Out Of The Kentucky Mountains
Conversion is always unexpected; God's plans for us are rarely identical to our own. Five years ago if someone had suggested to me that I would be a Roman Catholic, I would have told him that he was crazy! I didn't know a single Roman Catholic at the time, but I did know they weren't Christians! I was a committed Evangelical. I was about eight when I first came to have a "personal relationship" with Jesus Christ. The local church began a bus and youth ministry. I was very impressed with the Pastor, Reverend Adams. He was smart and worked with an unwavering dedication to the Gospel, as he understood it. Largely due to his example, by the age of ten, I wanted to be a preacher. Church would be the center of my life through high school. It was where my family worshiped, and where I learned the faith every Sunday morning. It was there that I first tasted my vocation. I first began helping teach and lead youth groups by seventh grade and working at a summer camp in high school. It was through summer camp that I preached my first sermon - the camp director was in charge of filling the pulpit as the church looked for a new minister.
Later on, being admitted to Yale in 1994 came as something of a surprise. I had been uncharacteristically aware of the fact that whatever my talents, I was a big fish in a small pond. However, by the end of senior year I was most happy to change that. While at Yale, the extra-curricular, which would claim most of my time was a conservative debating society, called the Party of the Right (POR). I loved to debate, and was entranced with the POR from the first weekly debate I attended. The topic was "Resolved: that Democracy is not the Best Form of Government."
The POR played a decisive role in my conversion, as it did in at least four others while I was at Yale. Weekly debate was driven by the conflict between Traditionalist Conservatives and Libertarians. The topics, however, were as often philosophical as political, and members usually spent much time together off the debate floor. That time was spent arguing about everything from the balanced budget to the Platonic forms. Most members of the POR sincerely saw the mission of this unique society as to foster true friendship and to encourage members to seek out that, which was true and good.
It was not surprising then that I would look to older members of this organization when I faced my first crisis of faith, namely where would I go to church? I had tried without success to find a Baptist Congregation that was similar to mine in Kentucky. When that didn't work, I looked to the few practicing Protestants in the POR. I ended up going to services with them at St. John's Episcopal. I remained a zealous Evangelical throughout my first months at Yale. However, I was happy to find several Catholics who were willing to argue in the ranks of the POR, and looked forward to being the instrument that God would use to lead them out of the darkness of papist idolatry.
The combination of the experience of church shopping and my arguments with devout and intelligent Catholics led me to consider with great urgency the question of authority in the church and especially in scriptural interpretation. My thoughts on this question were largely shaped by my Episcopalian friends at St. John's, most of whom believed in an idea of Apostolic Succession. I found little resistance in my own mind to the Anglican via media, and soon began to think along those lines myself. It seemed for a brief time to give me a good answer to many of the arguments of my Catholic friends. It offered some promise of an intelligible authority for interpretation, and most importantly it was not Roman Catholicism.
The turning point of my conversion happened near the end of my first semester at Yale. Attending St. John's was wonderful. There was a group of Yalies there with whom I really clicked. And morning services would always give way to afternoons of delightful conversation, first in the parish hall, where we would have tea after services, and then at brunch at Clark's Dairy, which was on the way back to Campus. One of those many conversations over tea stands out in vividly in my mind.
I walked into a civil, but involved, argument between two graduate student friends. Jake was at that time studying to be an Episcopalian Priest at the Yale Divinity School. He too found himself in the Church of Rome within the year. Stewart, a graduate student in history at Yale, is a good southern Protestant, much like I was. The two were arguing about what happens at Holy Communion. In the current Episcopalian tent you could believe just about anything or nothing about the Eucharist, and these two were at the ends of the spectrum. As I walked into the argument, I made only a few comments, knowing myself to be academically inferior to the group. The strange thing was that the comments I made were decisively in Jake's favor.
On my way back to Old Campus, the conversation came back to me very powerfully. I had a kind of silent dialogue with myself that went something like: "What did I say to Jake and Stewart? - I think I said something about the real presence being the most reasonable understanding of the Lord's Supper. Hmm... I think I believe that.... Oh my God, if I believe that I might have to be a Roman Catholic!" While I had argued the question several times before that Sunday, I had never believed for a moment that the Eucharist could really be the Body and Blood of Christ - I don't think I have seriously doubted it since.
Soon after this, my Catholic friends began making more progress. The chief obstacles that would have to be overcome during the rest of my freshman year at Yale were cultural and personal, not really theological. I didn't want to be a Roman Catholic; my people just didn't do that! My family would never understand, and why should they? With the help of several good friends, and with a hunger for the Eucharist, and an attraction to the authority of the Church, the prejudices and personal obstacles fell quickly.
From the time of my reception into the Church in 1996 until now, I have been nearly certain of a calling to the priesthood. A remarkable series of events that led me to the Diocese of Bridgeport, and its house of formation, the St. John Fisher Residence. My first introduction to the Diocese was from a few of the diocesan priests who would come to a church in New Haven to celebrate Latin Mass on occasion. After a weekend retreat with Bishop Edward Egan last summer, I decided to enter the seminary for the Diocese.
In the fall I will begin major seminary at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. In many obvious ways Rome may be about as far from home as a Baptist boy from Kentucky can get. In a less obvious, but far more important sense, I am home.
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