The Ship and the Rafts
A Catholic convert looks back at the journey to truth and an eternal home.
Imagine that a king establishes a new country on the far side of the ocean. It is called the Celestial City, and its streets are paved with gold. To populate his new land, he summons the people and invites them to be citizens. Next, he builds a ship and prepares his chosen people for the long voyage across the ocean.
The ship is a large, beautiful ocean liner equipped with everything needed for the journey: delectable food and fresh water, hot showers, navigation charts, maps, and GPS. He has ordained a captain and a crew, and the engine has enough dynamic power to move the ship.
The people respond to the king’s invitation, and soon the ship is full. Everything needed to reach the new country can be found aboard that ship.
The founder of this new country is God, the new country is heaven, and you and I are the ones he has chosen to join the voyage. The ship that he built is the Catholic Church; the captain is the pope; and the crew are the bishops, priests, and deacons. The navigation charts and GPS are Scripture, the maps are Sacred Tradition.
The food is the Eucharist—the food for the journey. The water is the grace of baptism and the life that flows from Christ through the sacraments. The showers? Confession, of course. When we get dirty and soiled, we need to be cleansed. The power that moves the ship is the Holy Spirit. Everything we need to reach heaven can be found within the Catholic Church.
The king warns the passengers before they commit that there will be troubles along the way. Storms will hit the vessel and threaten to dash it to kindling. They will get so sick at times they may wish they had never come aboard.
There will be problems onboard as well. The captain and crew may not always conduct themselves as they should, and some may even attempt to sabotage the ship. But he promises the people that if they stay with the ship, they will reach the new country.
Everyone agrees to go, and he steps up to the ship’s bow, smashes a bottle of champagne against it with great solemnity, and christens her the Catholic Church. The engines roar, and fire is seen as it moves away from the port.
The journey goes well for the first 1,500 years. There are some awful storms and waves, and within there are debilitating intrigues and rebellions; but in the end, the ship is always righted and still on course. There are some who fall overboard due to their own recklessness and disregard for rules. The ship is battered but remains intact and seaworthy under full steam by the powerful engine.
About halfway across the ocean, some of the passengers start to argue and protest. Like the Israelites who grumbled about the manna in the desert, they begin to complain about eating the same food all the time. They ask, “Who is this captain, and why should he be in charge? Who gave these crew members the right to tell us what to do?”
They stir up emotions and rile up some factions, instigating a mutiny. The protesters go down into the hold of the ship where they find wood and rope, and they lash together some rafts. They collect food and water, clothing and anything else they can find, and throw themselves and their rafts over the side of the ship.
Now they are free! No more captain, no more crew. They are on their own! Instead of a single ship sailing through the sea, there are now a countless number of small rafts bobbing in the water beyond the mothership, each with its own self-appointed captain giving orders that conflict with and even contradict the orders of the other raft captains. Rafts crash into each other, competing for people to join their rafts.
As the ship continues toward heaven, some of the rafts remain close by, but others drift off into the distance, and some are moving in the opposite direction and have lost their way completely. Those rafts that are close to the ship are sheltered from some of the wind and waves; those farther away are tossed about during the storms. The farther away they are, the less chance they have to make it to the other side.
And here is a question for you: everything good they have on their raft—from where did they get it? It all came from the ship, but now they are cut off. Eventually, the king’s food runs out, and the people begin to eat something else. There are no hot showers available for people to get clean.
I wasn’t one of those who jumped ship. I was born on a raft. For most of my life I didn’t even know there was ship—it was nowhere in sight! I was born on a Baptist raft, and I could yell over to the Methodist raft, and they could yell over to the Episcopalian raft, and they could yell over to the Pentecostal raft, and so forth. Our view of unity was just all trying to get along. We called that “fellowship,” and we believed we had an invisible unity. How could it be visible, since we were all split up on separate and competing rafts?
Then one day, I caught a glimpse of something large on the horizon, and I had no idea what it was. I yelled out, “Hey, what is that?”
Those on my raft answered, “We don’t know!” So I yelled louder to nearby rafts, and they responded over the hissing of the waves, “We don’t want to talk about it.”
“Why not?” I yelled.
“Because it’s the enemy!”
“But what is it?” I yelled.
“It’s, it’s—well, it’s the ship.”
As I gazed upon the ship, I thought to myself, “If the founder of the Celestial City had any sense, he would never have pushed a countless number of rafts into the ocean and expected them all to successfully make the voyage. He would have prepared one ship with everything needed for the voyage.”
It dawned on me that that the founder of the country I was trying to reach had created the ship to carry me there safely. I began to ask questions and discovered from ancient documents that indeed the founder had sent only one ship on the voyage, and the rafts were all a result of a protest!
“Well, of course,” I thought. “Why would God create a countless number of rafts competing to ferry his people home?”
After a year of paddling around the ship and studying it from every angle, and after much reading and researching and praying, I climbed aboard the ship and pulled my whole family up with me. I became a Catholic on May 22, 1994, and I’m amazed at what I have found on board. Cradle Catholics may take these things for granted, but we converts are in awe. There are seven sacraments, and they work! There are navigation charts, Scripture and Tradition, that help make sense of the maps.
There is a crew that understands how to read the maps and charts without error, how to prepare the food of the Eucharist properly, and how to operate the showers so that we can get cleaned up from all the foul sins we commit. There also is a captain, the pope. There have been good and bad popes and clergy, but throughout history the papacy has known how to navigate the ship.
So now do I want to shoot cannons at all the Protestants out on the rafts? No! My mom and dad are out there, and Vatican II reminds me that those who are baptized and recite the Creeds are my brothers and sisters in Christ, though separated from the physical ship. Some of the people on the rafts can even sing better than the people on the ship.
No, I don’t want to shoot them. I have decided I will spend the rest of my life calling out to the people on the rafts: “Hey, you out there! I too was born on one of your rafts, but I have discovered the fullness of the faith in this ship, the way the founder originally planned it. Problems? Yeah. But the ship is great. Come rejoin us!”
And when I get a few minutes, I turn around and look at the people on the deck.
“Why are you grumbling?” I ask. “Don’t you realize where you are?”
Sidebar: Everything Good on the Raft was Catholic
When I was a Protestant, I never realized that everything good that I had on my raft came from the Catholic Church. For example, the Bible was put together by Catholic bishops and copied and preserved by Catholic monks. Martin Luther even admitted that we wouldn’t have a Bible if it were not for the “papists.”
My Protestant fellowship only had two sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—and the Catholic Church has seven. My denomination did not define the tenets of faith such as the Trinity. That was hammered out by Catholic councils over the first 500 years of the Church.