The wheels were set in motion for my conversion to the Catholic faith at a Promise Keepers event in Dallas in 1995. For the first time, I truly felt the Holy Spirit penetrate my heart. Then and there I decided to get serious about my walk with the Lord. It was said that our children would have a tendency to wander away from God if we, as parents, did not step up and lead by example. In the biblical story of King David, his son Solomon and grandson Rehoboam drifted away from God. Today, research shows that if a father is a committed Christian, his children will probably follow in the faith. However, if dad does not go to church, there is a good chance that his children will not accept the faith despite a mother’s best efforts. I suddenly realized the importance of my faith and its spiritual impact on my children.
“Pray for Those Catholics”
When my Southern Baptist brothers and I got back home that Sunday evening, our lives had been changed. I volunteered to teach Sunday school to the seventh and eighth grade boys. I was not qualified but had been told that God uses the unqualified and the unworthy. As it turned out, in teaching them I learned more than the boys did. The first thing I learned was that I did not know my faith as well as I should. These young men had thoughtful questions I could not answer. So I began to study the Bible. Soon I had read the entire New International Version from Genesis to Revelation. Parts of the Old Testament surprised and shocked me, and the New Testament challenged my concept of Jesus as merely a tolerant, intelligent teacher. Meeting Jesus has a way of completely changing lives. When standing in the presence of his holiness we see how sinful we are.
In 2000 I traveled to Mexico City to visit a Baptist missionary friend and his family. While there I was impressed with the family’s commitment to serve the Lord. My friend drove me to a small village where extremely poor people treated us with kindness and hospitality not found in America. They had very little yet they shared everything. Then I noticed that one of the books that my friend was distributing was anti-Catholic in nature. Entitled The Catholic Church in Crisis, it offered damaging information. It seemed the agenda was not only to share the love of God, but to attack the Catholic Church and liberate people from its control.
A conflict had begun within me earlier that year when my son told me that in his Sunday-school class he had prayed for all those Catholics who were dying and going to hell. I told him I did not believe that and would investigate the matter. When I started to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I was surprised to find the Apostles’ Creed. (I had thought Rich Mullins wrote these words in the popular Christian song, “Creed.”) In truth, this ancient Christian teaching tool was written almost 2,000 years ago. We did not recite this—or the Nicene Creed or the Lord’s Prayer—in the Baptist church. Formal, memorized prayers were considered vain repetitions; informal, freestyle prayers from the believer’s heart were encouraged. The emphasis was on our personal relationship with Jesus. There was no altar in the sanctuary but if there were, the Bible would have been on top.
By now we had many good friends and had become active members of this body of believers. My wife taught the children’s Sunday-school class, and I was ordained a deacon. Still, I began to wonder why there were differences in our forms of worship. I saw a great chasm between the two sides. I realized that I could not be neutral about the Catholic Church and remain a good Baptist. By definition, as Baptists we needed to oppose the teaching of the Catholic Church. Spiritually torn, I left the Baptist church that my family had been baptized in just a few years earlier. It was a gut-wrenching decision. This had been our church home for seven years.
I did not know where we were going next; I just knew that I could not stay there. So I went church shopping and took my family along. We went to Lutheran, Episcopal, and Methodist churches. Each Sunday morning my daughter would ask, “Where are we going to church today?” I had uprooted my family, but they took it surprisingly well.
Khrystal and I, Brandon, and Karrah joined the First United Methodist church in 2002. It was an oasis in our spiritual desert. As an offshoot of the Church of England, the Methodists retain parts of the liturgy and tradition that the Anabaptists rejected. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated once a month instead of four times a year. The Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Gloria Patri are said each Sunday. The liturgical seasons of Advent, Lent, and Pentecost are celebrated, as are Christmas and Easter. Each Methodist congregation is not an autonomous body of believers as my Baptist brothers were. All in all, the Methodist church seemed like a good fit. My family had a church home again.
Error or Truth?
Personally however, I was still searching. My non-Catholic Christian friends gave me scriptural reasons they believed the Catholic Church was wrong. Their argument was that the Bible teaches truth, but the Catholic Church teaches error stemming from blind allegiance to papal infallibility. For example, Protestants contend that the Bible states clearly in both Mark and Luke that Jesus had brothers and sisters. To them, this proves that Mary had other children, contrary to the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity. If the Church of Rome could be wrong about this issue, it could be wrong about everything and therefore must be opposed.
It had always puzzled me how differing doctrines could be equally supported by the same Bible. Several years before, I had invited two young Mormon missionaries into my home to discuss their faith. I was surprised to find out that they knew the Bible and supported their doctrine with Holy Scripture. For instance, Mormons practice baptism for the dead. According to their interpretation, evidence for this practice appears in the Bible. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians states “What do people hope to gain by being baptized for the dead? If the dead are not ever going to be raised, why be baptized on their behalf?” (15:29). Obviously, Scripture can be misinterpreted. Who has the authority to say how the Bible should be interpreted? I had been taught that every person’s opinion is equally valid as long as he is guided by the Holy Spirit. But how could the Holy Spirit contradict himself with all these different teachings?
Trying to find the truth was making my head spin. The battle had gone back and forth with well-meaning people tossing scriptural grenades to support their own position. Then, I found Sacred Tradition—the ultimate weapon. I learned that the Orthodox church as well as the Catholic Church acknowledges the existence of an unwritten teaching handed down over the centuries. The Orthodox church I visited claimed that they were the keepers of the “correct teaching” as passed to them from the apostles. This claim was surprisingly similar to what I had discovered in the Catholic Catechism a few years earlier. When I read the Orthodox catechism, I learned that they too held to the concept of “Deposit of Faith,” with both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition providing equal authority. Suddenly, the scales slammed down on the side of the historic Church against the weight of the Protestant attacks. With much fear and trepidation, I now knew which direction I must go.
The End of the Road
My heart was still restless, and I felt a longing to go onward and upward. Apparently if I wanted to get closer to Jesus and the truth he taught his apostles, I would have to go back to the beginning. All Protestant churches in existence today began at least 1500 years after the Passion of Christ. Beginning shortly after 1054, there were two Christian churches, Orthodox and Catholic. But for the first thousand years of Christianity there was only one Church. Its bishops were present at the ecumenical councils which canonized Holy Scripture, established the day we celebrate Easter, refuted heresies, and defined Christian theology as we know it today.
During my investigation, I continued to read my own Bible, that same NIV that I had read when teaching Sunday school. Some of the previously obscure passages came into better focus when illuminated by Sacred Tradition. The Book of Revelation became a letter of hope and encouragement rather than judgment and wrath. The writings of the Church Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus revealed an intelligent group of early believers who took their faith seriously and knew Scripture well. What these men wrote and taught is the same as the Catholic Church teaches and practices today. Take the issue of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. No Protestant church teaches that the bread and wine are changed into the substance of Christ. Yet within 100 years after the birth of Christianity, St. Ignatius wrote to the Smyrnaeans that they should distance themselves from those who did not recognize the flesh of Christ in the bread. He also told them to stay connected to their bishop and not do anything without his approval. Clement of Rome stressed the importance of apostolic succession; Irenaeus wrote volumes concerning the faith and refuting heresy. They, along with hundreds of others, provide us a written record of Sacred Tradition. These men were taught their faith by the apostles, who were taught directly by Jesus. The Mormons had told me that the original Church quickly fell into a state of apostasy. Instead, I found continuous, unbroken, apostolic succession still in existence today. Modern converts to Catholicism such G.K. Chesterton, Scott Hahn, Rod Bennett, Mark Shea, Patrick Madrid, and Steven Ray all contributed to my eventual conversion. I entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2004.
That Dallas decision forced me down an uncomfortable road of discovery. At the end of it I found historical Christianity. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Christianity is what it is and was what it was long before I came to know it and whether I like it or not.” Many have tried to improve upon it, some have openly fought against it, and others say it just doesn’t matter. My hope is that someday we will all come together in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. But for now, the maze of denominations will continue to serve as starting points for those who seek the One who resides at the center.