Have you ever had those moments in life when everything just feels perfect? And you just wish you could pause life, because frankly, it can’t get any better than this? I had such a moment one summer in 2011. And exactly one year later, I was Catholic…
This is pretty much the story of how that happened.
I was raised nominally Catholic – kind of. My family runs the full gamut of Catholics from practicing to proudly Atheist. I was baptised, confirmed and received Holy Communion but it was really just a symbolic rite of passage (and a chance for a pretty dress!) than anything to do with God. It certainly didn’t seem to stick and as I entered teen-dom, I wanted nothing to do with a such a backward, irrational, and misogynistic religion. When I was sixteen, however, I started asking questions about God and particularly about this Jesus character. I was a massive history nerd (I still am), so I looked into the historicity of the Resurrection. I was astounded by what I found. The historical evidence for the Resurrection wasn’t just respectable, it was downright compelling. I came to a conclusion I never thought that I would: Jesus really did rise from the dead, He really is God, and I had to follow Him. I became a born-again Christian and left any association with the Catholic Church behind.
Fast forward five years and my life was pretty great. It had been a bumpy journey but I was happy with my faith, excited about my future, and completely in love with my Saviour. And then, my life kind of fell apart… at least that’s what it felt like. You see, I fell in love with an Atheist and even though I wanted to so badly, I wouldn’t date him. That sort of heartbreak (sheltered life that I’ve lived) would have been enough to shake my faith, but there was more. He also pushed me – relentlessly – on the question of Hell. Soon, all I could think about was Hell and whether those I loved were destined for Hell. I tried to rationalise and explain it away but I couldn’t.
I just couldn’t understand how an all-loving, and almighty God could let anyone go – let alone send anyone – to Hell. Didn’t God love my family and friends? Wasn’t He powerful to save? It was a question I’d struggled with before but this was different. This was personal. After months of crying (yep, months), I decided that I just wouldn’t believe in Hell anymore. I would be a universalist. I thought I could prove from the Bible that absolutely everyone would be saved. At the very least, I thought the issue was debatable. So why not believe something more comfortable?
There was only one problem: history. I knew that universalism was overwhelmingly condemned heresy throughout Christian history. But did that matter? I was convinced from the Bible and my own conscience that universalism was true. Surely that was all I needed? But I just wasn’t sure. On the one hand, I knew that Revelation is real, and that the truths of the Faith weren’t mine to shape according to my whim. On the other hand, did it really matter than I was ignoring the vast weight of Christian history on this particular issue? Wasn’t I just doing what the Protestant reformers had done? They ignored the prevailing orthodoxy to argue that each person was able to interpret the Bible for themselves. Sure, I was no Luther but wasn’t my interpretation just as important as his or anyone else’s?
But that raised another question. Why were there so many interpretations of the Bible? If it really was perspicuous like I believed, wouldn’t all (or at least most) faithful, Spirit-filled Christians come to the same conclusions? Just within Evangelicalism, I knew there were serious disagreements about creation, predestination, the atonement, sanctification, church structures, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the Sabbath, charismatic gifts, the end times, and many other moral issues. Add in the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches (Eastern & Oriental), other Christians and pretty much every heresy under the sun? And you one big mess. I knew that this couldn’t be what the Spirit intended, and yet here we are. Wasn’t there some way to know the truth? And was the Bible Alone – sola Scriptura – really a workable idea? My crisis of eschatology was turning into a crisis of epistemology.
Reading about this all hell and judgement, I kept coming across another question. How does one even get saved? As a Protestant, I believed that I was saved by faith alone, and that moreover, faith alone or sola fide was the very heart of the gospel. But reading the Bible, that didn’t seem to fit. There were too many clear examples of people being judged on the basis of their works for sola fide to work.
In Matthew 25, Christ says we will be judged across how we treated “the least of these” (Mt 25:31-46), while in Revelation, the dead are judged “by what they had done” (Rev 20:12,13) And of course, then there was St James’ notorious words, the ones that Luther wanted to scrap from the Bible, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24) It certainly seemed that we need both: faith and a live lived in love. But if faith and works were so inseparable, why was I making such a big fuss about faith being alone?
Wait, I thought, didn’t St Paul say we are saved by faith, and not by works? You can’t argue with that! But reading N. T. Wright, a prominent Anglican bishop and theologian, I saw that St Paul actually meant something quite different from what I thought he did. It isn’t that we are saved apart from good works of love but from the works of the law which separated Jews from Gentiles. That’s why he was so insistent that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” (Gal 5:6) Real faith isn’t about being Jew or Gentiles, but it is a faith that works, and it is never alone.
Despite all my questions about sola Scriptura and sola fide, Catholicism was the furthest thing from my mind. Then I met two Catholics at an conference for Evangelical university students. I had to admit, I was impressed. These Catholics clearly loved Jesus, they knew their bibles, and they even had good answers to my questions. Over that conference, they even managed to convince me that there was a biblical basis to the papacy. They drew on Isaiah’s prophecies (Isa 22: 22) to describe St Peter as the “prime minister” or “steward” of the Kingdom of God. I had never heard it put like that but it made sense. I already knew from history that the bishops of Rome were always ranked first among the patriarchs and bishops, and that Rome was invariably the final court of appeal, just like a earthly steward for a Heavenly King would be.
Inevitably though, the question of the papacy raised the bigger question of authority. I knew that Catholics didn’t believe the Bible was enough. You also needed the Tradition of the Church, and the authoritative teachings of the Church, called the Magisterium. When Catholics talk about Tradition, they’re not talking about the sum of “traditions” accrued over time. They are talking about the oral transmission of the deposit of faith from the Apostles. The same ones that St Paul wrote about when he said, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (2 Thess 2:15)
We know that the Apostles did most of their teaching orally, or just by the example they lived. In the First Century, that was authoritative. In the Fourth Century, Christians still thought it was authoritative. So when and why did it stop being so? And besides, where exactly does the Bible say that the Bible is sole rule of faith? I used to think it said so in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, but it doesn’t. It just says the Old Testament Scriptures are “inspired by God” and “profitable” for the Christian life. There’s certainly nothing about trusting the Bible Alone. In fact, it is the Church that is described as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” (1 Tim 3:15)
Then there was the Magisterium and papal infallibility. I learnt that papal infallibility didn’t mean that the pope was always right, or even guaranteed to be a good person. It just meant that when the pope, as the successor of St Peter and head of all the bishops, declared something to be part of the Faith, then he is protected from error. It’s actually very rare for popes to do this. Much of the dogma of the Catholic Church comes from her 22 ecumenical councils, including Nicaea, Chalcedon, Trent, and Vatican II. The councils, or gatherings of bishops, are how the Church has always decided things. In fact, the very first council comes from Acts 15, when the apostles and elders gathered to debate circumcision, and then issued decrees on “what seemed good to us” (v. 25) and “to the Holy Spirit.” (v. 28) The Catholic Church was just continuing the work of Apostles and is indeed the only Church that still has ecumenical councils. It certainly got me thinking.
In October that year, I went to England and Ireland. I happened to be reading the Gospel of John, and was just up to chapter 17 when I left. There, Christ prays that his disciples “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn 17:21) Two things amazed me about this.
Firstly, Jesus is praying that Christians would have the same unity as the blessed and indivisible Trinity has – that’s quite a calling! But secondly, that our unity isn’t for us, it’s for the world. We have to be united so that the world will believe. But for that to happen, our unity has to be clearly visible and institutional. Otherwise, how is anyone going to know? This all really hit home for me, though, when I went to Northern Ireland. I couldn’t help but think that the political conflict between Catholics and Protestants represented the far deeper and more insidious spiritual divisions among Christians. And it broke my heart.
I was slowly coming around to see the logic of the Catholic position but I was far from convinced. Sure, the idea of an united, authoritative Church was appealing and logically coherent. But do you know the stuff the Catholic Church teaches? Crazy! Why would I want any part of that? But in the gloom over the divisions between Christians, something remarkable happened. Or terrifying depending on your perspective. I found myself wanting – no, desperately needing – to pray the Rosary. I vaguely remembered the Rosary but I didn’t like the idea of praying it. Wasn’t that some sort of idolatry to Mary? I told God if that he wanted me to have a Rosary, he’d have to get me one. Well, the next stop on the bus tour I was on was the town of Knock, the biggest shrine to Mary in Ireland. I couldn’t avoid rosaries even if I wanted to! I was very hesitant but what I discovered in praying the Rosary was that it’s all about Jesus.
And that’s what I kept discovering with all this Catholic stuff as I thought and read about it more. Mary, the saints, the priesthood, popes, rosaries, and the whole lot. They can seem like distractions from Christ, but actually they can draw us closer to Jesus. They are like little pictures of glory, and by honouring them, we honour God so much more. What daddy doesn’t love to give good gifts to His children? As Thomas Howard wrote, “God is not a niggardly sovereign, sitting upon his riches like a dragon on a hoard, sullen and wary lest anyone snatch the smallest coin from the heap [of glory], thereby subtracting that sum from his exclusive prerogative…” On the contrary, He loves to share His infinite glory. He wants to make us all – we who are imago dei – into tiny mirrors that reflect His light, and by doing so, set the whole alight with the glory of God!
As I came back home to Australia, though, I was still so unsure. I could feel the allure of the Catholic Church, and I no longer thought she was dead wrong. But did that mean I had to be Catholic? Couldn’t I just an Evangelical who liked Catholic stuff? Or a High Church Anglican? Or something – anything – else? It was one thing to think the Catholic Church wasn’t wrong, it was quite another thing to think she was right. But then I realised, I had it all the wrong way around.
Then I came to the straw that broke that camel’s back. Well, actually it was more of a sledgehammer. I realised that unless I trusted the authority of the Church, I had no reason – no reason at all – to trust the Bible. It was the Church that canonised (literally, compiled the canon of) the Bible and unless that Church is infallible, I had no rationally reason to believe the Bible is. Some Protestants acknowledge and some have even called the Bible a fallible collection of infallible books… which is patently absurd. The Church and the Bible are a package deal. St Augustine said, “I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me.” (St. Augustine, Contra epistolam Manichaei, 5,6:PL 42,176.) I did it the opposite way around. I believed the Gospel, and only afterwards did I realise that I needed the authority of the Catholic Church to do so rationally.
The important question then wasn’t, ‘did I have a reason to be Catholic?’, it was ‘did I have a reason not to be?’ For we in Western Christendom, the Catholic Church is the default. The Reformation was a protest against the Catholic Church. To be Protestant, I needed a substantial protest against the Catholic Church. I couldn’t ignore that history because Christianity is nothing if not an historically grounded religion. Soon, it became clear that I had too choices: Catholicism or Christian agnosticism. I couldn’t bury my head in the sand and pretend it didn’t matter where the Bible came from, or what Christians believed for 1,500 years, or the fact that Protestantism is a protest. But I didn’t have anything to protest against, certainly not if I was trying to obey St Paul’s command to make every effort “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:3)
Within a few weeks of realising this, I was down on my knees. I told my Lord that I was convinced that the Catholic Church held the fullness of the truth. I told Him how hungry I was to receive Him in the sacrament of the Eucharist. (Oh yeah, I started believing in the Real Presence somewhere along this journey. Somehow, it felt like I always had…) I told Him that I wanted to honour His Mother, and I didn’t mind asking His saints to pray for me. I told Him how, whether I liked it or not, I needed the authority of Church because I couldn’t figure this out on my own. I also told Him how scared I was, of losing friends and my community, and how people would react.
It was undeniably scary. I didn’t have all the answers. I still don’t, and I still find the whole idea of Hell difficult to deal with. But just as, by the grace of God and a mountain of evidence, I came to believe in Jesus, so I came to believe in His Church. Indeed, to believe in the Church, as the Nicene Creed says, is an act of faith. It’s an act of faith to see all her screw-ups and scandals – all her obvious humanity – and still be able to see, at the same time, the “spiritual reality” that she is the Body of Christ.
That was probably the biggest thing I realised on this journey of mine. The entire Catholic faith is animated by a dynamic of both/and. The Reformation was all about the five solas – particularly Faith Alone and Scripture Alone – but the Catholic Church says, “why not have both?” We believe that revelation comes through the both Bible and Tradition and that we are saved through both faith and works of love. These elements aren’t opposed to each. Like any good marriage, they actually strengthen each other. Just think of faith divorced from love, or an interpretation of the Bible divorced from the safeguards of orthodoxy, and you’ll know what I mean!
Finally, in the summer of 2012, on the eve of St Agnes, I become Catholic and returned to the Church I was baptised into all those years ago. It was a hard journey but I would absolutely do it again. My journey into the Catholic Church may have begun with Hell, but let me tell you, when I kneel before my beloved Jesus in the Eucharist, surrounded by the angels and saints, protected by the Mother of my Lord, safe in this one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” to Blessed Trinity, who was and is and is to come… it can feel a little like heaven itself.
And then I think, yep, it can’t get much better than this.