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Why I am Catholic

An essay by Terry Bohannon

It may come as a surprise to many of our guests that we will marry at a Catholic church. If you are surprised you're not alone. I would have been surprised some time ago too. For a conservative Baptist, becoming Catholic is not just a matter of preferring one congregation over another. The decision would not come easily, as it is not merely a difference of form, but of essence. This turn in faith pivots on the most important question from all ages: what is truth?

Rather than approaching this question with cynicism, as Pilate and many others have done, I found it better to approach truth with humility. As I acknowledge that God created all things and all beings but Himself from nothing, two strong conclusions about Him stand out. He is beauty of the highest order. If the lily on the ground or a nebula in the heavens is beautiful, how much more beautiful is He who formed them? The second conclusion is that God is the sole primary source for truth, which is expressed in John 1. Truth, then, is objective and is not determined by my will or by a poll of 1,500 ‘likely thinkers’.

In fully understanding that last point, not just the statement but its implications too, I came to strongly realize that we are not the authors of the world around us. Much of our media, especially with the advertisement messages we're bombarded with, wants to convince each of us that we are the center of the universe and that it is our duty to give our passions free reign over our lives. Billions of dollars a year are distributed to television spots and programming placements where this duty to serve our lust and greed is implicitly communicated.

Seeing this theme in nearly every aspect of our culture, I became disheartened. I felt radically out of place with what being an American of my generation seemed to be. So doing what seemed natural to me, I began to read ancient texts like the Bible and the teachings of early Christian writers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in search of my place in life, and of wisdom.

In searching, though still displaced and unwise, my passions gradually began to yearn and desire Christ, who is “the way, and the truth, and the life.” Thus began a spiritual germination and a conversion of the heart that will never rest until it rests in God, as Augustine wrote in his first chapter of the Confessions. I would like to think of the spiritual life as a process of becoming, bringing our heart and mind ever closer to conformity with the heart and will of Jesus Christ, who showed what it is to be human in His teaching and His life.

This process of becoming cannot be static. A shark is a good analogy to this. In order to breathe, as fish do, the shark takes water in its gills and its cells capture oxygen from the water. But a shark must always swim, even in its sleep. If it stops swimming, it will suffocate. Such is the case with our spiritual life. If we go through the forms of religion in our Christian community and not pray or contemplate on God, we will spiritually suffocate, which is not an eternally good thing. Christ attests to this as is recorded in John 15:6, “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” That image is bound to Christ’s chair as eternal judge, separating sheep and goats, wheat and chaff in the last days of this world.

With the first steps of my spiritual journey, I began to feel displaced in the church of my father. My sense of feeling out of place was not with the members of the church nor was it with the pastor, whose company and companionship I really enjoyed. It was not with our pastor’s sermons either, for his sermons were hard-hitting and on target to important things. I felt, rather, that something was missing. The more I began to understand about the history of man, the deeper I longed for camaraderie with Christians of ages past. At one point I asked myself, “What links me to John Henry Newman, Thomas Aquinas, or Augustine? What about other Christians in the last 1,950 years?” I had felt somewhat connected to the reformers. In what I saw, I found some of them rooting their ideas in the Church Fathers and appreciating their work, but then they dismissed the Middle Ages. Others seemed too focused on reacting to particular abuses among their contemporary Catholic clergy. Their whole system of thought seemed directed against the manipulations of sinful bishops, priests, or friars rather than what had been held as true from the early church.

Since the Catholic Church will be susceptible to the effects of sin until the last judgment, there has been periodic chaos within the church. This chaos was not unique to the reformation period. The disunity in the church was often resolved, from the Arian heresy of the fourth century, which was resolved with the first Council of Nicaea, to the investiture controversy in the 12th century when kings and lords began to intercede in the election of bishops and abbots in their territory, which was calmed down after a treaty between the emperor and the pope called the Concordat of Worms. An exception to this can be seen in the break between the East and West, but that was a divide with more political intrigue than theological dispute.

The kings and lords during the reformation period who separated from the Catholic Church were not acting from pure theological motives. For King Henry VIII--a few decades after Luther nailed his 95 theses on the cathedral door--his motives were twofold: to wrest moral authority from Rome in order to divorce and, in doing so, transfer the mass landholdings of the dioceses in England, with the wealth in their churches, to his treasuries. Similar motives were repeated in Germany and other places decades after, when local kings sought profit as the material possessions of the Catholic Church came into their hands. This wasn’t the only motive but it is such a materially powerful one that it should not be ignored, if known.

In seeking truth, I began to focus on my search for the fullness of my faith. This was the most aching cause of my being displaced in the church I felt at home with during my youth. In a closer reading of the gospels (though I read from the historical, prophetic, and wisdom books of the Old Testament as well) I discovered in the teachings of Jesus Christ a solid foundation for what the Catholic Church calls the sacraments. Several of these were given honor in my church, especially that of baptism and marriage, but at one point in my walk, I looked at John 6:35-40, and had a conversion of the heart where I could no longer look at communion as symbolic.

It was the sacrament of communion, where the reality of the bread and the reality of the wine are lifted into eternity, such as man was lifted in Christ's incarnation, and becomes the body and blood of our Lord. This is why many Catholics take such care in entering their church, genuflecting (bending the knee and crossing themselves) in honor of He who is present. After coming to this realization, I was no longer at peace, but I waited for three years before I entered the church since I was in my father’s house.

Now I am nearing the end of the formal instruction the Church requires before receiving the Eucharist, which is the communion. I look forward with delight to that day I enter into a substantive unity with Christians of all ages, where I approach and am approached by Christ, our Redeemer.