Why did I become a Catholic?
There are not even 100 people in this country who hate the Catholic Church,
On August 14, 2011, at the age of 54, I joined the Catholic Church after being an evangelical Protestant all my life.
Here is a description of my journey, followed by more detailed reasons as to why I did it.
Part 1: My Story
My history of church hopping
I was raised in a Protestant Christian family in Akron, Ohio, and we went to church every Sunday. During my childhood my family changed churches several times. We went to the Lutheran Church, Church of the Nazarene (where I promised God I would become a missionary someday), Evangelical United Brethren Church, United Methodist Church (where I was baptized), Presbyterian Church, and a non-denominational evangelical mega-church called the Chapel in University Park which had an amazing Christian education program and a large staff of ministers and teachers.
After high school I moved away from home to attend the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, where I kept up my personal Bible study and devotions but rarely attended church. During those years I attended a few Protestant churches in Pittsburgh but did not commit to any particular church or denomination. After graduation in 1977 I returned to Akron, got a job, and became a member of the Chapel in University Park. It had a great program for young adults and I since was a single, I went to Church as often as I could. I was very active in their evangelism programs, and my sense of calling to be a missionary was re-kindled there.
Visit to Japan
In the early 80's I went to Malone College (now Malone University) in Canton, Ohio, to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian ministries in preparation to be a career missionary.
I even went to Japan on a summer missionary program in 1983 with SEND International, and Japan turned out to be strangely familiar. You see, I was born in Japan in 1956, and am half Japanese from my mother's side of the family. I moved to America with my parents when I was six months old and was raised there, and I have no recollection of the first six months of my life in Japan. Yet when I visited Japan twenty-seven years later in 1983, I had the overwhelming feeling that this was my home. It was all vaguely familiar and stirred up old images and feelings which were just beyond my grasp.
Discovering the Episcopal Church
After my Japan visit during my final years at college, I realized that my old junk car wasn't up for the trip from Canton to Akron every Sunday so I started to church hop locally, visiting several churches in the area, sometimes catching a ride with friends. I didn't even consider the Catholic Church, but I did try the Greek Orthodox Church and the Episcopal Church as well as the Quakers and Southern Baptists.
I discovered I was attracted to beautiful liturgy at the Episcopal Church which is the Anglican Church in the United States, and became a member. It was good that I had received good Bible teaching at the Chapel and at Malone College because the Episcopal Church in general is great at "celebrating" but not "educating" as I heard one Episcopalian say. There is a lot of room in the Episcopal Church for all kinds of beliefs; it has been called the "roomiest church in Christendom" and there was plenty of room for me to worship God in that beautiful Episcopal setting with its traditional worship style and beautiful music and still retain all my personal Protestant evangelical convictions.
Episcopal missionary in Japan
As an Episcopalian I felt that God was calling me to return to Japan as a missionary. So I joined a small independent evangelical Episcopal sending agency. To raise my support, I visited many Episcopal parishes in America and gave mission-themed messages from the pulpit. Since the only parishes who would invite me were the "good" evangelical and charismatic parishes who supported evangelical missionaries, my exposure to the larger Episcopal Church was generally positive. I had heard rumors that there were bad Episcopalians out there, but I rarely encountered any personally.
I came to Japan in 1987 as our sending board's sole missionary assigned to this country. The Anglican Church in Japan had not invited me and was not particularly interested in my being Japan, so most of my fellowship was with evangelical Protestant missionaries at the Japanese Missionary Language Institute in Tokyo. I studied the language and was active in a traveling evangelistic puppet ministry at many different Evangelical churches by invitation. I would give an entertaining puppet show and then follow it up with a Gospel message and then an invitation for people in the audience (mostly children and young people) to pray a "sinner's prayer" and receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
During this time I had the opportunity to meet many Japanese Christians from many denominations. This was how I met my wife, a bilingual Japanese Christian and member of the Brethren Church. After we were married we continued the puppet ministry as a team. On Sundays when we weren't doing puppet shows, we attended a local Anglican parish. However, after a few years we both grew uncomfortable with the strange unbiblical sermons we kept hearing from the pulpit. The parish priest also told us he did not approve of our evangelistic activity.
Evangelical Protestant once again
My missionary career ended when my mission board was suddenly unable to send me support money, and I had to look for other ways to make a living in Japan. Although this was a difficult time, I was no longer bound by my career to the Anglican Church, so we became active members of an evangelical Protestant church in Tokyo. Actually, we were members of several evangelical churches, spending a few years in one church, and then moving on to another church. Like many Protestants, I felt that church hopping was a natural part of Christian life, and we searched for the perfect church that best fit our beliefs and concept of worship.
We were both happy to be back in an evangelical environment where the preachers actually preached from the Bible, but I had to admit that I rarely felt that I had actually worshipped God after an hour or so of contemporary praise songs and a long sermon each Sunday. It could be fun at times, especially when I played electric guitar or bass in the church band, but I felt something was missing. The biblical faithfulness seemed to be there but the deep worship was missing. Why couldn't I have both?
After eighteen years in the Japanese evangelical Christian community, my spiritual life seemed to dry up. I went to church on Sundays out of a sense of obligation, and my personal devotional life was reduced to the bare minimum of short daily Bible and prayer time.
Then in 2009 our neighbor's wife died, and we were close enough to the family that we were expected to attend the wake which was held the evening before the funeral. Buddhist wakes are a challenge for Christians in Japan because everybody is expected to participate by offering a pinch of incense and praying to the deceased person's soul. My wife and I tried to position ourselves where we could exclude ourselves from the rital unnoticed, but suddenly everyone formed a line and we found ourselves at the very front! All eyes would be on this foreigner to see if I did things properly. My mind was racing, trying to think of a way to maintain my Christian witness while not angering everyone in the room, especially our grieving neighbor. My wife came up with the perfect solution. She whispered to me, "Let's make the sign of the cross and pray silently for a few moments, so everybody will understand without words why we can't offer the incense." I was surprised; I knew how to cross myself from my Anglican days, but I had never seen my wife do it, and wasn't sure she even knew how. But we followed through and everybody seemed to be sympathetic and even grateful for our efforts. Our neighbor gave us a big smile.
For the first time I recognized what a great witnessing tool the sign of the cross could be especially in a non-Christian culture, and out of curiosity I began to research its origins. Of course this brought me into contact with the writings of the early Church Fathers. Apparently Christians were making the sign of the cross on their foreheads from the second century and possibly earlier while the Apostles were still around. Some writings implied that the sign originated with the Apostles themselves. Christian later started making the larger sign (across the head and chest) as a public witness.
My research reawakened in me an appreciation for Church traditions, and reminded me of the good old days. I had fond memories of being in love with God and the Bible and Church back when I was an Anglican. There was something in the ancient liturgy and sacraments that gave me deep joy and burning zeal, and I longed to have it again. I even considered the possibility of secretly visiting an Anglican Church service on Sundays when I wasn't playing bass in our own church band.
But how would I handle those strange Anglican sermons that prompted my exit from the Anglican Church so many years earlier? I reasoned that since the Anglican liturgy always has at least three Bible readings every Sunday (much more Bible content than an average Protestant "Bible" church service) it would be possible to focus on them rather than the sermon if I had to. Besides, Anglican sermons are usually very short, under ten minutes, so maybe the damaged could be contained.
Anglican once again
So the pendulum was swinging back, and I have to believe that it was the Holy Spirit who was drawing me in that direction. After a few secret Sunday visits, I returned to the Anglican Church in the summer of 2009 after an absence of eighteen years. My wife and two children were content to remain in the evangelical Charismatic church where we had worshipped as a family for several years and where many of our friends were, so I went alone. We were still together all week except for a few hours on Sunday, so this did not have a big impact on our family life.
Here in Japan the Anglican Church is called the Nippon Sei Ko Kai. I found a small Anglican parish with very friendly priest and an average Sunday attendance of about 20 people.
Soon I experienced that spiritual revival I was hoping for, and I was once again excited about God's word and going to Church just like the old days. The worship services were in Japanese using the richly traditional Japanese Anglican Prayerbook and hymnal, and my personal devotional life expanded to include traditional Anglican Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible, and I looked forward to it. I fell in love with chanting the Psalms.
I also began to take an interest in "apostolic succession" which is the teaching that the bishops who were ordained by the laying of hands can trace their lineage all the way back to the original twelve Apostles. I was enamored with the Eucharist (communion) and the teaching that when the bread and wine are consecrated by the priest, they are no longer just bread and wine but mysteriously become the body and blood of Christ. What I didn't realize then was that my spiritual stirring seemed to be related to those ancient practices which came from the days when the Anglican Church was still a part of the Catholic Church.
But when I looked beyond the walls of my tiny church, I felt like the frog who had the sense to jump out of the water as it was getting hot, only to jump back in when it was boiling!
The problem was much bigger than an occasional strange sermon. The Anglican Church, especially the Episcopal Church in America had departed from its own doctrines and had descended so low that when you looked past the beautiful facade, it hardly resembled anything Christian. There was news of openly practicing homosexual priests and bishops, wicca priestesses leading worship services, and at the highest levels of episcopal leadership there was public denial of basic Christian doctrines such as the deity of Christ, and his role in our salvation.
Something evil had been gradually taking over the Episcopal Church and now its leaders were persecuting and driving out the faithful orthodox Christians; practically all of the Anglicans whom I had respected for their solid faith and commitment to Christ had left the Anglican Church a long time ago.
But still I was happy to simply hole up in my own small parish, have a rich personal devotional life, and do my best to ignore the problems of the larger Anglican Church. I thought I could go living in this bubble which shielded me from the boiling water outside.
However, the bubble burst when our priest was transferred to a different parish and the bishop assigned a woman priest to our parish. I was forced to study my Bible for loopholes to see if I could remain in such a situation, but I concluded reluctantly that the Bible did not allow for women to be priests.
I managed to find a different parish in a different diocese, and started worshipping there on Sundays, but I knew that this could only be a stop-gap solution as the direction of the Anglican Church was clear, and most of the faithful leaders had already left, leaving the revisionists and heretics to pursue their agenda without hindrance. No parish was immune under those circumstances.
I felt that sooner or later I would have to leave the Anglican Church -- once again -- but I was very reluctant to go backwards and return to the evangelical church where I had felt such dryness. This church-hopper had run out of churches. I was on a sinking ship, praying for a lifeline.
A challenge to consider the unthinkable
It was around that time that I heard the astounding news that Pope Benedict XVI had opened a door for faithful Anglicans to enter the Catholic Church as groups which could retain the good parts of their rich Anglican heritage.
I had never dreamed of being a Catholic, and had no desire to be one now. I didn't have a very positive image of the Catholic Church, although I really didn't know a whole lot about them either -- other than the fact that the Anglican Church split from them a long time ago, and there were similarities in style since the Anglican liturgy came from the Catholic liturgy. Of course, I knew that our Anglican line of apostolic succession came through the Catholic Church. Also, I had heard that the Catholic Church didn't tolerate all the heretical nonsense that the Anglicans had embraced in recent years, and that was a point in their favor.
One of my old acquaintances was an Anglican priest, Fr. Lawrence Wheeler whom I had met in 1987. After I came back to the Anglican Church, we re-established contact, and I found that he was now pastor of a parish which worshipped in the Anglican tradition but was not a part of the Anglican Church. His parish was ready to accept the pope's offer, and Fr. Wheeler challenged me to seriously consider the claims of the Catholic Church myself.
As an evangelical Protestant I was reluctant to go in that direction, but here was someone whom I respected and had a similar background as mine who was actually encouraging me to do so (Fr. Wheeler had also an been evangelical Christian before he became an Anglican). So I began to investigate the Catholic Church. I found lots of internet sources and informative books on Catholicism, many of them written by former Protestants. I discovered EWTN, a Catholic television/radio network, and started listening to podcasts of its shows, such as The Journey Home, Catholic Answers Live, and Open Line.
I spent more than a year of studying the claims of the Catholic Church, the writings of the early Church Fathers, related passages in the Bible, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a fairly large book which spells out exactly what the Catholic Church believes (you can read it for free online as well), and my objections started to melt as I became convinced that the Catholic Church is the true and original church that Jesus established on earth, that "city set on a hill that cannot be hidden," and that all of the Protestant churches I had attended and had been a member of throughout my Christian life were actually "ecclesial communities," something like tent villages located perhaps on the same hill, but clearly outside the walls of that city.
I also became convinced not only of apostolic succession, but specifically the teaching that Jesus had singled out Peter as the rock on which he would build his Church, and that Peter's successors, the bishops of Rome, would continue to fill Peter's office as the head bishop of the Church on earth. I was also even more convinced that Jesus had intended for the bread and wine to miraculously become his real body and blood in the Eucharist (I elaborate on these two teachings in part 2 of this article below.)
I discovered to my amazement that here was a church that had everything I was looking for in all my church hopping: biblical faithfulness and deep worship -- plus so much more.
During my research I also uncovered a bit of disturbing news. In 1896, Pope Leo XIII officially declared that Anglican orders were "absolutely null and utterly void." In other words Anglican bishops and priests no longer had the authority which had been passed down from the apostles. This would affect among other things the ordination of subsequent priests and bishops, and also what would happen (or not happen) to the host when it is consecrated by the priest in the Eucharist. My first reaction was "How dare he!" It seemed so cold and unfriendly to cut off Anglican clergy like that.
I first read about this in 2010. In May of that year the Episcopal Church in the United States consecrated its second openly gay bishop who was living in a same-sex relationship (a lesbian in this case) and that summer a woman Anglican priest in Canada gave the consecrated host to a total stranger who walked in during communion -- and also gave one to his dog who had walked in with him! Suddenly I realized the wisdom of Pope Leo's decree. It was as if the Holy Spirit gave him a glimpse of how far the Anglican clergy could abuse their authority once they no longer submitted to the authority of the Church and the pope, and the pope was powerless to stop them. And I was thankful that the real body of Christ had not been fed to that dog.
Of course, the implications for my own personal experience of communion in the Anglican Church were devastating.
Running to the Church
Now my focus had changed. I was no longer running from the Anglican Church; I was eagerly running to the Catholic Church. My reasons for wanting to join the Catholic Church were different from my reasons for wanting to leave the Anglican Church, and I would continue this journey even if all the problems in the Anglican Church vanished. I didn't want to wait for the pope's door for Anglican groups to open; I felt I had to come over to the Catholic Church as soon as possible, even if I had to come alone.
Now the question was how to go about it. How does an Evangelical Protestant become a Catholic? During my period of study, I had visited several Catholic parishes in Tokyo on Sunday mornings and ended up in a small friendly Japanese Catholic parish with an English speaking priest just a few blocks from the Anglican parish I had been attending. This allowed me to attend the 8:00 Sunday morning service at the Anglican parish and then walk over and attend the 10:30 Catholic mass where I could experience Catholicism first hand on a regular basis and make sure this was the right decision.
I continued in this manner for several months, taking communion at the Anglican service and watching everyone else take communion at the Catholic mass. I still preferred the Anglican hymns with those wonderful harmonies, but I was now convinced that the real presence of Christ was in the Eucharist of the Catholic Church, and that this was indeed the true and original church that Jesus Christ had established with Peter as its head bishop.
By the time I decided to join the Church, I had become a familiar face at the Catholic parish, and had made lots of friends there. So it was no surprise to anyone when I finally told the head priest I wanted to become a member. I figured the process would be long and drawn out with several months of classes, which is the usual procedure for adults coming into the Church. But the priest surprised me by saying he could let me join at the next international mass which was seven weeks away. For preparation, he only asked me to read one document from the Second Vatican Council about the role of the Church in the modern world (Gaudium Et Spes). When I asked why the process was so simple and quick in my case, he replied that it was because of my training and background as an Anglican missionary, and that I had studied the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I had actually read that book three times during my investigation of the claims of the Catholic Church.
A few weeks before I was to be confirmed, I went to my first confession. I squeezed myself into a tiny booth and confessed all the serious sins I could recall during my life since my baptism. I wasn't embarrassed to confess my sins to the priest since I knew he had heard it all before. Then he said that I was forgiven of all my sins, and I knew he spoke with the authority that Jesus Christ had entrusted to the apostles, who in turn entrusted it to their successors down to the present day. All my sins were truly forgiven as Jesus had promised in John 20:23. It felt great.
Then a few weeks later I was confirmed and joined the Catholic Church and finally took communion there. My baptism as a teenager in the United Methodist was considered valid, so I only needed to be confirmed. My wife and children were present to witness this big event in my life, but as of this writing, they are still attending the evangelical Protestant Church. My wife has observed the positive changes in me since I entered the Church, and recognizes it as a good thing -- at least for me.
Part 2: My Reasons
So now I am Catholic, having become convinced that I had no choice. I was compelled to join the Catholic Church. There were basically two reasons.
Reason 1: Peter
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?"
Jesus' plan was to build a church, and Peter was to be the rock on which it was built. In their native language Aramaic, Peter's name and the word for rock are exactly the same word: Kepha. Later on, Jesus gave all the apostles the authority to bind and loose, but he gave only to Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. And Peter alone was the rock on which Jesus would build his church.
Jesus gave great authority to the apostles and especially to Peter which would have a binding effect on heaven itself! This is mind boggling if you read how most of them abandoned Jesus at His crucifixion, and about all the mistakes Peter made; he could be a real bumbler at times. He often spoke without thinking, and he publicly denied being associated with Jesus three times in a row. How many people in history were called "Satan" in a rebuke by Jesus Himself? He was even rebuked in public by the apostle Paul for hypocrisy. In order to avoid a disaster, you would expect God to keep Peter and the apostles on a short leash at least during those moments when they were exercising this authority!
The Church believes that God has done that, as was demonstrated at that crucial moment when bumbling Peter was given a revelation directly from God concerning who Jesus really was. It is no coincidence that Jesus made His declaration to Peter right then and there.
Some might think that Peter was merely one of the twelve (perhaps a little more colorful than the others), and that it is unreasonable to put too much emphasis on him. Well, here is a bit of data that might have escaped their notice: Peter's name is mentioned in the New Testament 156 times, far more than the other eleven apostles. John is in second place, and his name only appears 29 times!
Jesus also singled out Peter when he gave these commands concerning His followers:
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?"
The Church would continue after the apostles had died, so it was necessary for them to continue their work by handing their office and authority to others. The first instance of this is recorded in the first chapter of Acts, and it also shows Peter acting in his role as head of the apostles:
In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, "Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry."
In the quote above, May another take his place of leadership, the Greek word for leadership is episkope and means office of bishop (overseer). This is significant because it indicates that the mission of the apostles was not just to preach the gospel, but to also function as bishops or overseers of the Church. After the death of the original twelve apostles, the Church would continue to appoint men to take their place as overseers in increasing numbers as the Church spread throughout the world.
The early church kept very good records, and we know that Peter went to Antioch and was a bishop there for a while, and finally ended up in Rome to become the first bishop of the Church of Rome, where he was killed and buried. His grave has been identified and his bones have been found under the high altar of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. We know the names of the men who became the bishops of Rome after Peter. The second bishop of Rome was Linus, the third was Anencletus, and the fourth was Clement, and the list continues up to the present pope. Linus and Clement were probably the same ones who are mentioned in the letters of Paul. The bishop of Rome was eventually called "papa" which becomes "pope" in English.
The apostolic office and authority of Peter and the apostles -- including protection from error at crucial moments -- was passed on to their successors, the pope and all the bishops of the world in union with the pope.
So when the pope makes an official declaration concerning faith and morals in the context of his office as successor to Peter the chief of the apostles, the Holy Spirit prevents him from saying something false. Like Peter (who might also be called the chief bumbler among the apostles) he might still make mistakes at other times, in all other areas of his life in words and actions, and he is still a sinner like all humans. The Holy Spirit guides the Church through the office of the pope and when necessary protects the Church from the man who occupies that position. The concept of papal infallibility is really nothing more than this.
The Church has had a certain amount of freedom in choosing men to fill the office of pope, and in history a few of them were really corrupt men. Yet God protected the Church from these men, and they were not permitted to cause damage to the teachings of the Church. It is the office of pope that God uses and protects from error regardless of the man who fills the office. These days the men who become popes are godly men.
Throughout history God has established specific humans on earth to guide His people, such as Moses, the prophets, judges and kings. Without such an authority on earth, the Church would have the same problems that Israel experienced during a dark period in its history :
In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.
What happens when Christians reject the authority of Peter's successor? Since the reformation in the 16th century, the Protestant churches have been splitting and splintering at an incredible rate with nothing to stop them. Today there are over 30,000 Protestant denominations, each with its own interpretation of the Bible, and the number keeps growing. Each denomination or independent church believes that it is more correct than all others, and some disagreements are major, such as how a person is saved. It has become the norm for people to church-hop until they find one that suits their personal beliefs. And if their beliefs change later on, they look for another church.
Is this what God intended? All my adult life I had searched for the church that would fit me like a glove, and I never found it. At one point I had even considered starting a church in my home that perfectly conformed to my own beliefs, and I could think of no reason to stop me. But now the tables were turned as I was confronted with a church that claimed God's authority, with overwhelming evidence to back up that claim. I finally realized that I had to end my own church hopping and submit to the teaching authority of the one church that Jesus built on a rock, with the direct successors to Peter and the apostles still leading it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Reason 2: The Eucharist
When Jesus performed the amazing miracle of feeding five thousand people with just five loaves of bread and two fish, a large crowd followed him, hoping to be fed again and again with more miraculous food. It was at this time that Jesus made his shocking declaration which alienated many followers:
Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever."
The listeners obviously took Jesus' declaration at face value because many stopped following him as a result. He didn't try to bring them back by saying that the words were only figurative.
Later, at the last supper, we have this account:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
This would put an end to any speculation as to what Jesus had meant by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. A miracle took place at that moment.
The writings of the early Church Fathers clearly show that the Church from the beginning has always taken Jesus' words literally and has always believed in this miracle, that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ while still retaining the appearance and taste of bread and wine (good thing for us, since it would be extremely difficult for the average person to take communion if we could see it for what it really is). The Church has the power to bring this miracle about.
If you wonder how Christians can eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood every Sunday in churches all over the world, just remember that Jesus announced this new miracle just after he performed the miracle of multiplying loaves when he fed five thousand. Multiplication is a miracle he can handle with no problem.
If Jesus established the Eucharist as the way for Christians to eat His flesh and drink His blood, then it would stand to reason that it would be the main event when we come together. And so it is in the Catholic Church. We are physical beings, and the Eucharist is our physical point of contact with God Himself!
I had to join the Catholic Church because of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the grace that comes from it.
Icing on the cake: Signs and wonders
I don't consider this a reason for joining the Catholic Church, but it affirms my decision. Many Protestant churches teach that miracles ceased when the apostles died or when the last book of the Bible was written. Some churches teach that miracles returned with the Pentecostal movement in the 20th century. But the history of the Catholic Church shows an unbroken line of amazing miracles from the days of the apostles till today. The Holy Spirit has not been asleep or in hiding all these years; He has been very active and still in the miracle business; some of us just didn't know where to look. As a matter of fact, the largest charismatic church in the world is the Catholic Church with some 200 million members in the Charismatic Renewal.
If the Eucharist is what the Church says it is, and that Jesus is really present, then it should not be surprising to hear of miracles associated with the Eucharist. A lot of those miracles involved priests who did not believe the bread and wine really became the body and blood of Jesus, so God showed them the truth in very graphic way (need I go into details?). One of the more notable Eucharistic miracles happened in a place called Lanciano. Just do a web search for Eucharistic miracles (or Lanciano) and see for yourself.
While I'm on the subject of miracles, what about all those Bible accounts of physical objects which became channels of God's power? You know, the stories that make us slightly uncomfortable, such as:
The Bible is full of such examples, and they are difficult to ignore or explain away as exceptions to the rule. Like Naaman, we might prefer to view God's miracles as simply a matter of waving a hand or saying a few words without getting physical.
Some of us have misunderstood the concept of "the flesh versus the spirit" and have become so "spiritual" in our mindset that we seem to have forgotten that God created us as physical beings in a physical world and that God Himself took on a physical body. Even when He appeared in his resurrected body, Jesus ate physical food in the presence of the disciples. Then He ascended to heaven in that same body. So God's blessing and approval remains on the physical creation, and He works through it. If we can't see that, how shallow and empty our world view has become!
The Catholic Church has not forgotten and has continued to make use of physical objects as channels of God's miraculous power. In addition to the elements of the Eucharist, we have holy water and a wide variety of blessed physical objects called sacramentals which have become channels of God's grace and power and have brought about amazing miracles throughout history.
Are these objects like good luck charms with magical power in them? Of course not. When the woman touched the edge of Jesus' cloak it is clear that the power came from Jesus and not the cloak itself. The cloak was a channel of power. The power of all these miraculous objects still comes from God even though they come through the objects. The bones of Elisha are particularly notable. When God chose Elisha as a physical channel of miraculous power, that arrangement apparently remained in effect even when there was not much of Elisha left except for a few bones!
I'm so happy to be in a Church that does not sweep those uncomfortable stories under the rug, but embraces a more complete view of God's power and physical channels of grace as described in the Bible. Protestants have been missing out on some pretty exciting stuff these past few centuries, and there's lots of catching up to do!
Part 3: Other Issues
I have given my two reasons (plus a little icing) for joining the Catholic Church. Now I must address a few issues which cannot be ignored.
The Church and the Bible
All the apostles went about spreading the gospel and establishing churches, appointing local church leaders and passing on all the necessary instructions to get the churches started right, and yet most of the apostles did not write anything that has been preserved in the Bible. What we have in the New Testament came from a few of the apostles (and their fellow workers) and even those writings are but a small portion of what they taught. Writing took time away from preaching, and letters could be easily intercepted during times of persecution. The apostles preferred speaking to writing, as John said at the end of his second and third letters:
I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.
I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.
The apostle Paul also made it clear that the writings were only part of the teaching, and that the spoken messages were also very important and not to be forgotten:
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
(By the way, I can't let this verse go by without pointing out the fact that the Greek word for "teachings" is "paradosis" which is translated as "tradition" in English in other places in the NIV, but the translators made the decision in this one instance to bend the rules and use "teaching" apparently because they did not want to promote the idea that tradition can be a good thing.)
Paul also instructed his disciple Timothy to pass on his oral teachings to other men who would also pass them on to others.
You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.
We have no writings of Timothy in the Bible. So what became of the teachings of Paul which Timothy heard and was told to pass on? Are they lost forever?
For that matter, considering how many hours of teaching and preaching must have been done by all the apostles during their lives compared to the relatively small number of books we have in the New Testament, it would appear that the vast majority of apostolic teaching has been lost, both written and oral! The apostle Paul made reference to a few of his own letters that have been lost, such as a letter to the Corinthians between the first and second letters we have in our Bible, and also a letter to the Laodiceans.
We know that this is true with the gospels; the majority of the deeds of Jesus are lost and unknown today. The apostle John outlived all the others, and as the last surviving member of "the Twelve" in his old age, he apparently understood that Christ would not return in his own lifetime, and saw the need to record more details of Jesus' life which were not included in the other three gospels. He knew that once he died the rest of the story and teachings would be lost forever. But his time was limited, and he made it very clear to the reader that much would have to go unwritten.
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
As far as we know, Jesus did not write anything down (except for some unrecorded writing with his finger on the ground) and the majority of what Jesus did during His time on earth -- plus what he must have said in connection with those deeds -- went unrecorded. Jesus spent some three years with the twelve apostles, living with them and talking with them day and night. He must have taught them many things to prepare them for their roles as leaders in the Church. All that information no doubt exceeded the volume of information that exists in the few written records of the apostles who were probably more interested in using their time to proclaim the gospel to the world than write down instructions for the Church leaders! That could have been reserved for teaching sessions with smaller groups. What they did not write down, they surely passed on orally to their disciples, the next generation of leaders in the Church.
So what happened to all that teaching of the apostles that was based on what they learned from Jesus? Was it completely lost? Not necessarily; some can be gleaned from the writings of the early Church Fathers. Some of these documents such as the Didache were written while the apostles were still alive, before some parts of the New Testament were written. Others were written after the deaths of the apostles such as the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch who was a disciple of John and possibly made a bishop of Antioch by Peter. Although not inspired like the Bible, they are reliable as historical documents and include descriptions of how the early church worshipped and conducted itself, and how the early hierarchy was structured (bishops, priests and deacons), which all point back to the unrecorded, oral instructions that the first Christians received from the apostles, who received them from Jesus himself.
We even have a book on early Church history which was written by Eusebius of Caesarea in the early 300s A.D. This man had access to documents which have long since perished, plus he had access to accounts and histories which were handed down orally and still fresh. Although definitely not inspired scripture, it is generally reliable as any history book, and has some amazing accounts of what the Christians regarded as historical fact back then.
What's the best way to interpret the Bible? Come up with your own interpretation 2000 years after the fact, or find out how the first Christians interpreted it while the apostles or their disciples were still around to correct them?
Catholics accept the ancient teachings and practices handed down in the Church, which are called Sacred Tradition. These teachings fill in a lot of the gaps. Protestants claim to accept only the teachings of the Bible (although the very concept of relying only on the Bible comes from outside the Bible since it is not taught anywhere in the Bible). Even with Catholics the God-inspired Scriptures have priority over Tradition, but both are considered important. To be fair, even as a Protestant I knew that we also filled in gaps with our own "traditions" which were not nearly as old as the Catholic ones. I remember thinking that a person could not even get "saved" by reading just the Bible without some kind of supplement such as the "Four Spiritual Laws" to show him the way.
It is no wonder we have so much difficulty communicating and debating certain issues; Protestants and Catholics don't go by the same ground rules. We are not on the same page. Protestants look to the Bible only while Catholics look to the Church that gave us the Bible.
For the first few centuries, the Church spread all over Europe, Africa and Asia and suffered great persecution so that Christians had to meet in secret for fear of their lives. Hand-copied manuscripts of gospel accounts and letters of the apostles were circulated among the churches along with lots of other similar writings. These were read during the worship services of the early Christians.
There was no general agreement among the Christians concerning which writings were the inspired written Word of God. Then, after Christianity was declared legal and Christians came out of hiding, the pope and bishops gathered during the fourth century and determined which books were to be included in the New Testament canon. We believe the Holy Spirit guided them as they exercised their special authority. The Church gave us the New Testament.
When Paul used the term "pillar and foundation of the truth" in his letter to Timothy, what do you suppose he was referring to? The Bible? No, he was referring to the Church:
Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
And back then there was only one church he could be referring to, the church that Jesus built, the Catholic Church. "Catholic" simply means universal, and the term "Catholic Church" (ekklesia katolika in Greek) was used way back around 110 A.D. in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (mentioned above). Ignatius did not have to explain what he meant by it; the Church was apparently already called the Catholic Church by that time.
When I discuss my faith with others, I refer to myself as a Christian, as I have always done. For the first thousand years, all Christians were members of one church and it was the Catholic Church. The original Christians were Catholics. All Christians who recite the Nicene Creed or the Apostles' Creed profess their belief in the Holy Catholic Church. Today some people may explain this term away, but when it was written there was no ambiguity as to what church it referred to.
The Christianity of history is not Protestantism.
But can I trust them?
When I first took a serious look at the Catholic Church I had the major obstacles that all Protestants have, such as the pope, Mary and the saints, and I began my investigation like any Protestant would, by looking for evidence in the Bible. Then I turned to the early Church Fathers, church history, and also a big fat book called The Catechism of the Catholic Church to see what the Catholic Church actually taught about these issues. Even as I came up with enough evidence to overcome some difficulties, other issues popped up that I needed confront. I suspected that even more issues might surface later on, and the quest could go on forever if my goal was to pursue every difficult teaching to a satisfactory conclusion.
My problem was I was going about it the wrong way because I had missed the main issue which was whether or not the teaching authority of the Catholic Church is trustworthy. I wouldn't have to prove every doctrine that I came across if I could just trust the Church and accept that it has been guided all along by the Holy Spirit as Jesus promised to the first church leaders, the apostles:
I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.
It seems reasonable that the Holy Spirit would guide the church into all the truth especially since Paul declared the church to be the pillar and foundation of the truth.
When Jesus made this promise, he was talking to the men who would be the leaders of the church which was to be founded at that time and which would continue to the present day. He was not addressing leaders of Protestant churches which would not come into existence for another 1,500 years.
Protestants already accept that the Holy Spirit has guided the Catholic Church into all the truth, because we all accept many teachings which are not spelled out in the Bible but were taught in the early church, and we all use Catholic words not found in the Bible such as Trinity and incarnation. These biblical concepts are not as self evident as we would like to think. The Catholic Church, guided by the Spirit of truth had to clarify and define doctrine when people started to teach contrary opinions. As mentioned above, we accept the list of 27 books of the New Testament that the Catholic Church gave us.
Many Protestants also accept as reliable the early historical accounts of the deaths of the apostles such as reports of Paul being beheaded and Peter crucified upside down in Rome. We accept the historical accounts of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. although it is not described in the Bible.
If we accept some of what the Catholic Church has taught us, on what grounds do we reject the rest? Where can we draw the line? The same people who gave us the 27 books of the New Testament also tell us that we must not ignore the other teachings of the apostles as handed down in the church.
So the big issue is what I have mentioned so many times already: authority. Can I recognize the authority of the one universal Church that Jesus built and which the Holy Spirit has guided and preserved? Can I submit to that authority?
OK, a few answers
I'm sure that some readers who have had similar questions to the ones I mentioned will be very disappointed if I don't offer a few answers anyway. So here are a few brief statements from my research that helped overcome my main objections:
Papal infallibility: Already pretty much answered above. As Catholics understand it, it does not mean the pope never sins or makes mistakes; the pope will readily admit he has done both. It simply means that when the pope is making a declaration "ex-cathedra" (in his official capacity as the man occupying the chair of Peter), he is protected from error only when he is addressing matters of faith and morals, such as in interpreting the scriptures. Many men were similarly protected when they wrote those scriptures.
One would expect nothing less if the Holy Spirit were guiding the Church throughout history. It's a very tight description with lots of restrictions, and some Catholic have asserted that papal infallibility has only been exercised a few times in history. It seems that something this narrowly defined ought to be acceptable to even Protestants. As I will say repeatedly, the early church accepted this teaching, having received it from the apostles.
Immaculate Conception of Mary: The early church accepted this teaching, having received it from the apostles. It is certainly implied in the wording of the Greek text of Luke 1:28 where Mary is described as kecharitomene which is not easily translated into English, but "one who has been graced" comes the closest, and "full of grace" is pretty close. It implies that Mary was not plagued with original sin. It's not an unbiblical concept; Adam and Eve were both born without original sin and were sinless for a time.
The early Church defended the divinity of Christ, and asserted that he was God even from the moment of his conception. In defending this teaching, it referred to Mary as the "theotokos" which is translated as "God-bearer" or "mother of God" so it could refute the arguments of those who said Jesus only became God after he was born. The teaching has more to do with who Jesus was, and how holy the human vessel had to be who carried God-in-the-flesh for nine months and gave birth to him. We are saved from sin by Jesus; Jesus could have saved her from sin before she had a chance to fall into sin.
Assumption of Mary, body and soul into heaven at the end of her life: The early church accepted this teaching, having received it from the apostles who apparently witnessed the event. If it took place after the New Testament was written, then of course the Bible would not mention it. The Bible also does not contain accounts of the subsequent lives of most of the twelve apostles, but we have some written accounts from outside the Bible. The details are not clear, and she might have died first, and then her body was taken to heaven, or she might have been taken up into heaven before she died.
It's not an unbiblical concept; God took both Enoch and Elijah out of this world, body and soul.
If you seriously contemplate the mystery of the incarnation and how God the "Word made Flesh" was formed, nourished and protected in a human womb for nine months, then you must concede how special this woman would have to be, and how she would remain special to God forever. Would God allow this to take place in a womb tainted by original sin? Would Jesus allow such a special woman to be buried and simply decompose in the ground when not even those in the grave escape His gaze? In light of this, both the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary are unavoidable conclusions.
Praying to Mary and the Saints: The early church accepted and practiced this. They must have gotten it from the apostles. As a Protestant I was taught that praying was "talking to God," but that is too narrow a definition. Praying has always meant simply talking, whether to God or humans; just read some literature from the 19th century for abundant examples. According to Revelation 6:9-11, the saints in heaven are very aware of what is going on here on earth, and those who were killed for their faith are asking how long God is going to refrain from dealing with those who killed them on earth.
If we are surrounded right now by a "cloud of witnesses" as described in Hebrews 12, then Christians who have gone to heaven are not as far away as we might think, and we can still ask them to pray for us, just as we did when they were with us. We can ask anyone who is in heaven to pray for us.
Why ask saints to pray for us when we can go directly to God? Well, why do you ask your Christian friends on earth to pray for you when you can go directly to God? Have you ever taken an important prayer request to a pastor or some person who seemed holy because you thought the prayer would have a better chance of being heard if they prayed it? Nothing wrong with that, right? James 5:16 tells us to pray for each other because the "prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective."
Asking Mary or a saint to pray for you is like picking up the phone to ask your pastor or Christian friends to pray for you, the big difference being the prayers of saints are even more "powerful and effective" since they are with God and see God face to face, and their prayers are unhindered by sin because they are perfectly righteous. Prayer to Mary and the saints is basically just asking for their intercession, and it can bring amazing results! Why not ask your friends on earth AND in heaven to pray for that big request next time?
Worshipping statues: Catholics are not allowed to worship statues, because that would be a sin. It only looks like they are worshipping statues. They know as well as you do that statues are man-made objects that have no life in themselves. The commandment to not make "graven images" is only part of that commandment in Exodus 20 (the Ten Commandments). The other part says to not worship them. Making images is not prohibited in the Bible. God even instructed it to be done when he gave instructions for making gold cherubim, and bronze oxen as well as Moses' bronze snake on a pole. That snake had to be destroyed only after the Israelites started to worship it.
Many Protestants enjoy religious statues or prints, especially at Christmas time when we bring the nativity scenes out with Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, a few shepherds and wise men and a bunch of animals. Washington D.C. is full of statues which remind us of great people in history. A lot of people, even Christians, feel a sense of reverence as well as sadness when they stand in front of that huge statue of Abraham Lincoln, but I doubt that anybody actually worships the statue or believes it is a substitute for the real thing. We look at the statue but we are also looking past the statue at the man whom the statue represents, although nobody living today has ever seen the real Abraham Lincoln in the flesh.
Statues are like photos of our loved ones. When we are separated from our loved ones we may keep those photos in an honored place, talk to them and even kiss them, but we know they are just photos and have no life in themselves. It may look like we are adoring photos or have some kind of relationship with them, but that's not the case.
Statues serve a similar function which some Catholics utilize in their devotional life, and they can be very useful. You might look at a statue of Mary while talking to Mary, but it is merely a focal point that allows you to think of the real Mary whom you have never met. A simple crucifix reminds me of what Jesus did for me and makes me reflect on that sacrifice and my response to it. A crucifix is not a denial of the resurrection as some Protestants have wrongly concluded. As Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 1:23, "We preach Christ crucified."
Confession of sins to a priest: As a Protestant I used to think this meant that every sin we commit had to be confessed every week to a priest. This is not the case, and overworked priests might be thankful. The Catholic Church as well as the Protestants recognizes the Biblical teaching of confessing sins directly to God for forgiveness.
But the Catholic Church also recognizes that some sins are more serious than others. Jesus taught this (blasphemy against the Spirit is a sin which will not be forgiven), and the Apostle John emphasized it when he talked about certain serious sins which were "unto death." Basically if we deliberately and with full knowledge of the gravity of our actions choose to disobey God and set some thing or activity as more important to us than God, then it goes beyond the category of light sins. Any mortal sins (sins unto death) must be confessed to a priest who will then exercise the authority which Jesus gave to the Apostles:
Again Jesus said, 'Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you'. And with that he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.'
Since the apostles all died, either that authority was passed on to their successors, or else it died with them, and the Church has lost access to this important means of receiving forgiveness of sins. The Church has taught from the beginning that the authority of the apostles has been passed down to bishops and their priests. In order for a priest to forgive sins, he must know what the specific sins are since most priests cannot read your mind. Thus confession is necessary for this to happen. Confession is actually a wonderful gift for which we ought to be thankful, especially in light of this passage in Hebrews:
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
Confession to a priest who can with the authority of Christ absolve us of serious sins is an amazing provision -- a lifeline -- which allows us to come back to God when we have walked away.
By the way, there's no need to get hung up on the word priest which is an English word which came to us via German from the original Greek word presbyteros which can also be translated directly into English as elder. The Greek word for Old Testament temple priests is a different word, hierus (and the Hebrew word is kohen).
By the way, in case you were wondering, the Catholic Church does recognize the priesthood of all believers. Did you know that the teaching originally appeared in the Old Testament back when there was still a special office of priest? The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers did not abolish the special office of priest.
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.
Purgatory: Okay, this was the biggest difficulty I had with the Catholic Church until I discovered that it is sort of a "scrubbing up" for some Christians before they get into heaven, or a purging of impurities, since nothing impure will enter heaven (Revelation 21:27). Paul wrote of some kind of test where our works will be burned up and we will suffer loss, although we ourselves will be saved as through fire (1 Corinthians 3:15). Ask yourself this, and be honest: if you suddenly died at this moment, even if you have confidence that you will go to heaven, are you in such a state that you could walk right in just as you are, and go on acting and talking and thinking exactly as you have done on earth, or would something have to be done to take care of your sinful habits and thoughts and other impurities? Character transformation takes a long time in this life, and real holiness in thought, word and deed takes a while to grow and take hold -- and there are often setbacks.
Think of the most foul mouthed, evil person you know. If that person became a Christian at the last minute in some type of deathbed conversion, can you imagine what he would be like in heaven? That person would have to be radically different from the person you know on earth; maybe you wouldn't even be able to recognize him. Hmmm, perhaps you already believe in the necessity of something like purgatory even if you don't call it that. The Church does not teach that all Christians must go through purgatory, but only those who require it (but how many Christians do you know who wouldn't require a little scrubbing up?). Maybe it's instantaneous or maybe it takes a long time; who knows? After we leave our physical bodies in death, we will no longer bound by time as we are in this life, so it's difficult to discuss how long the process takes or even how it will feel. Very little is known about it actually.
Now there is one more aspect to purgatory which was difficult for me to accept at first. Let's say that the foul mouthed, evil person in the example above was also a mass murderer who derived pleasure from torturing and killing many people including some people close to you. How would you feel if you met that person in heaven, having gotten off completely scot-free? A lot of people might be tempted to secretly wish that such notorious sinners would never hear the gospel and go to heaven, because they want to see justice done properly. That kind of thinking is a symptom of the way we were taught about salvation from a Protestant standpoint. As a Protestant I was taught (and taught others) that salvation through Jesus is like when you are a kid and you break a neighbor's window and your dad or someone pays for the window instead of you. From what I understand, the Catholic view is that salvation is like someone else paying the legal penalty for breaking the law concerning vandalism such as paying a fine or going to jail in your place, but that the damage to the window still has to be taken care of. So purgatory also serves that purpose. Jesus' words in Matthew 5 are particularly relevant here:
Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
But at least you will eventually get out some time, which should be a great source of hope for even the worst sinner who turns to Christ at the last moment. If there was no purgatory, then Jesus' statement makes no sense. He can't be talking about hell since people who go to hell apparently have no hope of ever getting out. And how else can we explain Paul's words about our works burning up, and ourselves being saved as through fire? Maybe it's time we stopped ignoring those Bible verses that we could not explain as Protestants.
Now of course, the word "purgatory" itself does not appear in the Bible, but as I mentioned above, the words "Trinity" and "Incarnation" also do not appear in the Bible, and yet we accept them as true because they are alluded to in the Bible, and Church has taught them to be true.
Again, as I mentioned above, more issues may crop up from time to time which might be unsettling until answers are found. Even after you find the answers, you may be uncomfortable with them simply because they are foreign to your Protestant cultural background. The bigger issue is whether or not the Holy Spirit has been guiding the Church and protecting it from doctrinal error as it developed. If this is true, then I can accept the teachings of the Church even if I can't readily defend them based on my limited research.
I should point out here that when I talk about doctrine, I do not speak with the authority of the Church. When I was a Protestant, it was commonly accepted that "authority" rested with people who did their homework such as theologians who put so much time into Bible study. Church Pastors and members look to the theologians and trust their commentaries and "study Bibles" for the answers. Of course, this causes problems when theologians disagree. In Jesus' time, this would be like submitting to the authority of the scribes and teachers of the law rather than the priests. In the traditional Catholic way of seeing things, theologians do not have the final say. As a matter of fact, their assertions can be taken with a grain of salt, especially those theologians who write strange things. The real authority rests with those to whom it has been entrusted, namely the pope and bishops in union with the pope. I am not a pope or a bishop. I'm not a spokesman for the Church or even a theologian. I'm just a convert from Protestantism and in many ways I still walk and talk like a Protestant, and probably always will.
Church growth and development
One may be very suspicious of all the new stuff that has been apparently added to the teaching of the Church throughout history. Let's look at it through a different lense. Going back to the image of a city on a hill, imagine you are entering the city at dawn, and start to explore the streets as your eyes adjust to the light and as the light itself grows brighter. You gradually discover more and more treasures and wonders which were always there, but which were not visible to your eyes in the beginning. You are also amazed to discover that you are not alone, but are surrounded by a crowd of citizens who have been with you all along, and are eager to offer their assistance.
The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.
The leaders of the Protestant Peformation who left the "city" in the 16th-century to start their own tent villages, had a dim, partial understanding of that city. Their descendants trimmed back even more elements; Luther, Calvin and Zwingli held Catholic teachings about Mary such as her perpetual virginity, for instance, which were rejected by subsequent generations of Protestants.
Just because you haven't seen it before doesn't necessarily mean it's new; it might be ancient.
The Church (specifically its leaders, the bishops with the pope) as the pillar and foundation of the truth has the authority to defend and define teachings as official Church doctrine, but it has been reluctant to do so until it reaches a point of crisis when a teaching is challenged and there is danger of people abandoning it. Some such doctrines such as the incarnation and the Trinity had to be defended early, while others such as long-held teachings about Mary had to be defended much later.
Jesus used the image of a mustard seed to describe the kingdom:
He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches."
The Church has been growing and developing for 2000 years under the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit who has continued to shed light on the truth and treasures of the Kingdom of God. A mustard seed does not simply increase in size and become a giant mustard seed unchanged in every other way; it develops and grows in complexity with branches, leaves, and flowers over time. It doesn't look like the mustard seed any more than we look like our baby pictures.
A lot of Christians would like to see the Church return to its simple and pure existence as it was in the early years, but that would be like wishing that adults would once again become tiny and cute and wear diapers and have that nice baby smell (depending on the state of the diapers -- and the early church had its smelly moments, too, by the way). But if we all became babies again, the human race would perish within a generation.
I can now recognize that the Catholic Church today with all its beauty and developed doctrine and practices is what Jesus had planned from the beginning, and that the Holy Spirit guided its formation and growth.
And like the birds of the air who came to perch in its branches, people from all countries, languages and cultures have come to live in it and call it home. Over 1.2 billion people in the world are in the Catholic Church. It is by far the biggest single Church in the world; nobody else even comes close. As I have already pointed out, for the first thousand years, there was no other church but the Catholic Church. Jesus said he would build His church, and that the Holy Spirit would guide it. Anyone who claims that the Catholic Church has gone astray is in danger of calling Jesus a liar and declaring that the Holy Spirit was not able to guide the Church these two thousand years.
By the way, the Roman Catholic Church is only a part of the Catholic Church; right now there are 23 autonomous churches in the Catholic Church, most of them are Eastern Rite churches such as the Coptic, Marionite, Armenian, and Byzantine Rites, to name a few. They are self governing, and a visitor could easily mistake many of these for Eastern Orthodox Churches, but they but all are in communion with the pope, whose authority they accept as the successor of Peter.
Actually, if Jesus built only one universal church on the rock called Peter, then one could make the argument that all Christians in the world are already part of the Catholic Church whether they like it or not, like estranged children. They just need to find their way home like the prodigal son. If you wanted to be simplistic, based on the numbers of Christians in the world (I have read it is approximately 2.1 billion), you could say that most Christians in the world are already members of the Catholic Church with its 1.2 billion members.
To keep things in perspective, the Eastern Orthodox churches are recognized by the Catholic Church as being part of the one true church. Although they split from each other during the 11th century mainly over political and cultural differences -- and leaders on both sides were at fault -- the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches together are considered the "two lungs" of the Church, and both sides earnestly desire to reunite officially, but it will require working out differences from the last thousand years (still, representatives from both sides are meeting regularly and working on it). I seriously considered the local Orthodox Church, but in the end went with the side that stayed with the successor of Peter (the first of my two reasons mentioned above). The Catholic Church currently has 1,200,000,000 members (1.2 billion) while the Eastern Orthodox churches have 210,000,000 members. Together they can claim over 1.4 billion members world wide. That's two thirds of all the Christians in the world.
A movement in both directions
One area where the Protestants are strong and the Catholics need a lot of work is education and formation. Many cradle-Catholics who were raised in the Church have no idea what they are supposed to believe and can't distinguish between myth and truth about the Church, while Protestants are typically well versed in the Bible and study it on their own, even memorizing large portions.
Many Catholics leave their church without understanding what they left, join Protestant churches and then talk about how bad the Catholic Church was. Some even create blogs, write books or go on TV with their message. There is also a large body of material written by Protestants about the evils of the Catholic Church. A lot of Protestants form their image of the Catholic Church based on this type of inaccurate second hand data and work hard to evangelize their Catholic friends to get them "saved." I know I did, and I prayed that my Catholic friends would receive Christ. I did not realize that they received Christ every time they went to mass, and their approach was more biblical than mine.
On the other hand, some Protestants, once they expand their study to include church history and the writings of the early Church Fathers, are drawn to the Catholic Church and bring all their evangelistic zeal and Bible knowledge with them. And they still have an appreciation for the Protestant tradition they left behind. You would be amazed at how many Protestant clergy have become Catholics in recent years.
This has become quite a movement going in both directions, resembling something like a prisoner exchange. But I can't help but wonder, which group gets the better prisoners? A lot of former Catholics after being properly trained in the Bible as Protestants, finally recognize what a great treasure they left behind and return to the Catholic Church.
A speed bump: bad (and weird) Catholics
I have referred to the issue of authority many times already in my explanation. Again, what I am referring to is the specific teaching authority which has been entrusted to the pope and all the bishops who are in union with him. This group is also called the Magisterium of the Church.
It is an unfortunate reality that the Catholic Church often looks better on paper than it does in person. The Church has been entrusted to human beings, who can be self-centered and sinful, and even deaf to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Many of us have known Catholics who did not live up to the name. Some Catholic theologians write heretical stuff and some priests unfortunately teach crazy stuff which contradicts the teachings of the Church. And as you know, a lot of really bad priests have made the headlines in recent years for their inexcusable sinful acts.
There are bad priests out there even now. Thank God, I eventually found a great parish with great priests who submit to the teachings of the Church, but first I had to deal with an unfortunate encounter with a priest at a different parish who said that my reading the Catechism was "really stupid" and that a lot of the things which made me want to leave the Anglican Church (eg. women priests and actively homosexual bishops, etc.) would also eventually come into the Catholic Church in the future under a different pope. I now see that he was wrong on both counts (as well as several other shocking statements he made), but at the time it nearly derailed my train. He also made clear his mistrust of evangelical Christians who put so much stock in the Bible and said I should consider joining a different parish; this was his one piece of advice I eagerly followed. Lesson: if you encounter a bad priest, don't be shocked or discouraged but just keep looking until you find a good one.
Any institution that has grown as big and as old as this is bound to have its share of personnel problems. That's a hard thing to swallow for someone like me who was raised with the idea that you don't put up with any nonsense but simply leave and find another church -- or start a new one. Staying put and trying to fix the problem was not part of my mindset. Unfortunately for the world, neither was it part of Martin Luther's. Many of the complaints Luther raised about the Church were corrected after he left -- by those who chose to remain.
There have always been bad Catholics in history among the laity and at all levels of the hierarchy. There have been dark times in the history of the Church where many leaders were corrupt, even a few popes. One of the original twelve apostles, Judas Iscariot, was a real bad apple. But what thinking person would leave Peter and the other apostles because of Judas? We shouldn't be surprised at the rotten apples in the Church since Jesus already said this very thing would happen:
Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
The Catholic Church has always had its share of "weeds" sowed by the enemy who wants to destroy it, but it is still Jesus' church and he will deal with the weeds in His own time.
If the Holy Spirit were not personally guiding this church, protecting it from even its own people, it would have destroyed itself and vanished a long time ago!
And on the other hand there are some Catholics who are well meaning but seem to go too far with what seem to be displays of excessive devotion to Mary and the saints which can make an evangelical Protestant shake his head in wonder. Of course we can't forget that the Protestants have their share of "lunatic fringe" fanatics, and they just learn to live with them and hope outsiders don't assume they represent the rest of the group.
While I'm on the subject of speed bumps, another obvious hurdle which many Protestant evangelicals will encounter when examining the Catholic Church is the culture. You might experience severe culture shock when you visit a Catholic mass, and it might turn you off the first few times you visit. Of course, there is quite a bit of diversity within the Catholic Church, and some parishes are very similar to what you are accustomed to, complete with guitars and song lyrics projected on a screen, while others which have large ethnic groups can have even more cultural elements. Sometimes you will find several types in the same Church if they schedule mass at different times during the day for different crowds. Remember that the Church is an amazingly wonderful gift from Jesus, and don't fret too much over the wrapping. You might even learn to like it.
The Catholic Church is far from perfect, but if it is the original church that Jesus built, then my options are limited; I had to choose the Catholic Church, warts and all -- where else could I go?
I've said enough
There's so much more that I could write about, and believe it or not, I had set out to make this a brief explanation and nothing more. There is much more I could have written, including a strange dream which seemed to predict that this would happen. Since I have no idea what to make of that dream, I'll put the story in a different article for those who are fascinated by such things.
Anyway, this article may not change your mind but hopefully this explanation will satisfy your curiosity as to why I did what I did. You may not agree with me, and I will not try to persuade you because I would not have agreed with this article just two years ago, and nobody could have convinced me that my position as a Protestant was wrong. All the convincing arguments came from within as I examined the issues for myself and expanded my studies to include Catholic resources and early church history.
As I wrote at the top of this page, I joined the Catholic Church at the age of 54 after being an evangelical Protestant all my life. Now I'm an evangelical Catholic.
I used to think that the Catholic Church was just another denomination. Now I realize that calling the Catholic Church another denomination is like saying that your mother is just like one of the family. It might sound OK to your ears, but it is very rude to mom. The Catholic Church is the mother Church and she calls her estranged children to come home and rejoin the family. And I no longer call it the Roman Catholic Church because that prefix was coined by non-Catholics who were trying to marginalize it as just different branch distinct from themselves.
Of course, I believe I could have gone to heaven as a Protestant. Who can deny that the Holy Spirit is active in Protestant Churches? They have the gifts of the Spirit, an amazing zeal and love for Christ and the Kingdom of God. Many Protestant martyrs have shed their blood for their faith.
For me, this is about stopping for a moment in the midst of all my hopping from one tent village to another and discovering a huge and beautiful walled city at the top of the hill. It's about finally entering those old and strangely familiar gates and discovering all the riches and the fullness of the faith that I had only gotten a glimpse of before. There's so much to explore in this city, including the historical follow-up to the Acts of the Apostles, a two thousand year long story which begins with disciples of the original apostles and continues with an ever expanding cast of evangelists, miracle workers and martyrs. This multi-faceted story includes more messages from Heaven; messages of encouragement, direction, and prophecy to guide the Church.
As a Protestant coming into the Catholic Church, you will discover that there is so much to gain and absolutely nothing to give up. You can bring all the treasures of your Bible study and evangelistic zeal with you and enrich the local Church as it enriches you.
When I take communion in the Catholic Church, the sense of Jesus' presence is so overwhelming that I am often moved to tears. But it's more than just an emotional high at church; I can recognize the effects of grace. I find my thoughts turning to God more often than before. I am able to resist sin more successfully than before.
I'm finally able to succeed in the "practice of the presence of God" which I had been attempting for 30 years since I read the words of Brother Lawrence. By the way, in case you forgot, Brother Lawrence was a Catholic who received all the grace that comes from Jesus' presence in the Eucharist. In addition, he was a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery and wore the brown scapular day and night, a powerful sacramental which undoubtedly was a secret weapon in his success in practicing the presence of God. (Yes, I'm also wearing a brown scapular now, having been enrolled in the Confraternity of the Brown Scapular, and can say from experience that it makes a difference!)
My joy as a Christian is deeper than before, my love for the Bible and prayer is greater than before, and man, do I look forward to going to church to participate in the Eucharist on Sundays -- and any week day when my schedule permits it!
If this makes you want to investigate further, go ahead and follow the links I've provided below. You may want to walk into a Catholic Church when nobody else is there, and sit down for a little bit. You might be able to sense the presence of Christ in a special way because He is present in the consecrated host in the tabernacle (a special ornate box near the red lamp). Then just listen to what He is saying to your heart. Don't be surprised if the ground shifts under you!
The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it.
Part 4: Resources for Further Investigation
If you have actually made it this far and have read this very long article, it probably means that you are on a similar journey or are at least considering it. Here are a few resources which will help you.
7 Reasons to be Catholic by Dr. Peter Kreeft
Testimony of Scott Hahn, former Presbyterian minister (Right click to save link to disk)
The Journey Home Testimonies of converts to the Catholic Church from various backgrounds
Open Line A call-in radio talk show with a different host each day of the week
Catholic Answers Live A call-in radio talk show including programs specifically for non-Catholics
You Tube Videos
7 Reasons to be Catholic Same contents as the podcast above
Testimony of Scott Hahn, former Presbyterian minister
Testimony of Michael Cumbie, former Baptist minister
Testimony of Tim Staples, former Assemblies of God minister
Testimony of Jeffry Hendrix, former United Methodist minister
Testimony of Alex Jones, former Pentecostal minister
Testimony of Barry Metzentine, former Mormon
Testimony of Dr. Kevin Vost, former Atheist
Free online resources
The Coming Home Network For clergy and lay people considering the Catholic Church
Tracts which address common questions about the Catholic Faith
Why I'm a Catholic - Catholic Conversion Stories New stories added regularly
Catholics Come Home Something for both non-Catholics and former Catholics
Bible Christian Society Lots of free articles and audio downloads
Biblical Evidence for Catholicism Catholic Apologetic Blog
Catechism of the Catholic Church Online version of the Catechism which explains exactly what the Church believes
Web Sites and Forums
Catholics Come Home Something of interest for Catholics, Protestants, Atheists and Catholics who haven't been to church in a long time.
The Coming Home Network International Forums Most members are former Protestants who converted to the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Answers Forums The web's largest discussion group on Catholic topics. Members from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Recommended books and resources
Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words
Surprised by Truth: 11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic
Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism
Chosen: How Christ Sent Twenty-Three Surprised Converts to Replant His Vineyard
Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion
By What Authority? an Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition
Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic
Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on "Romanism" by "Bible Christians"
If Protestantism is True: The Reformation Meets Rome
Bleeding Hands, Weeping Stone: True Stories of Divine Wonders, Miracles and Messages
The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church
Eusebius: The Church History
Bones of St. Peter
Why Catholic Bibles are Bigger
Come on In, It's Awful
Catholicism for Dummies
The Catechism of the Catholic Church
Confessions of a Mega Church Pastor: How I Discovered the Hidden Treasures of the Catholic Church
Jimmy Swaggart Made Me Catholic DVD
You may be also interested in my article about some Japanese Catholic history called Kirishitan Sites in Tokyo.
I'm working on a page of free logos for Catholic web sites. It's still under construction but a few logos are already available there.
May God bless you and guide you on your journey.
Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
The New International Version (NIV) is the most popular version of the Bible among Evangelical Protestants. My personal favorite has always been the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Now I also enjoy reading the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE) which is very similar to the NASB, and since it was translated before the NASB, probably even more accurate since the translators had first dibs on the best English words in this age of copyright laws where new translations are not allowed to duplicate earlier translations.
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