Why Catholic?

Years ago I built a blog (Musings of a Catholic Convert) to tell people all about my conversion to the Catholic faith, having formerly been a Southern Baptist pastor for many years.  I did that for two reasons.  First, I wanted to provide a testimony to encourage other seekers who were investigating the Catholic Church, especially my brothers and sisters from congregational Protestant groups.  Second, I was hoping that I might be able to gain enough notoriety to become an evangelistic speaker so that I could travel to parishes and apostolates and serve the Church in that fashion.

It took me several years to realize that there’s only one Scott Hahn, Marcus Grodi, or Steve Ray.  I’m just not that kind of popular, and that’s okay.  I’ve been blessed with several opportunities to travel and share my story, including EWTN’s The Journey Home.  If God had wanted me to be traveling and speaking full-time, He could have made that happen.  I still believe the market is ripe for sound, Catholic evangelists.  It’s just not my time.  Besides, in those years, I had turned self-promotion into an idol, and there’s no way I’m going back to that.  I am still available for parish missions, retreats, interviews, and the like (email me).  I’m just not pursuing that as a full-time thing.

Still, because I removed myself from the blogosphere, all my stuff is gone.  That means a chance to start fresh.  I’m not going to bore you will all the gory details of my conversion, although I’m willing to share any detail you like if you care to ask.  Below is my abbreviated conversion story so that you know why I’m here and not pastoring a thriving congregation in the South.

Below is copied from the post I wrote on the Coming Home Network’s Forum back in 2007.  I’ll edit it (and shorten it) soon.

I grew up in a strong Christian home.  My parents were, and still are, two of the most devout Christians I have ever known.  They instilled in me not only the importance of knowing about Christ, but knowing Him personally.  When I was 10 years old, I pledged my life to Jesus and was baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  My teen years were filled with opportunities for spiritual growth thanks to the encouragement and example of my parents and youth leaders.  When I was seventeen I dedicated myself to full-time Christian service.  At that time, I assumed my future ministry would be that of a pastor.  Therefore, I felt I needed a four-year degree in Christian studies and graduate studies in ministry.  My family was not in a position to send me to a four-year private school, much less an expensive one, but my trust was in God.  If He wanted me to be there, I believed, He would provide the means for me to get there.  In what I can only describe as a miracle, I was awarded a four year presidential scholarship and found a job as a resident assistant, which payed for all of my expenses.

In college, I experienced a profound conversion of sorts.  Having the opportunity to study under some of the brightest minds in the Evangelical world, I discovered a deep love for learning, especially Scripture, History, and Theology.  I became so enamored in fact that I quickly gained a reputation for being a know-it-all.   Unfortunately, I had earned that reputation with a head full of pride and a heart lacking in charity when it came to dialogue.  I should explain at this point that I was discovering that because of the charism of knowledge, study came very easy to me.  Things just seemed to be absorbed as if my mind were a dry sponge.  There is nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that I was not tempering my newfound knowledge with humility and personal piety.  This flaw would prove to be a major factor in my conversion.

I was so wrapped up in ministry preparation, language studies, and reading that I wasn’t even looking for a woman.  That’s probably a good thing, because while I was distracted, God was preparing my wife over in the ladies’ dorms.  We met the summer of my freshman year while we worked at a youth camp.  It was as close to “love at first sight” as I can imagine.  We took things slow and filled our non-work time with long walks, talks and Bible studies.  I knew very quickly that this was the woman God had chosen to be my wife.  We would be married less than two years later and begin our lives together.

Life wasn’t super easy for us as we were new to married life, new to bills, and new to pretty much everything else.  However, God helped us through our first years with few major problems.  We did learn the value of health insurance after my face was broken during a pickup mud football game.  One thing we had been convinced of as a couple was that God was to be in charge of blessing our lives with children.  As such, we did not use contraception, though we did study natural family planning to better understand our fertility.  Oddly enough, we were not the only ones at our Baptist school who felt that way.  As I neared my graduation, God blessed us with the news that we were expecting our first child.  Now I would be a father as well as a husband.  Apparently, there were more lessons for me to learn outside of the classroom.  In spite of a tough course load, three part-time jobs, and ministry opportunities; I still managed to graduate on time with a BA in Christian Studies and minors in both Greek and History.

Seminary life was exciting.  Our school was gaining the reputation of being a magnet for top scholarship and theological soundness, which was something many Baptist affiliated schools could not claim.  Once again, my desire for knowledge had me taking difficult courses and loving every minute.  My professors were challenging my heart as well as my mind, and I’m forever grateful.  In fact, their example, along with that of my college professors, led me to pursue a future in theological education.  I believed that it was in the classroom and lecture hall that I would be most useful to God as a minister.  While I was gaining all this knowledge and continually fueled by a desire to become a great teacher, I was also letting my growth in holiness decline.  Daily prayer and Bible study became to me opportunities for lesson planning and sermon writing.  I was looking at the Bible for its academic properties and neglecting much of my spiritual encounter with God in the Scriptures.  Busier than ever, with a new baby, a new job, and with school, I was beginning to substitute activity for piety.  But I didn’t notice my mistake.

What I did notice was that my denominational “constituents”, for the most part, were historically and theologically myopic.  I vowed to myself that a major portion of my ministry would be to take Baptists back to the practices and beliefs of the Baptist founders, which, I believed at the time, to be synonymous with the beliefs and practices of the early Christians.  In order to prove this, and to prove the historicity and rightness of Baptist theology and polity, I decided to study the earliest Christian writing I could find in addition to the Bible, namely the Church Fathers.

I had first met the Fathers in college as translation work in advanced Greek classes.  Translation of extrabiblical Greek texts honed our skills and eliminated our “crutch” of cheating on translations for which we had memorized the English scripture verses.  I first met Saint Polycarp and was so intrigued by him that I wanted to read more.  In seminary, I would read the writings of St. Polycarp, St. Clement, St. Ignatius, St. Irenaeus, and St. Justin Martyr.  My studies of the Fathers would reveal to me a sacramental Faith, a tangible Faith, a structured Faith, a faith that I was having trouble reconciling to my present denominational affiliation.  But my patristic studies would have to wait because shortly after the birth of our 2nd child, I had found a pastoral ministry opportunity to be an associate pastor of youth and education near my hometown.

Church ministry was great because it helped force me back into the devotional practices I had been only weakly observing.  Aided by the forceful words of men like John Piper, Charles Spurgeon, and CS Lewis, I was challenged to adopt the principle of “incarnational” living.  I wanted the truth to be so ingrained in me that it permeated every portion of my life.  This proved to be my final undoing, but at the time, it was spurring me to make changes in my life.  Still, I held some things back from God, including my role as a father.  I was so busy studying and doing ministry work that I wasn’t making time for the kids or my wife, so busy that I didn’t even notice my neglect.

In my studies, I continued to read the pre-Nicene Fathers of the Church.  The spiritual might I saw in these men showed me that I was lacking something in my life, but I couldn’t place it.  What I was realizing, however, was that their Church and mine looked totally different.  They had an authority structure, bishops, priests, and deacons.  They had a liturgy that was rich in beauty and meaning.  They had sacraments, most especially the Eucharist.  It was the Eucharist that intrigued me most.  The more I read, the more I became convinced that Christ was not speaking figuratively in John 6 at Capernaum or in the Upper Room.  I was convinced of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, something we as Baptists did not have, but that I wanted.

What I saw in my future was a life as a Catholic, but that couldn’t happen yet. I still had way too much ministry to accomplish.  I decided to shelve the “Catholic thing” so I could concentrate on finishing my work there.  I figured that after five or six years I could step down quietly and pursue my Catholic studies then.  I had no desire to cause a scandal.  In fact, to make sure no “papist” teaching came out in my ministry; I made a point to provide my senior pastor with copies of all my lessons and sermons before I taught them.  It was important enough for me to finish my ministry agenda before pursuing anything else.  In fact, I told no one about my desire to know more about the Catholic Church.  I studied on my own time, alone, to see if the ancient Church and the modern Catholic Church were one and the same.

My search was very lonely.  There was no one I could talk to because if word got out that I was even considering the claims of the Church, I could easily have lost my job, putting my family in jeopardy.  I wasn’t willing to risk that, even though I was becoming more and more convinced of the Catholic Faith.  After a while, I found myself going to Eucharistic Adoration at the Catholic Hospital during my hospital visitation rounds.  I set up appointments to talk with priests “under cover of darkness” because I had questions.  But I still had no one to share with.  I was alone and, quite frankly, terrified of what the future might hold.

I stumbled upon the Coming Home Network almost by accident and was encouraged to find that there were other ministers like me who were asking questions.  I found two friends with whom I felt comfortable sharing my struggles.  One was a Baptist pastor, like myself.  The other was a recent convert from an Evangelical Free background.  They became my prayer partners and my sounding boards.  When I finally got the nerve to call CHN, I was encouraged by Jim Anderson, who not only talked with me, but also provided books and study materials to aid me in my search.  I thank God for the Coming Home Network.  I didn’t feel quite so alone anymore.

Things continued smoothly, just as I had planned, until we had to travel to California for a wedding.  The wedding was beautiful and San Francisco was amazing, but something was not right with me.  God was pressing His thumb upon my heart and I noticed it.  The whole time we were there, I found myself in constant debate with Him over the state of my spiritual life.   The night before we were scheduled to leave, God had His final say with me in what I can only describe as a confrontation.  He revealed to my heart, in no uncertain terms, that I was shipwrecking my life.  He clearly showed me that my heart was not with my wife nor with my children, but with myself and my activities.  I was a shallow and selfish man who blamed his ministry for not having enough time to read to or play with his own kids or spend time conversing with his wife.  I was living my dream as a teacher, but I was failing to practice the very truths I taught.  I was living a lie and I had no excuses.

I wept all night before finally asking God, “What am I supposed to do now?”

“You’re going to have to resign.”

“But I don’t want to resign.”

“If you don’t step down on your own, I’ll remove you myself.”

“What am I supposed to do for a living?  How will I support my family?”

“Trust me.”

That was all I remember before crying myself to sleep.  It was a deep cathartic cry because my hard heart was finally seeing the message God had been trying to get through my thick skull for almost eight years.  He was trying to help me get my life together, not just my personal life and my family, but my eternal life and the eternal lives of my wife and kids.  I had to obey.  Yet as scared as I was, I had a calm peace that kept reminding me to trust God.  I didn’t say a word to anybody about this or my decision until I was in the car with my wife, driving from the Memphis airport to our home across the state.  We were able to have a seven hour discussion of all God had been showing me.  I asked for her forgiveness and for my kids’ forgiveness, and I made a commitment to earn their trust and win their hearts.

I still had to resign.  There were no flashing signs or helpful books to guide me into the unknown.  However, I did find strength from my friends at the Coming Home Network.  I also found a job.  God was reminding me again to trust Him.  The resignation itself wasn’t that hard, because I had the confidence that I was being obedient.  I was determined to be the man God wanted me to be and not to occupy a leadership position until I demonstrated true leadership and not mere academic acumen.

To shorten this story a bit, after resigning and relocating for my new job, I was able to meet with a priest for instruction and formation as a Catholic.  I knew that the answer to my spiritual hunger was the Eucharist.  On Christmas Eve 2002, my wife and I were received into the Catholic Church.  Since then, I have been growing, sometimes by small steps, but sometimes by great leaps.  Most precious to me are the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation.  God has heaped His grace on me and I can see a change in my heart.  He has brought balance into my life.  He has saved my marriage.  He has reconciled me to my children.  He has also, a little at a time, allowed me to resume ministry, this time as a lay catechist and evangelist.  I still have my struggles, as we all do, but now I have something I did not have before, hope.  I have hope for the future and strength for today through the Eucharist.  God continues to teach me to trust in Him and to depend on Him.  Through the Sacraments, I continue to grow in my faith, hope, and charity.

Believe it or not, folks, that was the short version.  God probably has reserved a crown for you in Heaven just for persevering through my tale.  I’m happy to discuss my journey with you, and I’d love the opportunity to pray for you as you search.  I’ll leave this post with a closing comment.

People have asked me, “Was it worth it?”

Absolutely.

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