On April 21st of 2017, the Friday of the Octave of Easter and the Feast of St. Anselm of Canterbury, I entered full communion with the Roman Catholic Church at Holy Rosary Parish in Portland, OR. In deciding that I would enter the Roman Catholic Church, I knew I would have to make some account of myself, and I eventually settled on starting a blog, as there are many disparate things I can talk about in relation to my journey. As G.K. Chesterton said in relation to his own conversion, “The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” This is perhaps more triumphalistic than suits my own journey, but it conveys well the difficulty of explaining the multitude of reasons that go into such a deep shift in understanding the world.
Unlike Chesterton, however, I would like to begin by sharing the story of my journey towards Catholicism. This first post of my blog will not serve as an apologetic, in the sense of attempting to write a defense of any particular Catholic doctrines, but rather an account of how I personally came to believe that Catholicism is true.1
To give some background, I was born and raised in a devout Protestant family of generic Evangelical and Charismatic leaning. It was, undeniably, their faith and their example which made me a Christian, especially the faith of my parents Ken and Judy. My family remain one of the surest signs to me of the truth of Christian revelation. I am certain that my mom, who passed away last November, is now with the Lord and is praying for me as I grow in my Christian walk.
My parents raised me to believe that every person who holds to a (basically Evangelical) confession of the Christian faith is a true Christian, and that this includes many Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers.
While I was in college, I began to attend an Anglican church. In doing so, I was following my parents and my eldest sister, who had begun worshipping there while I was in high school. Eventually, I became a member of the Anglican Communion through the rite of confirmation.
I vividly remember my shock and amazement at hearing the words of Cranmer’s liturgy at the distribution of communion, “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for you, preserve your body and soul to eternal life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving.” Despite the spiritualizing tendency of Cranmer’s theology, I had never really considered the shocking reality which the practice of the Lord’s Supper symbolized. I think it was at
that moment that I began to believe with an absolute certainty in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a belief I have never since seriously doubted. My subsequent study of Scripture and the Christian Tradition have only served to deepen my conviction of this truth, and it has been in many ways the lure which has drawn me more and more into a Catholic understanding of the faith.
The experiential side of my journey was furthered when I moved to Vancouver, BC and eventually began to worship at the Anglo-Catholic parish of St. James. It was there that I first experienced the joy of confession to a priest and the beauty of the Angelus. Without even fully realizing it, my Christian life had moved into a deep dependence upon sacramental practice.
The Catholic drift of my spiritual life went hand in hand with another key experience. Just as the faith of my parents had been a bedrock in forming my faith, I have been strongly blessed time and time again by friends and mentors whom God brought into my life. In times of deep spiritual and emotional distress, God would bring the perfect person alongside me to support me in my journey. Looking back, I see now that many of these individuals were Catholic. Even those who weren’t ended up guiding me in my spiritual and intellectual life toward Catholicism.
My journey into the fullness of the Catholic faith was not only experiential, however. Much of what moved me towards joining the Roman Catholic Church was intellectual exploration. Being convinced of the truth of Christianity, I was also determined to not let go of anything which seemed absolutely essential to an orthodox vision of that faith. I could not see how I could get rid of such notions as the authority of Scripture, the Divinity of Christ, or the Trinity without ceasing to be meaningfully a Christian. In essence, my two pillars of absolute authority were Scripture and the truths contained in the Nicene Creed. Reflecting on this, I came to see it as impossible to hold to any simple notion of sola scriptura. As I studied history, I came to realize that the canon of Scripture and its interpretation were inexorably bound up with the Church’s structures of authority and worship. As I wrote on another blog back in 2010,
New Testament scripture was written by Apostles, or those who directly knew Apostles. In time, these works were taken up by the majority of the church, and eventually canonized. The canonizing of these works was not random, but based on certain criteria, namely, the aforementioned apostolic authorship, general acceptance by the church, and, additionally, consistency with the whole of scripture.2
So what do we have here? Scripture is first written by foundational authorities (however inspired by the Holy Spirit), then enters into the church by tradition, and finally validated by further authorities.
In short, I could not see how it could be possible to accept the authority of Scripture without also accepting that Tradition itself must be accorded some sort of authority. This became even more clear when I considered my other “pillar of authority” – the Nicene Creed. Specifically, it took only a cursory reading of the history of the development of Christian doctrine to realize that the doctrine of the Trinity, while certainly implicit in Scripture and in the theology of the early Church, was not explicitly developed until the time of the First Council of Nicea in 325 (which is also the time around which an authoritative canon of the New Testament was established).
This realization meant that I had to give weight in determining what I thought to be Christian truth to the Christian Tradition. Moreover, the more primitive a notion, the harder time I had rejecting it. If something like the apostolic succession of bishops were evident as early as the most primitive notions of Trinity, and indeed appealed to as an authority in defending that doctrine, I did not see how I could rightly reject it without also getting rid of Trinity. Behind this lay the conviction that I could not hold (as for example the Mormons do) that the Church had somehow fallen away immediately after the apostles’ deaths, for this would mean that Christ was an absolutely ineffectual savior.
At some point along my journey, this line of thinking led me to implicitly decide to hold every Catholic idea true that did not seem offensive to my Protestant sensibilities. That is, if I could make sense of a traditional doctrine in light of Scripture, and if it seems to give greater glory to Christ, then I would accept it, at least provisionally, as true.
This whole process can be seen in the development of my ideas about Mary. I could accept without trouble the idea of Mary as the New Eve, for it was proclaimed by the second century bishop St. Ireneaus in his defense of the Church against the Gnostic heresy, and it was an idea unoffensive to Scripture, rhyming well with the Pauline discussion of Christ as the New Adam. Indeed, it helped make greater sense of such stories as the Wedding of Cana. The title of Mary as the Mother of God followed fairly soon after this in my thought. As I researched history, I came to discover that this title was not some random appellation assigned to Mary for her greater glory, but an idea the Church had strongly defended in order to guarantee an orthodox view of Christ’s incarnation. As an Evangelical, I already believed the idea that Christ was fully God and fully man. What I did not know was that this articulation of the incarnation was developed at the Fourth ecumenical council against other possible interpretations of the biblical data such as adoptionism and Arianism. Mary as “Mother of God” was seen as an essential part of defending the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation, and so those who rejected it were explicitly anathematized by the council. The doctrine did not, of course, teach that God’s origin was from Mary,
but instead that since God became fully man to such a degree that his divinity and humanity became inseparable, the human man whom Mary gave birth to was also God. Mary did not simply feed a human child at her breast, she fed God, and so she was not only fittingly but necessarily called the Mother of God.
It was natural under these influences of both reason and experience that I would consider both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. I had become convinced that to be faithful to Christ I personally needed to be in a Church that was sacramental and apostolic. I also became convinced of the importance of visible Christian unity. Yet none of this necessarily meant Roman Catholicism. For a very long time Anglicanism presented itself as a place where I could comfortably live out this conviction. Still, every few years I would start to consider the possibility of entering into full communion with Rome, but various more or less serious issues would hold me back. This was, I believe, the Spirit of God at work in my life.
When I moved to Portland in August of 2015, I found the local Anglican churches I visited very underwhelming, and so began to worship at a Roman Catholic parish, even though this meant I was cut off from having any active sacramental practice. This itself might have driven me to prematurely join the Roman Catholic communion before I was ready. Indeed, I began to attend RCIA at Holy Rosary with this possibility strongly in my mind. I even took the step at that time of telling my parents and my eldest sister of what I was considering. Eventually, the priest who was overseeing RCIA pulled me aside after class and told me that he thought I was well catechized enough that I didn’t need to go through RCIA and could join the Church whenever I felt ready. This gave me freedom to not feel pressured to make an immediate decision as to whether or not I would join that Easter.
I also began around that time to date Katelyn, a devout Catholic woman who is now my fiance. At her insistence, I found a fantastic local Anglican community at All Souls Portland, a small Anglo-Catholic parish that had started up since the time I had first moved to Portland. In that community, I was able to happily worship and maintain a sacramental life. The vibrant spiritual life of that community, combined with the freedom the Dominican priest had given me, meant that I was able to continue to work out my relationship with Roman Catholicism without undue pressures.
A key factor in my final decision, though not my sole reason for joining the Roman Catholic Church, was the deep conviction that grew on me during my study of the early Church of the immense importance of visible Christian unity, a visible unity that was tied inextricably to the episcopal office in the early Church.3 My heart became the heart I saw in Christ’s agonized prayer that the Church would be one even as he and his Father are one (John 17:21). In another era, this might have led me to stay where I was in the Anglican communion in order to remain in unity where I found myself. The tectonic shifts going on in the Anglican communion, however, force decision.
Reflecting upon all of these factors, I decided to take the season of Lent this year to pray and study. I had given up reading about politics, and used the time that this freed up to study lingering questions and to consider how to explain entering full communion with the Catholic church if I should do so.
In the end, I did not come to some grand moment of epiphany or unmitigated clarity. But as I prayed and studied, I simply realized that it was time; that I was already in so many ways Roman Catholic; that even amidst a vibrant and beautiful Anglo-Catholic community I was unconsciously trying to do what John Henry
Newman had been falsely accused of doing – pretending to be Anglican in order to lead others with me to Rome. I have certainly acted in recent years as an apologist and even evangelist for Rome. I might as well do so honestly. I continue to think that the reality of Christian history is a bit messier than many Roman Catholics think it is, and I find a lot of modern Roman Catholic apologetics somewhat trite and condescending. Yet, in the end I have become convinced that Christ founded a Church that was apostolic and sacramental, and that Scriptural authority and doctrinal orthodoxy are tied into this reality. For, as St. Paul has said, the Church is “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Being convinced of this truth, it is imperative that I be in a Church that has true apostolic and sacramental authority. I no longer believe that I can do this as part of any community other than that which is in communion with the local Church founded by St. Peter and sealed by the martyrdoms of Sts. Peter and Paul. To be a faithful Christian, I must be a Roman Catholic, and so this I have become.4
- I might wish that this confession and apologia for my confession could be my magnum opus, but I know it will not be. If nothing else, there is too much to be said to be contained in so small a space. The sheer scope of the things I would wish to say is part of the reason I started this blog. I hope to use it to continue to explore Catholic ideas related to my move from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism, as well as more general theological explorations.
- I would add to this list the criteria of consistency with the received faith (Tradition) as that was one of the chief considerations of the early Church in determining the authentic authority of Scripture.
- I cannot mention this factor without speaking of the important role that my thesis adviser Hans Boersma played in instilling this conviction within me. His passionate yet gentle conviction that Christian disunity is a scandal and that the reformation, however necessary it may have been, was also deeply tragic was an inspiration to me.
- I speak here of myself, and not of others. I do not think this necessity falls on those who follow Christ but remain unconvinced of these truths, though I do believe them to be truths and so feel it is incumbent upon me to do my best to persuade others of them. As Bl. John Henry Newman has said, “The simple question is, can I (it is personal, not whether another, but can I) be saved in the English Church? am I in safety, were I to die tonight? Is it a mortal sin in me, not joining another communion?” (Apologia Pro Vita Sua, p.172). As I said at the outset, I would have no Christian faith were in not for my parents, and am as certain as I am of anything in the faith that my mother is with God.