Religion

‘But You Want to Be a Priest’: A Conversion Story

(Pixabay)
On the 25th anniversary of his ordination, a South Carolina pastor recounts his abandonment of atheism for the Catholic faith. He’s ‘all in.’

Editor’s Note: The following is an adaptation of a homily that the author gave earlier this month at Sunday Mass.

Of course there is no God. That thought came to me with great clarity and force at around 11 a.m. on a Monday in June 1976. I was 13 years old and listening to a professor of philosophy speak to a group of schoolchildren gathered at an academic summer camp whose purpose was to encourage good students to be curious about everything. The professor was an atheist, and as I listened to her explain why she was certain that every religion in the world was a survival of man’s pre-scientific attempts to understand the universe, it was as though the tumblers of a lock were turning over to open my mind to an understanding of the true nature of things: Of course there is no God.

What she said that day helped me gather disparate intuitions and perceptions into a coherent worldview, and from that moment I was an atheist and a scientific materialist, sincerely convinced that everything in the cosmos could be observed, quantified, and understood according to the scientific method alone. I would remain an atheist until October 1981, when the Lord Jesus laid hold of my life.

My conversion to Christ came about largely through the influence of my college friends, a few of whom who were older and wiser, but most were my peers. I was drawn to the Lord sweetly but firmly by the witness of their lives, by the books they suggested, by the love of a young woman, by the death of a classmate, by an encounter with the numinous presence of God in Princeton’s magnificent Gothic chapel, and finally by studying and praying with Holy Scripture under the guidance of a friend who had learned the Bible deeply from his youth.

Throughout September and early October of 1981, in the aftermath of my classmate’s premature death, my friends at school began to speak to me directly about their friendship with the Lord Jesus and about the new life of grace to which he calls us all. I spent time with devout disciples, both evangelical Protestants and evangelical Catholics, who patiently answered my questions and spoke with conviction about the truth of the Gospel, the reality of the immortal soul, the beauty of the interior life, the hope of eternal glory, and the means of grace that lead us to repentance, conversion, the obedience of faith, and a life of virtue.

On the evening of October 15, 1981, one of my classmates and I had dinner together and returned to my room to continue our conversation. We had been studying Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, and I found myself deeply moved by Paul’s account of the Father’s eternal plan of salvation revealed through the life, death, and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

After a long discussion that evening, my friend asked me if I believed what Saint Paul had written, and I found myself surprised by the answer I gave: I wish that all of this were true, but I don’t know how to believe it. He then asked me if I would pray with him, and I stumbled to give an answer because I had not prayed in many years, but at that moment I could find no compelling reason to say no. He knelt on the floor and gestured for me to do the same. And then he began to pray. First my friend gave thanks and praise to God for his goodness, truth, and beauty, and then he asked for the gift of saving faith for me.

My heart was already burning within me, and then suddenly the fire was no longer just inside. I was enveloped by fire — a purifying, illuminating, transforming fire of divine love — a fire that opened my mind and heart to the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord. I do not know if this experience lasted two seconds, two minutes, or two hours, but when I came back to myself and wiped away the happy tears of conversion, I had a clear and certain knowledge of the truth of the Gospel, and at last I had the answer to my unbelief from that summer day in 1976: Of course there is a God — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the one, only, living, and true God, who creates all things from nothing and sustains all creation in being by his omnipotent and eternal Word, who in the fullness of time took flesh of the Virgin Mary and was made man, the Lord Jesus Christ.

But on the night of my conversion, after the fire, my first question was: Where do I go to be baptized? And immediately I was confronted with the scandal of Christian division. Why aren’t Lutherans Presbyterians? And why aren’t Anglicans Baptists? And why does it seem that the only thing to which they all agree is that they aren’t Catholics?

The classmate who died in the summer of 1981 was an Episcopalian, and the Episcopal chaplain who led his memorial service was the only clergyman I knew on campus, so I went to him with my question. He acknowledged with sadness the disunity among Christians but assured me that I did not have to solve the problem of ancient schisms before I could be baptized, because there is but one Lord, one faith, one baptism. And so after two months of preparation I was baptized in the Episcopal Church.

But even before my baptism I was already seeking to understand the nature of the Church and the causes of Christian division. In the summer of 1982, after months of diligent study and many hours of conversation, I came to the conclusion that I did not protest anything in the teaching or worship of the ancient and universal Church and so could not be a Protestant. Until that moment I had never met a Catholic priest and had been inside only two Catholic churches — the first of which was Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. But I knew what I had to do, and so I asked a friend to introduce me to a priest who could help me become a Catholic.

On my path to the altar I was also profoundly shaped by three of the great religious orders of the Church: the Benedictines, the Dominicans, and the Jesuits.

During our first meeting, the priest gave me a couple of books to read, and at the end of our second meeting he asked if I had any questions for him. I hesitated a moment and then began to say, “Father, I’m not sure how to say this, but . . .” And when I hesitated, he finished my statement, “But you want to be a priest.” I was gobsmacked! How did he know? How could he know when I didn’t yet really know myself? How is it possible that I felt drawn to the priesthood before I was even a Catholic? And yet so it was.

My mother intuited that this would happen. When I wrote to tell her that I was going to join the Catholic Church, she wrote back in great distress at what this decision portended. I called to assure her that this wasn’t going to upend my life, and I said, “It’s not as though I’m going to shave my head and become a monk or a priest or something,” and she replied, “O yes it is, because if you’re in it at all, you’ll be all in.” And so I was.

Between being received into the Catholic Church and being ordained a deacon, ten years elapsed, and in that decade there were many false starts, blind alleys, and wrong turns. My conversion to Christ and confirmation in the Church were only the beginning of the journey. I had so much to learn and so much to let go of. Along the way God gave me many true friends, companions on the Way, who helped teach me how to repent of my sins and believe in the Gospel, and several of them are here today. Thank you, my friends.

On my path to the altar I was also profoundly shaped by three of the great religious orders of the Church: the Benedictines, the Dominicans, and the Jesuits. From the Benedictines I learned to prefer nothing to the opus Dei — the sacred and solemn worship of God — and to form communities of disciples into schools of the Lord’s service. From the Dominicans I learned how to think theologically, how to pray deeply, and how to share with others what I learned in prayer and study. And from the Jesuits . . . well, from the Jesuits I learned to trust the Benedictines and the Dominicans.

At length, I was ordained to the priesthood in our Cathedral Church of St. John the Baptist on July 10, 1993. Charleston was a sauna that day — hot and humid almost beyond human endurance — but in the calmness of the sacred liturgy I received from the Lord Jesus and his holy Church, through the Laying on of Hands and the power of the Holy Spirit, the indelible gift of presbyteral consecration. Now 25 years later, I am still grateful beyond all telling for the privilege to be an instrument of grace for others and help them come to know, love, and serve the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lord Jesus entrusted his apostles with the sacred duties of teaching, sanctifying, and governing his Church, and those duties have been handed on from generation to generation for two millennia through the apostolic succession.

At my ordination 25 years ago it seemed likely that both the Church and the world were headed for fair winds and following seas. The pontificate of Saint John Paul the Great had restored order to the Church and unleashed vast energies of theological renewal and evangelical fervor, while the victory of the West in the Cold War suggested that peace and prosperity for the world were at hand, within a new international order of freedom and democracy.

A quarter-century on, however, the promise of those days seems largely to have failed. In many important ways the Church is once again in chaos, and the world is riven by violence, tyranny, cultural dissolution, and unrivaled malevolence against Christianity from both militant Islam and resurgent paganism. Millions of Christians in various parts of the world live in real danger of martyrdom, and in the theoretically free nations of the West, the dictatorship of relativism already presses hard against us with hostile purpose, which in the years ahead will only gather and grow. Meanwhile, nihilism and neo-gnostic fantasies fill the cultural air we breathe and make true religion very difficult for people who are lost in the idolatry of self-worship, including the vast army of baptized pagans who say wistfully, “I was raised Catholic.” In other words, there has never been a better time to be a priest of Jesus Christ!

The Lord Jesus entrusted his apostles with the sacred duties of teaching, sanctifying, and governing his Church, and those duties have been handed on from generation to generation for two millennia through the apostolic succession. To proclaim and explain the Word of God, to celebrate the sacred mysteries of the New and Eternal Covenant, and to guide and protect the flock: These are the tasks of every priest, each according to his office. It is my great joy, unworthy servant though I be, to have been entrusted with these sacred duties.

Twenty-five years ago, in the arrogance of youth, I thought that I was going to help reform the Church, but I learned quickly that I couldn’t even reform myself. So the task at hand became less lofty if no less difficult: By the grace of God I would seek to be faithful to the promises of both my baptism and my ordination and, in so doing, walk with others in the Way of the Cross. For the many ways in which I have failed to do even that little, I ask for God’s forgiveness and yours, and if my service has been of any use to you, then God be praised for his tender mercies.

The priesthood is regarded by many today as an anachronism or as a freakish waste of a man’s life. And even among those who are grateful for the ministry of priests, too many think of the priesthood as a rare gift given only to rare men. But my friends, the priesthood is not an extraordinary life for extraordinary men; it is, rather, an ordinary Christian life for ordinary Christian men. What is extraordinary is being a Christian at all.

“The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” From the beginning of his public ministry until now, the Lord Jesus has continually called the entire human race to the obedience of faith and to the freedom of the children of God, gifts we enjoy if we are born again in Holy Baptism. Through water and the Holy Spirit, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are poured into us, bringing the grace of adoption and justification and equipping us for a life of virtue and authentic interior freedom. It is a life in which, if we cooperate with God’s grace, we are capable of the good works of sanctification that lead to the glory of the new creation. When the radical demands of Holy Baptism have once been grasped, then every Christian way of life — including marriage, religious life, and the sacred priesthood — takes its proper place in the Church, for all Christians.

It is sometimes said that there is a shortage of vocations in the Church. If there is, that shortage is found only among those of the baptized who truly understand and accept the cost of discipleship, and that is why there are both too few priests and too few husbands and wives who are open to the gift of children. The remedy for this shortage, of course, is the spreading of the life-changing conviction that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. That conviction spreads only when the Gospel is proclaimed in season and out by those who are both teachers and witnesses. And the strength to be both teacher and witness comes only from the grace of God given to us in Christ Jesus, crucified and risen.

Catholics who come to the Church as adults, as I did, are often called converts to distinguish them from the cradle Catholics who grew up in the faith from childhood. That shorthand is useful but can be misleading, because no one is born a Christian.

In the account of my conversion a few minutes ago, I left out one moment that was crucial for me. On the evening of May 13, 1981, when I was still an atheist, the campus newspaper ran a special edition with breaking news from Rome: Pope John Paul II had been gunned down in St Peter’s Square. I did not know then what the Catholic Church is, what the papacy is, or who John Paul II was, but I knew enough to think that it was odd that anyone would try to kill this priest in white.

On that day in May, the assassination attempt piqued my curiosity, just as the atheist philosopher in summer camp in 1976 had hoped that all things would pique it. The brief glimpse I gained of the Catholic Church from that unlikely source stirred my imagination. Moved by the witness of a man who dedicated his entire life to teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I began a search for understanding that would change my own life, and thus did I learn that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. And now here I am, grateful for these 25 years of priestly ministry, and praying for 25 more in which to strive to fulfill the Great Commission.

Catholics who come to the Church as adults, as I did, are often called converts to distinguish them from the cradle Catholics who grew up in the faith from childhood. That shorthand is useful but can be misleading, because no one is born a Christian. To become a disciple of Jesus Christ and live as a member of his Church, one must be born again by water and the Holy Spirit, and even the baptism of children is a sacrament of faith. For this reason, while most Catholics may not have a fiery conversion of the sort I had, it is still essential that there be constant conversion in the life of every Christian. That in turn requires a decision to receive the Gospel in the obedience of faith and to live in friendship with the Lord Jesus by following him in the Way of the Cross. In that decision is the end of cultural Catholicism and the beginning of evangelical Catholicism, marked by radical conversion, deep fidelity, joyful discipleship, and courageous evangelism. And the people in greatest need of that Word of grace and truth will not hear it unless you, as my college friends did for me nearly four decades ago, bring them to the Lord Jesus.

For vespers this evening, the Scripture lesson is taken from Saint Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians, and today I make the words of the Apostle my own words for you: “We are bound to thank God for you always, beloved brothers in the Lord, because you are the first fruits of those whom God has chosen for salvation, in holiness of spirit and fidelity to truth. He called you through our preaching of the Gospel so that you might achieve the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

 

Jay Scott Newman — Father Jay Scott Newman is the pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, S.C.

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