Every conversion story has its dramatic moments. Since history is the story of God’s search for man and man’s response to being found, the drama of their meeting is not surprising. Conversion is the most radical moment in a person’s life, a moment in which God’s grace effects a change in a person’s relation to him. No matter how glamorous, unique, or even mundane it is, each conversion story can be counted among the events of history: the recapitulation of salvation history in the individual.
I was raised in a serious Christian home. We were Evangelicals of the non-denominational, charismatic kind. In our home, prayer was devoutly practiced, the Holy Scriptures were our life, and charity was the ideal. It could truly be said that Christ ruled our home.
My parents, both former Catholics, were excellent examples of Christian faith and piety. I recall getting up early and seeing my father praying on his knees, alone in the dark. My mother fulfilled the vocation of a Christian wife and mother in her untiring service, sacrifice, and love. Christianity was real and alive to me. It had profound effects on people’s lives. I knew that to be a Christian was to take Christ and his word seriously.
After attending kindergarten at an Evangelical school and first grade at a Catholic school (Providence at work even then), I was home-schooled until I entered college at fifteen. College awakened me to the intellectual life. I became absorbed in questions of truth, apologetics, and meaning, and the answers revealed to me the illogicality of a divided Christianity. I became convinced that truth cannot contradict truth. Accepting a Christianity that affirmed differences in opinion—which were, in fact, violations of the law of non-contradiction—could not be correct. I wondered, as most Protestant converts eventually do, “Why would Christ have left such a confusing mess for us to sort out?” I thought hard about which church had the whole truth.
During that same time, the non-denominational church my family attended became enthralled by the vapid and inane teaching of the “prosperity gospel,” also known as the word-faith movement, which was led by Kenneth Hagin, Oral Roberts, Kenneth Copeland, and others. What the word-faith version of Christianity lacked in substantive doctrine it made up for in snappy slogans: “Name it and claim it,” which means that if you say something (anything!), it will come true by the sheer power of your words, if only you have enough faith. Or “Don’t speak it into your life,” which means that if you admit that you are sick, you are opening yourself up to sickness and closing yourself to the health, wealth, and prosperity that God promised you in the Atonement.
I thought this “health and wealth” gospel was a nonsensical, offensive, and anti-intellectual perversion of authentic Christianity. It not only bothered me; it induced a crisis of faith. I had to figure out what to believe. I concluded: “If this is Christianity, then I’m out.”
Catholics Must Be Okay
My aversion to the word-faith movement came from an unlikely source. My dad worked in Christian radio, and we listened only to Christian music. My favorite artist was Rich Mullins, who wrote the inspirational “Awesome God.” He had a deep sense of piety, and his lyrics expressed a sophisticated theology. Significantly, he was something of an “asymptomatic Catholic.” His music is replete with Catholic ideas about the Eucharist and liturgy, and he had planned to enter the Church before his tragic death in 1997.
Mullins was somewhat of a Protestant ascetic. After a successful career in Christian music, he sold his possessions and gave up his royalties to live on a Navajo reservation and teach music to children. He had a devotion to St. Francis that deeply affected me. I read the The Little Flowers of St. Francis and got a good glimpse of what it meant to live as a Christian: Fearless abandon to Christ was the only way to serve our Lord. But I noticed that St. Francis attended Mass, invoked our Lady in the most endearing and dignified terms, and received the holy stigmata. “Wait a minute!” I thought. “St. Francis was Catholic!” Just like that, my previously held animadversions toward Catholicism evaporated. I figured that if Mullins, the best Christian I knew, venerated and modeled his life after St. Francis, then Catholics must be okay.
I began looking for other authentic expressions of Christianity. I attended Lutheran and Presbyterian services, Anglican liturgies, and various youth groups, none of which struck a chord with me. Then one day in the fall of 2001, I saw a newspaper advertisement for a memorial Mass for the victims of the September 11 tragedy. I decided to go.
I was completely enamored with the grandeur of the Mass, the reverence of the people, the expressions of longing and contentment on the faces of those about to receive the Eucharist, and the palpable ancientness and eternal character of the liturgy. In contrast to the Protestant services I’d been attending, the Catholic Mass was focused on Christ and his work, not on what the minister had to say about the day’s readings.
After this strange drama of the Last Supper had ended, I thanked the priest. “I’m not a Catholic, minister,” I stumbled. “Reverend? I’m not sure what to call you. But I’m deeply impressed by what just happened.” The priest responded, “I’m Fr. Mike Williams. Call me ‘Father.’ And if you’re interested in learning more about Catholicism, come to the RCIA class beginning next Tuesday.”
That Tuesday, I somehow convinced my parents to take me to the class. I was very nervous. I was still only fifteen and self-conscious about my age. I seriously feared that you might have to be over eighteen to convert to Catholicism.
After my first class, I began reading Catholic apologetic works voraciously. Patrick Madrid’s Surprised by Truth was heartening. Karl Keating’sCatholicism and Fundamentalism provided me with arguments to justify my new faith to my parents and friends.
Aquinas Was Catholic?
I then began having an uncountable number of “aha” moments, in which I discovered that many people I read and admired were Catholic. I read St. Augustine’s Confessions and realized that he was Catholic. I was taking a philosophy course and discovered that my favorite philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, was Catholic. Even the author of the history of philosophy I was reading, Frederick Copleston, was Catholic—and a priest! In my English class, we were reading The Canterbury Tales, a story about Catholics. “Chaucer was Catholic, too?” Then came the biggest realization of all: that until the sixteenth century everyone who was a Christian was a Catholic. Before the Protestant Reformation tragically splintered the Church, to be a Christian was to be a Eucharist-receiving, Bible-believing, pope-defending, Mary-honoring, genuflecting, confessing Catholic!
A friend arranged for me to meet with a Protestant minister who wanted to expose the errors of Catholicism. Unfortunately, he recommended Dave Hunt’s work A Woman Rides the Beast, which is fraught with so many fabrications and falsehoods that it is literally unbelievable. I was unconvinced by the minister.
On May 18, 2002, I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church. I was confirmed and made my first communion, tremulously but confidently taking the real body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ onto my tongue. My paternal grandfather, a Catholic his whole life, stood as my sponsor. But neither the Holy Spirit’s work nor the prayers of our Lady had ended.
A year later, the girl who would become my wife started the marriage preparation process with me. She was a member of my old church. We both wanted to live our Christian vocations in the sacrament of marriage. She decided to enter RCIA about two years after I did and was received into the Church on Easter Vigil 2004, to my great joy. We were married about a month later.
The Holy Spirit’s work continued. My dad and mom returned to the Church, both making a decades-overdue confession, and my two younger sisters are currently in RCIA. Lastly, a friend of my mother’s from our old church is going through RCIA and has brought her husband back to the practice of the faith. God really does answer prayer!
I am grateful for all our conversions (and reversions) to the Catholic faith. My wife and I often thank God for the simple joy of being Catholic. I encourage everyone who is praying for the conversion of a family member to persevere. Even the most unlikely converts unexpectedly find themselves aboard the Barque of St. Peter. I know I did.