If someone had told me on my wedding day that almost fifteen years into our marriage Jason and I would be entering the Catholic Church, I would have been more than slightly surprised, but I would also have been eager to hear what would await us down the road; I love a good adventure! To go back to the beginning, I was a Cradle Roll Baptist. We went to services every Sunday morning and evening, and I attended Sunday school faithfully, flannelgraph stories, red Kool-Aid, butter cookies and all. On Wednesday nights I was a Pioneer Girl, filling up my little blue sash with every badge I could earn. Later, when our church began the Awana program, I recited Bible verses with much aplomb, flying through each level. In high school I was an Awana Cubby leader and enjoyed leading preschoolers and helping them learn their Bible verses. I was there whenever our youth group did service projects and missions trips. I was about as involved as a kid could be and I loved the fact that our youth group had a number of “on fire” and really committed kids who inspired my faith.
My family comes from a long line of committed Protestants. My mother’s forebears, who came from Holland, were instrumental in establishing the Dutch Reformed Church in the Chicago area. My father’s parents had found their place in Fundamentalist churches, but had Lutheran and Mennonite roots. I am tremendously thankful for the legacy of faith my ancestors left, which enabled me to grow up knowing and following God and knowing the Bible. My grandparents on both sides were actively involved in church, whether it was singing in the choir, housing missionaries, or teaching Sunday School. Each of my grandparents, in their own way, served as shining examples of God’s love to me as a child. My mother’s family eventually left the Reformed church and became members of a Baptist church. My mom was the church organist so I know the hymnbook about as well as anyone.
I took my faith very seriously. I remember one Easter when I was about 3 or 4 years old my mom was telling our relatives at the table how I would cry whenever we talked about Jesus dying on the cross and even then I burst into tears. I felt absolutely broken by the fact that Jesus had to die for my sins, even at that young age. My little children’s Bible says I asked Jesus into my heart in October of 1981 at the age of 5. I would pray every night that Jesus would help me to do what was right. I was baptized when I was 9. I was extremely disappointed when I learned that communion was a symbol. When the pastor held up the cracker and said, “This is my body, given for you, do this in remembrance of me,” it seemed pretty clear to me what Jesus meant, but I guessed I was wrong. So I secretly pretended that it really was the body of Jesus, at least for a time. As I grew older though, I just felt sort of disillusioned with communion. It seemed that it didn’t really matter if I missed communion or not since it was “just a symbol.”
Growing up in the Chicago area, the majority of my peers were Catholic. I was the lone Baptist. Even as a young child I knew that there was a big difference between me and my friends. For one, they didn’t seem to take their faith very seriously, which bothered me. (Now that I think about it though, I was probably the anomaly there; I mean, how many little kids really do take their faith very seriously?) Nevertheless, I didn’t chalk up their perceived lack of devotion to a problem with their church. I blamed it squarely on them, because I was pretty sure that they were learning about Jesus in CCD, just like I did in Sunday school. For whatever reason, I didn’t think it was fair to condemn their church just because some of its members were not as enlightened as I was. Very big of me, I know.
The second thing I noticed about the Catholic Church was that it made me feel kind of nervous. Whenever we drove past a Catholic church I had this feeling that something bigger than myself was present there, like there was a combination of holiness and infinity just emanating out of the building; something I did not feel in my own church. I kind of liked it. I read a similar account of this sensation in Almost Catholic: An Appreciation of the History, Practice, and Mystery of Ancient Faith by Jon Sweeney. Ironically, he also grew up in the Chicago area and I’m guessing we had similar experiences because there are a lot of Catholic churches to drive past! (Also not so ironically, Jon Sweeney has come into the Catholic Church since writing his book. I had picked it up at the library and began reading it when I thought to myself, “I bet this guy has become Catholic.” Ha, you can’t be almost Catholic for long.)
There was also something about the way Catholics celebrated that fascinated me. I remember watching out my window as my friend next door posed for pictures in her fancy white First Communion dress. I came to realize that First Communion was a huge deal for my Catholic friends while I don’t even remember mine. And nothing could beat the Christmas Eve Mass, which we watched faithfully every year after returning from our own church’s service. The Pope, the prayers, the music, it all seemed so….serious. It’s something of a mystery to me why we always watched that service since we were no fans of the Catholic Church, but I think it has to do with the hunger one feels when one’s religious experience is so bereft of celebration or commemoration. We didn’t celebrate much in our own tradition except for Easter and Christmas, and those were just two solitary days. I also observed that in the many Polish and other Eastern Europeans in our area, there was something in the way ethnicity was tied to the way Catholics practice. It was like they belonged to something bigger than themselves, but at the same time their ethnic identity was part of how they practiced their faith.
So I noted all these differences in my little Baptist mind but frankly, I was a little weirded out by the kid who told me that if you are wearing a scapular when you die you’ll go directly to heaven. And I had been told many times that Catholics worship Mary and a bunch of other dead people. This sort of misinformation and anti-Catholicism was always an undercurrent in our faith. Catholics were to be pitied because they didn’t know the real way to heaven, which included walking down the aisle and praying the “Sinner’s Prayer.” I was led to believe that Catholics were people who thought they could get to heaven through some sort of magic and that they didn’t know Jesus personally the way we did. Once in middle school I brought a Catholic friend to youth group and I almost died when the youth minister started knocking Catholicism. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but it was not charitable. It was embarrassing to me to have to explain to my puzzled friend that we Baptists don’t really hate Catholics (do we?) and that it must have been a misunderstanding. I didn’t understand why we were always on the offensive against Catholics and wondered what kind of nasty things they said about us behind our backs.
My friends also noticed how different I was from them. “I love the way Baptists get all excited in their church services,” I remember a friend saying. In reply, I muttered something like, “Um, we’re not really that kind of Baptist.” We were God’s Frozen Chosen, not those big haired, long skirt-wearing women from Jack Hyles’ church, the local Independent Baptist mega-church, who came in a bus to evangelize the neighborhood. We were the straight-laced Baptists, not the hand-raising ones. One of the main themes of my childhood faith was shame. Our sermons were often of the hellfire and brimstone variety. I couldn’t understand why, if I was saved, I was so constantly worried for my salvation since “once saved, always saved” was a doctrine most people in my church held. I suppose it was the corollary idea that if I was to “backslide” then it meant I wasn’t even saved in the first place that had me so nervous. Additionally, I was terrified that I would be left behind when the rapture occurred. I was completely scarred for life by the miniseries, “The Day After”, thinking that scenario was a picture of the ‘Great Tribulation’ and that I could be left in the same kind of nuclear holocaust if I wasn’t really saved. Whenever I saw that there was an international crisis in the news I was sure the world was coming to an end (I’m sure Jack Van Impe would be proud.)
We moved to Florida when I was a sophomore in high school and our new Baptist church was of a more overtly Calvinist bent. I believe that there had always been some strain of Calvinism in my spiritual formation, but at this point I really began to worry that perhaps I wasn’t one of the chosen. (My grandmother, who grew up in the Dutch Reformed church, told me that she also worried about that as a child.) My subsequent immersion in Calvinist doctrine taught me that everything I did was like filthy rags (Is 64:6). So here I was faced with this apparent contradiction: Surrender your life to Jesus and stay on the straight and narrow, but even if you do, you’re still a worthless sinner. I wondered what the point of the Christian life was. If I had no role in my salvation and everything I did was useless, what was the point? What was I supposed to do? Well, being the hyper-conscientious kid that I was, I tried to be the best I could be and grow in my faith as much as I could. I had been taught that it wasn’t my works that were going to save me but that works were a natural outpouring of gratitude for my salvation and for God’s grace in choosing me (if I was, indeed, chosen). The real sign of my salvation would be spiritual growth; if I bore fruit, it would prove that I was saved. At times when I felt indifference toward my personal faith I was concerned that I wasn’t “feeling” saved. If I couldn’t work up some kind of excitement or get totally pumped by the worship service I felt that there must be something wrong with me. Whenever people around me talked about what God told them I worried that I was not getting regular dispatches from God. Maybe I wasn’t spiritual enough or maybe God just didn’t want to talk to me.
The whole “growth” thing continued to trouble me into adulthood. Of course I understood that having a relationship with Jesus changes you and should continue to change you, but I saw that you could put all kinds of spin on that. For instance, ‘bearing fruit’ in many circles just means to serve a lot. Be there whenever the doors are open, sign up to help with whatever programs need volunteers, etc. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy serving or being involved in Bible studies, but over the years I began to feel like a lot of those things were empty and were not helping me feel close to God. I knew that I wasn’t going to find God in another workbook. Conversely, holiness was a topic that didn’t really come up much. Pursuing a holy life was something that always seemed to be brushed off. As if having a little “edge” was really the best way to prove that you could be a Christian but tread the fine line of worldliness so you didn’t look too weird. It seemed to me that people think you have arrived spiritually when they can consider you to be some kind of spiritual Jedi master; you know, when you have all the holy-sounding answers and you are completely impervious to earthly suffering. Legalism (which is what any concern about how you actually live out your faith in a practical way would be chalked up to) was seen as a grave threat to our Christian liberty.
Enter my seminary years. I’ve always felt called to some sort of religious vocation and so I began seminary once our two oldest kids were of school age. I loved seminary. I loved learning about the Church Fathers, soteriology, philosophy, and everything else. It was absolutely exhilarating to be in a program that was so even-handed. We didn’t have classes in systematic theology, but instead focused on historical theology. The interesting thing about seminary is that in many ways, it breaks you down. It disassembles all of the preconceived notions you have about how things are, or, as it is called, your imbedded theology. Oddly enough, as I began to sort through and reconstruct, my beliefs did not look at all Baptist. In fact, after studying Church history and reading the writings of the Church Fathers, I couldn’t really identify what I found attractive in the Baptist denomination. Instead, I felt myself drawn to the Catholic Church. It’s not that seminary was the lone factor in my move toward Catholicism, but it did illumine some of the underlying problems that had always bothered me with the faith in which I had been raised. I suppose I’d be troubled if I was the only person in the history of the world who had gone to seminary and then ended up going Catholic, but I do find it confirming that many who have come before me have come to the same conclusions.
The posts that follow will chronicle the many factors that turned my spiritual journey toward Rome, which has been a most unexpected but exciting adventure. Has it been easy? Absolutely not. The pain I feel in leaving behind a community of faith I love has been almost unbearable at times. For a long time, Jason and I even thought that perhaps we could remain Baptist while embracing Catholic theology, but we discovered that you really can’t be an “undercover Catholic” even in a denomination with such diverse theologies. The continued love and support from our friends has been amazing, though; I’ve read many stories of people being shunned by friends and family when they became Catholic, so I am well aware that we are greatly blessed. I also know that people question why we would leave something so familiar and plunge into the unknown. Through this blog we hope to answer those questions. I’m not in this to say “Gotcha, this is irrefutable evidence of the truth of Catholicism and why you are wrong.” The process of coming to understand the practice and teachings of the Church has been a very gradual one for me; I don’t expect anyone to read what I’m saying and abandon ship tomorrow. I do want you, our friends and family, to understand my faith journey and the excitement I feel in discovering the Catholic Church.
It is also my hope that this blog will add to the voices of the many converts who have shared their story of coming into the Catholic Church. I was initially reluctant to write one more story when there are plenty out there, but then I thought of the many accounts I had read that had encouraged me. Each person who has found the Church has been compelled by different factors and has a unique point of view. If I can be of encouragement to someone else, then I am more than happy to be able to share my story and testify to the fullness of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
 Understand that I am not embracing Pelagianism but pointing out that having an exclusive, laser-like focus on God’s sovereignty to the exclusion of any other of His
attributes presents some difficulties as to how one practically lives out one’s
Christian life in response. I absolutely affirm that God’s grace is primary.
Just so you know the Catholic position on this, I’ll introduce a few words from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (hereafter noted as CCC) regarding this issue: CCC 35- “Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith. The proofs of God’s existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason.”
And one more: CCC 1996- “Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.”