Once I realized that Christ is truly Present in the Eucharist, I began to think of things that hadn’t occurred to me before. Like, the fact that our definition of orthodoxy – the Trinity, the virgin birth, the full divinity and humanity of Christ, the physical death and resurrection of Christ… – all these things were identified and codified by the Catholic Church. Moreover, the Catholic Church remains faithful to those doctrinal essentials, and to the sanctity of life, even when mainstream Protestantism is now guilty of increasingly compromising them in a growing liberal movement away from orthodoxy.
I began to wonder why the evangelical tradition ignores the earliest Church teachers and Fathers. Why did we only quote contemporary theologians? It was as if Christianity were supposed to have suffered an 1800-year gap in its history, had somehow been abandoned after the completion of the Book of Acts until the last two hundred years or so. So often I had heard evangelical pastors boast of recapturing the essence of biblical Christianity, the heart and purity of the first century Church, when they patently ignored the writings available to us from those first Christians, who lived and worked alongside the apostles and their disciples and successors. I had accepted the omission without question; now it rankled.
I also began to ponder the source of the Bible. The collection that we now know as our New Testament was officially compiled about 300-400 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the work of… the catholic Church In fact, while I had actually been told once that the Catholics had added the deutero-canonical books we Protestants called the Apocrypha, I knew that the opposite was true, that the Protestants had eliminated them after the Reformation; in fact, the earliest King James translations were required by law to include those deutero-canonical books
It also began to seem clear to me that even while we evangelicals claimed that the Bible as our only authority for faith and practice, the Bible itself does not claim to be sufficient in and of itself. II Timothy 3:16 does not claim that the Scriptures are adequate or sufficient, only “useful” or “profitable.” In fact, Paul wrote to Timothy that the Church is “the pillar and ground of the Truth” (I Tim. 3:15, NKJV). Moreover, Paul and the other New Testament writers made no claim to be writing Scripture; the authority of their writings was verified by the Church long after they had been disseminated through the Christian community. It seemed irrational to think of these simple servants of Jesus Christ seeking to add to what they knew already as the Scriptures; they were only recording what they know of the life and teachings of the Lord, or writing to give counsel and direction to the embryonic Church and its leaders.
It was startling to discover previously-overlooked passages in Scripture that promoted tradition and oral teaching. These include 1 Cor 11:2, II Tim 1:13-14, 2:1-2; II Thes 2:15. I had been indoctrinated to believe that, with the compilation of the New Testament, the oral traditions became moot. But the very fact that the New Testament was compiled by councils of the Church, established in large part through the traditions of their origins and prior use, seemed to set the New Testament as part and parcel of that Tradition. I realized, although all the traditions of the Church that I was encountering were solidly rooted in and supported by Scripture, the priority had become reversed: Tradition validates the Scriptures, not the other way around.
I was also amazed, in subsequent visits to Catholic parishes in Greensboro and in Southern Pines, to discover that the Mass is full of Scripture. On Sundays, there are four readings: Old Testament, Psalm (usually sung), New Testament and Gospel; on weekdays there are three readings. And so much of the Mass itself, in the prayers and responses, is a recitation of Scripture I’ve never been in a Protestant church with a fourth as much.
So… why, in the midst of these wonderful discoveries, why did I go back to the Protestant Church? Because I did. When I moved back to my homeplace in ‘96, I went back to the Methodist Church where my father’s family had been charter members and where I’d spent many Sundays of my own childhood. I told God, “If You ever relieve me of (duties I’d assumed when I moved back home), I’ll go back to the Catholic Church.” I didn’t remember my promise very long. I was relieved of those duties, in less than two years, but by then I had forgotten the promise.
When my second husband’s work took him to Louisiana, I began packing up belongings, expecting our furnishings to have to go into storage when I joined him. Books – I had so many books – are generally cheaper to replace than to store, so I began to sort out those books I would probably not read again. Many went to the just-beginning library of a church where I’d been playing piano for several months, but I also had Catholic writers whose works would not be well-accepted there. I decided to donate those books, three large boxes full, to the parish library at Sacred Heart Parish in Pinehurst.
When I walked into the parish office and announced my mission, the reaction of the women in the office was even warmer and brighter than the September day. A Protestant reading Catholic books And they were thrilled when I told them how I had come to believe in the Real Presence. And when I assured them I was keeping more books than I was giving away – Thomas Merton, Msgr. Romano Guardini, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and more – they were delighted. We had a wonderful visit together. I felt I ought to come and worship there soon.
As I cranked up the old pickup, I heard The Voice again, this time with music and laughter: “Oh, Sweetheart…” and I immediately recalled my promise to return to the Catholic Church. I had to laugh – God does not allow us to forget our promises, but He can and does approach us with warmth and tenderness and even with humor.
Still, it was not easy to return to the Church. I knew that by returning I was making a commitment to live as a Catholic even though I couldn’t be received into the Church, and I didn’t know how long it would take until I could be Confirmed. I would be committed to honoring the obligations of mass attendance, of fasts and abstinences, a great challenge, even though I knew that these acts of self-denial and obedience would enrich my soul. I knew I would have to accept all the teachings of the Church, whether they made sense to me or not. These are disciplines alien to nearly all the Protestants of my acquaintance and even to my own strong-minded nature.
There was, in fact, only one final obstacle to my whole-hearted acceptance of all the Church’s teachings, and it had become only a half-hearted objection: Mary.