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Dear catholic.com visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, catholic.com would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find catholic.com helpful? Please make a gift today. SPECIAL PROMOTION FOR NEW MONTHLY DONATIONS! Thank you and God bless.

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After Years of Church-Hopping, I’m Here to Stay

When I was ten years old, living in a Catholic home, I found a prayer card in our church, tucked beneath the Mass booklets. It promised that anything I prayed for would be granted if I brought a copy of the card to church for ten straight days. I had a crush on Martha, an exquisitely pretty blonde girl at school. I had my mother bring me to church every day, and I prayed that Martha would like me. Naively, I expected that, after leaving the tenth card, Martha would appear in the church parking lot—also driven there by her mother—and tell me that she loved me. That did not happen.

Not long after, my parents’ divorce drove us from the Catholic faith, and we wandered from church to church in search of real Christianity. But I remembered my prayer card when, twenty years later, I married Martha and again two years later when we were received together into the Catholic Church. God is faithful, it turns out, and in granting me my heart’s desire, he also fulfilled my heart’s desire for him.

Others, including John Henry Cardinal Newman, G. K. Chesterton, Karl Adam, Scott Hahn, Steve Ray, Karl Keating, Thomas Howard, and Mark Shea, have walked the theological ground of my return to the Church more expertly than I can. They have luminously expressed why they see in the Catholic Church the fullness of what Jesus Christ left us until he comes again. I can only describe how I came to my senses and came home to the Church.

Terrible Freedom

My father was a Baptist preacher’s son, but he was not a churchgoer then. My mother had been raised by devout Catholics but had never internalized her faith. After the divorce, my mother, my sister, and I simply left the Church. One moment, it seemed, I was in CCD class learning about transubstantiation, and the next I was watching in mortal fear as a Bible preacher slew people in the Spirit. Today, I am tempted to disdain the “full gospel” preaching I heard, but I know that the Good Shepherd was shepherding me even then. The gospel I heard may have been stripped down, but it was alive with the supernatural reality of Jesus, free of both modernist and anti-Catholic distortions. Even though there was no Catholic Church in my life then, I was told again and again about the person of Jesus Christ. I know now that every time I decided for him, raised my hand to him, sang with him, and went to the altar to meet him, the sanctifying grace given me at baptism flowered.

But God gives us the terrible freedom to smother his life within us. In my late teens and early twenties, I wandered far from genuine Christian living. Jesus remained, calling gently to me in my occasional prayer or Bible study, but I neatly divided faith from obedience. I married hastily and divorced painfully. I breezed through college and law school, chasing the wrong goals and the wrong women. I wandered from church to church, dismissing one message, one preacher, one worship style after another. I was groping not just for the Jesus of the Gospels (in whom I believed implicitly) but for the Church he had begun to build two thousand years ago, before the Gospels were written. I did not realize that Jesus and his Church are on earth the same visible reality.

During these years, I saw Martha once in a while. She was always kind to me but wisely kept her distance. She was raised Baptist but joined the Presbyterian Church in America in her mid-twenties. Her interest in theology and doctrine baffled me. Surely all that mattered was Jesus and the Bible. A job change brought me to Austin, Texas, in 1999, where Martha was living. I gave her church a chance, but the Calvinist insistence on God’s sovereignty puzzled me. I could not square the God of John Calvin with the God of Jesus Christ; I could not believe that the God who emptied himself to become a man and suffered the cruelest death on our behalf also predestined some of us to eternal damnation, apart from any choice of our own. After another round of musical churches, I settled on an Evangelical “free” church. By God’s grace, I began trying to live a Christian life around this time. Not coincidentally, Martha and I began a real friendship for the first time in our lives. We were soon engaged, and I decided to attend the Presbyterian church with her. Shortly after our wedding, we moved to New York City so that I could go to graduate school.

I credit the PCA churches in Austin and New York City—and the many wonderful Christians I met there—with leading me back to the Catholic Church. Their emphasis on doctrine eventually led me to investigate the historical development of the Christian faith. But I began with Augustine instead of Calvin. At the time, I was reading the journal First Things and modern Catholic thinkers such as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Robert George. These writers seemed vibrantly Christian. While leading a Bible study, I stumbled on the writings of Pope John Paul II on human sexuality, and on a whim I bought the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I began to sense the concrete reality of the Catholic Church and, above all, the authority it claimed to have received from the lips of Christ himself.

More Than Religious Vapor

Intuition rather than reasoned theology prompted me to investigate the Church further: I became repelled by the idea of denominations. Even with my weak grasp of Christian history, I could not accept the notion that Jesus had left us a “Church” that had no visible boundaries or coherent history, a “Church” that could not definitively settle doctrinal or disciplinary questions, a “Church” with no genuine unity in worship or in morality, a “Church” that could not be seen or obeyed or loved but only vaguely sensed, like a religious vapor.

I believed in the reality of the Catholic Church before I ever heard its claims. When interviewing for membership in the PCA, I expressed my frustration that the body of Christ was so scattered among the Babel of denominations. Our pastor, a wise man and a wonderful preacher, responded that this was a good pain to have. It began my earnest search for the Church that Jesus founded. I already owned a copy of its catechism. I found that the Catholic Church’s claims of oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity answered all the questions I was barely conscious I’d been asking. Before I finished Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home, I knew that the truth they were testifying about was Christ’s truth, not their own. I have since read so many books about Catholicism that Martha has had to put me on a budget. There are two millennia of reflection on the faith the Holy Spirit has planted within the Church, and I would gladly spend the rest of my earthly life like Mary, pondering it in my heart.

I would like to say that our entry into the Church and our subsequent time there have been a period of uninterrupted joy and growth. In many ways it has, but Martha and I have learned that the joy of Christ is often magnified by sorrow and that the growth Christ wants for us is often won through suffering. We moved to Mississippi, where I began teaching law and where Martha gave birth to our first child, Joseph. Immersed in a new job and in Catholic theology and apologetics, I was blind to Martha’s situation and deaf to her misgivings about joining the Church. Martha had been a sincerely committed Protestant for many years. Although she tried to warn me about how her family might take our decision, their reaction blindsided me. In theory, I can craft a pleasant dialogue in which I calmly meet their every bedrock Protestant objection to the Catholic Church with well-chosen Bible verses and telling historical examples. In practice, no such dialogue took place, and we have lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. Martha and I constantly pray for wisdom and for the grace of forgiveness.

The Honeymoon Is Over

We also have learned the painful difference between the exquisite fullness of the universal Church and the reality of the local parish. Just as we were rejoicing over the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, we were being confronted with the infidelity, emptiness, and incivility that often mark the post-Vatican II parish in the United States. For every Catholic who welcomes us into the Church and shares the fullness of Christ with us, five others shrug and write us off as “dogmatic.” For every person who attends a Bible study we sponsor and delights at the power of the Church’s teaching, others wonder aloud why we are so “authoritarian.” We left the comfortable family of orthodox Protestantism and incurred the wrath of our family for this? Our lowest moment came during RCIA, when the speaker attacked Pope John Paul II as a dark-souled depressive whom many Catholics hoped would soon die.

But the difficulties we experienced on re-entering the Church have only confirmed the truth of its claims. Only the true Church of Jesus Christ, founded by him and kept in virgin faith by the Holy Spirit, could have survived the last forty years of disobedience and banality in American Catholic culture. Only the flock shepherded by the Good Shepherd could suffer under some of its earthly shepherds without forsaking the faith. The same could be said about other troubled periods of the Church’s long pilgrimage in which, despite human failings, it has emerged unsullied.

The Church’s life in the world reflects the paradoxes of Christ’s life on earth. Despite apparent defeat, the faith grows whole and true, the voice of Christ speaks clearly in his Church, and the sacraments communicate the grace of his Resurrection. And so in our own lives. The Lord responded to my childish prayer card with grace beyond my imagination. Martha has embraced the faith with a humility and patience far greater than my own. Our son has been baptized, and all our children will be raised in the fullness of Christ’s truth. At every Mass we receive in the Eucharist what I had been seeking all my life, Christ himself. That is everything.

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