On April 22nd, 2000, an eighteen year old me was received into the Catholic Church with the completion of my initiation through the reception of the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation. It was the high point in a journey toward the Catholic Church that began nearly three years before when I was still attending a Pentecostal church.
People often ask me what made me make the jump from a pretty fundamentalist Protestant group to the Catholic Church. The mystery of the journey many non-Catholics have to the Church, if not for all of them, has to do with the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit began prompting me to ask all the right questions. Questions like: 1) What was the historical development of Christianity? or Where did my denomination come from? 2) If there is more than one group of Christians, which one has the truth? 3) (For someone attending a charismatic community) What is all this speaking in tongues really about/what is it good for?
But this is getting a little ahead of myself. It's important for cradles Catholics to know that other Christians truly are Christians. My spiritual life began way before I entered a church or enjoyed the graces of any sacrament. My spiritual life began in my mother's arms. One of my earliest memories is of lying in bed as a tiny little toddler and listening to my mother talk about God. She would tell me stories about when she was little, and she would teach me songs that she learned at Vacation Bible Camp. This served as my introduction to God--that God was a loving God. It was no wonder, then, that when I was alone during that nap times, that I would feel God's presence with me, and it was a comforting presence. This inspired me to demand to be allowed to go to Sunday School with my brothers. My mother agreed, and so my institutional encounter with God took shape in a Pentecostal Community. My family belonged to that Christian tradition due to my great-grandfather, George Niceley, and his ministry as a Pentecostal preacher after an encounter with the Holy Spirit. [Today, by the way, is the 115th anniversary of his birth.]
As a Pentecostal, I was handed on a deep respect for Holy Scripture. The heroes and heroines of the Bible, men like Enoch and Abraham, were my role models, and I truly felt like I belonged to the family of Abraham. I attended Sunday services faithfully, and by the time I was a teenager, I had perfect attendance. Around this time, however, my cousins and brothers stopped going to church. In fact, I was the only person in my family going to church, although my relatives all were believers. This was the time when I began asking questions. I wondered why so few people were attending the church I went to. I wondered why everyone with a job at the church was part of the same family. I wondered how the people could be caught up in the Spirit during the weekend services, but still begin service on Sunday morning by talking bad about the Catholics next door.
Ah...those gambling, drinking, bingo playing Catholics. Covington has a large and visible Catholic presence. St. Mary's Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption is undoubtedly the major religious landmark of the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky metro area. In every Covington neighborhood, the Catholic church was usually the largest and most beautiful of the buildings. Right across the street from the Pentecostal church I attended was Holy Cross Church, and around the corner from my family's home was St. Benedict's Church [pictured to the left]. Downtown was the stunning Mother of God Catholic Church. All these churches with their architectural beauty and their bells tolling the holy hours spoke to my soul. I began to want to venture inside of them.
This I began to do clandestinely. I believe these secret visits to Catholic churches were the first really rebellious thing I did as a teenager. During my frequent Friday and Saturday visits to the Basilica, I encountered the Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The church would be completely empty, and yet, in a way I had never experienced in a Protestant church, I knew that God was there in a special way. There was an automatic holiness to the place that did not just depend on whether people were gathered in prayer or not. This faith in the Blessed Sacrament, albeit primitive, is often one of the draws to the Catholic Church for other Protestants, even Protestants who celebrate some form of Holy Communion. --Once we learn about the Blessed Sacrament, an inner hunger develops within us, and we want to say, "Sir, give us this Bread from Heaven." Other Christians, we know, have said instead, "This teaching is too hard." Instead of leaving the faith, they create a new Gospel devoid of the sacramental. They celebrate the Holy Spirit, but have no faith in the Spirit's desire and ability to work through sacraments...
When I was sixteen, I realized that I could no longer attend the Pentecostal worship services. I did not believe that they had the full truth. Today, I maintain that any Christian group that has separated itself from the Catholic Church cannot have the full truth, since it preaches a different Gospel from the one handed on, not just through Holy Scripture, but through the lived-experience of Christian saints from the beginning of the Church (aka Tradition). Another way to put this would be, if the Catholic Church does not have the Truth, then Christianity, itself, is just not true. [But this view point took some time to develop.] --This point is rooted in the understanding that both the written and the oral traditions of Christianity state that Christ intended for his Church to be One, united under the leadership of his Apostles, in particular, the head apostle, St. Peter, (the first pope). This means that even the Orthodox are failing to preach the Gospel in the best way, simply because they willingly are seperated from Christ's vicar and the rest of Christ's flock...
So...why didn't I join the Church right away, like in 1998? Well, my family convinced me that the Church was Pagan and corrupt. All that gambling, and drinking, etc., proved that Catholics weren't real Christians. In fact, my family seemed not to understand--like many Protestants--that Catholicism was the original Christian Church. They did not seem to know that Catholics were Christians. [Part of this problem, of course, has to do with Catholics calling themselves "Catholic" and not "Catholic Christians" or simply "Christians"--in a more important way, however, this has to do with the disregard that some Protestants have with Christian history.] I listened to these concerns of my family and decided I would try a different church--this time, a Methodist Church. I tried Methodist because of a psychic mix up. I thought that the little stone church around the corner from my family's home was St. John's Episcopal Church. Turns out, the church had been St. John's years and years ago, but it was now St. Luke's United Methodist. I wanted an Episcopalian church, because I knew they were close to Catholicism. The Methodist community would serve me well, however, and I was baptized there on August 23rd, 1998 [The Feast of St. Rose of Lima, OP].
I was not satisfied with being Methodist, however, so I kept investigating the Catholic Church. I did this by going to Mass on Saturdays, watching EWTN, and reading about the lives of the saints. I also prayed the rosary. I was even given a miracle through the rosary. I developed a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary as a result. But I believe it was the collective impact of the stories about the saints that convinced me that the Catholic Church, for all its faults, had the true gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the fullness of the Gospel Truth. The lives of people like St. Francis of Assisi were above contradiction, so closely did I see Christ mirrored in them. To this day, it is the lives of the saints that gives me the confidence I need to contradict the claims of groups like the Mormons, who say the Church Christ founded was taken up after his death. That's a lie, and no Catholic should believe it. Francis and Dominic, Therese of Liseux, Teresa of Calcutta, John XXIII--all these people lived and preached the Truth handed on by the Apostles. The Church is alive and well.
After a brief period as a Closet Catholic, I finally admitted that I wanted to join the Church. My family was less confused by this time, and I was stronger in my resolve, so I entered RCIA at Mother of God Church [pictured to the left] and received the sacraments during Holy Week and Easter Vigil of 2000.
So why Catholic?
1) An unbroken line of Apostolic Tradition
2) The transmission of Sacramental Grace, extending from Christ the High Priest through his ordained ministers
3) The witness of the lives of the saints
4) The fidelity to both Scripture and Tradition
5) The universality of the Catholic Faith & the unity of Catholics around the world
6) Most importantly: Because the Holy Spirit called me to be Catholic.
What's the Secret to being a Happy Catholic?
Well, my ten years have not been without some bumps and rebellions. What I finally had to learn--a lesson which made it possible for me to enter religious life--is that to be a Happy Catholic, you have to recognize that you come to the Church to be changed by her, you don't stay a Catholic in order to change the Church. Thinking you can change the Church based on modern sensibilities is at best ignorant and at worst arrogant. The Holy Spirit alone is in charge of directing the Church. Members of the Church are called upon to learn from the Church's store of wisdom. When you open yourself to being changed by the Church, through the graces of the Sacraments, through the learning of Scripture and Teaching, and through the interaction with the Body of Christ, you will find that a life of Grace can be yours, that freedom from sin is available to you, that your relationship with God can grow stronger. Only then can your baptismal roles of Priest, Prophet, and King be lived out rightly.
Br. Paul, OP
PS: 1) All of what I have said pertains to the Church's treasury of theological and spiritual wisdom--her divine aspects related to the revelation she has received, preaches, and defends. I am not referring to the human element of the Church, which is quite fallible, at times, and must be called to task for the sake of the integrity of the Gospel.
2) I respect my Protestant and Orthodox Christian sisters and brothers, even while I disagree with them about theology and ecclesiology, etc.