My Journey to Catholicism: Part III
If I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim 3:15).1
After an extended hiatus, we return for the third installment! This final chapter is a reflection about the past four years of my family’s religious life. I’ll attempt not to get bogged down in theological minutiae (featured prominently in Parts I and II, and in my other Conciliar Post articles), since we also have the comments section for any desired clarifications and debates.
Last time, we talked about my exposure to the depths of the Christian intellectual heritage through a Medieval Philosophy course. The subsequent transformation of my identity was, however, not accomplished immediately. In fact, over three years passed before our family made the decision to cross the Tiber. These were years of growth, prayer, and struggle. There were many things to process, both in the realm of ideas and in the realm of practice. As a continuing student, I have enjoyed the blessing of regular exposure to seminal theological texts and their interpreters. Now that I am a father, I have begun to understand how difficult it is for most to find the time to read such texts. In daily life, Liz and I struggle to get the house cleaned up—much less to find time for serious engagement with difficult (but rewarding) books like Saint Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind Into God. My journey to Catholicism would not have occurred without university classrooms: this much is true. But infinitely more important to this journey were frequent visits to Catholic parishes. Any individual around the globe can, on any day of the week, walk into a Catholic worship service. I encourage all of you—whether you have burning questions about Catholic doctrine or not—to attend a Catholic mass.
Incidentally, the original outline for this reflection contained nothing like the preceding sentence. Recently though, the Holy Spirit brought me to the realization that any arguments or reasons I construct pale in comparison to the wonderful communication of Catholicism found in her worship services, and particularly in the liturgies celebrated during Holy Week.2 Beautiful beyond words, this week of sacraments, symbols, and Scripture does more to explain why we follow the leadership of Rome than mountains of tracts or treatises. Each Mass—and particularly that of the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday—is replete with the narratives and actions that define our faith.
In the end, to be Catholic is to encounter Christ at the table of Eucharist. Many, including myself at times, have felt that the Catholic Church puts up too many barriers when it comes to sharing this experience of encounter. After all, one must go through the extensive RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) process before being brought into communion. I have come to comprehend, however, that this slow process encourages prayerful, timely discernment. My wife and I embarked on this journey at Our Lady of Lourdes in June of 2013. We did so without knowing if we would eventually join the Catholic fold, decide to remain in the Anglican Parish we had been attending, or something else entirely.
Looking back on the stepping stones that led to our RCIA attendance, perhaps the first was reading “Faith and Reason” by Saint John Paul II. The text was required reading for a senior-year college class entitled “Faith and Reason in the Christian Tradition.” Here was a document written by a pope in which many of the assumptions I had about Catholicism were shattered. You may recall some of these assumptions from Part I: for instance, that Catholics are not very Biblical in their thinking. Saint John Paul II’s encyclical made me realize that I might have missed something along the way while hastily judging Catholicism. Imagine my shock when I found myself nodding in assent to a pope’s words over and against those of Luther! From the reformer, we had been reading excerpts from the Commentary on Galatians, where human reason is treated with suspicion. I gravitated toward the Catholic position of an essential harmony between faith and reason because of quotations like this one:
It is the one and the same God who establishes and guarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the natural order of things upon which scientists confidently depend, and who reveals himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This unity of truth, natural and revealed, is embodied in a living and personal way in Christ, as the Apostle reminds us: “Truth is in Jesus” (cf. Eph 4:21; Col 1:15-20). He is the eternal Word in whom all things were created, and he is the incarnate Word who in his entire person reveals the Father (cf. Jn 1:14, 18). What human reason seeks “without knowing it” (cf. Acts 17:23) can be found only through Christ: what is revealed in him is “the full truth” (cf. Jn 1:14-16) of everything which was created in him and through him and which therefore in him finds its fulfillment (cf. Col 1:17).3
Such texts encouraged me to dig deeper into Catholic thought; I was beginning to discover the wonderful and rich history of Christian reflection on the natural desire of humanity to see God. One of our family’s next milestones was the decision to move to Philadelphia so that I could attend Villanova University for “further digging” via a Master’s Degree in Theology. At the time, we were decidedly Lutheran. I even wrote emails to Lutheran professors asking them how they incorporated the ideas of various Church Fathers into the LCMS framework. But as Liz and I settled down in a new place, we encountered a major difficulty: there were no nearby LCMS churches. A friend at Villanova invited us to All Saints Wynnewood, a wonderful Anglican Parish within walking distance of our apartment complex. There, we sat at the feet of Father Edward Rix for over two years. Sunday mornings were a joyous time of fellowship, learning, and growth. During this period, we were encouraged by regular reception of the Eucharist,4 by beautiful liturgies, by wide-ranging Bible classes and evening lectures, and by sermons steeped in Scripture and Tradition. To this day, Fr. Eddie is the only person I know whose homilies are just as likely to include John Donne as they are Thomas Aquinas or Dionysius the Areopagite!
In many ways, though, the writing was on the wall. When Liz and I found out we were pregnant with twins, the question of permanently joining a Church body suddenly gained new importance. Knowing that many moves were in our future, we wanted our children to be baptized and raised in a community that both taught the truth and possessed a global presence.5 With this in mind, we started attending evening mass at Our Lady of Lourdes in conjunction with Sunday services at All Saints.
More than one serious obstacle prevented us from embracing the Catholic Faith. Let’s start with Mary. Catholic devotion to Mary is so pervasive that many make the mistake of assuming we worship her. I’m not going to detail the theological reasons why this assumption is incorrect—if you want to travel that road it would be helpful to begin with the work of our own Ben Cabe, and proceed to delve into John Henry Newman, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, and others. Today, I would simply like to share my personal story about why I respect and love Mary. It began with openness to praying the rosary. The text of this prayer is lifted almost directly from Scripture, and is combined with the Lord’s Prayer, Biblical passages about the mysteries of Christ’s life, the creed, and other prayers and doxologies. After going through the rosary a few times, I noticed that my head was clearer and that the fire of love burned more brightly in my heart. Even so, I would not describe the experience as life-changing or transformative.
All that changed when I attended a Latin-speaking retreat in the summer of 2013. The week-long event, “Veterum Sapientia,” took place at a Benedictine Abbey in South Carolina. We only spoke Latin, and had the opportunity to attend mass in Latin each day. The first evening, I entered a beautiful Cathedral to the sound of water running into a large baptismal font. Kneeling down in front of a pew, half-comprehending the familiar tones of the service spoken in a foreign language, I was overwhelmed by a sense of peace. I was part of Christianity, that ancient religion which originated when the Son of God walked on earth with his apostles. Then I looked up. And she was there, holding that same Son of God in her arms. A statue of Mary graced the apex of the sanctuary, and I could feel her gaze of love and concern beaming down upon me. In that moment, it was as if she communicated to me personally. There is no other way to describe the feeling of encounter with a loving and benevolent presence. A thought popped into my head: “Mary is real, and she really intercedes to the Father for us.”
Afterwards, I returned to my dormitory and prayed. Each subsequent night, I grew closer to Mary through reciting the rosary in Latin, and sometimes in English. Then one evening, a mentor invited me to Eucharistic Adoration for the first time. Adoration is the practice where Catholics watch and pray before consecrated bread—sometimes over a period of twenty-four hours in shifts. We call it “meeting with our Lord.” Adoration is a time to reflect on Christ’s sacrifice, and Christ’s promise to always be with us. When I entered the small adoration chapel at Belmont Abbey, I realized that my sustained encounters with Mary throughout the week were preparation for experiencing Christ’s true presence in the sacred host with a sense of awe, respect, and longing. There is not much more that words can say about these twin experiences of Mary and her Son, but they rest in the core of my being, and often cause me to feel deep sorrow about the plight of our Mother in today’s polemical climate. All Mary wants is for us to treasure Christ in our hearts, just as she did.
Another concern about the Catholic Church involves the notion of Papal Infallibility. The question of whether the Pope is capable of defining doctrine is a question of the Church’s teaching authority or “Magisterium.” Papal Infallibility grants popes the possibility of having the final say on matters of faith or morals. In this capacity, it has only been used twice: to define the dogmas of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption6. Papal Infallibility is also a safeguard that allows one leader to take the helm in times of internal crisis. But this sort of safeguard has never been deployed, and should never be necessary. The dogmas of Immaculate Conception and Assumption were not imposed on the Church by popes; rather, they were defined through a process of discernment that involved laypeople, priests, bishops, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
One thing to keep in mind about Papal Infallibility is that it was defined relatively recently (1870), during a period of crisis when the Church reacted against various changes brought about by modernity. Regrettably, Papal Infallibility has often been more divisive than unifying. Hence, the best way to grasp the role of the pope is to think of him as the Bishop of Rome. In the Early Church, the Bishop of Rome played a mediating role among Christians. While Rome was the world’s leading city, it was natural that its bishop would exercise the role of arbiter in cases of conflicts, and provider in cases of need. For example, during the Donatist controversy of the early fifth century, Pope Zosimus was appealed to by both sides. The decision to censure Donatus was authoritative, and necessary to maintain unity. Of course, there are numerous examples of the four other patriarchates making same types of decisions, often in harmony with Rome. The upshot of these historical comments is that the pope is necessary as“first among equals” and as “servant of the servants of God.”8 If you remain skeptical, I encourage you to examine the history of the Church’s leadership in Rome.9
But let’s take a step back to talk about Church leadership more generally. In the Catholic Church, we acknowledge three sources of Truth: Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium. Like three legs of single stool, each is necessary for the whole to stand stably. For example, the Pope cannot set forth teaching that runs against Tradition or Scripture. Likewise, Tradition is unintelligible without reference and deference to the Word of God and its expression in the daily life of the Church. This Word of God, too, does not exist in a vacuum. The Church sanctioned Scripture’s compilation and continues to pass down the truth of Scripture through its living Tradition. For more on these assertions, see Congar’s The Meaning of Tradition, which was discussed at length in Part I. In addition, this helpful image shows how magisterium functions practically in the Catholic Church today.
Imagining the Church as a living body goes a long way toward understanding Catholicism. We believe that the Body of Christ has always been led by bishops who commune together, and who derive their authority from Christ’s gift to the Apostles. This gift was given to Peter preeminently: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it’” (Matt 16:18). Here Our Lord shows that His Body the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, is a solid rock of unity. As Saint Cyprian articulated in the third century:
“The episcopate is one, an individual share in which individual bishops hold as owners of a common property. The Church is a unity, which extends into a plurality by the widespread increase of her fruitfulness. The rays of the sun are many but its light one, and the boughs of a tree many but its trunk one, established in a root that holds it firm … snap a bough from a tree, what is snapped off will not be able to produce buds.”10
Although the Church has developed over time, the initial deposit of faith—nothing other than the life of Christ handed down to his disciples—is her constant source of vitality. There is no better way to experience this unity of life than by being transformed and renewed through reception of Christ’s Body and Blood. As Tim LeCroy, Presbyterian minister and fellow Bonaventure scholar, recently put it: “Jesus gave us a clear command to be one, and that unity is expressed most fully in the unity of the Lord’s Table. Eucharistic unity must be the foundational basis for any ecumenical program or effort.” Let us continue to pray for an end to divisions among the followers of Christ, so that we may better reflect the light of salvation to all people.
Throughout the past four years, Liz and I have engaged in regular discussions about these and other tough issues. Theological education provided the material for many of our exchanges.11 But the work of theology is meaningless outside the bounds of faith communities that are committed to serving others through mutual dialog and self-giving. Formerly, I was convinced that any person could pick up Plato or Augustine, Aquinas or Von Balthasar, and simply be edified by the exposure alone. If I recommend a text these days, it is more commonly a work of historical theology.12 History provides a common reference point for a shared discussion of events and their significance. Although it is impossible to write a flawless book on the past (we all approach history through the limited standpoint of the present), awareness of history is essential for understanding our shared Christian faith. We must all construct historical narratives in order to explain how we ended up a Christian of x denomination or creed.13
In the end, however, there is no substitute for person-to-person conversation. One of the first things I tell people who ask about our journey is that the Catholic Church is an extremely diverse group of believers. Without mutual goodwill, which the Apostle Paul calls charity, conversations among even ourselves would be impossible. Apologetic websites like Catholic Answers, books like Scott Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home or Peter Kreeft’s Catholic Christianity, and videos such as those of Fr. Barron can all be helpful. Like this piece, they are authored by fallible human beings and will be more applicable to some as opposed to others. Ultimately, Catholicism must be understood on its own terms, that is, in the light of Sacred Scripture. The teaching documents of the Catholic Church—such as Conciliar Proclamations and Papal Encyclicals—are essential guides for navigating the mystery of the Trinity’s interaction with our world. Lumen Gentium is probably the most important text to read for understanding the Catholic Church today. Dei Verbum is of the same importance, with specific reference to the meaning and interpretation of Scripture.
Peace be with you all, and thank you for your patience in listening to my story.
1) 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.
2) Chris Smith has written an article with similar thoughts regarding the Orthodox Holy Week. As my editor Jeff Reid commented, “If your words are all that sets apart as a Christian, you’ve missed what the Christian life is.”
3) Catholic Church, Fides et Ratio, 34.
4) But only after much thought and discernment, given that we initially remained in the LCMS faith, which practices closed communion. Towards the end of our time at All Saints, we fasted from Eucharistic reception until we finalized our union with the Catholic Church through the sacrament of Confirmation.
5) The Anglican Church we attended was part of a small group of “continuing churches” whose ministers trace their authority to bishops in churches of the global south, rather than bishops in England itself. This practice has been deemed necessary by the continuing churches due to rapid changes in the Church of England, many of which you have probably heard about in the news.
6) Both of these dogmas were also approved of and impacted by entities other than the Pope himself, such as councils of bishops and the sensus fidei of the laypeople.
7) A title Pope Francis himself has emphasized.
8) In the words of John Henry Newman, “If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must humanly speaking have an infallible expounder. Else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties … the doctrine of infallibility is a less violent hypothesis than [the] sacrifice either of faith or of charity.” See An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, sixth edition (Notre Dame, 1989), 90-91.
9) This text has a great deal of information about the history and development of the position, with the advantage of being written from an ecumenical standpoint.
10) See “The Unity of the Catholic Church” in “On the Church: Select Treatises by St. Cyprian of Carthage, trans. Allen Brent (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006), 154-55. Also available in an older translation here.
11) Far from indoctrinating me into Catholicism, my time at Villanova and now SLU has been spent learning from and with Christians of many creeds.
13) This series of three articles is a small attempt to write just such a historical narrative! 🙂