"Johnny, I’ll light a candle for you after Mass," said my grandmother.
I was 18 years old, and for over a year I had been pre-training with the Navy in the Delayed Entry program. I was supposed to be in Florida at boot camp. Instead I found myself sitting in the county jail facing many robbery-related felonies.
"A candle, grandma?" I responded. "You might as well take the garbage can outside and light that on fire for all the good it will do."
I wish I could say that my response was based on a loss of faith, or as a reaction to the pressures I was facing; the truth is, my response was based on a newly acquired anti-Catholicism.
A Target for Conversion
I was born into a Catholic family, baptized shortly after birth, and attended CCD classes until I received my First Holy Communion. After that, Church mostly became a twice-yearly exercise during Christmas and Easter. I had no understanding of even basic teachings about the faith.
When I entered the county jail, numerous Christians asked me if I knew Christ as my Lord and Savior. I replied that I was Catholic. Because these Christians did not consider Catholics to be Christians, I became their target for conversion.
I learned that "Bible-only" Christians were not lacking in jail, and, that besides being in the majority, they also tended to know the Bible. I already believed that the Bible was the word of God. Now, flipping through those pages, I discovered that God had plans for me which included freedom (from jail), health, and wealth. All I had to do was be "born again,": accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, be baptized in the Holy Spirit, speak in tongues, and, finally, name and claim every promise in the Bible in Jesus’ Name. It sounded easy enough. All I had to do was convert to Pentecostalism.
I bought into a version of God that resembled a vending machine. My "profession of faith" wasn’t truly repentance and seeking of forgiveness; it was a way to manipulate God into doing what I wanted him to do.
I studied the Bible with the aid of correspondence courses from various prison ministries, I attended Pentecostal Bible studies, and I believed people when they gave me a "word" from God about my soon-to-be freedom.
I was soaked in anti-Catholic teachings that discouraged me from returning to the Church, which resulted in my preaching against the Church to my family. My staunch anti-Catholicism produced such tension within my family that no one wanted to talk to me about Christianity anymore, lest we fight.
After my candle comment—and loads of anti-Catholic rhetoric—my grandmother asked a priest to visit me. Although I accused the Church of idolatry, promulgating heresy, and keeping its people in ignorance, the priest was kind and patient during our conversation. After I made it clear I didn’t need his visits or prayers, he quietly excused himself.
From Chaos to Calvin
After a year of Bible studies, prayer, and believing in a God whom I could bribe, I was convicted of several felonies and sentenced to life in prison—a severe shock. I was so disenchanted with God that I rejected Christianity altogether. I refused to believe in—much less serve—a God who didn’t keep his promises. It was at this point that my true faith showed itself, a faith that was faithless.
Once I was transferred to a state prison, religion became the least of my problems as older convicts tried to test my character through intimidation. Survival became more important than searching for God, and fighting to survive only deepened my hatred for a God who would allow this.
But then, in the midst of my chaos, God sent some peace by way of the Christian community. Though technically "non-denominational," most Christians I met in prison were Baptist in their theology. The one thing that struck me the most was that they were filled with love for God. Most were serving sentences equivalent to life in prison.
With much coaching, I got over my anger at God and once again picked up my Bible. I read, studied, prayed, and tried to know God, who showed me what a sinner I truly was and how much I needed his forgiveness and mercy. After truly surrendering my life to him, I decided to live for him even if I never got out of prison. I was re-baptized, after which I hungered for truth, traversing the denominational spectrum in search of it. For a time, I was comfortable as a "non-denominational" Baptist; then, however, I encountered the 16th-century Reformer John Calvin. Convinced that Reformed theology was truer "truth" than Baptist theology, I began to think of myself as a Calvinist.
Beliefs Subject to Change
About this time I was blessed with a scholarship, so I entered Liberty University, a conservative Baptist school. Until then, I had studied Scripture in a mostly read-and-believe fashion. School trained me in methods of inductive Bible study and expected me to apply my knowledge in my various Bible courses.
Then, growing uncomfortable with the consequences of Calvinistic thought, I used my training to merge elements of my Calvinism with elements of my Baptist theology. A friend once said that I nauseated him with my bouncing around within the various offerings of Christianity. I was being "tossed to and from and carried about with every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4:14), all in search of the elusive truth.
Although I defended my beliefs by citing Scripture verses, during a course on the book of Romans, I realized my beliefs themselves could never be certain, but were always subject to change based upon the interpretation with the most scriptural support, convincing reasoning, or dynamic teacher. When I asked Christians how they knew for sure what the Bible taught, most would tell me that they believed what the Holy Spirit told them the Bible meant as they read it. How could one know for sure?
In the midst of my wrestling with this problem, Pope John Paul II died. So many Evangelical Christian leaders spoke well of the pope that I started to wonder about my anti-Catholicism. Seeing how one man could throw the world into mourning, I decided to build some bridges with the Catholics instead of always blowing bridges up. I still believed the Catholic Church to be in error, but I decided to learn about the teachings of the Church so that I could share the Gospel with Catholics.
Across the Bridge
I had a good friend—whom I used to ask sarcastically to pray a Hail Mary for me—who was willing to help me learn about the Church. He invited me to attend Eucharistic services and RCIA classes, gave me a Catholic Bible, a Catechism of the Catholic Church, and, I’m sure, said that Hail Mary for me.
I studied on the offense, raising all the common objections about Mary, the pope, celibacy, sola scriptura, and sola fide. I read massive amounts of Catholic literature, including the Church Fathers. The more I read, the more answers I found. The more answers I found, the more Catholic I became.
My Protestant friends, seeing that while building a bridge to Catholicism, I was also crossing that bridge, tried to dissuade me. But the point-of-no-return came when I discovered the magisterium and the teaching on apostolic succession. Finally, here was the answer to my question concerning who was correct when various interpretations of Scripture clashed. Every Christian interpreter claimed to be right, but only one interpreter could demonstrate that Christ himself guaranteed its interpretation: the magisterium.
This point was especially powerful when I fully realized that the Bible hadn’t been canonized until the late fourth century. If I could only discover truth by inductive Bible study, how did the early Church know truth before the Bible was canonized, or even written? The answer was apostolic succession. The faith had been lived and transmitted long before it had been written.
Through reading of the Church Fathers, I saw the antiquity of the Church and its teachings. The Church’s task of transmitting and guarding the deposit of faith was clearly taught by the apostles and their successors.
Refuge from the Winds of Change
Instead of imposing idolatrous teachings upon her people, the Church was exercising the authority given her by Christ to interpret, protect, and proclaim the fullness of the Gospel. In all my years of searching for truth, I’d missed the one place where the fullness of the truth had resided for nearly 2,000 years. In trying to figure out for myself what Scripture meant, I had been missing the voice of Christ in his Church.
Now, I knew I had to join in the Church’s proclamation of Christ. My studies gave me the map to find my way home, and on August 20, 2006, I was received into full communion with Christ and his Church through the sacrament of confirmation.
It took many months to repair the rift in my family. By God’s grace, however, they came to believe that I was sincere in my return to the faith. My conviction has also helped them draw closer to Christ and his Church. Thanks to my grandmother’s candle, my mother’s prayers, and—no doubt—the Hail Mary from Mike, I have found refuge in the Barque of Peter and am no longer "tossed to and fro."