Are we ever too old to "be transformed by the renewing of our minds"?
Could a lifelong evangelical Protestant missionary approaching her eightieth year be too old to become a Catholic?
On my journey home from a successful seven-week speaking tour to promote my newly published autobiography, something happened that would send me on another—unexpected—journey home.
Shocked Out of My Socks
To wrap up my writing career, and after a lifetime of evangelism among Chinese people, I had set off to investigate my own ancestral roots in Europe. I wanted to leave a legacy of my life not only as a heritage for my family but as a wider witness to God’s faithfulness and guidance. I traveled several times to Europe to research my cultural, ethnic, religious, and family roots.
I was satisfied that I had traced my religious roots as far back as I could—back to the martyr-reformer Jan Hus, born in 1372 in what is now the Czech Republic. He was burned at the stake for his reforms against what I called in my research "the corrupt Roman papal Church." Protestants claim Hus as their champion although he remained a Catholic priest to his death.
I took for granted that all my religious roots were Protestant as were those of my late husband, Ted. All our academic training and ministry was in the Reformed tradition although our mission work among the Chinese was nondenominational.
I didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary to happen to me now that I was pushing eighty. With the apostle Paul I declared that I had "finished my course." I would never have dreamed that I was on the verge of the most cataclysmic change in my life at an age when change of any kind is usually resisted, status quo is relished, and the rocking chair is preferred to rocking any boats. Or that what I thought was the finished story of my life was only a launching pad to writing an unexpected sequel—"the rest of the story"–and possibly other books about an as-yet-unfolded faith adventure.
It happened like this. Returning from my book tour I stopped to visit an author friend with whom I always enjoyed lively discussions about Reformed theology and our other mutual Protestant beliefs. To say that I was shocked out of my socks when she informed me that she had become a Catholic is an understatement. Frankly, I thought she had fallen into serious heresy.
I prided myself on being broad-minded since my husband and I worshiped and served happily with many Christian denominations, independent churches, and parachurch organizations in America and in Asia in the course of our ministry. That did not include Catholicism, however. I was not anti-Catholic, but I knew next to nothing about the faith. I assumed that the Protestant Reformation finally set the true Church on the right biblical track and left the corrupt Catholics in the dust worshipping Mary and the saints, blindly following papal authority, entangled in tradition, engaging in pagan practices, and working for their salvation. No one ever confronted me with the authentic teachings of the Catholic Church. Nor was I aware that I had spent my life only among the "branches" of the Christian tree and that the Catholic Church was really the main "trunk" with authentic biblical roots reaching all the way back to Jesus Christ, the apostles, and the early Church fathers.
I decided I must rescue my wayward friend. My well-intentioned strategy was to study Catholic doctrines firsthand to point out their biblical inaccuracies. I had been taught and strongly believed in sola scriptura and sola fide. From that solid Protestant evangelical platform, I felt well-prepared to shoot holes in Catholic faith and practice. I never dreamed, of course, that I could be moved from my position.
The Pursuit Begins
I continually prayed that God would keep me from error. My one desire throughout life had been to obey the leading of the Holy Spirit. I am not a novice Christian in discerning God’s voice but a seasoned veteran in the faith. So I rolled up my sleeves for a no-contest victory and the dramatic rescue of my friend from Catholicism. I trusted God to lead me only in his revealed truth, just as I have trusted him since the Holy Spirit drew me into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord when I was in my early teens.
So, determined to put my friend on the right track, I invested the next four years in diligent and open-minded research, including reading Church history and the early Church fathers. It took me so long not because I was a slow learner but because I began to have nightmares when I thought of the potential risk to my reputation in the Evangelical world were I to embrace the truth I was gradually discovering. I searched Scripture and wrestled with every.aspect of Catholic theology seeking to disprove it. I was unsuccessful.
My focus shifted from trying to rescue my friend to being personally confronted with the truth of the Catholic faith. I experienced a crisis. Could I retain my honesty and integrity if I refused to acknowledge and act on the conclusions I found? How could I ignore what God obviously allowed me to discover after I sincerely prayed and totally trusted him to lead me to the truth?
I was certainly not seeking such a paradigm shift in my Christian framework of faith. What would happen to my positions of leadership in Christian organizations and missions and my responsibility as a Protestant author? Was God really calling me to become a Catholic? I could hardly speak that word aloud!
I Must Buy the Field
I echoed the question of Nicodemus: "Can a man when he is old enter his mother’s womb again?" (John 3:4) when Jesus challenged him to make a leap of faith that would have public repercussions for his leadership status in religion and society. I struggled both with the when he is old part and the public repercussions. It was a matter of "Truth and Consequences" and it was a life and death matter to me.
I came to believe that the Catholic Church was not another religion or "another gospel" against which Paul warned, not an aberration of God’s truth, and certainly not a heresy. It was the original trunk of the Christian tree, preserved from error in matters of faith and morality by the Holy Spirit as promised by Jesus. It did not contain partial truths like the branches, but the fullness of truth. Could I live with myself if I failed to become part of the true Church even at this late stage of my life?
Over and over I counted the cost. Were I to become a Catholic, it would doubtless cause an earthquake that would shake and confuse my friends, family, and lifelong ministry co-workers. It would upset my extensive church relationships and unsettle the readers of my published books. I would lose my lifelong Evangelical friends. My reputation would be suspect—perhaps even my mental state! Doors for ministry now open would likely be closed to me. I am the matriarch of our family. How would this affect my responsibility toward my heritage, those whose role model I had become, whose lives I hope I have helped point toward Christ?
Nevertheless, when I have found the treasure in the field, as in Jesus’ parable, I should no longer consider the cost but be willing to sell all (including my Evangelical reputation) and buy the entire field. If this was truth, should I not be willing to leave the consequences to God? The consequences are of no consequence when compared to the richness of faith I was finding in the Catholic Church and the fullness of intimacy in the Eucharist with the same Jesus Christ I have known and loved and served since childhood.
Enough hanging suspended precariously over the Tiber but not courageously walking to the other bank! Enough scrutinizing of every doctrine and judging truth with my own fallible interpretation! Enough stalling after I heard Jesus’ clear call, "Follow me!" Enough anxiety about the potential fallout from my decision! Enough excuses about advanced age, difficult change, and criticism! It was time to finally, joyfully embrace the truth of the Catholic Church.
Branches to Trunk
On January 23, 2005, as the congregation at Mass sang the hymn "All my treasures I will leave on the sand there; close to thee, I shall sail other seas" I surrendered to my Lord all my puny, worthless, transient treasures of reputation. I left behind on the shore the lifetime nets that entangled me. Like the disciples, I responded immediately with the same fiat that bubbled from my soul as a teenager when I heard Jesus’ call: "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." True to his promise, Jesus has been working on making me for nearly eighty years. I am still in process, in formation, becoming conformed, transformed to the image of Christ, and pursuing holiness.
I am committed. I look forward eagerly to the adventure of "sailing other seas" with brothers and sisters in Christ who are part of the One, Holy, Apostolic Church which the Lord said he would build. I will let down my now-worn nets again in deeper waters anticipating a great catch of fishes.
My decision was followed by a year of RCIA where I was the oldest student. I continued learning from godly Catholic mentors who fielded all my difficult theological questions. I pursued personal study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, read dozens of books, listened to stacks of apologetic tapes, and seriously watched EWTN’s teaching programs, while continuing earnest prayer. I received great encouragement and help from my association with the supportive staff of the Coming Home Network.
I was received into Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Winchester, Virginia at Easter Vigil 2005.
I respect, appreciate, and value my Christian background among the "branches," the solid teaching of the Bible that I received, and the warm fellowship with Protestant brothers and sisters. As a Catholic, I have abandoned none of my biblical Christian beliefs but have moved deeper into the fullness of God’s truth.
Today, I want all of the undiluted, original life-flow that God intended and Jesus provided for his Church, his Body, his bride. Whereas I was formerly a temporary, happy camper among the Christian branches, I am now a joyful settler who is home at last in the Christian trunk of the Catholic Church.