Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Why I Became a Roman Catholic Part VI (Or How Coming Home Was Only One Step Along a Continuing Journey)

The final leg of our journey couldn't have happened without the ministry of the Holy Spirit through a priest named Father Pat Sullivan. Father Pat was a godsend to my family. As pastor of two Catholic parishes (St. Elizabeth in Dilworth, MN, and St. Andrews in Hawley, MN) this wonderful servant of God has to keep track of a lot of sheep. And the Hershberger sheep wandered into the St. Andrew's pasture, quite by accident (though not without the providential guidance of the Spirit). As Cindy and I continued to explore Catholic faith by attending Mass at various parishes, we wondered if it would be more authentically "Catholic" to actually attend the parish closest to our home. That would be St. Andrews in Hawley. And so, armed with my iPhone Daily Mass locater, I discovered that St. Andrew's held weekday masses on Tuesday and Thursday. I showed up. I was immediately embraced by those who worshipped there and Father Pat began to minister to me in a very helpful way. We had good conversations. His manner of answering questions was winsome and affable. He clearly accepted me as a brother in Christ, even though I was not yet in full communion. As the weeks over the summer progressed, I grew to love attending Mass at St. Andrews and there were very few times that I was not in tears at some point during the worship. Cindy and I decided together that I should resign from my position as organist-choirmaster at the Episcopal cathedral in order for us to begin worshipping together at Mass on Sundays. My friends at the cathedral were very understanding and encouraging. They all wished me well and asked me to stay in touch. I don't think any of them were surprised by my decision to explore Catholicism. We began attending Sunday Mass at St. Andrews and I still attended weekday masses when I could. It was great to worship together! And still, tears usually flowed for me at different points in the Mass, on different occasions.

The next step for the Hershbergers was to begin the RCIA program. The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults is the Catholic Church's way of preparing non-Catholics for reception into the Church. For those who are not Christians, it is an extensive and intense means of instructing them in the basics of the Christian faith as well as the practices and teachings of the Church. Those desiring to become Christians and Catholics are referred to as catechumens. Their journey culminates in baptism, reception, confirmation, and first communion, which usually occurs at the Great Easter Vigil, which is the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday (a practice that goes back to the earliest centuries of Christian history). Those Christians who desire to come into full communion with the Church are referred to as candidates for reception. Baptism is not necessary for them, as the Church recognizes all water baptisms in the name of the Triune God, regardless of denomination. The RCIA program is used to make certain there are no holes in a Christian's understanding of the basics of the Christian faith and then to instruct them in Catholic faith and practice. They are also usually received, confirmed, and given first communion at the Great Easter Vigil. So, the Hershbergers began the RCIA program at St. Andrews in September, fully expecting to be received into the Church at the end of Holy Week before Easter Sunday at the Vigil. The classes were taught by Father Pat and/or Deacon Tom, the permanent Deacon at St. Andrews. We covered the topics that most Protestants coming into the Church would need to cover: the Sacraments (seven of them), Mary and the Saints, Purgatory, as well as the traditions of prayer, charity, and what the Christian life looks like for Catholics. I was already primed for these issues, and had been reading, studying, and praying about such things for some time. Cindy was, of course, much more cautious and needed plenty of time to think through such drastic changes in the practice of her faith. But she never wavered from the conviction that God was moving the family in this direction. Father Pat was particularly helpful to her in all of this, encouraging her to remain open to the moving of the Holy Spirit. As he once said to her, "None of us can ever fully understand all the depths and richness of the faith, God is only calling us to remain open to the leading of His Spirit to enter more fully in as we grow in the Lord." As the classes continued, I became more and more excited at the prospect of us entering into the Church. Cindy continued to quietly believe that God was calling us to become Catholic. Our children were openly willing to move forward as well.

I will never forget that night in November, shortly before Thanksgiving, when Father Pat called. He wanted to talk to both Cindy and me about something important. Cindy got on the other phone line and Father Pat told us that, in talking to Bishop Hoeppner, it was clear to him that the Hershbergers did not need to wait until Easter to be received, confirmed, and given first communion by the Catholic Church. Normally, catechumens and candidates are confirmed by the Bishop of the Diocese. Under special circumstances, the Bishop can grant a priest permission to receive and confirm. Such would be the case with us! Father Pat thought that the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 21st 2014, would be the perfect time for us to be brought into the Church. We were surprised and overjoyed at this news. Since our children were all ready and willing to join us in this, we all set to work making preparations.

Now, coming into the Catholic Church isn't just a simple transfer of membership, or the changing of churches. It is truly a conversion in many, many ways. We all chose patron saint names with which to be confirmed. I just couldn't decide between St. Francis of Assisi and St. Michael the Archangel. Father Pat assured me I could be named both. Cindy chose St. Margaret of Scotland. Valerie chose St. Winifred. Brett chose St. George, a nod in the direction of our Anglican background. Jillian chose St. Martha, and Julie chose St. Cecilia. We also had to choose sponsors. Brett and I chose my brother-in-law Doug, Cindy chose her close friend Michelle. Valerie and Jillian chose Cindy's sister Sarah, and Julie choose her cousin Emily. They would all stand with us and lay hands on us during our reception and confirmation. Most important, during the week prior to our reception and communion, all of us would make our first confession. Having already experienced "auricular" confession with several Episcopal and Anglican priests, I was not daunted by this at all, in fact, I was chomping at the bit. Cindy was understandably nervous. Father Pat was God's servant for her in her first confession, and she discovered the wisdom and counsel that arises out of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. After her time, I walked in to the confessional, and sat down opposite Father Pat and said, "Father, I hope you brought a snickers bar, because we're going to be here for a while!" He chuckled and said, "Jay, there is nothing you can tell me that I haven't heard before countless times!" I shared my life story, my struggle with sin, my failures to live as God wanted me to live, and my need for help. Father Pat was patient, a keen observer of the underlying needs I had, and a wise counselor with specific ways to help me live as God would have me live. When he pronounced absolution, I wept openly. He gave me a wonderful hug and we both walked out of the confessional. I embraced Cindy and continued to weep. We then visited with Father Pat for a time, and I felt as if chains, shrouds, and weights had all been lifted off of me. St. James' admonition to "confess your sins one to another" suddenly came alive for me in a whole new way.

And so, on December 21st, 2014, the Hershbergers swam the Tiber River. The water was warm, inviting, and cleansing. From that time forth we were known as

Jay Alan Francis Michael Hershberger
Cynthia Ann Margaret Hershberger
Valerie Ann Winifred Hershberger
Brett Daniel George Hershberger
Jillian Marie Martha Hershberger
Julie Anna Cecilia Hershberger

And here is a picture of the whole clan that day, including our sponsors, Father Pat (upper left) and Deacon Tom (upper right).

And so now you know our story. It is only one step along a continuing journey, however. The Christian life is a journey of faith, not a one-time event. Jesus is the object and heaven is the goal. The path is difficult, rocky, sometimes obscured, and sometimes God only allows one to see ahead by one or two steps. But Jesus provides the means of God's grace, the strength to make the journey, the light to light the path, and the nourishment to continue on. Such love, mercy, and peace. God picks us up when we fall and says, "now begin again and keep going." We are helped and cheered on by a tremendous cloud of witnesses in the arena of heaven. Only by God's grace and will of love towards us can we ever truly stay on that pathway to Himself.

Oh, Joyful Light, of the Holy Glory of the Father Immortal.
Heavenly, Holy, Blessed, Jesus Christ,
since we have come, to the setting of the sun,
and have seen the evening light,
we praise God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
It is proper for you to be praised at all times by fitting melody.
Oh, Son of God, Giver of Life,
wherefore the world glorifies You.
--Melkite Catholic Church setting of the Phos hilaron

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Why I Became a Roman Catholic, Part V (or Why My Wife is the Bravest Person I Know)

How in the world was I going to tell my wife that I would like for us to consider becoming Roman Catholic? That was uppermost in my mind as I returned from that fateful trip to Washington DC in June of 2014. She had always been much more Protestant than I, having been raised in a very small fundamentalist denomination that looked with suspicion on all denominations, especially the Catholic Church. She had come to a lot of the same conclusions as I in our faith journey together, though usually with a lot more turmoil and struggle than me. But this? Becoming Roman Catholic? I feared that this would be a bridge too far, even for her. I decided to keep this to myself. I asked God to show me the right way to approach her, and I told Him I would not do this without her, so that if we were going to do it at all, she would want to do it as well. For the next three weeks I read everything I could get my hands on. I read Tad Szulc' biography of John Paul II, a volume I had picked up several years ago at the Archive used bookstore in Pasadena, CA. I began reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church (still working on that one), which I found in a thrift store. I checked out of the college library Patrick Madrid's Surprised by Truth and Mark Shea's By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition. I also brought home from the Episcopal Cathedral a copy of Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking, a powerful testimony about this brave nun's ministry to death-row inmates. Of course, there was Chesterton's Orthodoxy which is a rollicking swashbuckler and full of insight. I prayed, I read, but said nothing to my wife. I spoke daily with my brother-in-law. I met my sister-in-law for lunch and we talked about how to approach Cindy. I also spoke two or three times a week with my Italian concert pianist friend Tom about my desire to become a Catholic. The encouragement I received from them all was reassuring and motivating. But I had no clue as to how Cindy would respond. And still, I said nothing to her.

Then it happened. And she was the one who initiated it! We were sitting at the table one evening talking about the current state of cultural decay in modern society, and as usual, I was bloviating about solutions to the world's problems. Cindy is a patient listener, and is sure to be a saint for that alone! All of a sudden, she looked at me and said, "Jay, are you thinking about becoming a Roman Catholic?" My mouth opened, then closed, then opened again, but I was so unsure of what to say, that I could only stammer out the words, "I am thinking about it, but I wouldn't ever do such a thing without you." Her response stunned me. "Okay, I would be willing to check it out. I need to think about it for a couple of weeks, though." Simple. Direct. To the point. I was so in shock I did not know quite what to say. All I could think to ask was, "How did you know?" "Jay, I am not stupid or blind. I've noticed that you have been reading a lot of Catholic material lately, and so knew that this was probably in the wind." Again, I was stunned. All I could think was that I am married to an amazing woman, whose inner spirit and beauty is just as deep and wonderful as she is beautiful to behold.

That next week, I had to stay in town while I taught at a summer music camp at the college. My wife wanted to read something about the Catholic faith, but she isn't one for the dry and dusty details of doctrine or dogma. Her faith is encouraged by stories of Christians whose lives inspire and motivate. She picked up Sister Prejean's book Dead Man Walking. She also began talking to her sister, finding out that we had been talking as well, which she teased me about. When I came home from music camp, she was ready to talk. She enjoyed the book by Prejean, but of course, was mystified by Catholic devotion to Mary, praying the Rosary, seeking the intercession of the saints, and all of those things that Protestants tend to focus on when thinking about how different Catholicism is in practice. Despite that, she indicated that she was willing to try it out, not promising anything, but added that I would need to be patient with her, for she could probably get there at some point. Unlike me, with my Hofferian true believer temperament, she is far more prudent and cautious, and has to think through it all before she embraces change. Patience is not my strong suit, but in this case, I assured her I would be as patient as an oak tree. We would do this together, or not at all.

We decided that the best way to check out the Catholic faith was to experience it directly. Because my Sunday mornings were still occupied as organist-choirmaster at the Episcopal Cathedral, we started to attend Saturday Mass at various Catholic churches in the area. Much of Catholic worship is familiar to Anglicans and Lutherans, for the basic structure of worship is the same, rooted in a common heritage of practice. There were some wording differences in the Creed and some congregational responses that took some getting used to. Of course, the few Marian references seem strange, even exotic and mysterious, but made sense in the overall shape of the liturgy. I was a nervous wreck, going to observe our first Mass together. I wondered if she would respond afterwards with something like "I don't think I can do this." We went to the Cathedral of St. Mary in downtown Fargo, where my brother-in-law and his family attend. That seemed a logical place to start. After Mass, we walked down the street to a local pizzeria and visited about it all. I was prepared for her to be unhappy. To my pleasant surprise, she enjoyed it. She said she felt that she had been to church, and although there were things she didn't understand, she thought that we needed to keep doing this. The biggest blessing was that we were finally worshipping together as a family. And the tradition of after Mass-pizza was a bonus. She also told me that she had begun talking to a friend of hers, the mother of the young man that dated our teenaged daughter, whose family was Catholic. Cindy had grown very close to this woman, and part of her attraction to their friendship was that her friend's faith seemed so real, quiet, and yet genuine. If this was what being Catholic was, she could well contemplate such a possibility. As well, Cindy had always stated that she loved Pope Francis, and even once said, "With a Pope like that, I could even consider Catholicism." She resonated with Pope Francis' love for the poor and marginalized, his practical, down-to-earth approach to faith and life, and his surprising manner of doing things that shocked and amazed the world, including some Catholics!

My wife is a brave and courageous human being. Birthing five children took a great deal of courage, and especially when one of them was stillborn, knowing ahead of time that the pain and agony of labor would produce only death and grief. Over the years, putting up with my career and over-the-top extroverted personality took a lot of courage and patience. Even more, to contemplate a fundamental change in religious faith and practice for her required courage of spirit. My wife has it all, and my respect and admiration for her grows and grows as we journey together in life. Her act of courage on this particular journey would be perhaps the biggest one of all. You see, when someone grows up in a fundamentalist tradition, there's a little micro-chip recorder implanted in the brain that sends out a signal instructing the believer not to think about anything that might challenge the tenets of their faith. And it sends out electrical shocks when the believer starts asking questions about Catholicism. Am I being facetious? Perhaps, though just a little.

An even bigger surprise was in store for us when our adult children decided to take this journey with us. Our oldest daughter, a single mom with two wonderful daughters, and our son, a manager of a local shoe store, learned of our decision to check it out and decided to join us. Moreover, when we sat down with our two younger daughters and informed them of our intention to pursue the Catholic faith, the older of the two said, "I am so glad to hear you say this because I was going to talk to you about whether or not I could become a Catholic." I couldn't have asked for a more beautiful miracle from God than this. So...the Hershbergers began this adventure towards home in the summer of 2014. And a great tale hangs thereto...

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Why I Became a Roman Catholic, Part IV (Or How JRR Tolkien, My Seminary Professor, and an Italian Concert Pianist Broke My Resolve)

[√Čomer]: "...The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?"

"As he ever has judged," said Aragorn. "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house."
---JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, p. 348.

My life-long fascination with the works of JRR Tolkien continues unabated. It is a sickness. An obsession. I even teach an introduction to the liberal arts course that uses The Lord of the Rings as the primary text. Ever since I can remember first reading Tolkien, I have had an inner sensation that I am reading something that captures the transcendent first things of life in a literary and poetic way. Perhaps that is why I have returned to it again and again. There is something wholesome and even cleansing about this fascinating work of fantasy. Something that washes away the grime of so much modern entertainment. Even during my fundamentalist period, and despite the frequent bromides against Tolkien and CS Lewis for their dabbling in "magic!" I have held Tolkien's writing in high regard. When I read Joseph Pearce's biography of Tolkien--Tolkien: Man and Myth--I first made the connection between The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's Catholic faith and devotion. Since this occurred during that period of time when several of us from St. John's Episcopal Church were reading and studying the ancient Christian traditions, I was primed for such an interpretation. The novel suddenly opened up in a deeper way. When read in conjunction with his detailed and fascinating collection of letters, which provided a wealth of running commentary on his own work as it related to his life as an Oxford don and Catholic Christian, I was hooked. For me, Tolkien had become the 20th century's author of the century. The seedlings dropped into the soil of my mind, heart, and will certainly played a role in my eventual embrace of Mother Church built upon the Jesus the cornerstone and the foundation of St. Peter and the apostles. Imagine that. An entire secondary world, with its own cosmology, mythological traditions, races, languages (some of which can be learned and spoken), complex plot, and layered characters, all from the mind of a rather shy and crusty old Oxford literary don. And that becomes a doorway into a deeper love for God, His Son, His Church, and a love for the grace by which one can live in friendship with God. The seedbed was planted and waiting germination, flowering, all looking towards a fruitful harvest.

If The Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest works of literature to come out of the 20th century, can it compare with the best selling "book" of all time: The Bible? Ever grateful for the love of the Scriptures formed in me during my time among my fundamentalist sisters and brothers, I have always regarded the Scriptures as the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and used by God to reveal the Incarnate Son, Jesus. This was brought home to me in a palpable way when I began my seminary studies at Nashotah House. I was not expecting what the House had in mind for me in their New Testament survey course. The professor was both a godly and first-rate Roman Catholic theologian and biblical scholar. His classroom teaching was as detailed and critical as his devout spirituality and charity was clear and real. He asked great questions, introduced me to the best of the tools for New Testament study and criticism, and used Raymond E. Brown's monumental introduction to the New Testament. His respect and reverence for the Scriptures was clear in all that he did in class. I found myself simply overwhelmed by this humble, yet prodigious individual. It left a lasting impression upon me. If this is an example of Roman Catholic scholarship at the seminary level, and he was willing to share that scholarship with Nashotah House, a non-Catholic seminary, then this man must be an extraordinary Christian. Even after the seminary term finished, I stayed in touch with him via phone and by email. He was helpful in many different ways, and his genuine concern for me as a human being was moving and compelling. I don't think I could have asked for a better biblical mentor. A lot of my former fundamentalist objections to the Catholic faith were beginning to shrivel and fall like leaves on an autumn tree. God bless this man for his ministry to me!

As much as both Tolkien and my seminary professor paved the way for me to finally give up my resistance to the Roman Catholic faith, it was my dear friend and professional colleague Tom, an Italian concert pianist and professor of piano at Catholic University of America. He finally managed to shake me loose from my stubborn pride. Tom and I had known each other since 1995 when I first met him at a music festival in upper-state New York. Tom was a fabulous concert pianist and an artist/teacher of high level undergraduate and graduate piano students, many of whom were prize winners. We usually attended the same music festival each year and shared hotel rooms to reduce our travel expenses. Tom was a devout practicing Catholic Christian, whose life just emanated Jesus in all that he said and did, not by preaching nor brow-beating, but by a quiet and pious life of prayer, service, and intellectual rigor. We stayed up night after night discussing theology, philosophy, history, politics, family, friends, struggles, triumphs, dreams, and our journey of faith. In many ways, he was a sort of father confessor for me, and I always relished our conversations together. He became one of my closest professional and personal friends. On many occasions at the yearly festival, I would attend Catholic Mass with him, and always felt moved by the liturgical worship. He used to say to me, "Jay, you're already a better Catholic than many life-long Catholics I have known." And I wasn't even a Catholic! My resolve was fast disappearing.

In June of 2014 the final straw went into place like this: during the last time Tom and I were together before his death, I stayed at his home with he and his delightful wife Mary Ann. I had the privilege of attending several daily Masses with Tom at a Catholic Church in Silver Spring, MD. The Priest was a wonderful servant, and I enjoyed his homilies and his manner of saying the Mass. Tom and I spent lots of time talking about faith, music, pianists, piano teaching and performing, and all the other things we shared in common. Since my flight home wasn't until the evening, I got on the Metro from Silver Spring and headed to Union Station in DC to meet a friend for lunch. After he went back to work I had several hours before I needed to be back in Silver Spring. I could have stayed at the Mall, but something inside told me to take the Metro to Catholic Univ. and visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Basilica is an imposing structure, Romanesque in its interior architecture, and glorious inside. I walked into the nave and sat down. I was simply overwhelmed by the beauty, mystery, and transcendent sense of the sacred. I got up and wandered down into the bookstore. It was there that I made the fatal mistake: I bought a copy of GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, went back up in the nave, sat down and began to read. Reading Chesterton in a glorious Catholic Cathedral is hazardous to Protestant sensibilities. What little I held onto melted away. My resistance broke. I texted my brother-in-law (remember him? My royal pain in the neck? See part III). It went something like this:

Me: You'll never guess where I am?
Him: Where?
Me: I am sitting in the nave of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in DC.
Him: That is just awesome!
Me: Are you jealous?
Him: Is the Pope Catholic?
Me: Well, speaking of which, I could get into this Catholic thing...

My cellphone rang almost immediately.

Him: So...what did you mean by that?!?
Me: Mean by what?
Him: That you could get into this Catholic thing?
Me: Well...I'm beginning to see your perspective.
Him: Praise the Lord and Hallelujah!
Me: Now, don't do a victory dance just yet. I have no idea how my wife will react to this. I won't do this without her.
Him: No problem. We've been praying for her too. This is all in God's hands.
Me: It is indeed...

And so...I walked out of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC an aspiring Roman Catholic. I flew back to Fargo-Moorhead wondering just how my wife would react and respond to all of this. I could not do this without her...

Monday, October 19, 2015

Why I Became a Roman Catholic Part III (Or How My Brother-in-Law was a Royal Pain in the Neck)

You can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family. Remember the other family I kept referring to in parts I and II of my conversion story? One of the adult children? Well...back then he was my friend. Then he became my brother-in-law. At the time, I thought it was pretty cool. My friend married my wife's sister. We all spent lots of time together. It was a rather wonderful period of time. We transitioned together from the Episcopal Church to the traditional Anglican mission. Then they started having kids. LOTS of kids. I kept accusing them of being closet Catholics. They kept muttering things about letting God plan your family. His brother and father would chime in on how important it was for Christians to reclaim society by raising lots of faithful Christians. I'd already done my part with 4. Well...actually 5, though one was now unseen and beyond the veil with Jesus. But, hey. We were all happy Anglicans. Like any mission endeavor however, when the newness and novelty of a small parish wears off, the hard business of really living and building becomes difficult and even frustrating. My brother and sister-in-law were frustrated too. And, after a certain time, he decided that they just couldn't do it any longer, and so he consigned himself, his wife, and their little growing family, to the outer darkness of Christian exile. They wandered from church to church, burned out and in need of healing. How my wife and I wagged our heads at their decision. We tolerated their non-conformity as best we could. We soldiered on at the mission. Despite our pastor's valiant and best efforts, the mission began to unravel. But we would stay on to the bitter end.

Meanwhile, my brother-in-law's family went through quite a disruptive and traumatic experience. Our beloved mission deacon, the patriarch of this wonderful family, died suddenly one day. It was the end of an era, and a huge hole was left in our little group. How we missed his wonderful Gospel readings on Sunday and his children's sermons for the little ones running around. Things were never quite the same. The older brother and sister in the family had already moved to the Phoenix area. The widowed matriarch soon joined them. And then they had the unrepentant nerve to all become Roman Catholics. What bad form. I exhorted my brother-in-law to keep to the Anglican side of the divide. He assured me this was so. His older brother was not so sure. "It has already been determined that you will swim the Tiber. It's only a matter of time." For a Roman Catholic, the older brother still sounded like a good Calvinist. My brother-in-law insisted that he would die a good Anglican. Strange, since he refused to attend the only real Anglican church in town. Of course, I reminded him of this often. But it was all for naught. you could see it coming like a looming thunderhead. My brother-in-law and his family Poped. They swam the Tiber. They became bloody papists. Mariolators. They embraced the Romish Whore of Babylon. Depressing...

And then in rapid succession, the mission shrank even more, and finally became unsustainable, and closed. But I was a good Anglican, and since the Episcopal Church was the only game left in town for me, I stayed with the Episcopal Church, while my wife, who had no desire to return to it, went to a small rural Lutheran Church near our home. It wasn't that we disagreed on much about our faith, but the circumstances dictated our compromise, and we were content to worship in different churches. It seemed reasonable at the time, but it was a bad idea that I knew, deep in my heart, wouldn't last.

Meanwhile, my brother-in-law was now a brand new Roman Catholic. You know converts. They are zealous, enthusiastic, and every aspect of their new-found faith is like a bright shiny object. And boy are there a lot of bright shiny objects in the Catholic Church! And the conversations at family gatherings? I had to steel myself before getting together with him. Oh, he tried to restrain himself as best he could, but there were times when he just couldn't resist. "Never say never, Jay." "The Roman hound of heaven is just bidding his time with you." "I'm enlisting the saints in prayer for your conversion." The odd thing was, our theological perspectives weren't really that far apart: Gospel, sacraments, liturgy, the communion of saints, priests, bishops, psalms, social ethics, etc. It just kind of galled me that he jumped ship, and I was determined to prove him wrong by remaining on the Anglican side of the divide. Oh, I had all sorts of justifications about it all. Being salt and light in a church that needed me. I could fend off the temptation to assimilate. I "knew who I was." Such arrogance and presumption on my part. Sometimes self-deception is...well...deceptive...

And yet, I couldn't argue with the evidence before my eyes regarding my brother-in-law, my sister-in-law, and their little family. My wife and I watched them slowly begin to change. There was a transformation in their lives that was plainly the work of the Holy Spirit of God. Our admiration and respect increased little by little, as we witnessed this transformation. Their actions began to radiate love, compassion, mercy, patience, understanding, and real grace. There was an aroma of empathy and sympathy that permeated their words and actions. I began to envy them. Their shoulders were down and relaxed. There was real joy in their home. That joy seemed missing from my life. In the words of the diner patron in that famous scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally: "I'll have what they're having..." Still, I was resolved to never give my brother-in-law the satisfaction. How pride goeth before the fall of such misplaced resolve...

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Why I Became a Roman Catholic, Part II (Or Why I am Thankful for My Anglican Background)

There is much about the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition of faith and practice that I love, admire, and appreciate. Like both the fundamentalist and Reformed communities before, I am grateful for my time in the Episcopal Church (1993-99 and 2011-2014) and the Reformed Episcopal Church (1999-2013). I continue to enjoy friendship with a number of Episcopalian/Anglican Christians (both clergy and laity) that I have gotten to know over the years. God taught me a lot during that period. I learned to love and appreciate the rhythm of the Church Liturgical Year (Advent has always been my favorite season), the weekly Eucharist, the Anglican choral tradition of sacred music, the pervasive Scriptural vitality of the Book of Common Prayer, the integration of body and soul in the practice of worship, the deep regard for the continuity of the faith in the Church's historical theology, and the wisdom of the historic episcopate rooted in apostolic succession. I could go on. In many ways, the Episcopal/Anglican tradition of faith laid a lot of the groundwork necessary for me to consider seriously the claims of the Roman Catholic faith. So there is a soft spot in my heart for my sisters and brothers from that tradition.

And yet, there were growing concerns in my heart about some aspects of the modern Episcopal Church that began to overshadow the satisfaction I had found there. Like many of the mainline Protestant denominations in the US, the Episcopal Church seemed poised to redefine some of the long-standing tenets of the Christian faith. Being rather orthodox and traditional on such matters, my wife and I both watched with increasing anxiety as the various General Conventions began to question and even reconsider ancient and long-settled creedal and ethical aspects of the faith. Fortunately, we attended church in a diocese that was fairly orthodox, with an orthodox bishop and many priests, and so we felt safer and somewhat removed and isolated from the stormy center of those various controversies. By that time, I had left my position at the Cathedral and we were attending the small Episcopal Church that our Reformed friends attended. They also shared our growing concerns. We were fortunate to have a priest who, like the Dean of the Cathedral and the Diocesan Bishop, was orthodox and believed and preached the Gospel.

During that period, several of us from the two families read extensively from the early Church Fathers and explored the ancient faith of the Eastern Orthodox tradition as well as understanding more about the Roman Catholic tradition. Almost every Wednesday evening after Evensong at St. John's, we would head to a local pub for some "theology on tap." Of course our admiration for medieval monks and their innovative brews increased! Although none of us were ready to seriously consider either communion, these studies helped us develop a healthy respect for the richness and depth of the theological, pastoral, and liturgical perspectives found in those ancient traditions. On reflection, I am certain that a number of seeds were sown by our readings and discussions that germinated later on in our faith journeys.

Meanwhile, the storm clouds on the horizon of the national church loomed much larger and closer for both families and a few others at St. John's. We began exploring whether a smaller, more orthodox Anglican jurisdiction might be willing to help us start a traditional mission parish in the Fargo-Moorhead area. God seemed to smile on our inquiries and soon we began meeting as a nascent congregation of the Reformed Episcopal Church. During those years, we were shepherded by two capable clergy, the first, an intelligent and affable young man at the beginning of his pastoral ministry, and then by a seasoned bishop, who was re-entering ministry after a major stroke, from which he miraculously had recovered. His pastoral experience was extraordinary and very helpful to my family on many occasions. He also became a good friend. We also had the privilege of having the husband and father of the other family ordained a deacon, and he was also able to provide warm pastoral counsel. And boy, could he read the Gospel each Sunday! As well, I was privileged to become active at the Diocesan and even national level as a musician and got to know the other Bishops of the Church as well as priests, deacons, and lay people who attended the meetings. I made several friends during this period who I still remain in contact with, and count them dear to my heart. At it's zenith, the little mission congregation boasted 40 regular members, half of which were under the age of 18! We all settled into a satisfying rhythm of church life.

As with all of our former church homes, I am very thankful for the Reformed Episcopal Church. I learned to take the "Church" very seriously as the mystical body of Christ on earth. I learned to respect and honor the bishops, priests, and deacons who stood in direct line with the apostles through the laying on of hands (both our diocesan bishop and local pastor/bishop could trace their episcopal lineage all the way back to St. John the Apostle). I grew in my faith and delved deeply into the study of the Anglican tradition. I even became a postulant for the diaconate in the REC and began attending Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary in Wisconsin in preparation for eventual ordination. God had different plans, however. Our small mission parish was simply unsustainable as various members decided to explore different church homes, and we could no longer afford the expenses of rent and clergy salary. After 13 years, and with real heartache, our mission closed its doors. Now what do we do?

I cannot leave this part of the story without a nod in the direction of the wonderful professors and students at Nashotah House Seminary. It was truly a blessing to become a "son of the House," and although I am no longer in diaconal formation or in school there, I treasure my time at the House and am thankful for the spiritual formation I received there. Perhaps one of two remaining orthodox seminaries in the Episcopal Church, Nashotah House has managed to weather the storms of controversy in the national church and continues to form priests in the the Anglo-catholic tradition of Anglicanism, and its constituents go beyond the Episcopal Church herself and provides clergy training for several traditional Anglican jurisdictions. The daily rhythm of Eucharist, Morning and Evening Prayer, immersion in prayerful study of the faith, a fully-orbed sacramental view of life, the Benedictine spirit of common meals in the refectory, and on-campus living was so contagious and inspiring that I longed to go back and ached when I had to leave. I count my time there to be fruitful on so many levels, and I am grateful to my professors and their fellow colleagues, as well as the seminarians I got to know. The Anglo-Catholic tradition of worship, sacrament, theology, and pastoral care furthered my curiosity about Catholic belief and practice, and I think perhaps my time there opened the door for the formation of a Catholic Christian in me, though I wouldn't have believed it at the time.

Two years before the Anglican mission closed, the organist-choirmaster position at the Episcopal Cathedral in Fargo suddenly came open. Since our mission parish met in the afternoons, my Sunday mornings were free to step in and help my old parish out. Many of my friends were still there, and the choir felt much the same. The Dean of the Cathedral was also the Bishop of the local Episcopal Diocese. He is an orthodox clergyman and an evangelical catholic in his ministry. I felt as much at home as I could (even though the troubles of the national church were much more palpable than in the 1990s). After the mission closed, and with no where else to turn, Cindy and I decided that I would remain at the Cathedral as organist-choirmaster, and she and our younger daughters would attend a local rural ELCA Lutheran parish near our home 45 minutes east of Fargo-Moorhead. I continued my studies at Nashotah House. It seemed like a workable compromise...

Monday, October 12, 2015

Why I Became a Roman Catholic, Part I

By now, most of my friends far and wide all know that 10 months ago, my family and I were received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The vast majority of face-to-face friends have been supportive and respectful, as have most of my acquaintances through social media. No doubt, some have wondered and puzzled at my change of religious faith, yet their love and friendship have overridden any individual negative personal attitudes. My transition from a long journey through several Protestant traditions into the Church has been met with respect and tolerance, for which I am grateful. Even those few who have voiced their disagreement to me directly have been quite charitable. I would like to give voice to my reasons for embracing the Roman Catholic Church. I offer this, not as a polemical apologetic, but rather as a testament to the journey of faith in Christ that has shaped my life to date.

Having grown up in the liturgical tradition of the Lutheran Church, and being a classical musician, my sense of beauty and reverence in worship was formed early, and even though I left the Lutheran Church as a new college student, I do not think that this formation ever entirely left me, and on many occasions bubbled back up into my soul, even though I had exiled myself into an anti-liturgical form of Protestant Fundamentalism. I found the theological enthusiasm and sense of identity and belonging that existed in that fundamentalist community hard to resist. Moreover, I swallowed the ideology of the community hook, line and sinker. Longshoreman philosopher Erik Hoffer pegged my temperament precisely when he wrote about "the true believer." And a true believer, I was. Yet, even as I gave unreserved intellectual assent to the various strident critiques that my fundamentalist brethren offered regarding other faith communities--especially Roman Catholicism--there was always something inside me that wondered about it all. I remember being quite impressed with the newly-elected Pope John Paul II, and over that 10 year period of the 80s it was hard to square my fundamentalist theological ideology with what was clear about the actions of faith Pope John Paul II manifested in his pontificate. In short, I maintained a grudging admiration for this man, which, of course, I never voiced to my fellow Christians. Yet, no one could have convinced me back then that 25 years later, I would become a Roman Catholic Christian. It was, intellectually and practically, a non-starter.

As I look back upon that period of my life, I am thankful for that fundamentalist community. They taught me to love two important expressions of faith: a love for the Scriptures and a love for the Lord's Supper. The Scriptures had never been prominent in my life growing up, and I had never read the Bible cover to cover until then. The Lord's Supper, on the other hand, was a distinct feature of the Lutheran tradition that I loved, but the Lutherans offered the Lord's Supper only once a month. My fundamentalist faith tradition taught that the Lord's Supper was to be celebrated weekly. This weekly rhythm of Holy Communion was quite powerful, and the anti-liturgical "liturgy" of my fundamentalist church was consistent and moving. In some ways, my love for the Lutheran sacrament and my weekly experience in fundamentalist worship merged.

So much for the back story. My journey proper into the Catholic Church began in 1988. Two specific encounters laid the groundwork for the Holy Spirit to slowly nudge me in the direction of the Church. Both occurred as I was working on my doctorate in music at Arizona State University. The first involved a visit from one of my out-of-town friends from our fundamentalist church in Wichita, KS. He brought a book for me to read about a particular controversy swirling about in fundamentalism at the time. The author was a pastor with some scholarly credentials, and the book was quite in depth with lots of footnotes. It probably never occurred to my friend--an elder in the church--that footnotes for me were key to checking out the sources and arguments made. The author was constantly referencing Luther, Calvin, St. Augustine, and other stalwart figures in church history. In my faith community, church history was read with constant suspicion. As their narrative goes, the church quickly descended into paganism after the death of the apostles, recovered momentarily at the start of the Reformation (Luther was right on "justification by faith alone" but he was too "Catholic" on everything else), and church history really didn't start up again until the likes of John Nelson Darby, DL Moody, and CI Scofield came on the scene. All of which is to say that my sudden exposure to church history was an epiphany that left me both excited and confused.

The second encounter occurred shortly after. I was wandering across campus and saw a sign outside the little campus chapel that read "The Whitefield Society: Proclaiming Historic Christianity." The word historic caught my eye and I walked in. The gentleman in charge of the meeting was an affable and winsome pastor and teacher from a local independent church that taught from the perspective of the Reformed tradition, a sort of Baptistic version of Calvinism. I began to meet this gentleman for coffee. Our conversations turned to church history and the great theologians of the age. It became clear to me that the history of the church and the development of theology argued against remaining among the fundamentalist church my wife and I attended with our two small children. The break was difficult, but we soon found ourselves surrounded by a loving and enthusiastic group of Christians committed to the "historic" Christian faith. I am thankful for them, for they taught me to love church history and a desire for a fuller expression of my Christian faith. I immersed myself in the teachings of the Reformers and read everything I could get my hands on. They all appealed back to the "Church Fathers." Before long, I found myself exploring Augustine, Irenaeus, and the early writers of the first 500 years of the church. Yet, Hoffer's true believer diagnosis was still spot on, and I attempted to become an uber Calvinist! Meanwhile, my professional career received a much needed boost in the form of a teaching position at a Lutheran liberal arts college in the Northern plains (imagine that, of all things).

The move to Minnesota was a blessing for our family in that I had a steady salary with benefits, and I settled down into my chosen career as a performing pianist and college professor. Unfortunately, at the time, there was not a viable expression of "historic" Reformed Christianity in the area, and so for the first year we bounced around from church to church, unsatisfied and frustrated. The only small ray of light shining in that corner of the world was a family we met who were of also persuaded about the Reformed faith. They attended a small Episcopal Church in town with a priest who really preached the Gospel. We spent time with the family having meals together, going to movies with their grown children (at the time the oldest was a classical cellist and IT network troubleshooter for a local agribusiness, the middle daughter newly married, and the youngest still attending the college where I joined the faculty). Meanwhile, with two children at home, and with a supportive commitment from my wife who wanted to stay home and raise them, I began to look for an additional position to support the family. Logically and practically, my interest and experience in church music led me to look for an organist position. The area was filled with Lutheran, Catholic, and Episcopal Churches, all with organs in need of organists. I joined the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists and very quickly received an offer of a position as organist-choirmaster at the Episcopal Cathedral in Fargo. The Dean of the Cathedral was a traditional priest, orthodox in his preaching, and gentle in his pastoral care. Given my background in Lutheran liturgy, the jump to the liturgical tradition of worship was fairly easy. Moreover, the reverent, Scripture-filled, and God-centered liturgical worship at the Cathedral enlivened my life and I was drawn right in. My wife, who struggled with liturgical worship--never having experienced it growing up--nevertheless was supportive (she has always been self-sacrificial) and she sang in my church choir every Sunday. Thus, we settled into our life together in Minnesota, trusting that God was guiding us along the way. Now THAT is an interesting story for Part II...