To many it may seem odd that I am becoming Catholic. They might say, "Who becomes Catholic? I thought people leave the Catholic Church?" I thought that myself at one point. I was literally the only person I knew who was becoming Catholic, at least prior to starting the process. I know plenty of people born in the Catholic Church, practicing and non practicing. But the vast majority of the people I know are Evangelical Protestant types. My own Family being almost entirely Baptist/Evangelical, the Catholic Church was very foreign to me.
There was no chance of me ever becoming Catholic, other than by God's guiding hand.
During my marriage, it became evident to me that the Bible could be interpreted by anyone in just about anyway. I won't get into all the specifics, but conflict in my marriage could not be settled by "the Bible Alone" both my wife and I turned to an outside Authority to "interpret" the Bible. Both of us held our beliefs, and not even "majority rules" seemed to work when it came to interpretation since a very good argument could be made that Jesus said "the gate is narrow and few find it". If that is true, perhaps the majority opinion was wrong. My marriage fell apart for a number of reasons, but this was at the core in my opinion. That said, the issue was shelved while my personal life was sorted out.
During this time, I made an effort to complete my degree at the local community college. I had to take one class....any class....to complete my residency requirement and graduate. I got into the only online class I could, Philosophy of Religion. My goal was to do as little as possible to get through the class to get my degree and be done with it all. As part of this class I had to go on two field trips, one to an Eastern Religious site and one to a Western Religious site. Both had to be outside of my own tradition. Naturally, I went to the local Roman Catholic Church for a Sunday mass to satisfy my field trip requirements.
I was taken back by the beauty of the Church, and even though I did not know exactly what was going on, I did my best to follow along and participate. It was very moving to kneel and seek forgiveness and be humble before God. I was so used to a tradition that was anything but focused on having a penitent spirit before God as part of the Sunday service. I would later be reading Thomas Merton's "The Seven Story Mountain" and can relate so much to his first experience in a Catholic Church;
"One came out of the church with a kind of comfortable and satisfied feeling that something had been done that needed to be done.....It is a law of man's nature, written into his very essence, and just as much a part of him as the desire to build houses and cultivate the land and marry and have children and read books and sing songs, that he should want to stand together with other men in order to acknowledge their common dependence on God, their Father and Creator. In fact, this desire is much more fundamental than any purely physical necessity."
To say that the mass was an impact on me is really an understatement. It was moving and spiritual, beautiful and intellectual. It was true and humble worship. Not a show, not a performance, not meant to entertain, not even really meant as a Bible study, but something much more than those things. It was not about me, but God and his relationship with me. I wanted to learn more and began reading, surfing the net, listening to sermons, and watching Father Barron's Youtube videos. I found myself sliding into the back row at a weekday mass to watch it all again. I found myself going to Catholic Mass and my Evangelical Church on Sundays.
I slowly and surely worked on the hurdles that I had with Catholicism. After all, it is all fine and dandy to have a beautiful liturgy, or an emotional experience, but that is not enough or of much value if the church is not teaching God's truth. The number one issue for me was Authority. This is where my issue with my marriage had left me and one of the first issues I had looked at. Who exactly has the authority to interpret what the Bible says? Even before I ever took that class and went to my first mass, I had deduced that in order to solve my scriptural dispute, I would need to look at the historical church to see what they said over the millenniums regarding the passages in dispute. Ideally I would find some writings from the early church in the decades after Christ that would corroborate one idea over the other.
Well, I found the early church Fathers, and their writings. Writers such as Justin Martyr, Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Augustine, and Ignatius of Antioch, Third Bishop of Antioch who was a disciple of the Apostle John. Ignatius of Antioch had a profound impact on me. It was he who says regarding the Authority of the Bishop (I had no bishop in my protestant tradition);
"Not that I have found any division among you, but exceeding purity. For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, and they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ]." -Epistle to the Philippians Chapter III 107 AD
"In like manner let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the Apostles." -Epistle to the Trallians Chapter III 107AD
"See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid." -Epistle to the Smyrenaens Chapter VIII 107AD
Such passages hit me like a ton of bricks. It was so foreign to my understanding of the Church and my upbringing. But it made absolute sense. It made absolute sense to me that Christ would leave his church with Authority to implement Matt 18. That when he said take your disputes finally to the church that he meant you could go to the church for resolution, and if you didn't listen, you could be disciplined. Such a church is what was lacking in my own personal disputes. Here is writing from the very early second century confirming such authority and no where do I read anything positive from the church about schismatics or "reformers" acting outside and apart from the bishops.
The authority domino had been pushed over for me, and when you relinquish authority to Christ and his Church the other dominos tumble just as fast as the first. I found though, that the Early Church had much to say about my standard Evangelical convert "problem points"; The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Infant Baptism, Sacramental Confession, Mary and the Saints. These were my hurdles like many others before me. Hurdles that more easily came down when trusting the Church's authority, but still needed work. I found the Early Church Fathers, and the corresponding Scriptures they point to, to overwhelmingly make the case for all of these. I found them not to be invented traditions, but core tenets found very early and throughout Christian History.
More and more, I found that I had been following a relatively modern tradition, with week roots to even the Reformation, let alone the early church.
Still uncertain if I should fully convert to the church, I prayed and asked God for guidance. I asked that he would clearly show me if I should make the conversion now or stay an evangelical who went to Catholic mass from time to time. I wanted to get involved in church, whatever church that was. So I emailed my Evangelical Church to see if they had a way for me to get plugged in. It was a large church, and I received an email back telling me about a ministry kickoff several months in the future where I could maybe meet some people or find a ministry. "Ok" I though, but it felt a bit impersonal. A bit like they were too busy to help me right now. I never felt unwelcome or anything like that, but just sort of lost in the hustle and bustle of a very large church.
So, I decided to find the local Catholic Church to visit since I had recently moved and had not attended a church near my new home. I googled it, and found three nearby, one of them seemed closer than the others so I went there. I was very happy with the priest's homily and the enthusiasm in participation of the congregation. They made an announcement at the end to check out their ministry expo in the fellowship hall afterwards. I eagerly went and found a table to inquire about small groups. After telling a fraction of my story, I was hugged and welcomed and taken and introduced to the RCIA director and his wife, both converts as well (There really are other converts I thought!)
Needless to say, I asked God for a sign of which Church I should attend and he could not have made it clearer. I found out later this ministry expo is one weekend per year, and I just happened to attend my first mass there that Sunday. I was enrolled in RCIA and began Inquiry followed by the Rite of Welcome and the full RCIA class.
It has now been over a year and half since that ministry expo, and two and a half years since my first mass. It has been quite a journey filled with God's provision and faithfulness. A time when my faith has grown, and developed. My love for Christ has blossomed, and my hope for the future increased. It is a time where I have learned so much of what God has for our lives, and how much I was missing before. A time filled with his grace and peace, and surrounded by a community that really truly cares for one another. A time to meet priests who have devoted their lives to God and shepherding his flock, a time to have my first Reconciliation, and experience really and truly God's forgiveness, and now a time to enter into Holy Week and be received into Full Communion with the Catholic Church. I know my road is just starting, but I cannot wait to see where it goes.
I was given this quote at my RCIA retreat beneath a picture of myself with my 8 fellow RCIA elect/candidates. It now sits framed in my dining room and it is how I desire to look at my Christian journey;
“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.
He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work.
I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place,
while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.
Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.” -Blessed John Henry Newman