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 Catholic Church—animated and guided by the Holy Spirit—as the visible manifestation of this Mystical Body, a view articulated by the papal encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi. 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 consistency and 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 Christ, the Word of God 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 assimilating ourselves into the same leadership structure 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 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 a jarring awareness of the fact that only Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy trace themselves, through Apostolic Succession, back to the beginnings of the Church. Hence, I knew fairly early on that my journey was leading me toward one of these communities. As a sidebar, the ultimate decision to become Catholic was not one made in rejection of my Eastern brothers and sisters. Far from it! We daily pray for the unity of our fractured worlds. We already celebrate the same seven sacraments. In my own humble and limited opinion, we appear to also share the same views on the essential truths of faith—what Irenaeus would call the regula fidei (Rule of Faith).
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 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 institution, our congregation never seceded. Looking back now, I perceive the roots of my later sense of disorientation—the congregation I was formed in was more than a bit “adrift” when it came to relating to larger bodies of Lutherans, and to larger bodies of Christians.
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 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 enculturated with a truly 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? How did the LCMS itself come into existence? To this day my answers to these questions are vague.
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 extremely 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 a lack of engagement with Church History—from Christ to the present—only spells disaster for the thoughtful LCMS member. Lutherans must attempt to answer the following difficult question: “Why did I end up in a denomination that represents only one-tenth of a percent (.001%) of the world’s two billion 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, let alone the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod? One of the primary reasons I entered the Catholic communion was so that I could travel to any place in the world and receive the Body and Blood Christ with people from any culture, and be united with those people at the deepest level. Catholicism is truly the Church spread throughout the world. If you’d like to hear more of this argument, read 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 dialoging with anyone who is willing. Peace be with all of you.
Note: The Scripture quotations contained herein are from The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. In advance, I apologize for any errors or failures to remember properly. These are my burdens to bear as a finite and fallible being. If what I say offends anyone, please know that it was sincerely not my intent to do so. My aim is to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15).  As an opening paragraph of the Catholic Catechism articulates: “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.” (CCC 27)  A recent conversion story written by a guest author on Conciliar Post uses the motif of “putting on new glasses” to describe such a worldview change: https://conciliarpost.com/journeys-of-faith/a-change-in-perspective-one-womans-journey-into-eastern-orthodoxy/  See 1 Cor 12, and this helpful compendium of passages.  I know this for a fact because she now (quite wonderfully) continues the virtuous habit with my two children.  English would become my major in during undergraduate years at Truman State University.  Congar, Yves, The Meaning of Tradition, trans. A.N. Woodrow (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 18.  Since we belonged to such a small church, there were more than a few times that I did not have a separate “Sunday School” experience.  I learned, in later research, of Bischoff’s connection to a conservative group that arose out of the “Seminex Controversy.” If you’d like to learn more about this, check out Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict That Changed American Christianity. An even more central player, who happened to be Bischoff’s roommate at the seminary, was Herman Otten. I grew up attending Otten’s church, located about an hour and a half from St. Louis, semi-regularly as my mother’s family were members. Otten not only pastored a congregation, he also ran a youth camp and published his own newspaper. Later in life, I learned that this man had never actually been ordained by the Missouri Synod. I couldn’t help but feel wrong, as a good Lutheran at the time, about the fact that I had received communion from him numerous times and no one had warned me he was unauthorized to give it. Here is an interesting primary-source comment about the “legacy” of Otten’s newspaper on the synod.  Anthony Kemp provides an excellent case-study of this principle via the first three generations of American colonists.
Image courtesy of Strasbourg Cathédrale.