This weekend I finally completed my journey into full communion in the Catholic Church. Well, I say completed. Really it’s only just beginning. The experience was phenomenal, the future is exciting, but it has been the journey to get here that has literally changed my life.
FULL DISCLOSURE: THIS PART IS SUPER BORING!!
I’ve been an evangelical Christian my whole life. I was born into it without any choice. It began in a little baptist church in BFE, KY (the middle of nowhere), and went on to a few other baptist churches as I grew up and my family moved around. My family was a Baptist one, of course, and we didn’t dare associate with those Catholics because they were all going to bring around the new world order. Oh yeah… and the pope was the anti-christ. (*Sarcasm* I promise I know better now.)
I went on to a Baptist Bible College in Nashville and became a youth minister shortly after I left college.
The church where I was employed was old, which in itself wasn’t a bad thing, but the congregation was old as well, and stuck in their ways. Any type of progressive thought or attempts to advance the youth ministry was met with, “Well, we’ve never done it that way before.” or “Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken.”
But in fact the church was broken… so much in fact, that the pastor himself later gave into the same discouragement I had succumbed to, and left to start his own church. That church was dying, and no one seemed to care about trying to fix it. They wanted to keep with the same old formula they had always used. That formula had reached its expiration.
Something was missing, and as a ministry team, our hands were tied. We tried to rekindle it, to make the church vibrant again, but every attempt was met with disagreement because, “we’ve never done it that way..
So far, it sounds prettty boring, doesn’t it? Well, yeah.. it kinda was. Something definite, something real was missing. I didn’t know what, but I was about to begin a years long, full circle journey and find out.
THIS IS THE PART THAT I LOVE TO TALK ABOUT:
Just down the street from the house where I lived in my teenage years sits St. Stephen’s Cathedral. This church is the focal point of everything else I am about to write. Even as a non-catholic, I always admired this church. It is an absolutely magnificent building. I can remember walking my dog in the late summer evening, and purposefully going a bit further than I usually intended just so I could walk by the Cathedral. There were some nights where I would take that walk, and notice that there were cars parked on the street outside the church… so I’d let the dog finish her business and walk her back to the house just so I could come back down the street and sneak into the back of the church and watch through the cracks between the doors in the foyer. I never dared to go in, though. Mostly because I was (am currently??) an extremely socially awkward person, and don’t know how to interact with people that I don’t know without them thinking I am an extremely socially awkward wierdo. But of course, also because they were catholics and according to my circle of baptist friends, they were the harbingers of the anti-christ and would all burn in hell.
Regardless of their supposed apocalyptic intentions, I always thought the cathedral was beautiful, and I couldn’t help but love being there. For a reason I couldn’t explain, I always felt a sense of peace as I passed it by. There was something there that I just couldn’t put my finger on. Something different from any church I had ever been a part of… and I wouldn’t know for a long time why.
I LOVE TALKING ABOUT THIS PART, TOO
Flash forward to January of 2015- I swiped right on this girl’s profile, and for some reason I can’t explain, she swiped right on me to. You know what I’m talking about, right? I fully confess… I met my fiancee on Tinder, and if she ever finds out I admitted to this she will probably kill me! I’ll die anyway, because I’m sure she’ll read this blog. Thank God we had a mutual friend who we both approached separately and asked about each other, and that friend gave us both rave reviews, so this girl agreed to meet me at Starbucks. I’ll forever love Starbucks because that is where I first laid eyes on this beautiful blond haired, blue eyed dime. I also thank my lucky stars she decided to give this rough and tumble redneck in an ’88 Chevy pickup a chance.
Inevitably, mostly due to my extreme social awkwardness, our first conversation somehow turned it’s way to religion. She said she was Catholic and I said I was non-denom Christian. At this point, I was no longer a youth minister, and was working full-time managing the local Dairy Queen. She saw something in me she liked, which is pretty darn lucky because by that time I was pretty smitten…. and I just realized I’m getting away from my original theme. Long story short, she’s catholic, I wasn’t… We didn’t talk about church much more because I’d made up my mind it didn’t matter. This girl was a ten, and I was going to do and/or say whatever I had to to make her fall as in love with me as I already was with her. Whatever I did, it worked, because almost a year later, I asked her to marry me, and she said yes!
I should also note that at the time, due to certain experiences in churches in my recent past up to this point, I was just not prepared to delve any further into a religious search or debate at the moment. I was spiritually numb, mentally exhausted with religion, and no longer cared to call any particular church a home.
Now, back to the story, I know what you’re thinking… “What did a woman like that see in a guy like you?” Trust me, I asked myself that for a very long time…
Anyhoo, she said yes, and we launched the early stages of our wedding planning. Of course, the first question we had to answer was where were we having the wedding? We both thought that the Cathedral was the most beautiful church in town, so we went there one Sunday afternoon to look around. This was the first time I had ever actually been inside. It was even more beautiful on than I thought before! The trickle of water in the baptismal font resounded and the whiff of incense lingered. That peaceful feeling I spoke of earlier was even more pronounced inside the church so much so that it was almost overwhelming in its vibrancy. I couldn’t explain it still, but something was different here. It called out and beckoned like nothing I had ever experienced. No other church I had ever been in had this same feeling, this same atmosphere. What was it?!
We left the church that day, and I could never get the memory of that peaceful feeling from the back of my mind. I knew that I was missing something, but honestly, I had no idea what it could be.
Days turned into weeks, and I still could not shake that beckoning feeling from the church, so I started searching for an answer. Something, anything that would tell me what I had experienced in the Cathedral that day. Why did I feel so drawn to that church?
I started searching for answers. Youtube was a major resource for me. I only knew one catholic person other than Bre who I knew might have some answers. He was a former baptist, in fact the son of my family’s pastor, who had left our baptist denomination and began seminary to become a priest himself. I watched every Youtube video about Catholicism. Lecturers and speakers like Scott Hahn, Steve Ray and Father Mike Schmitz had tons of videos explaining the Catholic faith, and I noticed that they always mentioned this thing called the Eucharist. I thought it was just another name for communion. I’d had communion before at church. Everybody had! It was just another thing you did before you left church and went to eat Mexican on Sunday. Of course it was always specified that this cracker and grape juice was just a representation of the body and blood of Christ. It was nothing more than a symbol. And there it was… that was the major difference. Is it possible for the Christ to beckon to one through the Eucharist? Be it that the Eucharist becomes the embodiment of Christ, can one feel drawn to the church through the presence of the Holy Eucharist?
Baptists and Catholic had hymns. Catholics and Baptists had Sunday services and outreach programs… and there the similarities pretty much ended. Catholics had so much more! Catholics had the sacraments. Catholics has the chronological order of succession to Christ himself, Catholics had traditions and a system that had proven itself over two thousand years. Catholics didn’t just have communion in the way I had always known it… as a symbol. They had the Holy Eucharist in which the actual body and blood of Christ was present and real.
…and I didn’t have that.
AND THIS IS HOW I GOT HERE
Months later, I knew that I was on my way to the Catholic Church. I denied it to friends and family because I wanted to avoid any arguments or bad feelings. There are still some I haven’t told. Oh well, if they read this blog they’ll find out. I had watched every Youtube video, listened to every lecture, read as many books as my ADHD would allow me to… I needed to connect. Bre and I were still months away from our wedding, and I knew there was still time. I called the cathedral, and asked to speak to the RCIA director. She was out of the office for lunch, but she called me back the same afternoon, and invited me to her office for an appointment to talk an hour later. She was kind and knowledgeable, and although I didn’t immediately tell her I was definitely joining the Catholic church, in my mind, of course I already knew I would. She invited me back to RCIA the next night, and over the next six months or so, I was at RCIA as often as my hectic work schedule would allow me to be there.
Around that same time, Bre moved her Parrish membership to the cathedral, and we began our pre-marital counseling with Father Jamie, the parochial vicar. I remember in one of our sessions, I told Father Jamie that I needed someone to meet with one on one since I couldn’t be at RCIA every session because of work. The man didn’t even hesitate. He said he would meet with me as often as I wanted to try and help me get caught up with the rest of the RCIA class. I should mention at this point that Father Jamie is blind, and often needs a driver to perform various ministry functions. I told him that I would drive him every chance he would give me. He was glad to have a new volunteer, so we began meeting about once a week, sometimes more. I can’t count the number of times we sat at Cracker Barrel and discussed church theology, traditions, and the meaning and holiness of the Holy Eucharist. Father Jamie has become one of my favorite friends, and I always love getting a text from him saying, “Let’s go to Cracker Barrel.”
HOLY WEEK AND EASTER
Finally, a week ago yesterday, Holy Week started. I was as excited as a fat kid at a CiCi’s buffet all week. I was so close to partaking in Holy Communion with the Catholic Church. I knew that partaking in the Holy Eucharist was as close as I could get to knowing Christ… touching the hem of his garment or hearing him speak on Earth. Here was a real, tangible substance in which Christ was and is, and I was going to finally come into full and real communion with God. This was no longer just a symbol of his body and blood as my baptist background had told me for so long. This was so much more real and I no longer had to look at Jesus as the Lord who left the Earth 2,000 years ago and to whom I now had no physical connection! I could partake of the body and drink of the blood, and know that I had just literally touched the body of Christ! Can you understand what it feels like to go from a figurative church where we are told to live by faith in the hope to experience the presence of Christ to a literal Catholic church where we know that Christ is real and present in the Eucharist and the Sacraments?
Finally, Easter Vigil came. Saturday night, Bre and I got to the church early. I was nervous and excited at the same time. I was super nervous at the thought of being on front of the church where EVERYONE could see me. But the moment I walked into the cathedral, all my fear and anxiety was gone. It was as if Christ himself had met me at the door and ushered me to my seat (in the very front rows of the cathedral). It was as if he knew how excited and nervous I was at the same time. That peace the very first time I had walked by the Cathedral came rushing back, and I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that this absolutely was the right decision.
There were five of us in this RCIA class. Three of us were converts who had already been baptized. Cain and Courtney Drury, however, were converting, getting baptized, and having their Catholic wedding all in one night.
Finally the Bishop’s voice boomed, “Alex, Len, and Sarah, come forward and make your profession.”
The three of us walked forward with our sponsors. We faced the altar, and I felt my sponsor, James, lay his hand on me. I imagined that it was Christ laying his hand on me.
“I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”
At that moment, I knew I was home. Communion came just minutes later, and I struggled to keep my “ugly crybaby face” in check. It was difficult, but I didn’t dare show that much emotion in front of the bishop has he handed me the bread.
It was literally one of the greatest moments of my life. I got back to my seat, and Bre smiled over at me. “I only cried a little,” she said.
I almost cried a lot.
Yes, I am home now, but the journey is just beginning. This Catholic journey has been my most treasured experience in my life so far, and I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. I know Christ more fully than I ever have before, and I will grow more in my Catholic faith. It’s like a whole new world has been shown to me.
I’ll write more soon!
*Confirmation photos courtesy of St. Stephen’s Cathedral and Mr. Rob Abney