On February 17, 2013 the First Sunday of Lent I was enrolled in the Rite of Election to come into full communion with the Catholic Church. It was not a decision I entered into lightly; after all, as a Protestant minister, this decision amounts to essentially walking away from my career up to this point as well as any financial stability for my family for the foreseeable future.
The first time I ever entered a Catholic Church I almost stood up and yelled down the priest during his homily. I was a high school student who had recently become very militant about my faith and I was sure I was right about nearly everything, and if I was right then this priest must be wrong. He was talking about praying to saints, sacraments, and how the Catholic Church was the church that Jesus founded. This seemed to go against everything I believed about the faith at the time, and I was furious. I kept itching in my seat wanting to stand up and shout him down, but somehow I managed to control myself and simply walked out in a huff; doing a quick lap around the outside of the church as I left praying that God would have mercy on the souls of all the lost Catholics on the inside that needed to be freed from “the legalism and fear” that bound them.
At this time in my life, I shifted from being somewhat apathetic about the Catholic Church to being a somewhat vocal opponent of the Catholic Church. I learned that most Catholics knew very little about their faith, and so I took it upon myself to try to convince them that they didn’t need the Catholic Church in order to be Christian. (By the way, if you’re a Catholic reading this and knew me at the time, I’m sorry. If I ever spoke of your faith in a condescending way, please forgive me. I sinned against you in my ignorance, and I let my own pride guide me rather than loving and supporting you in your faith.)
A lot has happened in my life since then.
Soon after I graduated from High School I began to feel a call into ministry. Not knowing what the future would bring, I switched majors and schools so that I could be better equipped to minister. I started working in churches for whatever they were able to pay me, often working a couple of jobs on the side just to pay the rent.
Through it all, I managed meet a lot of people, learn a lot about faith, and let God humble me a little. I learned that being a pastor is about being a servant and I wanted to be the best servant-pastor I could be. Hopefully, if I was ever your minister, I was. Please forgive me for the times I wasn’t.
Over the years I continued to have contact with the Catholic Church in a number of different ways. In Ann Arbor, many of the people with the strongest faith I knew were Catholic. They continually challenged me to examine my problems with Catholicism more deeply, but in spite of our differences encouraged me in my ministry (one Catholic priest even wrote one of my recommendations when I went to seminary).
During this time, my personal spirituality also was becoming more influenced by Catholics. When I needed space away from the spotlight of church work, I noticed that I would slip into a late Sunday afternoon mass, or find a Eucharistic adoration chapel; I started to pray the liturgy of the hours as my morning and evening prayer.
Little by little, I found that my best spiritual support was coming through my Catholic friends. I even joined a “Catholics Only” men’s group that made a special exception for me. Through these men I met my wife, who was a devoted Catholic, and my occasional mass attendance became weekly. She would join me for church in the morning, where I worked, and afterwords we would go to mass together.
Catholicism had slowly become a huge part of my life, but still was only something I used to supplement my protestant faith and ministry. By this time we were living in Chicago and I was busy drafting visions and plans for the next big step I would take in my ministry. Sometimes people would joke around that I was becoming a Catholic, but I would laugh. Over the years, I had studied a great deal of Catholic theology and had created a list of around one hundred reasons why I would never join the church, all of which I had a ready answer response.
Then I encountered something I didn’t expect: the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The Eastern Orthodox believed many of the things that I had “problems” with about the Catholic Church, but they went about it in different ways. At first I had begun to study the Orthodox because of my interest in sacred art, but soon I was making friends with Orthodox people and attending Orthodox worship as often as I could. They began to argue for the faith in ways that I hadn’t heard before. Slowly I began to realize that many of the issues I had with Catholic doctrine were not with the dogma but often the way the dogma was explained. There was a great deal of significant thoughtful reflection behind many of the issues, and I began to realize that my rejection of the theology was based on my own presuppositions and sanctimonious self-satisfaction. I started to study the Church Fathers and the documents of the Church councils, and my eyes were opened to a huge world of theology that I wasn’t even aware of before. Little by little, my list of hundreds of reasons I would never become Catholic diminished to around a dozen or so.
I began to realize that I was beginning to believe a lot more like a Catholic than a Protestant. Many Catholics began joking with me that I was more Catholic then they were. There really was only theological reason I wasn’t Catholic yet, the Papacy.
It was something I struggled with deeply, almost viscerally. I couldn’t believe the arrogance of the Catholics in claiming that they had a man that could declare things to be infallible truth. I read a lot about it and seemed to become more and more convinced that the papacy was totally and utterly wrong. I became certain I would never become Catholic.
Then something unbelievable happened.
In Lent 2011, I was taking some time to read more about the Catholic faith. My wife had bought this book about Catholic dogma by John Hardon, and I was reading through it during Holy Week. I was particularly struck by a passage in the book that argued for the validity of the papacy by arguing that Christ intended the Church to be a Universal reality (p. 217-218). Hardon used Matthew 24:14 as a jumping off point. In the passage, Jesus promises that the Gospel will go forth into the world beyond Judea and into the gentile world before the end of the generation. He points out that Jesus’ vision was for a truly Catholic Church in union, where all people could find a place, and no group was excluded. The Church is a collection of diverse and particular faith communities that are all in union in one Body. I loved that vision. One in which every culture could bring their own encounters with God and use them to help the Church see the mystery of the incarnation more clearly. In the Protestant world, we had been bitterly divided over ever conceivable issue. Diversity caused division. The same seemed to be true in the Orthodox world, where churches were so often divided along ethnic lines, and unity seemed almost impossible. Hardon pointed to the Papacy as a center of unity around which diverse groups could truly voice their particularity while still being in union with those who were different from them. I had never read Matthew 24:14 as a vision for a global, but united church, but I liked it. It was the first time in years I had taken the idea of the Papacy seriously. I resolved to think about it more in the days to come.
The next day I went to the Easter Vigil at the Catholic Church where my brother had been received into communion with the Catholic Church in a journey quite separate from my own. It was the same Catholic Church I had almost shouted down the priest in 10 years before. This time, instead of feeling anger during the Mass, I felt a strong conviction. I had an overpowering thought that God wanted me to join the Catholic Church.
My first response was to try to ignore it, but it wouldn’t go away. By the end of the Mass, I walked out into the parking lot and started arguing with God.
“No! God don’t you understand. I am a minister, that is who I am. I have not bled, sweat, and cried for my ministry and gone through eight years of education just to have you throw it all away on a whim. I’m sorry God, but NO!”
I prayed at God for about an hour like this, and He took it. At the end of it all, I just gave up arguing and went home hoping the feeling would go away after I got some rest.
The next day we drove back home to Chicago and all I could think about on the way home was joining the Church. As we got in, I took my wife aside and told her that I thought that God was calling me to join the Catholic Church. I was so afraid. She smiled and told me not to worry about it too much, she knew God would make it clear in time.
The following night I resolved to take some more time to pray about this issue. I took my Bible and walked down the street. I stood under a lamp post, opened my Bible, and asked God to show me a passage that might help me know what I was supposed to do. I oppened to a random page, put my finger down, and was just about to start reading when a man ran around the corner (literally ran).
He looked at me and said, “Is that a Bible?”
I said “Yep.”
“Read Matthew 24:14 to me,” he said.
I opened to the passage and read it aloud.
“Thanks!” he said, and ran down the street (yes, he really just ran away).
I was left there wondering what had just happened. The passage that had sparked my first thoughts in years about accepting the papacy had just been quoted exactly by a complete stranger just as I was asking God for a verse to help show me the way. I was blown away. I had to take this seriously, it was just too big of a kick in my pants for me to ignore.
In one weekend my whole life was suddenly uncertain.
Even though it seemed I was suddenly being pulled toward the Catholic Church, I didn’t want to make any rash decisions. I decided that I would take a year to explore. It was then that I devised a project that I called my Catholic Year.
MY CATHOLIC YEAR
I determined that for one full year I would live like a Catholic. I would pray like a Catholic, worship like a Catholic, read Catholic things, buy Catholic art, listen to Catholic radio, talk to Catholic experts, and try everything Catholic I could get my hands on. I wouldn’t judge it as a Protestant, but would trust that there was value in these things and try to find it by practicing it. Over the years, I had learned that God was working in the lives of countless Catholics who did these things; now I was willing to see if he could work in my life through these things too.
So I did.
For one full year, I tried it all. By the end of the first month, I had read through the Catechism cover to cover, began praying the Rosary daily, and had started to track down as many Catholic resources as I could. Soon I was enrolled in the brown scapular, was praying the liturgy of the hours 2-3 times a day, burning through books by G.K. Chesterton, J.H. Newman, Benedict XVI, Theresa of Avila, Thomas à Kempis, Augustine, Tom Merton, and others. I loved every second of it. I called up Catholic apologists, theology and scripture professors, and just about everyone I could get a hold of, and talked about my project. Any time a question arose in my mind, I wrote it down, and found someone I could talk to about it. I started going to a Jesuit for monthly spiritual direction, took time to visit adoration chapels as often as I could, attended Mass 2 times a week, and went to confession. I attended high Latin liturgy using the extraordinary form of the Mass, Ruthenian liturgy, Melkite liturgy, Ukranian liturgy and, of course, went to a lot of parishes using the Ordinary form too. As the year drew to a close, I capped it all off by consecrating my heart to Mary.
By the end of it, I had found so much grace in each of these little practices, I knew I could never go back to the way things were. I really had become a Catholic in my heart of hearts, and I knew I was done being a Protestant whether I liked it or not.
The only thing that was really left between me and joining the Catholic Church was my call to ministry. If there was anything in life that I knew with some degree of certainty it was that God had called me to devote my life to ministry. By joining the Catholic Church, I would no longer be able to be a pastor. I would no longer be able to do the one thing that I longed to do more then anything else, teach God’s people about God’s love. I was married, and married men can’t be priests under most circumstances.
I struggled with this for a long time. I knew that there were opportunities to serve in the Church as a lay person, but I was afraid. I didn’t know if I would be able to support my family while working in ministry. Protestant ministry doesn’t pay well, but Catholic ministry often pays even less. I didn’t know what to do. Finally one day it hit me. I had somehow associated giving my life for the Church with being a pastor, but that simply wasn’t the case. I could give my life for the Church and sell popcorn on a street corner or file people’s taxes. God calls us all to give our lives to the Church no matter what our vocation is. As this truth came home in my heart, for the first time I was finally able to pray, “Lord I want to follow you, no matter where it leads, even if it’s outside of ‘ministry’ altogether.” I prayed these words again, and then the tears came. I cried and cried. My wife came in and found me sobbing in my chair. She asked what was wrong. “All I ever wanted was to be a pastor,” I said, “and now I’m afraid I can’t be one anymore.” She didn’t say anything, but she held my hand, and I knew we were going to make it. It’s at moments like that I have no doubt that marriage is a sacrament.
So that brings us here to the present. I have decided to to join the Catholic Church. I don’t have it all figured out yet, and I’m still really frightened, but by the grace of God I’m moving forward. I will be received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, Holy Saturday, March 30, 2013, in the St. Vincent de Paul Chapel at the Catholic University of America (where I have begun a PhD in liturgy and sacramental theology). I humbly ask that you would keep my family and me in prayer as we go through a difficult time of uncertainty.
[Editor’s note: this article first appeared at The Orant.]