Friday, December 3, 2010

A Very Long (yet incomplete) Autobiographical Explanation of Why I'm Becoming Catholic


I was born and initially grew up in Colorado where my family attended a Pentecostal/word of faith style church. I can remember the bare details of a church event on a halloween night where I nodded yes to the question of whether I wanted Jesus in my heart. I understood relatively little at that point in time, but I had been exposed to enough information about Jesus to convince me that anything involving Him was probably a good idea. My early ideas about God were formed more by listening to my parents read from the Bible every night. I think most parents read stories about Noah's ark and such to kids, but we just started in Genesis at some point so my earliest memories are of asking questions about the Mosaic law, and my first memory of anything approximating the fear of God was based on the mental image I had of Mt. Sinai covered in smoke while the whole people of Israel stood back and Moses alone went up to hear from God.

Unbeknownst to my parents, I suffered from a lot of guilt for a good part of my childhood. I was an over-achieving first-born child and given my context my desire to work for affirmation played itself out in the religious sphere quite strongly. I alternated between believing I was “more Christian” than my peers and suppressing the suggestion that I was a fake and really fell far short of who I needed to be. I channeled this angst mostly into Bible reading, and once I had started a daily pattern, there were time periods where I felt guilty for reading anything less than 6 chapters a day or for doing anything other than reading the Bible during recess.

I formed a friendship with one Catholic friend as I attended the non-denominational Christian grade school run by my church. I don't remember any discussions about theology, but respecting the lifestyle of him and his family, and seeing them cross themselves when praying over dinner unknowingly vaccinated me against any unproven negative statement I later heard about Catholics.

High School in Papua New Guinea

My family's move to Papua New Guinea via a year in Texas and Oklahoma shifted everything, ultimately for the better. My devotional life suffered significantly while in Texas, though. I'm not entirely sure why. The best theory I have right now is that I was afraid of God's demands at an emotionally vulnerable time. Most of the gap was unfortunately filled by television and computer games.

The move to Papua New Guinea presented a drastic enough change to push me solidly back into a Christian identity that I hadn't ever really abandoned. My faith undoubtedly matured during this time, and I benefitted considerably from the many positive examples of Christian discipleship I observed around me. During my sophomore year of high school, I went through a conversion process that thank God, allowed me to own my own faith in a way I hadn't before. At the center of it was an independent conclusion that I desperately needed help, and that the God who I wanted to please was the exact same God who everyone says came to save us despite the fact that we did nothing to deserve it.

In a sense, I would say that the seeds of becoming Catholic were sown then (if not at the very beginning of this story). Once my faith was my own it was about interacting with Jesus more than it was about meeting societal expectations. Between that period and sometime roughly around the summer of 2009, I slowly but steadily crawled closer to the Church while remaining completely oblivious to the fact that that's what I was doing.

Daily Bible reading now started to feel more like eating and less like brushing my teeth (most of the time anyways). I felt free to engage with the Scriptures and follow what they seemed to say to me. I remember feeling like I was making a momentous discovery when I discovered passages of Scripture that challenged my conceptions of Christianity. There was a depth to the Gospel that I hadn't been aware of before, and I began to be nourished by the Gospels in a new way.

I also read a novel for class called “The Power and the Glory”. The story focuses on a persecuted Mexican “whiskey priest” who despite considerable personal sin continued to travel celebrating the Sacraments during a time of intense persecution of the Mexican Church. I was aware of the doctrine of transubstantiation, and like most evangelicals, thought it sounded pretty ridiculous. Still, I felt a connection to the Eucharistic piety described in the novel. That Christ would become physically present, through a very broken and sinful man for the benefit of impatient, dirty peasants resonated with what I knew of God's grace. Still, I had no trouble understanding such scenes as powerful metaphors, and have no memory of then even considering the possibility that the doctrine underlying such piety was actually true.

As the end of my time in high school and Ukarumpa neared, my confidence was high and I felt like God wanted me to go to college in a context where I could question and be questioned. I was so confident in the truth of the Christianity that I embraced that I thought only good could come of engaging in dialogue with anyone and everyone who came from a different perspective. Brown University seemed like the right place to find such challenges, and after the humbling and gratifying news that I was accepted, I decided to go.

College

In the end, my college experience accomplished exactly what it was supposed to do. I thought deeply about what matters most, and exposed myself to as diverse a range of thought and experience as I could. I now feel like nearly all of my questions and decisions made at university helped lead me to the Catholic Church, although as I said, I didn't see that that was the case until the end of my time there.

I found Renaissance Church within my first month in Providence. My time in Ukarumpa allowed me to take tight faith-based community for granted, but I also arrived in Rhode Island believing that there was something about being part of a Church that was important and that I hadn't had in a community with no particular pastor. I was deeply impressed by the honesty and faith present in the Renaissance community, and I truly appreciated and grew during my time as a part of the community there. Additionally, their observance of Advent and Lent helped instill me with an appreciation for the liturgical year. I also benefitted greatly from my involvement with Intervarsity. My encounter with Scripture in community was key in sustaining my relationship with Christ and in leading me to a deeper understanding of the Christ we follow and His gospel.

I took a class on early Christianity my freshman year, and was honestly disturbed at some points by how different that early Christianity seemed from what I knew. I could certainly say that I had a lot in common, but it really didn't feel like the same thing, and more than that, felt like I couldn't quite claim to be in continuity with those figures we were reading about. I had to look up the word “eucharist” to realize it correlated to what I called the Lord's Supper or communion and was somewhat baffled as to why that particular ritual seemed so important. The disparity didn't seem to bother other evangelicals in the class, so I bluffed and acted as if it only strengthened my faith. I didn't have time to find answers for all my questions.

I was perhaps even more challenged by examination of Scripture as human documents. The inspiration of Scripture was so deeply ground into me that I never came close to abandoning that belief, but I sure felt baffled by it sometimes. God breathed words through very human human beings. I had never really thought of the human aspect of Scripture since the overwhelming emphasis was on Scripture as the Word of God. Faith and the prayers of others undoubtedly kept me focused on Christ in what could have been a much more traumatic experience. I chose to push deeper into my faith, believing that I had no choice but to pursue Jesus, hoping that I would come to a deeper understanding of Scripture and its role in the Church by pressing into what I knew by faith to be true. I had poured myself into prayer for Brown and made a full commitment to campus ministry from as soon as I arrived, and after a year or two my questions started to drag on me a little and then a lot.

I saw Catholics as allies in answering my questions, although I still didn't even think of becoming Catholic as a possibility. In the context of a largely secular campus there was no ambiguity in my mind about camaraderie with a practicing, orthodox Catholic. For one year, I had the opportunity to talk with a friend in Intervarsity who had recently entered full communion with the Catholic Church. His honest engagement with hard questions about history and Scripture seemed all the more on track because they came with that same unflinching devotion to and love for Jesus that I more and more wanted to put at the heart of my faith. I changed “small” theological opinions after open discussions with other Catholics on issues like the death penalty. I began to consider any official Catholic doctrine worth examination simply because such thought, depth, and faith seemed evident behind every encyclical or article of the Catechism that I had thereto encountered. By the end of my freshman year I had bought a Catholic study Bible. By the start of my junior year I had started reading the Catholic catechism, had read and thoroughly enjoyed “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” by Pope John Paul II and had a Catholic style cross hanging in my room.

Between my sophomore and junior years I had the opportunity to travel through Europe with my brother on our way back to the US from PNG. Some of the places we visited included the Vatican, Assisi, Wittenberg, Wartburg castle, and the Reformation museum in Geneva. I felt somewhat repelled by St. Peter's basilica, yet drawn to the story of St. Francis. I also felt repelled by the sight of vandalized statues in churches, and felt a resurged interest in Christian history.

When I hit an emotional low near the start of my junior year I instinctively turned to the spirituality of the early Church for help. In a depressed state I didn't have the strength to engage in spontaneous intercessory prayer and thanksgiving every day. I needed to pray with something much bigger than me. I spearheaded weekly prayer meetings for Intervarsity, but to emotionally keep going I needed much more prayer than that. I turned to a self-put together Liturgy of the Hours that I formulated by cut and pasting from google searches for terms like “ancient monks prayer”. Praying the Psalms that the Church had prayed every day for centuries helped, and it's been a part of my devotional life ever since.

Later in that same year I studied abroad in the Middle East. I really enjoyed and benefitted from discussions that I had with devout Muslims. I was impelled to explain my belief in the incarnation and the Trinity and thus grew to appreciate them more than I had in the past.

In between studying abroad and my senior year at Brown I interned at an evangelical organization called IGE. I had a great time and some of my experiences there unwittingly knocked over the Catholic dominoes that I'd been unknowingly lining up for years. Summer reading included Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together, NT Wright's The Last Word, On the Incarnation by Athanasius, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, a small collection of spiritual works from various time periods, and the Cloud of Unknowing. In my pursuit of Christ I found resources from the historical Church more helpful than those from contemporary authors, although I still spent a disproportionate amount of time reading them.

In what at the time felt like my most futile task at IGE, I spent a fair amount of time looking up contact info for evangelical churches across the country. In what was probably a misuse of time I almost always took a peak at their doctrinal beliefs and/or “distinctives” as well. I had no idea what I would be doing after I graduated, and it seemed quite likely that I might move and have to find a new church and my criteria were now somewhat pickier than they had been before. I didn't know quite what I was looking for, though. What I did know was that I wasn't all that pleased by the picture of American evangelicalism that my random sample had exposed me to. It's probably not the best advice to judge a congregation by its website, but in many cases I could tell that I definitely didn't agree doctrinally and in many others couldn't say that precisely because all of the doctrinal statements seemed purposefully vague.

In another case a conversation with some of my co-interns revealed that an Intervarsity chapter had split over having a Catholic in a student leadership position and the realization that the word “alone” was no longer in the Intervarsity doctrinal statement about faith. I instinctively didn't feel that this was necessary. That particular Reformation doctrine certainly didn't seem to be absolutely essential to so many of the Christians, alive and dead, that I admired and related to. Surely we could pray and hold Bible studies despite disagreeing on that point. I disliked doctrinal ambiguity, but I also shied away from placing myself solidly in any single Protestant theological framework. That wasn't logically coherent of me; it just took me a while to realize that.

Finally, I wrote a paper on Pentecostals and ecumenical dialogue over the summer. I had always continued to identify with my Pentecostal roots in some way over the years. I certainly didn't think they were perfect, and I recognized that the ethos of the Word of Faith movement conflicted with the spirit of sacrifice found in the Christian writers who seemed closest to Christ. Still, the power of healing and casting out demons enjoyed a direct relationship to the ministry of Christ. One of my first questions after my spiritual awakening in high school had been whether the “gifts of the Spirit” were indeed Biblical. My conclusion after a week or so of examining Bible passages was that they were, although they hadn't always been practiced in a Biblical way by my childhood church and some other Pentecostals. Thus, when I read stories of Simeon the Stylite and St. Antony casting out demons I instinctively felt that there was something right there rather than writing it all off as hagiographic hyperbole.

As I learned more about the history of my own Christian community, though, my appreciation for the good elements of it—the popularity among the world's oppressed, the feeling of solidarity with the Biblical Church, the fervent piety and whole-hearted dedication it often elicited, was over-run by the realization that this Christianity differed in many fundamental ways not just from other Protestants, but from all other Christians in history. Part of it just felt made up. Some elements of the nebulous doctrines bore a striking resemblance to heresies the Church had already dealt with in the first four centuries. What's more, while some early heretics may have denied episcopal authority and others the reality of the resurrection or the incarnation, even the heretics in the early Church held or assumed doctrines that Pentecostals would repudiate as “too Catholic.” I couldn't tell myself that one of the heretical groups was actually the true Christians---Pentecostals didn't exist until the last 5% of Christian history. How could they understand Jesus in a way not only different but incompatible with all those before them and still be right?

By the end of the summer I realized that I wasn't Pentecostal. Once I realized that, I felt a need to examine my practice of Christianity from the ground up, ask myself what really mattered and what I really believed and felt called to believe. Pretty soon I knew I needed to end up in a Church that at least claimed to possess historical ties and retain the governing structure that the early Christians repeatedly defended as authoritative—the rule by bishops with apostolic succession from the apostles. It took a bit for this to sink in, but sink in it eventually did. Instead of thousands of churches to choose from I was now staring at three: the Anglicans, Catholics, and Orthodox.

My private time during my senior year at college was dominated by research into the issues that separated these three traditions from each other and from other Protestants. I had felt some level of attraction to the Catholic Church from the start, but the Papacy had never made sense to me. When I decided to give the Papacy a fair chance, I was shocked to find the level of support for it that I did. My attention jumped all over the place, from Marian doctrines to apostolic succession, to beliefs about the Eucharist. I sometimes felt shaken and confused, but somehow in the midst of the whole process I was repeatedly able to feel God's presence comforting me. The same God I had experienced before was present then. Given what I then knew, my love of God necessitated further reflection, further investigation, and most of all more prayer. I prayed regularly for guidance and discernment.

At the very beginning of the school year I had flippantly bought a “Christian Prayer” book from Salvation Army. I thought it'd be cool to look through and couldn't find a price on it so I figured I'd get it. When it rung up as being $3.00 I instantly thought I'd regret my purchase since my interest in it was more along the 50 cents area (but I was too embarrassed to admit that to the cashier!). I fell in love with the prayers, even though I had no idea how to use the book, which seemed to properly involve a lot of flipping around to different sections. In my own idiosyncratic sort of way I had started praying the daily office. In an odd way, praying “with the Church” played an almost greater role in my spiritual journey than my research did. When I realized that I wasn't in communion with the same people who prayed the same Psalms and very similar prayers every day—and who had prayed them for centuries, I felt a longing inside of me to act on the communion I already felt with them through prayer.

Early in 2010 I decided I had no excuse for not talking to a Catholic priest and for not going to mass. I started having some conversations with the Catholic chaplain at Brown. He was glad to talk with me and I found talking to him quite helpful. The difference in attitude between how he treated me and how I knew we evangelicals would act when someone came saying they were thinking about becoming Christian seemed immense. I was more likely to consider myself “warned” than “sold to” after any talk (the same goes for most Catholics I encountered for that matter.) Some evangelicals may consider that a lack of real commitment. In another sense it may signal greater commitment. Catholicism envisions itself as the fullness of the faith—in one sense the yoke is light, but in another the road is narrow. The truth doesn't need to be sold, just presented.

A giant turning point for me came as I read a book describing the Mass. (I was afraid I wouldn't know when to make the proper actions and such so had resolved to read a book about the different parts of the mass before attending my first one). A simple two paragraphs describing the Eucharist nearly moved me to tears. I had no choice but to stop reading and to tell God that I wanted that. Whether it was true or not, it was no longer about wishing these things weren't true so I could go back to the way my life was. I now wanted it to be true. I wanted Christ to be present in the Eucharist. It seemed so scandalous, so true, so beautiful. It seemed so Christ-like. I hadn't ever really thought about what it meant to be wholly connected with the real Jesus. I had nodded yes when asked if I wanted “Jesus in my heart” years and years ago before I had any real understanding of Jesus beyond the flannel board. I desperately nodded yes now when asked whether I wanted to accept Christ into my body, His body, blood, soul, and divinity. What's more, the real presence made so many other things click. The language of our union with Christ now brought so many other New Testament passages into a sharper focus. By the time we read the Emmaus road story in Luke 24 in a Protestant setting later that semester I was shocked to realize that it could only be describing a Catholic mass. I had never thought to make that connection before, but once I'd been to a mass and once I'd felt called to the Eucharist, the words “...while he was with them at the table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him...” spoke to me in a new and ever so compelling way.

Throughout my last semester at Brown my internal movement toward the Catholic Church steadily progressed. I still dealt with it at a very human level, and undoubtedly would do a lot differently now. I shared where I was at with several of my friends and also with my parents. Then, as now, I've felt uneasy with how my movements would be received. The journey from intellectual exploration to faith conviction was for the most part a gradual one. I was convinced enough about what I considered “the basics” to give my intellectual assent, but faith is a lot more than that. I knew making the move would in some respects run against what the large majority of my family and friends believed. I felt prepared to make compelling arguments in a one on one conversation with anyone who wouldn't get emotional about the issue, but I was afraid of how others would react. I say this by way of confession, since fear is never of God. It's taken a lot of prayer for me to build up the courage to move beyond dealing with ideas in my head to realities in my heart to actions in my life. The progression is happening, though. Thank God that He's allowing me to grow in boldness and love by His grace.

During the beginning of my senior year I had decided to apply to study theology at Cambridge. I had discovered a scholarship that would pay for a full year of study if I was awarded it, and I was focusing on exploration of Anglicanism at the time. Right after taking the GRE for that application, I stumbled across the Notre Dame theology website and decided it would be worth applying to there as well. By the time March 2010 came around the scholarship had been denied but Notre Dame came through. I had begun applications to some evangelical seminaries as well. I have a bad habit of spending far more time on fences than I should, and applying to study theology in three distinctly different environments reflects that tendency. A skeptical part of me questioned whether going to Notre Dame would cut me off from continuing to critically assess Catholicism. In the end, I honestly felt that studying in an evangelical context would probably create more of a “push” effect towards Catholicism than any “pull” effect I would encounter at Notre Dame. (ie. I would be more skeptical towards whatever the majority culture was wherever I was) By the time I graduated two months later, though, I really had little but time, caution, and cowardice between me and being willing to commit to Catholicism.

My summer was great and allowed me some time to read more and also reflect. I was reminded of the strengths of evangelicalism by moving back into a faith-filled community in Papua New Guinea. I reminded myself that despite the large doctrinal gap that I now felt, I knew inside there was also a very real core of shared faith which I felt with my evangelical family, friends and acquaintances in Australia and PNG. In line with Catholic teaching, though, I still think we fall far short of the fullness of communion and unity that we're called to. I pray that the best elements of evangelicalism would continue to lead people to fuller knowledge of and communion with Christ and to a fullness of communion with each other.

I attended one mass while in Papua New Guinea, and realized then how much I needed it. Even not receiving the Eucharist, I felt a longing for something that wasn't filled through singing and sermons, as great as those two things are. The call wasn't just superficial. I felt it just as much in a full Catholic church with no windows, humid heat, crying babies, and meandering flies as I did in the stillness of a beautiful stone church building in Rhode Island.

At Notre Dame I've had the opportunity to engage in three things that have helped my faith journey. Firstly, I've been able to develop a Catholic spirituality. I've been able to attend mass regularly, learn Catholic prayers, and realize the connection between objective and inner truths. Secondly, I've been able to learn a lot more about Catholicism than I knew before. I'm still learning, and given that the very word Catholicism means universality and fullness, I undoubtedly will keep on learning for a long time. Thirdly, I've been able to confirm that the Church I believe in is real and not just an idea. There within its internal divisions over liturgy, culture, and politics is also a real unity. Elements of the Catholic Church are very much alive and well in an exciting way, while in other places I feel humbled to realize that God's grace will always remain present even amidst my own apathy and sin, and any less than stellar preaching or music that might occur. Somehow, even the weakest parts of the Catholic Church point to God's grace and love.

I've been attending RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) classes, and I now feel ready to publicly declare my desire to be a part of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church recognizes me as a Christian, so if I declare my desire to enter into full communion, and all goes well, I can be received into the Church in mid April, after a further period of preparation. This story is obviously not over, and thank God, I trust God's grace will continue to work in me to death and beyond. For now, I hope this helps explain some things for those of you who are confused or frustrated. Please feel free to contact me to ask any questions, and more than that, please do pray for me. I'm just as dependent and needy before God as ever. Peace.


Epilogue:

Note: I first wrote this post in December of 2010. It obviously was meant to detail my journey up until that point. Posting it online was one way for me to publicly acknowledge what I believed and where I was going, and while I'm constantly growing and learning and thus also growing in how I understand my faith and my own past, I think this post still does a pretty decent job of describing the process I went through in becoming Catholic. 

I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church and confirmed on April 10, 2011 in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Notre Dame, IN. For reflections from my first weeks and months as a Catholic, all you need do is look through older posts. For now, I’d just like to add some comments.

In case it hasn’t been clear yet, I love evangelicals and Pentecostals, and I strongly affirm the good found in and amongst them. I plan to continue to aspire to the individual holiness found among so many of those I’ve known.

I also have loved being Catholic, firmly believe God has called me here, and aspire to live and die in the fullness of what God has called and calls me to in the Catholic Church. I add this epilogue in April of 2012 about a year after I was received, and can say that the last year has been full of blessings. As uncertain as I can feel about so many things at times, I also know what it feels like to passionately believe and affirm certain truths, and those truths center on Jesus and keep me in the Catholic Church.

Peace to you!

4 comments:

  1. From another former Pentecostal, welcome home!

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  2. I grew up Pentecostal myself and I'm currently investigating Catholicism. I appreciate your article and any other advice you may have. I still have so many questions that I'm not sure where to go for the answers.

    All the best,

    Lance

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  3. Lance, thanks for reading. There are so many places to go for information. The places I link to above as "Helpful Catholic Links" should be...helpful. I'll send up a prayer for you!

    ReplyDelete