I loved Catholicism.
I love the grandeur of the sanctuary with its carved wood, arched windows, and stained glass. I love the deep, resonate amalgam of voices confessing the Nicene Creed and the honesty and humility expressed in the kyrie: “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.” I love memories of simple things, like braiding cruciform-shaped palm leaves for Easter.
Most of all, I loved our priest, Father Tom, who occasionally visited our home. His black clerical shirt with unfastened collarino (collar in which the white plastic insert fits) expressed the nature of his relationship to us. It said, “I am here not only as your priest, but also as your friend,” like Bing Crosby’s character, Father O’Malley, in whose presence one gets the feeling that “God is in his heaven; all is right with the world.”
But I had to leave.
My Problem with Catholicism
In short, I collapsed under the weight of religious guilt, the nagging fear that preoccupied my soul and questioned whether I was truly forgiven by God. I would often go to bed and wonder, “Has my behavior been good enough to merit divine approval?” Like Martin Luther who attempted to find a gracious God, I never knew whether I was fully accepted.
Historian Martin Marty describes the religious journey of Martin Luther by saying, “He makes most sense as a wrestler with God, indeed, as a God-obsessed seeker of certainty and assurance in a time of social trauma and of personal anxiety, beginning with his own.” By observing a range of austere religious works, Luther sought to grow in holiness and thereby find himself pleasing to the Divine Judge. In his own words:
I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.” My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven. . . .
Facing the Tiber
As a Catholic, I knew nothing about Protestantism and, quite frankly, I didn’t care to. Protestants, in my view, were an imitation of the one true Church. If you own a set of Big Bertha golf clubs, why be concerned with imitation knockoffs? But, on account of my Dad’s heart attack at age 21 and the myriad challenges that it provoked, my stress had grown to unmanageable proportions. Under this pressure I agreed to visit a friend’s evangelical church.
The parking lot of Faith Evangelical Church was packed. In amazement I looked around thinking, “It’s a Wednesday night; these people must get a life!” With a mixture of humiliation and curiosity I entered the building and sat in the rear pew of their “worship center.” Devoid of any wood carvings, arched windows, or stained glass, it was simply a large room with a stage. Worse than austere, it was ugly.
Occasionally, I looked through my peripheral vision at my friend, Jan. Her eyes remained closed as she sang. Oh, and did we sing! After forty minutes of choruses that seemed familiar to everyone but me, the senior pastor finally entered the pulpit. With a style combining Al Pacino and a young Billy Graham, he quoted John 15:5-6:
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 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 (ESV).
The preacher continued:
Humanity attempts to produce its own fruit. We run around exploring this and that religion, this and that philosophy, and by the end of the day, when we lay our heads down upon our pillows, our souls are still empty.
The Bible says in Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” And what do we find when we look up to the Lord? The Lord Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
In what are you resting? In what does your life find meaning and purpose? What will be there for you the second after you take your last breath and depart in death? Consider the Good News! Jesus the Messiah died for our sins, rose from the dead, reigns in eternal glory, and at this moment is calling you to repent and embrace him.
Everyone on earth faces the same fundamental choice. Will we continue to live independent of Christ, in restlessness of soul, eventually to be gathered like a useless branch into a pile to be burned? Or will we submit to his authority and abide in his peace? The former person dies in a never ending state of alienation; the latter enjoys God’s acceptance now and for eternity. What will it be?
I don’t know how to properly describe what came next. Anticipation surged through my veins and my mind swirled with questions. Then, suddenly, the eyes of my soul opened. They immediately blinked, again, and again, as though they were awoken from sleep by a flash of light. The object of my vision appeared so new and bright that my initial response was to retreat.
As my inner eyes tried to adjust, I sensed an imposing presence. I didn’t see the angelic host or hear them singing. Instead, I felt divine mercy closing in on me. After a moment, this grace reached out to grasp my guilt and shame—previously reasons for hopelessness—and it brought to mind three simple words: “It is finished.”
In that moment I finally understood the meaning of Jesus’ cross and resurrection. My search for hope had ended. The Lamb of God had died in my place, not simply as an offering for “sin,” in a general sense, but for me personally. Not Christ accruing superabundant merits to be stored in a heavenly treasury and dispensed to me as I participated in religious rites, but the complete satisfaction of God’s wrath and forgiveness of my sins.
The joy of redemption became a reality. At once, I identified with the penitent thief on the cross who encountered the Lord’s promise, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), the adopted orphan-turned-son (John 1:12-13), and the rescued rebel delivered from the domain of darkness (Col. 1:13). Why such a dramatic change? In Jesus’ words: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).
Similar to converts like Augustine, Pascal, Luther, Newton, and a host of others throughout history, I encountered God in such a profound way that my life was permanently changed. To this day, I don’t have a better way to describe it than with the words of Charles Wesley in his famous hymn “And Can It Be That I Should Gain”:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth and followed Thee.
In retrospect, I believe this was the day when I ceased to be a Roman Catholic.
 Martin Marty, Martin Luther (New York: Viking Penguin, 2004), xii.
 Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978), 49-50.