We have been fully in communion with the Catholic Church for almost three nows, and I have to admit I don't even know why I haven't written this story here yet. I think part of me didn't want to ruffle any feathers, but also its partially because while it is a meaningful story for US, I'm not sure its all that BAM! WOW! AMAZING! to anyone else.
Tim and I both grew up in families where church was not an optional. We were liturgical protestants (also known as Lutherans, Tim Missouri Synod and later ELCA and myself ELCA practically from birth). When we were married, and even when we were in college and dating, missing church was the exception rather than the rule. Our faith was always important to us.
I remember once (when we only had two children who were very young and still had time to volunteer at senior high youth events) hearing an area ELCA bishop speaking about different types of faith moments. Faith that was like a sudden blinding light, faith that was a slow gradual sunrise, and faith that had always been there like never ending daylight. We both connected with the example of never ending daylight. Not that we took our faith for granted (although in some ways we did), but it was something that had always been there. Neither one of us had a defining "come to Jesus" experience, but rather a long friendship that was sometimes closer than others but always present.
As our children grew, we continued to be active in our churches. After only a few years of marriage the Lord convicted our hearts on the issue of birth control and family size and we began practicing Natural Family Planning, even though most people in our church family (and immediate family) couldn't understand why. Our children were all baptized as infants and we prayed at home and brought them to church every week. We figured this was pretty good and didn't give doing something different much of a thought.
And then Kenna died.
Talk about a come to Jesus experience, only it was more like a run away kicking and screaming and whining and anger kind of experience. For me, finding my way back to my faith through this time was the very beginnings of my conversion to the Catholic Christian faith.
It started mostly just with realizing that my hopes and dreams for my family and my beliefs aligned more closely with my Catholic friends than my Lutheran ones. I had a lot of Catholic friends and was meeting more all the time in the homeschooling community. As our family grew we began to feel a draw to those families who shared our beliefs about the roles of husband and wife and the duties we have as Christian mothers and fathers.
I remember listening to the sermon one Sunday morning and wondering why the pastor was unwilling to say divorce and/or remarriage was wrong or against the Bible. I mean, he JUST read the passage in Luke proclaiming anyone who divorces his wife and marries another as having committed adultery. My Lutheran confirmation certainly included do not commit adultery as one of the 10 Commandments we had to memorize. Why would he give a sermon then that danced around any indication that divorce was even anything undesirable or against God's design for marriage?
The more I paid attention, the more of these little things I found... they just kind of picked at the back of my brain. On one hand we were part of a very loving and compassionate Christian community in our church, but on the other hand I started feeling like it was all a little shallow and dis-genuine. I always struggled with the idea that if we were just a "nice good person" we would go to heaven and that would be that and we didn't need to worry about any other details beyond that.
I shared many of my little promptings with Tim at various points, but while he saw many of the same things I did, he was not inclined to change our church on my inklings when we had so many long term friendships and such a supportive community.
I chose to put it out of my mind at this point and continue to pray about it and to seek support and build relationships with my Catholic friends. I knew in my heart that I was being called to explore the Catholic faith more fully, but I also knew that I wouldn't go without Tim.
Then we moved to Utah.
One of the things that is unique about Utah, probably more than any other place, is that everyone KNOWS what they believe. If you aren't going to be LDS, you'd better know why, because someone will ask you. Protestant and evangelical churches are all VERY defined in what they believe and frankly there is not much in terms of ecumenical relations between parishioners (at least not what we observed).
The problem for us came with no longer fitting in, in a diverse congregation as one family doing things the way that worked for them. We stuck out like a sore thumb. Lutheran families at our church had 2.2 children (no more), 2 working parents (probably both with high degrees and if one stayed home it was likely the dad while he worked on more school), and were politically liberal leaning. Nothing that we were.
They were friendly and welcoming, but there wasn't the supportive diversity that we found other places. We tried several other Lutheran congregations and had similar experiences.
So we started looking other places. One thing that we knew was that if we changed churches it would be to a solidly pro-life, no exceptions, church. After Kenna's death we moved from, abortion is wrong, but its not really our problem to abortion is wrong and it is everyone's problem even if they have failed to realize it.
In the process of researching just this one issue, we discovered that most churches, had either very little to say about abortion one way or another or very nondescript statements about pastoral care and how abortion wasn't ideal. Actually the ELCA's official statement on abortion (which we hadn't even known existed, you can read it here) actually stated in a foot note that, "they did not receive enough votes for approval" of the statement opposing, "induced abortion as a method of birth control."
That pretty much did in the ELCA for us. The problem was two-fold. One, if as a church they can't even agree to oppose abortion as a form of birth control, how sincere is anything they say against it? Two, since when did right and wrong become determined by a majority vote?
I mean, really this is playing out in our society on a daily basis right now as political groups attempt to create laws that tell us what is right and wrong based on the majority (or at least the loudest) opinion on any given issue. Some things are just wrong. Period. Think about countries where it is socially acceptable to rape and disfigure women in the name of culture.
It's wrong. Period. Even if the laws of that country protect it.
Right and wrong cannot be determined by a majority vote and this stuck us with another problem in our search for a church to call home. Even in many of the pro-life evangelical churches that we visited, there was no unifying body. Finding a church who shared our beliefs in Utah didn't guarantee us one the next time we moved. (And of course, we move a lot and didn't want to go through this every time so if we were going to do this, we wanted to do it right.) While they might agree on some fundamental principles, actual doctrine was determined by the pastor in residence who could be voted in or out at any given time by a committee of people who could also be voted in or out. If the pastor wasn't voted in or out, the people were often included to just come and go as well when they didn't like something. Faith just didn't feel like it should be a democratic and constantly changing process.
So where did that leave us? Truthfully we felt kind of stuck. We were as far as knowing we wanted a pro-life church with a unifying body. Growing us as liturgical protestants, we also knew that we would really prefer a church with a strong sense of liturgical seasons. Advent and Lent are growing in popularity with evangelical protestants, but for the most part they are seen as a spiritual practice not as a church-wide season.
Those of you who are Catholic are probably now wondering why we hadn't given Catholicism a try yet. There is a quote by Archbishop Fulton Sheen, "There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Church to be."
That was Tim, and to a lesser extent me. We grew up hearing about all the awful things that the Catholic Church believed, was, did, etc and how Martin Luther saved us all from those wrong theologies. So we decided to go at this from a different route and study the works of Luther a bit more.
Do I have a news flash for anyone out there who thinks Lutherans follow the teachings of Martin Luther. No, they follow one phrase, "justification by grace through faith". If Martin Luther were alive today, he would most certainly be Catholic. My mom, who holds a master's degree in theology from a liberal Catholic college and is a rostered associate in ministry with the ELCA agrees with me.
Importance of individual confession to a priest, true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, seven sacraments.
Martin Luther believed all of it, to the extent that he included them in his full catechism (not the little mini one with explanation that we all memorized for confirmation).
And that is where we found the Catholic Church.
Believe it or not, Martin Luther himself pointed the way. Something that without being told, actually came up in my first ever RCIA class. I sat down next to an older woman who eventually became a friend (she was there as a sponsor). She asked what church we had come from and I told her Lutheran.
She shook her head and said to me.... "That Martin Luther, if he had gone about things in a better way, he'd probably be a saint by now."
I highly doubt this story will convert anyone, but I won't apologize if it makes you a little but uncomfortable. The truth is, the Catholic Church is no more perfect of an organization than any other church (hopefully that's not a totally awful thing to say) but we have a lot of things that other churches simply can't offer. People call it the fullness of Truth. Not that other churches aren't Christian, or don't have truth, but that there is something different, something more about the Catholic Church.
I can't even explain it, but it's a palpable difference that we are constantly growing in understanding of. There is so much depth and beauty rooted in years of study, teaching, and tradition. We didn't instantly understand each and every tenant of the Catholic faith (I wouldn't foolishly claim to now), and some took a little time to embrace even. There is so much more there, however, that we could study for a lifetime and never fully grasp the mysteries and teachings.
The fall before we officially left the ELCA behind we were in a bible study with a group of couples. As we were discussing grace, another dad pointed out that he was so grateful for grace because he was like way at the bottom and God was way at the top and Christ's sacrifice filled in the gap.
My question then was, if there is such a gap, wouldn't you want to do everything in your earthly power to become more holy, more worthy, and draw closer...even knowing you couldn't, even knowing you would always fall short? In response to such an incredible gift, wouldn't you want to DO something?
Justification by grace through faith, fine. But, faith isn't a passive state or belief, it is an action.
I had always wondered why Jesus gave us so much instruction if we could simply willfully and intentionally ignore it and still achieve our goal of eternal life in heaven?
I had never been able to read the Bible and come away with the conclusion that Heaven was a guaranteed destination for anyone who was just a nice person who didn't do too much bad stuff.
The answer to all of our questions and the end of our search was simply,
The Catholic Church.
Unappologetically Pro-Life; Affirming of our roles as husband and wife and our duty as Christian mothers and fathers; Rooted in liturgical tradition; Unified leadership.
Everything we knew we were searching for and lots more we never knew we were missing.