Although I did not know it at the time, my conversion to the Catholic Church began in a congregational meeting in the winter of 1999. I had been pastoring a nondenominational charismatic fellowship for almost nine years. I had poured my heart and soul into it. We had gone through a building program and had a very successful Christian Twelve-Step outreach, which was apparently too successful in some people’s eyes. Our church was developing a reputation for being a place where addicts, alcoholics and the troubled went. I thought that was great, but some members of the congregation didn’t. Though I had been warned by a handful of faithful friends that something was coming, I guess I just couldn’t believe it was true, especially since none of the people who were upset had said a word to me about it. It was an ugly church split in-the-making and there was nothing I could do. But it was worse than a split in some ways; the new believers involved left as well as those who were disgruntled. If this was “church” they wanted no part in it.
I remember the strong feeling I had that it was very wrong that there was not a higher authority involved. These divisive people would go off to be welcomed into other churches and never be held accountable for the damage and pain they had caused, or be encouraged to look at the issues in their own lives that caused them to behave that way. It was a feeling I had experienced often during my years of ministry as people came into our church and left again, as people started “new” churches in the area, and as I interacted with other pastors who clearly had no right to be involved in ministry. In fact, of the many pastors I had met I could only think of a few that were true shepherds to their people. Many were spiritual egomaniacs, determined to prove their worth by how big their churches were. Some were merely businessmen in clerical garb; success to them was bigger buildings, more programs and more exposure. There was something so wrong with the church. I became very disillusioned with it. Where was the church that the “gates of hell” could not prevail against? Where was the “body of Christ” described in the New Testament? It seemed obvious to me that we were missing something in our modern age that the early church had in the authority of its apostles and bishops.
About a year later my wife and I moved on from that church and I took a chaplaincy position in a residential care facility for at-risk teens. It was a great position for me because it was all about pastoral care and teaching. There was no “church growth” pressure, no “church hoppers” to deal with, just pure ministry.
I decided I should try to find a church to be a part of in the new city we moved to. I began researching the histories of various denominations in order to know their roots and doctrinal distinctions. I found the same story repeated over and over again. A person would discover a “new” biblical truth that his or her church did not believe or at least didn’t preach. The person would then go off and start a new church. Inevitably, theirs was the “true” church, the “biblical” church, or the “New Testament” church and they were the “remnant” of God’s true followers; all others were “lukewarm” and compromised at best, down right evil and being used by Satan was more likely. In my new ministry position I had the opportunity to preach in many different churches, but none of them had the authority to declare that their interpretation of Christianity was the true one. What kind of witness to the world could we ever be with so many denominations and anti-denominations?
In all this time I never considered the Catholic Church. Though I had been raised Catholic, I had quit attending as soon after I was confirmed. When my wife and I committed our lives to the Lord, it had been with a very anti-Catholic group. Though I was not as radically anti-Catholic as they were ( I believed there were true Christians in the Catholic Church, they were just far and few between), I had been trained that the Church was full of error and manmade traditions and therefore it was not even on my radar screen when it came to finding a new church. But then again, I never did find a new church; none of them had any authority and I knew it.
As part of my chaplaincy, I worked on nondenominational youth retreats to which I would bring some of my students. I developed a friendship there with another youth leader who was passionate, intelligent and real. She came to me at a planning event in the fall of 2003 and shared that she had become a Catholic. Nothing could have been more shocking. Why would a smart, passionate protestant ever become a Catholic? We had several long talks over the course of that fall retreat and I left with a pile of Catholic books to read. Thus began a long quest for the truth. One of the books was “A Biblical Defense of Catholicism" by David Armstrong. I started reading it very skeptically but realized quickly that what was being discussed was not simply a different interpretation of the scriptures. I was led to ask some important questions. Who was to say which was right and which was wrong? Who was to say that I had the right interpretation?
The chapter on the Eucharist was very convincing. As a protestant, I had never understood John Chapter 6. It just didn’t make sense, even when I tried to spiritualize what he was saying. He pointed out how the Greek words John used strongly emphasized the physical eating that Jesus was talking about. When people became offended at this teaching of Jesus, he didn’t explain a spiritual principal he was trying to convey; instead he said, “Unless you “gnaw” or “chew” on my flesh you have no part of me.” I had never heard this before and found it disturbing. As I studied it on my own though, I became convinced. Then I began reading the Church Fathers. It was obvious they believed in a real Presence in the Eucharist. I became even more convinced, and I wondered, if the Catholic Church was right about this, what else might they be right about?
For the next three years I read and studied. I devoured the Catechism from cover to cover. I discovered that much of what I had thought the Church taught isn’t what it teaches at all. I thought they worshiped Mary, but they don’t; they honor and venerate her for the incredibly unique role she played in the life of our savior. I thought they believed they were saved by works, but learned that they believe men are saved by grace through faith working itself out in love. I read the Church Fathers and discovered that they were obviously Catholic in faith and practice. I began to research the particular Catholic doctrines that I had issues with; purgatory, the infallibility of the pope, and the stand against contraception. As I completed each study, I became more convinced. And somewhat overwhelmed. Sometimes as I completed a time of intense study I would end up withdrawing from the Lord and from the studies. I would avoid the whole thing for weeks at a time. I did not want to become a Catholic, even though I was becoming convinced that the Catholic Church was the true Church. I had spent years judging Catholics. I knew how I would be judged if I converted; I knew how some protestants would see me and talk about me. Pride was definitely in the way. But eventually, the truth conquered even that. I didn’t care anymore, I had to convert.
God was incredibly patient, merciful and gentle with me through this process. As I had studied, I had shared things with my wife, Hollis, and so when the time came for the decision she was ready to come with me into the Church. But then came the most difficult part of it all. It was time for me to surrender my protestant ordination. I had approached my employers and explained my situation and they said they would keep me on as a lay chaplain, so that was not a problem. The real problem was that my sense of identity, my purpose in life and my entire relationship with God was wrapped up in my service to him as a member of the clergy. I did not even begin to realize the depth of this until now. In surrendering my ordination a part of me was dying, an important part of me; it actually felt like I was dying. It was much harder than I had anticipated. The turning point came when I was meeting with Fr. Paul, the priest who was guiding me through my conversion process. After sharing the painful experience I was going through, he said simply that I must “embrace the pain.” I must admit that at first I was angry with such seemingly ridiculous advice. But I realized somewhere deep inside that he was right. I had read enough of the saints’ writings and of the Catholic theology of suffering to know he was right. I embraced it and welcomed it, which transformed it from something that was separating me from the Lord to something that brought me into his comforting arms. I was finally ready.
In the fall of 2006, my wife and I enrolled in RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). On Easter, 2007, we were welcomed into the Church. It had been an exciting, confusing and painful journey but we were finally in The Church. The Church that could authoritatively teach and deal with issues, the Church that had stood against the gates of hell for 2000 years, the Church that is unified under one apostolic authority - we were home. Our quest for the Truth had found its fulfillment.
Don Smith is a "revert" to the Catholic Church. After being a Protestant minister for over 20 years he is happy to be "home."