How a Protestant Became a Canon Lawyer


Facebook is a fascinating vehicle. I've come across so many people people who knew me in my past, before Easter 1995—when I came into full communion with the Catholic Church. When they see on my  profile that I’m a “Christian; Catholic,” there are always questions. In chatting with these old friends, I’m reminded of the journey that brought me to where I am today.

Backslide-Proof

I was raised in Toronto, Canada, in a strongly Protestant family. My paternal grandfather had left the Catholic Church as a teen, and my father had been raised Pentecostal. My mother was raised Ukrainian Catholic but had also left the faith as a teen; when she met my father, she began to practice as a Protestant. So, following my parents, I was raised in the Pentecostal tradition. My father had gone to Bible college and was active in many different types of ministry throughout his life. When I was a child, he even ran a Christian record-and-tape club out ofour basement.

My family was rather strict. I went to a public school, but I was never permitted to socialize with school friends. My friends had to be my church friends. I was at church several nights a week and twice on Sunday. The restrictions on my life were endless—including no dating. My father told me, when he perceived sinful behavior, that he was not going to stand before the Judgment seat of Christ and be told that he let his daughter “backslide.” My room was searched, and all non-Christian music and books were thrown out. Even so, the strictness was an introduction to faith and Christ. I was given a basis for Christ to enter into my  life. That faith tradition put an emphasis on the Holy Spirit and how the Spirit moves in the life of believers. I was always taught to listen to and follow what the Spirit was telling me to do.

After high school I went to an Assemblies of God college in Missouri. I wanted to go far from home but still be in a protected environment of faith. There, I learned “all truth is God’s Truth,” and that stuck with me the rest of my life.

The Genesius Connection

After college I planned on going to law school, but I had no money for tuition, even two weeks before I was to leave for school. I was on my knees in church, crying out to God for direction and telling him, “I guess I was wrong and I heard you wrong. I guess I’m not supposed to go.” A young woman I’d never seen before came to me and said, “I’m sorry to  bother you. I know that you don’t know me, but when I saw you praying, I got a word from the Lord for you. I saw you in a vision. You had a mantle around your neck. You had a mantle of justice around your neck.” I knew then that not only was I to go to law school, but that I was to rely on God for the funding—and it came.

I went to the evangelical Regent University School of Law, which emphasized doing the Lord’s work. I knew that this was where I was supposed to be: I believed that God had called me to a ministry of justice, and as a Protestant, I felt there was nothing else for me to do. Although law school was a wonderful experience, I knew that this was not it for me. I loved the mental gymnastics of law, but not  the substantive base. It was not in my heart.

I began to do some theater to round out my interests. I was in a play based on the Catholic children’s story “The Clown of God.” After the production ended,  the directors gave the cast St. Genesius medals. I was told that he was the patron saint of actors; cool, I thought.

During my third year of law school, I served as the president of the school’s chapter of the American Bar Association, Law Student Division. One day I was sitting in my office doing some work and wearing my medal when two first-year students walked in to ask a question. They  saw the medal and asked if I was Catholic. I replied with a disgusted, “Um, no!” That was the start of my journey home. One of the young men became the person with whom I had all of my conversations of faith; the other was the spouse of the woman who would become my sponsor.

I became more involved with Catholics on campus. There was Mass every Wednesday on campus with a great Benedictine priest. The Catholics sat with me for hours, discussing the faith and helping me to understand Church teachings. The women invited me to a rosary group and taught me to pray and join into fellowship in ways I never knew possible. For any question I had, this wonderful community was there for me. Before long I joined RCIA, even though that year’s program was already underway. I read everything I could get my hands on—from the Catechism to all of the documents of Vatican II. I read Surprised by Truth and everything in This Rock magazine. I wanted to read everything by known apologists. I was hooked!

Found and Lost

Yet not everyone in my life was as supportive as my newfound friends. My father, in particular, took my becoming Catholic exceptionally hard. My parents were separated, and he took great personal offense to my choices. He said, “You are turning your back on your Christian heritage!” and I responded, “Well, if Grandpa was Catholic originally, aren’t I actually returning to my Christian heritage?”—at which point he would hang up on me. He said, “I am never walking you down the aisle of a Catholic church for a wedding!” and he was true to his word. When I came home for Thanksgiving break that  year, he wanted to see me. He took me to the home of his Bible college roommate, where I found myself in the middle of an “intervention.” Instead of “admit you are an alcoholic,” however, it was “admit  you are a heretic.” I sat in the middle of a room and was pelted with misrepresentations of Church teaching: Don’t you know that Catholics talk to dead people? Don’t you know that Catholics worship Mary? Don’t you know that Catholics sacrifice Christ on the cross over and over again? I sat, kept my mouth shut, and fingered the rosary that was in my pocket. My Catholic friends were horrified to hear about the incident. Although it was a sad experience, I know these people had the best of intentions. They believed that I was going to hell for my choices. I just wished that they had given me a  chance for real conversation.

Nonetheless, I went forward and was received into the Church at St. Mary Star of the Sea parish, Virginia Beach, at the Easter Vigil of 1995. I remember receiving the Eucharist for the first time and softly  crying when I returned to my seat. I was overwhelmed. A matter of days later, I graduated from law school. Now, all I knew was that I was not called to practice traditional law. My friends suggested that I consider canon law, but I could not afford the tuition at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. So I went back to Canada and studied for the New York bar exam. I admit  that I put no effort into studying. I did not want to be pursuing a career in law; it was not my calling. I took the bar anyway and failed by one point. That was the sign that I was looking for, but I  remained lost.

The Mantle of Justice

Next, I looked into religious life. I did a retreat with the Sisters of Charity in Toronto to decide if that was for me. The sisters informed me gently that I was not called to religious life but told me that I should look into canon law. I explained to them that I could not afford to study, and they told me about the other North American pontifical faculty of canon law, at St. Paul University in Ottawa. Because   of my Canadian citizenship, I was able to study there with discounted tuition, and I could work without restriction. All I had to do was get into the program. I had been Catholic for less than a year.

The admissions counselor told me that I had to take a couple of courses  over the summer, but I would be able to start in September. I was amazed! At the same time, I read an article about lay people in  Ottawa who were involved in abstinence ministry to teens. I contacted the group on the off chance that they would know of a place that I could live. The founder of the group lived in a community of  young lay women. They were a block from the school and had room for me. Everything was falling into place.

Then, I got thrown into the deep end of the pool. By this point I had been Catholic for all of 16 months. Suddenly I was studying with priests,  deacons, and religious. I had to learn a whole new    language. All I knew about the Church was what I had experienced in Mass and in my RCIA program. I was at a huge disadvantage. But I worked hard (making a fool of myself on more than one occasion) and got through with the help of a couple of wonderful priest friends—as well as the grace of God. However, unlike everyone else in my class, I did not have a sponsoring diocese or religious institute with ajob waiting for me when I graduated. So I began a job search.

In law school, I had sent out 450 resumes and did not get one interview. When completing my canonlaw program, I sent out six resumes, which resulted in interviews with all of them. Ultimately, I made the decision to take a position with the Archdiocese of Louisville. There I met a lot of wonderful people who gave me opportunities to be involved in all levels of Church work. I taught, wrote, researched, and advised. I was finally able to exercise that justice ministry that God had revealed to me years before. 

 


Jacqueline Rapp is an independent canonical consultant for dioceses across the United States. She resides in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband, Keith, and their daughters, Alexandra and Sabina. She is the coauthor of Annulment—100 Questions and Answers for Catholics (Servant Books,...

This article appeared in Volume 22 Number 3.