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...