Robert’s Conversion Story
As a former Southern Baptist and part-time Pentecostal, I know the feeling most Protestants probably get when they hear the words “Roman Catholic Church.” A few expressions come to mind. “Idolatry!” “It’s the Woman on the Beast!” “That’s man-made.” “The Bible is all I need.” “The word Pope doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible.” “Mary’s just a girl.” “Turn or burn!” Etc.
I can think of dozens more.
I used to repeat them myself, little Protestant mantras to remind me how my version of Christianity was right and the Catholic Church was wrong. I went even further than that, to be honest, and on more than one occasion, I even accused Catholics of belonging to a cult.
Anti-Catholic bigotry was my calling card.
That’s why my conversion to Roman Catholicism was, and still is, in my mind, pretty incredible when I look back at it. One might even say it was miraculous.
My wife, Christine, had been raised a “cradle Catholic,” as they’re often called. She received an infant baptism, attended Catholic private school until reaching college, and unlike most of her school peers, who were more concerned with partying, Christine kept praying her rosary every single day.
When we married, I was 30 years old and I made her promise to “follow me” because, as the husband, I was the head of our new household—the typical Protestant lingo for family structure and life. Of course, I took her straight to a Southern Baptist Church in our neighborhood. This went on for about a year. I was pretty proud of myself, bringing a Catholic over to “see the light.” I had even sworn to my wife’s face, pointing a wary finger at her, that I would never convert to the Catholic Church. (Looking back, it would seem that God had quite the sense of humor on that one.)
Christine had slipped away from her Catholic beliefs to some extent by this point in her life. She was like a “semi-lapsed Catholic”—not fully lapsed or anything, but at odds with some of the Church’s teachings, and not too enthusiastic to embrace them. In fact, she flat-out told me once that she didn’t want to marry a “good Catholic boy.” Funny enough, she still prayed that rosary on occasion, even though she had pretty much walked away with me from the Church right into Protestant-Land.
Near the end of our first year together, she felt something tugging on her heart to go back to the Church, so she invited me to a solemn Catholic service known as the Stations of the Cross. At first, my gut instinct was to refuse her. Why venture back into Catholic World, I reasoned? We were doing so well away from all that! But, ironically, my Protestant faith had led the two of us to seek marital counseling, and during that very counseling—which was quite Protestant—I learned that I needed to honor her background and history, even if it was different from mine. This thought occurred to me as she quietly asked if I would accompany her to Stations. Her tone, while loving as always, struck me as expecting a “no” for an answer. And for some reason, that really bothered me. Had I been validating her life, her long history before I ever came into the picture? Had I been honoring the values her parents had raised her in? It was her tradition and history—who was I to keep her from that? Was I that selfish? These thoughts and more flooded my mind as she waited for my response.
And then another thought occurred to me: Christine had left all that she knew behind for me, and all she was asking in return is that I attend a 30-minute service that commemorated the death and resurrection of Christ. Couldn’t I at least honor her request just this once?
Surprisingly, I said yes. Her eyes lit up when I said it. I remember that.
That evening, we went into the enormously beautiful, Romanesque structure of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in downtown Tampa. I stood there, mostly in awe, at the stunning sight. The churches that I was used to at the time were never decorated like that. It was as if the architect had built the entire structure with the express purpose of drawing the eyes of its beholder towards the magnificence and wonder of God. That alone caught my attention.
And then another peculiar thing happened. Stations began. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was, at the time, my favorite movie, the only one that could make me weep every single time I watched it. But I did not know much about Catholicism, having little exposure to it growing up, and funny enough, I did not realize that my favorite film was based on Stations of the Cross. As the priest processed around the gorgeous church, the sounds of his footsteps and the chants of the haunting song the parishioners sang, filled me with a quiet reverence I had only felt a few times before.
But this event—the Stations of the Cross—transcended in every single way anything that I had ever experienced in the past. In the dim and sacred candlelight of Sacred Heart, the vast depths of God echoed in my soul, as the Franciscan priest led the adoring parishioners gathered there with his repeated proclamations, “We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You.” And we, genuflecting, repeated after his words: “Because by Your holy cross You have redeemed the world.”
The mystical experience of Christ that I had longed for so many years before, longed for as a Baptist, as a Pentecostal, as an immature college kid looking for purpose and meaning in all the wrong places, had truly touched me for the first time.
After that, my view of Catholicism radically shifted. I wouldn’t say I was anywhere near conversion, by that point, and I still looked at Catholics as being greatly misled in their beliefs and practices, but I no longer looked at the Church as this evil, antichrist-producing machine like I had been taught growing up in the Southern Baptist church. It was just another Christian church that I personally disagreed with when it came to some of their practices. So I consented to allow Christine the occasional treat of attending Mass when she felt moved to do so, under the condition that she still attend Sunday services with me at the local Baptist church.
I went to Mass a few more times, maybe five or six total, but nothing more happened of note, except that I began to enjoy the general reverence and formality that the Church employed during its Mass services. Protestant churches always felt like a celebration to me, and with the hipper, “relevant”-style “starter churches” popping up around town, they seemed almost like concerts with incredible worship music and amazing talent, attached to deeply moving messages from their pastors.
But that was just it, I began to realize: they were concerts, not places of sacred worship. There was something missing. And the more that I went into these Catholic churches, with their strange customs and odd behaviors, I found myself, more and more, able to finally articulate that I had never really felt comfortable in the Baptist churches of my youth. (In some of those same churches, I had even been picked on during my adolescent years, which had only added to my teenage misery.)
A few months passed. And then it came to pass that Pope Benedict suddenly and irrevocably stepped down from the Chair of Peter, sending shock waves through the media. I was in grad school at the time, and on the day of Pope Francis’s election, I remember sitting at my desk in the living room of our Bayshore condo listening in the background as the news heads discussed the papacy and the long history of the office’s elections. Strangely, my mind kept veering away every few minutes from whatever I was working on that day, to listen to the history of the Catholic Church and the history of the papacy.
Annoyed by all that “Catholic mumbo-jumbo,” however, I finally stood up, walked over, and changed the channel, looking for something else that wouldn’t be such a distraction. Wouldn’t you believe it, but there was absolutely nothing on T.V. that was any more interesting than the pope’s election. All the other news stations had the exact same camera shot of the Sistine Chapel’s tiny chimney, where, as I learned that same day, the famous white smoke would appear as a sign of a new Church leader.
I tried to ignore their discussions on T.V., but in the end, I failed. I couldn’t stop turning around and listening to what they were talking about. Finally, an old thought occurred to me, one that I had ruminated on many, many times before throughout my adolescent years: how can every denomination of Christianity be right, especially when they all so blatantly contradict each other in many cases? How could I know which one was right? How could I be certain that my own denomination—the Southern Baptists (or the Pentecostals)—was the correct version of that ancient faith founded by Jesus Christ?
And then, as I kept listening to the men on-screen discussing how ancient Catholic customs were, another thought occurred to me: Protestantism, in its undivided form, was only about 500 years old. But Christ, and therefore, Christianity, had existed for over 2,000 years—a full 1,500 years before that! Was I so certain that my version of the faith was the right one?
And then, without warning, right there in my living room early in the afternoon, I whispered a spontaneous prayer to the Holy Spirit. I said to Him: “Holy Spirit, I believe that Christianity is the one true religion, but I also don’t believe that every single version of Christianity out there could possibly be right. I love Jesus more than I love any denomination, and I want to make Him happy and worship Him the way that pleases Him. Please, show me which denomination is the right one, and I promise you that I will convert to it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.” I am absolutely convinced that, as I whispered that prayer, I felt a presence standing in the room, listening to me. When I finished, I turned back to my work and pushed those odd thoughts out of my mind.
Six weeks later, I shuffled into the master bedroom one day, and I said to my wife, “Christine, I need to talk to you.” She looked concerned, like I was about to tell her I had gambled away all our money or something else disastrous, when I said to her, “I—I think I am going to join the Roman Catholic Church. I want to be Catholic.”
Needless to say, she was shocked.
You see, unlike evangelicals, Christine had never once tried to convert me to Catholicism. The only thing she did was ask me to a few Masses and the Stations I described earlier. That was it. In fact, nobody ever tried to convert me. Not a single person came up to my door like some Jehovah’s Witness, trying to get me to save my soul the Catholic way. Not one. To be honest, the Franciscan priest who I spoke to about it later on, as well as my father’s first cousin, who was like an uncle to me, both tried to convince me that I was fine where I was spiritually at as a Protestant, that I didn’t need to convert. But their attempts at discouraging me only made the hunger within me burn stronger and deeper.
I had become, over the course of those six weeks, obsessed with Catholicism. To this day, I still don’t understand it. A supernatural desire for all things Catholic had gripped me body and soul, and I ventured night after night, day after day, into the online world of sites like Catholic Answers and other blogs which discussed the differences between Protestantism and the ancient Roman way.
Here is what I discovered: when I finally gave Roman Catholicism a fair hearing, a chance at responding to every Protestant argument I had heard growing up—and when I say I gave it a fair shake, I mean that I really listened—I came to a startling conclusion over those dizzying six weeks.
The Catholic Church’s views were totally right.
And that wasn’t all that I discovered. Because every Protestant retort that I read, every Protestant answer that I still had embedded within my head from growing up in that faith tradition, every minister’s protest or preacher’s “inspired word” against the Catholic Church, every single one of them—they just collapsed like a house of sand. Their answers, their “Biblical” explanations didn’t hold a candle to the deep and wisely-reasoned and authentic answers that the Catholic Church provided.
Let me just say that, for me to admit this truth, was, in and of itself, extraordinarily miraculous. Because I was so ingrained with Protestant thinking growing up and as a young adult, I couldn’t have come to that conclusion myself. It would take me rejecting (some) of the beliefs and values my father had taught me growing up. And that’s a very scary realization for anybody to arrive at, I would think. It certainly was for me.
First, it happened like this, if I remember it correctly: the foundation of Protestantism and Luther’s arguments, Sola Scriptura, was summarily shot down by the Catholic theologians. Once this happened, and I was absolutely convinced that the bedrock of the non-Catholic Christian denominations had cracked, revealed to be nothing more than a foundation of sand, I discovered that the concept of the pope, his papal office, was actually right there in Scripture! It was incredible.
Then, I reasoned, if the foundation of Protestantism was wrong, and the Pope actually does appear in the Bible (even if he isn’t directly referred to with that term), then even if I do not understand all the differences between Catholicism and my family’s Baptist faith, I was clearly on the wrong side of the religious debate. For Christ Himself said pretty forcefully, in reference to Peter and the Apostles in Luke 10:16, “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
If I rejected Christ’s pope, even if I didn’t understand his office or the other beliefs that the Catholic Church taught, in terms of their Scriptural support, then I was rejecting Christ Himself and His Father who sent Him!
I’ll put it this way: it was a terrifying revelation.
But as I pondered this new knowledge, sweat forming on my brow, something else happened right then and there—I felt that very same presence in the room again. That same presence I had felt when I asked the Holy Spirit to show me the one, true faith. And I felt Him telling me in my head and in my heart: “Do you remember your promise to me?” I nodded slowly as my hands shook. This was it. Decision time. Was I going to break my word to God, to Christ, to the Holy Spirit? Over the last six weeks, God had “evangelized” me directly Himself. Was I going to reject the Truth that He had finally shown me after I had prayed for that very request?
Very slowly, I closed my eyes, seeing the future, seeing the hot disapproval of my parents, my brother, all my friends and Christian acquaintances, and all the others who had known me.
Yet Christ stood in front of me, beckoning. I knew it without a doubt.
What was my answer?
“How could I say no to you, oh Lord? How could I love my denomination, the Southern Baptist Church, over the Truth you have shown me this day? If this is how you desire that I worship you, oh Lord, I will do it. I will convert as you have asked. I pray only that you would bless me and save me from the fires of hell, that I might never perish there forever.”
I have now been Catholic since the Easter of 2014. My parents accused me of apostasy when they found out what I had done, and that relationship suffered because of my decision. But I have been comforted by God, knowing that He did not come to bring peace, but a sword, for in some cases, He turns a father against his son. But this is for the benefit of them all, I believe. Astonishingly, after I made it known about my conversion to those who knew me, my brother stood back silent, saying nothing to me at all, as did all of my Protestant friends. It was almost like my Catholic conversion was contagious! If any of them mentioned it aloud around me, they would catch the same cold and suddenly die! So, they just kind of ignored my conversion as if nothing had happened and kept talking to me like I was still a Protestant.
In fact, only one friend at that time said anything to me about it at all. He said, “Rob, the faith of every person I have known who converted to Roman Catholicism declined within a few years.” But it is five years later now. Has my faith decreased? Have I become less of a Christian because of my conversion? My wife, who knows me better than anyone on this Earth, will tell you flatly, “No!” In fact, I have transformed in so many ways since I became Catholic and embraced our original Faith, as Christ intended it. I have overcome, with God’s grace, habitual sins that I thought impossible to conquer. I have had incredible experiences that have pointed me towards a God who is far beyond what I ever imagined Him to be like as a young man. And I have matured far beyond the person that I was when I first stepped foot into that Sacred Heart parish.
Ironically, at the end of all this, I became the “good Catholic boy” my wife never wanted to marry, and after that happened, to top it off, God used me to draw her back into the patiently waiting arms of the Catholic Church (the very same Church which I had swore aloud to her face that I would never convert to). Like me, I have witnessed my wife become transformed into the most loving and beautiful woman a man could ever hope for, putting her love of Christ first before all things. Isn’t it incredible how God uses each spouse in a holy matrimony to sharpen each other, to work out their imperfections and draw them both closer to Him?
Speaking of holy matrimony, our marriage was convalidated after my conversion by our local priest, Father Len, at Christ the King Catholic Church, on the second anniversary of our “legal” marriage: December 7th, 2014. This occurred just as my annulment wrapped up that very same week! In fact, when we reached out to contact Father Len about it, we figured he wouldn’t be able to accommodate our request so quickly. But God is generous and loving. And His hand guides everything. Incredibly, the priest had an opening after the evening Mass that very same night of the 7th, and with two of our elderly, devout, Catholic neighbors as witnesses, we attended Mass and were married right there in our parish. And I still think back to it all and shake my head at how beautifully it was all orchestrated!
Now here I am. And I write to you to say this: there is only One, Holy, Apostolic, Catholic Church in this world, and I believe in it. “I came to establish my Church,” declared the Lord to His apostles. And God has compelled me to say these words to you, that his Church has never perished, nor has it ever been conquered by the Devil and his wicked angels. Christ has preserved and uplifted the Church that He promised to sanctify and protect, and it still exists to this day—with the Successor of Peter at its head! And this man, Pope Francis, whom God has elected to this station, still bears the keys to the Kingdom of God. Whatever he binds on Earth shall be honored in Heaven, and whatever he looses on Earth shall be honored in Heaven. This has never changed, and it will not until Christ comes again at the end of all things. Amen!