Christian TraditionsJourneys of FaithRoman Catholic

My Journey to Catholicism: Part I

Although this is a very personal story, it is my prayer that anyone reading it will find something that speaks to the human experience of God, and of life itself.1 Let us begin this and every endeavor with thankfulness to the Lord, and a firm desire to advance in love toward others.

Regardless of where you find yourself on the journey through life, this journey is invariably and inevitably spiritual. Humanity was made by and for God. All of us desire God in our innermost being.2 My own journey to Catholicism is just a subset of the larger path toward the joy of God’s eternal presence—a path carved out by that “pioneer of faith,” Jesus Christ (Heb 12:2). So please bear with me as I chronicle what has occurred thus far, keeping in mind that my journey is far from over, and that it is not merely personal. In fact, the journey has been possible only because of the various people God has placed in my life. These people, including the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) who have gone before us, have enabled me to grow in faith, hope, and love.

Even in the short paragraph above, there are many waypoints that mark my acceptance of a radically different view of Christianity than the one I held for most of my life.3 For example, I slowly became aware that the Christian life means much more than believing a “correct” set of doctrines. Similarly, salvation itself is more than something that “happens to me.” My salvation is only intelligible in light of the Church, the mystical body that communicates grace from its Head (Christ) to its members.4 I now see the Roman Catholic Church—animated and guided by the Holy Spirit—as a visible manifestation of this mystical body. But before we focus in on these and other challenging thoughts, I’m going to ask for your patience as I share some details about the course of my life before conversion. These details will hopefully illuminate my own joys and sorrows, allowing you to see truth more clearly in the process. As a point of reference, my wife and I were received into the Roman Catholic Church in May of 2014. Up until that point, I had been (from my infant Baptism in June of 1990) a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

I grew up in a decidedly Christian environment. I was the oldest of three brothers, and my mother and father were dedicated to the upbringing of moral young men who cultivated their talents, respected their elders, and served others willingly. My mother recited Scripture passages to me while changing my diapers5—that’s the kind of dedication she has for God’s Word! Throughout my earliest years, I recall participating joyously in the life of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), especially through singing the liturgy every Sunday. Our small church used an older version of the LCMS hymnal. The traditional verbiage set the words apart from other forms of the language I was quickly growing to love.6 Specifically, I gravitated toward the constancy of the following Trinitarian words (which opened each service in song): “Glory Be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost / As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be / World without end / Amen.”

Even today, I speak these words aloud to my children each night at the close of their prayers. One day, they will recite the words with me. What I am describing here is Tradition. In its most basic sense, Tradition is what is handed down by those who came before us, so that we too can participate in the life of the Church. At its very core, this life is a relationship with Christ, the Church’s Head. Without Tradition, Christianity would never have made it past the first generation. As Yves Congar states in The Nature and Meaning of Tradition:

Immediately after Pentecost and during the next thirty years, the Christians celebrated the Breaking of Bread, although no written text on the matter existed. The texts that were then written give very few details concerning the rite to follow or the method of procedure. It was enough for the apostles to have seen Jesus celebrate it. The Church, which had seen the apostles do it after him, thus learned the Eucharist from its actual celebration; and so it was for many other things … Catholics believe that this method of communication [Tradition] is the one most essential to the Church, and that it would suffice if it alone existed.7

Christianity is decidedly not a religion of the book (as in “of the text”). It would survive even if all the Bibles in the world were destroyed. This is because the Word of God is living and active (Heb 4:12), and would continue to inhabit the hearts and minds of the faithful even as they passed this Word down to future generations. It is a mistake to equate the Son of God—the Word spoken from all eternity and before all things were made—with the Bible. Christ speaks to us through the Bible, but the Bible itself was written by human beings. These human beings were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but not in a manner that removed their personal will or agency. As the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) puts it in paragraph 11, “God chose men, and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.” The story is the same with the assembly of a canon of Sacred Books, which we know today as the Old and New Testaments.

After reading texts like The Way to Nicaea, The Early Church, and Retrieving Nicaea, I realized just how complicated this process was, and how the only way to navigate the theological problems raised is to trust that the group of people who finalized the Christian canon (and our basic Christian doctrines) were being led by the Holy Spirit. This group of people is none other than the bishops who communed together as members of the Catholic (kata-holos, or universal) Church. Once this necessity of the Spirit’s intervention is granted, it follows that Christians today have a responsibility to trace our spiritual lineage back to these people. We must continue to associate ourselves with the work of the Holy Spirit, who was sent by Christ into the world to guide his body the Church to truth (see John 16:33). We cannot simply adopt the doctrines of the Early Church—such as the Trinitarian formula of Christ’s “consubstantiality” with the Father, or the idea that Christ is two natures in one person—without acknowledging that these ideas came from Spirit-led interpretations of God’s Word. We cannot deem these interpretations authoritative without acknowledging the leadership and authority that distinguished these “orthodox” beliefs from beliefs we now call heretical.

It is all too easy to fancy that doctrines like the full Godhead of the Son and the Spirit, or the creation of the world from nothing (ex nihilo), were simply “inevitable” conclusions based on Scripture. In reality, these and other pillars of the Christian faith were hotly debated in ecumenical councils. These councils featured faithful individuals on both sides of key issues, individuals who represented communities that earnestly believed themselves to be orthodox and harnessed convincing Scriptural passages to support their positions. For example, Arians were quite fond of the verse: “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). This passage appears to show, quite clearly, that the Son is not consubstantial (of the same substance) with the Father. All of this is meant to explain how I came to understand that Catholicism and Orthodoxy—set apart from most other Christian groups—are the communities that trace their authority, through Apostolic Succession, back to the beginnings of the Church.

I was afraid this would happen. I have become so enthusiastic about what I have learned and continue to learn that our story has been derailed. Lest we jump too far ahead, I’ll now revisit another early chapter in my life, a chapter that shaped the sorts of “tough questions” I would eventually be asking of my LCMS upbringing.

As I grew older, I began to notice more at church than just the liturgy. I started listening intently to sermons, and tried to understand what was happening in the weekly Bible Studies our family would attend.8 William Bischoff, the leader of our congregation, was an extremely charismatic person.9 With him at the helm, Bible classes tended to highlight the singularity of what we were doing, while sharply criticizing other Christian groups, and even the very Synod of which we were a part. In fact, a sign outside our church read “The Old Missouri Synod.” Despite skepticism about the LCMS’s leadership, our congregation never seceded. Looking back now, I realize that growing up in this environment unfortunately encouraged my pride: we (and we alone) had the correct teaching.

Ever since my conversion to Catholicism, and even before, I have regretted the fact that Church History ‘begins’ with the Reformation for most Protestants. As a Lutheran in my early twenties, I was always interested to find out how the Church Fathers and medieval Doctors taught the same truths I had learned in Catechism and Bible Study. When describing my conversion to Catholicism, I typically highlight the influence of major Christian thinkers like Augustine and Bonaventure. I have recently, however, realized something new: I was never truly enculturated with a Lutheran identity. In other words, I was not educated about the history of my own denomination. What happened, after Luther, that caused a group of his followers to settle in Saint Louis, Missouri? How did the LCMS itself come into existence?

This historical amnesia was fostered by the narrative of the Christian past that I learned in school and homeschool. The history I was taught was that of the English Reformers. Its main focus was how ideals of religious freedom influenced our nation’s founding. Lutheranism did not play a key role in this series of events. Hence, I knew nothing about Lutherans (other than Luther himself), but I could tell you plenty of details about Winthrop, Williams, Eliot, Edwards, and Wesley. In sum, I was never taught to identify with “Lutheranism across the ages,” or with Lutheranism as a centuries-old community larger than the people I met at church. Sadly, this is a predicament many young people find themselves in today, a predicament encouraged by the tendency of Protestant groups to splinter off from one another.10

As a senior in college, I encountered the work of famous Lutherans like Adolf von Harnack and Paul Tillich. Their liberal theologies shook me to the core, as I had no historical/theological narrative for figuring out just how these people were different from the “other Lutherans” with whom I desired to associate. Even as I attempt to focus on the positive dimensions of my experience as a Lutheran, I cannot help but feel that the lack of engagement with Church History—from Christ to the present—spells disaster for the thoughtful LCMS member. They must attempt to answer the difficult question: “Why did I end up in a denomination that represents only one-tenth of a percent (.001%) of the world’s Christians, and yet, claims to be the one true church?” Would a person from Asia, the area of the world where the majority of people live, even know what Missouri is? One of the primary reasons I entered Catholic communion was so that I could travel to any place in the world and receive the Body and Blood Christ. I am now united to 1.2 billion brothers and sisters around the world at the deepest level. (For beautiful reflections on this theme, I recommend Augustine’s dialog On the Advantage of Believing (de utilitate credendi).

So today I’ve talked a bit about liturgy and tradition, theology and history, and the apostolic community called “Church.” In the next installment, I hope to discuss Scriptural exegesis, faith and works, and the development of doctrine. I’ll then conclude with some reflections on the Catholic Church in the contemporary world, drawing from documents of the Second Vatican Council and providing a list of resources that were influential in my final decision to “cross the Tiber.”

In anticipation of the next article, please feel free to ask me questions about any of the stories and points related thus far. These thoughts have occupied my mind and heart for nearly four years, so I’m guaranteed to be interested in dialogue with anyone who is willing. Peace be with all of you.

Link to Part II

Link to Part III

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  1. March 4, 2016 at 6:18 pm


    Usually posts some really exciting stuff like this. If you are new to this site.

  2. Sarah Elizabeth
    March 7, 2015 at 9:48 pm

    I’m have really enjoyed reading this, Ben. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to the next article. And as James also mentioned, I would be interested in hearing more about why you decided to become Catholic instead of Orthodox. I also hope that one day these two great faiths will once again be united!

    • Benjamin Winter
      March 9, 2015 at 4:54 pm

      Thank you, Sarah. Yes, I will try to fit in more about the (very) difficult decision to choose one over the other. My cousins were the first in my extended family to leave the Lutheran Church–and they became Orthodox. Needless to say, I have enjoyed much fellowship and encouragement from them, and I’d like to think we have both taught each other deep truths about Christian practice and experience.

  3. George Aldhizer
    March 6, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    I really enjoyed this one Benjamin. I love how you are arguing for Catholicism at the same time chronicling your journey. I think that’s really valuable, and it makes it challenging to respond to as a Protestant. I think I really agree with you that we have a responsibility to trace our lineage (as Christians) back to the Christian tradition. I do regret, alongside of you, that it is a shame that Protestants trace their lineage only to the Reformation. From the way you write your piece, it seems you wouldn’t be for a Protestant tradition to, for example, have a robust culture surrounding how they came to exist, the confessions that were produced out of its genesis, the movements/figures that led the way, and how that tradition fits in within the broader 2000 year history of the church. It seems that you believe Protestantism by its very nature precludes that frame of reference.

    I liked your point that Christ would be king, Christianity be true, and the Church still in tact even if all the Bibles were destroyed. I think, as a Protestant, I had a gut reaction against how you were speaking about the Bible, haha, but that’s what you were trying to do of course. I think it’s important to recognize that the Bible 1) is for the church and 2) would be inspired by God even if all Bibles were destroyed. Also, I guess as a Protestant I always feel that there needs to be a side point made in any discussion of tradition and scripture, that scripture is inspired while tradition is not, or not in the same way.

    Do you feel like there is something to an “argument from numbers” that the Catholic church is the true church? In some way, I am deeply bothered that Protestantism is very fractured. But, I am not despaired for I believe Christ is head of the Church catholic, not merely the Catholic Church. To that point, I also have a gut reaction when the Eucharist is used as the primary/only precondition for Christian unity. Both you and Ben have that response to Christian unity discussions. I dunno, I guess my primary mode of speaking about Church unity is to speak primarily about union with Christ and salvation, I guess spiritual matters, and not primarily about physical/hierarchical/eucharist matters. I dunno, I find it interesting at least.

    • Benjamin Winter
      March 9, 2015 at 4:53 pm

      Dear George, thank you as always for engaging with my thoughts. You are very charitable to do so. I hope I did not come across as being against historically-grounded Protestantism in toto. It would be hard for me to hold such a position, as I in fact believe that knowledge of history has the ability to sharpen (albeit often ‘through fire’) one’s own beliefs and one’s own connection to any particular faith community. That cannot be a bad thing! So apologies if you got the impression that I do not believe these things, based on my affirmations of the historical nature of Catholicism. In a future article I hope to talk about Catholic documents on other communions and churches, and how we acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit in them.

      Good point about differences between Scripture and Tradition. There’s a lot of rich thinking on the interplay within Catholic theology, and I’d recommend first the Congar book that I cite. There has been development on this from Trent to Vatican II (which was heavily influenced by Congar), and the role of Tradition has been more clearly specified. Would be able to chat with you about this in person, but here it would take a bit too long to really lay out enough to be useful. I’d also recommend Maurice Blondel’s essay “History and Dogma.”

      Finally, I do indeed feel there is something to an argument from numbers! You probably picked that up from my paragraph that ends with mentioning Augustine’s de utilitate credendi. If you get a chance to read that dialog in the future, you’ll have to let me know what you think of his arguments. They are much deeper than I had ever thought any “argument from numbers” could be! It really boils down to a question of who you trust, as there is an implicit mistrust of the Church “spread throughout the world” among those Protesting its practices, and said mistrust often becomes more pronounced the smaller the opposing communities gets. All that being said, I’m not sure how your point about Eucharist follows forth from the discussion of an argument from numbers? I’ve done this in a few other comments, but I’d just like to say that St. Cyprian’s essay “On the Unity of the Catholic Church” shows very clearly how the gravity of a decision to abandon the Body of Christ (often as a response to problems and abuses) and to establish a “new church.” To myself, such a concept is inimical to the unity of the Body. But that is not to say that the Spirit does not work in communities other than Apostolic ones, especially through Baptism (provided the Biblical formula of Father Son and Spirit is used)…anyhow if you’d like to reply feel free!

      • George Aldhizer
        March 16, 2015 at 6:50 pm

        Thanks for the recommendations and clarification of your stance on scripture/tradition and Protestantism. Super pumped to read your writing on a Catholic view of other church communities.

        I think, in many ways, I feel the force of the argument from numbers, especially as it relates to the traditions of the church. I feel the force of Ben’s comments that go, “the church has believed/practiced this for hundreds of years.” So, yeah, I currently feel a bit lost in a denomination of a few hundred thousand, a blip on the radar of the global church. This feeling of lostness is felt especially when I see that catholicity/unity is not being emphasized by Protestants. I think that is damaging in many ways (spoiler: part of the reason I am exploring conversion to Anglicanism).

        My point about the Eucharist is how fascinating it is to me that Catholics and Orthodox see the Eucharistic table as the primary site of church unity. Whereas I as a Protestant would want to turn to essentials of salvation, Catholics and Orthodox turn to (what they believe) as essentials about the Eucharist. I guess that then makes Christian unity a distinctly “Catholics reuniting with Orthodox” discussion, rather than something that can be furthered outside of eucharistic/ecclesiological coming together (for lack of a better term)

        • Benjamin Winter
          March 16, 2015 at 8:48 pm

          Thanks for the reply, George! On your last comment, here are some of my thoughts. At least from the perspective of a person who was considering Catholicism, I found it enlightening that Catholics themselves could come together at table despite various disagreements about a host of issues. For example, a former teacher at Villanova (also a priest, named Fr. Martin Laird) said that he often takes pause when he holds masses for the theology faculty, because so many of them are in bitter rivalries about things as basic as who Christ was–things like “Did Christ know he was divine?” and whether/how to teach these things to students. Yet nonetheless, they still partake of the one bread and the one cup, because with this act comes the recognition that the union with Christ that is effected transcends all human words and thoughts. So the Eucharist is really the mystical center of our faith, because we “become what we receive,” to quote Augustine.

          There is, as you allude to, a delicate balance between preserving unity on the one hand, and encouraging a fortress mentality that neglects to see the value of Christians in other groups. This is why I don’t care for the term the term “closed communion.”

          Finally, my wife and I received communion at an Anglican Parish for nearly two years, and of all the Protestant Churches we think their stance on communion makes the most sense and is the most beautiful!

  4. March 6, 2015 at 11:56 am

    Wonderful article, Ben! My own journey is not to different from yours: I grew up in St. Louis as a member of the LCMS church (Concordia Kirkwood, to be specific – a hop, skip, and jump from the LCMS International office). I went to Catholic school, however, so like you I was never very familiar with Lutheranism beyond Luther until college. After lots of reading (including a steady diet of St. Augustine and studying Catholic theology at UD), I became a member of the Catholic Church in my early 20s.
    My husband is currently LCMS, and he struggles with many of the issues you raise: the smallness of the LCMS church in the scale of all of Christianity, the huge variations in liturgy between different LCMS churches, and the historical amnesia that many Lutherans have about anything between Nicea and Luther.
    I’m excited to read your next post! Thank you for sharing this!

  5. Sally
    March 6, 2015 at 10:53 am

    This is a cool article! Within the LCMS, I highly dislike the fact that 1) our practices are not unified, though we claim to be a distinct church body and 2) the label “LCMS” is rather misleading as the point of reference for identity to those outside Christianity altogether! We are living in modern Corinth as it were … that being said, Catholicism too has its divisions within, but remains the largest western church! Looking forward to your next post 🙂

    • Benjamin Winter
      March 9, 2015 at 4:26 pm

      Thanks for heading over to our site to comment, Sally! It is sad to see divisions in church bodies, but, as you aptly imply, such conditions have always and will always exist…I am reminded of Paul’s word on αἵρεσις (“choice”) in 1 Cor 11:19 “Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.” Of note recently in the Catholic communion is the growth of Sedevacantism. I think one of the best responses to these thoughts is St. Cyprian’s short work “On the Unity of the Catholic Church,” which I will mention in my next installment. Best translation is on amazon, but it’s also free in an older and clunkier version if you just google it.

  6. March 6, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Do you believe we are living in a post-denominational church age where everyone is gravitating towards the three largest traditions in the world: evangelicalism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy? I keep reading these stories of people leaving the mainline/historical Protestant denominations, then when I read newer works by non-denominational/contemporary evangelicals I see a trend towards a theological thinking that aligns more with the historical Church in many ways. I know that’s way off-topic, just something I’m curious to hear thoughts on…

    I enjoyed reading your story and am looking forward to the next installment!

    • Benjamin Winter
      March 9, 2015 at 4:20 pm

      Chris, I’m not sure what I think about that! It’s certainly food for thought. I’m probably not qualified to make any sweeping generalizations about trends outside of the communions with which I have had extended interaction. But it does seem to me that the largest churches (in the American Midwest, at least) are the ones that deemphasize creeds and specific statements of doctrine. Not sure where this trend fits into your comment above, but I think this might be what you mean by “non-denominational/contemporary evangelicals.” If so, I then have not noticed the “trend toward theological thinking that aligns more with the historical Church” in the sermons and publications I’ve read and been exposed to (my mother in law attends a very large non-denominational church called The Journey in St. Louis, and it is from hence that I’m drawing my thoughts).

  7. James
    March 6, 2015 at 10:06 am

    Benjamin Winter,

    Hello, and thank you for this article. This is my first week at Conciliar Post, and I am enjoying the content thus far.

    Having also come from the LCMS (I’m now Reformed, with the PCA), I have great respect for the denomination and its intellectual luminaries like Walther and Pieper, and German forebearers like Chemnitz and scholastics Gerhard and Calov (who I first encountered through R. Preus) . It is unfortunate that you were not exposed to the denomination’s rich tradition, but that is probably common, and entertaining the anecdotal can be a fruitless endeavor. As a student of historical theology, I am sure you know more than you let on. 🙂

    First, and I hope this does not come off as presumptive: In my experience dealing with others who have crossed the Tiber, many are responding to a false dichotomy – either we affirm the current Roman church, or we lose any anchoring of the faith in the work of the church. Swallowing whole-sale the Roman church in its modern form would seem to most a large cost, but I understand that decision when it is perceived as the only option for substantiating the canon, Nicea, Chalcedon, et al. You probably do not affirm the false dilemma, but it is something I have encountered, so maybe addressing that would be helpful.

    Secondly, and derivative: I know this is just the lead article, but I would be interested in a followup to know how and why you came to settle on the Roman Catholic church, vice the Orthodox, or Anglican or other Protestant bodies (including the Lutheran) that also hearken back in their tradition to pre-Nicea and while affirming (vice the monophysite churches) the seven ecumenical councils. (In spite of the historical divisions – including the regretful result with Seminex – these bodies are part of and affirm the root.)

    But now I’ve gotten well ahead of your arguments, so pardon me in that. I am interested to follow your journey, and thank you again, Benjamin!


    James M.

    • Benjamin Winter
      March 9, 2015 at 4:15 pm

      James, first off welcome! I remember way back (okay, it was only November!) when I was a new member here…I hope everyone has made you feel welcome. We’re all very excited about sharing our views and dialoging with all those interested in Christianity.

      Second, I’d like to note my appreciation for your list of “Lutheran Luminaries.” This is helpful as an addendum to my article, and for the future reference of myself and other readers. I do indeed know of many of them, although you are correct to point out that my exposure was limited during my formation (Pieper I heard of, and of course I knew that Walther was famous for “Law and Gospel”). At Saint Louis University now, I’m trying to delve a bit deeper into the Reformed Scholastic tradition. I’m specifically interested in Georg Calixt(us), but no one seems to have much information on him, although the following is a jumping-off point:

      Third, I am interested in your statement about a false dichotomy “either we affirm the current Roman church, or we lose any anchoring of the faith in the work of the church.” Of course, the word “any” makes it a completely untenable assertion. Reading Unitatis Redintegratio (the Vatican II document on ecumenism) as well as Lumen Gentium, it is quite clear that the Spirit works truly in other Churches (i.e. Orthodox and non-Roman rites) and also in other ecclesial communities (i.e. Anglicans, Protestants, etc.). As I briefly note above, I don’t think there’s any way around Apostolic Succession as the authority structure that maintains the integrity of the Body of Christ, and thus ensures that her decisions on Faith and Morality are free from error. Actually the text that convinced me of this most clearly is St. Cyprian’s “On the Unity of the Catholic Church,” which I plan to mention in the next article. Speaking of, I will also be sharing stories from the two-year period in which my wife and I attended a continuing Anglican Church, and derived much richness of community and communion. So, in response to your statement “Swallowing whole-sale the Roman church in its modern form would seem to most a large cost…” I very much understand this dilemma, as my much-respected former Anglican Pastor has argued for it convincingly. Ultimately, decisions such as these come down to many factors, and I in no way look down on him (in fact, I look up to him very highly) for his decision to remain where his conscience dictates.

      Finally, to your note on other communions, I do hope to talk more about that. Of course, it is not enough for me to affirm that seven ecumenical councils, although doing so is highly laudable and necessary. Perhaps most influential to my thought here is Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine. In a nutshell, limiting the authority of the church to any set historical time seems to deny the continuing work of the spirit, which in turn contradicts the Scriptural maxim that the gates of hades will not prevail against the church. You can respond here if you’d like, or wait until next week to see how I develop some of these (roughly outlined) thoughts. Cheers, and again welcome!

  8. March 6, 2015 at 8:47 am

    “My own journey to Catholicism is just a subset of the larger path toward the joy of God’s eternal presence—a path carved out by that “pioneer of faith,” Jesus Christ (Heb 12:2)” I love that! Thank you for writing this!

Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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