Swimming the Tiber, Part I

What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing in the Roman Catholic Church?

(I have been asked more times than I can remember about my journey from Evangelical Christian to the Roman Catholic Church.  Although I’ve often doubted whether anyone else would have the least interest, I will present that journey – well, parts of it anyway – here.  This is not an apologetic.  It’s a narrative.  To say that it was a struggle for me would be an understatement.  So would it be to say that I still struggle.  If there is any encouragement, any help, any edification to be found here, I hope you find it.  I am, after all, only a beggar telling other beggars where to find Bread.)

I am a Catholic.

There, I said it. It comes more easily now. But it has taken two decades to get here. Not only did I struggle with many theological and practical issues, my wife and I have 13 very well trained Protestants. So our family vessel moved more like an aircraft carrier, less like a speedboat.

From gefilte fish to bacon.

Both my wife and I grew up in evangelical homes. My wife’s father was a minister for decades. We loved the Bible as the very Word of God. We memorized it voraciously. We had “sword drills,” competing to be the first one to find a particular verse. I was the champion several years running.

Driven by love of God and man, we were concerned for the eternal destiny of everyone everywhere. We called it witnessing, sharing the Gospel, and evangelism.

My Dad – God rest his soul – would witness at every opportunity, whether to the guy at the next table in a restaurant or the clerk at the motel desk. Even the fact that the dentist had both his hands in my Dad’s mouth didn’t deter him from sharing the Good News. If you were going to hell, it sure wasn’t going to be my Father’s fault.

My dear Mother still does it. In rehab following a severe stroke, she’d share the Gospel with every therapist, roommate, orderly, and nurse that crossed her path. Despite the pain, humiliation, and Herculean efforts of recovery, she never complained. At times she was almost giddy with the opportunities she had to share her deep faith. She is probably the only person in history to have fun in therapy.

We were in church just about every time the doors were open. Sunday morning for worship and Sunday School; Sunday night for another service or two. There was Wednesday night for prayer meeting following a covered dish supper.

If you were really plugged in, you went to Tuesday night “visitation” to invite neighbors to come join you in church on Sunday. A fleet of school buses got you there if needed. We had more days of obligation than Catholics ever thought about. But it was not as much about “obligation” as it was about obedience – and its greatest motivator – love.

We loved God and we loved each other. Church was the center of where we worshipped. And it was the center of our lives. It was the gathering place for friends. We called it fellowship.

Both my parents grew up in non-observant Jewish homes. They were married in a Jewish ceremony, but were otherwise non-observant as well. According to my grandparents, you could be nothing or you could be Jewish. Each had approximately equal validity. Six years of marriage and a few children later, my parents underwent a divine transformation and became Christians.

My Mother’s parents weren’t thrilled with this conversion, but they tolerated it. It was not, however, a topic of conversation for polite company as far as they were concerned. We five children, of which I was the eldest, loved them and enjoyed their involvement in our lives. We were saddened by their passing, especially since they departed this world in darkness.

Dad’s parents were a different story. With my parents’ conversion, my grandparents were righteously indignant with a sense of religious fervor. My grandparents did what they could to humiliate their son. In Jewish history, many families will tear their clothes and even conduct a funeral, treating the new Christian relative as though dead.

That would have been a marked improvement. We only saw them a handful of times growing up, and they used every one of those opportunities to be berate my Father.

Dad was no shrinking violet. His six and a half foot, two hundred sixty pound frame cast quite a shadow. He was an accomplished snow skier and a champion equestrian. He was naturally gregarious and never met a stranger. But he never complained about or criticized his parents. He did pray for them and for their conversion. Only after I entered adulthood could I comprehend the depth and breadth of their ire. How it must have grieved my Father’s heart.

When my Father lay dying in his hospital bed, I sat by his side. During the last few days of his life, he was unconscious. By his bedside, I read to him, spoke to him, and asked him questions. He never responded but I kept on anyway. One question was, “Dad, now that you are at the end of your life, what is most important to you?” He instantly awoke, pushed his oxygen mask aside, lifted his head slightly off the pillow, looked straight at me with his eyes wide open and proclaimed: “The Lord and your Mother.” He immediately closed his eyes. Two days later he slipped from this life into the presence of the God he loved. He never said another word.

He ended his life as he spent it: expressing his love for God and for his wife. He even got them in the right order.

During Dad’s final illness my Mother graciously tended to him virtually single-handedly. He was bed-ridden for the last year of his life. Mom took care of him with great joy and affection. She personified the term “labor of love,” accepting this role as if assigned to her from God himself.

So if I have anything of merit to say, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants. They taught me how to think, taught me to be relentless in my pursuit of the Truth, taught me how to raise a family, and taught me how to live. Finally, by walking the last leg of their journey together – his suffering and her service – they taught me how to die.

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