“Without individuals, nothing happens; without institutions, nothing survives.” Talleyrand
This quote cracked some eggs in my budding life as a new Christian and missionary. (As a side, it is of some humor to me that this quote came from the mouth of a man of royal background, priestly inclination, a diplomat at heart, a Prime Minister of France, a womanizer, a voluptuary, and the “lame devil”.)
By Who’s Authority
My first three years at New Hope Ministries were spent in praise & worship of a God whose call finally overcame all of the obstacles I had placed between us. During that time a theological education became the order of process to shape my faith, and the challenging world of missionary and evangelical efforts became my realization of what real faith produces; work. In this process I slowly discovered that I was increasingly on an entrepreneurial path – more of a voluntary association with New Hope Ministries, or a sodality as the Catholic Church would call it – rather than in union with the church; a union where the Pastor and church administration was clearly involved, and any volunteer role was clearly defined as secondary and not primary to the mission’s survival. In truth, though, my church engaged little through its own efforts to pursue mission and evangelical work that had to be reached by walking out the doors of the church. “Efforts” were the enterprise of individuals and small groups that defined needs, initiated plans, and executed activities independent of, but with the sanction from the church administration. If I, or some other volunteer, did not do “it”, “it” would not get done. In a word, I found this “depressing” and somehow lacking in what my theological education was shouting at me.
“However strong our individual callings are, our sense of corporate calling is often very faint.” Os Guinness
I received a rich education in the Greek word, ecclesia. In its most original form it literally means “called out or called forth”. To the early Christians this was a reference to their calling to be followers of the Way; of Jesus Christ. It is a popular term for charismatics and evangelicals today; to be “called out”, though I find it somewhat ironic because these same non-denominational organizations radically promote individualism and volunteer activism over community submission and obedience. To the early Christians, as noted so abundantly in the New Testament, ecclesia refers to the assembly of followers the Way, of Jesus Christ; His Church. While Jesus calls each of us personally, He calls us to what? Christ calls us to His community of disciples, and it is through that community that God’s work is to be done. One must take special note in the reality of Jesus’ personal ministry while He was incarnate in a human body. It took place with His specific selection of disciples, and it took place over a specific period of time, with a beginning and an end. These are critical defining elements of His Church that no one should divorce themselves from. To minimize the importance of these facts is to diminish Christ as our Lord. Christ intended to define and promote His Church through these twelve men, and Christ intended that God’s love and law for His creation would be stewarded, focused, and taught by these twelve men and their future disciples; those whom the twelve would anoint to do such work. Furthermore, the Word would be defined by this time period. With Christ’s ascension into Heaven, Church doctrine is absolute except through the limited interpretation by His apostles. He left His twelve apostles to do God’s work.
Now for me, in early 2012, while I understood little of Catholicism’s urgency to submit to such an assertion of Apostolic succession, I did sense that the pursuit of “part of but separate from the Church” evangelism did lack the critical factor; authority. Under whose authority was I doing my work? Yes, I could easily rationalize that it was through God’s authority, but the bigger questions loomed:
First, what makes me of sufficient quality to represent God? Ezekiel talks in Chapter 2, verse 1:
“He said to me: “O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you.””
God’s first command here is one many of us perform without consideration of our worthiness, and one that I have taken much to heart; “stand up on your feet”. God calls us and we will never be worthy of His call’s challenge, but we all can accomplish His work for us through our due diligence and knowing exactly where we stand. Our precepts of such a “stand” are formed by our experiences, our strengths, and our weaknesses, and as such the rock upon which we stand is rarely visible to our true senses, for the debris of our sins lie beneath our feet; between us and Him.
I have felt this greatly over the past year. I am a product of the modern world, and Individualism in our modern society calls us all to the equality of mankind in a manner that means to our inclined wills, the acceptance by society of all that which is within us; as if it is good by God’s nature or at least something we should not worry too much about while doing God’s work. Rarely are mirrors flattering and thus we try not to stare too long into them. The Bible is replete with sinners doing God’s work. But does that mean that our work will be as successful as Moses’ or David’s? To presume such is simply to demonstrate pride as one’s guide and not Christ. No, for me, I began to understand that there lie much dung beneath my feet, and I began to realize that to sweep it away would require a better broom than the fragile and obstinate pride within me.
My second question was more encompassing: By what authority does any man or woman declare themselves “anointed”? I came across many individuals, these past four years, who were declared anointed, rumored anointed, or acted anointed. Many were graduates of respected divinity schools, while others were refuse who found shore and enlightenment. The full range of humanity was represented and displayed before my eyes, and I had to either accept or discern their paths as mine. Well, considering my first question, I found this both a daunting task and a razor’s edge bound to bleed my faith over the long haul. And so I came to a third question from the first two:
Is this what God intends for us; the uncertainty of His guidance? I know the answer to that question: “I know that God’s grace, His forgiveness, and His love is certain, and forever.” That is faith. God has not created a world where man is to rest in doubt, but in trust. Christ came to set that trust within us; once and for all, to plant a seed that, in truth, was already full-grown and bears the fruit of provision for all of our needs in this world and the next. We need to but steward in purity and obedience.
Into the World
While my thoughts were deep in such an issue as authority, I was equally aware of the political environment here in America, as I found disagreement with much of our social and political leanings towards a socialist state of governance and the growing mandate that the individual trumps the community in matters of liberty and life. But, putting opinions of state aside, what really enveloped my mind was the nature in which our spiritual leaders and Christian denominations responded to these leanings. For Protestants it was easy. They were the force behind the movement. Christian doctrine for the Protestant faith is little more than their own desires. For the non-denominational churches there resides a broad range of opinion on such matters; from concerted agreement, to resigning compliance, and onto radical entanglement in opposition. What was common though, with a few exceptions from the Evangelicals, was separation and silence. It all reminded me much of an oddly-defined ‘poem’ by Pastor Martin Niemöller. It has to do with the indifference shown by the intellectual community in Germany to the Nazi regime’s program of the genocide of all groups, nationalities, and faiths that they believed to be contrary to their ideologue.
First they came for the communist,
and I did not speak out because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I did not speak out because I was not a Catholic.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
One can craft this poem to suit the circumstances before one, but the truth speaks for itself. Christ calls us to our fellow men and women. It is His second greatest commandment, and fulfills His call to community faith through a single Church. There is but one bride. Christ is not a polygamist.
As I surveyed this political landscape before me, I quickly saw but one Christian faith that viewed itself not separate from the world, awaiting the second coming of Christ while hunkering down in their sanctuaries. There stood and still stands the Roman Catholic Church. While Christ differentiated between God and the Empire, He never put into abeyance His commandment to love thy neighbor, as if it might actually belong to the state instead of all mankind. Love is more than encouragement, it is truth. Christ challenged the world with His truth. How can I, one who seeks God, do anything less? Engagement and not seclusion. Inclusion and not exclusion.
I watched with great interest the immutable ground upon which stood the American Bishops, as well as the many private businesses owned and operated by Catholics, in arguing against the government’s healthcare mandate that wishes to ensure that no man or woman has a right to life in this country; no matter their age. At one point, the Catholic position inspired me to write an open letter to the four Pastors at my church regarding my hope that they would take some position on this matter and bring it before their congregations. Only one offered a reply, and his words entailed me keeping him up-to-date on how things progressed out there in the world.
I learned a new word in all of this; immutable, and I learned its full breadth within the doctrine of the Catholic Church. It does not refer to the pontificating of authority, but to man’s submission to Christ. While humanity looks to its own failings for reassurance of its worth, and as it decries and decrees much to assuage immediate concerns of unnatural assaults and freedoms, humanity beats upon the Church’s gates for justice and an understanding that since they wish to do no more than feed themselves, the least the Church can do is sanctify their desires. The Church’s response is simple and pure. It does not have the authority to do so; that remains with God. Perseverance to God’s Word is absolute and not temporal.
Down the Rabbit Hole
In our historical and dominant Protestant-based church structure in America, the good intentions of those associations have been to the enfranchisement of the individual over the community. What I found these past four years is that for all that I could do to evangelize the world within this free-flowing structure of such a Church; it is of little value in nourishing the body of the Church. We look to good-time moments in our outreaches, and then withdraw to our churches to count the blessings and converts with little follow up on God’s work.
It’s an interesting revelation I had recently in conversing with the founder of a well-established, international Christian Ministry that works in both outreach evangelism in third-world countries, and trains people to become Pastors. I made an inquiry of her as to the specifics of their evangelism, in terms of their engagement with those they have evangelized in previous outreaches. Her response astounded me. They do not do any follow up whatsoever. I could not but help remember back to another event I helped plan and execute, where the missionary gossip of the moment was the assertion that a particular, attending missionary had already brought about twenty-eight conversions to the Christian faith and was working on more. I soon learned that this individual was simply talking people into reciting the sinner’s prayer, and then posting the accomplishment as a conversion in true and lasting faith.
The devolving morality of our country is greatly due to our insistence upon the belief that the individual supersedes the community when push comes to shove. In such a pursuit of Individualism and through the environment of a Christian nation subservient to its own desires, we have laid bare, like in the earlier poem, the reality that there are few communities left in which to find an address to the threats upon our very lives. Without a healthy, obedient body, as we now see so clearly in modern society, the Church has little societal authority within the secular, national and international structure of mankind to be both preservative and progressive of God’s purpose. Like the poem, it will be you standing there alone when they knock on your door.
Of the Way
There is a brief, yet climaxing conversation at the end of the movie, The Last Samurai, between the young Emperor of Japan and an American Captain, who had fought alongside the faithful Samurai, Katsumoto, in defiance against the rapid secularization of the Japanese society by unscrupulous and greedy politicians. The Captain enters the Imperial Hall – defeated by the Emperor’s consul, Omura, and with his friend, Katsumoto, dead – carrying Katsumoto’s sword. The Emperor, one far too young to hold such a responsibility, is torn between the allure of a progressive society for his people and the respect and security of the traditional ways.
Perhaps mortally injured, the Captain painfully walks the distance to the Emperor until he can walk no further. He stumbles to a kneeling position, places Katsumoto’s sword before him, and bows his head is respect for the Emperor; struggling with all of his strength to keep from collapsing. As the Emperor approaches, the Captain looks up and removes the sheathed sword from its silk covering in reverent offering:
“This is Katsumoto’s sword. He would have wanted you to have it.”
The Captain’s head is once again bowed, his arms raising the sword to honor it.
“Let the strength of the Samurai be with you always.”
Omura, politically corrupted, notes,
“Enlightened One, we all weep for Katsumoto, but….”
At which point the Captain continues,
“He hoped with his last breath that you would remember the ancestors who had held this sword, and what they died for.”
It is at this moment that the young Emperor realizes that the “progress” he had hoped for, was in fact, a curse. He goes to his knees before the sword and the injured Captain. The Emperor gently lifts the sword from the Captain’s hands and holding it tenderly, he struggles through his emotions for the proper words to speak.
“You were with him?” “At the end?”
Omura urges forward, “Emperor! This man fought against you!”
With a resolute nature, the Captain offers the Emperor:
“Your highness, if you believe me to be your enemy, command me and I will gladly take my life.”
With the Captain’s sacrificial faith and obedience to the way of Japan, the young Emperor is finally prepared to address the assembly of Japanese and American politicians and diplomats before him.
“I have dreamed of a unified Japan; of a country strong and independent and modern. And now we have railroads and western clothing.”
“But we cannot forget who we are, or where we come from.”
With this certainty fixed in his mind, he refutes the proposal of commerce from the American government, turns his attention to Omura to dispense him from his presence, and with humility turns back to the Captain.
“Tell me how he died.”
With a tear descending down his cheek, the Captain replies.
“I will tell you how he lived.”
This Captain’s life was a journey that began in the idealism of the American military might in the frontier west. From there, it led him to disillusionment in the American system due to the atrocities committed against the native Indians, and unto his own alcoholism. His journey to Japan as a military advisor to the Emperor, in their struggle against the Samurai, led him to capture, imprisonment and a detoxification of his very soul; away from the idealism of man’s aspirations to deification and onto the humble reality of God’s purpose for mankind.
It was in the intensely virtuous world of the Samurai – a world where all things are tested against the noble and absolute truths – where the Captain was confronted with his misconceptions of the true meaning of life. Because of his willingness to see truth for what it is, and not for what he desires it to be, he finds the strength to transform himself to what we see in the end; at peace in the knowledge that authority rests with God, and truth is God’s Word.
So Here I Am
I have found that same peace in the Catholic Church. The transforming birth of my spirit – one that started that mysterious night – is finding completion here in the Church that Jesus entrusted to Peter and the Apostles. It has been a journey that is now near completion, with but one thing left to do. I sought the idealism of Christianity as a new Christian, and sought it earnestly; with all my heart. I put my passions into the seeking and have never looked back. The rewards have been bountiful, the knowledge I have gained fruitful, the wisdom humbling.
But midst it all, God has shown me the trials, the pitfalls, and the missteps of faith. It is so easy to confuse one’s desires with God’s call, and equally easy to endure personal trial in the name of pride as in the name of humility. It is just as easy to give when the return is human praise, as when it is praise from your Audience of One; perhaps more so for our senses, like our tongues, bring deceit according to our desires. And it is all too easy to love with expectation, over that love which expects nothing at all.
I want to make the argument that the very absolute nature of the Catholic Church is to our best advantage because it inhibits the focus of faith being projected upon the temporal individual and places the focus squarely upon Christ. The Mass is not about us, it is about Him. Mary, the Saints, the Mass, the Sacraments, the Devotions, Novenas, Prayers, the Rosary, Advent, Lent, the Holy Week, and all of Ordinary Time work together to prevent the seepage of man’s broken inclinations from corrupting the whole Church. Our souls are in a titanic struggle for the hope of an eternal life in God’s kingdom, and I suspect that He wishes us together as one body in this endeavor.
It is better that I might do less through my own entrepreneurial spirit – even though, through my own efforts, I may be able to do some good things for specific people and groups – so that I may be a better part of God’s corporate calling of His Church. I have come to the Catholic Church, not to carry out all things Catholic as defined by man, but all things Catholic as defined by God. To attempt the first is to accept the heterodox with the orthodox. While our individual callings are unique and represent that which Paul talks so much about, our community calling must take precedence for the good of the Church. This means we are to play our part as God has gifted us, and not as we desire it.
“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.”
By the end of next week, I will be on a plane to Madrid. From there I will decide how to reach the Pyrenees Mountains where I will settle for one night in the French town of St. Jean Pied de Port. As the sun rises, I’ll be stepping out of my hotel in order to start out on this phase of God’s work within me; to journey the Way of St. James; the Camino de Santiago. The world sees this quest as a pilgrimage, and writes much about it. You and I know that pilgrimages are what Christians live throughout their lives; that journey to God’s kingdom, and it is a journey in which we can never know how far along that road we are in our journey, let alone what is just around the corner.
While all of us are on our Way, those who seek no purpose in life find themselves wanderers and will thus never reach their destination, while those who seek purpose in life have the spiritual comfort of knowing they are wayfarers. My destination is set for now; one leg of many in my journey; Santiago de Compostela. I suspect much will change within me on this leg, and I look forward to it. We all should always look to progress in our journeys.
And finally, I can think of nothing more important at this time in history than the work of retrieving the lost authority of Christ in our nation. We stand at a crossroads now more than ever. All things have a tipping point, whether they be cow or country. To that purpose I can speak of one thing of many things that have affected me so much since I have become Catholic and wish to pass on:
There is more for us to speak of than how Christ died. Our debt through sin has been paid for with His flesh and blood. We are forgiven. And with forgiveness comes responsibility, not static adoration. We need to speak much of how Christ lived.
Our prayers should really be regarded as our vows. God loves us so much. When you awaken in the morning, can you not shout out in joy for the beauty He has placed before you, the opportunity for liberty and life; for that pursuit of happiness and joy? While it is good to ask of Him, is it not better to ask after Him?
“Lord, what can I do that will please you today and all of the days ahead?”
And then listen, obey, and let your Amen be your covenant with Him, forever.
“Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others,”
God Bless – Reese
4 thoughts on “My Road to the Catholic Faith”
I am so very pleased to have read this post. It made me more appreciative of what we have as Catholics in a way that perhaps only a newcomer can do. May God bless you on your journey on the Camino de Santiago and teach you thereby what you need to know for your way onward when you return. With love and appreciation, Bill Coakley
I am so very pleased to have read this post. It made me more appreciative of what we have as Catholics in a way that perhaps only a newcomer can do. May God bless you on your journey on the Camino de Santiago and teach you thereby what you need to know for your way onward when you return. With love and appreciation, Bill
What an amazing and inspiring story! Thank you so much for sharing this to us Reese. May God bless you on your journey! I will be praying for you!