Thursday, November 17, 2011

Journey to Rome: an overview (part I)

Mary and me, and Michelangelo's Pieta, in Rome.  April 2011.

As promised, I am (finally) opening up about why my husband and I walked away from a combined 61 years of Protestant join the Catholic Church.

Things like this aren't easy to explain, in part because a faith journey can be an intensely personal experience, and also because in our case (like so many) it is multi-faceted and messy.  A lot of you won't be able to relate, and that's okay. 

I personally come from a long line of Catholics and former-Catholics.  (My maiden name is Perruzzi.  It makes sense.)  My formerly-Lutheran husband does not.  (His last name is Heldt.  It makes sense.)  And I've discovered that no matter what your background, there is a lot of widespread misinformation about Catholicism.  While I am happy to share the truth, I'm not an apologist and won't attempt to correct every single misconception or argue with you about the Immaculate Conception.  I have friends much better suited for that sort of thing.  I on the other hand will humbly attempt to share my story.  (But if you have questions and you ask nicely, I'll do my best to answer them!  :)  )

Roughly four years ago, I read a book by Thomas Howard that would (unbenownst to me) set my conversion in motion.  It was called Evangelical is Not Enough: Worship of God Through Liturgy and Sacrament.  The title may sound inflammatory and not like anything a lifelong Evangelical Christian would ever read, but the author is Elisabeth Elliott's brother (and who doesn't love Elisabeth Elliott?), and I wanted to learn more about the Sacraments.  I'd always belonged to non-denominational churches that taught that baptism and communion were merely symbols, even though most Christians around the world say otherwise.  And my husband used to be a Lutheran and we had a lot of theological conversations about those things.   

Howard's book (which is EXCELLENT), along with much conversation and prayer and a lot of Bible study, brought me to a point where I did believe in the Sacraments as such.  I felt convicted that we ought to be a part of a liturgical church that observed the Sacraments and was solidly embedded in the historical Christian faith.  (My husband felt the same, and always had, really.)  We knew though that we'd be moving shortly so we remained at our non-denominational church in the meantime.

Allow me to break here and say that my ten years at Grace Church were blessed and fruitful.  Grace was an anchor in my life when I came to college and was seeking the Lord in great earnest.  Many faithful, amazing people crossed my path there--people committed to loving and living like Jesus.  I gained a greater understanding of the Bible and of my faith.  The Gospel and Word of God were the standard.  I met  my husband there.  Thus, I am ever grateful for how God worked in my life during my time at Grace.

I will also say that my prior eighteen years at Creston Community Church were quite wonderful as well.  I never knew a day where I didn't know the love of Jesus.  My childhood church involvement set an excellent foundation for the rest of my life, and I learned how to follow God and work out my faith in this little country church.  Again, nothing but gratitude.

But when we moved to Denver, we found a Reformed Protestant church to attend downtown (PCA at the time, though it soon switched to the RCA denomination.)  Considering my own background, it may as well have been Catholic--I felt clumsy at first because it was all very new to me.  But, I loved it.  Lots of liturgy.  Communion each week.  My children were all baptized shortly after Mary was born.  Our time there (three years, as it turns out) was wonderful as well.  We made a few good friends and I fell in love with historical Christianity and with communion-as-a-Sacrament.  While I don't think we ever quite "fit" in certain ways, we didn't really anticipate leaving, at least not anytime soon.

In fact, we probably would have been content remaining in Protestant Reformed circles, never giving Catholicism a second thought, were it not for the other piece of the story.

You see, shortly after we'd moved to Denver, I became interested in the historic Christian teaching on, well, contraception.  Random, I know.  We'd been convicted for years about this issue, and I wanted once and for all to understand what Christians have believed about this throughout the ages.  And I get that most people don't really care.  Most people don't see what birth control has to do with a guy who died on a Roman cross two thousand years ago.  It's a non-essential in Protestantism.  And I wanted to know why, because it sure seemed to me that something as fundamental as the playing out of our sexuality, something that affects pretty much every single part of our lives, should matter to the God who created us, who "made them man and woman".

The truth is that I was shocked at what I found.  Turns out it wasn't always a non-essential.  In fact, the Protestant faith was united with Catholics on this matter for centuries, up until the 1930s or so, when the Anglican Church changed its position (allowing for contraception in "some" cases).  The vast majority of Protestant groups eventually followed, the pill came along in the 1960s, and the rest is history.

Naturally I now wanted to know why exactly Catholics continue to teach against the use of contraception.

Again, I was shocked.  The Roman Catholic Church's teachings on marriage, children, vocation, and personhood were the most profound, simplistic, beautiful, and cohesive things I'd read on the subject.  Ever.  And they actually made sense.  Both Kevin and I dug in, anxious to learn more.  We read things like Covenanted Happiness, books on Theology of the Body, writings from John Paul II, and work by Kimberly Hahn and Christopher West.  It seemed one could never fully mine the depths of wisdom pouring from the Church on these issues.  It seriously felt as if we'd struck gold.  No joke.

If people asked, I found myself telling them we followed the Catholic Church's teachings on marriage and contraception.

Which was weird, because we weren't Catholic.  :)

But we wholeheartedly believed that this historic position, formerly held by Protestant Christians as well, was true.

It was around this time that I became intrigued to discover that there were actually lots of people converting from Protestantism to Catholicism.  People like Thomas Howard, Francis Beckwith, and Scott Hahn.  And did you know that Rich Mullins was about to join the Catholic Church when he died?  Or that Elisabeth Elliott is a regular guest and speaker at various Catholic universities, and has taken some flack from the Protestant community on account of this?

We started to wonder what else the Catholic Church said and stood for, if they were the only group standing firm on the issue of contraception and if so many well-respected Christians were compelled enough to convert.

The theology was fascinating.  We quickly gained an IMMENSE respect and appreciation for the Roman Catholic faith, even though we thought we'd NEVER be able to become card-carrying members...thanks to those few pesky issues like Mary and the infallibility of the Pope.

Still we kept reading.  And, guess what, there are reasons (both rooted in the Bible and in Tradition) for those more controversial doctrines.  They were actually not as scary as Jack Chick and Loraine Boettner would have wanted us to believe.

And we began to see that so very much of the divide between Catholics and Protestants comes down to one word: authority.

How does the Holy Spirit work?  Why are so many earnest, prayerful and solid believers divided over such significant issues?  Why does the Bible refer to the Church as "the pillar and foundation of the truth"?  What are we supposed to make of Peter receiving the keys to the kingdom of Heaven?  Why can no one agree on what the Church is supposed to look like today?

What on EARTH do we do with passages like John 6?

Basically we started wondering, does authority ultimately rest with each individual person and their private interpretation of the Bible, or is there more to it?

And as the misconceptions about Catholicism were replaced with knowledge about what they actually believe (and why), and as we pondered all of the above questions, we eventually arrived at the surprising and humbling conclusion that authority ought to rest with Christ's Church.  The one established by Jesus, founded upon Peter, and carried forward by the faithful down through the ages.  Just like Jesus promised.

Initially, we were, um, somewhat terrified by this conclusion.  What would people say?  How would we leave our church?  So we told ourselves that we'd just be secret Catholics-at-heart for awhile, that there was no need to do anything rash.  But God wasn't content with that and brought us to the place where we had to acknowledge that if we truly believed this was Christ's Church, why would we deliberately spend another moment outside of it and the graces therein? 

So in August, we began attending a local parish.

In September, we formally announced that we were leaving our Protestant faith community of the past three-plus years. 

And in October, we came into full communion with the Catholic Church.

We received the Eucharist for the first time.

We have been blessed beyond anything we could have imagined.

Now before someone has a bunch of Chick Tracts anonymously delivered to my house, allow me to say that we've explored all of these issues from both sides--devil's advocate and all that.  This was not an immediate or purely emotion-based conversion.  It took four years and was pretty difficult in many ways.  My husband worked in a Christian bookstore in college where the only books touching on Catholicism were written by Protestants--and shelved in the "Cults" section.  (He didn't put them there though, just so we're clear.  :)  )  I own a John MacArthur study Bible that has its own interpretation of John 6.  People can go back and forth all day arguing the meaning of scripture, and that's why it eventually always comes down to authority: who do you believe?  So we are well aware of the counter-points, and of the theology reflected in Protestantism.  Still, we chose the Catholic Church--or rather, She chose us.

There is really so much more that I want to share. The dear people we've met on the journey, the books and blogs we've poured over, how Kevin and I have wrestled with these things together and yet sometimes reached different conclusions at different times, the many blessings and also the challenges.  I'll do that soon. 

But in the meantime, here is my feeble introductory explanation of how--and why--we've "gone all in" with Rome.


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