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?
And, if you are going to take a stand for a church, you’ll do it for that one? The Catholic one? Its hierarchical governance gives rise to all sorts of ills, everything from pedophile priests and to blatant discrimination against women. And . . . don’t they practically worship Mary? Don’t they make you obey the Pope, no matter what he says? Don’t they believe in salvation by their own works? They’re more like a cult than a church, aren’t they? Don’t they talk to dead people and pray to statues and . . . oh yeah, don’t they tell you it’s like this huge sin to use artificial birth control? Didn’t they torture Galileo? Didn’t they persecute the Jews? Didn’t it finally come out that Pope Pius XII was like a Nazi or something? And didn’t they torture gazillions of people in the Inquisition, and didn’t they ban the bible and . . .
The barrage of indictments against the Catholic Church is truly without end, and there was a time when I believed all of them. Careful study over a number of years gradually showed me that most of them are simply not true. Any truth to the remaining accusations could be understood if seen in a greater context.
I became a Christian in 1979 at the age of 28, not because of some personal preference, not to be helped, not to meet my needs, not to feel good, but because I became convinced that the claims of the Jesus Christ were true. The apologetic works of C.S. Lewis, which I had begun to read in the spring of 1977, had initiated the work of conversion, opening my mind to the truths of the gospel. Back then, this discovery of Lewis marked the beginning of a process whereby, one by one, my misconceptions and prejudices about Christianity would be challenged. His sparklingly logical explanations, bolstered by his use of common sense and every-day language made the case for the truth Christianity. Surprisingly, many of Lewis’s arguments would later be part of my becoming Catholic.
I was working at the time as an orchestral musician in Germany. In July of 1979, during a vacation trip to I ran into group of enthusiastic young Christians, mostly American, who were spending their summer ministering evangelistically, under the auspices of a group called Youth With a Mission, in, of all places, Amsterdam. These young people made it clear that you could actually know Jesus, talk to Him, invite Him into your heart. In spite of much hesitation and no little doubt, I decided to do just that. The day after I spoke my first prayer, as I awoke early in the morning in my little pup tent, I knew God loved me, and that I could never earn His love. Everything in my life changed.
God granted me three of my most heartfelt wishes that day; nothing outlandish, everything very much in keeping with what any parent would wish for their child. He freed me from a fierce addiction to nicotine. He gave me so much joy that I discovered I did not need to drink in order to enjoy myself (I had been well on my to ruining my life with frequent and uncontrolled drunkenness) . And, thirdly, He placed my mother’s quintessentially Catholic words about marriage deep within my soul; words I had ignored for many years: “Sex is beautiful and it belongs to marriage.” It occurred to me that I should seek to be faithful to my future wife in thought and deed. It also became clear to me that God could give me the strength and power to do so if I asked Him.
I was not a Christian more than a day or two, when, for the first time, I was confronted with the gut-wrenching reality of serious disagreement between believers. It began with a discussion, not without heat, about man’s free will. How could they say man does not have free will? C.S. Lewis had based his entire case for the faith on the contention that man is free to choose. And then came the scriptures, like bullets . . . or bombs: Paul, Romans, Galatians—boom, bang, crack. Scriptures from the other side, Paul, Jesus, James, Peter, boom, bang, bang! I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all!
After a few weeks in Amsterdam, I returned to Germany, and from 1979 through 1987 lived in Essen, where I joined a charismatic Anabaptist congregation. In that church in Essen I met my wife, Angelika, and also in Essen, all three of our children were born. During this time I discovered how much I love to teach and began to look for ways to make a career change. This led me to pursue graduate studies at the University of Florida., in 1987.
In Gainesville we fellowshipped at an Evangelical Free Church. I went to graduate school and taught music out of our home. After a few years I had almost 100 students studying horn, piano, guitar and recorder. My students came from a myriad of churches: not only Creekside Evangelical Free Church, where we worshipped, but also a Baptist church that was led by followers of Bill Gothard, another Baptist church which taught that the King James Bible is the only legitimate translation, yet another Baptist church which, in 1988 taught from the pulpit that Christ would return in 1988 (for 88 reasons!), a staunchly five-point Presbyterian Church, one of those flamboyant charismatic Churches called The Rock that actually claims to have apostles, another charismatic congregation with prophets and healers, a Vineyard congregation, a Church of the Nazarene, a Dove International congregation, the Church of Christ, the Salvation Army, the Church of Christian Science, a good Lutheran congregation, and an Episcopal Church. I had a large number of pastor’s kids studying with me. I got to know the students and the parents. I got to know their churches. I read about their different theologies. Each tradition had its definite strengths, and each was equally troubled by its own narrowness. I began to feel as if I ought to belong to all of the churches in this colorful mosaic, but, as I studied and experienced them, I was actually capable of completely lining up with none of them.
In 1993 I was offered a faculty position at Trinity College in Deerfield Illinois, which, with the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) is looked upon as one of the leading evangelical institutions of higher learning. I quickly became engrossed in building Trinity’s music program, recruiting students, directing the band, teaching classes, and eventually chairing the department. The faculty was charged to “integrate faith and learning” and I attempted to take this very seriously, as did my colleagues.
Though we were all involved in different disciplines, from music to history, from English to biology, faculty members came together with some regularity to study a particular book or an article. One of the books we read was Mark Noll’s exposé of the intellectual weaknesses of Evangelicalism, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. It had a deep effect on me. Noll provides page after page of evidence that, in his own words:
“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” 
This was accepted as a truism by the participants in our faculty forum. The irony of it—we were supposed to be in the business of integrating faith and learning even though the parameters forced upon us by the evangelical culture promised, as far as I could tell, very little prospect for success—struck me harder than it did the others, much harder. They had, almost all of them, grown up in the evangelical fold; they were “cradle Evangelicals” as it were, whereas I was an adoptive son. The harsh contradictions in their world, which Noll so bluntly fingered, did not cause them to wonder about the very legitimacy of the integration endeavor, but they did me.
I encountered a major surprise when, in 1998 I discovered the testimony of the Early Church Fathers. At some point I visited a Catholic bookstore and bought Volume I of The Faith of the Early Fathers, selected and translated by William Jurgens. It contains teachings from the Church Fathers of the first three centuries, from the time before the “Catholic stuff” was supposed to have entered the Church—i.e. before Constantine in the 4th century.
I was very surprised at what I found. This was not supposed to be! These people all had rock solid convictions about the centrality of the Eucharist in worship, and strong statements about its essence being both physical and supernatural. I found the Gnostics’ heretical denial of the goodness and significance of the material world was specifically demonstrated by their denial of the incarnational reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. This was all very surprising and did not square with what I had been told, repeatedly for many years.
The early Fathers spoke of the Mass as a sacrifice, Mary as the second Eve, and real authority vested in the office of the bishop. They strongly implied the primacy of the bishop of Rome. These essentially Catholic distinctives were presented by the Fathers not as tentative propositions, certainly not as cutting-edge innovations, but rather as well-accepted facts of the faith, already universally believed, very early on.
These sorts of teachings, the kind which are Catholic and not Protestant, were, according to Protestant teaching, not supposed to have entered the Church until the time of “creeping paganization” after Constantine, i.e. after 325 A.D. But here they were, in the second and third century Church! I was shocked at how wrong Protestants were about the early Church.
I was also surprised by the Pope himself, John Paul II. His thoroughly Christ-centered teaching and life—which included a stance on the moral issues of our day so insightful and profound as to be truly prophetic—whittled away at the idea that the Pope is a sort of anti-Christ. There was an undeniable authority in his resolute insistence that the smallest and weakest amongst us must be protected from the deadly knife of the abortionist. If the Pope is a foreshadowing of the Anti-Christ, as Protestants had told me, where does he get the spiritual gumption to resist the entire Western world on the question of abortion? Where did he get the fortitude to stare down Communism? How could he so resolutely decry the materialism of the West?
John Paul II was an enigma—and a surprise! Whenever I would read something about him or even see a picture of him, I could perceive something very special, wholesome, good, and child-like. He was full of joy, yet stern as an Old Testament prophet. He exuded an attractive simplicity, yet could speak as an exquisitely educated philosopher. And, unlike most well educated people, he was not bamboozled by the relativistic tomfoolery of many contemporary thinkers. His enthusiasm for everything beautiful, especially for the young, not only fascinated, but began to inspire me
We began to regularly watch Marcus’ Grodi’s “Journey Home” on EWTN every Friday night, which presented a quiet parade of joyful converts from all different sorts of religions and non-religions. Their arguments, backed by the diversity of their experience made an indelible impression. On the show, Marcus interviews a good number of people who have come from Evangelicalism. In moments of self-reflection I was forced to admit that I envied them for the step they had dared to take. I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but they were paving a way for me out of the various ant-Catholic misconceptions and prejudices I had harbored for so many years.
I read a number of apologetics books by such people as Thomas Howard, David Currie, Steve Ray, Scott Hahn, Karl Keating, Karl Adam, Hans Urs von Balthazar, Karl Adam, Karl Keating, G.K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman and St. Francis DeSales. I also collected and read books from the other point of view: anti-Catholic books by authors such as R.C. Sproul, John Ankerburg, Norman Geisler, and Dallas seminary’s Ron Rhodes, etc. The Protestant book were pervaded by the stale odor of manipulation: straw-man arguments, selective use of historical data and outright misrepresentations.
The Catholic explanations began to make more sense than any of the Protestant ones.
G. K. Chesterton once said of his own conversion to the Catholic Church: “I had no more idea of becoming a Catholic than of becoming a cannibal. I imagined that I was merely pointing out that justice should be done even to cannibals . . . [but] it is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it . . .”
Exactly as Chesterton describes, I had ceased to pull against the Catholic Church, and was definitely being tugged towards her. I was beginning to ask that she be “fairly treated” and a secret fondness was waxing in the hidden recesses of my heart
There eventually came the time when my discussions with Evangelicals, especially colleagues at Trinity, took on a new tone. I would be discussing any one of a number of issues (transubstantiation, communion of saints, papal infallibility, salvation by works, authority of bishops, confession, Mary, Purgatory, etc.) with an Evangelical, who would say “Catholicism teaches thus . . . .” More often than not their statement would represent some substantive misunderstanding of what the Church actually teaches. So I would retort, “No, actually the Church teaches thus . . . “ and proceed to explain Catholic doctrine. Without realizing it, I was becoming a defender of the Catholic faith.
I made friends with one of the philosophy professors, Dale, a Missouri Synod Lutheran, who would present Luther’s view, while I presented the Catholic one. During one conversation, I prefaced an answer to one of his questions with, “well, Dale, if I were Catholic I would tell you . . .” He stopped and turned to me (he is very tall and I am pretty short, so the moment had a certain visual drama to it, not without humor) and said, with a big grin, “What do you mean, if you were Catholic? You ARE Catholic!” Uh-oh, I don’t want to be Catholic, I don’t want to lose my job! But he made me listen to myself defending the Church. Yes that is what I was doing.
For years I had stifled the cry in my heart for unity in Christ’s Church. From the very first experiences in Amsterdam, to the fierce party spirit in our church in Germany, the potpourri of Protestants in Florida, and now this microcosm of the evangelical world at Trinity, one undeniable truth emerged—Protestantism does not and, alas, cannot, express oneness. Its essence is not unity, but division. There are very few features that unite all of Evangelicalism and even fewer that unite all of Protestantism. Some would suggest that the Bible provides unity, and yes, the various Protestant groups can unite around the idea that it is authoritative—but they cannot agree about what it says. Others say the Holy Spirit provides unity—but Protestants agree even less about what the Spirit is saying. Most of the few doctrines this assemblage of diverse groups does hold in common are the very ones they also hold in common with Catholicism: the deity/humanity of Christ, an elementary understanding of the Trinity, salvation through faith in Christ. Other than the doctrines held commonly with Catholicism, Protestants agree on only one thing: they are not Catholic. Thus, Protestantism’s identity is established by what it is not.
We began to regularly attend Mass at St. Paul’s, held in a thoughtfully modern, aesthetically pleasing building. I was moved by the carefully coordinated scripture readings and the beautiful prayers. I was there to meet God. Why others were there I did not know, nor did I really care. Emancipation from the necessity to judge others has been one of the glories of the journey! At Mass I was in the presence of Jesus Christ. I was also in the company of, not only the parishioners of St. Paul, but of innumerable others from every tribe and tongue, from every continent, who, for 2000 years, had, as one Body, worshipped the Lamb, offered the Lamb, received the Lamb, and been blessed and fulfilled by the Lamb. I was in the presence of something not only palpably bigger than myself, but also bigger than the building or even the culture or time I lived in.
After Sunday Mass we would drive over to our own evangelical church, to worship in our new building, one which expresses, unfortunately, the profoundly impoverished aesthetic sensibilities of the evangelical world. It includes a “worship space” which looks pretty much like a movie theater. The room, constructed with no source of natural light, is dominated by an elevated stage, which is spotlighted during the worship service. The congregation sits before a cadre of spotlighted “worship leaders” up on the stage, who, with ecstatically closed eyes, raised hands, beaming faces, sing the newest top 40 here-today-gone-tomorrow worship choruses, over and over again. After the singing, other individuals would go to the microphone and speak long extemporaneous prayers, which were incomparably less rich, less differentiated, and frankly, less appropriate, than the ones being prayed in the Catholic Church. There was very little Scripture reading, which seemed odd, even ironic. Supposedly the Catholic Church kept the Scriptures away from the people so they wouldn’t find the truth. Why was I getting far more Scripture at St. Paul’s than at our evangelical church? Then there would be this long sermon about what pastor had to say about a series of Bible passages, then more “worship”. It all began to seem quite man-centered, and the strong whiff of manipulation could no longer be ignored.
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. However, some Catholic teachings, like the Marian dogmas, represented an insurmountable obstacle to my ever being able to fully embrace 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 are about this ancient Church. But Mary? Were Protestants wrong about her too?
I made friends with David Currie, the author of one of the books I had read, who gave me a Rosary. Oh my! It had been “blessed by the Pope”—whatever that meant! I took it in to the basement at our house where no one could see me, along with a book about the Rosary and began to pray. All of the prayers were rich in Scripture, and the meditations led me deep into the life of Christ. Through the Rosary I began to experience a renewed sense of Jesus’ presence in my prayer life.
I began to pray the Rosary regularly. Now, years later, I can say, outside the Mass, there is nothing that more dependably brings me into an awareness of who Christ is than the discipline of the Rosary. The quietness of the repetitions sets just the right tone to think deeply about Jesus, about His incarnation, His suffering and His everlasting glory!
As I warmed up to the idea of one day becoming Catholic, Mary had presented a huge obstacle. I had been deeply indoctrinated into the notion that Catholics worship her. However, as my vision cleared and the glory of worship in the Catholic Mass became evident, the accusation that Catholics worship Mary gradually began to seem not only untrue, but absurd. The liturgy of the Mass is the pinnacle and the essence of Catholic worship. It is absolutely God-centered, Trinity-centered, and Christ-centered. At Mass Mary plays no central role whatsoever.
There is not a worship service on the earth which more completely and utterly focuses on Christ and his sacrifice than the Holy Mass. Protestants do not know such exalted worship. For them the content of worship is, at least outwardly, limited to singing songs and hearing a sermon, so when they hear Catholics sing a hymn to Mary, they suspect she is being worshipped. But Catholics know, when they sing Marian songs or seek Mary’s intercession, they are not making her into a Goddess to be worshipped, but rather seeking the aid of a powerful advocate and ally.
I eventually became convinced that the Catholic beliefs about Mary are in fact not only true, but function as a necessary protector and guarantor of the central Christological truths. Wherever Marian piety is miniaturized or eliminated, the Christology of the Nicene Creed—fully God and fully man—begins to erode. This results, on the one hand, in the squishy relativism of Protestant liberalism, or, on the other hand, in the rough, edgy, tomboyish hardness of fundamentalism/evangelicalism. Both are lopsided. Of course they are! You cannot exclude the Mother and expect to really know the Son.
In the years since becoming Catholic the recognition that Mary is Our Mother has begun to grow and bear fruit in my life, our family. She is in fact the most powerful heavenly intercessor. To pray with her, especially through the Rosary, is to be brought into a whole different experience of wonder and awe, of knowing the power of the Cross and Resurrection and of growing in the personal knowledge of Jesus Christ.
We have been Catholic for five years. Our conviction that the Catholic Church is in fact the Church Christ founded on Peter and the Apostles, one, holy universal and apostolic, has grown more profound, year by year, in spite of the enormous problems the Church encounters. She is fiercely attacked from without and from within—she always has been. That she stands—and stand she does—can certainly not to be attributed to any human effort, nor to some bizarre coincidence, but solely to the promise given to Peter almost 2000 years ago, “the gates of hell shall not prevail . . . “
The Church does not ask us to believe something outlandish or ridiculous. She is not asking us to believe anything different from what the greatest Christians throughout history have always believed. Any of us can decide to believe as Augustine or Ambrose, as Agatha or Agnes, as Catherine of Siena or Catherine of Genoa, as Thomas Aquinas or Thomas More, as Theresa of Avila or Thérèse of Lisieux, as Mother Elizabeth Seton or Mother Cabrini, as Edith Stein or Maximilian Kolbe, as Malcolm Muggeridge or G. K. Chesterton, as Dorothy Day or John Henry Newman, as Evelyn Waugh or J.R.R. Tolkien, as Bernard Nathanson or Norma McGorvey, as Mother Theresa or John Paul II,. Choosing to believe as they believe is the path not only to moral and intellectual freedom, but to life itself. Once one grasps this, losing a job, losing one’s reputation, losing one’s financial security, do not seem to be an outlandish price to pay.
 ibid. p.15
 William A. Jurgens, The Faith of The Early Fathers, Vol. 1. (Collegeville MN, The Liturgical Press, 1970)
 An idea made very popular by Martin Luther
 Chesterton, G.K. The Catholic Church and Conversion, NY: Macmillan, 1926, 59,62