On becoming a Catholic Christian
Standing at a cross-roads in my life for months, even years, I realized that it was time to make a decision. I was tired of the sense of homeless-ness. I was ready to quit talking about deciding and actually decide. And so I have: I have decided to be Confirmed in the Catholic Church. The decision is the culmination of years of exploring my faith and personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. I have found peace in making this long-awaited decision, and I believe that it is the right decision for me to strengthen, deepen, and build up my relationship with my Lord.
A heritage of faith
I grew up in a culture saturated with Christ and Christianity. Everyone in my hometown either was a Christian or professed to be one. I have often compared -- in a positive way -- the atmosphere and feeling of Rogersville, Tennessee with that of Medieval Europe: every institution revolves around the church. In some way, faith touches every part of life, from education, to employment, to living, to death.
It was within this culture, in a Southern Baptist church, that I came to faith in Jesus Christ. I was baptized when I was in the third grade, and my faith became my own when I was about 16 years old.
So it was as an evangelical, Southern Baptist Christian that I went to college in 2001. There I was violently dispossessed of the notion that the experiences I'd had growing up were the norm for the rest of America. Indeed, I was shocked to find myself among only a handful of practicing Christians on my freshman dormitory hall -- for me, in those early days, the world was upside down.
God's grace saw me through those tough, early days, and I began to find my place at Vanderbilt: with friends, with a campus ministry, and with a Church. All the time, I remained safely within the tradition I'd known as a child.
Exposure to liturgy
I went to my first liturgical worship service in spring 2002, at a Anglican church in Mobile, Alabama. I was intrigued by the experience, and began to wonder about the history behind it. That same semester, I began a relationship with a young woman at Vanderbilt who had been raised in the Lutheran tradition. The relationship grew, and when it came time for me to go to Washington, D.C. to work on Capitol Hill, my girlfriend's parents, residents of the DC suburbs, offered to let me stay with them -- so long as I was willing to be one of their "children." That meant taking on all the responsibilities of being in the family, including going to church with them.
We attended a Lutheran church, and I spent four months worshipping in a liturgical setting with weekly communion. Though I did not realize it at the time, my spiritual formation had begun to deepen, and I again pondered why and how liturgy resonated so deeply within me. I explored the history of Lutheran litugry, and sought to understand the origins of Baptist worship and practice. The results led me to question, for the first time, the tradition that I'd received.
Daring to pray
But these questions were suppressed, as the pressures of loyalty to family and familiarity kept me from being too willing to question my own tradition. At the same time, the questions were not fully diffused. Instead, they simmered at the back of my mind, and I continued to wonder where they would lead.
In Spring of 2004, I mustered the courage to attend my first Ash Wednesday service at my college's local Episcopal Chapel. The power of the Ashen Liturgy was overwhelming, as I was reminded that I was dust, and "to dust will [I] return."
That summer, I worked as a counselor at a Christian camp, working with young people from 7th through 12th grades. Essentially, I was being paid to proclaim the Gospel full time. I was strongly encouraged to prac tice the evangelical discipline of the "Quiet Time," and I watched my fellow camp counselors pray and spend time in their Bibles for hours at a time.
I, on the other hand, had always struggled with the Quiet Time, becoming distracted after a few minutes and never truly feeling like I was effectively or efficiently engaging the Scriptures as I randomly chose passages to read. I longed for a tool by which to guide my time with God, a tool that would keep me open to the Spirit's leading, yet allow me to retain a sense of structure and order. I had used Sunday school materials I’d gotten from my Church as a teenager, and I’d had some success with those materials: usually a Bible reading for each night and a short, suggested prayer.
Remembering that past success, I decided there was no reason I couldn’t try to find a similar tool that would be age-appropriate. So I began to Google. At first it was for "devotional guide" and "prayer guide." Soon this turned to "devotional book" and "prayer book." This led to "book of prayer" and, finally, Book of Common Prayer.
Mystic, sweet communion
As I began to read the Book of Common Prayer, I realized that I had found the tool that I'd been searching for -- it would be a companion for guiding my devotion and my Scripture-reading. It would give me a rhythm by which I could time the music of my prayers. I prayed the beautiful, almost-haunting prayers of the Prayerbook, and instinctively felt as though I had finally found a connection to not only a rich and truth-filled toolbox for the worship of God, but indeed a connection to the Church Triumphant.
The Prayerbook has many sections, but the part that spoke most to me, that fulfilled the yearning I’d felt for structured, freeing personal interaction with God, was called, “The Daily Office.” This section was essentially a series of prayer services centered around three major sections: Psalms, Scripture, and Prayer.
There was a table of psalms (both from the Book of Psalms and from elsewhere in the Bible) that introduced me to the richness of a part of God’s Word for which I’d never had much use. With the office, I was now praying through the Psalms, making the prayers, the victories, the frustrations, and the longings of the psalmist my own.
There was also a section for a cycle of Bible readings. Essentially another table divided the whole Bible into three readings for each day: an Old Testament lesson, forcing me to go through parts of the Bible I’d never read; a reading from an Epistle, Acts, or Revelation; and a Gospel reading, reinforcing and retrenching the classic stories within my mind and introducing me to Jesus all over again.
Finally, there were the prayers. Using the Lord’s Prayer as a model, there was a daily prayer, that changed according to what time of year it was. There were prayers composed of portions of psalms and other Scripture. There were prayers for national holidays like Mother’s Day and the Fourth of July. There were prayers for regular, every-day events like sickness, birthdays, and travelling. Though I’d been taught to fear “rote prayers” that were “someone else’s words,” I soon realized that here were prayers that had been used for thousands of years by Christians from all walks of life in all places. I found myself not alone in the dark with my door shut, trying, sometimes in vain, to express my doubts, anxieties, and fears, but with my heart lifted to heaven, joining in the celestial worship of the angels and saints, boldly confessing, adoring, supplicating, interceding, and giving thanks.
It was an enriching, powerful experience I'd never had before: a consistent, God-focused quiet time. It became for me the recharging of my heart and soul, and I had discovered a sense of private worship in Spirit and in truth the likes of which I’d never known.
Church is plural
I graduated from college and went to law school, still holding on to my heritage as a Southern Baptist. I now sought to augment my evangelical, revivalistic, free-church tradition with the rich depths of liturgy that I had "discovered" back in 2004. But as the years passed, I became more and more convinced that it was through liturgy I was c alled to worship God.
Finally, it got to the point where I would awake early on Sunday morning -- far earlier than necessary simply to attend worship at my local Baptist Church -- in order to pray the Daily Office. I was desparate for the Readings, the Confession, the Lord's Prayer, and the Thanksgiving; all elements of Morning Prayer that were lacking in not only the Baptist churches I went to, but also in many of the evangelical churches I attended.
It finally dawned on me in July 2007 that I was not called to hold a mini-church service in my bedroom; instead, I was called to be a whole-hearted member of a Church, a group of people gathered as a community worshipping the Triune God.
This is my Body
And so it was that I began to attend an Episcopal Church in Birmingham, a church in the Anglican tradition. It was the Cathedral of the Diocese of Alabama, and I saw countless expressions of the glorifying of God through the liturgy. But I also learned much more than just how the liturgy works.
For the first time since my summer with my former girlfriend's family, I began to receive communion every week. And week in and week out, as I continued to go forward, take the common cup and the one bread, I began to realize that there was something different about this bread and this wine. Something I'd never realized was even truly possible.
I had known, intellectually, that many people believed that transubstantiation changed the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, but I'd never stopped to think about the implications of that belief. I shuddered to think that people believed in that sort of superstitious nonsense: Jesus deigning to let himself be eaten like some sort of magical treat. There was no way that God would – or could? – communicate His grace in that way.
I'd been prepared with apologetic defenses of a memorial understanding of the Eucharist, and no one could have ever "argued" me into believing that there was an ontological difference between the communion wafer and the bun of my McDonald's cheeseburger.
But God didn't even have to argue.
As I experienced communion week in and week out, I began to realize that I was being fundamentally changed and affected by what I was receiving. I sensed there was more to this bread and this wine than any other food with which I was familiar. I realized that there was something about this Bread and Wine that made it different from all other bread and wine. There was something transformative, restorative, powerful and grace-filled about the Eucharist that I can hardly describe in words.
Ultimately, I came to realize that I believed that Jesus Christ was and is really present in the Eucharist -- that upon consecration, the Bread and Wine become Christ's Body and Blood. It is, to me, as Thomas Aquinas wrote so long ago:
Taste and touch and vision to discern Thee fail;
faith, that comes by hearing, pierces through the veil.
An historical faith
In some ways, it is ironic that someone like me would quote St. Thomas Aquinas. Raised, as I was, in the Baptist tradition, I was not exposed to much history in my Christian formation. Now to be sure, I was exposed to the Bible. I wasn’t just exposed, I was inculcated. I could quote John 3:16 by age 3 or 4, and I distinctly remember being trained to memorize Scripture with a chart in Sunday school class: if you memorized your weekly “memory verse,” you got a sticker on the chart. Everyone that filled up a certain section of the chart every month got a candy bar. Needless to say, I have a vast Biblical literacy for which I will always be grateful.
Outside this stalwart Bible teaching, however, I was unfamiliar with the history of the Christian faith. I was taught that ours was an historical faith, and that the historicity of the Bible was a key theological concept upon which the truth of the Gospel stood or fell: if Jesus was actually resurrected from the dead in the city of Jerusalem (a place we can go and visit) about 2,000 years ago, then he truly is Lord and God! If he was not, then, as C.S. Lewis said, he was a lunatic, a liar, or worse.
As a Baptist, I was taught that venerable motto of evangelical Scripturalists, that ours was a church seeking to be exactly like “the New Testament Church.” It was a repackaging of the Reformation slogan ad fontes, “to the source” (or, m ore familiarly (and alliteratively) for many evangelicals, “back to the Bible”). It is certainly a logical position: if we claim, as we do, that ours is an historical faith that has roots in a real historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, whom we claim did and said actual things in time and space and history, then it makes sense that these claims were, somehow, given to us at some point within all that history. If we can get as close as possible to that historical fountainhead, then we can understand the faith more clearly and, perhaps, practice it more closely to the way that our spiritual forebears did.
The problem with this position was not so much its conception as was its implementation in my evangelical education. Instead of studying Christian history to see how it developed over the centuries, we started with the Bible, certainly a good place to start, went through the book of Acts, but then stopped. The next thing we studied was a brief look at the Reformation, with cursory examinations of Luther and a more in-depth analysis of Calvin. Ultimately, the great heroes of history to which we looked were men like Charles Spurgeon, who preached in London in the nineteenth century.
I can remember learning about the Middle Ages for the first time, really, in my Sixth Grade World History class at school (I went to public school). My teacher attended my church, and I knew she had even been a missionary (rockstars to young Baptists like me–literally: we had (and have!) missionary trading cards in Baptist circles) to Indonesia. Our textbook kept talking about Christians all over the place, and finally my curiosity could not contain itself: “Mrs. Lawson, what Christians are we talking about? Are these the same people from the Book of Acts, or were these some of the people who supported Martin Luther?”
“These are Catholic Christians, Dillon.”
“Oh,” I said, taken aback. Catholics were Christians?
The “secret” history of the Church
I am not sure from where my love of history came. It is possible that simply being nurtured and raised in Rogersville caused me to be interested in it by osmosis (though the same cannot necessarily be said about everyone else there). For whatever reason, I become enthralled with stories of the past and never really did let go.
That made it fairly simple to choose a major when college rolled around. History, with its corollary political science, would be the focus of my four years at Vanderbilt. It was that major that presented me with an opportunity to answer a question that had been raised in my mind all the way back in sixth grade: what happened to the Christians after Acts, but before Martin Luther pulled out his hammer in Wittenberg?
When I saw the class called, “History of the Christian Tradition,” I was hooked, without even reading the course description or sample syllabus. I knew I’d take it, and I proselytized for my friends and fraternity brothers to take the class with me so that I would have someone to talk to about it. Some agreed to take it.
Our class text was an anthology of “readings in the history of Western Christianity,” as its subtitle put it. Among those readings were two of the most influential Christian writings, outside of the Bible, I’ve ever read: the Didache and the Apostolic Fathers.
As we got to the chapter entitled, “the Church in the Era of the New Testament,” I couldn’t help but recall that Baptist motto, “The New Testament Church!” My mind practically reeled with excitement at the opportunity to learn something new about a subject so dear to my heart. So, uncharacteristically for me, I carefully did all of the reading for that part of the class. I devoured the Didache and the Apostolic Fathers.
Looking for a mirror
Before I go on, a word about these two works. First, the Didache (pronounced, more or less, “Dih-dack-ee”). It’s basically (and generally) a practical how-to manual for being a Christian that’s been dated by scholars to somewhere between A.D. 90-100. Now, this is significant for someone who’s mind is reading through a “New- Testament-Church!” Filter: according to most scholars, the Book of Revelation was written somewhere between A.D. 68-95. That means that this w ork w as w ritten either during, or only 22 years after, the lifetime of the Apostle John. For me, those dates placed this work within the time frame of the New Testament Church.
I do not believe that the Didache is Scripture, but I do believe what I was taught when receiving my history degree at Vanderbilt: primary sources are the only way for us to know about history. A primary source is “a document that was created at roughly the time being studied, by an authoritative source, usually one with direct personal knowledge of the events being described” (Wikipedia.org, “primary source”). In historical research, primary sources are our bread and butter. These are the tools by which we reconstruct what has happened in the past.
For me, the Didache was a primary source (if you’re an historical scholar, I recognize it doesn’t exactly meet the definition, but let’s remember this is about my spiritual journey, not a Ph.D. thesis). I saw a window into the New Testament Church that I’d never had seen before; I also realized that here was a document that the Reformers had not had available to them in the sixteenth century (since it was only discovered in the nineteenth).
When I looked to the Didache, I hoped to see a mirror: I hoped to see examples of things that Baptists were doing; in other words, I assumed that the Church I’d been taught was a manifestation of the New Testament Church would be reflected by my mirror into the first century.
It turned out to be pretty much the opposite.
True, there were elements of what we did reflected in the Didache, but when it came down to brass tacks, what we called the New Testament Church and what the New Testament Church actually looked like weren’t very similar to one another (I intended to examine the differences more closely, but that would be an essay all its own, as would examining, even in a peripheralway, the Apostolic Fathers—find these documents and read them; they’re free all over the Internet).
Basically, these two primary sources that were contemporaneous with the Apostles and portions of the New Testament describe a Church that it is diffused yet connected, led by Bishops who appoint sub-bishops called Presbyters, and Deacons who either remain in that office or train to become Presbyters. They describe worship as half Bible-reading and preaching and half Communion. They talk about communion in a way that is anything but memorial. Baptism is more than a symbol, it’s an initiation and a new birth. In short, they describe a sacramental, evangelical vision of Christianity that challenged everything I thought I knew .
A rude awakening
My faith wasn’t challenged by these “revelations,” indeed, it is strengthened as I read of people living barely fifty years after Jesus calling him Lord and God (there’s some amazing encouragement to be found in the understanding that these people are only grandson-to-grandfather removed from Jesus, and in the realization that it’d be hard to “legendize” someone that quickly: think JFK in our context). I was, however, rudely awakened to the fact that what I’d always taken for granted (that my way was the way it’d always been done) was not even close.
By this time, I had found the Book of Common Prayer, and I had learned that this Book was associated with a specific church, the Episcopal Church. I had begun attending the Cathedral in Birmingham, and the Lord had revealed his presence in the Eucharist to me. When all these things came together, I realized I was ready to connect with a church that had a vision of this Apostolic, sacramental, evangelical way of relating to Jesus that I had uncovered.
It was then that I decided that I was ready to be confirmed in the Episcopal Church. I'd become convinced that this was where I belonged: weekly communion, with the Real Presence; submission to my father-in-God, a bishop; and a sacramental, liturgical vision of Christianity.
But then I was awakened to what had happened in the Episcopal Church, and I realized that the things I had begun to cherish seemed to be vanishing as quickly as I had discovered them. The Deposit of Faith transmitted from the Apostles was threatened, as church-leaders espoused strange doctrines: Pelagianism, which holds that Creation is unmarred by Adam's fall; Marcionism, which conceives a god of love and mercy of the New Testament diametrically opposed to the god of law and wrath revealed in the Old; Pluralism, which holds that all sincerely held religious beliefs are salvific, independent of Jesus Christ or his mediation and atonem ent; Universalism, the idea that there is no hell or judgment, that all people will receive eternal life by virtue of natural birth; and Gnosticism, which sees a distinction between the Risen Christ and the historical Jesus -- in short, denying the Trinity and the Resurrection.
I realized that in the history of the Church, doctrines like these had been encountered before. In the past, these ideas were called heresy, and those who propounded them were disciplined and excommunicated. I realized that if I submitted to an Episcopal bishop, I would be placing myself in communion with those who rejected the teaching of most Christians in most times and in most places. This, I could not do.
Painted into a corner
It had come down to this: I knew that I wanted weekly communion, a sacramental and liturgical framework within which my relationship with Jesus could flourish, and the authority and teaching of an upright father-in-God to whom I could submit as the early Christians had done.
This understanding effectively cut me off from my past: but it had also connected me with a past I’d never known anything about. I went from seeing my Christian heritage in a few generations, those of my parents, grandparents, and forebears, to seeing the “great cloud of witnesses” to which the Apostle Paul says we are called. This realization, however, did not come without pain: because in resolving to worship Christ in this ancient, Apostolic, sacramental way, I could no longer continue membership in a church that I did not attend.
I do not reject my heritage as a Southern Baptist. Indeed, I am proud that it was the faith of my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and others who equipped me with the tools to discover the ancient Way of the Apostles. Their faithfulness to Jesus remains a steadfast pillar of strength to which I look for hope and encouragement. Their love and support, I am sure, encompasses me about with a sense of what matters most: commitment to the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
But even as I stood – and stand – upon the foundation laid down by my family and friends, in my evangelical upbringing and young adulthood, I continued to long for a fuller expression of the vision of Christ-following I’d seen in my windows to the past. When I searched for such a vision, the only places, outside of Anglicanism, that I saw such an understanding of being a following of the Way was in the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. By process of elimination, I’d found the oldest and earliest churches, the ones that claim continuation with those same apostolic practices I’d read about.
Making the decision
I stood at a cross-roads, then. My faith in Jesus was as strong as ever, and my relationship with Him continued to grow as I sought His face, His will, His Word, and His grace. Ultimately, after months of searching, praying, discussing with friends, attending services (Mass with the Catholics, Divine Liturgy with the Orthodox), and meeting with priests (one Catholic and three Orthodox), I realized the direction I was being led at celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the Eastern Orthodox weekly worship service. As I left the worship of God on a beautiful Sunday morning in Nashville, I realized that place to which God was calling me was the one with the tradition I knew.
Having finally discerned God’s will for me in this area, it was left to me to ask God for the grace and courage to follow through. And that is a much scarier proposition than it sounds. Besides leaving generations of family members who followed our God as Protestants (I am a son of English and Scots-Irish settlers; thus, my ancestors were Baptist, then Presbyterian, then Church of England -- all the way back to the Reformation in England -- and it is no small step to break with four hundred and fifty-nine years of familial heritage), there are theological issues. There was a Reformation for a reason: people were extremely dissatisfied with the theological positions of the Catholic Church. I cannot make a decision like this without acknowledging that, and I would be irresponsible to not investigate those issues. And investigate I did.
The usual list of Protestant exceptions to Catholic teaching most often includes the following: (1) authority; (2) Mary; (3) saints; (4) sacraments; and (5) prayer for the dead. We'll examine my take on these in turn.
Authority: Scripture & Tradition
The Protestants and Catholics alike embrace the Bible as the first authority. The difference between the two is that Protestants take the Bible as their only authority. As an evangelical, this was my position, and I viewed any additions to Biblical authority as an attack on the very Word of God itself. I still view the Bible as the Word of God (this is what it teaches about itself), but I no longer embrace the Reformation sola scriptura; I believe that prima scriptura is consistent with Scripture and history: Scripture first, not alone.
The Catholic insistence on the importance of tradition made no sense to me before I studied this issue. Honestly, this seemed like a no brainer at the time. These days, I’m convinced I was wrong before.
Ultimately, it comes down to basic logic for me. We know, and Protestants agree, that the canon of the New Testament was established various councils of the Church (i.e., groups of Bishops getting together to discern the will of God, such as the Synod of Hippo, the Councils of Carthage, etc.), and finalized around the middle of the third century A.D. But by what did they discern God’s will? The answer seems obvious: there existed some understanding of the Christian Gospel and truth outside of Scripture, and by which the candidates for the Scriptural Canon were judged. How else would the consistency of the Didache and the Apostolic Fathers, written about 100 years apart, yet entirely concordant, be explained? How else would the bishops have been able to decide whether to include non-inspired letters and Gospels which had proliferated across the Roman world in the decades after toleration by the Empire?
Often Protestants argue that it was not tradition, but the guidance of the Holy Spirit that formed that canon of Scripture. But if the guidance of the Holy Spirit formed the Scriptures in the third century, by what were the churches guided in the years immediately after Jesus? They were guided by the teachings of Jesus and his Apostles that had been passed down, orally and through letters and writings, from the very first.
Essentially, tradition just means “the way things are done.” Tradition can be seen as “oral Scripture.” We must be careful to differentiate, as the Catholic Church does, between Tradition and traditions. There is Tradition, which is the Deposit of the Faith given by Jesus to the Apostles and by them to their successors, the Bishops. There are also traditions, things that have accreted around the Church, the Bible, and the institution of Christianity over the vast centuries against which Christ has
guarded his Chuch. The one, Tradition, was formative of Scripture; the other, traditions, are not to be upheld unless they conform to Scripture and Tradition.
Authority: Apostolic Succession
The other primary issues that Protestants take with the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding authority is that regarding the teaching authority of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Obviously, the assertion that a human being is infallible is bound to be a lightning rod for criticism, particularly when we examine Scripture – and History – that proves that leaders are, almost without exception, all too human.
The issue comes, however, from an improper understanding of the Pope’s teaching authority. It is not based upon his personal merit or goodness; instead, it is a product of his selection by the whole Church.
The Church, the Bible teaches, is the Body of Christ. It is his Bride, and it is guided by the Holy Spirit. The reason that even Protestants accept things like the Nicene and Apostles Creeds is because they were promulgated under the influence of the Holy Spirit by the whole Church. Throughout Christian history, the Bible has been read to teach, and Tradition has affirmed, that the Church, speaking collectively on matters of faith and morals , w ill not be allow ed to err by the very Holy Spirit of God.
Again, this is not an assertion of the individual human beings’ power or authority; instead, it is an affirmation of the power of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
When it is time to choose a new Pope, the Bishops of the whole Church who have been chosen to elect the Pope gather together – often several hundred – to seek God’s will for the Church. They pray the Holy Spirit’s protection, and ask his guidance, just as the ancient councils of the church did in the earliest centuries of the Church. When they elect a man to be Pope, they are speaking as the Church; they are protected and guided by the Holy Spirit from erring in their selection, and they chose a man to whom the teaching authority of the Church is given.
The man chosen is the successor of the Apostle Peter, who was the leader of the Apostles. In that role, and in that role alone, he exercises the teaching authority of the church that has been conferred upon him. It is only when this man speaks out of the Chair of Peter, ex cathedra in Latin, that the Pope’s statements take on the authority of the Church. This is because it is only then that the power of the Holy Spirit overshadows him in this specific way.
So special is this authority, that it has been used less than a handful of times in the history of the whole Church.
The next major issue that Protestants have with the Catholic Church is its devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. This is a major issue for many. But it would be difficult to find any Protestant who would object to the title I just used for Mary: “mother of Jesus Christ.” It would also be difficult to find a Protestant who would not confess, with St. Thomas the Apostle, that Jesus is “my Lord and my God.” Indeed, a steadfast belief in the divinity and humanity of Jesus is at the heart of our understanding of the Incarnation and the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
How, then, can Protestants challenge the title of Mary as “Mother of God”? If Jesus, whose natures, while being two, are fully reconciled in him, how can Jesus not be God? And if Jesus is God, as the Bible teaches, how can Mary, whom the Bible teaches is Jesus’ mother, be anything other than the Mother of God?
Protestants often object to this title, saying that it implies an uncreated origin for Mary or some sort of co-equal status with the Triune God. Within Catholic teaching, there could not be anything further from the truth.
The reason that Catholics esteem Mary so highly is because of her role in the Plan of Salvation: Mary was the mother of Jesus, and God chose her to be the human vessel who would not only carry Jesus to term, but who would give Jesus her human nature. Jesus, as Mary’s son, took his human flesh from her. If Mary truly is the biological mother of Jesus, as the Bible teaches, then Jesus had her DNA, and he got his humanity from her.
By definition, then, Mary is a created human being. That is what makes her so special in the eyes of Catholics: here is a woman, an Israelite in the House of David, as the Bible teaches, of whom the Angel of God said, “Hail, thou that art highly favored: the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28). The Bible also teaches that this lowly woman “found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). How was it then that a human being, whom the Bible teaches is doomed to destruction, was able to find favor with God? How can there be “none righteous, no not one,” yet Mary is called “highly favored,” finding “favor with God”?
The answer comes from Paul’s teaching in Romans. If God “foreknows” the choices that we make, then God knew the choice that Mary would make at the annunciation to her by the Angel Gabriel. And, foreknowing that Mary would choose to submit as “the handmaid of the Lord,” God predestined her to be filled with grace won for her by her Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, our Lord Jesus Christ.
We know that Christ’s atoning blood was applied retroactively to the great men and women of faith from the Old Testament, as the Apostle Peter teaches in his Epistle (and as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds teach), whom Jesus saved when he “descended into hell” and “preached to the souls in prison” (Apostles’ Creed; 1 Pet. 3:19). This was done by God’s foreknowledge (after all, as Jesus describes in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Old Testament faithful went not to be with God in heaven, but to the “Abraham’s Bosom” section of Sheol, Hades, the Place of the Dead). If God, in his sovereign foreknowledge could apply the saving grace of Jesus Christ’s atoning death and resurrection to the souls of the Old Testament faithful, then surely he could – and did – apply it to Mary, the unique progenitrix of Jesus’ human nature.
But why would God go to all the trouble of finding Mary “with favor” in the first place? It is a question of original sin. The Bible teaches that all men and women are cursed by the sinful nature since the Fall of Adam and Eve. But we know that the Bible also teaches that Jesus “knew no sin.” How then could Jesus, who was fully human, have avoided the sinful nature of his mother Mary? How did he avoid the transmission of humanity’s curse from his mother yet remain fully and truly human? It was by the divine foreknowledge and predestination of God: knowing Mary’s choice of obedience and faith, God applied to her, at her conception, the salvation won for her and all people by our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus prepared, Mary could be the chosen vessel worthy of God’s favor and ready to be the Mother of God.
This is the concept of the Immaculate Conception. The doctrine of the Assumption flows logically from this understanding of God’s action in Mary’s life: because in his sovereignty God chose to save Mary from original sin, she was able to walk with God, as Enoch and Elijah did, and as they were, be taken into heaven, body and soul. When Mary fell asleep, her body did not stay in the tomb; instead, because of what Jesus had done for her on the Cross, she was resurrected and taken into heaven, where she is the first human being to enjoy the everlasting life promised by Jesus to all those who, like Mary, submit to God in faith and obedience.
It’s important to understand that nothing in the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption ascribe anything to Mary because of something she merited on her own. Everything that makes Mary unique or different flows from what Jesus did for her. Take, for example, the common title, “Our Lady” or “Queen of Heaven.”
Both of these do not place Mary in the role of Jesus’ spouse or co-monarch; instead, Mary is Queen in the sense that she is Jesus’ mother. An example more familiar to English-speaking Christians comes from the United Kingdom: the mother of Queen Elizabeth II was Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. The Queen Mother was only special by virtue of her relationship with the reigning Monarch, Her Majesty the Queen. In the same way, Mary is special because she is Jesus’ mom. Obviously, a son loves and respects his mother (and the Bible teaches that God the Father desires this of his people, particularly in the Fourth Commandment). As those who honor Jesus and love and worship him, we are called to respect and honor those things and people that he honored (i.e., the poor, marriage, etc.). Jesus honored and loved his mother, we are called to do the same.
Let me be clear: Mary is not “Lady” in the same sense that Jesus is “Lord.” Jesus is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity; he is part of the Triune God, eternally begotten on the Father. Mary is a creature, created by God, and redeemed by her own son, Jesus Christ. Any explanation of Mary that alters that would be repugnant to her and a rejection of Christ.
Our discussion of Mary helps us understand the role of the saints in the teaching of the Catholic Church. First, with the Apostle Paul, the Church teaches that all those won for God by Jesus on the cross are saints in glory, a part of the “great cloud of witnesses” which no man can number or count from every tribe, language, nation, and tongue.
At the same time, there are certain people, and again the Apostle Paul provides us with an example, who serve as a sort of “Hall of Fame of Faith,” people whose godly lives and example to us of following God are an inspiration and encouragement. The Catholic Church finds these exemplars of the faith and publicizes their stories to give the faithful models for godly living, just as Paul did with the patriarchs and other Old Testament heroes in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
At the same time as the Church provides the saints as an example, the Church also follows the Bible’s teaching about what happens to those who have been faithful to God. The Bible teaches that they are not dead, but alive, and awaiting the resurrection of the dead. If we believe, as the Bible teaches, that these people are not dead, and if we believe, as the Bible also teaches, that those who have been saved by Jesus are apart of the Body of Christ, then it is logical that those of us within the one Body of Christ who remain alive may, by the power of the Holy Spirit, ask those in the Body of Christ who have gone on to be with the Lord to pray to Him on our behalf.
Now immediately, the objection is raised that “we should just pray to Jesus for ourselves.” And of course, the Catholic Church and the Bible both teach that Jesus is the one Intercessor between God the Father and man, and that Jesus has given us access to the Holy of Holies. This teaching, however, does not stop us from asking our brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for us, however. And neither should it stop us from asking our Brothers and Sisters who are even now with Jesus to also pray for us.
This is the doctrine of prayer to the saints. It is not prayer in the sense of worship or adoration of God, which should be offered only to the One and Most High Triune God. In fact, a more accurate name for this doctrine in English might be, “requests to the saints,” as in “prayer requests.” Because invariably, we ask the saints to “pray for us.” This is the heart of the petition of that oft- maligned prayer, the “Hail Mary.” That prayer is as follows:
Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord art with thee;
blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit
of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now, and at the hour of our death, Amen.
Looking at this prayer closely, we see, most glaringly, that the first four lines are taken directly from the Bible: Luke 1:28 and Luke 1:42. The second four lines flow out of the doctrines we discussed above: Mary is “holy,” in the same way that all who have been sanctified by Jesus and resurrected to eternal life are holy; she is literally the Mother of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God; and we ask her to pray for us, to Jesus, now and at the hour of our deaths.
Another aspect of prayer, or requests, to the saints that is often overlooked is the fact that these brothers and sisters who have gone on to be with the Lord can pray for us perfectly, unlike the prayers offered by our earthly brothers and sisters. My best friend may desire to pray for me, as Paul insists, “without ceasing,” but I would be quite (pleasantly) surprised if he were able to do so. Those who have been sanctified in heaven, and to whom we can make requests through the power of the Holy Spirit, are able to perfectly and constantly pray for us to God the Father and to Jesus while we are sleeping, at work, or even (especially?) when we’re bogged down in sin (when prayer is the last thing on our mind). I, for one, am grateful for the prayers of the saints on my behalf.
Another issue that some Protestants (this is directed to evangelicals reading this), take with the Catholic Church is its teaching on the sacraments. First, we’ll list the seven primary sacraments, then we’ll talk about sacraments in general, and finally, we’ll focus on each one specifically.
The seven sacraments of the Catholic Church are (1) Baptism; (2) Confirmation; (3) Eucharist, or communion; (4) Reconciliation; (5) Anointing of the sick or dying; (6) Holy orders, or the priesthood; and (7) Matrimony, or marriage.
What are sacraments? Generally, sacraments are the dispensation of grace “coming forth” from Christ, “actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church,” and “the masterworks of God”of the new covenant. It is important to recognize two key truths about the sacramental life right off the bat. First, neither the Bible nor the Church teaches that God’s grace only comes to us through the Sacraments. Second, the Bible and the Church do teach that God’s grace can flow to us through other sacramentals: blessed objects and people who are outward and visible manifestations of Christ’s grace being wrought inwardly.
As a Baptist, I was taught that Jesus only instituted two “ordinances,” or practices “ordained” by him. The Catholic Church also teaches that there are only two Sacraments of Christ: Baptism and the Eucharist. The other are called Sacraments of the Church. The difference between the two are that Baptism and Communion are included in the Scriptures (which, as we discussed above, are taken first under prima Scriptura). The Sacraments of the Church are those handed down through Holy Tradition, i.e., the “oral Scriptures” given to the Apostles by Jesus, and handed down to their successors, the Bishops.
Baptism. The Bible and the Catholic Church teach that baptism is the rite of Christian initiation. It is the sacrament whereby men and women experience a new birth in Christ and are sealed by the Holy Spirit. Baptism consists of the application of water (immersion, dipping, pouring, sprinkling–the amount is not relevant) in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Immediately preceding Baptism in the Catholic Church is the ancient Confession of Faith, called the Baptismal Symbol or the Apostles’ Creed. God’s gift in baptism is the birth into his family through Christ’s grace applied by the Holy Spirit. There is nothing magical about the water, but the water becomes the medium by which the Holy Spirit manifests God’s grace.
Confirmation. This sacrament consists of the laying on of hands by a bishop, with prayer, and the anointing of the confirmand with holy oil. The New Testament describes the apostles laying their hands on new believers after their baptism, and this is the modern equivalent. In his prayer, the Bishop invokes the Holy Spirit to descend with special grace to strengthen the grace given at baptism, and to seal the believer as the oil is applied to the forehead of the confirmand. Confirmation is also a sign of the faithful’s submission to the Bishop as a spiritual father, much the same way that Timothy submitted to his father-in-God, the Apostle Paul.
Eucharist. We have already spoke at some length about my transformation in understanding the sacrament of the Eucharist, or communion. Generally, the Eucharist takes place with the proclamation of God’s Word, followed by a prayer of thanksgiving over bread and wine. The priest asks the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood, repeating the Words of Institution that Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper. After prayers, the bread and wine are given to all the baptized Christians in communion with the Church. In the Eucharist, Christ comes among his people, literally, and fulfills his promise to be with us always, even to the end of the age. Through the Body and Blood, the faithful are strengthened in their faith, forgiven of their sins, and confirmed to eternal life.
Reconciliation. The Apostle James, in his Epistle, teaches all Christians to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another” (James 5:16). The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a formalization of that teaching, with the added benefit that priests have been given, by Jesus, the authority to forgive sins in Jesus name. The priests are not infallible or sinless, and indeed, priests are required to go to confession regularly (John Paul II even went weekly). The Church does not teach that a person must go to a priest to pray for forgiveness (indeed, laity are expected to pray regularly on their own). The Bible and the Church do teach that Confession is good for Christians, and the principle of “iron sharpening iron,” and learning from a mentor in faith are all good and godly means by which God’s grace is restored to the penitent. As the name of the sacrament suggests, the point of Reconciliation is to reconcile the penitent to God, to the Church, and to any whom the penitent may have offended through his sin. In this way, God’s grace is inwardly wrought as the priest outwardly makes the sign of the Cross, absolving the penitent in Jesus’ name.
Anointing of the Sick. In this sacrament a priest anoints the sick with oil blessed specifically for that purpose, praying for the Holy Spirit’s grace to heal that person in body, mind, and spirit. Originally, this sacrament was called “unction,” after one of the Latin words for “anoint.” Protestants may be familiar with the terms “Last Rites” or “Extreme Unction,” this was essentially the anointing of the dying, and praying for the grace of the Holy Spirit in that process.
Holy orders. The Catholic Church does not require that all priests be celibate, but it is the tradition of the Western Rite of the Church, based upon Paul’s teaching that a person not drawn between God and their spouse will be more fully devoted to the Lord, that priests and bishops be celibate. Deacons, on the other hand, may be married, so long as they are not preparing to become priests.
Marriage. The Catholic concept of marriage is almost exactly the same as Protestants. One difference is that the Church applies Christ’s teaching on being unequally yoked more consistently: only baptized communicants of the Catholic Church may be married by a priest to another Catholic Christian. The Church also uphold’s the Gospel teaching that divorce is unscriptural, with provision for anulment in cases where it is obvious that the sacrament of marriage did not occur.
Prayer for the Dead
Another issue that many Protestants have with the teaching of the Catholic Church is its prayer for the dead, and the related doctrine of purgatory. The misconception about purgatory and prayer for the dead comes from a layman in the thirteenth century A.D. named Dante. In his classic work, The Divine Comedy, Dante tells an enthralling story of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. The problem with this work, however, is its understanding of Purgatory as a place, not a state.
The Bible and the Church teach that after death, one is either with God in ecstasy or separated from God in torment. The Apostle Paul teaches that “fire shall try every man’s work,” and “if any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved, yet so, as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:13-15). This cleansing fire of which Paul writes is also referenced throughout Holy Tradition, and purgatory, or more accurately, “purgation,” is this cleansing after death for those won for God by Christ that is accomplished by Christ’s grace.
Praying for the dead is found throughout Christian tradition. In the Bible, the Apostle Paul prays for the family his dear friend Onesiphorus, but he also prays for his friend, writing to Timothy: “May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus” (2 Tim. 1:16-18). St. Augustine also prays for his dead mother Monica, in his book Confessions.
The Catholic Church, with the Apostle Paul, prays for those who have died with faith in Jesus, that God would show mercy “on that day.”
Forward in faith
I hope it is evident that I have investigated the claims of the Catholic Church, that I have studied their doctrine and practice, and that I have experienced Catholic worship. In all of these things, I have sensed a resonance within me. My soul has felt peace, and I have had an abiding sense of “rightness” in the decision to follow God into the Catholic Church.
But even as I find peace in this decision, I want to make it clear that my love and concern for my family and friends—my brothers and sisters in Christ!—has only grown through this process. Nothing in the teaching of the Catholic Church will force me to reject my heritage or my family. Nothing that I must do to be confirmed in the Church will require me to believe that my family and friends are not Christians or unfaithful. Indeed, the Catholic Church teaches that anyone who is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit with faith has received the sacrament of Christian initiation and been born into the family of the Triune God.
I look forward to the opportunity to continue to worship our God with my parents, sister, family, and friends from Rogersville, Vanderbilt, Samford, Nashville, and elsewhere. I retain and nurture both great respect and great honor for the people and institutions who have made me who I am. I will forever thank God, and continue to pray for his protection, for the people of First Baptist Church of Rogersville. In my heart, that congregation will always be the place where my journey began. It will always feel like home-away-from-home.
I wrote all of this, because I wanted you, the reader, to understand why I made what might seem like a radical decision. I wanted you to understand that I have put tremendous amounts of deliberation and prayer into this decision. I wanted to assure you that I was neither abandoning Jesus Christ nor those who do not follow me into the Catholic Church. I wanted to demonstrate that I had thought through the consequences of the decision. And I wanted you to know that while my Church affiliation—and a few doctrines here and there—may now be different from yours, I am still a disciple of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. My hope is still built “on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” It is only upon “Christ, the solid Rock, I stand.”
I’m sure you’re laughing at me for citing to hymns, but if there’s one thing people who know me know, it is that my relationship with Jesus is one that is expressed in music. No better way to close, then, than this:
The Church’s one foundation
is Jesus Christ her Lord,
she is His new creation
by water and the Word.
From heav’n He came and sought her to be His holy bride;
with His own blood He bought her and for her life He died.
—Given at Nashville, on the Vigil of the Memorial of St. Theodore of Canterbury, anno Domini MMVIII.
Update (April 12, 2009): Last night, at the Easter Vigil, I was accepted into the Catholic Church, received the Sacrament of Confirmation, and made my first Holy Communion. Deo gratias!