We went to church on Sunday, served as acolytes and ushers, went to Sunday school, attended Vacation Bible School, went to catechism classes, were confirmed, said grace before dinner, said prayers at bedtime and tried to live our faith.
After I married and moved away, we connected with a Lutheran mission church. It would be closer to our new home than our other already established Lutheran churches in the area. We had a young, enthusiastic Pastor building a new church literally from the ground up. It was exciting to watch us grow, meet new people, make new friends and continually expand.
Things were changing nationally for my synod. We were consolidating into the larger ELCA and locally we grew with people from varied church backgrounds. This made us "successful" but less focused. People joined with little or no instruction in what "we" historically believed. Our faith at the pew level became increasingly diluted.
Like many Protestant denominations, our formal faith was for the most part Bible based. Also like many Protestant denominations, the Bible was interpreted by our church leaders who met annually to democratically vote on matters of organization and faith. This is where we got into trouble – faith being pliable and voting democratically on "what we believe."
There were changes over the years. A big one was the addition of women pastors. Another was the move to an "open communion" where all baptized people are welcome to receive regardless of their understanding of the Eucharist. There were many smaller ones too. We became more flexible and politically correct. These changes were unsettling but I didn't focus on them and had faith in my church. It was, after all, an important part of me.
Eventually our founding Pastor moved on, leaving a large, thriving congregation behind – quite an accomplishment from the days when he went door-to-door inviting people to join our forming mission. The loss of a much loved, founding pastor is hard on any church, and it was for us too. While we struggled, I held in there. Eventually I knew we would get over this rough spot and besides, this was my church. Being Lutheran would forever remain an important part of who I am. I am not a quitter when things get difficult. We felt at home and have friends at church. If, heaven forbid, things did not improve I could reluctantly move to another Lutheran church. There were more in our area now. That would only be a last resort. Regardless, I would be Lutheran until my last breath.
Looking back now and at what I wrote above, the one thing missing in all of this hand-wringing, personal identity crisis, belonging and travel distance considerations is an emphasis on underlying faith. I was not asking myself if my church was teaching the faith Jesus taught the Apostles or questioning if they were putting words in His mouth. As a Protestant I certainly was not asking if I was a direct member of the Church HE founded. Nope. I just needed to tough it out, to maintain the status quo, not spend the time to ask tough questions or really discern the truth.
Then God whacked me on the head. An unmistakable wakeup call I could no longer ignore. The ELCA took even more liberal, politically correct steps – leaps really. I realized I simply could not accept what my synod now practices and where they are going. The dilution of the faith I grew up with was astounding.
At first I could not believe the news. I searched online to see if it was really true and found it was. I became angry, then disappointed, and finally sad. Sad because I knew at that moment my Lutheran synod had abandoned the faith I grew up with. Sure, to ease us into the new thinking, individual local churches were not "forced" to immediately implement anything different, but the direction was clear.
As we moved further and faster in this "progressive" direction, more like-minded people would be attracted and more "orthodox" folks like me would fall away. It is a self-reinforcing, closed loop. There was no reasonable hope this would be undone. Quite the contrary, our changing faith was destined to "keep up with the times." There are those who think that is a good thing.
For the first time in my life my heart told me I was no longer a Lutheran. I was truly without a church home and cast adrift. It is very lonely out there when your church family takes a new path that leaves you behind.
How In The World Did I End Up Here?
I was not leaving Lutheran church. That was already gone. I was leaving what it became and where it was going. I had not resigned, quit, made some sort of protest statement, stamped my feet, or pounded my fist on a table – but in my heart I was no longer there.
It is still sad, but leaving and being unconnected can also be empowering. To remove the chains of self-identity we place on ourselves gives us the opportunity to make adult, reasoned and informed decisions. It is a chance to take stock and ask hard questions, even uncomfortable questions, with eyes wide open. Questions like "who am I?", "what do I believe?" and "what have I been missing?”
I made lists... what I want in a church... what my options were... how close of a match to my beliefs. If churches were engaged in internal progressive vs. orthodox schisms, which side was in my area… that sort of analysis.
It didn't take long to come up with a short list. One-by-one I eliminated candidates for one reason or another. Some had theologies too foreign to my faith. Some were zooming down the same liberal road my church was on. Some were just not in my area. Not all great reasons but that was my flawed process. It left me with one viable "candidate" – the Catholic Church.
I say candidate because I was by no means sure. Compared to many Protestant converts, Lutheranism was comparably close theologically. I probably knew more about Catholicism than most Protestants. Many friends and others very close to me are Catholic. I respected them and their evangelism by example.
That said, I was not Catholic and had no intention of ever becoming Catholic, ever. There are many things I considered to be issues, such as an infallible Pope and a rigid hierarchy. Priests not allowed to marry. There is 2,000 years of history and not all of it something to brag about. Prayers I didn't know and changes to those I did. Plus there is strangeness like statues, a preference for a crucifix vs. the empty cross of our risen Lord, an obsessive focus on Mary, genuflecting and making the sign of the cross. Those people even have additional books in their Bibles!
As improbable and surprising as it was to me, the Holy Spirit led me here anyway. I prayed for an open mind and an open heart. That prayer was answered, as most are, and my Protestant prejudices were put aside. I spent hundreds of hours (probably more) "researching," finding out what Catholics really believe, addressing every "issue" one-by-one.
Wow. Really, wow! I had no idea just how mistaken I was. Some things I thought were issues were just misconceptions. Some are in reality huge strengths. The more I dug, the more I learned, the more impressed I became. There will probably always be items on my "to be explored" list, but a funny thing happens. After a while, after reading the catechism, after researching and studying topic after topic, after seeing how logical and faithful the Church is, after changing your long-held position on this and that – you begin to give the Church the benefit of any doubt. This is a part of what Catholics call "conversion" – not a label, not what you proclaim, but of heart.
Reflecting back now I see my whole approach was wrong. I was shopping for a church that fit my beliefs. I should have started at the source and followed where His teaching led. It is really pretty obvious.
Sign Me Up!
It was time to put my toe into the water. It was time to figure out more about the Catholic Church. It was time to figure out exactly how they pitch their faith to sincere, interested prospects.
I was blessed having several friends who attended a local parish. I had visited several times before – a friend's funeral, special events and for Mass. I once also attended their Friday morning men's group. In short, I was familiar with the place and knew a few people there. That was before I ever thought, in my wildest dreams, that I would one day be interested in joining.
It was different now. I was led to the Catholic Church and wanted to seriously consider it. I didn't know much about how one does that. Might there be some sort of brief introductory class followed by a ceremony some Sunday where you join? Lots of churches are like that.
Well, not exactly. The Church really, really wants you – but they also know how important it is that you first understand the core beliefs of the faith and make an informed decision. They call this inquiry, and it is an informal, interactive class held over several weeks. The next step is to dig deeper through classes called RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). In this phase you are on the path to joining but are free to jump off or continue in RCIA until you feel ready. There is no test, no one pressures you in the slightest way... you alone make the call.
There can be complications getting started. The Catholic Church recognizes your Christian baptism, so long as it was made in the Trinitarian formula ("I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit") and water is poured (or you are immersed). If you were baptized in any other way it can not be considered valid and you will need to be baptized properly. If you have no record of your baptism then perhaps family members witnessed it. If it just can't be determined if you were baptized properly or not, a conditional baptism may be necessary (conditional because you can only have one real baptism).
Another complication may be marriage. If you were married, divorced and remarried —that can be an issue. Marriage is a vocation and sacred commitment. It can not be "undone" through a civil or any other process. However, there may be extenuating circumstances that render an earlier marriage invalid and subject to annulment. Baptism and marriage status are very important. If your situation is complicated then speak to a Priest, Deacon or RCIA coordinator for guidance. They are compassionate and want to help.
These were not complications in my case. A close friend invited me back to the men's group where I met a deacon and he asked why I was interested. I explained the best I could without going into a really long explanation. That Sunday after Mass I met the local RCIA coordinator. It wasn't just any Sunday, it was the day those who were entering RCIA received their Rite of Welcome – a truly beautiful ceremony.
My timing was excellent [heavy sarcasm] as always. For my specific background the inquiry classes would probably not be too helpful. Starting with RCIA seemed the most appropriate approach... but I missed it by one week. The RCIA coordinator discussed my situation with a deacon and he agreed it would be OK for me to jump right in.
I guess the bottom line is everyone's circumstance is different. The process of joining - or potentially joining - the Catholic Church is not rigid. It is focused on you personally. Speak with a priest, deacon or RCIA coordinator. You are not a number to them and they care about you individually.
So, I had taken that first big step. What was it like? Nothing I was expecting.
The Catholic Church is incredibly welcoming. People you meet as well as people you have long known are so happy you are there. Not because it bumps up their membership. Not because you validate their faith. They are genuinely happy for you. You are immediately embraced as a potential new brother or sister at the start of your journey. The joy is deeply sincere.
The general path for non-Catholics to become Catholic is through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). The details vary some from parish to parish, but it is a process in which you learn about the Catholic faith and way of life. The class meets once per week for about 2 hours over a period of 6 months or longer, for many but not all people.
When I started I was told that I needed a sponsor. Your sponsor can be any Catholic in good standing, 16 or older. Generally it should not be a spouse or close family member. The sponsor helps the candidate (someone who is already baptized) or catechumen (someone who is not) during the process. They help answer your questions, attend Mass with you, RCIA classes, various church activities, etc. Your sponsor helps "show you the ropes." A close friend became mine. Don't worry if you need a sponsor, there are many volunteers.
RCIA is described as a journey. The classes are interesting, taught so far by a variety of catechists drawn from the clergy and laity. The pace is not hurried, and questions are always welcome. The 2 hour classes fly by. What started out as another scheduled activity soon became something I eagerly look forward to.
The classes are serious but fun too. A deacon taught the class on the Sacrament of Reconciliation (a/k/a confession). One of the questions he was asked is if he hears confessions. A big smile came to his face and a twinkle in his eye when he replied that he would love to hear our confessions any time! Pause. Pause. Then he noted however that he would not be granting any of us absolution! Only a priest can do that.
I have found that RCIA is not just for learning about Catholicism. It is a gentle process that deepens your Christian faith and slowly opens your mind and heart to living it better. It is also a spark that ignites a passion to learn more.
So, when exactly do you become Catholic? I don't think it happens at a single point in time. The Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are very important and are milestones but insufficient by themselves. It happens when you are Catholic in your heart. That is the journey – one that continues long after RCIA.
I know that conversion of heart is not always reached by everyone in a class. Sometimes people feel they are not yet ready and continue in the next session. For others it may not be the right time. This is something each individual must discern.
Joining an RCIA course is a wonderful journey. If you know practicing Catholics at a local parish, ask them. If not, call the parish office and ask for the RCIA coordinator's contact info.
If you have been away from the Church, your parish will have RCIA or other classes as appropriate to help. Welcome home.
Details of RCIA programs vary slightly by parish. In my parish, we met on Sunday morning and were able to attend the first half of Mass. The Catechumenate (those interested in joining) are called together and dismissed as a group. This is a wonderful, ancient practice and happens after the Liturgy of the Word (readings and homily) but prior to the Liturgy of the Eucharist (which we could not yet receive).
My story is about one journey and what was learned and continues to be learned along the way. For those looking for the bottom line: the Catholic Church is not another Christian denomination. It is the Church Jesus founded. It teaches the deposit of faith He taught. Its organization was planned by Jesus and has a mission to preserve and teach that faith – not evolve it to fit society's ever changing frailties. The Catholic Church has an amazing depth and fullness of tradition developed over 2,000 years yet is an unchanged faith as taught directly by our Lord. This is His Church; it is the truth and the way.
To learn more about George and his journey to the Catholic faith please visit his blog ConvertJournal.com