“poof, forgiven!”

“God forgives us our sins, all of them, every time we ask!

Poof! Forgiven!

“Yay” they all shout.

He forgives, yes, of course, but there is more to it than that.

If we are not careful, if we don’t take the time to peer deeply into the mystery, we miss the point, which is this: God bases his cosmic right to forgive the unforgivable not on a whim, nor on dotardly permissiveness, not even because He’s the boss and He says so, but upon the bloody sacrifice of his Son.

If we will not be led astray into the shallowness of a crossless Christianity, we must take the time to contemplate the Cross. If we ever want to internalize the truth of forgiveness, if we want it to be real to us, if we want to know it ever more deeply and, most importantly, if we want it to transform us, then we must put other thoughts aside and visit the garden of Gethsemane; we must compel ourselves to count the lashes at the gruesome scourging; we must not turn away as His blood trickles from each thorn with which He is crowned; we must allow ourselves to become part of the weeping and wailing throng of women on the Via Dolorosa, watching Him silently carry His own cross—helped only by a reluctant foreigner; ridiculed by those who stripped Him naked and cast lots for his clothing. We must not flee but stand with the three Marys and John at the foot of the Cross and watch Him bleed to death. We must silently weep with Jesus’ Mother at the brokenness of His Body, holding His bruised beaten corpse most lovingly. And we must linger here, not advancing to the Resurrection prematurely. The Cross must be where we cast our gaze.

This meditation, called the Way of the Cross, is depicted on the walls of every Catholic Church in what are called Stations of the Cross. It says something, it makes a statement. “Look!” “Meditate!” “Absorb!” “Hey you, yeah you over there, come here! This is important enough that we put it in every one of our buildings.” Don’t run, don’t hide.

It points to the center of our faith.

And indeed, when we look from the back walls to the front of the church, there it is, the Crucifix, in its appropriate centrality, with the savior hanging there. We do well to often look upon Him who was pierced (Zechariah 12:10 and John 13:27), to daily belong to those people before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. (Galatians 3:1).

Forgiveness is glorious, but it doesn’t go “poof” and “yay!” should not be our only reaction.

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Mary, Mother of Our Lord

And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

Luke 1:42-44

Except for salvation, there is no single Catholic teaching more troublesome to Protestants than the veneration of Mary. I did not feel any differently than most Protestants. I had been taught from the very beginning of my Christian walk that Catholics worship Mary; that all the time and effort they spend talking to her, praying endless Rosaries, and participating in pilgrimages to Marian shrines, was all time and effort that should have been spent worshipping Jesus.

Through my studies up to this point I had begun to see not only good sense, but also a compelling cohesiveness in the fabric of Catholic doctrine. At the same time, Catholic teachings on Mary represented an insurmountable obstacle to my ever fully embracing the Catholic faith. I had read, talked, and prayed my way most of the way into the Catholic Church, and all along the way I had been surprised at how wrong Protestants were about many things. I was willing to be docile, to listen to what the Church teaches through the Doctors, Fathers, Saints, Popes and Magisterium; but I was not going to become an idol worshiper! Catholics had been misled into a devious form of idol worship—my job as a Christian was certainly not to join them in that idol worship, but to lead them out of it.

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Defending the Prayers of Heaven (and almost everything Catholic with it)

A while back, two years ago actually, I went to the movie The Passion of the Christ with friends: Protestant friends. Afterwards, we went out to a local tavern and enjoyed what turned out to be quite lively and pleasant conversation. One of the participants in the conversation, a good friend, made the comment, “in The Passion of the Christ, we were presented with the great beauty of Mary’s humanity, not the picture of some saint.” This comment struck me as quite incongruous. What is there about Mary’s humanity, her “humanness” as it were, which would contradict her being recognized as a saint, a resident of heaven? What sort of understanding of the Catholic canon of saints did my friend’s opinion reflect?

I am a convert from evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism. Such conversions do not happen overnight. From the first uncanny inkling that there might be something to this Catholic Church, to the joy of being received into her, many tumultuous years went by. It all began with reading a book by Alan Schreck, Catholic and Christian, which presents Catholic explanations on a number of topics typically misunderstood by Protestants. The explanations seemed quite reasonable, and, as I weighed them one by one in my mind, they initiated a development, slowly but surely, which would eventually change my Christian views completely.

I began to read about Christianity from a Catholic point of view, from authors such as G.K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, Karl Adam, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Hans Urs von Balthazar, Joseph Pieper, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Avery Dulles, Patrick Madrid, Peter Kreeft, Thomas Howard, David Currie, Karl Keating, James Pearce, Scott Hahn, etc. They made some very strong arguments for the truth of Catholicism. I also discovered the very early Church Fathers: St. Clement, St. Irenaeus, St. Justin Martyr, St. Cyprian, Tertullian, Origin, who were members of the pre-Constantine Church of the Catacombs. It was very hard, but I had to admit it was true; the very early Church was many things, and opinions vary as to what those things mean for us today, but it was not Protestant. The Church gathered around the Eucharist, which was a re-presentation of the Sacrifice on Calvary. The Eucharist was heaven come to earth; a true communion with the living God, whose very Son had taken on human flesh. To worship in such a Church was to touch, to taste, to see and to know the Supernatural, the Eternal, and the All-powerful in the bread and the wine become His Flesh and Blood. Unity was expressed around the office and authority of the bishop. The bishop of Rome exercised an authority which was different from the other bishops, not just in degree, but in kind. No, this was not the Protestant church.

As each issue presented itself I would study, consulting both orthodox Catholic sources, as well as the best of Protestant arguments against the Catholic position. And I was in a position to do so; I was a tenured faculty member at Trinity International University in Deerfield Illinois, one of the leading Evangelical Protestant institutions in the world. I had access to an excellent library and to some of the best-trained minds on the Evangelical scene. Over time, a pattern emerged. With almost every issue, I would begin to see some good sense in what the Church teaches. I began to notice that my thinking up to that point had been founded, at least in part, on misperceptions or false assumptions. This was disturbing. The whole reason I became a Christian in the first place was based on conviction that Christianity was true. As I persevered in study it became clear that many Protestant arguments against Catholic doctrines such as the visible Church, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the authority of a bishop, the authority of the Pope, Purgatory, salvation by faith formed in love, and finally Mary, the Rosary, and the communion of saints are based upon misperceptions, exaggerations, and even purposeful misrepresentations of what the Church really teaches. I began to realize that I had been misled into a way of thinking which was not entirely free of bigotry and unexamined anti-Catholic bias, with its own prejudice and its own intolerance.

So when my friend made her comment about the saints I suspected she was operating under of one of those classic Protestant misperceptions. She had been raised in a very conservative branch of the Lutheran Church. It has been my experience that some pretty big accusations are brought against the Catholic Church by people from such denominations. My friend had likely been told that Catholics are guilty of idol worship, necromancy, salvation by works, and being duped by a Roman power-monger. Such biases run deep.

It is exciting and humbling when someone you know and respect asks about your faith. But answering takes time, it can’t be done quickly, certainly not all at one sitting. The Catholic faith is both colorful and complex, and all of its various topics and themes are intertwined. The issues are so closely related that addressing one of them immediately necessitates at least skirting a number of others. In reality however, each conversation begins with one topic at a time; in this case the topic was Mary and the saints.

The following represents much of what I said, and more of what I would have said if there had been time, in attempting to answer to my friend’s question.

What, or . . . who, in fact, is a saint?

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My Journey into the Catholic Church

A Journey Home

In April of the year 2000 the administration of Trinity International University, where I was a tenured professor, and where I had successfully and happily served for seven years, called for my resignation. I was about to be received into the Catholic Church, and that put me outside the boundaries of orthodoxy prescribed by Trinity’s statement of faith. I tendered my resignation, knowing I might never again teach at any college and that my professional life might be an uphill struggle for the rest of my life.

Many people find this difficult to swallow. You gave up your job to become Catholic?

Just to join a church? Isn’t one church basically the same as the next? Don’t they all teach about Jesus? Does it really matter which one you attend? Do you really want to go that far—endanger your career, struggle financially, be misunderstood—for the sake of Church membership? Does it matter that much which “flavor” of religion you prefer?

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