Sometimes I just have to wonder about God. When I look at my life, I think he must have an enormous sense of humor. When I consider my convoluted path into the Church, it seems like he had a thin-but-sure thread tied to my heart that tugged me along the way—but in the end I had to claw my way in.
I was the second-oldest of four children. My parents were good people, but they were not particularly religious and never took us to church. I have no idea how it came about, but at the age of one month, I was baptized as a Lutheran.
I grew up in the ’50s and ‘60s in a neighborhood full of children and churches, and one evening several kind people knocked at our door and invited us to their Baptist Sunday school. It was held at the corner church, and so—just like that—my brother and I happily became Baptists. Our parents never participated with us, but they didn’t object to our going. When our two baby sisters were old enough, I would wake them up, get them ready, and then all four of us walked the five blocks to Sunday school. We never missed a Sunday.
The Accidental Baptist
When it came time for me to go away to college, I chose a small midwestern Bible college with a liberal arts curriculum. Attending a conservative Christian college in the 1970s was quite the social anachronism, but I loved every minute. The atmosphere on campus was at the same time holy and fun, and I was like a newborn babe just waking up to what it meant to be a Christian. I walked around with my eyes wide open.
The professors opened every class with prayer and taught every subject from a Christian worldview. We studied the Bible every day and had prayer meetings or sang hymns at night. Even the air seemed to crackle with faith.
But at college I felt much different from everybody else. The other students all seemed to be PKs (preachers’ kids), MKs (missionaries’ kids), or at the very minimum, kids whose parents specifically sent them there to get a good foundation in Bible Christianity. My friends came from identifiably Christian families, while it appeared that I was a Baptist by accident. My folks not only didn’t send me to a Christian college, they didn’t care where I went at all, nor what I was taught.
Many of the students were there for teaching degrees. Most of the boys were studying for divinity degrees, but all of my girlfriends were working for their “Mrs.” degrees. I finally went home without finishing and felt bad about it. I thought I had wasted my scholarship, as well as the money my parents had contributed. But I just did not know what I wanted to be. My conscience prevented me from spending good money without knowing God’s direction for me. Back at home, I went to work as a secretary, which I did for fourteen years.
During that time, my friends got married and began having children. Soon none of my crowd was single but me. I had a very difficult time with that. By the time we were in our late twenties, most of my friends had already started selling off their baby things, and I hadn’t even met “Mr. Right” yet. It was a disturbing time for me. I felt unfulfilled in my work; I felt unfulfilled in my personal life; and I still did not fit in anywhere.
My entire life, all I ever really wanted to be was a wife and a mother. That was why I had such a difficult time declaring a major in college, and why I felt so unfulfilled at my job. Of course, I wasn’t completely unhappy. I had joys in my life. But the pain of feeling unconnected in two major areas finally forced me to sit down with God, a legal pad, and a pen. God’s unmistakable tug was leading me to an in-depth study of myself.
From it, I learned that I was created with certain talents and desires. I learned that I truly believed that God had led me to the path I was on. And in the end, I told God that I had no idea why I was here, but that my footsteps were still in his hands. As unbelievable as it sounds, within the very next week I met my future husband.
I Can’t Marry a Catholic!
Our meeting was a practical joke by a friend of his. The first obstacle I encountered was that Terry was, of all things, Catholic. I was never prejudiced against people of other religious views, but I was pretty sure I would not be marrying a Catholic. It took some major mental acrobatics for me to make sense of that situation. Still, I recognized immediately that Terry was out of the ordinary. I couldn’t quite figure it out. It seemed that God had something in mind, but I was sure it could not be marriage. Terry told me that he had been praying for a wife who was weird like him. I guess I fit the bill, but he was nothing like the man I expected to marry.
My Baptist friends, of course, were completely against it. Just the fact that I was dating a Catholic resulted in volumes of letters filled with reasons and Scripture verses detailing how and where I was going wrong.
When we announced our engagement, the shunning began. My friends simply could not bring themselves to participate in the wedding showers. Attending the wedding was completely out of the question.
Another objection, besides Terry’s being Catholic, was his divorce. I was not completely comfortable with that, but my friends basically went ballistic. As literal Bible readers, they could never condone my marrying a divorced man. The annulment declaration didn’t mean a thing to them. It didn’t yet mean a great deal to me either, but it meant everything to Terry. If it mattered to him, it mattered to me. To him it meant we were free to marry, and that was all I really cared about.
The next problem to overcome was where we were to be married. Obviously, we could not be married in my church. We received zero support there. I agreed to go to the Pre-Cana classes through Terry’s church, but that was as far as the Baptist girl could go. It shames me now, but at the time I simply was not willing to have the words “Catholic Church” appear on my wedding invitations. This was quite an unsettling time for me. Our wedding date was coming up, and we had no church for the ceremony.
In the end, we found a gracious Baptist pastor who agreed to marry us. Out of a sense of gratitude, we began attending church there.
At Home in Two Churches
For most of our marriage my husband and I worshipped together at both churches. For a time we went only to the Baptist church, and for a time we went only to the Catholic church. But most often, we worshipped at both churches every Sunday. While I was used to going to two services every Sunday, Terry most definitely was not. To him it felt like our entire weekend was made up of church-going. Nevertheless, he didn’t object. Much to our surprise, we both acutely missed the opposite church if ever we went only to one. We saw the Catholic church as our place for worship and the Baptist church as our place for Bible study.
Attending the Catholic church with Terry was initially an adventure for me. I had rarely been inside a Catholic church before, and at first the thought of it was scary. Somehow I had it in mind that Catholics worship idols, although I don’t recall any pastor, Sunday school teacher, or Bible professor actually saying that. The Catholic kids in my neighborhood growing up hadn’t seemed to worship idols. Finally, after a discussion with Terry’s priest one day, I was able to dispense with that ugly suspicion. Fr. O’Neill was a mild and godly man who, with great patience, gently explained the difference between worshipping and honoring.
My husband and I discovered that we loved both churches and felt that both churches loved having us. Somewhere along the line, however, Terry confided that at the Baptist church, he never felt like he’d been “to church.” I didn’t get it then, but I do now.
In contrast I loved going to the Catholic church. Simply being there, I felt surrounded by a holy stillness. But the thing that surprised me the most was my physical reaction to the Eucharist, even though I knew that I could not receive Communion. From the beginning, I understood that receiving Communion meant agreement, not only with its meaning, but with the entire Church. Although I was not part of the Church, I became one of the staunchest defenders of the sacred nature of the Eucharist. The few times I witnessed its abuse, I became physically upset. And it never failed that whenever it was Terry’s turn to receive, I felt the constriction of my throat and the stinging of tears.
At the time I didn’t understand what was happening to me, but I’ve come to realize that this is my reaction when I am in the Presence. I knew that something was happening during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. God was tugging at my heart.
How Do I Get In?
One day I realized that my thinking was no longer the thinking of a Baptist. Once again, the feeling that I didn’t really belong began to bother me. In our adult Sunday school class, I had taken to defending and explaining the traditional (Catholic) point of view on various matters. I began asking out loud why we Baptists didn’t believe Jesus’ own words in John 6, about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. I asked what events had occurred in Christendom between the Apostles’ time and Martin Luther’s time. And I asked, since we so fervently believed in sola scriptura, what the Christians did before the New Testament was put together. Not even the pastor had the answers.
I began listening to Catholic radio and reading the new apologists such as Scott Hahn, Pat Madrid, Mark Shea, Marcus Grodi, Al Kresta, and Karl Keating. My book list was growing, and I found myself passing the information on to others, including my husband. Terry was nearly as amazed as I was at what we learned.
Finally, one day amid my morning errands, I stopped at our parish office to sign up for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. The office personnel scrambled, trying to figure out what to do with me. Apparently there were no RCIA classes going on, nor had there been in recent years. After a few phone calls and a mini-conference with the priest, the secretary finally came back and suggested that I leave my phone number. Maybe someone would call me about RCIA in the future.
Months went by. When we were finally able to set up a meeting, it turned out not to be RCIA classes at all, but an inquiry class with a priest, which would probably continue for a year or two. When I asked how long the actual RCIA classes would take, the priest answered it would be another year or two. This was hardly satisfying, but without an alternative I attended for several months. I was the only student.
Around this time two of my cousins died in quick succession. I discovered that one of them was catechized and initiated into the Church all within the week he died. I asked my priest why it would take me up to four years to accomplish the same thing. With all of my personal studies, I was ready.
I didn’t receive much of an answer, to that question or others I had. Every week I brought typical Protestant objections for discussion, but he rarely gave me a straight answer. Instead, I was offered diluted Catholic pablum that made him sound more Protestant than I was. I left each meeting shaking my head, feeling as if I needed to catechize him. I tried to interest him in the new apologists, but he was adamantly against that. When I asked if I should just start reading the Catechism, he was even more opposed. In the end, he got too busy to deal with me.
Home at Last
The following fall I saw an RCIA class advertised in the local Catholic newspaper. I learned to my delight that it would take only from September until Easter for me to become Catholic. To my surprise, both my husband and our youngest daughter followed me. Terry discovered that he had not been very Catholic, and so he followed the Baptist back into the Church. During Holy Week our marriage was convalidated, and at the Easter Vigil, our daughter and I were initiated into the Church. Now Terry is as hooked on Catholic radio and television as I am.
As for me, I feel a heavy burden for my Baptist friends. They are quite nervous about my conversion; meanwhile their church is in flux, with members leaving and searching for a new church home. My heart’s most earnest desire is to see them come into the Catholic Church—all of them, all at once, or one by one. I don’t know how to do it, but I believe in joyful, earnest prayer. If God could gently guide me into the Church, he can do the same for them.
My journey home has been entirely fulfilling, and I am happy to provide this glimpse into how a Baptist can become Catholic. In my whole life, I had never heard of such a thing. In listening to the new apologists, I was amazed to hear Catholic people who knew and loved the Scriptures, who cared about evangelism, and who insisted that their fellow Catholics live out the faith in their daily lives. They sounded like Baptists, but with two thousand years of history behind them. What a journey this has been.