Manicured lawns, kids playing in the streets, and dads barbequing in the summer: I grew up in the quintessential suburban American neighborhood. Each family was similar to the next, having the same values and outlook and each relatively the same size. One family on my street, however, broke the mold. Instead of the standard two or three children, this family had seven. I remember asking my mother why that family was so large, and her simple answer was, “Oh, they’re Catholic.” Knowing little of Catholicism and even less of how children were conceived, I figured that these “Catholics” must have a better relationship with the stork than the rest of us.
Though I’d learn soon enough how babies came to be, my ignorance of Catholicism persisted, mingled with some minor, usually stereotypical, details. I knew that Catholics took a different view of alcohol than the folks at my church, and I heard rumors that they had even added a few books to their bibles, but in general I was woefully ignorant of this church – it may have had over a billion members, but I personally knew very few of them.
My own religious upbringing was garden-variety American Midwest: membership in a conservative Methodist church with Evangelical leanings. In my sophomore year of high school I made a public decision to accept Jesus as my “personal Lord and Savior”, and although this led me to abandon my nascent flirtation with partying, in general I grew in my Christian faith as most do: slowly and with a lot of missteps. But by the time I got to college I recognized the inadequacies of an immoral lifestyle, and a passion for the Bible had given me a deep, if narrow, appreciation for theological topics.
Up the Exposure
In college I became involved in Christian groups like Campus Crusade for Christ which I figured had the same outlook on life and the faith as me. In my naivety I assumed that all “real” Christians had basically the same theology. I took for granted that what I had been taught growing up was the same faith held by the apostles and most Christians through the centuries, including such luminaries as Martin Luther and John Wesley. Instead of fitting comfortably into a homogenous group, however, I got to know a broader range of Christians than I had ever experienced. I met people who professed Christ but who held wide ranges of beliefs: traditional, progressive, “high church,” “low church” and everything else imaginable. But my exposure to committed pro-life Christians impacted my life like nothing else. Until this time I had considered opposition to abortion simply another political issue, joining a list that included support for supply-side economics and the need for a missile-defense system (hey, this was the late 80’s). Suddenly I realized that legalized abortion was absolutely antithetical to the Christian Gospel. The full implications of this truth would dawn on me slowly, but I dove headfirst into pro-life activities, determined to do my part to end the scourge of abortion. Political campaigns, prayer vigils, demonstrations and even Operation Rescue events – nothing was too much for me when it came to working against abortion.
My pro-life activities also exposed me to fellow Christians with intense prayer lives and deep theological knowledge. My Christian upbringing had had a bit of a social club feel: you join a church because that’s what respectable people do to hang out with like-minded individuals. But now I met Christians for whom following Christ wasn’t always comfortable (picture standing on a freezing sidewalk in front of an abortion clinic while people call you a fanatic or worse). Following Christ meant a radical reconfiguration of their lives. Yes, they were flawed and limited human beings, but they were not Christian to be respectable, they were Christian to be saints. And one thing I began to notice was that the majority of these people – and all of those with a deep prayer life – were Catholic. Thus began my education into the reality of the Catholic Faith.
Over the course of two years I was going through a number of seemingly unrelated changes. First, my exposure to Catholics through the pro-life movement led me to a deeper knowledge of the Church’s teachings and practices. This came in the form of witnessing Catholics in action as well as participating in serious (and often heated) arguments with friends on points of doctrine like purgatory or the perpetual virginity of Mary. Second, the reality of my own limited upbringing in the Faith was being laid bare. Engaging other types of Christians for the first time – Calvinists, Lutherans, Catholics – forced me to recognize the disunity that exists in Christendom. Because of my sheltered religious upbringing I had no idea, for example, that other Christians did not believe in “once saved, always saved” like I did. Finally, I came to recognize that I could no longer be a Methodist due to that denomination’s official acceptance of legalized abortion. I was sure that no church could legitimately claim to be a church of Christ while also condoning the brutal murder of innocent children in the womb. This left me searching for a new church “home.” I suspected that my search would lead me to a non-denominational church or a “low church” community like the Evangelical Free church – after seeing the capitulation to the culture that had occurred in the mainline Protestant denominations, I doubted that any of them would be my destination.
One thing however disturbed. Even if I found a church that still boldly proclaimed the Gospel without compromise, what assurance could I have that it would not later cave to cultural pressures? After all, the Methodist church had been faithful to basic Christian morality for centuries before it succumbed to society’s prevalent mores; if I had lived fifty years earlier I would have never suspected what lay in store for my church. So if I chose to join the Evangelical Free church, for instance, what guarantee did I have that it would continue to preach the full Gospel? This fundamental problem nagged at me continually because I knew it spoke to the root of what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ. Did Christ leave us no way of being assured that the church to which we belong teaches the fullness of Christian Truth? Would Christ allow his followers to remain in such a precarious state, or did he intend for there to be one Church which he protected from error so that it could teach the fullness of the Gospel he had bequeathed to the apostles?
As these questions began to press more and more on my mind, I found – and still assessed as an unrelated circumstance – that I was slowly coming over to the Catholic position on controversial issues. At first I granted that even a broken watch was right twice a day, but eventually I had to admit that the Catholic Church really did understand the Christian Gospel well – and unfortunately many Protestant denominations did not. But as surprising as it may sound, I still did not consider becoming Catholic myself. Although no one in my family or Methodist church had ever explicitly condemned Catholicism, a certain cultural anti-Catholicism was in the air I breathed. If I became a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or even an Episcopal, I knew that no one from my family or church would be upset or disappointed. But to become Catholic…well, that would be breaking an unwritten rule. Catholics were simply too different, not part of the Christian “family” as we understood it. So I was sure that Catholicism was never to be my home, and that the reasons were more cultural than theological was not a fact l spent time questioning.
Nevertheless the evolution in my thinking brought me to a place where intellectually I was Catholic: I accepted most of the Church’s doctrines (even the “hard” ones like the teaching against contraception – now that I knew where babies came from I saw how integral they were to Christian marriage). Yet I had no desire to convert. I angrily denied any potential conversion to my sister, who saw the dangerous path I was on. And my denial was sincere. I really didn’t want to convert and could not conceive of ever doing so. Agreeing with Catholic teaching is nothing like actually becoming a Catholic. A man might be an Anglophile but that doesn’t mean he wants to renounce his American citizenship and become an Englishman.
“You Shouldn’t Have Done That”
The unease about my lack of a church home grew heavy; I knew that Christ wished us to follow him in communion with others so my lone ranger status bothered me. One Sunday I made a decision I still do not understand: I decided to pray the Rosary every day for a week to see if I would receive any illumination in my struggle. I had never prayed a Rosary and was still uncomfortable with Marian devotion, even if intellectually I accepted that Mary had a pivotal role in salvation history. But I had seen many instances of Catholics praying the Rosary – usually in front of an abortion clinic – and there was a peace about them that I could sense, though not describe. I especially remember a night when a pro-abortion protester stood yelling obscenities at my fellow pro-lifer (who, incidentally, would later become my wife). In response she peacefully prayed a Rosary, while my insides were raging. This image still strikes me today. So one Sunday morning as I sat alone in my dorm room, I picked up a Rosary and a Rosary booklet (both of which my Catholic roommate had the suspicious habit of leaving out on his desk) and knelt at my bed reciting the words. I didn’t feel any different after I was finished, but I had decided to give it a week, so that didn’t bother me. That night, though, I told my roommate about praying the Rosary. His response shocked me. He’d been trying to convert me for two years but all he said was “you shouldn’t have done that.” I thought he must have been kidding but then he said, “You don’t know what you just got yourself into.” Prophetic words.
I prayed (read, actually) the Rosary the next day, and again the next. At the end of that third Rosary, my “week-long” prayer had been answered: I knew that I should become Catholic. After two years of arguments and struggle, it took Mary only three days to show me the path to her son: the Catholic Church.
“Eye has not seen…”
Looking back over nearly twenty years since that decision, I can see how much God writes straight with crooked lines. I desired to join a church which had a perfect record in teaching the Gospel; He led me to His family. I wanted to be intellectually satisfied with my church; He opened up intellectual horizons I never dreamed possible while overwhelming me spiritually through the sacraments. My attempts to find a church home were small and inadequate – I didn’t know what I was looking for and didn’t know how to find it. Yet God understood my ignorance and intervened to direct me to the rich intellectual and sacramental life of the Catholic Church. He gently guided me along a path that led to so much more than I could have imagined. I realize now that, like my roommate warned me, I really didn’t know what I got myself into that Sunday I first prayed the Rosary, but it far surpasses what I expected. After all my searching, I can say one thing for sure: I am home.