I was raised in the Church of the Nazarene, a Protestant church in the Wesleyan tradition. My mother, a single parent, made great personal sacrifices to enroll me at a Catholic school in the fourth grade, and I stayed in Catholic schools for the following six years. It was not easy to be one of the few Protestants in a Catholic school. It took some time to realize that the teasing and bullying I experienced on the playground had less to do with my religious affiliation than with the fact that I stood out. Nevertheless, I found myself drawn to the Mass immediately. I remember being embarrassed and hurt when a teacher pulled me out of the Communion line one morning when she realized I was not Catholic. No one had explained to me how it worked.
In a way, I think I wanted to belong to the Church at an early age. My grandfather, a retired minister with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, is a devout and God-fearing man. I always listened to what he had to say about the Bible and issues in the church. One element of our services that always bothered him was the move away from the old hymns to more modern musical “performances.” His concerns instilled in me an early realization that we were veering away from worship and moving toward entertainment. Our church services seemed less and less to convey God’s majesty and mystery.
Faith Meets Reason
My college years at Seattle Pacific University (a Free Methodist university) were a time of late-night walks and much thought and contemplation. Up to that time, I had compartmentalized my faith and my education. The idea that faith not only withstood but blossomed under the scrutiny of reason was not something I g.asped until I had the opportunity to attend university level courses. This, combined with living in an environment where living your faith was expected and encouraged, was a great preparation for a deep and spiritual life. The problem was that things didn’t seem so rosy after I left the shelter of the university’s campus.
I married Kimberly Collier, whom I met in a New Testament class at Seattle Pacific. We expected to settle down quickly in the “perfect church,” but we just couldn’t find it. From Lutheran and Baptist to Episcopal, we visited more denominations than we could count. We went to church after church and spent significant time in prayer on the issue. At times, we wondered if we were being too picky. After years of searching, we discovered the Episcopal Church in Salem, Oregon. The minister was a gifted preacher, and we soon became involved in various ministries through the church. All was proceeding very well until the Episcopal Church of the USA decided to ordain an openly gay man as bishop in August 2003. We realized we could not stay in a denomination that had taken this grievous misstep. It made an especially deep impression when the church leadership asserted that the Holy Spirit had led them to this decision. Many of us had come to a different conclusion. Much to our frustration, our “church shopping” began anew. One morning we decided to attend a Catholic Mass. We had been driving past this particular church for years but had never taken the time to visit. We were blown away by the Mass. It was beautiful. The message from the priest was powerful and filled with deep meaning for us. We weren’t quite ready to admit that this was where we belonged, though, so we took the kids and went to a Free Methodist service across town. Having just attended the Mass, the anti-Catholic sermon there made me want to storm out of the church. My wife recalls sitting on our back porch later that day and being so miserable that she actually thought of starting her own church. Soon, we began to seriously consider converting to the Catholic faith.
The first part of our spiritual journey was about being led to Catholicism. The next part of our awakening concerned a deep study of Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the writings of the Church Fathers. My father-in-law, John Collier, was a major help to us. He is the fine artist and sculptor who created the Catholic Memorial at Ground Zero in New York City. John was able to answer many of our questions and concerns about the Catholic faith. When a question stumped him, he put us in contact with priests or others who could answer our concerns. After a time, we realized that all stumbling blocks had been removed. Many issues we had thought were insurmountable turned out to be simple differences in vocabulary or required only a new way of seeing things. Through John and our RCIA program, God encircled us with knowledgeable people to answer our questions.
Six Pivotal Points
Six areas were pivotal in my acceptance of the Catholic Church as the one true Church established by Jesus Christ and entrusted to the first Pope, Saint Peter. Some were more of a hurdle than others, but they all had meaning along our journey.
This issue was pretty easily sent on its way. Did we accept that each person must interpret every Scripture passage on his own? We felt that there must be an authority somewhere to assist people in understanding the Bible, because the moral anchors were certainly breaking loose within many Protestant denominations. How could the Holy Spirit guide different churches in opposite interpretative directions about identical Scripture passages?
With the Anglican adoption of birth control at the Lambeth Conference in 1930 and the brief Protestant dalliance with eugenics, we were left with Protestant denominations that recognize abortion as a grave sin but don’t see the moral similarity between abortion and birth control. Although some great Evangelical thinkers such as Amy Laura Hall are starting to ask the tough questions, there is no consistent reasoning and truth regarding the culture of death that is tearing our world apart spiritually, morally, and demographically.
Non-Catholics frequently misunderstand the value and purpose of our pope. As we learned, Catholics don’t believe that everything the pope utters is infallible. Furthermore, the Catholic understanding does not represent trust in the pope as much as it represents a trust that God won’t permit his Church to fall into error. More and more Protestant churches appear to be heading toward moral relativism, as the great Anglican writer C. S. Lewis foresaw decades ago.
Did we have good reason to stay apart from the Catholic Church? How is it better that the mystical body of Christ is divided thousands of times into the different denominations of the day? Paul warned Christians to avoid exactly that, because we are called to reflect Christian unity to the world. We are members of a broken family; in time we may come back together.
The Real Presence
Before joining the Catholic Church, my wife and I were the first to insist on a literal interpretation of Scripture, but we balked at applying it to John 6, which describes the Eucharist as the actual body and blood of Christ. The disciples, too, were deeply troubled by our Lord’s words. If it were a symbol alone, it would not have been a challenging teaching, and Jesus would have clarified his meaning to the disciples. In fact, if his followers had so badly misunderstood, it would have been unlike Jesus to refrain from a deeper explanation of something so critical to our Christian faith. But nowhere in Scripture is the eucharistic mystery given the characterization of a symbol. The early Church Fathers recognized the Real Presence as central to their understanding of the Eucharist. We were convinced.
When my wife and I were studying to join the Catholic Church, the role of Mary was one of the hardest ideas to get our minds around. Coming from the Evangelical tradition, most of the new concepts we learned simply required a more logical and consistent interpretation of Scripture. Although the verses are clearly there, understanding Mary required something beyond biblical interpretation, and it was not easy. Slowly it began to make sense, and I recognized that praying to Mary is not the same as worshiping Mary: It was more along the lines of talking to a close and respected friend. When my eyes were opened to the truth of Mary, I was profoundly grateful for the opportunity to see her clearly for who she was and is today. The Catholic understanding of Mary hinges on accepting her as the New Eve. Eve disobeyed God’s call, but Mary listened attentively and obeyed in a spirit of selfless love.
As Protestants we might have carelessly declared many of these Marian beliefs to be meaningless and extra-biblical concepts that have no value to Christianity. Yet there are other core beliefs all Christians share that are not clearly defined in the Bible. The Trinity, for instance, is never spelled out in so many words, but its truth is made abundantly clear through a careful reading of the Bible and the wisdom of the saints who came before us. We were learning about Tradition.
God’s Leading Hand
In conversations with skeptical Protestants, I often explain the Catholic perspective this way: The Protestant tradition is like an artist’s canvas that contains all the necessary artistic elements in the foreground. The background, though, is bare of color or shape, white canvas awaiting the painter’s brush. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, is a canvas of rich and vibrant colors which seem to leap from the painting. Other Christians would be enriched if they could catch sight of the Catholic painting and drink in its richness—a perfect dovetailing of faith and reason. May God open all our friends’ eyes to this great beauty. As John Collier recently described this fullness of faith, “it was as if I had been worshiping in the basement all my life and got to move into the sanctuary.”
Our departure from the Protestant tradition was a reflection of God’s leading hand and presence within our lives. It was less a conversion than an enrichment and a blessing from God that allowed us to see the beautiful complexity of our faith. Each spiritual step we took prepared us in some new way for our ultimate destination, the Catholic Church. As my wife and I recently sat beside my dying grandmother in a hospital room overlooking the bright tapestry of autumn colors spread out below, I was comforted by the fact that we serve the same God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Still, I am thankful to have come home to the fullness found only within the Catholic Church.
I am reminded of my first confession and the mysterious fragrant breeze I felt that day. When I left the confessional, the cool breath of a pine forest brushed by my face. Later, I learned that scents and gardens have long been associated with some of the most powerful conversions. Augustine recalled being drawn to God again in the quiet solitude of his garden. I knew that this was God’s wonderful way of welcoming me to his Church. It’s good to finally be home.