I decided to write this down, because, over the past ten years or so, I have probably been asked literally hundreds of times why I became a Catholic. When people find out that I converted to the Catholic faith as an adult, I guess they get the sense that there must be some big story behind it. Or at least I get the sense that most Catholics don’t get asked for their reasons.
At any rate, being the introvert that I am, I often feel like people want a quick answer, the Cliff Notes version of things. Paul on the road to Damascus. Peter and Andrew leaving their nets. I know my story isn’t the same as theirs. For one, I didn’t have their faith. It took them four minutes what it took me four years to do. For another, I’ve known Jesus my whole life, but following him as a kid was easy; following him as an adult was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. This is for anyone who cares to know that story.
Frankly, I have no idea whether or not my spiritual journey counts as a big story. The short version is this: it never should have happened. We know from data that the vast majority of Catholics were raised Catholic, that most of the Church’s growth is through childbirth, that many leave the faith as they grow older, and that far fewer replace them as adults. So, at least in strictly demographic terms, I’m definitely an outlier.
But it’s an important story, I believe, not just because it was demographically improbable, but because I was the last person it should have happened to. Not that I’m not glad it happened—it was the greatest gift of my life—only that it makes no sense. Or, rather, the only way it makes sense is if you believe what I do: that God brought me to the Catholic Church despite it being improbable. And, I believe, for a reason. Whatever it might be.
The truth is this: I never wanted to be a Catholic. I know that sounds like a blunt way to say it, but the reality is that I never asked to be here. What I asked for 16 years ago was for God to help me find God—wherever he might be—and I promised to follow. That the end of my journey would be the Catholic Church is something I never would have believed at the outset. In fact, had I known the ending, I probably never would have started in the first place. Fortunately, that God knew that, too, is abundantly clear.
I should say at the start that, if you were raised Catholic, this whole story is going to be tough to wrap your head around, or at least the way I talk about it will be a little foreign. The Catholic Church is likely all you’ve ever known—and that’s wonderful, too! That, at least, makes sense. But the truth is also that your faith has probably come to you without you having to jump through too many hoops: assigned in the womb, fostered in the family, developed in the parish, and matured in the Catholic schools. You have come from an entire world designed to help you arrive at where you are today. On many occasions, and in many tear-soaked prayers, I have wished that to be my story too.
Instead, God gave me this one.
The first thing that Catholics from Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, St. Louis, and other Catholic strongholds need to know is that, where I come from—and where tens of millions of other Americans come from—being Catholic is far from normal. Growing up in East Texas, almost everyone I knew was Southern Baptist, or at least some form of Evangelical. I realize that no description I can give of this other world that I come from can substitute for actually living in it. It’s an entirely different culture. We had our own music, our own movies, our own clothes sometimes, our own cultural norms, our own unique means of social organization. It was complete, or nearly so. I think that’s important too.
Also, just so we get the terminology clear: Southern Baptists consider themselves to be Christians, of course. But, to Southern Baptists, the term “Christian” is roughly equal to what Catholics would call “Protestant” (a word I would only learn much later in life). To us, there were Christians and there were Catholics (more on this later). Within Christians, there were Mainliners (e.g., Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc.), and there were Evangelicals (e.g., Baptists, Church of Christ, Pentecostals, and, later, non-denominationals, etc.). I’m sure I never met a Mainliner until much later, but the differences between the Evangelical denominations were the source of some debate among people I knew in school. But most churches were Baptist, and most Baptist churches belonged to the Southern Baptist Convention, by far the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
The point of the terminology lesson is that, from an early age in church, we were taught that Catholics weren’t real Christians: they didn’t believe in salvation the way we did, they worshipped Mary and the Pope, and they wouldn’t be in Heaven when I got there. Which was fine by me. Catholics, I was taught, were like some alien species, doomed at best, dangerous at worst. Years later, I would co-teach a course at Notre Dame on Urban Politics, and we would look at old political cartoons from 100+ years ago that depicted alligators crawling up out of the Atlantic with pope hats on, heading towards children on the shore. It’s amazing how little has changed in some places.
My family being exiles from Louisiana (the Catholic blip in the South), I heard my fair share of stories about red-nosed, hiccuping priests and wanton LSU co-eds who would bring boys home from parties on Saturday only to go to confession on Sunday. I have no doubt that the stories were true, and that there were more of them. No religion is perfect in practice. The problem is that they were the only stories I knew. It was easy to believe them—and to believe that all other stories would be just like them—because I had no way of verifying them through my own lived experience.
Let me again make the point here that, had I had even one positive Catholic example as a kid—even one—I would have (or at least could have) questioned the truth of what I was being taught. But I didn’t. There was no one. In fact, one of my earliest and most beloved Sunday School teachers as a young boy was a former Catholic who spoke often to us about how grateful he was to have found Jesus by leaving the Catholic Church.
Mr. Jesse was a tough, powerfully built Latino man my dad’s age (and about a foot shorter), with tattoos up and down his arms and a look in his eyes that told you he had seen a lot of things that he would probably never be able to tell you about. Mr. Jesse talked about Jesus as if Jesus had literally saved his life, and to this day I believe that probably wasn’t too far from the truth.
Sometimes, Mr. Jesse would sing in church. No music would play behind him. He would just stand on the stage and sing whatever words were on his heart, to whatever tune came out of his mouth. By the end, he would always have tears running down his face, and sometimes so would I, without really knowing why. I was young, but I sensed the joy and the relief that Mr. Jesse felt now that he was safe and home—and the weight of what he had left behind him. That one of the those things he left behind was being a Catholic was something that would shape me in subtle ways for years to come.
For those of you who are Catholic, there’s one more thing I want to point out about what it’s like to grow up Evangelical. Though, like in the Catholic Church, kids are raised in the faith from an early age, they aren’t baptized until later in life, if at all. Southern Baptists, like most other Evangelicals, believe that following Christ (i.e., “accepting Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior”) is a choice that each person has to make affirmatively for themselves. It doesn’t have to wait until you become an adult, though it sometimes will. But there will always be some point at which a person “becomes” a Christian. A switch that flips forever. Without that step of faith, a person isn’t considered a Christian. At least, not yet.
What’s more, there isn’t a set age for that decision, and there are no universal guidelines to follow, no prescribed prayer to pray, no familiar lines to memorize, and no set of beliefs to accept other than the Bible itself. Instead, during every church service (usually right after the sermon), there is a time called the Invitation, during which music softly plays and anyone present can come forward and pray with the pastor or a church leader.
This will be strange for Catholics. It’s sort of like going to confession, but in front of the whole church. The closest thing aesthetically I can think of in the Catholic mass is that brief period after Communion when everyone is back at their seat and the music is still playing while the priest sits back down, everyone reflecting on their own faith or whatever weighs on their heart. That’s probably the least communal time of the mass, which is a good parallel for this. A time between just you and God.
At the Invitation, however, people often feel God calling them to make some decision, or to pray with the pastor for some particular thing. I’ve seen people come forward to pray about some big life crisis or illness, to give up smoking (I’ve seen people literally hand the pastor their cigarettes), to renew a previous commitment to follow Christ after a period of letting things go, or to join that particular church as a member.
And, though people are welcome to come forward about anything, the most celebrated decision is when a person decides for the first time to give their life to Christ and become “saved”. The pastor walks them through a simple prayer: confessing that you’re a sinner and you need Jesus; asking Jesus to come into your heart and rule your life; and committing to follow him in the future. Neither the church nor the pastor has the power to declare you saved, you just are. It’s between you and God.
What’s more, most Evangelicals believe that, from that moment forward, nothing can undo your salvation, not even yourself, no matter how hard you try. You’re going to heaven the moment you die, whether you like it or not. On the flip side, you can go to church your whole life and, without this one-time huge life decision, you are not a Christian and you are probably going to hell when you die. (Summed up in a nutshell, this is the essential theology of about a quarter of the United States, a few millions more than there are Catholics.)
Personally, I made this decision when I was about 8 years old. It was on a Thursday, and it wasn’t even at my own church. I was at the next church up the road (only about 2 miles) going to their Vacation Bible School. There was nothing special about the message the pastor gave that day, I don’t think, it was just time. Growing up in a very religious setting, I knew it was a decision I would make eventually, I just wanted to wait to make it until I knew I was making it for myself. Then I did, and that was that. No fanfare. No parties. No special outfits. Just the biggest decision I would make in my life: the decision about how I would live my life and where I would spend all of eternity. Otherwise, just another small-town Texas Thursday.
I first met a Catholic when I was in 6th grade. My older sister brought a friend home from school, which was pretty rare considering our school was in the posh suburbs, while we lived out in the hillbilly sticks with the raccoons and the snakes. I knew right away that this girl was not one of us. She was impossibly pale with coal-dark hair and a British accent. But that wasn’t the worst of it. My sister told me in passing that she was also Catholic.
I wish I could say that I was fascinated by someone so different, but, by that point, I was pretty well trained to mistrust people who were different than me—especially those who worshiped differently than us—and Catholics were the worst because they made claims on our Jesus. Even as a kid, I read my Bible every day, and could quote Scripture from memory, while we were told Catholics didn’t even bring their Bibles to church! This sacrilege on the part of Catholics seemed indefensible to me as a kid, and, though it’s technically true that almost no Catholic brings a Bible to church, the Catholic mass contains just as much—if not more—Scripture in it than most Baptist services, which is still a good amount, by any measure.
It says a lot about the heart of my sister that she had resisted the more tribal impulses that are pretty common where I grew up. The tendency to be wary of outsiders (i.e., to be friendly to people you don’t know as long as they are one of your sort of people), to fight for your beliefs and never question them, to make others earn entry into your straightforward, well-ordered worldview. While my sister and her friend would play together, I would sometimes wander up and ask her questions—questions normal boys would never ask.
“Why do you worship Mary?”
That’s what we’d call her: Mary. We spat it. Like she was a girl in gym class that everyone hated. Books could be (and probably have been) written about the irrational vitriol that rises in the throats of male Evangelicals when we are forced to acknowledge that Jesus’s mother is seen by others as anything more than the incubator of Our Personal Lord and Savior. We can talk all day about Jesus living in us, yet we show no honor whatsoever (except obliquely at Christmas) to the first and only person in history who could claim that literally.
“Why do you worship the pope?”
I don’t suppose I even knew what a pope was then. Some kind of fancy man, for sure. A soft, old man who wore dresses and rings and thought he was God. People bowed down to him and asked him for forgiveness. A foreigner. What could he be but the anti-Christ? This is seriously what kids are taught where I’m from.
I’m sure my sister’s friend hated me. She knew I didn’t ask these questions because I honestly wanted to know the answers. I don’t even know if she knew the answers. She was a seventh-grader, not a theologian. She knew I was challenging her, accusing her. I wasn’t trying to be right. I knew I was right. I wanted to prove to her that she was wrong. It’s completely messed up, but it’s what we were taught to do as good Evangelicals. To evangelize. To win souls for Christ. Or, at the very least, to win.
One day, the friend was playing with my sister on our treehouse in the back yard when she fell and broke her arm. I don’t remember her ever coming to our house again after that. Her nice, suburban parents must have wondered what kids got up to out in the woods. Or maybe she broke her arm to get out of answering my questions. I would never know.
I wouldn’t talk to another Catholic about their faith until college.
In a way, I guess, my Baptist upbringing was something like a good Catholic childhood would have been in some other place. I became what my parents were. I was taught “Truth” as a child in church just like most Catholics are. And, had I gone to one of the few private Christian schools in the area, I might have been so inured to the idea that my Baptist faith was the One True Faith, that it would have taken a literal voice from Heaven to stop me in my tracks.
Instead, I went to public schools from start to finish. Still, to say I was passionate about my faith in high school is an understatement. I was a zealot. I took my Bible to school every day, I participated in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (thank God you didn’t have to be an athlete), and I founded the Christian Student Union, a group that met before classes started at 7:20am every morning. None of this was out of the ordinary, and I never felt persecuted as a vocal Christian. It was a public school, but it was still the rural South.
One story from high school perfectly sums up how seriously I took my faith, and how energetically I tried to put it into action. In addition to being in the drumline, I also served as the chaplain of the marching band. I would lead us in prayer at football games and would pray for or with whoever asked me to at random times. During one game, a cheerleader was tossed in the air and fell hard onto the track right in front of the stands where the band sat.
Everyone gasped, but I jumped out of my seat on the back row and started bounding down the stairs to the track. The band director shouted for me to sit back down, but I guess I looked pretty fierce when I told him that I was the chaplain and I had a job to do, because he let me pass. I knelt down next to the fallen cheerleader as her coach checked to make sure she was okay, and I prayed with her the whole time. She turned out to be okay, and my band director never said a word about the incident after that.
Two other stories from high school perfectly sum up how misguided my passion was. As a devout Baptist, I naturally didn’t drink or smoke or swear. The first two were things that mostly adults did, or that one or two older kids did to look like adults, but I knew a great many of my classmates who would say “cuss words” to sound more adult, too. In one instance, one of my friends from church would swear a lot at the lunch table at school, and, to “help” break her of the habit, I would throw a raisin at her every time she swore. Eventually, she stopped swearing around me. Then stopped hanging out with me altogether. She probably never ate another raisin after that either.
The second story took place at church, and is one I still think about often in my low moments. While I was in school, we had several beloved youth ministers come through our church. One in particular was the model of friendliness, always had a smile on his face, and knew well how to relate to us. He and his wife would host movie watches at their house, and both truly had love in their hearts. One day, however, he did something I found unforgivable at the time: he said the word “crap”.
I know. Trust me, I know. But at the time I felt like it was a massive deal. I felt like he had let slip somehow that he wasn’t the guy we all thought he was all along. In retrospect, I understand the terrible irony that he probably said it because he trusted me enough to let his guard down around me. But I took it and ran with it. I crusaded. I got parents involved. We had meetings that we recorded on tape. Eventually, he left (wouldn’t you??) or he was let go. I was never sure. All I knew is that my work here was done. Mission accomplished. The faith defended.
About a year later, I ran into him at the mall. He was selling cars at one of those kiosks. My old youth pastor was now selling cars at a kiosk in the mall.
If you have never done anything you come in a single instant to regret in a powerful way for the rest of your life, this is what it’s like. I can’t describe the look on his face when he saw me. It was heartbreaking. It was a man’s literal heart breaking. In the mall, for everyone to see.
And for me to see. I can’t forget that face. Nor do I want to. I deserve to be haunted by it. I ruined the life of a really good guy, or at least his ministry. Or, more precisely, I ruined his will to do ministry. The best way to stop someone from doing something isn’t to take it away from them. They’ll always find it again. It’s to take away their love for it. To salt the fields so that nothing ever grows there again. That’s what I had done, and I finally saw it.
But that’s how we did it! Evangelicals are taught to be crusaders! To constantly be ready for battle, to stamp out sin wherever (and in whomever) they see it, to view the world around them with pious contempt, and to love holiness and hate our enemies—and to do all of this unapologetically. God would reward us even if everyone around us hated us. It wasn’t until later that I realized they had good reason to hate us. We were terrible to them. I was literally a terrible person masquerading as a spiritual wunderkind.
It’s important to understand this about me, especially.
When it came time to apply for colleges, I strongly considered several of the small Baptist schools in the area, including ones that we had visited in youth group for summer camps, or that had been in my extended family: Hardin-Simmons in Abilene, East Texas Baptist University in Marshall, and, of course, Baylor University in Waco. I eventually settled on Baylor, where several of my relatives had been, in part because I was awarded a partial scholarship (and I mean partial).
A few weeks after my initial decision, however, I was pushed by a friend to apply to the University of Houston, not far from our house. In the end, I was awarded a full scholarship at UH, and decided that was the most realistic option. Even though I felt good about it, I still had last minute doubts about not going to a Baptist college (it’s not just Catholics that suffer from excessive guilt!). I even contacted Houston Baptist University about a month before school started to see if they had any financial aid they could offer me if I applied last minute. They did, but my nerves had settled by the time they got back to me.
I started at UH my freshman year, living in the dorms, and planning to come home most weekends. In fact, my only memory from move-in was a Catholic priest camped out in the parking lots who helped carry some of my things. He stuck out because I remember being a little afraid of him at first. I think he was literally the first priest I ever saw in my life. In college! (Before then, it was only Fr. Mulcahey from M*A*S*H, which wasn’t a bad thing at all.) I remember him being white-haired and really friendly. But I never thought much about him again after that. I wonder how many people he helped that day that never gave him a second thought afterwards.
Instead, I looked for a Christian (i.e., Protestant in general) group that I could join and get involved in. I visited the Baptist Student Ministry on campus, which is half-church, half-clubhouse, but something about it wasn’t what I was looking for. Later that week, I ran into a guy at a table advertising InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, one of the most active Christian organizations for college students, both nationally and internationally, and my life changed forever.
I could write pages and pages about all the incredible ways InterVarsity helped shape me into who I am today, and maybe someday I will, but here I’ll just tell two stories. First, you have to remember that I came into college with all this baggage about what I thought to be true of Catholics and the Catholic Church, all of which was right but none of which was true. And I also came in with this (by now) in-grained passion for boldly announcing what I thought was the capital-T Truth. Which often made me a smug jerk, I’ll be the first to admit. Basically, both of these stories are about what a smug jerk I was.
First, my sophomore year, I signed up to lead a Bible study in one of the dorms, and was assigned to co-lead one with my friend in InterVarsity, a true saint in hindsight—both by virtue of her own character and her long-suffering patience with me. I knew she was Catholic, but in the context of our Bible study it didn’t matter much, so I never really mentioned it in conversation with her. But I did continue to make comments here and there in the larger group about how Catholics were wrong in a thousand ways. Not helpful.
Eventually, one of the campus ministers had to pull me aside and intervene. They let me know how much my co-leader had been hurt by all my anti-Catholic comments, because clearly I didn’t even seem to notice. That’s how self-righteous—and self-absorbed—I was: I hurt others and didn’t even notice their wounds bleeding right in front of me.
I wish I could say things got better, but they didn’t. My sense is that the damage I had done (both in wounding and in ignoring the wounds) might have been reparable had I truly cared enough about anyone else but me. But…I didn’t. Years later, we briefly talked things over, but to this day I never really made things right. I never really tried. Another thing I atone for often in my prayers.
The second story was what really shook me though. The single most important interaction that I had in all of college, at least where my faith was concerned. I made one too many comments about other people’s faith, and I got called on it. Thankfully, I got called on it. I only wish it had happened sooner.
We were hanging out in the InterVarsity office one afternoon, when I said something about the ridiculousness of some of the more ritualistic elements of some Christian denominations. Specifically, I scoffed at people who would say, “I’ll light a candle for you.” As if candles mattered to God, when he had the whole heavens laid out in front of him! It’s prayer from the heart that matters!
Fortunately, I have had the great blessing of having strong, outspoken women in my life, women who have not been afraid to call me out when I need it. One such woman, one of my closest and oldest friends in college, heard me mocking this devotion and had had enough of me. She snapped. She whirled and looked me in the eye, pointing her finger in my face as her own grew red with righteous indignation. The words she spoke to me that day are some that I have never forgotten to this day, and will never forget.
“Listen! You have no idea what it means to people—to those little old ladies—when they walk into a church and light a candle for someone they love. You have no idea!”
For one of the first times in my life, I was rendered speechless. She was right. I didn’t know. My friend had punctured my truth in more ways than one. There were things I didn’t know, and there were things I thought I knew that might not be true after all. Once that door is opened, at least for me, there’s no closing it. I have to find out the truth.
I remember one of my first thoughts being, “Why didn’t anyone tell me how to answer this?” Being an Evangelical means having all the answers ready when battle strikes. And my weapons had failed me. It never occurred to me that the notion of winning was what had failed me. The need to always be right. To answer questions that were never asked. I realized then that it should be me who was asking the questions.
I left that conversation stunned and reeling. I started to question why I should listen to the pastor of a Baptist church of 100 rather than my closest friends of other faiths at a college of 35,000. I started to see the world I came from as small, just one piece of a larger reality. To this day, this is why I don’t have a Texas accent anymore. After this experience, it made me feel as if I sounded as dumb as I felt. That was never true, of course—about the accent, at least—but I was looking for anything to distance myself from the fraud that I felt like.
For someone who had built his whole life on this foundation, I was feeling it like an earthquake. One I wasn’t sure my faith would survive.
On weekends, when I’d head back home to my parents’ house and go to my little country church, I began to ask questions. In other words, I began to make trouble. I seriously can’t explain what this looks and feels like, because now it seems so hard to believe. But small social groups with deeply invested members can often be very protective of their status quo. This is especially true the narrower their range of experience is. People who have seldom left home, because they don’t know the particular failings of the places they have never seen, often adopt the defense of attacking anything that is different as a way of protecting what they know and love. There’s nothing sinister about this, just insular.
The more I learned in college (in the big city), the more questions I had about things in my faith that I had always taken for granted. But, generally, I began to question the ad hoc way things ran in my church. There is no pope deciding who’s in and who’s out. No magisterium convening to settle contested issues of faith. And very little agreed upon between individual churches except what’s written down in Scripture. Just a pastor at the center of the church, who is voted in by its members and tasked with interpreting the Bible from the pulpit every Sunday. In other words, even if your salvation is very much an issue between you and God alone, your faith is often fostered in a pretty traditional cultural setting.
For example, I remember well how my pastor would preach politics from the pulpit. “If you’re really a Christian, you’ll vote Republican.” That sort of thing. We sang patriotic songs in church and pledged allegiance to an America that was God’s chosen land. Around Election Day, there were often pamphlets demonizing Democrats and even those supporting individual candidates (which is not strictly legal, it turns out). Sometimes they would even put up some overtly political message on the church sign for people to see who used the church gym as a polling place. It never occurred to me that this wasn’t appropriate until I met people who thought—and voted—differently.
When I studied political science at Houston—where fewer than half the students were white, and a full quarter were international—I learned a lifetime of things about a wide range of political views. Mostly, I learned that there was a wide range of political views. So, in the messy process of becoming an adult in college, I rejected the politics of my upbringing as heavy-handed and even fraudulent, despite having a framed and autographed photo of George Bush (41) on my dorm room wall. And I deeply resented the intrusion of politics into religion, and the church leaders that allowed that to happen.
Though I had voted for George W. Bush as soon as I was old enough, by 2004, I had come so far as to support John Kerry in the presidential election. I don’t think there was anything particularly winning about the man, just that he wasn’t Dubya. Having been traumatized by 9/11, and watching senseless wars unfold in our new 24-hour news cycle, I was so ready to have an adult in the room in the White House, I thought. Putting a Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker on my car was one of the first acts of defiance I can remember as an adult. As my own person.
But it came at a cost. My grandfather had seen the bumper sticker, and I guess it had rankled him every time he saw it, because one day he said out loud, “I have no use for anyone who votes for John Kerry.” Not just, “I don’t like John Kerry,” or, “You shouldn’t vote for John Kerry.” But “no use”. I remember being in the back seat of their car, driving somewhere with him and my Gran when he said it. He must have seen a yard sign, and it reminded him of my bumper sticker. Later, Gran would pull me aside and make sure to tell me, “He didn’t really mean what he said.” But how else could I process what he had said? It was the last nail in the coffin of the old ways of thinking. Or at least I thought it was.
A week or two later, I came out of Sunday church services and walked to my car. A few feet away, I froze. I couldn’t believe it. Someone had covered up my bumper sticker with two for George W. Bush. In East Texas, which has a remarkable libertarian streak, for someone to mess with another person’s property like that was bad enough. But I knew it had only been changed since I arrived at church. Which means that someone from my church had left the worship service to do it. And I knew I would never know who it was. I also knew it wouldn’t matter who it was. It was everyone.
I realized then that my church—my religion—had no place for questions or for dissent or for outsiders. My church didn’t seem interested in learning, so I could only think that it wasn’t really interested in finding the Truth. And, if I had to choose between the two, I would choose the Truth and leave my church behind.
Which is what I did.
For the first time of several in my life, I picked up and left without any idea of where I was going or where I would end up. Like I said earlier, I wanted to find God wherever he was. Growing up, my youth pastors and Sunday School teachers always liked to talk about Simon Peter stepping out of the boat to follow Christ across the raging sea. For me, however, my decision never felt as courageous as that. It felt like surviving. If you’ve ever read John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, you’ll have a better idea of how this feels. It’s like coming home and finding your house burned to the ground. You leave because what lies behind you is like ashes in your mouth. You leave because you have to hope that something better lies ahead.
So I set out on this quest to find God. I never went back to my old church again, though it’s still a short walk from my parents’ house. Over the next few years, I went to several non-denominational churches, including a Spanish-language church called La Viña. I loved every moment of this haphazard odyssey, even if it never felt like any one stop along the way was where I belonged forever. I was soaking it all up, and I learned more about God and his people than I ever had before. Then, when it was time to move, God would move me.
Admittedly, this might seem strange to people who have been grounded not only in their faith but in their particular church for a long time. But, then again, so was I, having gone to my one small church for almost my whole life. The important thing is to ask yourself over and over again whether you’re where God wants you. Most of the people who stay in one place for a long time are people who never want or think to ask that hard question, I imagine. I don’t know, but I imagine.
Finally, I ended up at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in the Heights neighborhood of Houston. A huge Gothic stone structure with buttressed ceilings and wooden pews, St. Mark’s was the most architecturally classical, austere, and enduring church I had ever been in to that point. But it was exactly what I needed. And, looking back, it was clearly one—and, likely, the most important—stepping stone in my journey to the Catholic Church.
I loved St. Mark’s for its severe beauty and solidity, for the timeless and sacred atmosphere of the sanctuary, and for the way it both sheltered and challenged me. I loved it because, for the first time, the entire congregation would read prayers together, not just listen as someone prayed by heart; it made me feel like I was becoming part of something bigger than myself. I remember sitting in the balcony one Sunday, watching as the sun streamed in through a window, passing through dust in the air on its way down to the smooth stone floor. I remember feeling safe and secure behind the thick stone walls. As a refugee in a religious sense, this meant the world to me at the time.
But mostly I remember feeling like I was onto something. Like I was getting close. Instead of a little country Baptist church, I was at a large-but-cozy Methodist church in a huge city. Instead of intense subsidiarity, I felt connected to a larger whole. Instead of worshipping in a building that felt temporary but with a pastor that felt permanent (in 24 years, we had just two pastors), I was worshipping behind castle walls with pastors who served rotating four-year terms. Instead of being told not to ask questions, I was put in charge of reopening the church library, and I spent hours and hours sorting through books, taking many home to read myself. It felt mature. It felt lasting. Even as I knew it wasn’t meant to be forever.
Speaking of things that weren’t meant to be forever, not long before I came to St. Mark’s I got engaged, and we were both excited to move to the Heights and join St. Mark’s together. We planned our American wedding to be there (she was from Scotland), and I had gotten to know the pastor, a white-haired, great aunt of a woman named MaryAnne, quite well. Months later, after my fiancée left me, I remember sitting in Pastor MaryAnne’s office in tears, asking her what I was supposed to do now, how I was supposed to go on.
I remember she looked lost and tired, like she had accumulated so much of other people’s pain down the years, and she was so close to retirement now, that either her heart or her faith couldn’t take one more vicarious tragedy. In retrospect, I think she was probably just going through (or remembering) some hurt of her own. Not long after our conversation, she announced her retirement and imminent move to a retirement home for Methodist clergy in New Mexico. She must have already known when we talked. Looking back, I think we were both afraid of the loneliness we saw stretched endlessly before us.
My next pastor at St. Mark’s was a woman named Marilyn, a bit less affable, perhaps, but with a sharp mind and the deep, knowing calm of an alpine lake. Not long after her arrival, Pastor Marilyn told us that she had just come from being the pastor of the Methodist church in the Montrose neighborhood, the heart of the traditionally LGBTQ part of Houston. There, she said, her parishioners had asked her if they could have communion every Sunday, rather than the traditional monthly observance, because many of them had AIDS and weren’t sure if this would be their last Sunday on Earth. I don’t think any amount of catechesis could have sealed the power of the Eucharist for me like that single story. There was so much I still had to learn about the world, and the hurt that runs through it. And through me.
I can appreciate now how long the journey to the Catholic Church took because it took a long time to unlearn many of my old ways of thinking and worshiping and believing, and that takes time. It also takes something to replace them. It was into this context of a broken heart, and of a heart broken for the world, that I first truly met the Catholic Church. And, finally, it was time.
At the time my fiancée broke up with me, I had graduated college and was waiting tables at an iconic Tex-Mex restaurant called Chuy’s. It was in the Upper Kirby area of Houston, right on the border of the absurdly wealthy River Oaks and the beautifully flamboyant Montrose neighborhoods. While it was hard work, every day was an absolute riot, and I was making more as a waiter in 2005 than I would make a decade later as a rector (not even counting for inflation). But, after the breakup, one of my managers pointed out that I might benefit from a change of scenery, and she suggested that I apply for an open manager’s position at the new Chuy’s in the suburbs near my parents’ house.
The new role was definitely a challenge, and I was a 24-year-old hotshot among colleagues I looked up to and servers closer to my same age. Though I was now close to my parents’ house, I still kept my (what would have been our) apartment in the Heights for a bit longer, and I still attended St. Mark’s every Sunday. Among my co-workers were several members of a Catholic family, some of the kindest and most incredibly genuine humans I have ever known. In fact, in my couple of years there, I worked with seven of the nine siblings.
And then, on one fateful day, it was a conversation with one of them that changed the course of my life. In my head, I can look back and see it as if it were “The Truman Show” and God was the director with a headset prompting my friend James to say his lines. In the moment, it was much less dramatic, of course. James and I had gotten off work after a long day and were sitting at the bar together having a margarita, the lucky ones while others still buzzed around us hard at work. During our casual conversation, there was a pause, and I asked, “You guys are Catholic, right? What’s that like?” And I told him about my journey to find God.
The thing I loved most about his answer is that he didn’t push me. As a former Evangelical, I spent much of my time trying to convince people of things. I would have pounced and immediately moved into my sales pitch as we walked out the door to my car and drove to church. James just paused and thought. Then he said, “You know, there’s a Catholic church near here that I think you might like. If you want me to go with you, I can. Or you’re welcome to come to mine. But I think you’ll like this one.” I told him that I’d be fine checking it out on my own. For the past four years I had been checking things out on my own. So the next Sunday, I went.
I realize that no amount of explanation will suffice, but the only thing I can say is that, when I walked into that church, when I walked into a Catholic mass for the first time, I knew I was home. Not just at the next stop: done. After years of wandering in the wilderness trying to find where I belonged — trying to find God-Wherever-He-Might-Be — I had found Him. And He had found me. And I knew it immediately and without a doubt. I can’t describe it any other way.
To this day, I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church at the back of The Woodlands. It’s a beautiful suburban church, full of light and families, but not unlike dozens that I’ve seen since. In fact, I only got to attend for a few months before I left the country for work, so I know it wasn’t anything about the building or the situation or even the people. I don’t remember much at all. Other than feeling like I was home. But it will always be the place where one journey ended and another began.
I’ll write about that next part of the journey later, but the point I want to drive home here is that what mattered most — the ONLY thing that mattered — is that I was where God wanted me to be, that I was with Him whatever else might happen. That God wanted me to be in the Catholic Church didn’t come as a surprise in the end, because I could look back and trace the path that He had led me on to get there. But it definitely wasn’t the path that I would have chosen. Like I said earlier, I never wanted to be a Catholic. I’m just grateful God did.
One thought on “I Never Wanted to Be a Catholic”
This is so beautiful, Justin. Your story reminded me of how patient God has been to me whenever I wandered elsewhere in life. And yet he never forced anything to me. He kept watch until He can see me running towards him from a distance. He waited until I could come home. Thank you, Lord. I love you too!