The Church, Lost and Found: My First Concise, Complete Conversion Narrative

Introduction

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Oxford, Mississippi

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Oxford, Mississippi, where I entered the Church.

Four years ago, I entered the Catholic Church, after more than thirty years as an Evangelical Protestant. I do not think of my story in terms of “leaving Protestantism.” I never thought that I was leaving or abandoning the faith I grew up with; in my mind, I was a coming to a fuller and more complete understanding of the truth. I would not say that there was anything fundamentally deficient in my faith as a Protestant that would cause me to abandon it; instead it was incomplete, immature, and unfulfilled. If my journey must be put it in the terms of leaving Protestantism, it is true that I did have to let go of some particular doctrinal formulations; but nothing I believe now is a contradiction or renunciation of anything I believed before. I feel that I now see the fuller picture, and have a fuller, more fulfilling relationship with God.

Growing Up

The story of my journey truthfully begins years and years ago, in my earliest childhood and earliest experiences as a Christian. I can see a thousand signposts all along the way that ultimately led me here, small realizations and inclinations and longings that didn’t find fulfillment until years later.

Pentecostes, El Greco_1597

El Greco, Pentecostés (1597).

I grew up mostly in a Pentecostal, Charismatic sort of Christianity; for most of my growing-up years I was a member of a vibrant Assemblies of God church in Decatur, Alabama. I had spent my earliest childhood in a small nondenominational church, then several years in the United Methodist church, visiting various Baptist churches along the way. I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” when I was three years old, was baptized when I was twelve, and had a committed and sincere but pretty superficial faith for most of my childhood. I never had much formal Bible study or instruction in doctrine. The few times I encountered any form of deep study, I lapped it up voraciously.

In high school I had a very dynamic youth pastor, who inspired me to be “on fire” for God and to strive to win my school for Christ. It was a very fervent and emotional faith. Being emotionally volatile like many teenagers, however, this also made it a volatile faith, and not a very firm foundation for a relationship with God. By the end of high school, I ended up feeling very hurt and abandoned by my church, and I fell away from church involvement, though I always prayed and claimed to be a Christian. I entered a long period of spiritual wandering.

The Church That Was Lost

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

In college I was drawn eventually to the study of history. My first important mentor in history, Dr. G, was an old-school medievalist and classicist with a burning love for the great men of history. He taught me Latin, which opened my eyes to a whole new world of learning and sources; and he taught me the history of Christianity. Some of the most important classes he taught me were the History of the Christian Church, from the beginning up through the Reformation, and Medieval Latin, in which we read firsthand, in their original languages, the writings of Augustine, Gregory, Anselm, Bede, and a dozen or so other Church Fathers and medieval Christian thinkers. Dr. G was the son of a long line of renowned Lutheran ministers. When he taught Church history, his lectures came alive with love and admiration for the Church Fathers—Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, Gregory, Bernard, and many more—and with equal love and admiration for the Protestant Reformers. He presented this dichotomy without conflict or cognitive dissonance. It laid the foundation for the intellectual development of my faith.

Four Doctors of the Western Church

The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

Through all of that study I came to a great love of the Church Fathers, too. Reading them, I found a purer, realer faith than anything I had ever known in church, something immediate and profound that seemed unclouded by the doubt and uncertainty I had always felt growing up. I never associated the Church Fathers with the modern Catholic Church. In my mind, the modern Catholic Church was something of “dead religion,” caught up in empty ritual and cold theology and devoid of any sense of a real relationship with Christ. When I read the Church Fathers, I had the sense that their Church and their faith was lost and irrecoverable, and I lamented its loss.

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls.

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls, Rome.

At the culmination of that study, I went with Dr. G and a group from school to Rome, the Eternal City. Over a two-week course, we traversed the 3,000-year history of Rome, having lectures in the morning and then going out in the afternoon to tour the sites that pertained to that day’s era of history. I was especially—and unexpectedly—moved by the churches. Standing at the tomb of St. Paul at the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls, I was overcome with emotion, as all Paul’s words in Scripture that had meant so much to me flooded back, and I knelt tearfully at the altar, thanking God for His servant. That trip became a pilgrimage for me. It was the first time in years I had really felt drawn powerfully to God and to prayer. I admired the beauty and art and history of the Catholic churches I visited, but it didn’t make me seriously consider being Catholic—this was still seven years before I would.

Striving

"Lord, Give Me Eyes to See." (Taken by me, June 29, 2009.)

“Lord, Give Me Eyes to See.” (Taken by me, June 29, 2009.)

But my pilgrimage did awaken in me a desire to get back in church and have a renewed relationship with God. I felt very wary of my childhood faith and church—of placing so much emphasis on emotion and experience—so I read and studied and tried to come to an intellectual understanding of various systems of doctrine and reason out for myself what I believed and what church I belonged in. It was a daunting task, not having any firm foundation in theology, and I became frustrated. I eventually resigned myself to the conclusion that each of the various camps had strong arguments for their positions, that Scripture wasn’t clear enough for me to discern, and that I would study and admire the different schools equally and hope God could sort it out. During this time, I visited a lot of different churches, especially Baptist churches and Presbyterian churches.

Accident report: Damage area diagram

My car (may she rest in pieces) versus the dump truck.

After a year of this endeavor of striving in myself to find where I belonged in God, I again grew frustrated. I felt hurt, and rather than running toward God, I again found myself running away. I had once commented, after my years of wandering, that if God really wanted to get my attention, He should stop me in the road like he did Paul. I wished for his lot: I should have been careful what I wished for. While I was on a road trip, just north of Columbus, Ohio, my car was struck on the driver’s side door by a concrete-laden dump truck. I was medflighted to Ohio State University Medical Center, where I was found completely unresponsive, with tests indicating a deep coma or brain death.

It very well might have been the end of the road for me. I was diagnosed with a severe traumatic brain injury, the likes of which most patients do not survive, or if they do, most face serious disabilities for the rest of their lives. The doctors offered no prognosis. But my family, my friends, even many people I did not know, surrounded me with their prayers. Against the odds, I recovered. Not only did I recover, but I recovered completely, without lingering deficits, and I recovered remarkably quickly. A mere three weeks after the accident, with broken bones, I returned home to hobble through the semester of school I’d very nearly missed for good.

This near-death experience, though it took some time and some humiliation to realize it, reaffirmed my faith that God had His hand on my life and a plan for me. Swallowing my pride, I returned to church, to the church of my parents I had left so many years before. There God began a period of spiritual recovery, of rebuilding walls that I had torn down. My home church was a safe harbor and sanctuary, for a time. But I felt that it was only a waypoint, that God still was leading me onward to a fuller knowledge of the faith. I continued to visit churches and read about theology. I felt especially drawn to the intellectually rigorous Reformed theological tradition (Calvinism), and even bought myself a handsome leather-bound ESV Study Bible for my thirtieth birthday.

Veritas

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in history, I went to work teaching at Veritas Classical School, a homeschool co-op. Suddenly, I was brought face to face with Calvinism in a way I hadn’t ever been before. Most of the teachers in that school system were strongly Reformed, and in my teacher training I was encouraged to teach history from that doctrinal commitment. I was fascinated by the intellectual rigor of the Reformed tradition; I enjoyed attending Presbyterian churches and loved the Reformed friends I made; but faced with apprehending and accepting some of the specific tenets of Calvinism—especially belief in an absolute sovereignty of God such that God ordains all things, even evil, and an unconditional election such that some people were created to be damned and had no hope whatsoever for redemption, by God’s sovereign decree—I blanched. Over the long weekend of that training, I was plunged into a deep despair; I resolved that either God was a monster and I had no wish to serve him or that the Calvinist understanding of God must be mistaken. I backed away from that and never seriously considered Calvinism again.

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

Matthias Burglechner, The Council of Trent, 16th century (Wikimedia Commons).

But while I was at Veritas, I was tasked with teaching medieval history, Christian Latin, and Koine Greek. They were the very things that had brought me so much love for the Early Church and the Church Fathers and the Medieval Catholic Church in the first place, and I filled my lectures with all the sentiment and longing I had ever felt for those things. I affectionately introduced my students to great popes, bishops, abbots, monks; to Church Fathers and theologians and councils; to the rich etymologies of the terms of early and medieval Christianity, and their scriptural foundations; and in teaching all this, I had to study it even more deeply than I had before, and I realized more fully than ever what a firm foundation it all was. At the beginning of the year, I had my students all read the Nicene Creed and affirm the common faith of us all—since among my students were Protestants of all stripes and even a few Catholics.

Anton von Werner, Luther at the Diet of Worms (1877)

Anton von Werner, Luther at the Diet of Worms (1877)

The semester culminated in the Protestant Reformation, which in my view going into teaching it, was a flowering of Christian thought and a reaffirmation of Christian principles. I tried to bring the same glowing passion to the Reformation’s characters as Dr. G had; but in the process of preparing my lessons, I was stunned to discover that the reality of the Reformation was anything but the majesty I had imagined. In addition to the heroic Luther and Calvin, I found numerous other scattered and disparate movements and sects; wide, fundamental disagreement even from the start; and the beginnings of the general factiousness that had been my experience of Christianity all my life. I realized for the first time the stark contrast of this with the glorious Church I had been proclaiming the rest of the year. Dr. G could apparently pull off the duality of presenting both without cognitive dissonance; I could not.

Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez, master of Renaissance polyphony.

While I was immersed in the medieval Church over the course of that year, I discovered Gregorian chant and early Renaissance polyphony, which struck me as something heavenly and transcendent that guided me to a deeper life of prayer and Bible study. I read through the Rule of St. Benedict and the Order of the Mass. I began observing the calendar of saints as a way of remembering great Christians of the past. I even downloaded a Catholic app on my phone and began following the Catholic lectionary as a handy method for organizing my Scripture readings—since, I reasoned, somebody else had already done the work of distributing the Bible throughout the calendar. Through all of this, I denied vehemently that I was becoming Catholic or even interested in becoming Catholic. When the question was raised, and it was, I rattled off rehearsed reasons why the Catholic Church was fallen and apostate, et cetera; why I disagreed with Catholic doctrine; why I wouldn’t have any of it.

The Church That Was Found

St. John the Evangelist, Oxford, nave

The nave of St. John the Evangelist Church in Oxford, Mississippi. (Source)

When I went to graduate school the next year, I had no intention at all of becoming Catholic. I made a list of churches to visit in my new town, and the Catholic Church wasn’t one of them. And yet completely by accident I had made a Catholic friend when I visited the campus. When she invited me to Mass, I decided to go. To my amazement, rather than the dryness and empty ritual I had expected, I found a rich, moving spiritual experience that brought me the sense that I was kneeling in communion with Christians of all ages past—and with the Lord. The next week, hungry for more, I went back.

Young Catholic adults

Young Catholic adults, incidentally at St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis. (Source)

After all my years running away from experience as a criterion of faith, it was ultimately my experience of Catholicism that brought me over the threshold. Those weeks of witnessing the Mass, as I exulted in the presence of the Lord, something was happening intellectually that I hardly even realized at the time. All of those reasons I had been reciting against Catholicism were collapsing, as I saw that everything I had ever believed about Catholics was wrong: Catholics do have a very close, a very committed, a very real relationship with Christ; the theology I had dismissed as cold was living and vibrant; the ritual and liturgy was not empty, but every bit of it meaningful and worshipful.

The Mass

It didn’t take me long to realize that the faith and the Church I had always admired so much in the Church Fathers was still there and still alive in the Catholic Church; that the Church still embraced, upheld, stood upon, and celebrated that heritage and foundation. The truths of the faith held by the Fathers, the ancient doctrines they affirmed, were still there and still held true. And I found that so much of what I had always been longing for and searching for was there, even the longings I had never known how to articulate. After a few months of attending Mass weekly, I began attending daily. I admitted at last that I was onto something, and decided to begin the RCIA class when it resumed in the fall.

This is not the end of the story. I had been brought into the antechamber of the Church, but there was still a process of catechesis and formation, dialogue and the occasional dispute, and studying and working through Catholic doctrine, coming to terms with what it meant in light of my experience so far. But it is the end of the beginning, the turning point of my faith journey. Now, four years after entering the Church, I feel a fuller, firmer, and more committed faith, and a deeper understanding, than I ever had before. I don’t look back on my days growing up Protestant with any disdain at all, but with a lot of love and appreciation for the firm foundation it laid, and the road it paved that led me the fullness I have found.

Why I am a Catholic: the Short Version

This came out of the blue, off the cuff, just as you read it, when a friend on Facebook asked me to sum up in one point why I converted to Catholicism. This is probably the most succinct account you’ll ever read from me.

It’s hard to narrow down to just one. But I’ll give you three: The authority of the teachings, the catholicity and universality of the Church, and the historical continuity with all ages.

St. Gregory the Great

St. Gregory the Great.

The first point, authority: Protestants believe in sola scriptura, that one’s doctrine and authority come from Scripture alone. But that means that ultimately understanding God’s Word is dependent on the individual conscience. It’s up to you to read it and decide what it means. Which left me constantly in the place of feeling lost and unworthy to come to any conclusion. Who was I to say one denomination was right and another wrong, when so many wise and intelligent people had been arguing over it for centuries? How could I have any certainty at all, about anything?

And I really don’t think Jesus would have left us in that pickle. There’s nothing in Scripture to suggest that anyone ever intended that. All through the Old Testament, God anointed priests and prophets and judges and kings to lead and instruct and guide His people. The prophets promised that He would send us shepherds after His own heart. And then, God Incarnate Himself comes! To reveal to us the fullness of divine Truth! And then — we’re left with a book? That we have to muddle through ourselves? It has no continuity with the rest of revelation. It seems completely out of character with God and anti-climactic to the history of salvation.

St. Paul

But from the very first century, even suggested in Scripture, the Church has believed in apostolic succession — the idea that Christian teachings, and the authority to teach them, were passed down from the Apostles to the bishops and down through the ages. That seems entirely more in character, after the succession of Aaronic priests and the Davidic line of kings. Christ told the Apostles that when they spoke, their word would be as His, with all the same authority. And the whole foundation of Catholic teaching is that that authority never went away. There’s still an authoritative Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, with the authority to teach us.

And the second one, the universality: “Catholic” means “universal.” And in Scripture Paul talks repeatedly about us being the Body of Christ, one through our Baptism and through the sharing of the One Bread. And the Catholic Church is spread worldwide, and in any place I could go, it would be the same liturgy, the same belief, the same doctrine — the same One Bread. And there would be brothers and sisters who would welcome me and embrace me. And it’s not just universal around the world — it’s universal through the ages. With all the believers who’ve ever lived. United by that One Bread.

And the Protestant churches have no concept at all of that. There are 40,000+ Protestant denominations, and that’s not even counting “nondenominational” churches. It’s hip not to be affiliated with anybody, just to be a splinter with no attachments to anything bigger and no accountability to any authority.

The Four Doctors of the Western Church

The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

And the third one, you get: Historical continuity. Both in terms of events and in terms of doctrine. Everything the first century Church believed, we believe today. Everything we believe today, the first century Church had at least some notion of. And all the events, all the developments, all the heroes and saints and brothers and sisters, are connected. Whereas for most Protestants, history began from nothing in 1517. They can’t explain where their faith came from, other than point to the Bible. But how did the Bible come to them?

I was thinking yesterday: Protestantism is the ultimate reboot. Like with Batman or Superman or Star Trek, they decided they didn’t like how the story was going, so they took the original source material and started over, re-reading it all in a new light and re-inventing it how they wanted it. With no connection at all to anything that had happened before.

Twelve Reasons I Love Resurrection Chapel

Resurrection Chapel, at Morris Chapel

Resurrection Chapel, at Morris Chapel.

This is a post I’ve been thinking of for a little while. Here are a few reasons why I love my new parish, Resurrection Chapel:

  1. My connection: The sudden revelation of a deep, historical connection with the church here — one that God knew I would appreciate and be attracted by — lit my path here, and reminds me that He is guiding my steps. Just this past week, I discovered yet another connection: my mom’s closest cousin Dana is a dear friend of Rick Chenault our parish director and Peggy his wife.

  2. The building: Not only is the church building a lovely and cozy place, but I learned this past weekend that it is apparently built around the church’s original log structure, founded in ca. 1852 and moved here from the church’s original location a few miles down the road. When I go to church, I am standing not merely in the same locale, but in the same building and the same spot as my ancestors. It makes me giddy to think of.

  3. The name — Resurrection — is apt on so many levels. This parish signifies the rebirth of Catholicism in this area, which was actually the location of the first Catholic church in what became the Diocese of Birmingham. It is the calling back to the Church of so many lapsed Catholics who have been away from the Sacraments. It is the rising again of a vibrant church on this spot, where a Methodist congregation flourished for so many years. It stands alongside an old country cemetery, where so many faithful Christians are resting in the hope of a glorious resurrection.

  4. The very idea of a rural parish appeals to everything I love — to my Southern, agrarian, hobbitish ideals. We are pioneering the Church at its frontier, delving into an area darkened not only by the recession of Catholicism but among so many, of Christianity in general. We are bearing the torch of the Gospel and the light of Christ’s love where no Catholic has gone before, or at least not in a very long time.

  5. hobbit church

    But not small like this hobbit church.

  6. It is small, like me. I have a hard time in a big place. I was going to Mass at the parish most local to me for months before I even spoke to anybody or anybody spoke to me. I felt lost in the crowd, swallowed hole, overwhelmed. But I set foot in Resurrection Chapel and immediately people saw me and greeted me. Mr. Rick* welcomed me warmly and invited me back, and a dozen or more people introduced themselves after Mass. I felt love, and connection, and fellowship, from the very first moments, when those are things that have always come so hard for me. I don’t fault the people of the larger parish at all: it’s not a failure to love; just a failure of the dynamic of a large parish, and of me to reach out and take the connection that would be there if I did.

  7. * I never know what to call Rick. It feels so cold to just call him “Rick,” after all he does for us and for the parish. Being Catholic necessitates a new set of terms of endearment. I can’t call him “Brother Rick,” as per my Evangelical inclination, because he’s not a brother in any order. I can’t call him “Pastor,” because he’s not a priest, and that’s not a title he claims. “Mister” will have to do for the time being, until I can call him “Deacon.”

  8. Following from that point, the people in general. It’s not just any people who would reach out to me in the way these have. They are so loving and welcoming and full of charity in a way that does go beyond so many other churches. My dearest friends at St. John’s, found over the course of so many months, can compare. And here, after just a few weeks, I feel fully a part of their family.

    They have made some additions since this photo was taken, but it still has the distinct feel of a country Methodist church inside. Also, it's not easy to retrofit Methodist pews with kneelers.

    They have made some additions since this photo was taken, but it still has the distinct feel of a country Methodist church inside. Also, it’s not easy to retrofit Methodist pews with kneelers.

  9. Opportunities for ministry: Part of it, I guess, is that I was just a baby Catholic when I was at St. John’s (in so many ways, I still am), but from the very beginning here, I’ve been offered the chance to minister for the Lord. Mr. Rick asked almost immediately to be thinking about any ways I would like to minister: as a lector, or an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, or anything else. I am still a neophyte! I feel so unworthy. But this past Sunday, I was given the opportunity to present the gifts — something that has always been such an important part of the liturgy for me. And my dear new friends Leo and Harriet have welcomed me so warmly as a helper in the RCIA class. And Mr. Rick invited me to be a part of a meeting of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which is truly doing God’s work in our community of ministering to the poor and hurting, the very first time I came to Mass.

  10. There are certainly many downsides of not having a dedicated priest as pastor in our parish, but I also value the upside: I can get to know many priests. I have already met half a dozen or more dear priests on a personal level, and that is so valuable to me in my growth as a Catholic.

  11. It’s a bit of a drive to get there — something I have really missed for so long, living in a small town like Oxford and especially now living at home. Time alone in the car, to revel in the open road, if only for a few miles and minutes, time to listen to my podcasts and my music, and to decompress and destress, is so precious to me. And I love Lawrence County and love going there and should go much more often.

  12. Resurrection Chapel, with altar rails

  13. Altar rails! ‘Nuff said. But the traditional mode of taking Communion, of reverencing our Lord in the Eucharist and receiving him humbly, is to kneel. And we didn’t build these — they came with the church, a gift from the Methodists. I know God saw us coming, and prepared this place for us.

  14. Miracles: God is at work here. It shows in everything we do. But it especially shows in several miracles I heard about this past weekend. Especially this: A woman, eaten up with cancerous tumors and given not long to live, was prayed for and anointed with oil, and on her next CT scan, her tumors had begun to shrivel up. On the next scan after that, they were completely gone. That was a year or two ago, and she is still healthy. Another one I heard about may not be for public consumption, and I might be forgetting something else.

  15. And most of all, I love the great miracle the Holy Spirit gives to us each week, the Eucharist. I love that Christ comes to meet us in the flesh, in His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. I love the intimate communion Holy Communion brings, made all the more intimate by sharing it with people I know and care for and can truly commune with. I love that Christ is in our midst, in His Church, and this in every parish on earth, anywhere I go.

Expression vs. Impression in Liturgy and Worship

Mass

This is my 100th post here, apparently. Time flies, and the counter runs up quickly, when I post every day like I have been this month!

Brad posted this video, and I’ve seen it floating around the Twittersphere — and it’s excellent: a short but very powerful piece on liturgical reform by the Catholic News Service (CNS), the official news agency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). It underscores and makes vivid everything I’ve been writing recently: the Mass of Paul VI (the new form of the Mass since Vatican II) is meant to be every bit as reverent as the Tridentine Mass (the pre-Vatican II Latin form), and every bit as centered on God; that it is the people, and their insistence on expression of self in worship, that have led churches into bad liturgical practices. This is worth six minutes for any one of my readers, even you Protestants, to get a brief taste of the reverence of the Mass.

The highlight — the “money quote,” as Brad called it, and I agree — on the loss of reverence in the Mass (at 1:00):

The missal of Paul VI does not presume any less reverence at all than the Tridentine missal. We Americans . . . have come naturally to think that in the liturgy we want to express ourselves, and if it doesn’t feel like us then we don’t want to say it. But the whole tradition of liturgy is not primarily expressive of where people are and what they want to say to God. Instead it is impressive; it forms us and it is always bigger than any given community that celebrates.

And this is precisely one of the many aspects of Catholic liturgy that I love over evangelical worship. As much as the Mass shapes us as a Church and as a people, it also defines our entire mode of approaching God in worship. I have written before about emotion in worship: how dependent on emotion evangelical worship and the evangelical experience of God always seemed to be. Evangelical worship is even more about expression — the expression of outward joy, outward worship, the expression of ourselves — and it’s probably this tendency that’s led some to demand the same from Catholicism. In evangelical churches, I was so often made to feel, when I was feeling down, that my worship wasn’t reaching God, that it was invalid, if I wasn’t singing, dancing, shouting, expressing. In the Catholic Church, it doesn’t have to be expressive of myself to be “real.” It is more impressive — I decrease, I recede, so that God can increase in me. I raise my worship to God through my participation in the liturgy, through being a part of the Body of Christ and its Sacraments — through laying down myself before God, and taking up my Cross.

Christ-centric, not Man-centric

Mass

One of the many things I love about Catholicism is that in our liturgy, in our worship, in our Sacraments, the focus is on Christ, not on the man at the front of the church.

In evangelical Christianity especially, there’s such a tendency to build up a cult of personality around a popular and well-liked preacher, and have that person be the reason one comes to or remains in a church; for one to leave the church when the pastor leaves, or go to a new church because they don’t “like” the new guy’s preaching or style. Now, I have to tread lightly here: because I know that Catholics can be just as guilty of this kind of thinking. Maybe I am drawing a false distinction here. But I do believe there is an essential difference.

In evangelical churches, the focus is so much on the preacher or pastor — on his preaching, on his teaching, on his leadership. Because personal preaching and teaching — sermons — are the highlight, the greater part of a Protestant service. One of the main reasons people go to church is to hear the sermon.

On the other hand, at a Catholic Mass, no one claims that the priest’s homily is the highlight of the Mass or the reason why ones goes. The homily, though it may be insightful and edifying, is merely an exposition and commentary on the Scripture readings. The highlight of the Mass is the Eucharist — the sacrifice of Christ for all of humanity, the presentation of His Body and Blood to the Father, the sharing of Communion with Him and with all of His people. The focus is on the liturgy (λειτουργία, leitourgia, public service) — not just the actions of the priest before God, but the participation of all the people. The words of the liturgy are powerful and efficacious in themselves; it is not the priest in himself who makes them so.* No matter where I go, no matter who is celebrating the Mass, no matter if I personally like the man, it is the same Mass. Because Catholics believe that the priest who ministers the Sacrament steps aside completely, that he ministers in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. He fades from the scene so that it is actually Christ before us who ministers.

* It does have to be a priest who says them!

Now, there is a fine distinction here. We Catholics can certainly like our pastors and find their leadership and teaching and personality important! In more concentrated dioceses, I am sure there is a tendency for some to pick a parish based on whether one likes the priest there. There is also a tendency in some dioceses, I gather, to diminish the role of the priest as the shepherd of his flock, and to shuffle around a priest between parishes often as if the connections he makes are not important. They are. But my point is this, that the priest is not the parish; he is not the center of gravity. The center is Christ, much more than I’ve experienced in evangelical churches.

Community and Communion

In the year or so before I moved to University, I began making an earnest, systematic effort to find and join a church. I wrote a lot of lists to myself about what I was looking for in a church (I am a maker of lists). And always near the top of the list was community: people in the church with whom I had something in common; people with whom I could have fellowship and share my faith; a vibrant, living, growing community. The primary reason for the church, I reasoned — for having us hang out in groups, and not sit at home doing it sola scriptura — was community: to provide a structure for the support of the fellowship of believers.

The first time I visited the Catholic Church here, I was decidedly unimpressed. Nobody greeted me warmly, introduced themselves, or even spoke to me. I had to track down someone after Mass to even get a visitor’s card. I didn’t feel particularly welcome, and felt more than a little put off. It wasn’t until six months or so later that I visited again with my friend Audrey. At least then I didn’t feel entirely alone and foreign, but I remained unimpressed. Where were the Sunday school classes and fellowship groups? Where, besides Audrey, were the people of my age and situation? Where was the community?

It wasn’t until I had been attending Mass for a month or more that I found it. It’s in the Eucharist, I realized one Sunday with an epiphany. Community is in Communion. Kneeling there during the Eucharistic Prayer, focusing intently on Christ’s sacrifice, I was enveloped by the sensation that I was not alone: that all of us there in that room; all of the faithful throughout the world praying that same prayer; all of the believers through all the ages who had prayed it — were united there in that moment in one Spirit, with Christ himself. It was the feeling of a whole and complete sharing, an absolute universality; I felt I would never have to feel lonely again. It’s a feeling I’ve felt many times since. And I had never even taken the Sacrament, and still haven’t — merely been in its presence. It was a feeling, yes: and I have striven not to build my faith on feelings. But it was a feeling supported by everything that Catholics believe about the Eucharist. Truths that I was only nascently beginning to understand were speaking to me. I had found community: not the kind I had thought I was looking for, but the kind I most desperately needed.

Catholics are often not very good at building the other types of community. I read an interesting piece in the National Catholic Register that underscores everything I’ve experienced in the Catholic Church. Protestants do, as I had been thinking, go to church with fellowship in mind. Salvation itself is assured; Scripture and faith are enough; so the reason for going the extra step and being a part of a faith community is largely social. But for Catholics, participation in the Sacraments is obligatory, a necessary part of salvation. Because it’s an obligation, many people — even those who genuinely and deeply love the Lord — naturally tend to slip into habit or complacency, and do what they have to do, and then leave. Salvation is the prime motive for going to Mass, not fellowship — and so it tends to slip away.

Our parish is much better about community than many others. We are comparatively small, with a large contingent of students, so an active campus ministry and fellowship among the college-aged come easily. We have weekly spaghetti suppers that involve everyone, not just students; Friday fish fries during Lent; the St. Joseph’s Day celebration; and other important community events. There are adult faith formation groups, and a youth ministry, and service groups like the Knights of Columbus, and really much more active a community than I recognized at first. We do seem to be more laid back about it than most Protestants, though.

It wasn’t until I started attending daily Mass last summer that I truly found my community — the kind I initially thought I was looking for, and which I still very much needed. Attending every day, I gradually began meeting, one or two at a time, the others of the much smaller group of faithful that attends every day. And I’ve made some very dear friends, of the kind I’ve always longed to have, fulfilling friendships that are slowly building and growing, built on love and shared faith — the "super friends" of the article above. I’ve met a number of fellow graduate students of my age and situation. I met the dear man who will be my RCIA sponsor, and his lovely wife. I spent a blessed evening a few nights ago having dinner in their home, an authentic Italian dinner and a conversation that went late into the night.

They, cradle Catholics who’d spent their whole lives in the Church, with little contact with the evangelical world, and I, having journeyed far from there but still with so far to go in understanding the Catholic faith, found a common ground in the middle on which to share and learn from each other. The Protestant concepts I take for granted, they knew little about, and I tried to explain; and the Catholic concepts with which I am still struggling, they explained so easily as if they were the most natural ideas in the world. I saw, through their eyes and Catholic understanding, how far-fetched some Protestant ideas seem to be; but also how much Catholics and Protestants really have in common.

And I feel loved. For the first time in my whole life, I truly feel I have a church home, where I am loved and embraced and accepted; where I can have fellowship and community with beloved people of like mind and like faith, and Communion in the Eucharist with all the Church and with my Lord Jesus Christ.

Peace

As Kristen said, I am now in the “Countdown to Catholic.” 21 days to Easter…

Something major that I intended to write about as I set out, but have thus far neglected to, is the “affinities” — those beautiful and glorious aspects of Catholicism that have drawn me. Tonight I thought I would begin with the first one that comes to mind when I explain my reasons for becoming Catholic: peace.

As I’ve alluded to once or twice before, I really struggle in my life with depression and anxiety and fear. The older and the more I’ve grown as a Christian, the more and more central has been my longing and need for inner peace. My favorite Scripture for a long time has been in Philippians 4:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4-7 ESV

When I began attending Mass a little more than a year ago, one of the first things I was struck with was the pervading sense of peace I found there. There is peace in the inherent order of the Mass — in its symmetry — in everything happening that is supposed to happen; in everything being said that’s supposed to be said; in nothing being wasted. There is peace in the church itself. To Catholics, the nave of the church is always a house of prayer, for reverence and worship and contemplation, not a place to socialize or chatter or roughhouse. I had the sense that I had entered a consecrated space.

And peace is central to the Mass itself — to the very Catholic consciousness. I count at least eight or nine times in the liturgy of the Mass when peace is imparted, all of which speak from Scripture:

Gloria

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will.

Lord’s Prayer

Priest: Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Sign of Peace

Priest: Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles, Peace I leave you, my peace I give you, look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will. Who live and reign for ever and ever.

All: Amen.

Priest: The Peace of the Lord be with you always.

All: And with your spirit.

Deacon or Priest: Let us offer each other a sign of peace.

This simple act — the act of turning to my fellow parishioners and wishing them peace — “Peace be with you” — is one of the most precious parts of the Mass to me. It is a moment of bonding, of sharing, with people I may not even know, but who are my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, with whom I share in His love. On some days, that bonding makes the difference between feeling lonely and depressed and feeling Christ’s love. I never even realized, until I started coming to Mass, how much Christ Himself talked about peace. “Peace I leave you; my peace I give you” (John 14:27). I had read and heard these words before, but they failed to make an impact until I felt them in action.

Agnus Dei

All: Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: grant us peace.

Jesus is the Lamb of God, who not only takes away the sins of the world, but grants us peace. These words are power and life to me. And more than in any other church I’ve been a part of, these words and this peace are held forth by the Catholic Church.

Motion and Emotion

My posts here, after starting so strong and frequent last semester, have slowed to a trickle now, it seems. I regret that. The troubles and stresses and demands of school have dogpiled on. And, more significantly, I am grappling with serious depression.

Growing up, I always heard that “Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow” — with the understanding that Jesus is the same, living, victorious Savior, no matter what we’re going through; that we should remain hopeful and thankful and trusting. But in the emotion-centric Christianity I grew up in, this usually amounted to, “Be happy anyway! What, you’re not happy? You don’t have the Joy of the Lord?” If I wasn’t visibly happy, rejoicing, dancing — if I didn’t feel the joy, the excitement, the high emotion — then there was something wrong with me; that I wasn’t getting through to God.

It’s true that St. Paul writes, in one of my favorite chapters of the Bible, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4 ESV). But I don’t think Paul is writing about emotion here. The rest of the passage is key: “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” He’s not talking about joy and peace and anxiety as emotions: he’s talking about an attitude of hope and trust in God toward suffering. Even when desperation is facing, we know that our Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Or, as we Catholics would say, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.”

One of the things I love most about the Catholic Church, especially in these times, is something that as a Protestant I never thought I’d say: I love that I can go through the motions. I love that even in the days and weeks when I’m not feeling it, there are motions laid out through which I can approach God anyway, without the engagement of my emotions — prayers and actions laid out by holy men through the ages that are a time-proven formula for worship. Participating in the liturgy is itself an act of worship — even if I’m feeling like crap, my being there and taking part honor God and bring me into his presence, through doing and not feeling. And the liturgy, through leading and guiding me through those actions, keeps me on a proper track through the wilderness; it gives me a framework for raising myself to God, for pulling myself up off the bottom. It makes it easy to worship God, to do the things I’m supposed to do; the things that ultimately bring me back to peace.

In an evangelical church, my worship felt empty if it wasn’t heartfelt; in the Catholic Church, my worship is efficacious because I’m there doing it. I always used to deride “just going through the motions” as “empty religion” — and certainly, if there’s no true conviction behind them, if they become habitual and routine and insincere, that is a problem — but it’s just as equally empty if there’s all emotion and no conviction. And sometimes “going through the motions” is all I can do; and in those times, at last, I am assured that it is enough; that God meets me where I am.

Catholicism is a faith of motion, not emotion; of doing, not feeling. Certainly often I feel, and feel deeply; but even when I don’t, I know that my worship is moving me toward God.

A Musical Journey

I’ve already written a little about my first flirtations with liturgy: how I began listening to Mozart’s Requiem as “mood music,” at a time when I was feeling morbidly depressed. I listened to it repeatedly, reflecting on failure and death and loss; recalling the sad end of Mozart’s life, and the idea that he was writing music for his own funeral — it seemed the most pained, desperate thing I could manifest. I had little concept of liturgy or what that even meant, only the sense that these words in Latin were somehow sacred and powerful. I downloaded their text; I memorized it. This fascination was one of the motives that brought me to study Latin.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach, a Lutheran, but someone who knew how to worship God.

My next contact with liturgy was Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor, BWV 232, a recording of it that came highly recommended. Honestly, at the time, I’m not sure I could have even told you what a “Mass” was, other than “something Catholics did.” At the time, it was just beautiful music to me; or so I thought.

But then, some four or five years later, something remarkable happened. It was after I had graduated with my bachelor’s. I was teaching at a small, Christian school. Preparing for class was one of the most stressful things I’d ever done. Peace was more a premium than it ever had been before. I had discovered Last.fm; I was listening, I think, to the J.S. Bach radio. And then, like a breath of fresh air, I heard this:


(The English translation on the first slide should read, “Hail, O sweetest Mary”)

Carlo Gesualdo

Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa.

Voices so worshipful, so longing, so mournful, so penitent — the music pierced right to my soul. The composer was Carlo Gesualdo, Italian nobleman, musician, composer — and murderer. As a young man, he had murdered his wife and her lover. Later in life, wracked with depression and guilt and fearful for the fate of his eternal soul, he wrote some of his most expressive music in penance. The story of the man, and especially his music, immediately captured my heart.

And listening to Gesualdo on Last.fm led, soon, to Dufay, and Josquin, and Tallis, and Byrd, and others — my collection of early, sacred music quickly mushroomed in a matter of a few weeks. As did my obsession with it. Very soon, it was all I was listening to. It had burrowed into my soul — these sounds of so long ago, carrying such order and peace; this worship — for I understood immediately that it was worship, and worshiped God with it — so clean and bright and pure and heavenly. What affected me more than anything was the Mass settings. I felt the sense, very early, that the Mass was spiritual food.

Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez, my current favorite composer (this frequently changes).

Prompted by the feelings of worship that the music stirred in me, I soon was devoting time every morning to daily Bible study, something I hadn’t done consistently for a very long time. I made my way through the whole New Testament in a matter of a month or two; there had been books, up until that time in my life, that I’d never read before. I played the music while I worshiped and prayed. I told myself that it “made me feel like a monk” — prayerful and contemplative and ascetic — this was a good thing. I felt I was drawing on some ancient, powerful store of spiritual power.

And I was. That store was liturgy. I was hearing the Mass every day. The music of the Mass was piercing my heart and drawing me to worship. The words of the Mass were pouring into my soul — even before I understood them or knew what was happening; though by this time my Latin was good enough that I understood them quickly. On a number of occasions I found the Roman Missal online, in Latin, and followed along. I began to practice the prayers of the Mass in my private spirituality. I had little inkling at this time that I was on the road to Catholicism; I had no intention, starting out, of ever attending an actual Mass. But the Holy Spirit was drawing me to the Church through the Mass, through liturgy.

Authority and the Magisterium

I just read a wonderful piece by Bryan Cross that Kristen shared from Called to Communion (a blog I have never read before, but which I think will now become a favorite), addressing the necessity of the Church’s Magisterium and its authority through all the ages of Christian history. It very much underscores everything I believe and why I’m so drawn to the Church, and aligns with some other trains of thought I’ve been following lately.

As I addressed a few weeks ago, one of my primary reasons for being drawn to the Catholic Church is the profound frustration, uncertainty, and confusion I’ve experienced all my life in trying to discern the correct doctrine of Christianity, the correct interpretation of Scripture, among so many competing views. The authority of the Catholic Magisterium alone has the power to definitively settle such doctrinal disputes, to dictate correct doctrine. Now, anybody can claim to have authority, but in order for that authority to have any force, it must be based on something. I am pursuing the Catholic Church not just because she claims to have authority, but because her authority was established by Christ himself.

Coming from a Pentecostal background, I have written about the disorder and confusion inherent in that tradition. The author of this piece, Bryan Cross, was also raised Pentecostal. He rejects the claim, by Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, that early Christianity, from the day of Pentecost, was marked by “massive confusion.” I was particularly compelled by his assertion of the inherent order of Pentecost and the ministry of the Holy Spirit: to eliminate disorder and confusion, not to foster it.

Cross demonstrates convincingly the necessity of the Church’s Magisterium, and the fallacy of rejecting its authority while affirming the orthodoxy that it established. Without the authority of the Magisterium, we orthodox Christians today — including evangelical Protestants under that umbrella — would have no standing at all to insist that our Christological views are any more correct than those of the Arians or Monophysites or any of the other ancient heresies that have fallen by the wayside, having been rejected by the Church — or for that matter, than those of modern Christological heresies such as those of the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Without an established, ultimate authority, to claim the definitive guidance of the Holy Spirit, there is only the relativistic claim that a few people agree with each other, against everyone else — and there is enough of that in the world already.