“I pray not only for these, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, so that they may all be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You.
That they may also be in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” - The Gospel of St. John 17:20-21

Monday, April 23, 2012

That they may all be one...

My Journey to Union with the One True Church

The Visitation
When my parents moved to Kentucky, where I was born, they were not too concerned with attending church, but a friend of my grandparents took care of this, southern style, by calling Dr. Nelson, the pastor of First Baptist.

When I was a baby, Dr. Nelson visited my parents and our family began attending services regularly. However, beyond Sundays and Wednesdays and prayers before meals, having a relationship with God was not a priority.

The Invitation
Growing up Southern Baptist, every Sunday at the end of worship we had “an invitation”, which was a time for people to share their decision to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior and “be saved”.

After many years of hearing the invitation every Sunday, I began to feel a tugging in my heart. I asked my parents whether I was a Christian and they told me that I had to make that decision for myself.

Getting 'Saved'
At the age of 10, I decided to become a Christian. I responded to the "invitation" by walking down the aisle, publicly sharing that I wanted to give my life to Christ. That night I was baptized. I did not completely understand what I was doing, but I knew that I wanted to know God and “be saved”.

After this, I began to grow in my faith by reading the Bible, paying more attention in Sunday school (Bible study), and attending youth group and retreats.

‘Once Saved Always Saved’
My understanding of salvation from my Baptist upbringing was focused on this event as a one time decision that guaranteed my entrance into heaven. Southern Baptists refer to this belief as ‘once saved always saved’. I did believe that being ‘saved’ should manifest itself by witnessing to others in both word and deed but that my salvation was not dependant on it.

I heard conflicting ideas in my congregation and in reading the Bible on the belief of ‘once saved always saved’ that left me confused about what this really meant. ‘Does being saved mean, I don’t have to live according to God’s law?’ If I fall into sin was there something wrong with my initial decision to follow Christ? These were questions that I would continue to wrestle with for many years.

Key Scripture Passages 
A few key Scripture verses that I memorized as a child in the Baptist faith and played a pivotal role in my journey were...

+ “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that we might not perish but have eternal life.” - John 3:16 (I learned from this about God’s love and desire to save us - Sharing/ Witnessing/ Evangelizing)

+ “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” -Matthew 28:19-20 (Jesus giving the Great Commission to his disciples)

+ "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” - Luke 9:23 (How to be a disciple...)

God Calling 
The summer before my freshman year of high school, our youth minister Tim invited my family to go on a week-long retreat for high school students called Centrifuge. That week, God drew me to himself in a new and powerful way.

As I was listening to the talks and reading the Bible more, I learned that God wanted an intimate and personal relationship with me. I found myself both excited and afraid of what this might mean.

One night during the retreat while lying in bed, I felt God calling me to give up my dreams of becoming a doctor. I knew God was requiring me to give up my will and follow Him. I did not know exactly what God wanted me to do. Though, it was clear to me that God was calling me to serve Him in ministry. I tossed and turned and could not fall asleep. I felt like Jacob wrestling with the angel. However, I was not wrestling for God’s blessing but to hold on to my dreams and desires.

Finally, I gave in. I realized that only by accepting God's call could I find fulfillment and that I would not be satisfied in life with anything but following Him. I immediately felt a great peace in surrendering my life to Him and His plans.

Revealing the Call
After returning from the retreat our whole family was changed. Each of us came to realize that we were called to put God first in our lives. We all began praying more often, studying Scripture, and volunteering to help at First Baptist more. Our lives were now focused on God, but we still had a lot of growing to do.

I was afraid to share my decision to follow God in full-time ministry with my parents. Finally, after several weeks, I explained to them what God had asked of me. My parents were shocked and gave me reasons why this was not what God wanted me to do.

At first, my parents believed that I was just trying to emulate my youth minister and other youth who had made commitments to full-time ministry.

They were also concerned because of the financial difficulties that ministry would entail. They had struggled to make ends meet and did not want me to have to suffer as they did. Our conversation was disheartening but only served to harden my resolve in following Him wherever He might lead.

Spiritual Rebellion
During high school, I struggled with my self-worth and becoming an individual. Unlike many of my friends in high school, I did not turn to drugs or alcohol. I was blessed to have the support of my youth group and some good Christian student organizations (CSU and FCA) at my public high school.

My parents and I continued to disagree about my calling and I found ways without turning to partying or sex to exert my independence. My version of rebellion included artistic self expression and listening to loud heavy metal and dark alternative music as a way of inflicting my individuality on everyone else, especially my parents.

While my parents were continuing to grow in their relationship with God, I found myself getting further and further away from Him. During my freshmen and sophomore years of high school, I began to struggle with depression. I eventually began focusing on finding my worth through artistic self-expression and turned away from God’s plans for me.

My sophomore year, I finally came to a point where I was coasting through school and had decided that I did not want to follow God’s plans.

The wake up call happened when I told a friend who was not a Christian that I believed in God but was not listening to Him right now. This was a friend who I had been sharing my faith with for quite some time.

My friend was disillusioned by my confession. They had looked to me for help and had believed that my faith was unshakable. I could not believe what I had said. Their reaction to my confession was like a slap in the face.

I was at the bottom and knew I was trapped in a prison that I had built. I did not know where to turn or how to get out.

Obedience brings Freedom

The turning point came when I made a D+ in a biology class that my parents knew was an easy class. I had intentionally not done my homework.

I was sinking and could not find a way to change. When I brought home the report card, my parents asked why I had made such a bad grade. I explained that I had simply not done the homework.

My parents were furious and began to list my punishments. During this, something changed inside me. I knew that I had to accept their discipline and that being obedient to them would lead me out of this depression and spiritual prison to spiritual joy and freedom.

I was grounded from getting my driver’s license, which was difficult because we lived in the country far from my friends. I was grounded from everything but going to school and church activities for six weeks.

I had already signed up to go on a weekend youth retreat called Chrysalis. Chrysalis, a youth version of the Walk to Emmaus, is a non-denominational protestant retreat ministry and is based on the Catholic Cursillo movement. My parents agreed to let me go despite being grounded.

The Chrysalis retreat was a significant experience for me. During this retreat, I received an image that I had built walls around my heart and mind between God and myself. I was showered with love and letters from friends and family that touched me. I left the retreat knowing I was loved in my mind, but emotionally numb.

By the end of the weekend, my mind was open to God but I knew that my heart was not. I knew that God could heal me instantly but He had wanted to teach me to live rightly and work with Him to tear down the walls around my heart.

God was calling me to “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossian 1:24). I realized that God was telling me He would help me to take down the walls I had built, but He wanted my participation.

Though I didn't understand the concept yet, this was my first experience of the principle of doing penance for my sins as a way to grow in holiness. I began to realize that love is not primarily a feeling but a choice to act on what is good and true.

Announcing the Call
By my junior year of high school, I publicly announced to my congregation that I had received a call from God to enter full-time ministry. I made this announcement during the same Centrifuge type of retreat that I had attended before my freshman year of high school.

My dad was a chaperone on the retreat that year and I remember my father telling me he was proud of my decision to follow God. We talked and prayed together. This was such a blessing in my life and a complete reversal from what I had experienced three years before.

This experience showed me how much my parents had grown in their relationship with God. Though my parents accepted this decision and had begun to support it, I still believed they did not fully understand it. There were many unspoken feelings surrounding this.

I felt it might be because no one in our family had ever been in ministry. Or maybe my parents didn’t believe I was really called. Perhaps it was lingering roots of rebelliousness inside of me that caused me to believe that they didn’t fully support me.

Regardless, I set my face like flint toward my goal and focused on my call to ministry and where God would lead me.

Going to College on a Scholarship!

Through prayer and family support, I attended Samford University, a Southern Baptist university in Birmingham, Alabama with the intention of entering seminary and pursuing full-time ministry afterwards. I received a license to ministry from First Baptist in Kentucky, so that I could receive a ministerial scholarship.

There are two events that happened during college that changed the course of my life. The first event involved a deeper sense of the power of the Holy Spirit and the unity we are called to as Christians. The second event, was meeting the woman I would marry.

Kentucky State Motto
United We Stand, Divided We Fall
I knew that in Scripture, Jesus had prayed for all believers to be unified—but I did not see this lived out among Southern Baptists. I was aware that there might be more to Christianity than what I had learned growing up, but I did not know where else to look. In my studies, I spent time trying to understand the divisions that plagued Baptists congregations, colleges, and seminaries. Southern Baptists were in the middle of a civil war between two groups: the fundamentalists and the moderates (evangelicals).

It would take too long to detail the differences between fundamentalists and moderates. In short, most fundamentalists believe in what is known as the five fundamentals -

1. The inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture
2. The deity of Jesus Christ
3. The virgin birth of Christ
4. The substitutionary, atoning work of Christ on the cross
5. The physical resurrection and the personal bodily return of Christ to the earth.

Though, I accepted and believed all of these, I did not agree with what I perceived to be uncharitable attitudes, a quest for power, or accept the authority of the fundamentalist movement that had taken over the Southern Baptist Convention. Some fundamentalists believed that only the Baptists were Christians, or those who believed exactly as they did.

The moderates mostly believed in these fundamentals but didn’t want to force them on others. I did not accept the idea that the only people who were Christians were Baptists or those who believed exactly as I did.The original Baptists who came together to start the Southern Baptist convention had believed in the autonomy of each congregation and used a democratic system of governance.

Suffice it to say, I was more on the moderate evangelical side, but I struggled with the relativistic attitudes that others seemed to take for granted. I deeply desired to know definitively what Christians are supposed to believe. I wanted absolute truth without the kind of illogical and uncharitable approaches that I saw in some of those in the fundamentalist movement.

I found myself studying all kinds of conflicting ideas about what Christians should believe. This was deeply disturbing, but I loved being a Baptist and could not have imagined being anything else. I began to realize that these divisions would mean that the Baptist faith I knew and loved it, would not exist within the next 100 years.

Despite all of this, I wanted to grow in my relationship with the Lord and follow Him no matter where He called me.

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit

At the invitation of some college friends, Chuck, Betsy, and Mark, I joined a community called the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. While I was there, I learned more about -

+ the power of the Holy Spirit,
+ how He works in the world today,
+ and could be a part of my life.

Southern Baptists did not believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12 among others) mentioned in Scripture were a part of the Church today. Like many evangelical Protestant movements, most Baptists accepted that these gifts died out after the New Testament was canonized in the 4th century. Most didn’t believe in miracles or that they were extremely rare or non-existent.

Through studying Scripture and other books, I began to learn how the Gifts of the Spirit and other supernatural phenomena had continued throughout Christian history, contrary to the belief that they had died out after the 4th century.

I did not see this new understanding of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit and God working supernaturally in the world today as a rejection of what I had grown up with as a Baptist.

I saw embracing the power of the Holy Spirit as a wonderful addition to the things I already believed; having a personal relationship with Jesus, sharing Him with others, and studying God’s Word.

My time at the Vineyard filled me with a hunger for more of God and a deep desire to see the power of the Holy Spirit transforming hearts and forming active Christian disciples. I also began to long for greater unity between all Christians.

Discovering the Unitive Power of the Holy Spirit 
During this time, the Lord spoke to my heart through one verse of Scripture in particular. St. Paul says in his 1st letter to the Corinthians (1:10), “I appeal to you, brethren, that all of you may be one in mind and spirit.”

From this, I learned that God desires and commands unity among His people. Unity was something I was not seeing around me. I had constantly been plagued by this question since high school, ‘Where do I send someone once I share my faith with them?’

All I could see within Christianity were many groups that believed different things about Christ and I did not have any idea how we could be unified like Paul was commanding us to be, while we remained so splintered.

The Princess and the Barbarian 
While I was a junior in college and attending the Vineyard community, I met a beautiful girl named Virginia who turned my world completely upside down.

She was a college freshman and we met through an ecumenical dance ministry a friend of mine had started. The first time we met, she was performing at the Vineyard on a Sunday.

Later at another service, we began to talk and I noticed she was wearing a bracelet. I asked her what kind of bracelet it was. She replied that it was a rosary bracelet. I was stunned.

To understand my reaction, you need to know a few things that led up to this event. I had just completed a course during our January term on Christian Spirituality. We studied many Catholic spiritual masters including the works of St. John of the Cross, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Bonaventure, St. Augustine and even discussed Marian apparitions.
Christ of St. John
of the Cross
Also, I had recently finished a book called 'Surprised by the Power of the Spirit' by Jack Deere, a fundamentalist who had embraced the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit. This book was primarily an apologetic work. It was meant to respond to the arguments of fundamentalists against the existence of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and miracles still occurring in the world today.

The appendix of this book, however, posited an interesting question - "Could the ministry of an Apostle have continued in the Church until today?" His answer was yes, but he did not believe that there were any modern day ‘Apostles’ like Saint Paul. It left me with a burning question about the role of Apostles in the Church today.

So upon my discovery of a Catholic in my midst, I began to drill her with questions about the Pope and bishops and their relationship with the Apostles in the Bible. I am sure it felt like a barbarian attack, but I was really looking for answers.

She tried to answer my questions but this led me to ask her more and more questions. I was fascinated and mystified by her Catholic faith. She told me that she had some books I might read, and we ended the conversation.

When we went on our first date (which we called a friendly outing) she handed me a book she said might answer some of my questions. It was called, Surprised by Truth.

After our date, I went back to my dorm room to read the book. I read the preface and in the first few paragraphs the writer claimed that He believed the Catholic Church was the true CHURCH. I could not believe it, I threw the book on the shelf.

My immediate response was, ‘Oh no, not another fundamentalist!’ I was so surrounded by relativism that I didn't realize it had infected me as well.

It took me time to begin to be open to what the author in the book was saying. However, I was still fascinated and kept asking questions and looking for answers. (I later came back to this book once I had become more open).

Over a period of the next few weeks, Virginia and I became close friends. Her great love for the Lord drew me to her as well as her inner beauty (and outer, of course). 

I wanted to get to know her and understand how she could love God so much and still be a Catholic. I found this difficult because most Catholics I had known in high school did not seem to know much about what their Church believed or its relationship with the Bible.

A few weeks after we had become friends, we began dating (a courtship period) and, quickly we came to believe that God was calling us to be married. There was only one difficulty—she was a Catholic and I was preparing to be a pastor.

We both agreed to try not to convert one another (though I later found out she had not been completely honest with herself and me about this commitment). We agreed that we would support each other in our respective faiths.

She made it absolutely clear, however, that she had no intention of ever leaving the Catholic Church or missing Sunday Mass. I went to my first Sunday Mass just after we made this agreement. She would attend services with me when she could, but it was absolutely clear that her priority was going to Mass.

I had been praying for the woman that I would marry since I had been a sophomore in high school and had dated many girls, but I knew that this beautiful princess was the answer to a barbarian's prayers.

That They May All Be ONE...
During the second semester of my junior year I had been attending the Vineyard for almost a year and a half and was interning under my pastor to help start a youth group.

Even though my pastor thought highly of Virginia, he made it clear to me that I would not be able to pastor a Vineyard congregation if I was married to a Catholic. I was not really sure how things would work out at the time, but felt strongly about our relationship.

Within one semester, God pulled me out of starting the youth group, and I began attending both Vineyard worship and Catholic Masses weekly. As time went on, I began to think that, if we did marry, I would stay at the Vineyard and minister in some way other than being a pastor, out of respect for Virginia’s faith and convictions.

Shortly after Virginia and I met, the Lord had moved me to understand more deeply the unity that we are called to as Christians through a Scripture passage in the Gospel of St. John. In John 17:20-21, Jesus prays to the Father, 

“I pray not only for these (the Disciples), but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, so that they may all be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You. That they may also be in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.”

This passage began to increasingly burn in my heart and mind as I meditated on it frequently. Jesus prayed that we would be one as He and the Father are one…and He and the Father with the Holy Spirit are so close that we say they are One God - the Trinity!

I began to realize that if the most central and foundational belief for Christianity - the Most Holy Trinity is a perfect unity and God is one-in-three Persons, this prayer must be an amazing and powerfully effective one. That Jesus prayed for this kind of unity amongst all believers was astounding to me.

I could not see why Christ would have prayed this if He did not intend for us to remain united. If “...the prayers of a righteous man availeth much.(James 5:16)” Then surely the prayers of Jesus who was fully God and Man would be answered.

It was clear that God wanted all of his children to be unified in one visible body. However, I could not see any organization that I thought resembled what Christ was talking about in this prayer.

Though I believed Virginia was sincere in her relationship with God and her belief in the Catholic Faith, I could not understand why Catholics had certain beliefs and practices such as;

+ Adoration of the Eucharist
+ Apostolic succession
+ Purgatory
+ Doctrines and prayers regarding Mary
+ Intercession of Saints
+ among many others

It seemed impossible to me that these beliefs could be compatible with the Christianity of the Bible.

Beginning My Journey Home
At the beginning of the summer, Virginia and I decided to get to know each other’s families. Virginia’s family lived in Memphis, TN which was closer, so we went to visit her parents first.

Virginia was raised by her Catholic mother and Presbyterian father. She had decided to attend Samford University because it was not far from home, had a strong faith community, a good music school, and it was a compromise with her father who was uncomfortable with her going to a Catholic school.

When talking with Virginia’s mom about their Catholic faith, I told her I wanted to know more and would appreciate anything she might share. She immediately left the room and returned with a zip-lock bag full of audiotapes and some books. While we traveled to my parents I began to listen to the tapes.

The first tape I listened to was a famous one called, “A Protestant Minister becomes Catholic” by Dr. Scott Hahn. I was intrigued by the tape, but wanted to know more about some of my questions.
Dr. Scott Hahn
I listened to many tapes over a period of two weeks. Two series that stood out for me were Growth by Oath and Answering Common Objections both by Scott Hahn. At the end of spending two weeks at both of our parents’ houses, I felt that God might be calling me to become Catholic.

Saved vs Saving - Faith that works
During our time in Memphis, I also met a friend of Virginia’s named Robert, who had led a Catholic small group she had been a part of when she was in High School.

Robert was the first person to successfully challenge my arguments for salvation as a one-time decision. He also helped to undo my misconception that Catholics believed they were saved by works.

He pointed out that Martin Luther had added the word alone to St. Paul’s writings - saying that we are saved by faith alone. He pointed out a passage in St. James that I knew well that says that faith without works is dead. Still in other passages Scripture says that we are saved by God’s grace and love.

Robert challenged my ideas about the meaning of grace in Scripture. He pointed out that grace was more that just a change in our legal status or the way God looks at us. That God desires to heal our souls so that we can fully enjoy eternity with him in heaven. Grace in this new definition, was nothing less than God’s life in us.

Connecting the dots for me, he explained that the Catholic Church believes that we are saved by faith working through love. In other words, true faith works. It is not that we are saved by works, but that our faith in God should result in good works. It is through our continual acceptance of God’s grace that our faith can produce good works.

Wrestling with Catholicism
That summer, I had decided to work two part time jobs at Samford University in our food court and computer labs and live with a family from the Vineyard community.

As I drove back onto campus I was finishing the last audio tape of the Answering Common Objections series on the Eucharist. It was at that moment that I was certain I had to become a Catholic though there were still many questions needed to be answered.

Shameless Marketing Advertisement: If you are interested, click here to order Scott Hahn's conversion story. You can get many other useful series from St. Joseph Communications.

In addition to the tapes, I read ‘Rome Sweet Home’ by Scott and Kimberly Hahn and Catholicism and Fundamentalism by Karl Keating over a three-day period. I was immersing myself in Catholicism and my head was swimming with information and excitement. 

As I began to learn more about the Catholic Faith, I was presented with more stories and explanations of Catholic beliefs by people who had converted to Catholicism from Evangelical backgrounds. They gave convincing arguments that explained the biblical roots of Catholic doctrines in the very Bible I thought had refuted such teachings.

I began to think that perhaps this unity Christ intended might exist in the Catholic Church, but this was hard to accept. It was hard to believe that so many well-intentioned people that I knew at the Vineyard and the Southern Baptist churches I had been involved with could be wrong about the Catholic Church. Could the Reformers have been wrong to break this unity?

Questions about the Eucharist (Holy Communion)
In the course of those two weeks, I had focused mostly on the Eucharist. First I asked, ‘Is it possible that God would do this, that God would make himself really present – body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharist?' After what I had learned about the power of the Holy Spirit my response to this question was an emphatic "YES!"

The question remained; is this true?! This led me to ask a second question, “Why wouldn’t God give himself to us in this way?” It would be an amazing way for us to have a deep and intimate relationship that He clearly desires with each of us!

As I began to listen to the stories of many different protestant ministers who had become Catholic and read the early Church Fathers for myself, it became clear to me that the Catholic Church’s doctrine on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was the correct interpretation of Scripture and not the purely symbolic gesture that I had been taught.

SEARCHing for Catholics
Through the tapes and books I had read, all of my arguments from Scripture against Catholic teachings had been dismantled and reassembled into an exciting new skeleton that brought the Scriptures I had been studying to life. I was invigorated and began looking to find out how to become a Catholic.

During that summer I worked around 60 hours a week. My job in the campus computer lab gave me a lot of time to converse with Catholics online in chat rooms and via email.

When I could get free time, I was impatient to find out more about the Catholic faith and looked for people to talk to about Catholicism. I looked in the Yellow Pages and found one Catholic bookstore in the vicinity of Birmingham AL. It was in Irondale, AL.

By this time, I had heard of EWTN and knew that it was somewhere near there. The first day off I had, I drove to the bookstore, walked in, and began to talk with the ladies who worked there. They were friendly and began to show me some books that I might read to learn more about the Catholic Faith.

Not too long after, three college-aged men walked in and began speaking with the ladies who worked at the bookstore. I quickly discovered that two of them knew my girlfriend, Virginia, from a Search Retreat (Catholic retreat for college students) she had attended earlier in the semester.

They had already heard about me and were surprised to find out that I was now interested in becoming Catholic. They invited me to come to EWTN with them and said they had heard that Scott Hahn was filming a video series there, so I joined them.

We did see Dr. Hahn at Mass but did not have the opportunity to speak with him. After the Mass we saw a man wearing a large crucifix in a business suit. He introduced himself as Deacon Bill Steltemeier, the president of EWTN. He offered to give us a tour of the facility and we accepted.

After the tour, he told us that he would get us up front seats on Mother Angelica’s show that night. Before I knew it I was sitting up front on her live television show. This experience was exciting and scary at the same time. It was like being in a foreign country and not knowing the customs or the language

At the end of the day I was in a whirlwind, and I knew that this day had not been a mere coincidence. I had already begun to look for a priest to meet with and after two failed attempts at other places, I found a priest at EWTN who would meet with me once a month.

Apostolic Witness
Through the recommendation of my spiritual director at EWTN, I began attending RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). Though many times, I was confused by Catholics (and at least one Priest) who did not seem to believe or understand their own Faith.

At a couple of points, it seemed that Virginia and I would not be able to work out our differences of belief and on a few occasions we ended our relationship.

One night, I drove to EWTN and stood in the back while a live event with Mother Angelica was being taped. I started talking with a man who I thought was priest. We stepped outside so that we would not interrupt the recording.

I found out that he was Bishop (now Archbishop) Charles Chaput. I did not know who he was or what a privilege I had in speaking with him that day until much later. I shared with him my journey and my struggles in trying to understand what the Church really taught and my frustrations with Catholics who did not practice or seem to understand their own faith.

He helped me to recognize that the truth of the Catholic Church was not dependant on the weakness of human beings. He helped me to understand by his listening and patient answers to my questions that the Holy Spirit had guided the Church and protected it from error. And that I could come to know the Church’s official teachings by studying Church documents and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

He planted a seed in me that help me to later recognize that the Church’s apostolic authority would provide the answer to a burning question I had about who determine’s what Christian’s believe. This is also set in motion a line of thought that helped me to realize that perhaps in some small way I with my evangelical background could contribute to the building up of the Church.

Evangelical, Charismatic, Catholic
Through prayer, the answering of my issues, and the witness of
  • Virginia, 
  • good priests and bishops 
  • others who had become Catholic from a similar background 
I began to see a much grander picture of the Catholic Faith. It became apparent to me that the Catholic Church was the One True Church which Christ had founded and contained the fullness of the Christian Faith.

The Catholic Church had in her understanding and practice of the Sacraments, especially in the Eucharist, a complete openness to the supernatural that intrigued me. I began to see that if the Eucharist was really and truly Christ, it would exhibit God’s power in a profound way and bring us into a radical communion with Him.

This was the kind of communion that I longed to have with God and with the rest of his children. I began to see a much fuller expression of the unity of the Church in her teaching on the role of the the Pope and the Bishops as successors to the Apostles.

I was impressed by the wisdom of the Church in her use of the Creed and the Catechism of the Catholic Church as standards for what Christians should believe and how they were so firmly based in Scripture.

There were many other aspects that led me to see that the Church Christ had intended for us all is found in its fullness in the Catholic Church, but these were the most significant for me.

My love for Virginia drove me to try to understand her love for Jesus and the Catholic Church. In the process of investigating what the Catholic Church believes about herself, I began to see that Catholic beliefs were not mutually exclusive to Biblical Christianity but essential to it.

I began to understand that these very teachings that I thought were unscriptural and superfluous in fact provided the fullness and unity of the Church that I had been searching for so long.

I realized that in becoming a Catholic, I was not leaving my evangelical heritage or the supernatural (charismatic) dimension that the Vineyard community had added to this, but was adding the final ‘Catholic’ or universal aspect that would complete my quest for unity. I now had a home to bring those with whom I would share my faith.

Received, Engaged, and Moved
In 1997 at the Easter Vigil, during my senior year at Samford, I came into the full communion with the Catholic Church at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham, AL. As I write this it strikes me that St. Paul, the greatest of missionaries, the focus of so many sermons in my Baptist upbringing, should be the patron of the Cathedral where I would be received into the full communion of the Catholic faith.

Immediately after I was received into the Church, Confirmed, and received my first Holy Communion, I proposed to Virginia in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

I had invited both of our families and our friends to our engagement which I had planned to take place after my being received into the Church in hopes of encouraging them to come to the Vigil.

The day after I was received into the Church was our Spring Break, so Virginia and I had decided to drive to Steubenville for me to check out the Master Degree Program in Theology (which I had already applied for and been preliminarily accepted to) at the Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS).

Virginia, who had always wanted to go to Franciscan, was interested to see whether she might be able to transfer. Virginia’s father knew what we were thinking and he told her in no uncertain terms that she would not be transferring. Virginia’s father was not open to her attending FUS for several reasons but most importantly because:

+ it was twelve hours away from Memphis
+ he had never heard anything about it except that it was Catholic
+ related to the Charismatic movement
+ and also very Marian

These were things that he could not relate to. We left Birmingham anxious but hopeful that perhaps with a lot of prayer and a little bit of reason, God would change his heart.

We spent a week in Steubenville at Franciscan University going to daily Mass, staying in the dorms, attending classes, and talking with the admissions counselors. One big roadblock for Virginia was that she was a Vocal Performance Major at Samford and Franciscan University did not have a Music Major. She already had the equivalent of a Minor in Music so she would not be able to get it recognized as a part of her course work.

The admissions counselor, a Franciscan brother, Virginia met with had discouraged her from transferring and she was in tears. God answered our prayers when we met Professor Barbara Morgan who was the Director of the Office of Catechetics in the Department of Theology.

I met Barbara after missing a class that the admissions department had scheduled me for. I wanted to go to classes of people I had heard of, so I had gone to a different class.

She encouraged me to attend her afternoon class. After going to her class I was interested in what she was telling her students about working in the field of Catechetics but it did not fully hit me how this program would help me to fulfill my calling to serve the Catholic Church.

After the class, I asked Barbara to meet with Virginia to see if it would be possible for her to transfer her credits and graduate on time in the undergraduate religious education major.

Our thought was that if she majored in religious education, she could have a firm foundation in the faith in order to teach our future children (once we were married of course) and that it would help her to write songs that reflected the depth and truth of the Catholic faith.

Barbara spent at least an hour looking at Virginia’s transcripts and helping us to make use of the classes that she had taken. By the end of our meeting with Barbara, we felt that we had strong case to make to Virginia’s dad for her transferring to Steubenville.

We continued to pray that his heart would be open to the possibility of a transfer as we returned early from Spring Break to meet her parents at their lake house. Virginia made her case to her dad early the next morning and he listened and asked questions.

That night after dinner he hugged Virginia and with tears in his eyes told her that she could transfer to Franciscan University. Our prayers had been answered.

Finding My Mission
I applied to the Masters of Theology program and was formally accepted. After I graduated from Samford University, I packed my belongings, made preparations, and moved to Steubenville to begin studies for my Masters degree. 

That summer I struggled, trying to find where and how God might use me as a lay person in the Catholic Church. While reading the Catechism I found the following statement. Catechesis is,

“the totality of the Church's efforts to make disciples, to help men believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God so that believing they might have life in his name, and to educate and instruct them in this life, thus building up the body of Christ” (CCC #4).

It is impossible to describe to you how much this meant to me, but reading this phrase was a message from God to me that my calling would be fulfilled in the Catholic Church.

You see, after I had overcome all of my objections to the Catholic Church the only thing that remained was the calling that I received from God to full-time ministry. I was not sure how this would play out now that I had become a Catholic. I had spent many years preparing for full-time ministry.

I had felt at times as though I was both accepting and rejecting God’s plans for me. I had simply not known how I would be able to minister as a married lay person in the Catholic Church. This experience had been like a mid-life crisis.

That is why when I read that passage in the Catechism; I became very excited. I knew that there was something that God had called me to do in the Catholic Church and that I had not lost my way.

Soon after reading this passage I met with Professor Barbara Morgan again just before the regular semester started. She mentioned to me the possibility of becoming one of her graduate assistants in the Office of Catechetics depending on my performance in her classes. I was very excited about the possibility and it turned out that I was able to start a semester early.

Virginia and I were married after our first year at Franciscan and I was able to take my Masters at a slower rate so that I could be a graduate assistant, have the incredible opportunity to study, and be mentored by Barbara who as a lay person had been a part of the Church’s work to make disciples (Catechesis) for over 40 years.

What an incredible blessing it was to study the Catholic faith in an environment of such devotion and enthusiasm!

Making Disciples
After completing my Masters, I worked full time in the Catholic Church for a little over two years. I struggled during this time with balancing my new and growing family and my calling to ministry. I decided to not continue working full time in Catechetical ministry.

I remembered well the advice of the wise priest from EWTN who was my spiritual director while I was going through RCIA to become Catholic. He said, "If you marry Virginia, your first vocation will be to her and any children that God gives you."

I began to realize my own weaknesses and that my first and most important ministry of disciple making is to learn to be a good husband to my beautiful and amazing wife and a father who loves the precious gift of each of his children.

God has clearly been guiding me all the way and helping me to grow each and every day. I have joined myself to the Church that He founded so that I might have all the means of grace necessary to live for Him.

I have worked full time and in volunteer roles as a catechist (teacher) in RCIA and am realizing more and more the importance of serving the Lord by supporting my wife and our five children.

I know that God has plans for me in the future, but what matters is serving Him in the here and now. Please pray that I and my family will fall in deeper love with the Lord. And that we will remain open to serve the Lord wherever He may call us!

1 comment:

Judith Rolfs said...

Awesome testimony! The Catholic church will be revitalized in this century by men like you.
Judith Rolfs