[originally written on December 9, 1990 / revised: July 1992 / expanded version: 1993. This was my draft of what was later somewhat edited and included in Surprised by Truth with ten other conversion stories. That book (1994; edited by Patrick Madrid) has now sold over 300,000 copies: the highest total (I understand) of any Catholic book besides the Catechism. Unfortunately, by agreement, I never received one red cent. Oh well: lots of advertising of my name, anyway, which counts for something when one is trying to live as a full-time apologist. Another heavily-edited (I would even say, "butchered") version of this story was published in This Rock in September 1993 (my first time published in that important periodical) ]
I was received into the Catholic Church in February 1991 by Fr. John Hardon, an act which as recently as a year earlier, would have seemed to me absolutely inconceivable. Not much in my background would have indicated this surprising turn of events, but such is God's ever inscrutable mercy and providence.
My first exposure to Christianity came from the United Methodist Church, the denomination in which I was raised. The church we attended, in a working-class neighborhood of Detroit, appeared to me, even as a child in the early 1960s, to be in decline, sociologically speaking, as the average age of the members was about fifty or so years. In my studies as an Evangelical later, I learned that shrinking and aging congregations were one of the marks of the deterioration of mainline Protestantism.
As it turned out, our church actually folded in 1968, and after that, I barely attended church at all for the next nine years. My early religious upbringing was not totally without benefit, though, as I gained a respect for God which I never relinquished, a comprehension of His love for mankind, and an appreciation for the sense of the sacred and basic moral precepts.
At any rate, for whatever reason, I didn't sustain an ongoing interest in Christianity at this time. In 1969, at the age of eleven, I first came in contact with the quintessential altar call of Fundamentalist Christianity at a Baptist Church which we visited two or three times. I went up front to get "saved," perfectly sincere, but without the knowledge or force of will required (by more thoughtful Evangelical standards) to carry out this temporary resolve.
During this period, I became fascinated with the supernatural, but unfortunately, it got channeled into a vague, catch-all occultism. I dabbled, with great seriousness into ESP, telepathy, the Ouija board, astral projection, even voodoo (with a vicious gym teacher in mind!). I read about Houdini and Uri Geller, among others.
Meanwhile, my brother Gerry, who is ten years older than I am, converted, in 1971, to "Jesus Freak" Evangelicalism, a trend which was at its peak at that time. He underwent quite a remarkable transformation out of a drug-filled rock band culture and personal struggles, and started preaching zealously to our family. This was a novel spectacle for me to observe. I had already been influenced by the hippie counterculture, and had always been a bit of a nonconformist, so the Jesus Movement held a strange fascination for me, although I had no intention of joining it.
I prided myself on my "moderation" with regard to religious matters. Like most nominal Christians and outright unbelievers, I reacted to any display of earnest and devout Christianity with a mixture of fear, amusement, and condescension, thinking that such behavior was "improper", fanatical, and outside of mainstream American culture. During the early 1970s I occasionally visited Messiah Lutheran Church in Detroit where my brother attended, along with his "Jesus Freak," long-haired friends, and would squirm in my seat under the conviction of the powerful sermons of Pastor Dick Bieber, the likes of which I had never heard. I remember thinking that what he was preaching was undeniably true, and that if I were to "get saved" there would be no room for middle ground or fence-sitting. Therefore, I was reluctant, to say the least, because I thought it would be the end of fun and fitting-in with my friends. Because of my rebelliousness and pride, God had to use more drastic methods to wake me up.
In 1977 I experienced a severe depression for six months, which was totally uncharacteristic of my temperament before or since. The immediate causes were the pressures of late adolescence, but in retrospect it is clear that God was bringing home to me the ultimate meaninglessness of my life - - a vacuous and futile individualistic quest for happiness without purpose or relationship with God. I was brought, staggering, to the end of myself. It was a frightening existential crisis in which I had no choice but to cry out to God. He was quick to respond.
It so happened that at Easter 1977 the superb Franco Zeffirelli film Jesus of Nazareth (still my favorite Christian movie) was on television. I had always enjoyed Bible movies, such as The Ten Commandments. They brought the biblical personalities to life, and the element of drama (as an art form) communicated the vitality of Christianity in a unique and effective way. Jesus, as portrayed in this movie, made an extraordinary impression on me, and the timing couldn't have been better. He seemed like the ultimate nonconformist, which greatly appealed to me. I marveled at the way He dealt with people, and got the feeling that you could never expect what He would say or do - - always something with unparalleled insight or impact. I began to comprehend, with the help of my brother, the heart of the gospel for the first time: what the Cross and the Passion meant, and some of the basic points of theology and soteriology (the theology of salvation) that I had never thought about before. I also learned that Jesus was not only the Son of God, but God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, which, incredibly, I had either not heard previously, or simply didn't comprehend if I had heard it. I started to read the Bible seriously for the first time in my life (the Living Bible translation, which is the most informal paraphrase).
It was the combination of my depression and newfound knowledge of Christianity that caused me to decide to follow Jesus as my Lord and Savior in a much more serious fashion, in July 1977 what I would still regard as a "conversion to Christ," and what Evangelicals view as the "born-again" experience or getting "saved." I continue to look at this as a valid and indispensable spiritual step, even though, as a Catholic, I would, of course, interpret it in a somewhat different way than I did formerly. Despite my initial burst of zeal, I again settled into lukewarmness for three years until August 1980, when I finally yielded my whole being to God, and experienced a profound "renewal" in my spiritual life, as it were.
Throughout the 1980s I attended Lutheran, Assembly of God, and non-denominational churches with strong connections to the "Jesus Movement," characterized by youth, spontaneity of worship, contemporary music, and warm fellowship. Many of my friends were former Catholics. I knew little of Catholicism until the early 1980s. I regarded it as an exotic, stern, and unnecessarily ritualistic "denomination," which held little appeal for me. I wasn't by nature attracted to liturgy, and didn't believe in sacraments at all, although I always had great reverence for the "Lord's Supper" and believed something real was imparted in it.
On the other hand, I was never overtly anti-Catholic. Having been active in apologetics and counter-cult work (specializing in Jehovah's Witnesses), I quickly realized that Catholicism was entirely different from the cults, in that it had correct "central doctrines," such as the Trinity and the bodily Resurrection of Christ, as well as an admirable historical legitimacy; fully Christian, albeit vastly inferior to Evangelicalism.
I was, you might say, a typical Evangelical of the sort who had an above-average amateur theological interest. I became familiar with the works of many of the "big names": C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Josh McDowell, A.W. Tozer, Billy Graham, Hal Lindsey, John Stott, Chuck Colson, Christianity Today magazine, Keith Green and Last Days Ministries, the Jesus People in Chicago and Cornerstone magazine, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (a campus organization), as well as the Christian music scene: all in all, quite beneficial influences and not to be regretted at all.
My strong interest in both evangelism and apologetics led me to become, with my church's permission, a missionary on college campuses for four years. I also got involved in the pro-life movement, and eventually Operation Rescue.
It quickly became apparent to me that the Catholic rescuers were just as committed to Christ and godliness as Evangelicals. In retrospect, there is no substitute for the extended close observation of devout Catholics. I had met countless Evangelicals who exhibited what I thought to be a serious walk with Christ, but rarely ever Catholics of like intensity. I began to fellowship with my Catholic brethren at Rescues, and sometimes in jail, including priests and nuns. Although still unconvinced theologically, my personal admiration for orthodox Catholics
In January 1990 I began an ecumenical discussion group which I moderated. Three knowledgeable Catholic friends from the Rescue movement, John McAlpine, Leno Poli, and Don McSween, started attending. Their claims for the Church, particularly papal and conciliar infallibility, challenged me to plunge into a massive research project on that subject. I believed I had found many errors and contradictions throughout history. Later I realized, though, that my many "examples" didn't even fall into the category of infallible pronouncements, as defined by the Vatican Council of 1870. I was also a bit dishonest because I would knowingly overlook strong historical facts which confirmed the Catholic position, such as the widespread early acceptance of the Real Presence, the authority of the Bishop, and the communion of the saints.
In the meantime, I was reading exclusively Catholic books (and all the short Catholic Answers tracts), with an open mind, and my respect and understanding of Catholicism grew by leaps and bounds. I began (providentially) with The Spirit of Catholicism by Karl Adam, a book too extraordinary to summarize adequately. It is, I believe, a nearly perfect book about Catholicism as a worldview and a way of life, especially for a person acquainted with basic Catholic theology. I read books by Christopher Dawson, the great cultural historian, Joan Andrews (a heroine of the Rescue movement), and Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk, which all extremely impressed me.
My three friends at our group discussion continued to calmly offer replies to nearly all of my hundreds of questions. I was amazed by the realization that Catholicism seemed to have "thought out" everything - it was a marvelously complex and consistent belief system unparalleled by any portion of Evangelicalism.
At this time I became seriously troubled by the Protestant (and my own) free and easy acceptance of contraception. I came to believe, in agreement with the Church, that once one regards sexual pleasure as an end in itself, then the so-called "right to abortion" is logically not far away. My Evangelical pro-life friends might easily draw the line, but the less spiritually-minded have not in fact done so, as has been borne out by the sexual revolution in full force since the widespread use of the Pill began around 1960.
Once a couple thinks that they can thwart even God's will in the matter of a possible conception, then the notion of terminating a pregnancy follows by a certain diabolical logic devoid of the spiritual guidance of the Church. In this, as in other areas such as divorce, the Church is ineffably wise and truly progressive. G.K. Chesterton and Ronald Knox, the great apologists, could see the writing on the wall already by the 1930s.
I was utterly shocked by the facts that no Christian body had accepted contraception until the Anglicans in 1930, and the inevitable progression in nations of contraception to abortion, as shown irrefutably by Fr. Paul Marx. Finally, a book entitled The Teaching of "Humanae Vitae" by John Ford, Germain Grisez, et al, convinced me of the moral distinction between contraception and Natural Family Planning and put me over the edge.
I now accepted a very "un-Protestant" belief, but still didn't even dream of becoming Catholic (which is, of course, unthinkable for an Evangelical). Yet I was falling prey to Chesterton's principle of conversion - - that one cannot be fair to Catholicism without starting to admire it and becoming convinced of it.
Meanwhile, my wife Judy, who was raised Catholic and became a Protestant before we dated, had also been independently convinced of the wrongness of contraception. She returned to the Church on the day I was received. What a joy unity is! By July 1990, then, I believed Catholicism had the best moral theology of any Christian body, and greatly respected its sense of community, devotion, and contemplation.
Moral theology and intangible mystical elements began the ball of conversion rolling for me, and increasingly rang true deep within my soul; beyond, but not opposed to, the rational calculations of my mind - what Cardinal Newman terms the "Illative Sense."
My Catholic friend, John, tiring of my constant rhetoric about Catholic errors and additions through the centuries, suggested that I read Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. This book demolished the whole schema of Church history which I had constructed. I thought, typically, that early Christianity was Protestant and that Catholicism was a later corruption (although I placed the collapse in the late Middle Ages rather than the usual time of Constantine in the fourth century).
Martin Luther, so I reckoned, had discovered in Sola Scriptura the means to scrape the accumulated Catholic barnacles off of the original lean and clean Christian "ship." Newman, in contrast, exploded the notion of a barnacle-free ship. Ships always got barnacles. The real question was whether the ship would arrive at its destination. Tradition, for Newman, was like a rudder and steering wheel, and was absolutely necessary for guidance and direction. Newman brilliantly demonstrated the characteristics of true developments, as opposed to corruptions, within the visible and historically continuous Church instituted by Christ. I found myself unable and unwilling to refute his reasoning, and a crucial piece of the puzzle had been put into place - Tradition was now plausible and self-evident to me.
Thus began what some call a "paradigm shift." While reading the Essay I experienced a peculiar, intense, and inexpressibly mystical feeling of reverence for the idea of a Church "one, holy, catholic and apostolic." Catholicism was now thinkable and I was suddenly cast into an intense crisis. I now believed in the visible Church and suspected that it was infallible as well. Once I accepted Catholic ecclesiology, the theology followed as a matter of course, and I accepted it without difficulty (even the Marian doctrines).
My Catholic friends had been tilling the rocky soils of my stubborn mind and will for almost a year, planting "Catholic seeds," which now rapidly took root and sprouted, to their great surprise. I had fought the hardest just prior to reading Newman, in a desperate attempt to salvage my Protestantism, much like a drowning man just before he succumbs! I continued reading, now actively trying to persuade myself fully of Catholicism, going through Newman's autobiography, Tom Howard's Evangelical Is Not Enough, which helped me appreciate the genius of liturgy for the first time, and two books by Chesterton on Catholicism.
At about this time I had a conversation with an old friend, Al Kresta, who had also been my pastor for a few years, and whose theological opinions I held in very high regard. I admitted to him that I was seriously troubled by certain elements of Protestantism, and might, perhaps (but it was a far-fetched notion) think of becoming a Catholic. To my amazement, he told me that he, too, was heading in the same general direction, citing, in particular, the problem that the formulation and pronouncement of the Canon of Scripture poses for Protestants and their "Bible-only" premise. These types of unusual "confirming" events helped to create a strong sense that something strange was going on during the bewildering period just preceding my actual conversion. Al was in such a theological crisis (as was I), that he resigned his pastorate within two months of our conversation.
Also at this time I had the great privilege of meeting Fr. John Hardon, the eminent Jesuit catechist, and attending his informal class on spirituality. This gave me the opportunity to learn personally from an authoritative Catholic priest, who is a delightful and humble man as well. After seven tense weeks of alternately questioning my sanity and arriving at immensely exciting new plateaus of discovery, the final death blow came in just the fashion I had suspected. I knew that if I was to reject Protestantism, then I had to examine its historical roots: the so-called Protestant Reformation. I had previously read some material on Martin Luther, and considered him one of my biggest heroes. I accepted the standard textbook myth of Luther as the bold, righteous rebel against the darkness of Catholic tyranny and superstition added on to "early Christianity."
But when I studied a large portion of the six-volume biography Luther, by the German Jesuit Hartmann Grisar, my opinion of Luther was turned upside down. Grisar convinced me that the foundational tenets of the Protestant Revolution were altogether tenuous. I had always rejected Luther's notions of absolute predestination and the total depravity of mankind. Now I realized that if man had a free will, he did not have to be merely declared righteous in a judicial, abstract sense, but could actively participate in his redemption and actually be made righteous by God. This, in a nutshell, is the classic debate over Justification.
I learned many highly disturbing facts about Luther; for example, his radically subjective existential methodology, his disdain for reason and historical precedent, and his dictatorial intolerance of opposing viewpoints, including those of his fellow Protestants. These and other discoveries were stunning, and convinced me beyond doubt that he was not really a "reformer" of the "pure," pre-Nicene Church, but rather, a revolutionary who created a novel theology in many, though not all, respects. The myth was annihilated.
Now I was "unconvinced" of the standard Protestant concept of the invisible, "rediscovered" church. In the end, my innate love of history played a crucial part in my forsaking Protestantism, which tends to give very little attention to history (as indeed is necessary in order to retain any degree of plausibility over against Catholicism).
At this point, it became, in my opinion, an intellectual and moral duty to abandon Protestantism in its Evangelical guise. It was still not easy. Old habits and perceptions die hard, but I refused to let mere feelings and biases interfere with the wondrous process of illumination which overpowered me by God's grace. I waited expectantly for just one last impetus to fully surrender myself. The unpredictable course of conversion came to an end on December 6, 1990, while I was reading Cardinal Newman's meditation on "Hope in God the Creator" and in a moment decisively realized that I had already ceased to offer any resistance to the Catholic Church. At the end, in most converts' experience, an icy fear sets in, similar to the cold feet of pre-marriage jitters. In an instant, this final obstacle vanished, and a tangible "emotional and theological peace" prevailed.
In the three years since I converted, some astonishing things have occurred among our circle of friends (I don't claim credit for these, other than maybe a tiny influence, but rather, marvel at the ways in which God moves people's hearts). Four people have returned to the Church of their childhood and three, like myself, have converted from lifelong Protestantism. These include my former pastor, Al and his wife, Sally, one of my best friends and frequent evangelistic partner, Dan Grajek and his wife Lori, Dan's longtime friend Joe Polgar, who had lapsed into virtual paganism for years, another friend Terri Navarra, and the daughter, Jennifer, of a friend, Tom McGlynn. Additionally, another couple we know converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, a second is seriously thinking about the same, and a third couple may convert to Catholicism. Needless to say, many of our mutual Protestant friends view these occurrences with dumbfounded trepidation. One of my former pastors, in the most heated encounter since my conversion, called me a "blasphemer" because I believed there was more to Christian Tradition than simply that which is contained in the Bible! Another good friend who is a Baptist minister said that although I had made a terrible mistake, I was still saved because of his belief in eternal security! All in all, it has, thankfully, been fairly smooth sailing among our Evangelical Protestant friends. Many ignore our Catholicism altogether.
I believe that all Catholics can share in such experiences as I've been describing, in the sense that each new discovery of some Catholic truth is similarly exhilarating. As we all grow in our faith, let us rejoice in the abundant well-springs of delight, as well as instructive times of suffering which God provides for us in his Body, fully manifested in the Catholic Church. I feel very much at home in it, as much as could be expected this side of heaven.
For two other versions of my conversion (and one capsule summary of the biblical-historical rationale), see:
My Conversion to the Catholic Church (Transcript of a Radio Interview With Al Kresta)
How Newman Convinced me of the Apostolicity of the Catholic Church
150 Reasons Why I am a Catholic