I often thank God that I was born into a Christian family. My parents and grandparents lived a great example as I was growing up. They first took me to church when I was one week old, and we continued to attend two or three times per week. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Jesus and, when I was 9 years old, I asked to be baptized.
Our small, rural congregation was Methodist in name, but quite independent in practice. We were an informal community. There were no robes or creeds. Instead, we enjoyed spirited worship services with great singing, Bible thumping sermons, altar calls, and shouts of “Amen!”
My growth as a Christian had stalled
As I matured and became an adult, I lived as a Christian. However, there eventually came a time when I realized that God was probably somewhat disappointed in me. Despite the solid foundation that I had been blessed with, my growth as a Christian had stalled.
As young adults, relocated away from our hometown, my wife, Leah, and I gradually stopped attending church. We visited different churches from time to time, but we never settled in. Instead, we became comfortable simply watching our favorite Christian television programing on Sunday mornings. Occasionally we would discuss finding a church, but we never acted on it. Somehow, years passed.
When my grandmother passed away in the spring of 2010, her funeral was held in the church that I grew up in. Returning to the church for the first time in nearly twenty years released a flood of memories and emotions. I realized how much that I had been missing, and I began to feel a need to again be a member of a church family. I wanted to be in a church where I could grow spiritually with the help of others and in turn, lend my support and be productive. I had thanked God many times for the examples of my family and my church, and now it was time for me to live a better example myself.
My wife and I began to consider various denominations to decide which church that we should attend. It was frustrating because I had never liked the idea of denominations. They all had their own opinions, interpretations, customs, and rules. I knew that there is only one God, so rather than being tied to a particular brand of Christianity, I had instead preferred to be simply “Christian.” Still, we had to select one, so we began to consider local churches. Methodist, Baptist, Church of Christ, Lutheran, independents — there were many to choose from, and we had not settled on one.
Then, my wife mentioned to a new friend that we were looking for a church. Our friend explained that she had recently converted to Catholicism. I found this very interesting. I had not considered the Catholic Church as an option. From my perspective, Catholicism was not “normal” Christianity. It seemed very strict and ritualistic, with too much pomp and ceremony. It seemed too formal, rather than “Spirit led.” Their focus and many of their customs also seemed questionable. After some thought, I had to admit that my opinions were based upon mere glimpses into the Church and that I actually knew very little about Catholicism.
Intrigued with the conversion process that our friend had gone through and recognizing my lack of real understanding, I decided to learn more about the Catholic Church. Over the next several weeks, I read about the history of the Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation. I read the Catechism of the Catholic Church and ancient writings from the early “Church Fathers” and their contemporary historians. I began to reconsider passages of Scripture in light of Catholic teaching and was exposed to concepts that I had been unaware of, such as Apostolic Succession, Sacred Tradition, and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Very early in the process, I realized how ignorant I was about the history of Christianity. I had assumed too much, asked too little, and taken too much for granted. As time passed, I found myself being drawn to the Catholic Church. I began to better understand the Church’s teachings, appreciate the Church’s history, and suspect the reality of the Church’s authority.
Leah and I began to attend Mass. I went with a critical eye, but never saw or heard anything with which I was uncomfortable. It was quite the opposite; I found Mass to be a great experience. In contrast to my negative preconceptions, the focus was on Christ, and the Scriptures were revered. I also learned that there is deep biblical significance to the words, prayers, and gestures used. Catholics were very serious about their worship, and I liked that. In short order, we were both signed up for RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), which is the pathway for joining the Church. At that point, I had already learned enough to believe that the Catholic Church was the Church of the earliest Christians, and that fact alone merited my utmost consideration. I joined RCIA to continue to learn, with the understanding that I could leave at any time. I continued to explore the Church’s history, theology, and traditions. After a while, I realized that when referring to Catholics, I had begun to use the word “we” instead of “they.”
“To become deep in history…”
The Church Fathers had a great impact on me. I had never even heard of them before beginning my research, and I had no idea that so much documentation had survived from antiquity. I valued what these leaders and teachers of the early Church had to say. They were among the first generations of Christians, and some of them were even taught by the Apostles or by their disciples. As a whole, their writings demonstrate what the earliest Christians believed and how they worshipped. As I read their writings, topic after topic, everything that I read sounded clearly Catholic. I also noticed a common theme — the Church is one, with one chair and one authority. This was very appealing to me and was the answer to my question of how there could be so many different denominations. I became convinced that the Catholic Church is the original Church and that the Protestant Reformation had resulted in confusion and watered down versions of doctrine. Afterwards, everything else began to fall into place.
At one point, I began to reflect upon the times that my wife and I had vacationed in Europe. As tourists, we had visited Catholic churches. These churches were very different from what I was accustomed to, but I found them to be very spiritual places, and I truly felt God’s presence in them. I suppose that I had credited the experiences to the fact that the churches were so aged and beautiful or perhaps it was an appreciation for the historicity of Christianity. At that time, I did not consider a connection between these experiences and Catholicism.
Near the end of our RCIA process, we returned to Rome. This time, we traveled with a deeper understanding, and visiting the ancient churches and Christian sites intensified our conversion experience. Everywhere I looked, from the mosaics in the churches to the inscriptions in the catacombs, I saw connections between what the early Church believed and what the Catholic Church teaches today. In St. Peter’s Square, the crowd of thousands displayed the diversity and reach of the Church. When we were talking with a small group of nuns and told them that we were going through RCIA, they were genuinely happy for us and promised to pray for us. Through these experiences, I began to feel a real sense of communion with all of the Christians throughout the world and throughout the centuries who are members of this one Church.
Throughout RCIA I continued to pray that God would reveal His truths to me. If I was making a mistake, I wanted to realize it sooner rather than later. But, if the Catholic Church was where I should be, then I wanted to know it with absolute certainty. My journey was filled with wonderful spiritual experiences and, during Easter Vigil Mass 2011, I was received into the Catholic Church along with my wife. As I approached the Eucharist to receive Holy Communion for the first time, I could not have been more certain. My eyes were filled with tears as I choked out “Amen,” and when I returned to my pew and kneeled to pray, all I could say was “thank you” over and over.
God is God of all, and although one can experience salvation as a non-Catholic Christian, I believe that the Catholic Church is the original Church of Christ where the fullness of God’s plan and graces are found. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a 19th century convert, famously said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” The Catholic Church has existed from the beginning and has protected the sacred Deposit of Faith that was left by Jesus Christ and His Apostles. Two thousand years of heritage includes teaching God’s love, sharing Christ’s sacrifice, compiling the Bible, and continuing the traditions of the earliest Christians. The Church has fed the poor, cared for the sick, upheld marriage, protected life, and worked for peace. The Church has maintained the faith and has not yielded to the pressures of an ever-changing society that is increasingly morally corrupt. Over the centuries, there have been examples of human fallibility within individuals in the Church — tares among the wheat. However, the gates of hell still have not prevailed against the Church, just as Jesus promised.
Jesus prayed that all of us would be one and brought to complete unity. Before, I didn’t really know much about the Catholic Church. Now, I know better. What began as mere interest grew through inspiration. Belief is a grace, and I thank God that I now believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church that Christ founded — His Catholic Church, with more than 1.2 billion members worldwide.