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I’ve a good friend, perhaps my very best friend for more than three decades, who has had and continues to have a colossal impact upon my thinking about God, my understanding of the Christian faith and our sacred text. He is one of the most well-read believers that I know, consuming more books in a week than most would or could in a month. Whenever I have a question pertaining to the faith, he’s my go-to guy.

Not just one that I would consider an intellectual giant, this person is my dear brother in Christ Jesus and part of my eternal family. There is no question in my mind or heart that he loves Jesus with all that he is and has.

Why do I offer this? Because not long ago he announced to me that he converted from Protestant to Catholic. Intrigued by his conversion, I wanted to offer a two-part series in the format of a Q & A session that may be of interest to readers of this blog. I hope you find his responses  enlightening and useful, especially after posts like this one (see the response of Francis Beckwith). It is my hope that informed discussions will take place between the two camps of Christianity.

Question: What event(s) started you on your pilgrimage to Catholicism?

Paul, thanks for the thoughtful questions. I preface my answers with the fact that I’m still growing as a Catholic. I was received into the church on March 30, 2013. I’m therefore still very young as a Catholic and have much to learn.

If I had to pick one event it would probably be the conversion of Francis Beckwith. I had read Beckwith for years and really respect him as a scholar and philosopher. When he converted I thought to myself, “Why would he convert to Catholicism? There must be more to Catholicism than I have been taught.” That was in 2007. In 2009 Beckwith published a book recounting his experience (Return to Rome, Brazos Press). I quickly read through his book and found it thought provoking but was not persuaded. But it did spark my interest. I realized I had a lot of reading to do. As I read two things quickly unfolded: 1) I realized I had some serious mistaken notions about Catholics (they worship Mary, etc.), and 2) the more I read the more it seemed to ring true.

Was there something specifically that led you to convert to Catholicism?

John Henry Cardinal Newman once said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Clearly, this isn’t always so. My cognate in seminary was church history and none of my church history professors were Catholic. Nonetheless, I would say my reading of church history combined with my reading of Catholic writers led me to the truth of Catholicism. 

How did your view of communion change with acceptance of the eucharist? Specifically was it hard for you to accept the teaching about the elements literally changing to the body and blood of Christ?

Not as much as I thought it would. The critical point is the Thomistic understanding of the distinction between substance and accidence. I won’t burden your readers with all the details but let me just say I had a philosophical framework already in place that made this easier to accept. The Biblical case took more time. I had to work through passages (e.g., John 6) again with great care. One of the better books that helped me with this was Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist by Brant Pitre (Doubleday, 2011). Pitre has a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Notre Dame and his book is a careful treatment of the Eucharist with an eye on the Jewish Passover.

What precisely changed in your view of justification by faith alone and the grace of God offered in salvation apart from meritorious works? More pointedly, is slavific grace infused over time or is it instantaneously imparted?

As a Catholic I can affirm salvation by grace through faith alone as long as we understand that faith is informed by love. That is to say it is not simply intellectual assent. Protestants draw a sharp distinction between justification and sanctification. Catholics don’t draw quite the same distinction. Sanctification is an extension of our justification. But any works that a Catholic does in the sanctification process are always preceded by the grace of God. I am persuaded more and more that the Catholic position is tenable. Peter Kreeft has written, “The split of the Protestant Reformation began when a Catholic discovered a Catholic doctrine in a Catholic book” (Fundamentals of the Faith, Ignatius Press, 1988, page 281). I’ve just started reading Rereading Paul Together: Protestant and Catholic Perspective on Justification (Baker Academic, 2006) Also helpful is Justification by Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII edited by H. George Anderson, T. Austin Murphy and Joseph A. Burgess (Augsburg Publishing House, 1985).

How has Catholic Mass enhanced your worship experience compared to your experiences in a Protestant service?

As a Protestant I saw the summit of the service as the sermon. Oddly enough this isn’t practiced consistently since I’ve seen numerous Protestant services omit the sermon in order to do any number of things (have a praise time, hear from missionaries, devote the time to prayer etc.). I’ve never seen a Protestant service bypass the singing in order to have a longer sermon so you have to ask yourself is the sermon really “essential” to the service if it can omitted even if just on occasion. With that in mind some could construe that the real essentials to a Protestant service are singing and praying. The sermon can go long or short or just get passed over in order for something else to happen. In a Catholic Mass the Eucharist is summit of the service and would never be eclipsed for something else—ever. I did have to adjust from a 30-45 minute sermon to a 15 minute homily. Also, a homily is not necessarily an exposition of the Scripture passages read. As a Protestant I was generally pretty hard on sermons because the pastor was attempting to do an exegesis of the passage (not always but most often). My own seminary training was my own worst enemy because the errors (small and large) were obstacles to me hearing the sermon. A homily is something very different and I find myself open to what the priest has to say. And since it is only roughly 15 minutes he’s only trying to make one or two points (not 3-10). That’s a whole lot easier to remember. The Mass is critically important to me and with each passing week I find I love it more and more. I’m fed by the word of God preached and by the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is, quite simply, a thing of beauty. To the untrained eye it seems like people are simply going through the motions. And many are. But you can see the same thing in a Protestant service too. I’ve seen people sing songs while looking around to see if their friends have arrived. Rituals are everywhere and can be numbly followed in both Catholic and Protestant contexts.

Stay tuned for Part 2! Oh, and please feel free to offer comments within the Guidelines and after the spirit of a genuine interest for learning. This post is not so much intended to argue the points as to encourage healthy, responsible thought and move the discussion forward.

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