Category Archives: becoming Catholic

Teaching the Bible to atheists made me Catholic – Don Johnson


-by Don Johnson

“I clearly remember the moment I became a Christian. I don’t recall how old I was exactly, probably six or seven, but it was a Sunday afternoon and I had been to church that morning. Something about Sunday School must have made an impression on me, because I asked my mother to come to my room to talk to me about getting saved. She graciously led me in a prayer of repentance and faith. As we finished, I felt great joy and relief sweep over me. I knew that I was going to get into heaven because Jesus had died for me.

If you had asked me at the time what it meant to be “saved,” I’m not sure what I would have told you. However, as I think back now to the theology of my youth, several images come to mind. For one, I considered salvation as a type of fire insurance. To avoid hell, make sure you sign on the dotted line by doing whatever the preacher says you need to do (“believe,” “repent,” “have faith,” “give your life to Jesus,” etc.) and then rest easy, knowing that you are covered. Your papers are in order, and when that fateful day arrives, everything will be just fine. In more familial and relational terms, I thought of becoming a child of God as a one-time transaction in which I got a new legal guardian, but one with whom I didn’t get to live. It’s like I was an orphan who got adopted, but then had to stay in the orphanage, even though I was now assigned a new name and even guaranteed an inheritance at some point in the future.

One of the unfortunate consequences of this view was that I lived a rather pathetic spiritual life as a youth. By that I mean I wasn’t really any different from any of the unbelievers I knew. I was enslaved to the same sins, beset by the same character flaws, and guided by the same materialistic priorities as everyone else. I didn’t pursue a life of radical righteousness or intimacy with God because I didn’t think it ultimately mattered. I was going to get to Heaven regardless. God didn’t take into account my sin and worldly ambition; He only saw the “Jesus covering” He had placed on me. I may not actually have been righteous, but God saw me as legally righteous, so everything was all right.

However, as a young adult my view of salvation began to change. I became heavily involved in ministry and started to study the Bible intensely. I was particularly interested in the Gospels and their relationship to the Old Testament. As I dug into Exodus, for example, I saw how it prefigured the entire story of God’s redemption. I became convinced that legal forgiveness is only one part of the equation. God doesn’t just purchase sinners while leaving them essentially unchanged. He doesn’t just take legal guardianship of children and cover their sins. Rather, He creates new children that are in intimate union with Him. God doesn’t just look at a believer “as if” he were a new person; he is actually a new person. The old person is dead, a new person is alive.

This birth is just the start of the Christian life, however. I now saw that salvation is a process by which we strive, by God’s grace, to become ever more like him. It is not simply a legal transaction in the past, but an ongoing journey to be finished and a battle to be won. My theology had been missing these truths. As I now started to understand and live them out, my relationship with God was taken to a much deeper level. It also turned out to be my first step toward the Catholic Church.

I was interacting with many skeptics in those days, and I noticed that their objections to Christianity were often based on the false view of salvation that I had come to reject. My childhood beliefs regarding salvation, and the spiritually weak Christians it produces, are a huge stumbling block. Unbelievers, particularly, simply can’t abide the notion that God doesn’t care what kind of person you are. They can’t understand why God would forgive some people and let them into heaven ahead of those who have lived morally better lives based on something as seemingly capricious and silly as saying a prayer, intellectually assenting to certain propositions, getting confirmed, or jumping through some other seemingly arbitrary hoop. It seems terribly unjust.

As my view of salvation shifted, I found myself agreeing with these atheists. If that view of God’s plan is correct, it is unjust. However, I was now convinced that that view was false. So I started teaching my new theology through my ministry and sharing it with the skeptics. And frankly, most of them were eating it up. The Evangelical churches I was speaking at greatly enjoyed my messages, and I was making good headway with many atheists and agnostics.

But not everyone appreciated my “insights.” I faced objections on two fronts. First, I was taken to task by an individual at one church, who claimed that I was contradicting the official doctrinal statement of his denomination. Frankly, I had never read it, and no one had ever asked me to. However, when I did, I realized that he actually had a case. There, in black and white, was the proposition that salvation was a one-time legal transaction that should be understood as separate from any call to ongoing holy living.

Secondly, the skeptics I was sharing with, while generally receptive to my understanding of salvation, often ended the conversation by saying something like this: “That’s nice, Don, and if God really was how you portray Him, and if His plan of salvation actually did work that way, I might accept it. But that’s just your opinion. The pastor down the street says something different, and I can find any number of Christian leaders who would offer any variety of opinions, and they all use the same Bible you do. Why should I believe your interpretation?” I had to admit they had a point.

In response, I started to dig into church history. Specifically, I started studying the history of various local denominations and the history of the doctrine of justification. That led me directly to the Reformation. Curiously, I had never really studied the Reformation. I had just assumed that it was a righteous movement that restored the Church to its biblical roots. However, as I analyzed what actually had happened, several startling facts jumped out at me, none of which aligned with my presuppositions.

First, the understanding of salvation that I had accepted as a child but now rejected as unbiblical was actually an articulated doctrine of several Reformers. (Today it is often called “forensic justification.”) Indeed, it was a key point of disagreement with Rome and a foundational element of much of Protestantism. It was a shock to me that, in many of my sermons, I was actually attacking one of the cornerstone doctrines of the movement that led to the very churches in which I had been speaking.

So the question naturally arose: Was the doctrine of forensic justification something new with the Reformation, or was it a renewal of the early Church’s teaching? In other words, were the beliefs that I now rejected held by the early Church Fathers — in which case I would have to re-think my stance — or were they developed fresh by the Reformers — in which case I could feel justified in rejecting them.

After extensive research, the answer was clear: the idea of forensic justification was new with the Reformation. Before that, the Church had been unanimous and unwavering in its understanding of salvation as a process whereby Christ’s life makes us new, and we are formed to be like Him. My “new” understanding of salvation, based on my personal interpretation of Scripture, turned out to be simply the historical orthodox teaching of the Catholic Church.

That truth dovetailed nicely with another fact I discovered: the Reformation notion of sola Scriptura was also new, and the crisis of authority that I faced in my evangelism work was its direct result. The idea that the Bible alone should guide us had never been accepted within Christianity before 1517, and its introduction led only to doctrinal chaos. Without an authoritative interpretive guide, people could — and did — teach and believe anything.

As I now realized, Jesus never intended such confusion. That’s why He left us a Church. He didn’t drop a book from the sky and say, “Do your best to find your own way based on your own interpretation.” He appointed Apostles and gave them His authority to lead in His name. I now had an answer to the skeptics who claimed that my theological views were just my opinion: No, my views are simply the teaching of the Church that Jesus founded.

Faced with the beginning of a clear biblical, historical, and philosophical case for the Catholic Church, I started to panic. This was going to cause a huge disruption in my life! But the more I studied, the more reasonable and attractive Catholicism became. I read authors like Scott Hahn and Jeff Cavins. I even enrolled in the MA Theology program at Franciscan University of Steubenville and became enthralled with the writings of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as well as scholars such as Jean Danielou and Louis Bouyer. One by one my various objections were answered.

The last stumbling block was the Sacraments. I had been raised in a very non-liturgical, non-sacramental church culture, and I was having trouble getting comfortable with the idea that God would use matter as a means of grace. However, here again, my study of Scripture and the Reformation, as well as my work with skeptics, was a great help.

First, I realized that the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist had been universally accepted and practiced from the early Church until the Reformation. Its rejection in the 16th century represented something novel in the history of Christianity. If the Reformers were right, it meant that everyone from the very first disciples of the Apostle John had been wrong. That made no sense to me.

Secondly, having already been making the case that the New Testament was the fulfillment of the Old, I applied this interpretative principle to passages such as John 6. What could Jesus possibly have meant, and how would His Jewish followers have understood Him? I began to understand that the Eucharist was the fulfillment of the Passover celebration and those early Christians, who were almost all Jews, would never have understood it after my gnostic manner. They would instead have understood it according to the sacramental worldview they had always held; they would have seen it as the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus.

Finally, my work with skeptics helped me to come to a revelation about the Sacraments. My approach to atheists and agnostics, especially those who tend towards a materialistic view of the world, is to suggest that there might just be more to the world than they’ve been led to believe.

I then asserted that their worldview is reductionist, and that there might be dimensions to reality that they hadn’t really taken into account. By ignoring these, they were missing out on a lot of really good, true and beautiful things that God was offering. Their skeptical worldview was a handicap for them, it was reducing their understanding of reality and constraining them from living life to the fullest.

Then, a question began to arise within my mind. What if there was more to the world than I, too, had been led to believe? What if there were dimensions to reality that I hadn’t taken into account, and that by ignoring them, I had been missing out on a lot of really good, true and beautiful things? What if, I asked myself, not only did Jesus love me and long for me to live a joyful life, but that He had made possible an even more abundant life than I had imagined by offering His very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist? Could it be that my Protestant worldview was equally reductionist and gnostic in a way similar to the atheist viewpoint?

My answer was yes. I realized that I had been guilty of unjustified skepticism towards Catholicism in the same way that unbelievers are unjustifiably skeptical towards Christianity in general. I also realized that I longed for the Eucharist and the intimacy with Jesus that it promised. That was the final piece of the puzzle, and I was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, 2015.”

Love,
Matthew

Questions from friends…


-by Trent Horn

Questions From Friends

When I was considering joining the Catholic Church I sat down with some of my non-Catholic friends to see if they could talk me out of my decision. They were Christians, but they didn’t consider themselves to be “Protestants.” Instead, they called themselves Evangelicals or just “Christ-followers.” Regardless, their response to my decision to become Catholic surprised me.

One of the girls said, “As long as Catholics believe in Jesus then I don’t think it’s a big deal.” Another chimed in, “I mean, we’re never going to know which church is the right church or even if there is such a thing, so why worry?”

That answer didn’t satisfy me so I asked them, “Don’t you wonder if one of the churches that exists today can be traced back to the Church Jesus founded? Don’t you wonder which church Jesus wants us to join?”

The First Christians

My question was met with a collective shrug and a simple recommendation that I just “believe in Jesus,” but that wasn’t good enough for me. How did my Evangelical friends know we only have to believe in Jesus to be saved? What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Do we have to be baptized to believe in Jesus? Do we have to receive Communion? If I stop believing in Jesus will I lose my salvation?

I wanted the answers to these questions so I decided to study what the very first Christians believed. These were the believers who lived just after the apostles. If there was one church I wanted to belong to, it was their church.

In the time of the apostles believers were called “Christians,” but the Church was not called “the Christian Church.” It was simply referred to as “the Church,” as is evident in Luke’s description of what Paul and Barnabas did in the city of Antioch. He said, “For a whole year they met with the Church, and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (Acts 11:26).

A few decades later St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to Christians who lived six hundred miles away, in the coastal city of Smyrna (located in modern Turkey). He said, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

An Old Baby Photo

“How can today’s Catholic Church with all of its traditions and rituals be the same the humble Church we read about in the New Testament?” It’s a good question, but it’s sort of like asking, “How can that fully grown man be the same little boy whose diaper had to be changed decades earlier?” In both cases the body being described grew and developed over time without becoming a different kind of being.

The man, for example, has many things he did not have as a baby (like a beard he needs to shave). But he also has many of the same things he did have as a baby. This includes the same DNA that guides his growth and gives him features like “his father’s nose,” which can be seen in his old baby photos. In the same way, the Catholic Church, which St. Paul calls the Body of Christ (Eph. 5:23), has the same “DNA” as the Church of the first century: the word of God. This word is transmitted both through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and you can see its effect in one of the Church’s “old baby photos.”

One particular “photo” comes from the second century, when St. Justin Martyr wrote about how when Christians gathered to worship, they “offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized person, and for all others in every place.” After that, they “salute one another with a kiss,” the presider at the service takes bread and wine and does the following:

[He] gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen.

Justin’s description corresponds to the prayers of the faithful, the exchange of peace, the offering of bread and wine, and the “great amen” that are still said at Catholic services today. Justin goes on to say that the bread and wine at Mass are not mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but are instead “the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” This doctrine, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is one the Catholic Church still teaches and defends.

Here are some other examples of what the first Christians believed. Can you see the resemblance to what Catholics believe today in these other “baby photos”?

  • Submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ.—St. Ignatius A.D. 110.
  • Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life.—Tertullian, A.D. 203.
  •  The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants.—Origen, A.D. 248.
  • Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner.—St Cyprian, A.D. 251.

Why We Believe: The Catholic Church

  • Jesus established a Church built on the apostles that included a hierarchy, or sacred order, that included deacons, priests, and bishops.
  • Only the Catholic Church can trace its authority back to the apostles and their immediate successors.
  • The Catholic Church has maintained in her current teachings the ancient doctrines of Christ, the apostles, and the early Church.”

Love,
Matthew

Bible study: Acts of the Apostles


-“Saint Paul”, Bartolomeo Montagna, ~1431 AD


-by Casey Chalk

“Ecumenical Bible studies: they are often demonstrations of the best and worst of Christian dialogue. In their most beneficial form, they offer opportunities for members of various Christian traditions, be they Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, or various strands of Evangelicalism, to share their own rich understandings and applications of Biblical literature. Alternatively, they can devolve into unprofitable contests of “name that Scripture verse” to support some particular doctrine — justification by grace through faith alone, Petrine primacy, infant baptism, you name it. A tendency among those Christians eager to “keep the peace” in a setting featuring divergent theological beliefs and practices is to try to find common ground, lowest common denominators, and “non-negotiables.” Such attempts can themselves be profitable, though at times the result is a conversation lacking any theological depth, the participants so frightened of controversy and of offending one another that folks reduce themselves to “this is how this Scripture verse speaks to me” comments. Better than nothing, I suppose, though certainly less than what we are called to do as Christians when approaching Holy Scripture. It’s hard to imagine St. Paul walking into a synagogue in Corinth and declaring in firm confidence to the Jews present: “You may have your own interpretations of the Torah, which may be equally true, but let me tell you what this Scripture means to me!” Is there any way for Christians of different theological stripes to bridge the gap? In this post I will propose an alternative way to read and discuss Scripture that I think offers opportunity for more fruitful exchanges between Christians.

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in ecumenical Bible studies is that individuals from different traditions have certain “voices” speaking to them when they sit down to read Scripture, and it’s not that we are all schizophrenics. What I mean is that no one really sits down to read their Bible in a vacuum, as if one could really isolate their reading in such a way that it was just that person, the Holy Spirit, and the text. Rather, we read Scripture with all manner of unavoidable influences: what others have told us about the text, what we have read others say about the text, what influence the text may have had on our lives (presuming we’ve read it before), what associations we have with certain words or ideas in the text, and so on. Truly, there’s no such thing as “me and my Bible” — it’s me, my middle-school youth group leader, my first “Teen Bible,” the pastor at my church, Christian radio, that course I took in college, what my significant other believes, and on and on.

To take a more doctrinal view, some Protestants will be reading their Bibles in light of doctrines prevalent in mainstream evangelicalism (say, Rick Warren or Philip Yancey), Reformed thought (say, John Piper or R.C. Sproul), or even the “emergent church” movement (think Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz or William P. Young’s The Shack). Catholics, on the other hand, will read their Bibles in light of popular Catholic thinkers like Scott Hahn or Bishop Robert Barron, and probably with various Magisterial teachings from Church councils or papal doctrinal statements floating around in the background, as well. None of these influences, I would argue, can be easily put aside in an ecumenical Bible study, because their mark on our thoughts and practices runs deep. But neither can members of different traditions just accept an opposing position, as if an evangelical would say, “fine, I’ll just put my opinions on hold for the next hour-and-a-half and act as if whatever the Pope says is true.” We do indeed need some “common ground” beyond just picking up the Bible and starting to read it together, and it needs to be more than just some overly-deferential and vapid validation of everyone’s opinions. Since the New Testament, and particularly Paul’s letters, are one of the more popular texts for Bible studies, I want to focus my attention there. In this case, I propose that reading Paul in light of another New Testament text, the Book of Acts, can reap ecumenical dividends.1

Why Acts?

Using Acts as an interpretive “lodestar” can be an effective tool for ecumenical dialogue because it itself is something everyone at the table should already agree on: it’s Scripture! There shouldn’t be any Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox asserting their defiance to the book, as if it represents some subtle means of asserting one’s particular theological tradition over the conversation. In addition to this fairly obvious point, I can identify at least three other good reasons why Acts can be an interpretive lodestar — meaning, just as certain stars in the sky, like Polaris, can serve as a guide the course of a ship, so Acts can serve as a guide or reference point for reading Paul.

The first is that Acts is history, specifically, the history of the early Church during part of the Apostolic age. Generally speaking, reading a history of a particular era shines light on the “primary texts” of that era, helping contextualize and make sense of that historical period. Consider this example: let’s say you want to learn about the American Civil War. There are many great collections of letters, diaries, and memoirs regarding this historical period: Elijah Hunt Rhodes, Sam Watkins, Mary Chestnut, etc. You could certainly pick up one of them and just start reading. But will much of the text make sense to you, especially if you have little knowledge of that period? If your goal is to answer certain broad contextual questions regarding the Civil War, like “what were its causes?,” “who were the most important people?”, “what were the most important events”?, and “how and why did it end?”, these texts will not provide a systematic or thorough answer. Indeed, they weren’t intended to, because they were occasional, meaning written in reaction to a certain occasion. Elijah Hunt Rhodes, an enlisted soldier in the Union Army, didn’t intend his journal to be a history — he was simply recording his own personal experiences. In order to have a history in the modern sense, one needs a book (or books) written by someone who has read scores of primary and secondary sources, interviewed people, and visited important sites. You need a general history.

The Book of Acts is, in a sense, exactly that kind of general history. It is an overview of the major events and themes of the early Church, beginning with Jesus’ ascension into heaven around A.D. 33, and ending when St. Paul was imprisoned in Rome (probably around A.D. 60). Of course, for us as twenty-first century readers, Acts is itself a primary source of information about the early Apostolic Church, but it would not be too much of a stretch to call it a type of “secondary source,” or maybe more accurately a “proto-secondary source.” The author, St. Luke, very explicitly says in the beginning of the Gospel of Luke that his research is a compilation of information based on eyewitness testimony. If we read Acts first, and read Paul’s letters (or any other letters in the New Testament, for that matter), in light of what we know about the Church in Acts, we are sure to reap interpretive rewards.

A second reason to understand Acts as a general history is an argument from literature. Consider this analogy: if you wanted to know about Jane Austen and her literary corpus, reading all of her literature would give you quite a few details about her: her own life, and the major themes and ideas of her writing. But it would still be incomplete, because reading Austen’s work doesn’t tell you a lot of important things about her, information that would illuminate much of her books. If you were to read other works by authors who have done research on Austen, or who have sought to compile a biography of her life, you would be able to grasp more fully what she is trying to accomplish in Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility.

St. Paul’s letters are themselves a genre of literature, what scholars often call epistles, a type of formal letter. If you want to understand St. Paul, his life, the themes and doctrines that defined his theological understanding, you could read only the thirteen letters ascribed to him. Yet this would be woefully incomplete, especially given that the Book of Acts contains so many details about his life and teachings. Indeed, in addition to his conversion story (related three separate times!) and his missionary activity, Acts features several sermons of St. Paul, giving an additional important aspect to interpreting his teaching. Moreover, St. Paul is the main character of the second half of Acts, so much so that he is mentioned 131 times in the entire book. If you know Acts, you will better know St. Paul.

Finally and somewhat obviously is the organization of the New Testament itself. One may know that the books of New Testament are not listed in chronological order. In chronological order, the first book of the New Testament would likely be the Gospels of Matthew or Mark, or possibly Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Then would be most of Paul’s epistles, followed by the Gospel of Luke, then Acts, possibly some more epistles, and finally the Gospel of John and Revelation. Yet in our our Bibles, we have Acts coming right after the Gospels, before any of Paul’s epistles, the other epistles, or Revelation. Why?

Remember that the New Testament canon did not arrive in the early Church overnight, nor was it easily agreed upon by all Christians. The books of the New Testament were written over a period of around 50 or 60 years, and many churches didn’t have access to all of those books for centuries. The earliest lists of New Testament books we have are from the latter half of the second century A.D. — this includes the Muratorian Canon and a list provided by St. Irenaeus of Lyon. No body of Christians (at least that we know of in the historical record) weighed in on an authoritative list of the New Testament until the four century. When these councils did vote on the content of the New Testament, they placed Acts directly after the four Gospels. This seems to have been a reasonable decision, given that the Gospels tell the life of Jesus and His Apostles up through the resurrection and ascension, and Acts picks up the story from the ascension. Possibly a bit more curiously, these Church councils separated Acts from the Gospel of Luke, which most scholars recognize was written by the same author, given the similarity of language and themes. In between the two books the councils placed the last of the Gospels, John, written almost certainly last, and also almost certainly after Acts. Why do this? Possibly because the council wanted to declare to readers: “first, know the story of Jesus; then,, know the story of the early Church; and once you know those stories, know the epistles of Paul and others.” Acts appears where it does in the New Testament because the Church in the fourth century believed it important for people to read it before reading St. Paul’s own works.

A Few Questions to Explore

I’d like to briefly move from theory to application. Bible studies often feed upon group questions for discussion. I’ll propose a few here, with the overarching theme of asking what happens if one reads St. Paul’s letters (or other Apostolic letters, for that matter) in light of Acts. I’ll also offer a few of my own reflections as I’ve sought to read St. Paul using Acts as my lodestar.

Question 1: What were the most important issues facing the early Church as recorded in the Book of Acts? Once you’ve named two or three, consider how those issues are addressed in St. Paul’s letters.

I would argue that apart from the persecution of Christians by Jewish and Roman authorities, the most pressing question facing the early Church was this: who is in the Church, and what do they have to do to be part of it? More specifically, is the Church only for Jews? If Gentiles are allowed in, do they in any sense have to become Jews? Note that the first recorded conflict in the early Church is between Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking Jews over the distribution of food to widows from their respective communities (Acts 6:1). This cultural-linguistic division becomes more pronounced when some Church leaders start sharing the Gospel with non-Jews, including an Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40), and a Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10: 1-48). Moreover, the centurion’s conversion is so controversial that when St. Peter returns to the Church in Jerusalem he is forced to defend himself against certain Jewish Christians (called “the circumcision party”), who question the decision to baptize a Roman pagan. This conflict becomes an overwhelming tidal wave by Acts 15, when certain Christian men assert that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

The greatest controversy within the early Church seems to localize on this particular question: do Gentiles who convert to Christianity need to become Jews by being circumcised and accepting Jewish dietary laws? The Church determines in Acts 15 that no, they do not, but the question continues to dog the Church: St. Paul tells us in Galatians 2:11-21 that St. Peter, coming under the influence of the same “circumcision party,” had separated himself from Gentile believers in Antioch, for which St. Paul publicly reprimanded him. This is actually the only mention we have within the New Testament of one Apostle publicly rebuking another.

What I’ve described above suggests that this was the predominant controversy of the early Church, encompassing the entirety of the historical period during which St. Paul’s letters were written. We should thus ask ourselves how the issues cited in the Pauline epistles (including his discussion of “faith v. works”) appear when viewed as part of this particular conflict over the status of Gentile Christians.2

Question 2: How did the Apostles pursue evangelism toward Jews and Gentiles in the days of the early Church? What was necessary to become a Christian? Do we see those priorities identified in St. Paul’s letters? Is there continuity or discontinuity in St. Paul in comparison to Acts?

St. Peter gives the first sermon of the early Church, recorded in the second chapter of Acts. When his audience asks him what is necessary for them to be saved, his response is that they repent, be baptized, and “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The theme of baptism is consistent throughout the conversion stories of the early Church, repeated in Acts 8:13, 38-40; 10:44-48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; and 19:5, among others. Baptism, it would appear, is an essential feature of the missionary efforts of the Church. Moreover, baptism seems to be intimately united to the gift of the Holy Spirit, as if the sacrament in some sense actually serves as the mode by which new Christians receive the third person of the Trinity. Baptism also plays a dominant role in St. Paul’s theology, and is often united to discussion of the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5, 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 1:17, 6:11, 10:2; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 2:5-6, 5:26; Colossians 2:11-12; Titus 3:5-7, etc.).

Question 3: What is the Church according to Acts? How does the Church resolve crises and conflicts? How does that compare to what St. Paul says about the Church?

The Apostles, unsurprisingly, are central to the leadership of the early Church. Indeed, Acts is largely a story of just a few key leaders: St. Peter, St. John, St. James, and St. Paul. St. Peter and St. Paul loom the largest. As noted above, the debate over the place of Gentiles within the nascent Church seems to reach its apex in Acts 15, when we read that “the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6). This is in a sense the very first council of the Church, with the most important leaders, including St. Peter and St. Paul, present. Indeed, it is St. Peter who seems to give the “keynote address,” while St. James confirms St. Peter’s judgment. The council, apparently representing “the whole Church,” then sends a letter to the church in Antioch with its determination and various commands, while apparently claiming to act with the authority of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28).

The role of the Church is also central to St. Paul’s letters, emphasizing the importance of its unity (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; Ephesians 4:1-6), its holiness (1 Corinthians 6:1, 16:1; Ephesians 5:25-27), its universality or catholicity (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 3:8-10), and its apostolicity (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Timothy 3:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:2). Indeed, St. Paul’s ecclesiology is so high, he declares the household of God, the “church of the living God,” to be the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).3

Conclusion

Disagreements between Protestants, Catholics, and other Christian communions over the interpretation of Scripture are inevitable. In settings like Bible studies, however, we too often try to gloss over the differences as if they weren’t there, or as if discussing them will weaken our fellowship. This only needs to be the case if we aren’t capable of respectfully listening to and considering an interpretation or belief different from our own, or of communicating our own position with humility and charity. Yet through prayer and the aid of the Holy Spirit, we can overcome our own weaknesses, and find far richer ecumenical dialogue in the process. Reading the letters of the New Testament through the lens of Acts presents one opportunity for such conversation. We will likely disagree over such issues as the role of faith and works in salvation, or the how and when of baptism, or the exact nature of Church authority. Yet rather than returning to our usual mode of defensive apologetics or proof-texting, we might all benefit from a careful study of Paul in the context of Acts. We might be surprised what we find.”

Love, & Christian charity,
Matthew

1. I am indebted here to Fr. Sebastian Carnazzo, a professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College, who provided this methodology in his New Testament course.
2. Helpful analysis of this question can be found in N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997) and N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
3. Taylor R. Marshall, The Catholic Perspective on Paul (Dallas, TX: Saint John Press, 2010), 35-46.

Catholicism is true – Casey Phillips


Casey Phillips

“What would convince a Jesus-loving, hymn-singing, Baptist preacher’s son to become a Catholic? This is a question that many have had for me over the past couple of years, whether they have worded it quite as succinctly or not. Why would someone with such a vibrant faith, rooted in a rich, solid family tradition, walk away from it and leap into the arms of the Church of Rome? Though many have probably speculated, citing history, art, or unity, they all fall short of the true reason that my wife and I made the journey across the River Tiber. As the famous Catholic convert, G.K. Chesterton, once put it, “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.” Though it may seem simplistic, it all boils down to that. Catholicism, when taken seriously and studied critically, simply cannot be denied.

My journey began in a small, rural Baptist church in western Kentucky. My wife’s began as a member of one of the largest Baptist churches in the state. Though from different church climates, both of us grew up alongside caring, God-fearing people who loved the Lord and wanted nothing more than to serve Him. We both were taught about the atoning death of Christ, the reality and impact of our sin, and the importance of Scripture. We were inspired to live lives totally entrusted to God’s love, and though we often took that mission for granted, the impact of that message remained with us throughout our formative years. The Baptist church was the only thing I knew as a child. We would often pass by the Methodist church downtown, but there was always an unspoken understanding that the Baptist tradition was the correct one. As far as Catholicism was concerned, my exposure to it, and that of my family, was non-existent. A thick shroud surrounded the term Catholicism, and none of us knew enough about it to commend or condemn it. Was it a Christian church? We weren’t exactly sure, but we also did not see any real necessity to investigate further. In short, the Baptist church was the only filter through which we understood the Christian Faith and our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lunchroom Preacher

As a young child, I fondly remember going to our local Baptist church with my entire family and participating fully in each service. As I moved into adulthood, I was asked to be the song leader as well as the Sunday school secretary, charged with recording each morning’s attendance, Bible reading participation, and offering. This active participation in my church community bled over into how I acted at school among my peers. I was the “lunchroom preacher” who called my peers to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. I recall one occasion when I attended a party, very much out of my character, after graduation. Upon my arrival with a friend, and greeting many familiar faces from school, one of my peers retorted: “Casey, what are you doing here? It’s like Jesus is here!” To those around me, my identity was inextricably linked to the faith that I proclaimed. I was not ashamed to stand up for what I believed, and I often did so with vigor. In one instance, of which I am not particularly proud, I made a girl my age cry after expressing to her my dislike for the less than laudable activities that she and some of her friends had planned for Easter weekend. For better or for worse, I was type cast as the “Jesus Freak” among my friends, and I had no intention of rejecting that title.

As I matured, I began to have troubles of my own, and my relationship with Christ was challenged. I had private struggles which no one knew about, that threatened to destroy the image that I had made for myself. At the very least, the perception that others had of me kept me from outwardly manifesting my innermost vices. This tug of war between who I claimed to be and who I was behind closed doors persisted and drove me to question my own justification before God. How could I sincerely call myself a follower of Christ and knowingly persist in the sinful ways from which He had died to redeem me? Many days I would return home from church, a cold sweat on my back, in fear that I had somehow lost the salvation which God had given to me at age fourteen. As a Baptist, I believed that God, once He justified or “saved” someone, kept him or her in His graces regardless of whatever sin he or she may have committed. Known as the doctrine of “once saved always saved,” this teaching was ordinarily a source of great solace for me. No matter how blinded I became of my sin, no matter how far I wandered away from my Creator, He persisted in holding me tightly in His clutches. Throughout high school, this doctrine was enough to keep me from completely questioning what I believed to be true. As many others have experienced, it was not until my undergraduate years that I was forced to make a decision about what I ought to believe about God. An encounter with other people who believed differently than me about eternal salvation, but who at the same time were God-fearing Christians, sought to frustrate my understanding of who God is and what He wanted from me.

Discovering That Not All Christians Are Baptist

Yes, it was during college, that proverbial hotbed of rebellion and dissension, when I was faced squarely with the fact that I may have had it wrong on at least one aspect of the divine. It was impossible for me to persist, as I had been doing up to that point, in the sinful acts that had begun during my high school years. This realization did not happen overnight, however, and it took me delving even deeper into sin before I experienced any real awakening. An addiction to pornography had ravaged my interior life with God, not to mention the serious relationship that I had with my fiancée (now my wife). This addiction, which had started when I was a pre-teen and which subsequently worsened when I became a young adult, forced me even deeper into the role of a faux Christian. But wasn’t my salvation secure? Was I not justified before God regardless of my sinful actions? My ruminations on the Baptist doctrine of “once saved always saved” grew longer and more intense. I continually sought to cool my burning conscience through watching and listening to different Protestant pastors or apologists who also promulgated this doctrine. Though they seemed to answer my questions for a time, I always ended up back online, searching the web for answers. The justifications that I had previously used for my actions had all failed to convince me that what I was doing was morally benign. It was through this struggle with sin that I was brought to the realization that I could not continue in it and legitimately call myself a Christian. Through God’s grace, I eventually stopped justifying my actions, became honest with myself about their malignancy in my life, and started the arduous trek toward walking uprightly with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Though I was still far from becoming Catholic, I began to seriously doubt the legitimacy of certain doctrines with which I had been raised. Specifically, I began to no longer believe that once God “saved” or justified someone, he or she could no longer be found outside of His fold. I realized that this man-made tradition of “once saved always saved” had been the source of all the stress and anxiety that I had endured over the last 10 years of my life. The biblical truth was that I needed to continue following Christ and guarding my relationship with Him, lest I be cut off from His grace (see Romans 11:22).

At the same time that I was coming to an awakening in my faith, I was double majoring in Spanish and religion as an undergraduate student. As I studied religion, with a focus in biblical studies, I began to see the divergence of beliefs between people who called themselves Christian. The professors who made up the religion department were themselves a testament to this fact; I took a class on Judaism with a Lutheran, a class on Augustine with a former Baptist, and advanced Old Testament with an Episcopalian priest. The culture of the college campus also lent itself to a broad range of belief and practice, some not even Christian. As I studied church history and the Bible, I began to discover that my understanding of the Christian religion, as described within the boundaries of conservative Evangelicalism, was somewhat limited, and that it could not be the only legitimate understanding of what Christianity is or should be.

As time progressed and my receptivity of other views increased, I was asked to serve as a teaching assistant under an Episcopalian professor. Noticing my progression away from my Baptist moorings, this professor would casually assert, jestingly, the superiority of the Episcopalian faith. During one specific exchange, he conveyed to me what he thought to be the benefit or advantage of being an Episcopalian. “Look,” he had said, “you don’t want to be Catholic because that is going too far. As an Episcopalian, you can be as Catholic or as Protestant as you want to be.” Though he did not know it at the time, that statement stuck with me until I eventually came home to the Catholic Church. It was not until much later that I found out that this view, known as the via media, was one that confronted other, more notable converts like Blessed John Henry Newman. Though my professor was a sincere, faith-filled individual, I could not begin to imagine having it “my way” when it came to eternal truths. Can I lose my salvation or not? Is the Eucharist truly the Body and Blood of Christ or merely a symbol? Must I confess my sins to a priest or not? I wanted the truth on these topics, as well as many others, and I did not wish to be the arbiter of divine revelation. Little did I know that the answers to these questions would be found in the Catholic Church.

At the same time that I was discovering the multiplicity of Christian belief, I had a Spanish professor who was one of the most outspoken people I have ever met, and he was unapologetically Catholic. Up until this point of my journey, I had never encountered anyone who was a practicing, sincere Catholic. In fact, when I first found out that this professor was Catholic, I remember being somewhat shocked. You mean Catholicism and Christianity are related somehow? At no point did this professor seek to evangelize or proselytize me during my four years of undergraduate work, but he did live his faith. No power or institution, not even the very institution for which he worked, could stand in the way of his ability to genuinely live his faith in everyday life. It was via his witness, and that of other Catholics that I met during this time, that I began to incorporate Catholicism into the panorama of Christian views that I considered to be legitimate. This move, though I did not recognize it at the time, would be my first step into the River Tiber, on my way to the Eternal City.

Amidst all of this spiritual awakening, God gifted me with a spouse who would prove vitally important to the direction of my faith journey. On July 28, 2012, the summer before our senior year of college, I exchanged vows with the woman who would become the mother of my children. Our wedding took place in a small country church just outside of Lexington, Kentucky, presided over by a very close friend with whom I had worked previously in a small startup church back in my home town. Marrying Erin was the best decision I had made up to this point in my life, outside of following our Lord. Though we would see our ups and downs, she would prove to be the rock I would lean on along the rough road we followed on our journey of faith.

My journey during college can only be described as an awakening. Transitioning from a fundamentalist, Missionary Baptist understanding to one which appreciated the beauty of many different Christian traditions was the first step toward my eventual conversion to the Catholic Church. Through an intense struggle with the Protestant doctrine of “once saved always saved,” I was convinced that I had erred in my understanding of how God redeems and heals His children. I vividly remember, toward the end of my undergraduate work, clutching an application to Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky and feeling unable to complete it. The application asked me to describe my relationship with Christ up to that point in my faith journey. How could I reveal all that I had gone through? Would they accept my application if I was truthful? I wasn’t even sure where I stood on my justified state before God, so undertaking a masters degree in theology seemed irresponsible. With the help of my wife, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Spanish rather than undertaking the life of a Protestant seminarian. Though I could not see it at the time, and I often entertained doubts about my decision, the Lord was preparing my heart to receive something that I would have otherwise rejected out of hand. If I had gone to that seminary, who knows if I ever would have become Catholic?

What Is This Thing Called Catholicism?

After college, my wife and I moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where I completed the master’s degree in teaching Spanish. Resolving not to go to seminary was a difficult move, but I felt it was the only honest one to make. I was still struggling with what to believe as a Christian. After our move, my wife and I attended the church where she was raised, Southland Christian Church. Southland, the second largest church in the state of Kentucky, holds a very special place in my heart. Though it seemed at least ten times larger than the church I was raised in, Southland’s mission to serve others as the hands and feet of Christ left an impact on me. These people loved Jesus and loved each other in a way that I had not seen before.

For the first few months after our move, we attended Southland regularly, often accompanied by my mother-in-law. All seemed well, and from the outside it must have seemed like the perfect scenario. But my wife and I still felt as though something was missing. Was worship truly supposed to be about entertaining sermons, loud music, and strobe lights? Our hearts longed for something different, but we didn’t know what we were looking for. Though we had not considered it seriously before that point, we decided to go to Mass at the local Catholic cathedral. Both of us were nervous as we entered the cathedral and found a seat. “What if they smell the Protestant on us, Erin?” I asked semi-jokingly. We had been to Mass a couple of times before, but neither time were we fully engaged or remotely tuned into what was happening there. This time, however, we were very aware of our surroundings. When the people next to us stood, we stood, and when they knelt, we knelt. How very strange this experience was for someone who had grown up in a church where sitting throughout the service was the norm, and the only time the congregation spoke was to sing a hymn or offer an occasional “amen.” These people seemed like robots, chanting after the priest, who led them in these odd rituals. Though the Mass did not make sense to us at the time, it piqued our curiosity and set us on a course to investigate this “Catholic thing.”

Our investigation centered at first on the conversion stories of other Protestants turned Catholic. The Journey Home program on EWTN (the Eternal Word Television Network) I had long been familiar with. I had begun watching it while I was still in college. Looking back, I cannot remember what my initial motivation was for watching it as a college student, because I was at that time not considering Catholicism, but the episodes took on a new meaning to me once I began considering the Catholic Church seriously. Story after story, I found myself being drawn into the lives of many people, like myself, who had searched for answers and finally had found them in the Church of Rome. “Why couldn’t that be us?” I often pondered. Programs like The Journey Home provided my wife and me with a safe way to engage with Catholicism without the threat of being “found out.”

Books, like Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic by David Currie, also played a role in breaking down barriers between myself and becoming Catholic. I remember becoming excited and re-reading portions of the book to my wife at night. Also, Bishop Robert Barron’s video series “Catholicism” played a major role in our eventual conversion. Displaying the Church in all her beauty and universality opened my eyes to the incredible breadth of Catholicism. Truth after truth emerged before my eyes. Catholics actually had good reasons for their beliefs! I found out that the Catholic Church has taught about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist since the earliest days of Christianity, that Jesus established a hierarchical order to safeguard the Church, and that Peter was truly the first pope. These revelations, along with many others, swept over me like a tidal wave.

Of these revelations, one of the most exciting to discover, and at the same time the scariest, was the Church’s teaching on justification. I was relieved to find that the Church did not teach the doctrine of “once saved always saved,” but I was also concerned about what that might imply. I quickly found out that the Church taught that a Christian can, after initially being justified by God, sin against Him in such a way as to sever the relationship with his or her Creator. As with all things that the Catholic Church teaches, there is scriptural support for the assertions she makes. I remember looking to verses such as 1 John 5:16 and seeing the differentiation between sin that leads to death and sin that does not lead to death (mortal and venial sin). I also learned that priests were given the authority by Christ to forgive my sins and to restore the life of grace that is lost through my disobedience (John 20:23). As a Baptist, I had been taught that no sin could separate me from my life in Christ, and yet the Bible clearly showed me otherwise. The truth had been hiding in the very book that I carried back and forth to the Baptist church of my youth. Answers were coming, and I welcomed them.

As our objections to the Catholic Church continued to fall, the ominous realization that we needed to become Catholic became something we could not “shelve” or mentally evade any longer. When Erin and I both concluded that Rome was our destination, we took the next step in our journey and joined adult faith formation classes. Having intellectually grappled with the Church for months on our own, we decided to stop by our local cathedral parish to pray. Though we were seated several pews away from one another, we both began to sob as we prayed. It was as if the Lord was saying, “Enough waiting, come follow me.” Though our intellectual battle had not completely ended, it was safe to say that our hearts had “caught up.” So we joined RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), formed wonderful relationships with faithful Catholics and aspiring converts, and finally arrived at our confirmation day. On February 23, 2014, filled with joy and anticipation, my wife and I were sealed with sacred chrism and graced by the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the Son of God Himself. The finish line then became the starting gate as we entered fully into the life of the Church — the Church that Jesus Christ Himself had established on St. Peter some 2,000 years ago.

Proclaiming the Invitation to the Feast

In Luke 14, Jesus tells the story of a master who sends his servants out to gather people for a great feast at his home. After many of society’s prominent figures had rejected the master’s call, in verse 23 the master commands the servants to go out into the highways and byways and bring in anyone who will come to the feast. I definitely feel that I am one of those who has been graced by the master’s call to the peripheries, that I must respond by going out to those in need. I am now the leader of a local chapter of St. Paul Street Evangelization, an apostolate which seeks to take the truth of the Church to the streets, to those who have not heard it before or who had rejected it at some time in the past. The reality is that the Church needs voices to proclaim the good news of Christ and His Church. God can use the most unlikely avenues, as He did in my story, to convert souls.

In the past two years, since being received into the Church, my family has seen the moving of the Holy Spirit in a mighty way. Since our Confirmation, my sister has become Catholic, my mother-in-law was received into the Church on Christ the King Sunday of 2015, and my grandmother was confirmed during the Easter Vigil this year. The Lord truly is good, His love truly does endure forever, and His faithfulness endures through all generations (Psalm 100:5).”

Love,
Matthew

The search for truth – Jennifer Fulwiler

Jennifer Fulwiler is a former atheist who was born and raised with the natural materialist worldview that says, “If you can see it and touch it, then it is real.” Influenced by her atheist father, who told her, “Seek truth and do not believe assumptions,” from early childhood she sought answers to her many questions that eventually brought her to an unexpected destination.


-by Jennifer Fulwiler

“One thing I could never get on the same page with my fellow atheists about was the idea of meaning. The other atheists I knew seemed to feel like life was full of purpose despite the fact that we’re all nothing more than chemical reactions. I could never get there. In fact, I thought that whole line of thinking was unscientific, and more than a little intellectually dishonest. If everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it’s all destined to be extinguished at death. And considering that the entire span of homo sapiens’ existence on earth wouldn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen of a 5-billion-year-old universe, it seemed silly to pretend like the 60-odd-year life of some random organism on one of trillions of planets was something special. (I was a blast at parties.)

By simply living my life, I felt like I was living a lie. I acknowledged the truth that life was meaningless, and yet I kept acting as if my own life had meaning, as if all the hope and love and joy I’d experienced was something real, something more than a mirage produced by the chemicals in my brain. Suicide had crossed my mind — not because I was depressed in the common sense of the word, simply because it seemed like it was nothing more than speeding up the inevitable. A life multiplied by zero yields the same result, no matter when you do it.

Not knowing what else to do, I followed the well-worn path of people who are trying to run from something that haunts them: I worked too much. I drank too much. I was emotionally fragile. Many of my relationships with other people were toxic. I wrapped myself in a cocoon of distractions, trying to pretend like I didn’t know what I knew.

A Guy Named Joe

A year after I graduated from college, I met a guy at work named Joe. I was so impressed with him but I didn’t think I had much of a chance. He’d grown up poor, raised by a single mother, and had gone on to get degrees from Yale, Columbia, and Stanford. People who knew him said he was one of the smartest people they’d ever met. So when we began dating, I was thrilled. Our life together turned out to be even better than I could have imagined: We traveled the world on whims, ate at the finest restaurants, flew first class, and threw epic parties on the roof of his loft downtown. On top of that, both of our careers were taking off, so our future held only more money and more success.

We were a perfect couple. The only thing we didn’t see the same way was the issue of religion. A few months after we started dating, it came out that Joe not only believed in God, but considered himself a Christian. I did not understand how someone who was perfectly capable of rational thought could believe in fairy tale stories like those of Christianity. Did he believe in Santa Claus too?

It didn’t cause any problems between us, though, since we had the same basic moral code: he didn’t practice this bizarre faith of his in any noticeable way, and, mainly, I did not want to think about it. At all. Whenever the subject of God came up, something deep within me recoiled. Not that I had any problem demolishing silly theist ideas — it had been something of a hobby back in college — but the subject took me too close to that thing I was trying to forget. I had constructed my entire life around not thinking about it, so I never articulated what it was. It had been so buried by the parties and the socializing and the breathless running from place to place that it was no longer a specific concept, just some dark, cold amorphous knowledge I needed to avoid.

Joe and I married in a theater in 2003, reciting vows we wrote ourselves, with me wearing a dark purple dress. The plan was that marriage would be just a stepping stone along the path we were already on. But then I discovered I was pregnant, and everything changed.

Motherhood Turns My Life Upside Down

Motherhood caught me completely off guard. I’d grown up as an only child in a culture where nobody I knew had more than two kids living at home. I never had a friend whose mom had a baby during the time of our friendship. And considering that I’d never wanted kids and had some minor medical issues that made me think I probably couldn’t have them anyway, I was utterly unprepared for motherhood. The physical, mental, and emotional changes I went through after the birth of my son were a hard blow, like a punch to the head that comes out of the blue, and it left me reeling.

This cataclysmic event unearthed all those old thoughts about meaninglessness, and this time there was no re-burying them. Now that I had a child, it felt like my life had more meaning than ever. The dark-haired, blue-eyed baby felt so valuable; my own life was flooded with hope and joy at his presence. But with none of the usual distractions in place, the facts of the matter now descended upon me: There was nothing transcendent about my son’s life, my life, or any of the love I felt for him. He was destined for the same fate as the rest of us, to have his entire existence erased upon his inevitable death.

For weeks, I hardly got out of bed. Some combination of severe sleep deprivation and more severe depression left me almost catatonic. But then one morning, as I looked at the baby in the pre-dawn light that filtered in through the window, I felt something new within me. It was something that was not despair, some unfamiliar yet welcome feeling. I peeled back the layers to find that it was doubt: Doubt of my purely materialist worldview, doubt of the truth I had believed since childhood that there is nothing transcendent about the human life.

I considered that in almost every single time and place throughout human history, people have believed in some kind of spiritual realm. Almost every human society we know of has shared the belief that there is more to life than meets the eye, that what transpires here in the material world somehow reverberates into the eternal. Previously I had assumed that the vast majority of the billions of people who had ever lived were all simply ignorant; now I wondered if maybe I was the one who was missing something.

My First Christian Book

A few months later, I stumbled across a Christian book. I’d never been in the Religion section of a bookstore, let alone read anything about Christianity. I’d only picked up this book because the author claimed to be a former atheist, and I was curious to see what level of fraud he was. After flipping through the first few pages, I was surprised to find that I believed that he had been an atheist. I read a few more pages, and found his writing to be clear and basically reasonable. Obviously he’d come to the wrong conclusions, but I could respect the fact that he at least attempted to reason his way into his current belief system, rather than basing it on some emotional experience. I found that I couldn’t put the book down, and ended up buying it (loudly noting to the cashier that it was a gift for a friend).

A quick internet search showed that the book was widely scorned by atheists, and some of their counter-points to the author’s arguments were good. But it was simply not true to say that there was nothing compelling about it. For example, the book pointed out that thousands of Jewish people abandoned the sacred practices that had sustained them through centuries, through all types of persecution, in the years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Almost all of Jesus’ original followers went to their death rather than recant their statements that they’d seen Him rise from the dead. Christianity spread like wildfire in the early centuries, despite the fact that becoming a Christian often meant persecution or even death.

I had never seen Jesus as anything other than a silly fairy tale figure whom people called upon to give a divine thumbs-up to self-serving beliefs, but now I was intrigued by the man as a historical figure. Something happened in first-century Palestine, something so big that it still sends shockwaves down to the present day. And it all centered around the figure of Jesus Christ. As Joe once pointed out when I asked him why he considered himself a Christian, Christianity is the only one of all the major world religions to be founded by a guy who claimed to be God. That’s an easy claim to disprove if it’s not true.

One afternoon, shortly after I finished the book, I was caught off guard by a thought: What if it’s true?

What if there were a God? What if He chose to enter history as a human being? It was the most shattering thought that had ever crossed my mind. Never once in my life, not even as a child, had I considered that a personal God might exist, or that there could be even a shred of truth to any of Christianity’s supernatural claims. I quickly came to my senses and admonished myself to stop this silliness. Part of me wondered if I was losing my mind — what else could explain such a thought?

I wanted to forget all about this embarrassing little incident … but I couldn’t. Some strange feeling had risen up within me, that wouldn’t let me walk away from this subject. I figured that it must be simple curiosity. All I needed to do was read a bit more about Christianity, then when I was overwhelmed with the obvious flaws in its theology, I could move on.

Plunging Into the Deep End of the Pool

I bought another Christian book, this one called Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Unfortunately, this was not going to help me extricate myself from this religion.

Lewis was reasonable and obviously intelligent. His book was one of the most clear, well-written things I’d read in a long time. I was particularly captivated by his case for the Natural Law, in which he proposed that God is the source of all that we call “good,” which is why people in all times and places have had the same basic ideas about what is good and what is bad. My curiosity piqued, I then read excerpts online from the great Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas. I began to think that this religion was not opposed to reason at all — in fact, some of the most intelligent, reasonable people in history were Christians.

I finally caved in and bought a Bible, the first I’d ever owned. Not knowing how else to approach it, I started reading at page one. I was alternately baffled and horrified by what I read in the first few hundred pages. Joe encouraged me to read the second part of the book, called the New Testament, since that is where Jesus comes into the picture. That didn’t help. There was no clear call to action, like, “If you like what you’ve read here and would like to become a Christian, here’s what you do.” I had no idea how to interpret most of the passages, and it seemed like no one else did either. When I would search online for whether or not the Bible said abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, etc. were right or wrong, I encountered as many different answers as there were people, with each person citing Bible verses to back up his or her personal view. Similarly, I had no idea which church to go to if I wanted to ask someone questions in person: In my community there was everything from Church of Christ to Jehovah’s Witnesses to conservative Baptist to liberal Anglican churches, each one claiming to be based on the Bible, yet they all taught drastically different things about what constitutes sin.

This was a huge problem. If God is all that is good, then to define what is bad — in other words, sin — is to define the very boundaries of God Himself. It was nonsensical to suggest that His religion would be confused on that issue.

I’d found what I was looking for: the flaw that showed that Christianity didn’t make sense. It was time to move on.

What’s This with the Catholic Intellectuals?

Shortly after I came to this realization, someone I’d encountered online made a crazy suggestion: he said that I’d been approaching the whole thing from a very modern and distinctly American perspective, that the traditional understanding of Christianity is totally different. He suggested that Jesus founded just one Church before He left the earth, and that He instilled it with supernatural power so that it would accurately articulate the truth about what is good — and therefore about what is God — for all times and places. As if that weren’t crazy enough, he was talking about the Catholic Church!

Joe and I both balked. Joe said that Catholicism wasn’t real Christianity, and I knew that the Church was an archaic, oppressive, sexist institution. Besides, this idea of supernaturally-empowered people was just silly.

However, I did notice something: almost all the people who had impressed me with their ability to defend their faith through reason alone, both famous authors and people online, were Catholic. In fact, the more I paid attention, the more I saw that the Catholic intellectual tradition was one of the greatest in the world. I began reading books by Catholic authors; not that I was really interested in Catholicism, I told myself — I was just looking for something good to read. But I couldn’t help but admit that these people seemed to possess an understanding of the world and the human experience that I’d never encountered before. They had the same solid grasp on science and the material world as the atheists, but also possessed a knowledge of the movements of the human soul that resonated as true down to the core of my being.

I wasn’t sure what to make of all this Catholic stuff, and still vehemently disagreed with the Church on some of its crazier ideas, like its opposition to abortion and contraception. But I had to admit that the more I read about Catholic theology, the more sane it seemed.

I also began to think that it was more likely than not that God does exist, and that if the Christians weren’t entirely right, they were at least close with their understanding of Him. But why, then, had I had no experience of Him? Not that this was a requirement for me to believe, but it just seemed like if there were a God out there and He cared about me, I would sense His presence in some way.

I’d been under a lot of stress between having a new baby and some money problems we were experiencing, plus I’d developed a severe pain in my leg that was almost debilitating. All along I’d prided myself on saying that I would never convert based on emotional experience, that I only needed facts, not feelings. But now it was getting old. It was hurtful to think that God might be out there but just withholding comfort from me. I was tired of pressing forward in this pursuit with no sense of His presence. I could be miserable and feel alone in the universe as an agnostic — why bother with this religion business if that didn’t change anything?

Will It Work? An Experiment

My feelings of frustration and resentment toward God reached a head. And then, just at the right time, I happened to come across a quote from C.S. Lewis in which he pointed out:

[God] shows much more of Himself to some people than to others — not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.

Of course. I’d been walking around talking trash, watching TV shows that portrayed all types of nastiness, indulging in selfish behavior … and yet wondering why I couldn’t feel the presence of the source of all goodness. I realized that, if I were serious about figuring out if God exists or not, it could not be an entirely intellectual exercise. I had to be willing to change.

I wasn’t sure if I was ready to sign up for that for the long haul, but I decided to give it a shot: I committed to go a month living according to the Catholic moral code. I bought a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a summary of the Church’s teachings, and studied it carefully, living my life according to what it taught, even in the cases where I wasn’t sure the Church was right.

My goal with the experiment had been to discover the presence of God; instead, I discovered myself — the real me. I had thought that cynicism, judgmentalness, and irritability were just parts of who I was, but I realized that there was a purer, better version of me buried underneath all that filth — what the Church would call sins — that I had never before encountered.

I found that the rules of the Church, that I had once perceived to be a set of confining laws, were rules of love; they defined the boundaries between what is love and what is not. It had changed me, my life, and my marriage for the better. I may not have experienced God, but by following the teachings of the Church that was supposedly founded by Him, I had experienced real love.

Following the teachings about contraception had been moot since I was pregnant with our second child, but I did read up on it during my experiment of following the Church’s teachings. And, to my great surprise, I discovered that the Church had incredibly reasonable defenses of its points. I asked Joe to take a look at this stuff in case I was missing something, and, to his own amazement, he also found the Church’s arguments to be airtight. He had been doing his own investigation into Catholicism, and this was the final issue that had been troubling him too. We looked at each other, and for the first time dared to ask: Are we going to become Catholic?!

Medical and Moral Complications

Only two weeks after we had that thought, that pain in my leg got so bad that I ended up in the ER. I was seven months pregnant with our second child, and it turned out that I had a deep vein thrombosis, a life-threatening blood clot in a major vein. If the clot had broken free, I likely would have died.

After some testing, the doctors delivered worse news: I have a genetic clotting disorder that means that my blood clots easily — and I inherited it from both parents, which makes it worse. On top of that, it is exacerbated by pregnancy, which makes pregnancy dangerous for me.

I had a lot of time to mull over this turn of events: the clot couldn’t be treated during pregnancy, and the pain was so severe that I could no longer walk on my own. So I spent most of my days lying in bed, wondering what to do now.

To treat the clot postpartum, the doctors wanted to prescribe an FDA Category X drug to treat the clot — it’s so dangerous for pregnancy that women often choose to be sterilized before they take it. They told me that my clotting disorder means I should not have any more children, because of the risk that pregnancy poses to my health. I didn’t want them to think I was religious for fear of what they’d think of me, but when I hinted at the question of using Natural Family Planning (a method for spacing children that the Church deems morally acceptable), they laughed. Someone with my condition had to use contraception, they said. There was no choice.

Fatigued by the constant pain, overwhelmed by medical bills that were piling up by the thousands, I began to slide back away from this religion, tumbling down a slope that ended back in atheism. I hadn’t minded changing in the sense of not using the F-word so much, but this was a whole different ball game. To stick with the Church now would be to lose my life as I knew it, and to set out down an unfamiliar, frightening path.

Not knowing what else to do, I went back to the basics of the way I’d been taught to work through problems since childhood. My dad, my parent from whom I got my religious views (or lack thereof), had not raised me to be an atheist as much as he’d raised me to seek truth fearlessly. “Never believe something because it’s convenient or it makes you feel good,” he’d always say. “Ask yourself: ‘Is this true?’”

And so I set everything else aside, and clung to the simple question: What is true?

I quickly realized then that this was not in question, and hadn’t been for a while. For weeks now, I had known on an intellectual level that I believed what the Church taught. What stalled me had not been a hesitation of whether or not it was true; it had been a hesitation of not wanting to sacrifice too much.

I had no idea how things would work out. I thought there was a fair chance that this step would lead us to financial ruin, and may even take a serious toll on my health. But I decided, for the first time in a long time, to choose what was true instead of what was comfortable. Joe and I signed up to begin the formation process at our parish church. And, in the first statement of faith I’d ever made, I told my doctors that I would not use contraception, because I was Catholic.

God Helps Us Home

After that moment, a bunch of fortuitous events occurred that smoothed the way for us to become Catholic. A series of windfalls gave us the money we needed to manage our medical bills. After they got over their initial shock at encountering someone who wouldn’t contracept, my doctors came up with creative solutions to keep me healthy. Even after a surprise positive pregnancy test came at the worst possible time, just a few weeks after I’d healed from the blood clot, a bunch of startling coincidences played out to help us stay afloat during that difficult time.

The next spring, three days before Joe and I would be received into the Church, it was time for my first confession. As I approached the confessional, I had no hesitation. I had an intellectual understanding that God is the source of goodness, and that therefore it’s important that we take great care to repent when we have done something bad. But I’d already privately confessed all these sins in my head, so I figured that telling them to the priest, who was simply standing in for Jesus, would be redundant — after all, Jesus had already heard all this stuff.

But as soon as I heard the words coming from my mouth, everything changed. To hear all of these selfish, cowardly, hateful acts articulated with real words, for another human being to hear, was more powerful than I could have ever imagined. Tears began to flow, and, as I continued recounting every unloving thing I’d ever done, I shook and sobbed. Never could I have imagined the impact it would have on me to hear of my own sins, spoken out loud; but never could I have imagined how much it would impact me to hear the words, spoken by the​ priest on behalf of God, that I was forgiven. I walked away from the confessional in a daze, and slid into a pew in the silent church. I knew that my life had just changed, never to be the same again.

Later that night, around midnight, I stepped out on the back porch. When I was younger I used to avoid going outside at night when it was quiet and still, because it would trigger memories of all those ominous thoughts about meaninglessness that I was trying to forget. The darkness outside was too familiar, as if it had all spilled out from somewhere within me. But as I stood there that night after my first confession, I realized that all that was gone. The darkness within me was simply not there anymore. In its place was peace, and an unmistakable feeling of love. For the first time, I felt the presence of God.”

Love,
Matthew

How to read your way to Heaven


-Vicki Burbach

“For the past twenty years, I’ve been doing my best to commit to daily spiritual reading. Some days have gone better than others. In fact, some years have gone better than others. But I have done my best to stay the course. In that time, I’ve learned a few things about the process. I’ve learned some basic things, such as how hard it is to make the time for spiritual reading, but how good it makes me feel when I’ve done it — kind of like jogging for the soul. I’ve also noticed that spiritual reading is better for my psyche than any motivational book. It helps me to grow in faith and to deepen my relationship with God, which in turn has strengthened every other area of my life. And although at first I thought that my spiritual growth would come mostly by studying theology, I’ve found that there is also a great intellectually and emotionally challenging component to reading other spiritual material, such as biographies of saints and books on prayer.

But in addition to these basic lessons, I’ve learned a few other things that run a little deeper than the obvious. We’ll look at those here and in the pages ahead.

Life in the Trenches

One need only watch the news for five minutes to know that this world has become a bastion of paganism more and more emboldened in its persecution of those who choose to follow Christ. Everywhere we turn, secularism is the new religion. Worse, the world is fast becoming, not merely secular, but anti-God — and not only anti-God, but anti-everything-that-even-remotely-relates-to-God.

Daily we are bombarded from every angle with messages that are clearly designed to remove us one step further from our Faith or to cripple us within it. Whether social situations at work or school, the news, television shows, movies, books, advertising, or — the ultimate temptation — social media, the influences on our daily lives do virtually nothing to draw us closer to our calling as Christians to live the life of Christ.

The only way to shield our hearts and minds from the lies of a hostile culture is to fill them with reinforcements before we head out to battle each day. Additionally, the more we fill our hearts with the love of Christ, the greater the light we bring to the darkness around us. Spiritual reading arms us for all those daily battles with negativity, temptation, and sin, filling our minds, hearts, and souls with truth, building us in Christ, and strengthening us for combat.

Spiritual reading brings us closer to Christ and provides a peace and joy that the world can never offer. Of course, prayer and the sacraments are also critical to our interior life. Unfortunately, although time in prayer is wisely spent, many claim that they spend hour after hour in prayer and it does no good. They may attend Mass, pray the Rosary, offer up many rote prayers, and even speak from their heart to our Lord; but they often complain that their efforts are to no avail, and they still feel alone in the world.

Sitting (or kneeling) in a room, praying our hearts out, while laudable, can be like sitting on one end of a telephone just talking away, with no input from the other side. But couple that time with spiritual reading from some solid books, and our faith and joy will improve exponentially.

Spiritual reading offers God’s perspective. This is obviously true with regard to Sacred Scripture; but, it is also true when we read from any of the countless books written by those with great wisdom and grace whose hearts and minds are united with the Magisterium of the Church.

Spiritual reading provides us with a Person to know; a Person with Whom to communicate; a Person to whom we can listen in prayer because, with a better understanding of who He is, we can actually hear His voice when he speaks to us. Saint Alphonsus Liguori, in his On Spiritual Reading, quotes Saint Jerome as saying, “When we pray we speak to God, but when we read, God speaks to us.” And Saint Isaac the Syrian asserts, “From reading the soul is enlightened in prayer.”

Spiritual reading helps us to build a relationship with Christ. Reading Sacred Scripture and the classics helps us to know and to love a God who actually trod the ground we tread, who suffered the things we suffer, who ate and slept just as we do.

We know that spiritual reading can keep us grounded because we have many brothers and sisters in Christ who have been through what we’re going through, fought the same battles we face, and would recommend to us the same solution I’m here to recommend: spiritual reading. Although we have neither time nor room to discuss every friend of Christ who endured an environment hostile to his faith, it seems fitting to examine the lives of two such individuals, one who lived far from us in time, but perhaps not so far in spirit; and another who, like many Catholics today, endured hostility toward her faith even in the sanctuary of her home.

Both of these amazing people would credit their perseverance to God’s grace and the openness of their hearts and minds to the wisdom offered through spiritual reading.

St. John Chrysostom

We live in a world where Christ is ridiculed and laughed at, even despised and spat upon. Often, we wonder how our Judeo-Christian heritage could have fallen so far. But ours isn’t the only era to experience such derision. Saint John Chrysostom lived in the fourth century, shortly after Constantine converted and turned Rome into a Christian nation. John’s father died when he was only an infant; devoted to her only child, his mother “felt she was called of God to devote herself wholly in the training of her son and to shield him from the contaminating influences of the pagan city of Antioch.” As a young boy, her son received the best education available. As a young man, he lived as a hermit, separating himself from the secular hostility of his culture. He spent this time committing the entire New Testament to memory. This practice served him well throughout his life. Eventually, he returned to society and was ordained a priest. Shortly after his ordination in Antioch, he gave a series of eloquent sermons to fearful crowds who worried about the possibility of retribution from Emperor Theodosius after they had demonstrated against a new tax. John’s popularity grew, but so did the alliances forming against him.

After twelve years in Antioch, where he gained great popularity because of his speaking ability and his command of Sacred Scripture, John was appointed bishop of Constantinople, enduring great opposition from the powers that be. He was continually the victim of intrigue, lies, and defamation of character. He was accused of supporting one side of feuding clergy over another and was eventually exiled from Constantinople by the emperor Arcadius. His banishment was short-lived, however, as the public threatened to burn the royal palace down unless he was allowed to return.

But John faced exile again for denouncing pagan practices among the ruling class, including the wife of the emperor. In fact, much of his world was affected by pagan practices, against which he preached repeatedly in his homilies.

Throughout his service, John continued to preach that people needed to know the Faith and to practice it. In Eastern Orthodoxy, he is called the Great Ecumenical Teacher because he spoke so profoundly on both the Old and New Testaments while thundering against pagan practices and pastimes. He is known as the Father of Catechesis because he spent much time teaching people the Faith and guiding them to practice spiritual reading, so that they might ward off temptations, particularly those temptations encountered by Christians in a pagan culture.

Here are just a couple of his admonitions:

“Moreover, if the Devil does not dare to enter into the house where the Gospel lies, much less will he ever seize upon the soul which contains such thoughts as these, and no evil spirit will approach it, nor will the nature of sin come near. Well, then, sanctify your soul, sanctify your body by having these thoughts always in your heart and on your tongue. For if foul language is defiling and evokes evil spirits, it is evident that spiritual reading sanctifies the reader and attracts the grace of the Spirit.” (Homily 32 on John)

“This is the cause of all evils, the not knowing the Scriptures. We go into battle without arms, and how are we to come off safe?” (Homily 9 on Colossians)

This advice should be applicable to each and every one of us, struggling to keep our bearings as we face a pagan culture day after day.

Elisabeth Leseur

Unlike John Chrysostom, Elisabeth Leseur did not benefit from a high-class education. She came from an upper-middle-class family and had a moderately Catholic upbringing, having attended Catholic school and received the sacraments as a girl. As a young lady, she married Felix Leseur, a well-educated, well-to-do doctor, in 1889 after a brief engage­ment. Shortly before their marriage, Elisabeth learned that Felix was no longer a practicing Catholic. In fact, he was a self-proclaimed atheist and became well known in Paris as the editor of a newsletter that promoted atheist and anticlerical beliefs.

Although he promised that he would respect Elisabeth’s Faith, Felix set about almost immediately to destroy it, and he nearly succeeded. For a time, Elisabeth even stopped attending Mass. Fortunately, at the height of his influence against her Faith, Felix handed his wife a book that made her think twice about the arguments it offered. Rather than be influenced by the poverty of such a book, Elisabeth turned to masters of Catholic thought. Here is what her husband says of her in his “In Memoriam”:

“To counterbalance my anti-Christian library, she gathered together one composed of the works of the great masters of Catholic thought: Fathers, Doctors, mystics, St. Jerome, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis de Sales, St. Teresa of Avila and many more. Above all she read and reread the New Testament, the Gospels, the Acts, the Epistles; she never passed a day without meditating upon some passage from it. She thus acquired a reasoned and substantial faith. Knowing the opposing arguments, possessing her own replies to them, and strengthening perpetually the foundations of her belief, by the grace of God she established her faith indestructibly.”

More than just reading books, Elisabeth took great pains to apply what she read to her life. She never spoke to her husband about her Catholic Faith. She did not try to convince him of the truth. Rather, she offered all to God, Who helped her to live the truth. The beauty within her became evident to everyone she met.

That is exactly what we desire to do: to live our Faith. To experience the peace of knowing that we are not of this world but are to spend this life sharing the light of Christ with others. Elisabeth was so successful in that vein that, after years of offering up her suffering silently and making sacrifices for her husband, she offered her very life to God for his salvation. Upon her death, her husband not only returned to Catholicism but also became a Dominican priest!

Elisabeth armed herself each day to do battle in her own home — not with arguments or smugness, but with love. There was no more effective weapon she could have found to help her win the war.

Arming for Battle: The Church Militant

We may not feel called to memorize the entire New Testament like St. John Chrysostom, but meditating daily on Sacred Scripture will provide us with the strength we need to face the enemy. Saint Paul tells us:

“Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph. 6:11-17).”

We need to be armed for battle. At all times, and especially during these crazy times in this vale of tears, we need to lay our foundation in Christ Jesus. I pray that spiritual reading plays a part in helping you build and strengthen that foundation.”

Love, prayer, strength, put ALL your trust in Him,
Matthew

Christ in His Fullness – Bruce Sullivan

“I will begin with a statement that I made to a Catholic friend of mine back in 1993. In complete seriousness — and with absolute confidence — I said, “Look, Sharon, if you or anyone else can show me from the Bible that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ established, I’ll become a Catholic tomorrow.” With that bold challenge, I had hoped to goad my devoutly Catholic friend into a serious, evangelistic Bible study. Instead, she handed me a copy of Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism, and so began the end of my career as a Fundamentalist preacher.

I was raised in the South as a Southern Baptist. Attending church three times each week was standard fare in our home. I am eternally grateful to the Southern Baptist Convention, and to my family, for rooting me in the Scriptures, for introducing me to Christ, and for instilling within my soul the conviction that what this world needs more than anything else is Jesus. But it was not until I went off to college that I began to examine what I believed and, more importantly, why I believed it.

Throughout my college years, I interacted with members of various Protestant denominations and listened to a wide variety of campus preachers. I knew that my own theology had several loose ends, and I was searching intently for what could tie it all together. My searching eventually led me to a relatively small denomination known as the Church of Christ.

The Church of Christ is a denomination that sprang out of what some historians refer to as the American Restoration Movement or the Stone-Campbell Movement (so named for its two most prominent historical figures, Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell). Launched in the early nineteenth century, the movement was originally conceived by its proponents as a means of transcending denominational divisions and uniting all believers in Christ on universally accepted essentials of the faith. Because of the difficulty in establishing the precise content of “universally accepted essentials,” the movement soon became a very divisive one and eventually split into three separate denominations: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the independent Christian Churches, and the Churches of Christ. The modern-day Disciples of Christ emphasize the movement’s early theme of Christian unity, whereas the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ tend to emphasize the theme of “restoration.” Together, these three denominations can claim approximately four million members.

The Churches of Christ attracted me by what they would call “nondenominational Christianity.” They had several neat-sounding “credal” statements that I found nothing short of enthralling. These included such declarations as: “We are Christians only, but not the only Christians”; “We speak where the Bible speaks, and we’re silent where the Bible is silent”; and “We call Bible things by Bible names.” These concepts were mighty attractive for me in view of the denominational chaos surrounding me. So in 1985, I was baptized at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama, and began a ten-year association with the denomination.

The Churches of Christ had an enormous impact on my life. For one thing, they introduced me to my wife Gloria, who was a fifth-generation follower of the Stone-Campbell Movement and an active member of the Auburn Church of Christ. They also introduced me to ideas that were very much at odds with my Baptist upbringing — ideas that would dramatically impact my spiritual journey.

First of all, the Stone-Campbell Churches of Christ introduced me to the biblical basis for believing that Christ established a visible, identifiable, and institutional Church. That is a very Catholic idea, and one that is not usually associated with Evangelical Protestantism. Secondly, they showed me — from the Bible — that Baptism is for the remission of sins. Likewise, this may be a distinctly Catholic idea, but it is not a very Baptist idea. Finally, they also presented me with the scriptural evidence for believing that justification is not by faith alone and that one can, indeed, fall from grace (as opposed to the Calvinist teaching of “once saved, always saved). Again, these ideas were definitely not in line with Baptist teaching, but as I was to learn later, these were solidly in line with Catholic teaching. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the Churches of Christ were to become something of a stepping-stone from my Evangelical Protestant upbringing to the Catholic faith.

After graduation from Auburn in 1986, Gloria and I were married and departed for studies at the Sunset School of Preaching in Lubbock, Texas. We chose Sunset because of its reputation for academic intensity and missionary zeal. For two years, we were the privileged pupils of men who had given their lives in missionary service all around the globe. Their examples served to heighten our own desire for missionary service. We became charter members of a missionary team that was bound for Brazil — the largest Catholic nation in the world. We selected Brazil because, at the time, we believed that more than anyone else, Catholics stood in need of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It goes without saying, but my view of Catholicism at the time was somewhat less than complimentary. I did not believe that Catholics should be considered Christians in the proper sense of the word. In my mind, they were idolatrous, Mary-worshipping, children of the Whore of Babylon, who had embraced a soul-damning false gospel that came straight from the pits of hell! I must hasten to add, however, that it was not mean-spiritedness that animated me in my posture towards Catholics and Catholicism. Rather, I was compelled by sincere conviction and, sadly, gross ignorance.

The plan was for each of the mission team families to work with a sponsoring congregation for a period of two years prior to embarking on a five-year service commitment in Brazil. So upon graduation, Gloria and I moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, to work with a congregation that had agreed to be our sponsor. Those two years were intended to provide team members the opportunity to gain practical ministry experience, study Portuguese (the language of Brazil), and develop a working relationship with their sponsoring congregation. It was a solid plan formulated by a group of veteran missionaries. Within less than a year, however, our mission team disbanded.

The disruption in our missionary plans left us in a tough spot financially. With Gloria and I both determined to keep her at home with our daughter Mary, I decided to seek employment outside of the ministry. Since my degree from Auburn was in agriculture, I applied for — and received — a position with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service. I was given the appointment as County Extension Agent for 4-H & Youth Development in Hart County, Kentucky (only thirty miles from Gloria’s home in Metcalfe County). We continued to actively serve in our local congregation of the Church of Christ. I continued to preach and teach on a regular basis. And true to the vision instilled in us at Sunset, we continued to look for the opportunity to join a mission team bound for South America.

It was after moving back to Gloria’s home in Kentucky that our conversion to Catholicism began in earnest. It began when a large Catholic family — the family of Art and Sharon Antonio — moved into our area.

Art had just retired from the Navy. He and Sharon were drawn to Kentucky by affordable land and the prospect of raising their children in a wholesome, rural setting. We became acquainted through my work in the county Extension office. Upon learning of their devotion to the Catholic faith, I set out to do the most charitable thing I could think of: introduce them to the “true” Gospel of Christ as presented by the “true” Church of Christ.

For many months, I tried to “evangelize” the Antonios. In turn, they gave me a three-pronged introduction to the Catholic faith. This three-pronged introduction took the form of the Couple to Couple League, Karl Keating, and Father Benjamin Luther.

First, let me mention the Couple to Couple League. Gloria and I had always been very pro-life on the issue of abortion but were unaware of the connection between contraception and abortion. Through the Couple to Couple League, we learned the scriptural, historical, and rational support for the Catholic Church’s moral teachings regarding artificial means of contraception. In response to this, we immediately changed our practices in this area of life. And, believe it or not, what I had thought would drive a wedge between husband and wife — namely, the Church’s teaching on marital chastity — proved instead to be a most sublime blessing. Ironically, this teaching that is so often dismissed out of hand by those born into the Catholic faith, has been shown, time and again, to actually draw people into the Church.

But while the impact of this introduction to the beauty of the Church’s moral teaching was profound and life-changing, we were far from convinced that the Catholic Church was the true Church of Christ. As we say in Kentucky, “There was still a long row to hoe.”

The second part of our introduction to the Catholic faith came in the form of a book by Karl Keating, the president of Catholic Answers. After months of getting nowhere in my attempts to get Mrs. Antonio to study the Bible with me, I decided to engage in a little bit of charitable baiting. It was after one particularly frustrating exchange that I looked at her and said, “Look, if you or anyone else can show me from the Bible that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ established, I’ll become a Catholic tomorrow.” The next day, she handed me a copy of Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism. I could not have been more thrilled. As I saw it, in giving me that book to read, she was also giving me license to critique it and expose to her the manifest errors that I knew it had to contain. In other words, I took it as a sign that we were finally getting somewhere.

I went home and looked at the book. On the back cover, I read a statement by Sheldon Vanauken: “I strongly advise honest fundamentalists not to read this book. They might find their whole position collapsing in ruins.” I laughed. I think I may have even laughed out loud. But I didn’t laugh for long.

Keating’s book did at least three things for me. First, he provided numerous examples of the ways in which anti-Catholics distort the Catholic faith and obscure the truth about Catholicism. Second, he exposed the flimsy nature of the assumptions underlying my own Protestant faith (particularly those assumptions pertaining to the Bible and authority). And last, but surely not least, he did something that I thought no one could do: he provided a compelling biblical presentation of the Catholic doctrines that are most often opposed by Fundamentalist Christians. By the time I had finished reading the book, I knew that I was in trouble. I realized that I had far more questions than answers.

The questions that troubled me the most were those pertaining to authority. I was particularly perplexed by the issue of canon. How could I claim that the Bible alone was all that I needed when the Bible itself does not identify its own canon? After all, there were literally dozens of writings that had circulated throughout the early Church that claimed to be inspired. On what basis did I accept the canon of New Testament Scripture upon which my faith depended? How could I know with infallible certitude that the twenty-seven books in my New Testament comprised the true canon? Maybe there were supposed to be twenty-nine books in the New Testament, and the two that were missing contained keys to understanding the other twenty-seven. Maybe there were supposed to be only twenty-five books in the New Testament, in which case our present canon would have two too many. What if those two extra books contain false doctrine? After all, Martin Luther struggled with this notion and actually suggested that the Epistle of St. James be removed from the Bible!

Were I to gloss over the problem of determining canon, I was still left in the unenviable position of claiming that all I needed was the Bible when, in fact, the Bible itself teaches no such thing. Actually, it indicates the contrary. For example, St. Paul expressly underscored our need for oral Tradition (cf. 2 Thess 2:15) and the Church (cf. 1 Tim 3:15). Moreover, virtually every New Testament Epistle was written with the assumption that the writer and his intended recipients shared a body of common knowledge — the deposit of faith (cf. Jude 3). In other words, the recipients understood what was written in light of the teaching they had already received. Oral Tradition was therefore the context through which what was written was understood and put into practice. Or, to put it yet another way: God inspired members of the Church to write to other members of the Church about matters of concern to the Church — thereby underscoring the teaching that the Church, Sacred Tradition, and the Bible are truly inseparable. Yet as a Protestant, I downplayed — if not denied — the role of both Sacred Tradition and the Church.

The more I struggled with the issue of authority, the more I became convinced that it is the ultimate Protestant “pickle.” As a Protestant, I had claimed that the Bible alone was all that I needed. Yet the Bible itself indicated otherwise. Without an infallible certitude of canon, the best I could do was stand in the pulpit and proclaim, “Thus sayeth the Lord … I think.” I could offer only my own, admittedly fallible, opinions about the interpretation of writings that I thought to be inspired.

While these realities served to expose the inadequacies of my Protestant faith, they did not necessarily mean that I was ready to accept the Catholic faith. There remained a seemingly endless list of standard objections to Catholicism that needed to be addressed. To help us address those issues, Art and Sharon encouraged us to contact Father Benjamin Luther, a priest from the Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky, who also happened to be a convert from the Stone-Campbell Churches of Christ.

Father Luther drove nearly four hours to meet with me at a roadside diner near my home. That first meeting lasted six hours. When we parted company, Father Luther assured me that he would keep in touch — and he proved to be a man of his word. From that point forward, it seemed as if our mailbox was hardly ever empty. I am quite convinced that he impoverished himself sending me a veritable library through the mail and taking my collect phone calls nearly every Saturday morning. He proved immeasurably helpful as we worked through the issues in our efforts to separate fact from fiction regarding the Catholic faith.

Early in the course of our studies, we came to the realization that most of what we had been told about Catholicism had been grossly distorted. That realization itself was a tremendous grace. It helped us to see that before we could decide whether or not the Catholic Church teaches the truth, we had to know the truth about the Catholic Church and her teaching. With that realization to guide us — coupled with the knowledge that our former approach to authority was hopelessly flawed — we delved into a thorough, and at times anxious, study of Catholicism.

I characterize our studies as “anxious” because, coming from a Church of Christ background, we had some rather serious convictions regarding truth, judgment, heaven, and hell. We feared not only for our own souls but also for those of our children if, inadvertently, we led them astray. We wanted desperately to do the will of the Lord by embracing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. At times, it seemed as if we could argue both sides of the issues. At times, we wondered if there would ever be any clear-cut answers. We knew we could never go back to our former denomination, but that did not mean that we were at ease with Catholicism. A lifetime of prior teaching, coupled with the ghosts of false caricatures of Catholicism, seemed to have a death grip on us intellectually and emotionally. But our Lord is the One who has conquered death. Thankfully, through time, prayer, and study, He freed us from the deadly grip of error and gave to us the grace to embrace our holy Mother, the Catholic Church.

A watershed event in this process came in December of 1993 when Father Luther and I attended the first Coming Home Network retreat on the campus of Franciscan University of Steubenville. On the second day of the retreat, I awakened early in the home of my host family and went downstairs while everyone else was either asleep or occupied with the start of a new day. I could not help but notice a small “prayer closet” off to the side of the living room. It was a rather small niche with a kneeler, various holy images, and candles. In the dark solitude of that moment, I was drawn to prayer. This time, however, my prayer would be different than any prayer I had offered before.

For months, I had found myself arguing both sides of the issues almost to the point of despair. In the quiet of this moment, I knew that I had come to the end of my rope and needed help. I remember thinking to myself, “If what the Catholic Church teaches about the communion of saints is true, then maybe this is the time to enlist the prayers of the saints in heaven.” Kneeling in that little niche, I approached the Father’s throne of grace, asking for the grace of clarity and understanding. This, of course, was nothing new. I had done so more times than I could count over the preceding six months of struggle. What was new was this: I concluded by asking the saints in heaven to pray for me. Specifically, I solicited the prayers of Peter, Paul, and Mary (not to be confused with the popular 1960s’ singing group). Interestingly enough, I was also quick to ask God to forgive me if such an action was offensive to Him. I did this because, while my studies had sufficiently demonstrated the veracity of the Catholic teaching on the communion of saints, the outward, concrete expression of the teaching ran against the emotional grain of my Protestant upbringing. What was about to follow during the next hour, however, would assure me that Sts. Peter, Paul, and Mary had indeed heard my plea and that, in response to their prayers, God was pouring out His grace.

Back on the campus of Franciscan University, our retreat resumed with all of us participating in the early morning Mass in the campus chapel. I had been to Mass a couple of times before, but could never get past the knee-jerk reactions that I seemed to have at nearly everything that was said or done. This time something was different. I was seated in the back of the chapel, simply observing the proceedings. But instead of nitpicking and criticizing, I found myself contemplating questions that were slowly taking shape in my mind. What if that man (the priest) is who they say he is? What if he is really doing what they say he is doing? What if what they say is happening is actually happening? As I considered these questions in the light of what I had learned from the Scriptures and early Christian writings pertaining to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I was left quite literally speechless (which, for those who know me well, comes awfully close to a confirming miracle in my conversion to Catholicism).

Please keep in mind that, as a former Church of Christ preacher, this was all a bit difficult to swallow. Church of Christ members are generally very leery of subjective experiences. As a rule, they demand cold, hard, objective facts with the accompanying “chapter and verse” from the Scriptures. Yet the Scriptures themselves testify to the marvelous ways in which God works in our hearts — ways that many might call “subjective.” Would I become a Catholic based merely upon a fuzzy, subjective, emotional experience? Hardly. That is not what occurred that morning. What did occur was this: God took all of the “cold, hard, objective facts” that I had learned concerning the Eucharist, tied them together, and removed my self-imposed barriers to understanding. In a word, He gave grace. And with that grace, I knew that I would one day be Catholic.

I was received into the Church during the Easter Vigil of 1995. Shortly thereafter, I went away on a business trip. In the course of a casual conversation, a coworker asked me, “What did you find in the Catholic Church that you did not find in Protestantism?” It was a sincere question and a good one as well. I mulled it over for quite some time and finally settled on a short answer (something quite unusual for me). In Catholicism, I had found Christ in His fullness.

As Protestant Christians, Gloria and I did know and love Christ. We did not, however, experience Him in His fullness. Without realizing it, we had inadvertently rejected many of the gifts He wanted to give us — gifts that could be received only through full incorporation into His Mystical Body, the Catholic Church. Looking back, we are both truly amazed at what God has so graciously given to us in the Catholic Church: He has given Christ in all of His fullness — the fullness of His Word, the fullness of His sacraments, the fullness of worship, the fullness of His family, the fullness of vocation, and the fullness of salvation.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen” (Eph 3:20–21).”

Love,
Matthew

Lead, Kindly Light – Rev. Douglas Grandon

“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.”
-Bl John Henry Newman


Father Doug Grandon became Catholic in 2003, after serving as a Protestant missionary and pastor for twenty-five years. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI granted Father Doug permission to be ordained a married Catholic priest for the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois. He presently serves as parochial vicar at St. Thomas More Church in Centennial, Colorado, and teaches Homiletics at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver.

“It was a bittersweet day when I left Christ Episcopal Church. I loved celebrating the Eucharist on Saturday, Sunday, and during the week. I spent hours preparing my homilies. I joyfully taught adult education, First Communion, and Confirmation classes. I enjoyed visiting my flock, especially the sick and elderly, and most especially when I could bring them communion… I had a good reputation in the community, and I was quite well paid. When I departed, I wondered, like John Henry Newman (who also converted in his mid-forties), whether the best chapters of my life had already been written. My wife and I weren’t sure how we would support our family of six.

Just yesterday, an Evangelical Free Church pastor inquired over lunch about my journey from the Free Church to the Episcopal Church and on to the Catholic Church. As John Henry Newman, once noted, one’s conversion story is a bit too complicated to be quickly recounted between the salad and main course of a dinner.

I became a Christian after first hearing the Gospel from a young man named Dan in a Christian coffee shop in downtown Sterling, Illinois. It was there that I was first confronted with the question, “Are you a Christian?” When I replied that I wasn’t sure, Dan arranged to meet with me every other week for Bible study and conversation. In November 1972, I prayed that Christ would forgive my sins. In February 1973, at the age of fourteen, I was baptized.

During the next five years, I attended Dan’s church, a small Pentecostal church, on the “wrong side of the tracks.” The pastor was a self-taught, but serious, Bible teacher, who emphasized that God had called us to holiness and service. However, his leadership style was overly dictatorial, and he was much too confident in his ability to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. It was in that church that I first met my future wife, Lynn, when I was fourteen, and there, at sixteen years of age, that I felt a definite call to ordained ministry.

After five years in that Pentecostal church, and having completed two years of college, I was invited by a faithful missionary to spend a summer with a Protestant pastor in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where I was tutored in Serbo-Croatian. That missionary offered to support me if I would remain in Belgrade and enroll in the Institute for Foreign Languages, which I was happy to do. For the next five years, I assisted his mission as a translator/interpreter in Communist Yugoslavia.

Upon returning to the U.S., I married Lynn, completed my final two years at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, and then proceeded to seminary. I first earned an M.A. in Religion from Liberty University, then an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the Evangelical Free Church seminary. I was ordained in the Free Church, and started Glen Hill Evangelical Free Church in Peoria, which still exists today.

During that time, I met Edward MacBurney, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy, a committed Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic, and a godly man. We enjoyed each other’s company and met regularly for lunch. During the course of our numerous conversations, he recommended that I read Tom Howard’s Evangelical Is Not Enough. (Dr. Howard was kind enough to meet me one day for breakfast in Wheaton.) Bishop MacBurney convinced me that my Evangelical experience was deficient.

Several points of Catholic theology became clear to me at that time: apostolic succession, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the role of saints as mediators, the value of liturgy, the sacrifice of the Mass, etc. My early Pentecostal experience had infected me with a strong prejudice against the Catholic Church. To overcome this, God led me into the Church in short steps, from Pentecostalism to mainstream Evangelicalism, and across the bridge of Anglicanism. To this day, I am grateful for each of those churches.

When the timing was appropriate for me to leave my Evangelical Free Church, I became Episcopalian. Bishop MacBurney made it very clear to me that the Episcopal Church was rapidly abandoning its Catholic and biblical roots. I was aware, however, that the worldwide Anglican Communion included a strong Evangelical wing, which was profoundly committed to evangelization, good preaching, holy living, and serious academic work — and that Anglo-Catholics still defended those Catholic convictions championed by John Henry Newman, prior to his conversion to Catholicism. I felt comfortable exploring the Catholic tradition in a church populated by such Evangelical leaders as Alister McGrath, Jim Packer, and John Stott.

During my Anglican years, I completed my doctoral course work at St. Louis University. With my doctoral advisor (a convert himself), I engaged in a serious reading of Newman. With his help, I began to understand the profound importance of Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. (Development was the answer to sola scriptura, which seemed more and more untenable.) My dissertation research on Flacius Illyricus, an immediate successor to Luther and the first Protestant historian, reinforced my doubts about Protestant separation from Rome.

In preparation for ordination to the Anglican priesthood, I was sent to Oxford for a year of postdoctoral theological study. Oxford was fantastic. However, at St. Stephen’s House, I witnessed firsthand the serious degeneration of the Anglo-Catholic movement. I was shocked that the principal allowed a practicing homosexual to remain in residence and was admitting women, who would eventually be ordained to the priesthood.

My Episcopal bishop, Keith Ackerman, allowed me to transfer to Wycliffe Hall, the Evangelical Anglican college, on the other side of Oxford. Scholarship was much more serious there, as was an Evangelical commitment to the faith. Wycliffe Hall was marvelous in many ways, although sacraments, episcopacy, and other Catholic hallmarks were given minimal attention.

I flew back to the U.S. to be ordained to the transitional diaconate in May 1999, but backed out. I almost became Catholic at that point. My wife and I discussed the matter after I returned to England. We concluded that I should proceed with ordination, in order to support my bishop, who had himself indicated that he might one day become Catholic. Later that summer, I was ordained to the diaconate. Bishop Ackerman assured me that he had authority to ordain me, not simply an Episcopal priest, but a priest in the “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.” After all, he told me, Anglicans do represent the third branch of the Catholic faith. (The first and second branches are, according to this theory, Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.)

As Bishop Ackerman later observed, I was a faithful and obedient Episcopal priest. Nevertheless, I began to question the validity of Anglican orders, which, of course, directly led to doubts about the validity of Anglican sacraments. For me, the fundamental problem was neither the ordination of women nor the toleration of homosexual practice. Most fundamentally, I could no longer confidently assert that Anglican orders were valid. As a result, I contacted Bishop Daniel Jenky, who had been recently ordained as Ordinary for the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, to whom I expressed my desire to take concrete steps toward entering into full communion with the Catholic Church.

For a number of years, I had been reading Catholic authors and the Church Fathers. In Oxford, I had met an elderly French Jesuit at a Newman Conference who kept in touch, encouraging my conversion and my application for Catholic priesthood. Also in Oxford, I had heard lectures that offered a revisionist (and true!) explanation of the nature of the English Reformation. Others were also quite helpful, including a Catholic, former undergraduate professor, several Catholic priests in the Dioceses of Peoria and Davenport, and numerous Catholic laymen active in the pro-life movement.

When I first met with Bishop Jenky, I made it clear that I was coming with no expectations whatsoever. I needed the Church; the Church did not need me. The Church did not owe me employment nor, even more certainly, Catholic priesthood. Bishop Jenky was kind enough to respond that he was certainly open to having a married, former Anglican minister/priest among his diocesan clergy. (He subsequently made sure this was the case with his Presbyteral Council.) We also spoke about my interest in Russia, where I had lectured each winter for the previous four years. Bishop Jenky spoke most encouragingly about this as a possibility for future ministry. Bishop Ackerman attended my second meeting with Bishop Jenky. He graciously and semi-officially transferred me from his jurisdiction to that of Bishop Jenky. (A bronze bust of John Henry Newman hovered over the table where we spoke.)

It was a bittersweet day when I left Christ Episcopal Church. I loved celebrating the Eucharist on Saturday, Sunday, and during the week. I spent hours preparing my homilies. I joyfully taught adult education, First Communion, and Confirmation classes. I enjoyed visiting my flock, especially the sick and elderly, and most especially when I could bring them communion. We had just completed a large addition to our church building, without incurring debt. I had a good reputation in the community, and I was quite well paid. When I departed, I wondered, like Newman (who also converted in his mid-forties), whether the best chapters of my life had already been written. My wife and I weren’t sure how we would support our family of six.

My wife, our four children, and I entered the Church at a vigil Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Moline, Illinois, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart in 2003. My first year in the Church, I was blessed to serve as spiritual director and chairman of the theology department at Assumption High School in Davenport, Iowa. At the end of that year, Bishop Jenky appointed me the director of the office of catechetics for the Diocese of Peoria, where I served with great delight.

In September 2006, I traveled to Immaculate Conception Seminary in the Archdiocese of Newark, for the seven initial examinations required by the Pastoral Provision for former Anglican clergy. In November 2007, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith officially notified Bishop Jenky that they were “positively disposed” toward my candidacy for priesthood. In February 2008, I successfully completed the final written and oral examinations on the seven subjects. On April 18, the Congregation authorized Bishop Jenky to proceed with my ordination. On May 24, 2008, Bishop Jenky ordained me, along with five seminarians, to the Catholic priesthood. (Three of the six are former Episcopalians, although I am the only former Episcopal priest/minister.) I then served as parochial vicar (associate pastor) at Sacred Heart Church in Moline, where I was received into the Church.

It appears as I write this testimonial [2008], that there may be a sizeable exodus of bishops, priests, and lay people from the Church of England into the Catholic Church. Please pray for all those who find themselves in the Valley of Decision. My message to those pondering full communion with the Catholic Church: “Be not afraid. Obey your informed conscience. If you depart your present church, make sure you leave honorably. Be not afraid.”

Love,
Matthew

Overcoming anger, finding peace – Bryan Mercier

Bryan Mercier is a Catholic speaker and apologist whose latest book is “Why Do You Believe in God? Catholic Conversations with Skeptics and Non-Believers”. He spoke with The Coming Home Network about his troubled teenage years, and how his struggles with anger, and even temptations to violence, were overcome through a fresh discovery of his true worth in the eyes of a loving God.

Would you say you had a solid faith foundation in your childhood?

I grew up with faith. My mom taught me to pray from the time I could talk. My dad wasn’t a very nice guy at the time; he was very angry. It didn’t seem like he had much of a faith life. I was often scared of his anger and his temper and felt safer with my mom.

Parents tend to rub off on kids, and it’s apparent now that in the long run, your mom’s faith rubbed off on you, but did your dad’s anger rub off as well?

I would say yes and yes. My dad’s anger definitely rubbed off on me; I think when you’re in a family where your parents are fighting all the time, anger and depression are things that tend to follow. I bore the brunt of my dad’s anger in my early years, because he babysat me while my mom worked. He was verbally abusive, and sometimes hit me for little to no reason. I think that I got more of that treatment than my older brothers and sisters, which led to more anger and more depression within me as I got into high school.

For a lot of us, it’s those high school years when we really start to express ourselves on these issues. How did all of this manifest itself once you arrived at your teens?

That’s when it all hit home. I went to a very abusive Catholic high school in Boston. By abusive, I mean we were on the edge of the ‘combat zone,’ where all the gangs used to hang out. It was a very tough area. I was this 85-pound kid who wasn’t tough at all, so I was picked on, and bullied, and had a hard time fitting in.

I was transferred to another high school, but ended up getting picked on a lot there, too, for being the new kid. So it was about then that I began to experience major depression and sadness. I always say that if you make fun of a kid who’s normal, they’ll probably become sad; if you bully a kid who’s already sad, they’ll become angry; and if you bully an angry kid, you may put them over the edge. That’s the road I was going down.

If you had met me back then, you would have seen a paradox; on the one hand, you’d see a nice kid who wouldn’t hurt anyone, and enjoyed being around his friends, but on the other hand, outside of school, you might see me dressed all in black, carrying weapons, looking for a fight, wanting to hurt people. Sometimes I’d go sit down next to the train tracks and let the train go by six inches from my head. These are the kinds of things I’d do to numb the pain that I kept trying to ignore.

I used to throw darts in our attic, and I’d even paste the pictures of the people I hated from high school up on the dartboard. All this is a pretty clear indication of the kind of anger that was welling up in me. For years, I didn’t even want to look in the mirror, because I hated what I saw there. I thought I was the ugliest person on planet earth. I had rock bottom self-esteem. I desperately needed to be loved.

Was music an outlet at all for you?

It was, and it was helpful in some ways, but the lyrics of the stuff I was listening to only fed into my anger and sadness. The biggest outlet for me was my friends — just playing video games with them, and hanging out with them, was a way for me to forget how depressed I became when I was alone. It was when I was at home, in the silence, that dissatisfaction with life would really get to me.

Were any of these thoughts you had suicidal in nature?

That’s a strange question, and it comes up a lot when I give retreat talks. Teens often ask me if I was ever suicidal, and I say no — I wasn’t the one who had hurt myself, it was everyone else who had hurt me. If I was going to hurt anyone, it was going to be someone else.

That idea of hurting other people started to fill up my head. I started writing poetry where I’d be hurting people, and even killing people. My friends read some of my poems, and they were shocked at how graphic the violence was. I suppose if I were to write that kind of stuff today, people might recommend me to a psychiatrist, or call the authorities.

I don’t think I would have gone through with any of it, because I feared two things: my dad and hell. In that sense, I guess religion was working on me, because it kept me from doing terrible things. I didn’t want to go to hell, and I knew that there would be repercussions if I did the things I was writing about. And I wasn’t a mean kid; I just had a lot of anger that I didn’t know how to get rid of in a constructive way.

Obviously fear, if it’s your primary motivating factor, doesn’t get you very far in faith. How were you able to move from fear to love when it came to your relationship with God?

It happened through coming to know who God is. I had a lot of misconceptions about Him. I thought He was angry and vengeful, and if I ticked him off, He’d be ready in an instant to send me to hell.

College was when this changed for me. I ended up going to Franciscan University, and it was there that I had a very powerful experience of the God of the universe that completely changed my life. Some of this happened over time. Being on a campus like Franciscan, where people are constantly reinforcing to you that God loves you, was huge for me. You were on a campus where it was normal for students to smile at one another, and actually hug one another. It was the complete opposite of my experience in high school.

But there was also a specific moment where I felt the love of God break through my defenses. I had prayed my whole life for God to change my heart, and He never had — and I realized that it was because my life was full of anger and depression. He wanted to come into my life, but I hadn’t left any room for Him. At Franciscan, I’d been praying a lot more, going to Mass more, and going to Confession, and starting to make more room in my heart for the Holy Spirit to move in.

At this time, the faith life on campus was a mix of charismatic students and more traditional students. I was completely against the charismatic stuff; I couldn’t relate to it at all. I couldn’t understand it, and some of it even seemed disrespectful to me.

Then, one day, when I was at Mass, I felt really strongly that God was calling me to put my hands in the air. Being the more traditionally inclined person that I was, I told him “no.” I was in the 5th pew from the front, and it was while we were singing the Gloria. The feeling that I should be putting my hands up in praise to God kept getting stronger, so I thought fine, I’ll give this a chance. I put my hands up, just a little — not all the way, I didn’t want to be like the “weirdos” around me — and in doing that, I felt as though in that moment, I was actively surrendering to God.

It might be like if someone came and stuck a gun in your back, and you were to say, “I surrender.” Except for me, it was God asking, and He wanted me, of my own free will, to surrender all my pain, all my problems, all my anger, all my depression, everything. He wanted me to give it all to Him, because it wasn’t His plan for me to live that way.

This feeling of total surrender hit me hard. I felt like an 18-wheeler had plowed into me at 55 miles per hour. I felt like God was offering me all the happiness and fulfillment in the world, if I wanted it. And I remember specifically those four words: if I wanted it.

There are some outside the Catholic Church who see the liturgy of the Mass as too rigid, too scripted — that it doesn’t allow for the movement of the Holy Spirit. How significant was it that this moment of divine love washed over you in the context of Mass?

It’s very significant. I’d had experiences of God at Franciscan outside of the Mass, at their Eucharistic Festivals of Praise. But it was interesting that He chose the Mass — the source and summit of our faith — to completely change my life. I don’t even remember what happened for about five minutes, but when I came back around, it was a totally different part of the Mass.

In that moment, I knew God was real. He wasn’t a theory for me anymore. I didn’t know of Him anymore, I knew Him. And that understanding of Him hit me during the Mass. Really, if we’re bored at Mass, it’s not the Mass that’s boring — it’s us. The Mass is a prayer, and if we don’t have a prayer life outside of it, we’ll have a hard time praying when we’re in the midst of it.

Over the next year or so, God gave me a new heart, and a new mind. He rooted out all of my hatred, and replaced it with overflowing love. He took away my confusion, and gave me peace. My darkness became light. He gave me the desire to share that experience of joy and peace with as many people as possible through the ministry I now have, because His love changed my life, and I want everyone to know that it’s available to them, too.

The human need for love seems to be a thread that runs through your whole story.

Yes, and I think that’s the outstanding point. You can know all the arguments for the existence of God and still be far from Him. I find that, when I travel, doing parish missions and retreats as part of my ministry, I have to share the tremendous love of God, because that’s what people are starving for. Some of us hear from the time that we’re little that God loves us, but until we encounter that love for ourselves in a real way, it won’t mean anything to us. It’s the personal encounter with that love that has led me to want to share that gift with everyone I come in contact with.”

Love,
Matthew

Why I am a Catholic – Carl Sundell


-Carl Sundell is Professor Emeritus of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas. He has authored several books and has contributed to New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He is currently developing a book for students of Catholic apologetics.

“I have not always been a Catholic. At the age of ten I was baptized at St. Elizabeth’s Church in Lubbock, Texas. My mother and stepfather were not churchgoers, but must have thought I was misbehaving sufficiently to require more moral guidance than they were equipped to provide. For several Sundays they took me on a tour of churches throughout the city, then asked me which one I liked. I told them I wanted to go back to the one with the bells and candles and statues and the great music and the man up front in the neat costume. “Well Carl,” my mother said, “it looks like you’re going to be a Catholic.”

On top of that, I became an altar server. That was in Carlsbad, New Mexico. During my junior year at the high school there, I had an excellent English teacher, John Hadsell. He was not a Catholic, but he introduced me to a book of Father Brown detective stories by G.K. Chesterton. One day, Mr. Hadsell radically changed my life by reading to the class St. Anselm’s ontological proof for the existence of God. Can you imagine an English teacher getting away with that today in a public high school? I was so impressed (but also confused) by Anselm’s logic that I asked him to read the proof again. He patiently did, and from that moment on began my serious search for (and later flight from) Anselm’s “Being of whom no greater being can be conceived.”

At Carlsbad I encountered another formidable influence. In the school library I came across a book of essays by Jacques Maritain, the premier Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century. I learned that he was living at Princeton University and wrote him a letter congratulating him on his book. Several weeks later I was in glorious shock after receiving a kindly reply and words of encouragement.

Our correspondence continued through seventeen letters over five years. My daily reach into the mailbox was an adventure. Maritain was a very modest man, never drawing attention to himself and always offering advice on how to advance my spiritual rather than my intellectual life. He urged frequent confession as good for the soul.

In 1958 I attended one year at Cardinal O’Connell minor seminary near Boston. Originally I had planned to become a monk at the Trappist Abby in Spencer, Massachusetts, but the priest in charge of vocations at the Worcester diocese persuaded me that I was too young for such a life, and that anyway I had all the makings of a secular priest (I had, and still have, no idea what that meant).

Seminary life I found alternately dull and disagreeable, perhaps mainly because I had to study Greek, Latin, and French along with English and Mathematics. Many of my fellow seminarians seemed to lack a deep spirituality. I now suspect they saw me as even more lacking. Once I was mistakenly disciplined for an infraction of the rule of silence committed by someone else in the library. I did not inform on the culprit and silently accepted a stern rebuke by the priest who was dean of discipline, a fairly disagreeable character. I met him in layman’s clothes twenty years later in an elevator. We spoke briefly, but I knew by his casual manner that he did not remember disciplining me. He had left the priesthood, married, and seemed even grumpier than I remembered him as a priest.

My family, still not churchgoers, actively opposed my decision to become a priest. After a year in the seminary, I lost the urge. There followed four years in the Air Force, during which time the letters from Maritain stopped. His wife, Raïssa, a Jewish writer and poet who had converted to Catholicism with him, had died, and he had gone to live with the Little Brothers of Jesus in Toulouse, France. One of the monks he lived with answered my last letter to Maritain, explaining that old age and illness made it necessary for him to cut back on his correspondence. Since Maritain had been a loving father figure for me, I was truly hurt by the loss.

After the Air Force I finished college, where I studied literature and philosophy. Most of the philosophers I read were atheists. The one I remember most is Bertrand Russell, especially his essay “Why I Am Not a Christian,” which I now believe has seduced many young would-be intellectuals who cannot see through the flippant shallowness of Russell’s logic. Like many strident young would-be scholars of the radical 60’s generation, I gradually came to think of myself as too smart to be taken in by religion. This seemed to me also the posture of my academic colleagues in the college where I later taught English and Humanities for thirty years. Having completed my Master’s Degree, I stopped going to Church.

My first wife was an atheist. She had many varied talents and seemed to enjoy pursuing all of them at the same time. After college, we were married by a Justice of the Peace. God was not mentioned during the ceremony, nor ever by either of us thereafter. During the second year of our marriage, my wife’s brother, Jack, killed himself with a shotgun blast to his head. Since I had spoken to him the day before about his drinking problem, I deduced, rightly or wrongly, that I had somehow inadvertently nudged him to pull the trigger. I helped his brother clean up the room in which some of his blood and flesh clung to the walls and the floor. Then I went into deep depression for several weeks and broke down in tears during a visit to my physician. He prescribed a long-term medication that eventually calmed me down. Yet to this day I feel obliged to tremble for Jack’s blood and the fate of my immortal soul.

Our relatively joyless marriage lasted ten years. I remained single for the next twenty years, ever remorseful that I had not tried harder to save our marriage. I could not judge whether it was my doing, or hers, or both of us who failed each other. I now suspect that the absence of God in our lives made all the difference. I hope she too has made that discovery and has at last found a big place for God in her life.

For about twenty-five years I was more a practical atheist than a militant warrior for the cause, though I once wrote a letter of support to America’s most hated atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was later murdered by one of her atheist employees. But when two of my psychological anchors, my father and grandmother, died within three months of each other in 1990, I began to feel some vague rumblings of spirituality. After two years of soul-searching, I came to realize that the twenty-five years of my life without God had been the worst years of my life, even though I had imagined and convinced myself during that time that they were among the best.

I searched for and found my eighth grade teacher, Sister Ann Marshall of the Sisters of Mercy. She put me in touch with a Worcester priest, Father Bernard Gilgun, who was active in the Catholic Worker movement and knew Dorothy Day. Father Bernie was the kindest man I have ever known. During my first confession as a born-again Catholic, I broke down in tears at one point, and he joined his tears with mine. Before long I was enlisted by Father Bernie in the Catholic Worker movement to ladle food out for hungry patrons at the Mustard Seed kitchen in Worcester.

Now in my early fifties, I was attending the Eucharistic Adoration hour weekly and praying for guidance as to how I should spend my renewed life as a Catholic. I’ve been told it often happens to prodigal children soon after they return to God, and especially after they have taken up weekly Eucharistic Adoration, that they are greatly blessed in some very special way. That happened to me. Within three months my niece Jessica introduced me to my future wife, Louise. Louise had been reared in the Church of Christ in Hugo, Oklahoma, but had drifted away from churchgoing. Soon after we met, she told me that I was the third Catholic whom she had known and loved. I asked her if she didn’t think maybe God was trying to tell her something. About a year later she was welcomed into the Catholic Church by the same good priest who officiated at our wedding, Monsignor John Kelliher.

In 2001, after my retirement from teaching, Louise and I moved to Lubbock, Texas. Searching for a new ministry, one day in a second hand bookstore I happened to pick up a biography of my old hero, Jacques Maritain. The author mentioned Maritain’s last literary act before his death, the autographing of one of his own books for a man who had just been released from prison. Soon thereafter, for about five years, Louise and I taught RCIA and catechism classes in a state prison near Lamesa, Texas.

Now I’d like to share some thoughts about my return to the Catholic Church.

To the agnostic and to the atheist I say that any philosophy declaring the universe to be meaningless is itself meaningless, since that philosophy is part of a “meaningless” universe. We look for meaning (purpose) everywhere on our planet and in our lives. That being the case, why shouldn’t the universe itself have meaning or purpose? And why shouldn’t the only creature who can imagine a Thing greater than the universe reach out to that Thing in search of its own purpose?

I know God because there is a voice in me that tells me nothing makes sense without God to make sense of it. There is a voice in me (and whose voice could it be but God’s?) that tells me what is right and what is wrong, that makes me feel good when I do right, and feel bad when I do wrong. This conviction in me is so strong I have come to agree with Chesterton that the world is not an essay; it is a story. And if it is a story, there ought to be a storyteller; and the storyteller should not be one who specializes in the only kind of drama I have always despised… the theatre of the absurd.

The world we live in today seems to me on many levels absurd because it denies the existence of a divine story teller. The world has lost some common sense, to be sure, when it is argued by the Supreme Court that pornography cannot be defined, that the killing of life in the womb can be done with impunity, and that men should be able to marry men and women be able to marry women. Some kind of moral anchor has been pulled up, and we are tossed about in a tempest of moral relativity. The Catholic Church alone, it seems to me, still knows and teaches that common sense resides in the natural law. Catholic Christianity, attacked from all sides as the great enemy of progress, is in reality the only loyal friend left to the human race.

As to the absurd canard that only science can save the human race from itself, all the discoveries of modern science are now pushing us to the realization that the universe does have some kind of intelligent design behind it. Astronomers tell us that the universe at one time did not exist, and that it suddenly exploded into being. Carl Sagan, a scientist and atheist, said the early universe was filled with light. “Let there be light!” God said, we are told in Genesis. That image is too clever by far not to have been planted in the mind of the prophet by a Mind greater than his own thousands of years ago.

Max Born, quantum physicist, offered the following remark: “Those who say that the study of science makes a man an atheist must be rather silly.” Scientist Werner Heisenberg saw into the self-deception of “scientific” atheism: “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”

While I used to smugly suppose some merit in the advance of science as a way to discredit religion, this now seems to me a superficial and totally incomplete approach to life. There are too many issues that science is completely incompetent to address; not least of which are wisdom, ethics, aesthetics, politics, history, theories of knowledge, human destiny, and so forth. Science has no doubt provided some pleasures, conveniences, and comforts to many people; but it has also threatened by way of nuclear arsenals the future of life on this planet. The very mixed bag of scientific achievements has raised the question of whether science might, after all, lead as likely to Armageddon as to Utopia.

The fundamental dilemma of all atheist and agnostic thought is that it considers religion to be a neurosis, a failure of nerve. Atheists and agnostics, as Sigmund Freud often insisted, like to think that religion is wishful thinking for the immortality that is denied by the fact of death. It never occurred to me when I was an atheist that I might be the truly neurotic one. It never occurred to me to ask whether or not I was an atheist because I did not want God to exist. Nor did it ever occur to me to ask why I did not want God to exist. There is a profoundly developed answer to that question in Dr. Paul Vitz’s book, Faith of the Fatherless, which wonderfully upends Freud’s analysis of religion as a neurotic condition.

I do believe that someone, somewhere, prayed for me to overcome my atheism. I now believe that such prayers are necessary, and that they work wonders. The problem with atheism is that it cuts short the approach to God. Look at the biographies of many of the most famous atheists and you see they have chosen to deny God in their teen years, hardly a sign that the matter has been deeply explored. The ones who come back to God sometimes take decades to do so, and in most cases it only requires a little nudge here and there to make that happen. Some wait until the very end of their lives, and some return to God on their deathbeds without anyone knowing about it.

Here, briefly, is my favorite proof for the existence of God. The whole human race can be divided into two types: those who seek God, and those who flee from God. Nobody is sitting on the fence, even if they like to think they are. As Jesus succinctly put it: “He who is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30). Now there is no reason to seek a Thing unless you think in your gut the Thing exists. There is no reason to flee from a Thing unless you think there is a Thing from which to flee. Seeking or fleeing, we all believe in our gut that the Thing called God exists. Catholic theologians call this a dictate of the natural law. God planted in us a desire to know Him. We are free to embrace or reject that desire. But we are not justified to pretend that there is no Thing calling us to draw near, or no Thing from which we flee. Augustine said we cannot rest until we rest in Him.

Here is my second favorite proof for the existence of God. It rightly belongs to Thomas Aquinas, and is called the Prime Mover argument. This proof relies upon a willingness to believe that the universe was created by a Prime Mover. The only question to follow this concession is whether this Mover is a mindless Mover or a Person. At the very least, the Prime Mover, if it is to be regarded as a Person, must have will and intellect. That the universe once did not exist and came to exist with the Big Bang suggests very strongly that the Prime Mover willed it, or it would not have come to exist. That the universe came to exist, but is also dominated by laws that have produced not only order, but also minds (our own) capable of discerning the existence of that order, suggests intellect in the Prime Mover. As Albert Einstein put it, “I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangements of the books, but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.”

That the Prime Mover might want to have a personal relationship with his creatures is suggested by the fact that he chose to create them in the first place. If he doesn’t want personal relationships, he would not bother to make creatures who also want a personal relationship with him. I think that when Nietzsche said God is dead, he could have been talking about the impersonal God of the 18th century Deists. Yes, I believe that God is dead and pretty much forgotten today.

To followers of the world religions outside of Christianity, I say I am a Catholic because, if God exists, God must have created us for a reason that was clearly explained by Him to His prophets and to His Church. If God is truthful, God would have set up His true religion to compete successfully with all the other major religions of the world. And so He has. From one Jew in Israel, nailed to a tree, the ancient Jewish religion He (the Son of God) founded through Abraham and transformed through Himself has today gone out to well over a billion Catholics throughout the world. This is a miracle of the highest order that cannot be compared with the growth and longevity claimed by any of the other great religions.

Likewise, the compassionate life and death of Jesus leaves not one doubt for me that if God is Love, there can be no greater love for humankind than the love of the God-Man who laid down His life for His friends. The religions that do not say first of all that “God is Love,” as all the early Christians said, have no appeal for me. They are at bottom either indifferent or malicious. They tend to go the way of all flesh, and if they have not gone that way yet, they eventually will.

A true religion should be the most beautiful thing on earth. I love the beauty of the Catholic Church, warts and all, above everything else. For me there is no more beautiful way to worship in all the world; surely the truest religion would be wrapped in the greatest beauty. The Catholic Mozart said it best in his sublime “Ave, verum Corpus,” his magnificent tribute to our Lord in the Eucharist. A ten-year old boy in Lubbock, Texas saw the same beauty Mozart saw when, out of half a dozen different churches, the only one he wanted to visit again was Saint Elizabeth’s.

To my Protestant friends: all Protestants surely know that the oldest of their denominations cannot trace themselves back any farther than Martin Luther. Indeed, if all Protestants of modern European descent trace their family lineage back far enough, all their ancestors at one time were Catholic. The earliest of those ancestors who were Christians in the early Church always called themselves Christians, but at some point between the third and fourth centuries they began to call themselves Catholic (Universal) Christians to distinguish themselves from those who were calling themselves Christians but had signed onto the various heresies that were spreading throughout the empire.

Protestants will also see, when they study history, that the Catholic Church produced the Nicene Creed; that it collected and authenticated the books of the New Testament; that it defended the Western world from the violent advance of Islam into Europe; that it established the hospitals and universities of Europe in the Middle Ages; and that it was a Catholic who invented the printing press and published the first Holy Bible, so that the word of God could eventually be sent by book into every home in Christendom. Wouldn’t all these marks of distinction be signs of the true Church of Christ rather than the “harlot” mentioned by Martin Luther and others? As John Henry Newman, a nineteenth century convert from the Anglican Church, said about his conversion: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

I invite Protestants to reflect that thousands of denominations are a clear sign that a partial truth is in them, but certainly the whole truth cannot be in all of them, since they have added to or taken away from each other’s creeds thousands of times. Thousands of denominations do not make the one Church that Christ built upon the rock called Peter; for it was a Church (not Churches) that Christ promised the gates of Hell would never prevail against (Matthew 16:18). The lack of unity among Protestant Christians has been no less dangerous to the modern world than the growing lack of unity among Catholics today. As Aesop explained in his fable of the “Bundle of Sticks,” Christians who do not stick together will be easily broken, whereas it is impossible to break a huge bundle of sticks tied together.

I regret having been an on-again, off-again Catholic, slow both in my head and in my heart to hear the words of wisdom the Holy Spirit spoke to me in my youth. Once I might have been a priest. I threw that away. Then I threw away the truth of God when I left the Church. Miserable, I walked away from my first wife to start a long and isolated journey of my own.

Recently a dear friend of mine revealed that, when we first met, he noticed that something was missing in me. I believe that was surely so, and it may still be the case. Since Adam and Eve, I suppose something has been missing in all of us. A deep hole exists, waiting for what is needed to fill it up. And so I have learned in the most painful ways possible to look for what or who is missing; for signs that come in dreams, in coincidences, in narrow escapes, in seemingly chance meetings, in all the strange and winding curves of my life; signs that the Father has spoken words of truth to a stubbornly blind and deaf child. I hope and pray that by God’s amazing grace I have at last opened my eyes and my ears that I might learn to see, to hear… and to obey.”

Love,
Matthew