Ryan McLaughlin is a husband, father of three, math teacher, and a recent law school graduate. After years of searching, praying, and reading, he and his family were received into the Catholic Church at the 2012 Easter Vigil.
The Spring of 2005 was an inconvenient time to have my worldview interrupted. I was finishing up my junior year of college as a math major and had a full load of difficult classes. I was also working at a Panera and picking up odd jobs as a math tutor. In short, my schedule was as jam-packed as a 19-year-old's could be.
But when I think back to that time in my life, I usually only remember being busy with one thing: my church. It was truly the all-consuming center of my life. I frequently had church activities 7 nights a week. I led a Bible study for young men, was in charge of a puppet ministry for kids, helped out with the youth group...if there was something going on at church, I was there. My huge circle of friends was a part of either my church or one of our sister churches elsewhere in Florida. I was preparing to go on my second mission trip with our denomination to Cuba that summer, and I had gotten into the habit of going to 5-6 denominational conferences a year. I was planning to go on for more schooling to be a pastor after I graduated.
My church was Reformed and vehemently so. We had a lot to say about what was wrong with other Christians: Dispensationalists, Arminians, Pentecostals, mega-churches, mainstream Protestants...all sorts of groups were frequent targets of our derision. And of course, we trashed Catholics. "I mean, if those people ever picked up a Bible, they'd figure out how dumb what they believe is, right?" We had debates--and I mean serious debates--about whether the Pope was the Antichrist (not any one Pope in particular, mind you, more just the papacy in general... the alternative Apocalyptic role for the papacy in our hermeneutic was the "whore of Babylon"). In the worldview I shared with my friends, to be Roman was to be ridiculous.
And then, in March of 2005, I inexplicably found myself engrossed in the news coverage of Pope John Paul's final illness and eventual death.
Up until that point, I had remained blissfully unaware of the life of Pope John Paul II: why would I have bothered learning about a man I thought was the head of the most absurd denomination on earth? I had no idea about his role in Solidarity, the movement that eventually led to the downfall of communism in Poland. I had never heard one of his passionate sermons or been exposed to his brilliant writing. I think I knew that the current Pope was called "John Paul", and that was probably about it. But when newspapers began to feature articles about his final illness, for some reason I couldn't stop reading about this man whom I had dismissed for so long. I watched every TV segment and listened to every radio story intently, not really understanding why I was so drawn to it all but unable to stop paying attention.
In his final days, the Holy Father made no effort to hide his suffering...nor, for that matter, his joy. Here was a man whose body had been ravaged by disease and aging, but who, for all his pain, couldn't seem to be distracted from how much he loved Jesus. This man, who had fought against communism, fought for Life, and fought for the Gospel, was finishing his race with an endurance that defied explanation. I remember hearing one commentator say, "For so many years, John Paul has taught us how to live. Now he is teaching us how to die." When he finally went Home, I was stunned by the millions and millions of people who traveled great distances to thank their Pastor for a life well-lived. I remember thinking, despite myself, "Maybe this guy was the vicar of Christ..."
I realized then that John Paul II had a holiness and a strength that my theology couldn't account for: in the end, what I had believed about this man and his office was simply bigotry. There was now a gaping hole in the way I thought about the world. And as someone who was planning his life around a particular denomination and a particular theology that were opposed to the Pope in every way, that made me extremely uncomfortable. I began to silently question what I was being taught, as well as the people teaching it.
But whatever concerns or doubts I had about the doctrine I had embraced, it was going to have to wait: I was way too busy with church life to slow down and consider the implications. It would be two more years before my discomfort with my church finally came to the surface, and I lost so much of what I then held dear...
From there, my life became even more consumed by my church. I graduated from college in 2006, and the next month I began working as a pastoral intern. But the doubts I had about our theology--and about my church--were only growing. In my internship, I saw a lot of "behind-closed-doors" sort of things that made me extremely uncomfortable.
By the beginning of 2007, I knew I needed an exit strategy. My conscience just wouldn't leave me alone, and I began to dread going to church...and since I was still going to church events 6 or 7 nights a week, that meant my life had an awful lot of dread in it. The only problem was that I was now engaged, and my fiance Fallon and I were planning our wedding at the church. Most of the groomsmen and bridesmaid were a part of the denomination, one of the pastors at the church was officiating, our cake was being baked by a woman at the church... once again I kept my doubts to myself and bided my time. I did quit the pastoral internship though, citing financial reasons--I was getting married and a church intern's salary is, well, non-existent...
I married my beautiful wife, Fallon, in June. As I shared my doubts and frustrations with her, she became very concerned as well, and we decided we needed to leave. By October, we had found another church to attend and determined to try, as far as possible, to slip out the door quietly and not make a scene. We sent a very complimentary email to the pastors, thanking them for the role they'd played in our lives for many years, and mentioned a few of the reasons we were leaving. We figured that would be the end of it.
From there, though, my former pastors decided to implement what a friend of mine has called the "scorched earth policy”. The pastors called a church members' meeting about us. At the meeting, the senior pastor told a lot of lies about us, me in particular. We were suddenly scorned by all of our friends from the church. Many people who were in our wedding party a few months earlier were no longer speaking with us, including some of my wife's family. We felt betrayed, abandoned, and confused about what God could be doing through all of this.
For the first six months, I was primarily angry. Then, depression and doubt set in. It was undoubtedly the darkest time in my spiritual life: why had God allowed me to invest almost six years of my life in people who would ultimately turn their backs and say terrible things about me? I had believed that Calvinism and Reformed theology were a better way of doing Christianity, and yet the church had proven to be just as vicious, cruel, and shallow, if not far more so, than the denominations we spent so much time criticizing. I felt like "scorched earth": so much of what had grown in my life had burned to the ground.
Eventually, in the midst of my depression and confusion, I determined to "pull a Descartes": I crawled into a hole in my heart and doubted everything I could bring myself to doubt.
Everything I had come to believe was open for questioning. In the end, I doubted just about every Christian doctrine except for a few "Nicene-level" basics, i.e. God's existence, the Trinity, etc. Throughout my time in my old church, I had really only read books that were on the "approved reading list": in other words, writing that conformed to a very narrow interpretation of Calvinism and Reformed theology. So now, in my time of doubting, I read everything else: I learned as much as I could about every other Christian viewpoint, denomination, and theology.
In particular, I felt myself drawn to church history, because I realized that I had some enormous gaps in my understanding. The Reformed worldview I had been presented with more-or-less skipped from the death of the apostles to John Calvin's writings in the 16th century, with a brief stop at St. Augustine in the 4th century: everything in between was viewed as corruption and heresy. So I began to read about the "lost years", and what I found out absolutely stunned me.
Take, for instance, St. Ignatius of Antioch: Ignatius lived in the first century A.D., and was a student of the Apostle John. It's believed that he was appointed as the leader of the church of Antioch by the Apostle Peter. Ignatius died a martyr's death at the hands of the Roman Empire sometime around 110 A.D., not long after the completion of the last of the New Testament writings. If anyone was truly NTC, it was Ignatius.
On his way to Rome to be martyred, St. Ignatius wrote seven letters, which we still have. Here's what he had to say about the Lord's Supper:
"Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes." — Letter to the Smyrnaeans, chs.6-7
"Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth ] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God." --- Letter to the Philadelphians, Ch. 4
Here we have an important early Church leader, an apprentice of the Apostles themselves, writing less than a hundred years after Christ's death, who clearly believes and teaches the Real Presence in the Eucharist and the three orders of ministry. Far from being corruptions that came in at a later point, these doctrines (and others I hope to explore in later posts) were a part of the faith from the beginning.
By the spring of 2009, I felt the need to be a part of a church that took history seriously; a community that desired continuity with the ancient Church as she truly was; a group of believers that valued the things that Ignatius and his contemporaries valued, such as the Sacraments. As far as I could tell, that left me with three options: Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, or Catholic...
The deeper I read into the history of the Church, the more my beliefs grew Catholic. My enjoyment of the ancient Church Fathers led me to read more and more modern Catholic authors as well, especially Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI). I was blown away by how these writers combined brilliant theological insight with an all-consuming love for God. In addition to my reading habits, I grew increasingly Catholic in my devotional practices as well.
But in the Spring of 2009, Fallon and I were still struggling from our previous church experience. We had moved to Boston so that I could attend law school, and had found it very difficult to even go to church, much less think about making more major life-changing decisions. So we began attending a small Anglican parish nearby: it seemed that Anglicans shared much of my desire to be rooted in the history of the Church and the Sacraments, but didn't require formal conversion steps, such as classes or Confirmation.
It was a great fit for a while, and we made some wonderful friends. Most importantly, we were refocused on Christ and strengthened in our pain in a most unexpected way: the liturgy.
I say it was unexpected because of our backgrounds: I was raised mostly in Charismatic churches and was used to contemporary worship and services that followed a simple structure: a few songs followed by a lengthy sermon. Fallon became a Christian in high school at the church we left together, which likewise had contemporary worship. Neither of us had any experience with liturgy, and I had always been told that it was a bunch of dead ritual and rote memorization: lukewarm Christians did liturgy, real Christians, who love the Lord, sang rock songs and raised their hands.
For those not familiar with liturgy, it is the worship style of the ancient Church that has been handed down to us. It was initially modeled on the synagogue services that the earliest Christians (and of course, Christ himself) would have been familiar with. It includes the reading of Scripture passages, responses from the congregation, singing hymns, hearing a brief sermon (called a homily), reciting the Nicene or Apostles Creed and several prayers, and finally and most importantly partaking of the Lord's Supper. Depending on where you are and what part of the year it is, it can also include the burning of incense, lighting candles, icons, priestly vestments, and more. Anglican liturgy, having mostly come from the Catholic liturgy, is very similar in almost every aspect.
Far from being a dead ritual, we found the liturgy to be a life-giving and sustaining routine. Every week as the service moved towards the Eucharist, the priest would say "lift up your hearts!" and the response of the congregation was "we lift them up unto the Lord!"...every week, regardless of whether we felt like it or not, we lifted our heart unto the Lord, and then met Him in a powerful way in Communion. All throughout the week we found the words of the hymns, the Creed, and the Scriptures coming to mind in times when we needed to trust the Lord.
I'll always be grateful for our time in the Anglican Communion, because it was there that we learned to love liturgy...
I spent the Summer of 2010 doing an internship in the Netherlands. When I came home, I had the most wonderful surprise waiting for me. Fallon met me at the airport gate, with a beautiful smile on her face and a few tears running down her cheek, and said, "I have a present for you." She handed me a pair of baby shoes and I immediately knew what she meant. I sat down in the middle of the floor at Boston Logan Airport and began to cry a little bit myself...
After a long, dark winter, Arthur brought Spring to our family on April 16, 2011. He was 8 lbs., 5 oz., and 21 inches long, and was born at 10:44 in the morning, after his beautiful mom suffered through 32 hours of labor. 8 days later, we had him baptized at the Easter Vigil.
That Spring was my final semester in law school. Still wrestling with many questions, I signed up for a seminar called "Catholic Social Thought and the Law". The class was taught by Fr. Greg Kalscheur, who is both a Jesuit and a law professor. Here I encountered the "consistent ethic of life" for which the Church's teachers and theologians have powerfully argued. Once again, Pope John Paul II deeply affected me, this time through his writing: his encyclical "The Gospel of Life" is one of the most profound writings on life issues that I've ever read.
I read the Holy Father's words in class: "'By his incarnation the Son of God has united himself in some fashion with every human being'. This saving event reveals to humanity not only the boundless love of God who 'so loved the world that he gave his only Son', but also the incomparable value of every human person." Then I went home, and held my wonderful son in my arms. There simply aren't words to describe how I felt...
After Arthur was born, I began to pray more to the Blessed Mother. Anglicans vary quite widely in their opinions on Mary, ranging from very Anglo-Catholic believers who have almost no differences in Mariology from Rome, to very low-church believers who see it all as a bunch of heinous idolatry. Our Anglican parish tended to lean more towards the latter. But there were a few of us who, with a wink and a smile, would talk about how in our devotional lives we would "call home to Mom."
In 2011, the group of Anglican churches we were a part of (AMIA) experienced that most protestant of problems: a split. It all happened within a few weeks, and it wasn't driven by any major doctrinal issues, just personality conflict. It left us deeply saddened, and we felt driven back to where we were a few years ago, considering Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism.
For a few months, we tried out an Anglican parish that was in a different branch of Anglicanism. Then, we visited three different Orthodox churches. We loved the beauty of Orthodox liturgy, and met kind and welcoming Christians at these parishes, but as we read about Orthodox theology and practices, we realized that was not where God was leading us. In the end, though, our hearts were drawn in the same direction that we've been slowly pulled for years now: towards the Roman Catholic Church.
I have to admit that we agonized over the decision. It is amazing how becoming a parent lends a new sense of weight and urgency to your decisions. When you realize that what you decide will not only effect your life, but the life of the precious child you hold in your arms, you find yourself considering things in a whole new light. We want Arthur to grow up with a consistent church life, without us constantly changing where we go Sunday mornings. If we were going to join the Catholic Church, we wanted to make sure we were in for life.
Over the course of these last 7 years, I had reached the point in my life and thinking that I could say that I was 99% Catholic. Moreover, I was tired of the constant spits and schisms that seem to be an inherent part of life as a protestant. But before I could take that last step to Rome, there was a last, pressing question: is the Catholic Church what she says she is? Can I truly say that this is the Church that Christ founded? I would not, as a matter of integrity, stand up and say "yes" until I was truly convinced.
I found the answer I was looking for in the writings of another former Anglican: John Henry Newman.
For those of you not familiar with Cardinal Newman, he was an Anglican priest in the mid-19th century. As a young man, he was a rising star within the Church of England and at Oxford University, but he gave up prestige and position when his convictions finally led him to join the Roman Catholic Church. He went on to write a number of classic books and was made a Cardinal shortly before his death. He has now been beatified by Pope Benedict and will likely someday be a saint.
In his famous work on his own conversion, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman writes of reading the works of St. Augustine, who was a bishop in North Africa in the 4th century. Augustine, in refuting a group of heretics known as the Donatists, said this: "Securus Judicat Orbis Terrarum!" "The verdict of the whole world is conclusive!" By this he meant that the Church had stood together as one for the Truth, and that he had confidence in the powerful witness of the Holy Spirit at work in Christ's Bride throughout the world and throughout time.
These words tore into Newman's heart as he read them:
"For a mere sentence, the words of St Augustine, struck me with a power which I never had felt from any words before ..... they were like the 'Tolle, lege, — Tolle, lege,' of the child, which converted St Augustine himself. 'Securus judicat orbis terrarum!' "
Newman came to the conclusion that the truth about the Catholic Church was attested to by the lives and deaths of many countless saints throughout the world and throughout the ages. The Church has survived the persecutions of the Roman Empire, invasions by barbarians, a schism with a much more powerful and wealthy (at the time) East, Vikings, the Dark Ages, the Protestant Reformation, and countless wars. She has survived bad Popes, bad bishops, pandemic nominalism, and the grievous sins of her own members. By all rights and by human understanding, she should have died out a long time ago. But here she is, still testifying to the same Truth that has been her message from century to century.
As I read Newman's testimony, the same words became a mantra in my own mind: "Securus Judicat Orbis Terrarum!" I thought of St. Ignatius of Antioch, from whom I gained my understanding of the Eucharist, despite the 19 centuries that separate us. I thought about the many wonderful Catholic Masses I have been too around the world, from St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York to Notre Dame in Paris, from Lima, Peru to Clifden, Ireland. I thought of the life and testimony and beautiful death of John Paul II. I thought about little old ladies praying the Rosary in front of abortion clinics, and about the little old ladies I see streaming out of 7 a.m. Masses every single day on my way in to work. I thought about the 1.2 billion people who make up the Catholic Church today, many of whom are suffering and dying martyr's deaths even now. I thought all these things and still the words came: Securus Judicat Orbis Terrarum!
Just a few days later, we went to Mass with some friends. When the time came for Communion, I watched as Boston's faithful Catholics streamed forward. Men and women, young and old, Black, White, Asian, and Hispanic, all came to meet the Lord at His Table. They were there despite the pain this Archdiocese has known: Boston was where the clergy sex abuse scandal first broke ten years ago, and yet the faithful still trust in a Truth greater than the betrayal of their bishop. They believe in the Verdict that has come down to them by blood, spoken with joy from one generation to the next.
It was the "secure verdict" that pushed me, at long last, over the edge: here was the Church. I leaned over to Fallon and whispered, "I think I'm ready to be Catholic."
Ryan McLaughlin's Recommended Reading
Mindy Goorchenko is a Catholic convert, mother of five, and nurse in Alaska.
My journey toward Catholicism began when I attended a small, intimate prayer session led by a group of college students in our evangelistic Protestant congregation. The talented young leader guided us in prayer amidst electrifying contemporary worship music. A wave was rippling through our church~~one which may have been present since ever there were youth in a church congregation. These beloved kids invited us old folk to be a part of something deeper, more authentic~~to have a true encounter with the Holy Spirit.
My children were welcome and I brought them along, dubious not so much about my own fate in the area of deep and authentic worship (I knew that it was unlikely I’d give myself wholly to the Spirit while peeking out from one eye at them the entire time) but whether anyone else would be able to with my several young children present. Indeed, as I lifted my own arms in praise of God, my opportunistic six year old immediately reached up and tickled my armpits. This consequently distracted me, and I decided to take my dancing, whooping youngsters out of the room. We played for an hour in the gymnasium at the church~~to simply engage in our vocations called motherhood and childhood.
Renée Lin joined the Catholic Church in 2003 after a lifetime in Evangelical Protestant. Renée currently works in research at a medical practice in central Virginia.
“The Bible says it…. I believe it…. that settles it!”
If Thomas Road Baptist Church had an unofficial mantra back in the 1990s, that probably would have been it. Dr. Jerry Falwell was fond of saying that, and I enjoyed hearing it. I took the Bible seriously, very seriously, and if Scripture made a pronouncement on an issue, it seemed only reasonable to me to take those verses as literally as possible and to act upon them. If a Christian couldn’t base his life on the Word of God, then what else was there?
One Sunday morning when Dr. Falwell proclaimed that “everything we believe and do here at Thomas Road comes straight from Scripture,” I took that seriously, too. Everything we believe and do…. Everything?
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a convert to the Catholic faith who entered the Church in 1983. Her apostolate, Loaves and Fishes, is dedicated to teaching, evangelism and prayer through word and song.
I was baptized Catholic, but raised, Confirmed and Communicated in the Episcopal Church because my parents had both been divorced and remarried. My mother and I attended a Billy Graham Crusade the summer before I entered the 6th grade. That event introduced us to a personal relationship with Jesus which led to our joining an Evangelical Free church with a choir, Bible studies, and a dynamic youth ministry. I graduated from a Catholic girls' High School. Then, I left home for college.
When I became a Roman Catholic, I became the unimaginable—at least what had been up until that point, unimaginable to me. There was no reason to make a drastic move like that. After all, I had Christ. I certainly didn't need anything else. Both faith and Scripture were in my back pocket. Aside from my ambitions and goals, Jesus was the focus of my life. In my teens, it was easy for me to believe that even my unquenchable drive for success, somehow, served Him. Freelancing faith seemed like the best of this world and the next. But a series of experiences over the course of five years added up to convince me otherwise, so much so, that on the Vigil of Easter in 1983, at St. Paul's Church, as a senior at Harvard, I came into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
On August 14, 2011, at the age of 54, Russell Stutler joined the Catholic Church after being an evangelical Protestant his entire life. Russell currently resides in Tokyo, Japan.
I was raised in a Protestant Christian home 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), United Methodist Church (where I was baptized), Presbyterian Church, and a non-denominational evangelical mega-church called the Chapel in University Park where I became a member in my early 20s. It was a great teaching church, and I studied the Bible and memorized parts of it, which was the norm for members of that church. I studied New Testament Greek on my own so I could get at the underlying nuances in the text. I was very active in fellowship and evangelism programs, and my sense of calling to be a missionary was re-kindled there. I even went to Japan on a summer missionary program in 1983.
Jason is a lawyer and Evangelical convert to Catholicism who entered the Church in the Summer of 2011. He lives in the suburbs of Washington DC with his wife Nikki and four children. You can read Nikki's conversion story (from the Baptist tradition) here.
As a lifelong evangelical Protestant, I am right now at a place I never thought I would be, having just entered the Catholic Church with my wife and kids at the Feast of the Assumption in August. How I "came home" is difficult to explain. As many Catholic converts have commented, "all roads lead to Rome," which makes it hard to know where to start the story.
Before anything else, though, I must give thanks that I was raised in a Christian home. Because of that, I can't remember a time that I did not believe that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, and that on the third day He rose again from the dead. I also was always taught that I should follow Jesus no matter where He led. And, so, from that time to now, although there have been detours and a number of twists and turns, I've had this sense that I've been chasing Him. It was only as I came closer to the Catholic Church, however, that I felt that He--to an unimaginably greater extent--had been pursuing me.
Laura is an educator and freelance writer in Calgary, Canada.
The road to Catholicism for new converts is as varied as the personalities of converts themselves. Mine came by means of the sublimely cracked perspective of a neurological disorder called Tourette Syndrome.
Raised in a mainstream Protestant church, I found myself drawn to evangelical circles in early adult life by the zeal and commitment I found there. Active church involvement, university, marriage, three kids and a fulfilling career in education filled the years that followed. Time sailed along at the hectic pace of most young families, until our youngest son, Peter, started having marked difficulty coping with the normal, everyday stresses of school life.
Richard was born into a Jewish home in 1950. Twenty-two years later, he discovered Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, and served Him in evangelical Protestant churches for more than thirty-two years. In 2005 he was received into the Catholic Church.
My movement in 1972 from Jewish faith to Christ was so profound an experience, I can tell you when it happened, where I was and what I was doing when I committed myself to the Lord and joined the Protestant church.
But I cannot tell you when I knew I belonged in the Catholic Church. That process was more gradual. I didn't know I was moving toward Rome until I opened my eyes and discovered I had arrived.
Pam Forrester writes from Fallbrook, California, where she lives with her husband, Mike, of thirty five years. They have seven children. The youngest was six when her mother entered the Catholic Church.
HOW CAN I KEEP MY HEART FROM SINGING
When I was eight I asked my mom to take me to the little church at the end of our street. She began to drop me off every week for Sunday School. One Sunday, my teacher presented the Gospel and encouraged us to accept Jesus Christ as our savior. “But,” she told us, “you must be willing to do anything for God, like be a missionary.” Well, I really wanted to be saved but I did not want to be a missionary! I had to think this over. I went home and thought about it for a while, my little 8 year-old soul struggling against selfish desire. Some weeks later, I convinced myself that I would be willing to be a missionary for Jesus and I asked Him to come into my heart.
Brandon Vogt is a 24-year-old Catholic blogger, author, husband, and father who writes from the perspective of a young mainline Protestant drawn into the depths of the Catholic faith by way of the Eucharist and the lives of the Saints.
"He lies in wait like a lion in cover" – Psalm 10:9
For most of my life, I never met a rigorous God who made any sort of demand on my life. And I never encountered an intimate God who ravished me with deep love, or an epic God who warred against evil for my sake. The church I grew up in cared for me deeply. It encouraged kindness, and presented the basic, Biblical stories to me. But I never really experienced anything transcendent.