My Journey to the Catholic Church

(The original version of this piece appeared in Fuller Theological Seminary’s student publication, the Semi, in 2004 under the title “From Campus Crusade to Catholicism.”)

In the summer of 1999, I flew to Colorado to attend Campus Crusade for Christ’s Junior/Senior Weekend, a segment of their national staff conference.  While I was there, I attended a seminar entitled “Reaching Today’s Catholics.”  I had not thought much about the Catholic Church at that point outside of history class, but a voice inside me wondered, “Aren’t Catholics Christians, too?”  Based on some of the questions that staff members were asking, the answer for some of them was apparently “No.”

After I returned from my Crusade Summer Project in Newport Beach, CA, I began to feel nervous about my pending junior year abroad in Spain and what that historically Catholic nation might do to my faith.  Figuring I ought to arm myself by learning more about Catholicism, I wandered into Barnes and Noble and bought Catholic and Christian by Alan Schreck.  To my surprise, the author presented biblical evidence for every Catholic doctrine he was explaining.  Why had my Evangelical friends been so convinced that the Catholic Church taught unbiblical beliefs?

An unexpected illness cut my year in Spain down to about three weeks and brought me back home to Houston.  I naturally returned to my home church, an orthodox Episcopalian parish.  One day in the church bookstore, I picked up another book that would impact me dramatically:  Evangelical Is Not Enough by Thomas Howard.  Though I had benefited greatly from my time with Campus Crusade, I was beginning to feel dissatisfied with its neatly packaged version of the gospel and with Evangelical spirituality in general.  Howard helped me to articulate this dissatisfaction and prompted me to return to the historically-anchored, liturgical worship that I had grown up with.  In his book, Howard speaks without much distinction of the apostolic churches (Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism, of which the Episcopal Church is a subset), but I noted his postscript with interest.  Just months after completing the book, Howard had joined the Catholic Church.

After a period of recovery in Houston, I returned to Stanford to resume my undergraduate studies.  At the beginning of my senior year, I met Robert, the wonderful young man who would later become my husband.  Robert grew up Catholic, and we agreed to learn more about each other’s denominations.  We took turns attending Episcopalian Eucharist and Catholic Mass.  Once again, everything I learned about Catholicism made sense to me, and the tiny Episcopal parish we attended was downright disappointing compared to the robust congregation of Stanford’s Catholic Community.

After graduation, Robert and I began a two-year long-distance relationship.  I was placed back in Houston by Teach For America and again returned to my home church where I was dissuaded from immediate conversion.  Yet as time went on and the Anglican Communion faced major crises in the summer of 2003, I became less and less confident about asking Robert to become Episcopalian.  (The Episcopal Church of the United States of America consecrated Gene Robinson, a divorced man living openly with his homosexual partner, as the bishop of New Hampshire against the desires of the worldwide Anglican Communion.)  We resigned ourselves to being of different denominations.

Then I began my studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in the fall of 2003.  There are very few Catholic students at Fuller, but as fate (or Providence) would have it, three of them were in my very small Hebrew class:  Michael Barber, Kimberly Gilmore, and Travis Lawmaster.  These students love sharing the gospel and can quote Scripture like Evangelicals, and they are passionately committed to Catholicism.  Meeting them reawakened the possibility that I too could be such a Christian.  Michael, who was also in my Early Church History class, boiled the Catholic Question down to a question of authority.  All of the other Catholic beliefs that are strange to Protestants stem from this one issue.

As I began to grow in my Christian faith during my time with Campus Crusade, I was always taught to regard the Bible as the highest authority in matters of faith.  Yet in my church history class at a Protestant seminary, I learned that the Church existed for centuries without the Bible as we have it today.  How did the Church “get by” for so long?  Also, what do we do when seemingly valid interpretations of Scripture conflict?  The answer lies with Jesus.

When our Lord walked the earth, He did not hand us the completed New Testament.  Rather, He selected twelve men to be His disciples and apostles.  Day after day, He taught them about the kingdom of God and about how they were to spread the gospel after He was glorified.  One man in particular, whom Jesus surnamed Peter (“rock”), stands out as the leader of the Twelve.  Jesus invested him with special authority, declaring that on this rock He would build His church “and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”  Jesus gave Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the power of binding and loosing, rabbinic terms that refer to excommunication and to forbidding or allowing something (see Matthew 16:18-19; for a prophecy concerning the steward of God’s kingdom on earth, see Isaiah 22:20-23).  The rest of the disciples were also given a share in Peter’s authority to bind and loose (Matthew 18:18), and Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to teach them all things (John 14:26).  As history tells us, the apostles appointed successors after them, and the bishop of Rome (that is, the pope) was recognized very early on as Peter’s successor.

As the Church expanded and as heretics devised their own “canons” of Scripture, it became necessary to decide on an authorized list of books to be read in the congregations.  It was the successors of the apostles who decided which books were inspired Scripture and which books were not.  As I learned about this process I began to wonder how Protestants could put so much faith in the Bible without trusting in the apostolic authority that assembled the Bible in the first place.  The Catholic Church is the one church that can claim unbroken apostolic succession and that continues to recognize Peter’s successor as possessing all of the authority that Jesus gave him.  I became convinced that it was inconsistent to accept the Bible as inspired without accepting the teaching office of the Catholic Church as uniquely authoritative.

And so, here I am, incredibly grateful to be Catholic.  The fall of 2003 witnessed a peaceful yet sudden gift of faith in my heart.  I ask Mary and the Saints to pray for me.  I believe in Purgatory.  I look to Pope Francis as the Holy Father of our Church.  By the grace and mercy of God, Robert and I were married in a state of grace in the Catholic Church in June 2004.  There is no doubt that my marriage to Robert has been strengthened and enriched by our unity of tradition, and I rejoice that God led me to this decision with reasons that convinced me on their own merit.

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