by Mike Carlton | August 5, 2017 12:04 am
It was 11:45 in the evening and I couldn’t sleep. I was anxious about a phone conversation I overheard my wife having with her mother about Catholicism and my patience for this divisive topic had run out. My mother-in-law was asking my wife how she would feel about not receiving the Eucharist at her sister’s upcoming Catholic wedding now that she was no longer attending the Catholic Church—we had decided to join my Presbyterian church after church shopping. She was also concerned because the Best Man was no longer Catholic and combined with my wife no longer attending Mass, there would be no Catholic witnesses. Why does religion have to be so difficult? Why coudn’t we just agree on the same God and live happily ever after? Why did my mother-in-law care about these matters? I didn’t realize it then, but I’m glad she did.
I grew up in a typical Protestant Christian home. With Scottish roots, my family is Presbyterian. Growing up, I was involved in Youth Club retreats, Senior High Fellowship, and many fond memories of Orchard Park Presbyterian Church just outside Buffalo, New York. My parents raised us to respect everyone independently and “to each his own” was a typical response to any personal question involving religion.
There were many Catholic families in my neighborhood. The things different I noticed about them were they had larger families, went to private schools and followed Notre Dame Football. There was a time, though, when I wondered about the name “Protestant” and why I was associated with the word “protest.” I thought, “protesting against what?” I never imagined someday feeling challenged to wade through the vast theological distinctions that have sadly separated Christianity for almost over five hundred years.
I still didn’t fully appreciate the differences between Christians until I married in 1991. I remember how important it was to my mother-in-law to have a “Catholic” wedding that included the Mass. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just have a wedding ceremony by itself without adding Catholic rituals, liturgies, and Sacraments. I remember feeling offended when I was told that I could not receive the Eucharist at her church. So during our wedding, we decided not to have the Eucharist because it would divide our families. How unfortunate, I thought, to be united in marriage but divided in faith even though we all professed Christ as our Lord and Savior.
Feeling like an outsider to the Catholic Church initiated a religious curiosity that burned in me. I started to confide in fellow Protestants to understand our heritage and traditions. Becoming proud of the history of John Knox, who brought Luther’s teachings to Scotland, I soon became a magnet for anti-Catholic positions. I found myself reading anti-Catholic material and found it interesting that Catholicism was actually banned in Scotland for hundreds of years after the “reformation” which seemed more of a “revolution.” I claimed to be a “truth seeker” but in retrospect, I was only seeking confirmation of my Protestant perspective. I started to resist many Catholic practices and attended a Bible study with a few people I respected which dug the trench deeper. I loved my Catholic friends and family, but felt the true Church was in some way rediscovered by the Reformers.
We moved from Cincinnati to Atlanta, and found a home in the Presbyterian Church of Roswell Georgia. After a few years, we had the local minister baptize our first son and became involved in various fellowships. Then the detour happened.
My wife, in our new southern “Bible Belt” neighborhood, actually met a large number of Catholic women who also relocated from the North. She joined a neighborhood Rosary group and became reconnected with her Catholic roots. These seeds of Catholicism blossomed for her and one night shattered my Protestant world. Sitting at the kitchen table, she shared her desire to have our son receive “First Communion” and be raised as a Catholic. I didn’t understand why our Presbyterian Church, which she agreed was wonderful to us, didn’t fulfill her needs. After much prayer and discernment, I agreed, but served notice to her that I will never convert. The people in the Catholic Church were friendly, but I still couldn’t help but feel like an outsider. I wouldn’t totally let go of my roots and I actually maintained membership at the Presbyterian Church. Over time, members of both churches, I started to resent the Catholic Church more and wasn’t sure where to turn.
I decided to turn to God. An epiphany occurred to me while vacationing in North Carolina. While jogging at sunrise along the beach trying to “sort things out,” I prayed for a clear sign to know what to do. Did any of this really matter to Christ as long as we were happy? The answer I received was clear and unyielding. Seeking the truth was noble but won’t provide comfort unless it’s objective truth. I was searching with a bias. I needed to separate my mother-in-law’s opinions, drop the resentment inherited from 500 years of Christian separation which were leading me to justify someone else’s argument. I needed to search my own heart with an open mind. If I did these things, the answer would reveal itself and become clear among the confusion.
My sign came when we returned from vacation. I read a flier that advertised a former Presbyterian minister who converted to the Catholic Church would be speaking at the library right across the street from my neighborhood. He was a scholar in Greek and Hebrew and found a home in the Catholic Church; a shock to my system. I had to go!
I had never heard the history of Christianity explained from the writings of the early church fathers. My research took me to 1517 when Martin Luther broke from Rome, but he took us back to the apostolic and post-apostolic age in the first and second centuries. I couldn’t believe that the modern Catholic Church simply upholds these ancient teachings and preserves the Sacraments that have been practiced since the earliest of times.
The “fruits” of the Reformation have led to thousands of competing denominations who all disagree with one another on doctrine and teachings. Who is right? How do we know? Why would the Holy Spirit, who whispers truth, lead us into such confusion? Why would Jesus leave us orphans? Which Church protects this vast mission field from conflicting ideas? Why does it seem the burden of proof is on the Catholic Church to answer my questions? I’m the one who broke away; their positions haven’t changed. Why aren’t Protestant positions challenged? Could I honestly follow beliefs that were born out of a dispute?
After driving home that night—12:30 a.m.—I realized that my “epiphany” on the beach had just been realized and now it was up to me to look objectively at the Church. I could hardly wait to wake up the next day and explore the Christian faith into areas previously considered “out of bounds” for Protestants. At least I knew that wherever this journey would take me, it would not be without significant discernment and a bumpy ride.
Following a few months of intense study, reading many Catholic books, I was clearly on a path toward Rome. So what happened? The Priest scandal broke out and dominated the news. Catholicism was getting a “black eye” in the press. It was everywhere, USA Today on my door with a front page scathing headlines. This was shocking, embarrassing.
Looking back, after having witnessed the overwhelmingly positive coverage the Catholic Church received over the death of Pope John Paul II and now with Pope Francis, I realize the Catholic Church has such a worldwide presence, it commands the attention. It’s a giant 1.3 billion member bulls-eye in the press, good or bad. So back to 2001 and the scandal… was this a sign?
I recall sitting in my car one night before driving home from a business trip in Nashville, listening to an interview on the radio with an ex-priest who left the Church over this and was pessimistic on the future of the priesthood. How could this happen to the Church I was growing to embrace as the fullness of Christianity?
As fate would have it, a multiple-car accident blocked the entire highway and cars were being diverted. I could no longer drive home. The alternative route to Atlanta was through northern Alabama. I turned the radio off, and began to drive in deep sorrow about the scandal. I thought of Father Patrick from our church back home and how he seemed like such a good priest. I began to pray about the priesthood and the Catholic Church. Why was this happening? Why now?
I noticed my gas tank was empty, so I pulled over and started to fuel up. Looking back, my gas tank wasn’t the only tank that was empty; I needed a spiritual booster shot as doubt was creeping all over me. This was a very rural area, but I noticed there was a partially covered sign in a wooded area, that I could barely see, that read, “Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament.” It sounded Catholic but seemed odd for this area (Baptist churches everywhere). Curious, I decided to explore. I pulled my car down that small dusty road and drove for miles. Just as I’m thinking, “turn around, your making a long trip longer” the road connected to another with little white crosses placed on the sides. Following more signs, I came up a hill to a massive gate and pulled in just as it was closing (tour bus was leaving). When I pulled in, I was speechless. Here, in northern Alabama, stood a beautiful cathedral-like church that appeared as if it was dropped out of the heavens into this rural hillside. Why here? I stepped out of the car, and just stared. Just then, a friar walked up. He asked if he could help as the monastery was closing for the day.
“What is this?” I asked while staring at the beautiful Italian architecture. “The Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament founded by Mother Angelica,” he replied. I shared with him my growing interest in the Catholic Church, how I had struggled with faith for years and how the Priest scandal was affecting me. He smiled and said “Would you like to see the inside? I have time if you want a tour, come with me…”
This was the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen. We walked and talked for two hours. He explained his conversion, his story and why he moved into the monastary from his troubled past. He also commented in reference to the scandal, quoting Mathew’s gospel, “Jesus built His Church so the gates of Hell will not destroy it… these sinful priests will be purged but the Church will survive. Jesus said he would have both saints and sinners in the Church but he will separate the sheep from the goats.” He encouraged me to pray for guidance, strength and support. When I asked about Protestant teachings, he smiled and said, “All followers of Jesus have their own path to holiness, life is a journey and we should pray for unity and world peace.” Before long I found myself kneeling in front of the Altar with nuns (I had never met a nun). There I was, a Protestant searcher, praying among the sisters of the convent in front of the most beautifully decorated altar I had ever seen.
“What a journey,” I pondered, holding a candle in my hand during the Easter Vigil Mass in 2002. I was welcomed into the Catholic Church. I thought of St. Paul and his conversion on the road to Damascus. I’m thankful for my wife, who supported me our entire marriage and walked with me throughout. I thought of my parents who first introduced me to Jesus Christ. My family is now united in the Church that has existed for nearly 2,000 years, thanks be to God.
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