A Reversion Story

Before I presume to tell you anything about religion, spirituality or faith, I suppose you deserve to know who I am and where I came from. 20120903-193215.jpg I was once a cradle catholic, someone who was born and raised in the Catholic Church. I spent my entire childhood in Catholic schools, and fervently learned about the faith.

With all of my heart, I believed in the strength and the power and the authority of the Catholic Church. I once won an essay contest on what the Eucharist means to me. I participated in youth groups, bible studies, and retreats. In fact, I lead many prayer groups and catholic bible studies. At one point in my young life, I had designs on becoming a Catholic priest.

I was zealous for the faith and often wondered how anyone knowledgeable of history, religion and Christianity could ever question the legitimacy of Catholicism. I had some sympathy and appreciation for our shared traditions and heritage of Eastern Orthodoxy, but I never did understand how the many protestant denominations, knowing their origins, could appeal to anyone who was honestly and faithfully seeking religious truth. In retrospect, I see now that I was arrogant and sinfully prideful in my faith.

I was raised in a huge Catholic family in a large midwestern city, in which everyone I knew was Catholic. For a long time, I was never, to my knowledge, exposed to a Protestant. What few Protestant churches I was aware of looked just like ours: large sprawling cathedral-like buildings with stained glass. Their ministers looked just like our priests, complete with collar and robe, and so I assumed they were priests. In short, I had no inclination of what a fundamentalist or evangelical faith tradition was.

It wasn’t until I moved to the south that I ever faced any hostility towards Catholicism, and it was simple enough to shrug it off as ignorance since it didn’t affect me, personally. I never once questioned my faith or its practices, because I never felt the need to.

Please take careful note of my use of the past tense, and especially the pervasive use of the word “was.” As so many youth do, I fell away from the church. It was a gradual fall, to be sure, but it was fast enough and far enough that the damage would be done.

The Falling Away

My fall started simply enough, more out of laziness and apathy than anything else. As a college student, I had taken a job that required me to work on weekends, and going to church became one more obligation, one more thing I had to do. The difference was, no one was paying me to go to church, and I was tired, so I opted to sleep in on whatever Sundays I wasn’t working.

My parents, mom especially, would ask if I’d been to church, and I would shrug it off or simply say that I had to work and couldn’t make if that week. The Sundays I missed began outnumbering the Sundays I made it, until I became one of those people — an Easter/Christmas Catholic.

Beside working on weekends, I also found beer and girls, and much to my surprise (I don’t suppose sarcasm translates well to the written word), I liked them both. A lot. So, the fall accelerated. I found that my sinful behavior compounded my avoidance of church.

It must be said that never, not even in my darkest days, did I ever question the existence of God or the authority of the church. I just chose to ignore them both, which I have come to understand is far, far worse. Instead, I began to subscribe to the belief that “God will understand” and that “a truly loving God would surely forgive me for taking full advantage of and joy in all that he created.”

The more I sinned, the worse I felt, the less worthy I believed I was to receive God’s love and grace. I got to a point where I truly believed I had already despoiled myself once and for all in God’s eyes so that there was no point in trying anymore. I want to be clear here: this is totally against Catholic teaching; these beliefs came not from my faithful Catholic upbringing but rather from my own ignorance and hardened heart.

The Love of My Life

My entire world changed in August of 1998, when, on a whim, I decided to apply for a job at a new restaurant that was opening in my town. I got the job and showed up for orientation a couple of weeks later, where I saw the most beautiful woman I had ever laid eyes on. By what I can only imagine to be God’s divine Providence, we began to date.

While we were dating, religion was something that we didn’t really consider. From time to time we would have largely superficial discussions about God and Jesus, but we never really talked about doctrine or practices. Because she was of Spanish and Italian descent, I foolishly and ignorantly assumed she was a Catholic.

I remember one day I asked her if she was Catholic, to which she responded “No, I’m a Christian.” I said, “Well I’m a Christian, too; I’m Catholic. But what are you?”

She said “I told you, I’m a Christian.”

“I got that, but what denomination are you…Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican? Are you a Baptist?”

“I’m not any denomination. I’m just a Christian.”

“Yeah, but you have to be some denomination. I mean, you’re either Catholic or Protestant, and if you’re Protestant, you must belong to a denomination.”

“Nope, I just go to a Christian church.”

Now, I knew quite a bit about history, and was especially interested in the history of
religion, even if, at the time, I wasn’t focused on the practice or expression of religion. I was quite familiar with the “Great Schism,” and I was particularly knowledgeable of the Reformation and Counter Reformation. I knew all about the mainline Protestant denominations, where they came from and who started each of them.

I had met plenty of Protestants by this time, having lived in the South for nearly 10 years, and all of them knew when and how their church was founded and what theology it was based on. They acknowledge the existence of the Catholic church as the singular Christian church up until a certain time in history, but then would argue different points about how Catholic practices caused the church to error and how Calvin or Luther or Zwingli or Smyth got it right.

What I had never before heard of or encountered, though, was a “non denominational” Christian. I had never before met someone who would refuse to acknowledge Christian history to the point that they wouldn’t even acknowledge the Reformation as being the starting point for denominationalism. At the time, I shrugged it off, thinking she must have been mistaken or didn’t understand my question.

To this day, I don’t know how it happened, but somehow I was able to convince that woman to fall in love with me. Early in our relationship, God saw fit to bless us with our first child, the girl who saved our lives.

The Girl Who Saved My Life

I believe very strongly that there are certain times in our lives where God places forks in our paths, challenging us to choose Him. The day my wife told me she was pregnant was one such time, and for the first time in several years, I chose to commit myself to my future child and my future wife, and in so doing I chose Him. This was my first step down my road toward redemption. I began to recognize the importance of going to church and leading a more wholesome life, if not for myself than at least to be a good example to my children.

It was in planning our wedding where problems with religion began to surface, and where my weakness, immaturity and lack of knowledge of my Catholic faith began to show. I slowly began to compromise on issues regarding church practices and teaching. By this time, of course, I had already compromised on so much that I really didn’t see how little issues such as the manner in which we were married or who performed the ceremony would matter. In my mind, it mattered more that we were getting married to begin with.

Lukewarm for the Faith

Of course, more out of obligation than understanding, I asked her for a Catholic wedding, which she declined because, wasn’t it obvious that the Catholic church was wrong about everything? Instead, her church’s preacher presided over the ceremony. The wedding was performed in a secular chapel, with no priest present.

None of this, at the time, was a big deal to me. I believed very strongly (and still do) that God is everywhere, and wherever two or more are gathered in His name, there He is. I knew my wife was a Christian and that she believed in the triune God, as did I. She was adamantly opposed to Catholicism, because she had been taught her entire life that her church was the only true and correct church.

Both my wife and I recognized the need to raise our soon-to-be born child in a Christian church. Unfortunately, however, there was tremendous disagreement on just what church that should be. You see, as much as we loved each other, as strong as our relationship was, and as much as we were convinced we needed God to be part of our lives, we couldn’t agree on just how we were going to let Him in.

For a couple of years, we spent our Sundays going both to Mass and to her church’s service. Over time, with two young children, this became strenuous for our family and our marriage. As you can imagine, most of the arguments we had during those first years were about religion, so passionate were we and so convinced that we needed to find a church we could attend together.

To my wife’s credit, she was unwavering in her conviction. She had been taught her entire life that her church was the original, first century church you could read about in the Bible. It followed the “Gospel pattern” and was, in her mind, uncontrovertibly biblical. I, on the other hand, wanted to practice my faith at a church full of what she had been taught were non-biblical practices and ideas.

Where’s That in the Bible?

“Show me where in the Bible it says anything about a Pope,” she’d say. Of course, I would point to Matthew 16:18, but since the word ‘Pope’ is nowhere to be found, and I was too unlearned an unprepared to counter such challenges, my arguments were soundly rejected.

The church my wife attended was so convinced that the Bible was the sole arbiter of truth and doctrine that they refused to celebrate holidays as anything other than secular occasions, if they acknowledged them at all. No Christmas, no Easter, since there was no biblical command to celebrate them.

Her church also refused to use musical instruments in their worship service, again because there was no mention of their use in the New Testament. The mantra (not creed – that was a bad word) was “Bible names for bible things” and “Speak where the Bible speaks, and remain silent where the Bible is silent.” Any attempt to use any extra-biblical source on which to base doctrine was instantly rejected, because no other source was valid as inspired, inerrant or infallible.

Equally Yoked

In the end, I relented. I came to the conclusion that what was most important was that we go to church together. It was unprofitable, and in fact destructive, for us to be arguing about our faith; we both believed unity in the home was vital to a healthy family. Because the Catholic Church was so offensive to the “Bible-believing Christians,” it was becoming painfully clear that we would not be able to worship there.

Catholic Confusion

I continued to study both my faith and hers, in an effort to find common ground and common beliefs. In my studying of Catholicism, I was dismayed to learn that my marriage may not have been considered sacramental, since no priest was present, meaning that I should refrain from communion, which was at the time a severe blow to my weakening position in the church. I was horrified by the abuse scandal that was rocking the Catholic Church at the time. I was having a harder and harder time squaring Catholic practices with what I read in the Bible.

The text began to make it clear to me that the Catholic Church was going against the Bible. Graven images, “Call no man Father,” and infant baptism. All of these things, I became convinced, were clearly unbiblical and therefore required me to look elsewhere for a church home.

Finally, I agreed to study with the preacher at my wife’s church. He came over once a week for a Bible study. He was a kind and brilliant man who gave wonderful sermons and could explain biblical concepts so well. I am forever grateful to him for the time he took with me, and I very much enjoyed our discussions. I learned so much about the Bible from him, and so I am immensely thankful for his knowledge and guidance.

Born Again

The seeming simplicity of the “first century church” and the idea of Sola Scriptura (Bilble alone) was incredibly appealing. After months of studying, I decided I needed to become a member of her church. I had concluded that my original baptism was invalid because I was not immersed and I did not confess, since I was an infant, and so I was re-baptized as an adult. It was wonderful, going to church together and worshipping together side by side with my wife. It felt great to be of the same mind. We wanted so badly to have a spiritual life together and with our family.

Something was still missing, though. We could never put our fingers on it, but there always seemed to be a void, an empty spot in our religious life. Over time, little cracks began to become apparent to us. For example, our church that refused to acknowledge Christmas would nonetheless have a “Holiday party” in December at the church building, complete with Santa Clause. Absent was the Christmas carols and any mention of Jesus or His miraculous birth.

Does Not Compute

One day, in an effort to learn more about how to be a better Christian and to learn as much as I could about what my church taught, I picked up a series of tracts that were available in the church lobby. The one that still to this day sticks out in my mind is a pamphlet that attempts to make the case that Jesus did not turn water into wine, but grape juice. The writer of the pamphlet performed amazing intellectual acrobatics to prove that when wine was mentioned in a positive light, as when Paul recommends drinking a little wine for the stomach in 1 Tim 5:23, that he was speaking of unfermented grape juice. I found the pamphlet puzzling, to say the least, but not yet faith shaking.

We continued to attend services, but not as often as we should have. Our church held services on Sunday mornings, and again a devotion on Sunday evenings and, of course, a Wednesday night bible study. After Sunday morning worship, everyone, adults and children alike, were expected to attend bible classes.

Both my wife and myself recognized the importance of going to church whenever church leaders said you should, and we believed that that if the church elders deemed it necessary to attend on Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night, then we should attend on Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night.

The problem is that we didn’t want to go all of these times. No doubt, people reading will rightly assume that was our problem and not the church’s. I could not agree more. The truth was, we desperately wanted to want to go. We had a deep desire to serve God and to worship him. We just didn’t feel that our flames were being fanned in the way we needed them to be.

Finding Faith, Searching for Truth

We began to conclude that we needed to find a new church. We began to believe that we were not the best fit for the church we attended (though I will always maintain that it is a congregation full of God-loving Christians). We needed to find a new church where we would feel that desire that so many around us seemed to have. For whatever reason, though, something was missing in our hearts.

Though we had determined we would no longer attend our former church (we felt that, at this point, attendance would be in vain and therefore our worship meaningless), we could not settle on a new church.

For months, I spent my Sundays trying to convince my wife to attend this Baptist church or that Methodist church. I would go to websites and watch worship services online and learn everything I could about the congregation. I had long ago given up on the notion that there was “one true church,” believing instead in the church as the invisible body of believers. Therefore, I believed that any Christian church would be acceptable. We just needed to find the one that worked for us. I just wanted to go to a place where I thought we would enjoy worshipping.

My ever faithful and diligent wife, on the other hand, was far more concerned with doctrine and beliefs. For me, giving up on Catholicism necessarily meant giving up on the idea that a church organization or congregation had authority to set beliefs, and therefore it was up to the individual to formulate his own beliefs with regard to faith and morals. My wife believed that there were absolute truths to be found in the Bible, and that the Bible would guide our search. We devised a list of issues we felt we could discern were absolutely clear and non negotiable from the Bible, and researched denomination after denomination to find a church that fit that mould.

Jamie refused to go “church hopping,” as she put it. She was determined that, before she stepped foot into another church, she would know everything she could about it and be assured that it was the right church. After months of studying, she found errors or inconsistencies in every group she looked at. Some churches ordained women, some embraced homosexuality, some didn’t believe baptism was necessary for salvation.

Finding the Fullness of the Faith

One sad summer afternoon, she sat down on the couch, dejected, and said “There’s no church out there I can agree with. We’re just not going to go anywhere. We’ll have to do Bible study at home with the kids; I can’t find a church.”

Since I had already compromised my Catholicism years ago, I was admittedly far more willing to compromise on doctrines than she was. I just wanted to go to church. I asked her to keep looking, and to pray about it. In the meantime, I prayed, too. I prayed nearly hourly that God would guide us to the church He wanted us to attend, the church that we could raise our family in, where we would be happy and be able to live a faithful Christian life.

My wife’s studies turned from doctrine to history as she searched for the right church. I tried to respect her wish that she study alone, since she (and I) didn’t want to be influenced by anyone other than God.

One day, out of nowhere, she said “did you know that Greek Orthodoxy is the religion closest to first century Christianity?” She could have knocked me down with a feather at that point. Orthodoxy? Did she know what she was studying? Did she know what Orthodoxy was? She had been raised in the most fundamental of fundamentalist faiths; our ministers weren’t even ordained, we had no “pastor,” and we were as independent a congregation as one could get. It was as far from liturgical worship as one could possibly get.

I don’t think I can ever fully and accurately convey to you how anti-catholic my wife truly was, but this strange turn of events can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit moving her. My prayers became even more fervent. It was clear to me that God was leading her somewhere, down a road that neither of us ever expected to travel, and one which I never thought I’d see again.

Her investigation into Orthodoxy lead her to looking into Catholicism. In Catholicism, she found the fullness of all of those teachings she found lacking in other faiths. Of course, she kept most of this to herself as she studied privately. Outwardly, she was becoming more and more distraught and resolute in her decision to not go to church. She would say, “there’s no church out there that teaches all truth. The only one that even comes close is the Catholic Church, and I am not going to be Catholic.”

I began to study on my own, first orthodoxy and then Catholicism. I read anti-catholic sources and found, to my surprise, the same intellectual dishonesty I had seen years earlier in the “grape juice” pamphlet. I seriously studied the accusations leveled against the “unbiblical” Catholic Church.” To my surprise, I found the answers to all of my questions, and finally, after so many years, I learned what the “fullness of the faith” truly meant. I prayed and prayed and prayed that my wife would come to the same conclusions, but I did not want to influence her choice. This was a journey she needed to make on her own in order for it to mean anything.

In the meantime, Jamie continued with her studies independently of me. One day, she opened the door. “Oh,” she said, “if you only knew how close I was to becoming Catholic, if it just wasn’t for the Pope!” Having done a lot of research on my own, I asked her if she would be willing to study a verse for me. She agreed. I opened my Bible to Matthew 16:16-20. I asked her to read it to herself and tell me who the rock was, and what she thought it meant to be given the power to bind and to loose.

Coming Home

During this time, I decided to go to Mass for the first time in over 10 years. I asked my wife if she minded if I took the children with me. She agreed, but she stayed home, not wanting to make a commitment to anything yet and not wanting to do anything remotely Catholic until she had spoken to her parents to let them know her decision. She respected them deeply and wanted to let them know where she stood before she moved ahead in her journey.

As we drove to the church, I prepared my kids. They had never seen anything like a liturgical worship service. The preacher at our former church wore a shirt and tie and we all called him by his first name. There had been no opening procession, no crucifix, no creed and no prayer responses.

I let them know that this church would be weird to them, but that if they had any questions, to ask me and I would do my best to answer them. During Mass, I was amazed that I still remembered the responses and was struck by how powerful and beautiful the liturgy was. The young priest that was celebrating Mass showed a true love for his ministry and delivered a powerful sermon. I felt, after so many years, that this was what it was to truly worship God. It was, to put it simply, an amazing and life-changing experience.

Immediately after Mass, as my children and I walked outside, I prepared myself for the questions I knew were sure to come: “Why was the preacher wearing a dress? Why were all the people talking together? Why was the preacher holding up that round thing? What’s up with the bells and the chanting?”

Amazing Grace

Instead, only my daughter, the little girl who saved my life, spoke. She looked up at me with her gorgeous little eyes and said, simply, “I like this church. That just felt so…right.” So simple yet so articulate, my sweet little princess had summarized my newly restored faith.

As we exited the church, I saw Father Mike Foley, the pastor of the church. Fr. Mike had known my family since we moved to Florida 25 years prior. Just a year before, he had flown to Pennsylvania to preside over my brother’s wedding, which had been the first and only time I had seen him in 10 years until that fateful day. He was standing all alone, which was unusual because Fr. Mike typically drew a crowd whenever he was around. It was as if he was waiting for me, even though he had no way of knowing I would be there and no reason to expect I would ever step foot on the grounds again.

As soon as he saw me, he opened his arms like the good shepherd he is and offered a hug. I cried and told him I wanted to come home. I made an appointment with him for later in the week, at which time I made my confession and he welcomed me back to the church that Jesus founded. That next Sunday, I received the Eucharist for the first time in over 10 years, and I have not been the same, inside or out, since.

I began to go to daily Mass, every morning before work and on Saturdays, too. I longed to be at the church building, to be as close to God as I could be. I had finally found that fire that I had seen in so many others; no longer did I go to church because I felt like I had to or because I was supposed to, but because I truly, madly and deeply wanted to.

Jamie continued to study independently, asking questions from time to time. Eventually, her searching became more about learning to accept the truth than finding it, because she had come to believe that she had indeed found it. It was still a very hard pill for her to swallow. She enrolled in the RCIA program at the nearby parish and was received into the Catholic Church during Lent.

This, however, is not the end of our story, but the beginning. Our lives changed forever because of the joy we found in Christ’s church, and we continue to grow in love, hope and faith. Day by day, minute by minute, we can feel God working in us and through us, transforming us into the people we were called to be. We have found a true passion and love for Jesus like we had never felt before.

No One Lights a Lamp and Hides it Under a Basket…

That passion, however, is meaningless if not shared. As Our Savior said, no one lights a lamp and hides it under a basket. And so it is with this spirit that I share what I have learned with you, so that you, too may one day know the joy that I have and find the true peace of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Comments
  1. […] HomeA Reversion StoryAbout Joel GarrisonAbout Reasonable BeliefCatholic Study Resources […]

  2. renewedhope says:

    Welcome home! I am also a revert back to the Church.

  3. […] Joel’s complete story is on his blog: Reasonable Belief. Read it at A Reversion Story. […]

  4. pantacrator says:

    Welcome Home!!! I have a similar story, the Eucharist and confession for me have been lifechanging. Had I known I never would have left. God bless you and yours.

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