“Getting Saved” as a Catholic: The “Sinner’s Prayer” and Other First Steps in Grace

Getting saved by a prayer
How do you “get saved” as a Catholic? This is something I’ve had on the burner for a long time, and have started writing more than once before. Now my dearest reader asks the question and I’m motivated to come up with a concise response.

“Getting saved,” in the parlance of Evangelical Protestants, refers to the experience of salvation by faith, being regenerated and justified by God’s grace, receiving the Holy Spirit, and becoming a Christian. It’s not a term that Catholics generally talk about: In the Catholic understanding, as I’ve discussed before, salvation is not a singular, one-time event, but a journey and a process, an ongoing series of events and encounters with God’s grace, especially through the Sacraments.

Southern Baptist baptism

The reader will know from my blog how one already a Christian becomes a Catholic; but how does one who has no relationship with God at all, the unchurched sinner, become a Christian in the Catholic Church? Does one pray a “sinner’s prayer”? I was taken aback by the question; I’d never really thought about it. The “sinner’s prayer,” in the Evangelical tradition, is a simple acknowledgement to God that one is a sinner in need of His grace and salvation, repenting of those sins and asking Him to come into one’s life and heart. In the traditions my reader and I grew up in, “praying the sinner’s prayer” is shorthand for salvation, after which one is “saved”; and while many even in those traditions would admit that God continues to work in our lives through sanctification, that is generally understood to be “it,” all there is to “getting saved.” (Interestingly, even in the Southern Baptist Convention there has been a recent turn away from this attitude.)

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

The Baptism of Cornelius (1709), by Francesco Trevisani (Wikipedia).

Generally speaking, no, Catholics do not believe that praying a “sinner’s prayer,” by itself, will “get one saved.” So if, in the Catholic understanding, salvation is a journey, how does one take her first steps? Sacramentally speaking, Baptism is the entrance into the Christian life of grace and into the Church, one’s initial justification and when one can rightly say to be “getting saved.” But generally, one must go through months of classes as a catechumen in RCIA before one can even be baptized — which seems to the Evangelical mind to be the very antithesis of evangelism and outreach, making it positively difficult, apparently, for sinners to come into the kingdom.

(The critic would raise, and he would be right, that the earliest Christians in Acts 2 didn’t have to endure through months of a catechumenate before they could receive Baptism. But St. Justin Martyr attests that by the mid–second century, some period of preparation and instruction in Christian doctrine was required. There are exceptions: Any priest can expedite the process of initiation if there is a good reason to, e.g. the catechumen demonstrates a thorough understanding of what she’s getting herself into; and in fact anyone, even a layperson, can baptize in cases of dire need, e.g. the sinner is in danger of death. Since the earliest times, the Church has understood that for the catechumen awaiting Baptism who dies in that desire, God works that saving grace anyway.)

What is the sinner supposed to do, then, who longs to know God and partake of His grace, but is told she has to wait and first be instructed? The Evangelical mode, at least, serves that immediate moment and desire — though there is then the danger of considering salvation “over and done.” And certainly there is that desire, and it can start with a moment, and in that moment and even before, God’s grace is working in the sinner’s life, calling her to repentance and faith.

I think one reason Evangelical Protestants so easily misunderstand the Catholic view of salvation, calling it salvation by works in contrast to salvation by faith, is because faith is immediate and cannot be put off. Saying that salvation begins with Baptism seems to dismiss the role of faith and place emphasis on what seems to be a work. But just as the Catholic understanding of salvation is that of a journey, the preparation for that journey is itself a journey, the journey to the baptismal font: and in those initial steps God’s grace is already working, cultivating the sinner’s faith. Marriage begins with a wedding: a pledge of faith, commitment, covenant, and espousal; but generally one does not choose to be married unless one already has faith in one’s betrothed: one’s relationship with the Bridegroom has already been building for some time. Catholics take a long and patient view of salvation; and we should: we’ve been ushering sinners down that road for 2,000 years!


I would say, now that I’ve thought about it, that something like a “sinner’s prayer” is a good first step, even for embarking on the Catholic road: not that the formulaic words themselves are efficacious or “get one saved,” but that the confession that one is a sinner and wants to make Jesus Christ Lord of one’s life is an appropriate response to what is surely the grace of God already working in one’s life and bringing one to repentance and faith. Pray a “sinner’s prayer”; better yet, make that confession out loud to God and to others. Begin reading the Bible and the Catechism and attending Mass. Talk to a priest and enroll in RCIA. Through all this, God is working in your life, building you in faith, drawing you nearer to Him; and when it does come time for you to receive the graces of Baptism and the Sacraments, you will be saved by faith.

The Work of the Reformation

Von Werner, Luther before the Diet of Worms

Luther before the Diet of Worms (1877), by Anton von Werner. (Wikipedia)

I love the boldness of nineteenth century writers:

The work of the Reformation was a work of division, of separation, of isolation. It was an effort to sever nations from Peter, the centre of Christian life; to rob the faithful of the bread of angels, to cast off the intercession of Mary and the Saints, thus leaving man alone to purchase, as best he could, the heavenly kingdom by a barren faith in the one Mediator.

Alexis Henri Marie Cardinal Lépicier, OSM
Indulgences: Their Origin, Nature, and Development (1895)

I’m teaching a lesson on Indulgences to our RCIA class next week, and I’m learning a lot in the process. This book is a fascinating read: Cardinal Lépicier is quite ardent for the faith, and doesn’t pull punches. I’m also learning a lot about Penance, and it’s strengthening me greatly in my Lenten journey. I hope to post more about it soon.

Please pray for me. It’s crunch time for my thesis.

The new class: Blog anniversary, RCIA, and some new things learned

Giotto, The Baptism of Christ (c. 1305)

The Baptism of Christ (c. 1305), by Giotto. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua. (WikiPaintings.org)

So a year ago tomorrow — or the second Sunday in September, yesterday — I posted my first entry here, and the Lonely Pilgrim embarked on the final leg of his journey in becoming Catholic.

Last night was again the start of the new RCIA class in our parish, St. John the Evangelist Parish of Oxford, Mississippi. And I decided to attend again, to continue to learn, and to be a part of the coming into being of other new Catholics. I don’t know how, but I pray I will be of some service.

Baptism tapestry

A baptism, from an early Renaissance tapestry. (Source)

I learned a few things I didn’t know before, as I continue to orient myself to the liturgy and how even the architecture of the church building plays a part in it. How Jesus on the Crucifix is always leaning toward the Gospel side of the sanctuary (the side on which the Gospel is read); how the baptized are always raised to face the east, to see the rising sun in their new birth, just as in traditional cemeteries the dead are buried facing east, to see the rising sun of their resurrection. Nothing in the church is unintentional — nothing is wasted, as Audrey says.

I learned, too, that the reliquaries of the two saints that rested in the altar of the original church building, constructed ca. 1942 and demolished 2004 to build the present one — have lost their identity. Nobody remembers or wrote down, apparently, who they were. All we know is that they are saintly men or women, and their relics now venerate the back altar, on which rests the tabernacle. The historian in me is stirred to action; surely someone wrote that down somewhere!

St. John-Baptiste de la Salle

St. John-Baptiste de la Salle

The central altar of the new building now houses two “new” relics: one is from St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle (1651–1719), priest, teacher, and founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (Christian Brothers), which is head over Christian Brothers University in nearby Memphis. He is a patron saint of teachers, and so his relic comes to our parish, whose primary mission is to serve the University of Mississippi and its community.

Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos

Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos

The other relic in the altar is that of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos (1819–1867), a tireless Redemptorist priest and missionary to the poor and abandoned, whose works eventually brought him to New Orleans, where he died ministering and caring for the victims of yellow fever. He is in the final stages of canonization — and as Father Joe likes to tell, then we will have a genuine New Orleans Saint.

There are about twenty people in the RCIA class, maybe a little more. I think it will be a good group. I look forward to learning even more as I participate as an observer, not just a searcher.


So, it is thirty days until Easter. Once I enter the Church, will I still be nascens, or will I be novus?

Things have been moving quickly, and I’m sorry I haven’t felt like posting, and haven’t had time. I am always having thoughts I think of sharing, but then they pass before I have a chance to sit down and write them, or my motivation flags. I’ve started and deleted this post three or four times in the past week.

Last week at RCIA, we had a lesson on sacramental marriage and Natural Family Planning with a couple in the parish, and it was amazing and invigorating and worldview-changing. I find that the more Catholic I become, the more and more my worldview changes — the more and more I feel at odds with the rest of the world.

Jesus said that the world would hate us on account of His Name; that we would be reviled and persecuted. Never before in my life as a Christian have I truly felt that pain of rejection. But in this heated political and cultural debate, I feel all of a sudden that I’ve placed myself on the front lines of the culture wars — or sometimes, before a firing squad. Many of my closest friends are very liberal. Always in the past I’ve been able to find common ground with them, and we were able to respect each other’s divergent turf. Never before have I been decried for maintaining my own, private, traditional, conservative views; but now, if I’m not openly in favor of abortion or homosexual marriage (or “women’s rights” and “gender rights”) — then I’m labeled a misogynist and a homophobe.

The Catholic Church stands, self-consciously, against the values of the modern world. Critics charge that the Church is antiquated or “out of step with the times” — but this is how it has to be; we follow Christ and not the times. We are called not to conform, but to be transformed. I’ve heard this rhetoric all my life as a Protestant, but never before have I found myself holding positions — on marriage, on contraception, on the death penalty, on service to the poor, just to name a few — that go against even most Protestants. More than any other brand of Christianity I’ve been a part of, I feel that I’ve stumbled upon radical Christianity.

Semper reformanda: The Continuity of Vatican II with Catholic Tradition

Pope John XXIII

Blessed Pope John XXIII.

Last week I met briefly with Father Joe for my first RCIA interview. The biggest question I’ve been having, I told him, was about the Second Vatican Council. I posted about these thoughts recently. Tonight at RCIA, as if in answer to my prayers, we had a guest speaker, Father Scott, who spoke at length on Vatican II. He answered my every concern. Between Father Scott and Father Joe, I received what I was hoping for: a firm position, from the inside, on how, as conservative, traditional, orthodox Catholics, to view and understand Vatican II.

Father Scott is a young priest who received his vocation while a member of Father Joe’s flock. He appeared wearing a black cassock — a symbol and reminder, he said, that the priesthood and his vows are something not of this world. “The call from God — you can’t really get away from it,” he began. He addressed Vatican II in its context, as the first ecumenical council called in a century, the first since the abortive Vatican I, which had been interrupted by war and the occupation of Rome before it could address the issues of modernity it hoped to address, the great issues of the nineteenth century: liberalism, nationalism, rationalism, humanism, and Darwinism. Papal infallibility was the only doctrine it had been able to promulgate, reasserting the Church’s authority in the face of so many challenges. Eighty years later, after so many more challenges — after two world wars, and so much global devastation and anguish and disillusionment — Pope John XXIII, who was supposed, at his election (after twenty-five votes), to be only a short-lived, transitional, stopgap pope, called the Second Vatican Council within the first three months of his papacy. According to popular myth, Pope John is supposed to have said that he wanted to “throw open the windows” of the Vatican “to let in fresh air” — or, as Father Joe interjected, to let the world back into the Church. (Apparently, Pope John is unlikely to have said anything of the sort — coming from good, peasant stock, he understood the dangers of letting in drafts.)

According to Father Scott, Pope John had three reasons for calling the council:

  1. To bring about the spiritual renewal of the Church.
  2. To update pastoral practices for dealing with the modern world.
  3. To promote a restoration of unity among all Christians.

In the first document Pope John issued as pope, in fact (I’m going to guess the encyclical Ad Petri cathedram), he was the first pope to directly address Protestants.

Pope Paul VI

Pope Paul VI, who re-called the Second Vatican Council following the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963.

Father Scott then led us through the highlights of the Vatican II documents — the key to understanding what the council actually said. So many, at the time of the council and especially since, have gotten the idea that the Church was changing — “but they’re just reading the headlines, not the documents,” he said. Father Scott demonstrated that the word of the documents demonstrates nothing but continuity with the 2,000 years of Catholic tradition. The documents cite, at every turn, the Council of Trent, the Church Fathers, and everything in between. The Vatican II Council Fathers were renewing the Church, not creating a new one.

He addressed the divide in the interpretation of the council, from ultraconservative Traditionalists, who were so convinced of the council’s rupture with tradition that they broke away to form the Society of St. Pius X, to liberals, who, reading only the “headlines,” seized upon the “spirit of Vatican II” to proclaim things that the documents didn’t actually say, such that Latin was no longer the language of the Church or that the Church hierarchy was no longer in place — but the council documents in fact affirm these things. Their liberal, modernizing vision for the Church was to move her away from Christ’s mission of salvation and justification, and towards social reform — not to transform the world to more closely adhere to Christ, but to transform the Church to more closely fit the modern world.

In particular, as I was concerned, and as many others have been concerned, the constitution Sacrosanctum Consilum, the first constitution issued by the council, addressed the reform of the liturgy. It reaffirmed that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, that it needs to be understood and celebrated by all, and that all should participate actively. There has been much contention about the definition of that “active participation” — but nothing in the council documents eradicated Latin as the liturgical language, or even insisted on a versus populum orientation in the Mass. Versus populum was an “experiment” after the fact of the council, one that was deemed to be “pastorally advantageous,” and suggested “for the good of the people.”

Second Vatican Council

The Second Vatican Council, assembled in St. Peter's Basilica.

As far as revising the liturgy, the intent of the Council Fathers was to eliminate repetition and redundancy that had grown in the Mass, and to bring back meaningful prayers and lay participation that had fallen out of use over the centuries. Every effort was made that nothing was invented, and nothing was lost — that the revisions brought about only renewal. The promulgation of the revisions was overly hasty, however — the new Roman Missal in 1970, and an English translation only three years later. In this rush, the text lost much clarity and unity, approximating only the “gist” of the Latin Mass. The new English translation, in being a more faithful rendering of the Latin, aims to recover what was lost.

Father Joe ascribes particular blame for this rush, for this getting carried away, for this tendency to read “headlines” and not the words of the documents themselves, to the rise of great publishing companies in the 60s, who seized upon the opportunity of Vatican II to capitalize on a myriad of books, pamphlets, tapes, workshops, and endless other products to help Catholics, priests and laypeople alike, understand the changes of the council — only they spread much misinformation, misunderstanding, and wrongheadedness, in the “spirit of Vatican II” — and many Catholics who have grown up in the post-Vatican II era have never recovered.

It was a great council; it just came at the worst possible time — in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement and the Sexual Revolution and the Vietnam War and worldwide social upheaval of every kind. In the face of such upheaval, the world needed the reassuring voice of the Mother Church more than ever; and the Second Vatican Council meant to offer that voice. The documents themselves speak to such reassurance for the modern world; but in the momentum of so much other reform, activists seized upon “sound bites” and “headlines” of the council to take the Church in directions the Council Fathers never intended. “The Council Fathers wanted to welcome the modern world,” Father Scott summed up, “but they were not modernizing the Church so much as they were working to sanctify the world — to bring the world into the Church.”

It is indeed an exciting time to be entering the Church. “The Church is always correcting herself; always reforming herself.” Vatican II was not in itself a rupture — there is no rupture in the 2,000 years of Church tradition — but the Church is now, as only now we begin to understand the Second Vatican Council, moving to correct the mistakes that have been made in the council’s wake.

The Seeker’s Prayer

Fr. Thomas Merton

Fr. Thomas Merton.

I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

—Fr. Thomas Merton

(Father Joe shared this with us a few weeks ago in RCIA, and it moved me a lot. I’m presently reading Thomas Merton’s spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain.)


I’ve been dragging for a few days, and haven’t felt like posting. I don’t feel much like it now either, but feel I should keep it going. I have several good posts outlined: one on authority; one on the Real Presence; and the next chapter of my journey. Hopefully I will feel like writing them soon.

RCIA last night was pretty great. Brad, our cantor and CCM advisor and a history M.A., gave a fantastic presentation on the history of the liturgy. I would love to share what I’ve learned, but couldn’t do it justice. He gave it such depth and such vigor; I learned not just the facts, but also the stories along the sidelines.

I am very grateful for the blessings of my loving family and my friends. I talked to my brother last night for a few minutes. We talked some about my journey here. Though he voiced his support, he expressed some concern. And it occurred me that I should write more in apology of my faith, of specific beliefs, to correct misconceptions. I am not sure I am strong enough for it yet, though.

We practiced the new translation of the liturgy at Mass today. I’ll finish Catholicism and Fundamentalism tonight; the first volume of Apostolic Fathers hopefully tomorrow. Then I’ll start Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain.

“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.”
—St. Paul, Epistle to the Philippians 4:6-7 (ESV)

The Historical Church

Tonight was the second week of RCIA. There are about thirty inquirers, I would say — I first started trying to jot down their names, then at least count them, and finally stopped at “a lot.” We went around the room and introduced ourselves. The lesson tonight was on “Religion vs. Spirituality,” the difference between the two, the world’s definition and view of religion, and the Catholic answer to it. I spoke up several times to contribute to the discussion or to answer questions; but often I feel that my comments may appear to others that I’m trying to show off my knowledge, and I end up kicking myself.

We were asked to explain what was drawing us to the Catholic Church. I named about three things (though I’m afraid I rambled a bit): the Church’s continuity and connection to history and tradition; the unity and authority of the Church; and the order of Catholic doctrine and liturgy, and the peace that it brings. Several other people mentioned being drawn by the Church’s history and the conviction that it is the true and original Church. And that brings me back to where I was a few nights ago, before my train of thought was wrecked: the premises on which I’m undertaking this journey.

After interrogation and reflection, I’m going to revise the first one:

Premise #1: Everyone who calls on the name of Christ, and subscribes to historical, ecumenical creeds of the Church, is a Christian. God, in His mercy and grace, works through many different churches. But not all churches are the same.

I maintain that spiritually, we are all part of Body of Christ — even if one arm, and other various appendages, have gone and hacked themselves off. The Roman Catholic Church, I’ve come to believe, embodies the true Church that Christ founded through His Apostles, in which His Real Presence subsists and ministers.

Second — and I’ve been trying to write this for days:

Premise #2: The Roman Catholic Church represents an unbroken continuity of history and tradition from Jesus Christ and His Apostles to the present.

The Church’s history, more than anything else, is what has drawn me to the Church; what has lit my way to its threshold. I’ve been fascinated and compelled by it since the very first time I encountered it as a teenager. In college, as a history major, the history of the Church and its saints captured my heart more than almost anything else.

Christianity, the Bible tells us, was founded by Jesus Christ and His Apostles in Jerusalem, in Judaea, ca. A.D. 33. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus entrusted His Church to the Apostle Peter: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18). St. Peter, both Catholic and Protestant scholars widely agree, journeyed to Rome and was the first bishop of the Christian church there. Over a period of several centuries, the primacy of the bishops of Rome — their authority over all other bishops — came to be accepted by the rest of Christendom. Today, the bishop of Rome is better known by another title: pope (from Latin papa, a child’s word for “father,” as per English “papa”).

For 1500 years, the Roman Catholic Church was the Church in the West (the Eastern Orthodox Church formally split from Rome in the Great Schism of 1054). Across those years shine innumerable saints and heroes of the faith who have captured my love and admiration and inspired my faith. In the Church have been handed down the traditions and beliefs of the Early Church, and of countless believers over the centuries. When Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other leaders of the Protestant Reformation brought about their split from the Catholic Church, they discarded wholesale many, if not most, of these traditions and beliefs. The Reformers went far beyond their original grievances, finally cutting away everything but the Bible itself, leaving sola scriptura (Scripture alone). In so many ways, I feel they threw out the baby with the bathwater — which, it can’t be denied, was befouled and muddied. The Church needed to be reformed. What it didn’t need was to be shattered.

Since the Reformation, with no single, recognized authority, Protestant churches have continued to fragment into literally thousands of separate sects and denominations. Anyone with a complaint or grievance simply breaks away and forms a new church or denomination. Every division and schism marks a further degradation of the Historical Church — a further generation departed from the history and traditions of the Apostles. With each generation, more and more tradition is discarded as irrelevant (though some churches have attempted to reclaim parts of it). My church upbringing marked tradition’s total loss: there was no sense of tradition at all; no sense that anyone or anything had preceded us; no instruction in belief, practice, theology, or doctrine that had been handed down; no mention that we as Christians had any history at all, aside from a few references to Azusa Street, barely expounded upon. I pined for it. I longed for it, before I even knew what I was longing for.

In the Roman Catholic Church, I feel I’ve finally found what I’ve been longing for all my life: a connection to the past, to the continuous, unbroken history and tradition of Christ’s Church on Earth; a connection, always felt but never fully, to all the saints of all the ages. The wealth of tradition, of devotion, of belief, that I’ve been missing all these years, was not lost, but was all right here. I am coming home to that glorious city.

A Catholic being born

Tonight began RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults — the official first step in becoming Catholic. But in truth, I’ve been becoming Catholic for a long time. I’ve been attending Mass for about a year. Looking back over my life, there have been countless harbingers to herald that this is the direction my road would take, signposts to show the way. This step is the culmination of a lifelong journey.

Tonight at RCIA, they passed around a notepad asking us to sign in, giving our names, whether we’d been baptized or confirmed, and our current religion. I am a Christian; I have been most of my life. But I’ve been wandering for a long time, and for the past year, I’ve labeled myself as a “Catholic seeker” or one “pretending to be Catholic.” Offhandedly, I scrawled Catholicus nascens — a nascent Catholic. I didn’t really think about that phrase’s full import until after I’d created this blog and sat down to write this entry. Catholicus nascens is literally a “Catholic being born.”

I wasn’t born a Catholic, a “cradle Catholic,” as many people are. This doesn’t necessarily feel like a rebirth to me; if anything, I feel like I’m finally coming into the faith I was born for. But I guess that’s what this process is, and why the title is apt. I am a Catholic coming into being, a Catholic being born. This time will be a time of the joys of discovery, the heights of exultation, the peace of everything fitting into place; but also the pains of labor, the darkness of doubt, the uncertainty of the unknown. I believe I will emerge into the light.

In these pages I will chart the progress of my journey of faith. Whether you find me randomly or I invite you to join me, you’re welcome to follow along and share your insight. I’ll share what I learn and experience, and reflections on the signs and events that have led me to this point.