by virtue of being united to Christ in Baptism, I can offer up my sufferings, in union with Christ’s sufferings, and have a real participation in His crucifixion in order to merit grace for others, as St. Paul said: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24). Additionally, I became fascinated by the fact that the Catholic Church is truly catholic (universal). It has over twenty different rites from all over the world; each with its own way of celebrating the liturgy, yet all in communion with the Bishop of Rome.
Laying Aside My Own Plans
I still had one major problem with entering the Catholic Church. I had spent years preparing for seminary to either become a pastor or priest. Now, if I became a Catholic in a Latin rite parish, because I was already married, I would most likely not be able to become a priest. (Only under certain exceptional circumstances are married men admitted to the priesthood in the Latin rite.) I knew that men in the Eastern Catholic rite could become priests if they were already married, but there weren’t any churches in my area. This essentially meant I had to give up my aspirations. It was not an easy decision to make, but I knew that I could not let my career stand in the way of truth. I knew that the Catholic Church was the Church established by Christ, and “[w]hosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved” (Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, 14). In order to remain faithful to Him who is always faithful — who gave up His own life for me — I decided to enter into full-communion with the Catholic Church, laying aside my own plans for my life and trusting in Him to provide me with a way to support my family.
I began to attend RCIA classes in preparation for my conversion to Catholicism. On Easter Vigil of 2012, I was received into full-communion with the Catholic Church alongside my best friend JC Gaspard and his wife, who were on the same journey as I was. Shortly after my conversion, my wife, who was baptized a Catholic, was confirmed and returned to full-communion with the Church. After her confirmation, my son was born and was baptized in the Catholic Church. About a year after his baptism, JC had a daughter, and it was an honor to be chosen as her godfather. Since my conversion, I have had wonderful opportunities to catechize a number of youth in preparation for their confirmations, teach an adult catechesis class, and serve as altar server and extraordinary minister of Holy Communion in a local parish.
Michael Lofton is a member of a Latin Rite Catholic parish in the Diocese of Alexandria, Louisiana and of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, in full-communion with the Bishop of Rome. He is the author of Working Towards Reunion: A Dialogue Between a Catholic and a Protestant, as well as over a dozen other books on Sacred Scripture, Catholic Theology, and Apologetics. He is married with two children.