Category Archives: becoming Catholic

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

Conversion


-“The Conversion of St Paul” on the road to Damascus, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1600/1601, oil on cypress wood, 237 cm × 189 cm (93 in × 74 in), Odescalchi Balbi Collection, Rome.

-by Rev Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, OCD, Divine Intimacy, Baronius Press, (c) 1964

Presence of God – O Lord, You have created me for Yourself; grant that, with all my strength, I may tend toward You, my last end.

MEDITATION

In…Ezekiel 34:11-16, we read: “For thus saith the Lord God: Behold I Myself will seek My sheep, and will visit them … and will deliver them out of all the places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day…. I will bring them to their own land, and I will feed them in the mountains of Israel…. There shall they rest on the green grass.” This is the program which the Lord wishes to accomplish in our souls during the holy season of Lent, in order to lead us by means of it to a life of higher perfection and closer intimacy with Him. He stretches out His hand to us, not only to save us from dangers but also to help us climb to those higher places where He Himself will nourish us.

The point of departure which will make the realization of this divine plan possible is a new conversion on our part: we must collect our powers, desires, and affections, which have been scattered and are lingering in the valley of the purely human; putting them all together, we must make them converge on God, our one last end. In this sense, our Lenten conversion should consist in a generous determination to put ourselves more resolutely in the way of perfection. It means a new determination to become a saint. The desire for sanctity is the mainspring of the spiritual life; the more intense and real this desire is in us, the more it will urge us to pledge ourselves totally. In this first [full] week of Lent, we must try to arouse and strengthen our resolution to become a saint. If other efforts in the past have been unsuccessful or have not entirely reached the goal, this is no reason for discouragement. Nunc coepi–“now have I begun,” or rather: “now I begin”; let us repeat it humbly, and may the experience of our past failures make us place our trust in God alone.

COLLOQUY

“O Lord of my soul and my only good! Why do You not wish that the soul should enjoy at once the consolation of arriving at this perfect love as soon as it has decided to love You and is doing all it can to give up everything in order to serve You better? But I am wrong: I should have made my complaint by asking why we ourselves have no desire to arrive at it, for it is we alone who are at fault in not at once enjoying so great a dignity. If we attain to the perfect possession of this true love of God, it brings all blessings with it. But so [stingy] and so slow are we in giving ourselves wholly to God that we do not prepare ourselves to receive this benefit…. So it is that this treasure is not given to us in a short time because we do not give ourselves to God entirely and forever…. O my God, grant me the grace and the courage to determine to strive after this good with all my strength. If I persevere, You, who never refuse Your help to anyone, will strengthen my courage until I come off with victory. I say courage, because the devil, with so many obstacles, tries to make us deviate from this path” (cf. St. Teresa of Jesus, Life, 11).

Grant, O Lord Jesus, by the infinite merits of Your passion, that I may be converted to You with all my heart. Do not permit me to be discouraged by the continual return of my egotistical tendencies, or by the incessant struggle which I must maintain against them. Make me clearly understand that, if I wish to be completely converted to You, I can never make peace with my weaknesses, my faults, my self-love, my pride. Make me understand that I must sacrifice everything to Your love, and even when I have sacrificed everything I must still say: “I am an unprofitable servant,” O Lord, because everything is as nothing, compared with the love which You deserve, O infinitely lovable One!”

Blessed Lent,
Matthew

becoming Catholic, Dr. Allan J. Cease

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-by Dr. Allan J. Cease, Dr. Allan Cease served in ordained Protestant ministry for nearly 28 years before his confirmation in the Catholic Church in 1997. He is a graduate of Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA with a Bachelor of Arts in history. He also received a Master of Divinity degree from Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Drew University, Madison, NJ. He has pastored various United Methodist churches in Northeastern Pennsylvania and South Central New York. His ministry has further included chaplaincy positions in two hospitals, a nursing home, and a state-run residential facility for adults with intellectual disabilities. Dr. Cease has also worked over ten years for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. Now retired, he lives with his wife and son in the house in which he grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania. He can be contacted by email at ajcease142@yahoo.com.

“After 51 years as a Protestant and 28 years as a United Methodist clergyman, I have come home to the Catholic Church. To my delighted surprise, I have found it to be a “pearl of great price.” Let me share with you my faith journey, my journey to Christ and with Christ and my discovery of the fullness of the Church. In so doing, I wish to highlight the joy which emerges through struggles and hardships and, in fact, is made all the more exuberant because of them. My story is a journey to joy!

Some people who come to faith in Jesus Christ have a “Paul” experience. Like St. Paul, they have a dramatic conversion when almost instantaneously they are changed from unbelief to belief and in a moment are brought from darkness to light. These testimonies are wonderful to hear, but they represent a small percentage of the people who have been won to Christ. Most of us have a “Timothy” experience rather than a “Paul” one. St. Timothy was a protégé of Paul, whose mother and grandmother were Christians. He was brought up in the faith and, so far as we know, did not have a dramatic conversion experience. I am one of those rare individuals who has had both a “Paul” experience and a “Timothy” experience.

My childhood was a “Timothy” experience. I was brought up in a devout Methodist home in Northeastern Pennsylvania. From my earliest days, my mother and grandmother read the Bible to me, prayed with me, and sang hymns for me daily so that I came to know the love of Jesus at a very early age.

Call to Ministry

By the time I was in fifth or sixth grade, I had a steadily increasing sense of God’s call to ordained ministry in the Methodist Church. I also had a consistently Methodist education in prep school, college, seminary, and, after entering full-time ministry, in another United Methodist seminary where I completed a Doctor of Ministry program. Starting with my second year in seminary, I became a pastor. Over the course of the next 26 years, I would pastor several United Methodist congregations in Northeastern Pennsylvania and the Binghamton, New York area.

In 1976, I met a young lady from Endicott, New York named Lynne Hess, who was also studying for the ministry. Lynne and I fell in love and were married in 1980.

“You’re Not Playing Bingo!”

Several years later while I was serving a congregation in Binghamton, Lynne was having a spiritual struggle that led her to become a member of the Catholic Church. When I came home one day, she told me she was planning to become Catholic. I voiced my objection, not by lifting up some esoteric point of dogma or theology. No, the first thing I said, believe it or not, was, “You’re not playing Bingo!” I did, in fact, strongly object to the idea of her becoming Catholic. Indeed, I took it as a personal repudiation of me and my ministry. I had never considered myself to be anti-Catholic in any degree, but I believed that Catholics had added certain unscriptural and unnecessary elements to the pure faith in Christ, which Protestants, through Luther and the Reformers, had restored. Over time, however, I began to see how happy Lynne was as a Catholic and how greatly the Catholic Faith was helping her spiritual life as well as how she was taking great pains to be active in my congregation and be supportive of my ministry with the approval of her priest. These realities helped me to accept her decision, although I still had no conscious inclinations toward Catholicism on my own part. Lynne was journeying to joy!

Two years later after we moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, our son Christian, who was attending a Catholic parochial school, told me that he too wanted to receive First Holy Communion and become Catholic. When I asked him why, he said, “Because I want to have Communion every week, not just once a month, and besides, it is really Jesus!” I then gave him my blessing, amazed that such words would come from an eight-year-old Protestant boy! In retrospect I now realize that the blessing I gave my son was a tacit admission of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a truth I was not yet ready to acknowledge. Yet, through this conversation my son had sown a seed that, I believe, played a significant role in preparing me for the Catholic Faith.

In 1990 we moved to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, so that I could pursue a position as a resident chaplain at the Williamsport Hospital. The itinerant system by which we moved every few years and other pressures of pastoral ministry were taking a toll on our family. We hoped that by my entering institutional chaplaincy we would be able to live in one place for a longer period of time and bring more stability to our family life.

At the same time I was growing disenchanted with some of the liberal theology of the United Methodist Church and especially its pro-choice position on abortion and its continual controversies over the ordination of homosexuals. So although I was intending to become endorsed as a United Methodist chaplain, I was actively looking into transferring my orders to some other Protestant denomination. I considered the Lutherans, Episcopalians, and the United Church of Christ, but I soon discovered that they were having the very same problems with these moral issues that the United Methodists were, and, in the case of the latter two, the situation was even worse. There seemed to be a lack of consistency with historic Christianity on several key matters and no central authority to prevent the church from voting every four years on whether abortion or the practice of homosexuality and remarriage after divorce were right or wrong!

A Life-Altering Weekend

In August 1993, one month before I was planning to appear before the United Methodist committee which I was hoping would endorse me as a chaplain, my wife told me she wanted to attend the National Sacred Heart Conference at Franciscan University

in Steubenville, Ohio. Lynne told me one of the speakers was Msgr. John Esseff from Scranton, a priest whom I had known and admired for about twenty years. To her surprise, I agreed to go with her. We decided, however, that I was not obligated to attend any of the conference and if at any time I didn’t want to be at the conference, I could go sightseeing in nearby Pittsburgh.

As it turned out, I did attend the conference, every session, even the ones about the Sacred Heart of Mary. I did get into some confrontations with certain militant Catholics over doctrinal issues, and I blew my cool when one young man told me that Martin Luther was the AntiChrist! I think that most of the people in the cafeteria that day could hear me yelling back my defense of Luther and the Reformation during that lunchtime “conversation.” In spite of this, I kept attending the sessions. I was enthralled by Msgr. Esseff’s Saturday evening youth program, but the conference still had no life-changing effect on me until the next morning when I attended the Mass that closed the conference. What was about to happen to me was my “Paul” experience to follow my “Timothy” one. As a Protestant, I had already been converted to Christ; now I was about to be converted to the fullness of the Church.

During Communion, as the Catholics in the room were going forward to receive the Eucharist and I remained in my pew in prayer, I was suddenly overpowered by the awesome presence of holy love. In an indescribable way I was bathed with the Spirit of the Lord and began to weep openly. I regained my composure, however, by the time my wife and son returned to the pew. I believe that, at that moment, I received what St. Thomas Aquinas called “spiritual communion,” that is receiving the graces of the Eucharist without actually receiving the Eucharist.

After Mass I did not say a word about what I had experienced even though I felt a love, a joy, and a sense of holiness in my spirit I could not describe. But as we were pulling out of the parking lot to leave the conference I nearly caused Lynne who was driving to swerve off the road when I said, “I think the Lord wants me to become a Catholic!” Then I shared with my wife and son what I had experienced during Mass. But I also found my defenses going up as I began to list all the reasons I did not want to be a Catholic and should not be one. These ranged from doctrinal beliefs which I considered unscriptural to vocational issues such as my call to ministry. I knew at this point in my faith journey that I most certainly did not want to become Catholic, but somehow in my innermost being I was compelled to do so.

Upon returning home, I decided to enter the inquiry stage of RCIA (The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). It was providential that there was a newly ordained permanent deacon at the parish in South Williamsport where my wife and son were members. He had also been a Protestant minister for many years. In fact, at one point he had served as dean of a Protestant theological seminary. I started to meet with him regularly to discuss the Catholic Faith. I tried to be brutally honest about my objections to what I thought Catholics believed about Mary, the Pope, purgatory, and other doctrinal issues. In response, the deacon would give me sections of the Catechism and the documents of the Second Vatican Council to read and respond to. What I read in those documents and heard from the deacon’s instruction went far beyond what I expected. Much of it was not what I thought Catholics believed. Not only to my great surprise was Catholic teaching in total harmony with Scripture, I discovered that I already believed much more of it than I had thought I did. I did voluminous reading. I digested the Catechism and some of the writings of the Church Fathers. I searched the Scriptures to find support for Catholic teaching, and, as a result, became more convinced that in the Catholic Church is the fullness of truth. I was still wrestling with various issues, though, and did not enter the Catholic Church at that point.

The Eucharist Drew Me

Pivotal to my conviction of the Catholic Church having the fullness of truth was my increasing awareness of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is not surprising, since the Eucharist is so absolutely central to our faith and identity as Catholic Christians.

Holy communion has always been very important to me. As a Methodist, I believed that communion was a sacrament and, as such, conveyed divine grace. I further believed that our Lord was indeed spiritually present in this sacrament; but also that the bread and grape juice, while special and sacred, remained bread and grape juice after their consecration. For many years I had never thought there was a need for me to rethink or re-experience the meaning of Christ’s presence in the sacrament. But in the decade before my Steubenville experience, I was gradually discovering there was something more.

Interestingly, a liturgical renewal within my Protestant denomination played a role in this process. In the mid-1980’s, the United Methodist Church issued a new Order for the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper which bore a much closer resemblance to the Vatican II Liturgy of the Mass than did the previous ritual, which had emphasized holy communion as a memorial meal symbolized in bread and cup. The new one offered a shift in emphasis and startled me with the words that had been added to the calling down of the Holy Spirit section (“epiclesis”) in the so-called Prayer of Thanksgiving. These words ask the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine the Body and Blood of Christ for the worshipers.

One day after having offered this prayer, it truly hit me what I was asking the Lord. I was not asking God to turn these communion elements into representations of Christ’s Body and Blood, but into His actual Body and Blood! That thought, especially after my Steubenville experience, blew me away! I began to ask myself, “Do I really expect the Prayer of Thanksgiving to be answered? Can Jesus Christ actually transform ordinary bread and wine into His actual Body and Blood, and will He do it?” At that point I had not yet adequately grappled with the issues of apostolic succession and the validity of a Protestant celebration of the Eucharist, but that change in the Methodist liturgy started me down the path of acceptance and appreciation of both transubstantiation and the Catholic Mass itself when I actually encountered it.

During my final years of Protestant ministry, I was serving as a part-time chaplain at a large state-operated residential facility for adults with intellectual disabilities. My offering of holy communion to the individuals who lived there also caused the Holy Spirit to enlighten me about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. As I ministered to these individuals who had moderate, severe, and profound cognitive disabilities, I realized that when I held aloft the communion wafer and said to them, “The Body of Christ,” many of those who heard these words were incapable of comprehending them as symbol but understood them literally. It dawned on me in the course of this ministry that these folks truly believed that wafer was what I said it was — the Body of Christ. Beginning to look at the Eucharist through their intuitive spirituality, I began to believe it, too.

These experiences intensified the insights I was gaining from reading the Church Fathers, who I discovered were unanimous in their teaching that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of the Lord.

Additionally, I saw the sixth chapter of John in a new light. I came to realize that when Jesus said, “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (John 6:55), He was not speaking in metaphorical terms but in literal ones. If His language had been symbolic, He certainly would have clarified the matter promptly for those disciples who “turned back and no longer went about with Him” (John 6:66), but He did not. I came to see that in an earlier passage when Nicodemus misunderstood what Jesus was saying about being “born anew” (or “born from above,” John 3:3-4), the Lord did offer an explanation. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). But in John 6, Christ’s words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood stood with no modification. Their meaning was seen to be self-evident and obvious. As astonishing as it seems, the Eucharist is the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ!

Trouble With Mary

Another serious doctrinal issue I had to overcome in my pilgrimage centered on the Catholic teachings about Mary. I thought that Catholics made too much of Mary and, since we could go directly to Jesus as our Mediator and Advocate, praying to Mary was unnecessary at best and blasphemous at worst.

I recall one afternoon when our son came home from parochial school with a rosary given to him by his teacher. When he asked me to pray the Rosary with him, I wanted nothing to do with it. I remember getting up, saying, “Get that thing away from me!” and walking away with Christian running after me with his rosary in hand before Lynne thankfully intervened. For me at that point in my faith journey, the Rosary was an obsolete remnant of the Middle Ages that was connected with superstition for illiterate people, not the beautiful and powerful aide to intimacy with God that I now know it to be. In the years that have passed since my son chased me around the parsonage with his rosary, the Holy Spirit has helped me to see that our Catholic devotion to Mary does not take anything away from Jesus, but instead it exalts Him!

When we pray to Mary, we are not looking at her as an object of worship, but merely asking her to direct us to her all-gracious Son in praise and intercession. When we affirm her Immaculate Conception we are not declaring that Mary needed no Savior, for as the Catechism states, “She is redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son’” (CCC, paragraph 492). Rather her preservation from original sin is fitting in light of the reality of the Incarnation since Mary bore in her womb the Second Person of the Godhead who was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

In summary, I have discovered that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the other Catholic dogmas concerning Mary are not superficial appendages to our Christian beliefs but are necessary to a complete development and appreciation of the miracle of the Incarnation. Although one cannot definitively quote chapter and verse from Scripture to “proof text” some Marian doctrines, they logically follow from a full understanding of who Jesus truly is, God Incarnate, a belief that all Christians can gladly affirm!

Vocational Concerns

The vocational and practical issues of my coming into the Church were more problematic than the doctrinal ones. After all, I was married and assumed I could not be a priest. Ever since I was in elementary school all I ever wanted was to be an ordained minister and I was finding that dream shattered. Besides that, being a pastor was the only occupation I had ever known. I had never actually had a job in the secular world.

In 1994 I resigned from the church I was pastoring, took an early retirement from the United Methodist Church, and started looking into secular jobs while still pursuing the part-time chaplaincy position I continued to hold, ministering to adults with developmental disabilities. The next five or six years were extremely difficult financially and put tremendous strain on me and my family. During that time, my wife waged a terrible battle with bipolar disorder and was hospitalized numerous times in various mental health units. I was also terrified about how I should approach my mother about my decision to become Catholic. She was now in her upper 80’s and in very poor health. I was sure that the news that her son the minister wasn’t going to be a minister anymore would break her heart and spirit. All of these obstacles delayed my entrance into the Catholic Church.

An Authority I Could Trust

When all is said and done, the key issue in my entering the Catholic Church was the matter of authority. I was frustrated and despairing over the Protestant denominations’ inability to speak and act with a unified, consistent authority on several significant matters of faith and morals. I was drawn to the Catholic Church because I began to see that when Jesus gave His authority to the Apostles (cf. Matthew 10:1; 28:16-20), He was bestowing it upon His Church. I became increasingly convinced that the unity and consistency of that authority to speak and act in His name was most fully present in the Catholic Church.

In 1997, as I was moving towards my final weeks of RCIA, this conviction was put to the test when I read the Easter Vigil liturgy and encountered the statement I would have to affirm in order to be confirmed as a Catholic: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” That word “all” threw me at first. As a Methodist, I did not feel required to accept everything my denomination taught as revealed by God. So I thought to myself, “How can I affirm that statement? I still don’t know all that the Catholic Church believes and teaches, and some of what I think I know I’m still not sure about including some of that stuff about Mary.” Yet I was sure about this matter of the authority of the Church in its faithfulness to apostolic teaching. So I affirmed what I knew, trusted twenty centuries of apostolic teaching for what I didn’t know or wasn’t sure of, and gladly and gratefully read the entire statement at Easter Vigil without hesitation.

I was confirmed and received my first Eucharist in the Church that Jesus founded through the Apostles. I will remember and cherish dearly that wonderful Easter Vigil in 1997 all the remaining days of my life. It was an occasion of profound joy even though I still did not have a permanent full-time job at the time, and we were still facing severe financial, emotional, and marital difficulties as a result of the many pressures we had to endure. It was a journey to joy in the midst of the dark night of my soul as I continued to wrestle with what sort of vocation God had in store for me.

Our financial woes continued to mount until I secured a full-time position with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania late in 2000, but it was too late to save us from bankruptcy and too late to save our marriage. Lynne and I separated in 2000, and I very reluctantly granted her a divorce in 2003. For several years I lived a life of celibate singleness, keeping in touch with Lynne as a friend and praying for the restoration of our marriage.

In 2007 my prayers were answered when Lynne approached me about getting back together as husband and wife. We agreed, however, that before setting a date for our reuniting, we would test our relationship by participating in a Retrouvaille weekend at our diocesan retreat center. (Retrouvaille is an outstanding Catholic program for couples with troubled marriages, an outgrowth of Marriage Encounter. I highly recommend it.) On December 18, 2010, Lynne and I reaffirmed our marriage vows before the altar of St. Therese’s Church in Shavertown, PA.

I was relieved to discover that many of my fears and apprehensions about becoming Catholic were largely unfounded. When I told my mother I was Catholic several months after I was received into the Catholic Church, she took the news better than I expected, and so did most of my other relatives and friends. Additionally, although I have not become a priest or deacon, I have no shortage of opportunities to use my pastoral gifts and training in my local parish. At St. Therese’s I have served as a lector, Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, catechist for RCIA and SPRED (special religious education), Lenten Scripture study leader for four years, member of the Parish-Pastoral council for three years and chairperson for one; and a member of the Liturgy Committee and the newly formed men’s faith sharing group. I have been at no loss of occasions to serve our Lord. The pastor and members of St. Therese’s are giving us tremendous encouragement and support.

In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say, ‘Rejoice!’ Have no anxiety about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4; 4, 6-7).

Do you know what was going on with Paul when he wrote those words? He wasn’t sitting in an ivory tower or enjoying a time of pleasure and ease. No, he was shackled in a dark dingy prison cell, not knowing from one moment to the next whether or not he would live or die. Yet he was moved to write, “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say, ‘Rejoice’!” What could possibly give the apostle boundless joy in the midst of such desperate circumstances? It was the knowledge that “the Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:5). He is coming someday on the clouds of glory. He is coming today and every day to bring us peace in the midst of pain, hope that disperses despair, and joy that no sadness or heartache can overcome. Jesus will lead us all on a journey to joy if we but trust Him. Thank God for the Catholic Church!”

Love & joyful welcome. Be patient with us, we are a church of sinners.
Matthew

becoming Catholic, “There is a ‘there’, there.”, Russell E. Saltzman

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-by Russell E. Saltzman

“For thirty years I labored away in parish ministry as a Lutheran pastor. Then for another four years, I was a district dean for the North American Lutheran Church (a supervisory work I enjoyed about as much as tooth decay).

Now, as I write this in the run-up to Holy Week, I am about to become a Roman Catholic, along with my wife; me for the first time and her for the second.

You may blame her for my conversion (though I think of it as a natural transition, as you’ll see). She was raised Roman Catholic and became Lutheran. Her father was raised Lutheran and became Catholic. Life is a darn strange thing at times. Her father died two years ago, and in the throes of watching that good man give up his life to ALS, she felt a tug back to her childhood faith.

To my surprise — hers too, I think — I said I’d tag along. Actually, it wasn’t much of a surprise to me. From seminary on as I became enmeshed in the Lutheran confessional documents from the sixteenth century, I progressively became more catholic in my thinking. What I sought for my faith was an ecclesial density; the feeling that there is a “there” there. The state of Lutheran church bodies in America simply does not approach it.

But it isn’t only out of disappointment as a Lutheran that I am becoming Roman Catholic. There is conviction behind this move. That rises along several avenues.

1) Some of my seminary class work, back in the late 1970s, was done at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio. I had classes in Sacramentology and Marian studies, taught by two old school Jesuits. I found myself in a classroom, the lone Lutheran surrounded by a horde of Salesian seminarians. It was exciting.

What impressed me was how close Lutherans and Catholics really are in basic doctrines and in the respective theological formulations. We ― Romans and Lutherans ― do theology alike, and possibly in a way nobody else does. We pay close attention to our words. Each word is weighed and compared to alternative words that might be used but pose less precision. Precision in wording, it seems, will keep us out of theological hell, and if the exact words aren’t the exactly proper words placed in the exact proper order, well, do not doubt it, we are all certainly doomed.

When you think about it, it’s actually a pretty charming approach. It also means that when Lutherans and Catholics do sit down together, they have a common language and speaking it together often results in surprising outcomes, as in 1999 with the doctrine of justification.

That’s one level. At the parish level, there is no consistency in how catholic a Lutheran congregation will be or can be. It’s that density thing I mentioned; pointedly, Catholics got it, Lutherans don’t.

2) When my wife said she was thinking of turning Roman again, I started wondering just how Lutheran I still remained. I had the influence of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus tugging at me. I was his successor at Forum Letter, a Lutheran publication he edited for 16 years (I did him a year better). In his years as a Catholic priest he would often nudge me, come home. The last correspondence we exchanged was on that topic. After his death there were a couple nights in my dreams when he whopped me upside the head because I hadn’t done it. The man had, in his Lutheran years, deep impact on my pastoral life as a Lutheran, and that only intensified in the years he was a priest. I enjoy telling people I discovered Neuhaus wheedles as well dead as he ever did alive.

The more I thought things through the more I realized most of the Lutheran clerics I admired most — and with whom I enjoyed the comradery of the Lutheran pastorate — had, one by one, left for Rome. It seemed I knew as many priests as I did pastors, and after a while, not a few of those pastors had became priests. There I was on the shore, hailing good-bye as they left.

For a short while after Neuhaus’ death I helped edit the magazine he founded, First Things. Though not explicitly Catholic, it is usually regarded that way. For the last six years, coming up on seven, I have been a regular columnist at the website; I was a Lutheran writer; now I’m a Catholic writer.

3) It became very easy for me to become Roman Catholic. But the key of course is not convenience, but conviction. I came to believe that the essence, more like fullness, of the Church of Christ is found in churches in communion with the Church of Rome.

I reject nothing of being a Lutheran. That is the transition, not the conversion; I am moving, but the Christian faith that has marked my life is coming with me. I learned my prayers as a Lutheran, memorized the catechism, and when I was struggling out of the well of agnosticism tending to atheism every third or fourth day, God put in my life some challenging, passionate, authentic Lutheran pastors who taught me well. For a guy who in those years did not believe Christ was raised, it was in a Lutheran community founded in the Resurrection of Christ that I first believed there had been a resurrection. What may I do with that, save give God praise?

Being a Catholic isn’t a finished job — not for me, not for any of us, as I think about it. We do not occupy a perfected Church. But then it is not our job to make it perfect; that’s God’s responsibility. But we are promised a holy Church being perfected. There are always discoveries of faith awaiting each of us.”

Brothers & sisters, converts & reverts, welcome! Welcome back! Welcome home! Be patient with us cradles, we are a church of sinners.

Love,
Matthew