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A Married Priest?–Part V


Why would a late-middle aged Lutheran Pastor give up his vocation and livelihood, estrange himself from many beloved colleagues, and willfully suffer a breach in communion within his own family in order to enter the Roman Catholic Church? What would so compel his conscience? When I began this series I promised that I would finally get around to that question. But it's hard to give a brief account of so long a struggle. After all, my “conversion” took 30 years! For this reason I often take pity on inquirers, answering in short hand. “Why? – Because I needed a lot more help being a Christian,” or “Because I came to accept the Catholic Church's ecclesial claims,” or “Because, well, a Catholic finally has to be a Catholic.” Here, for any who will not find it too ponderous, I begin a slightly longer account.

From Protestant Sectarianism to Lutheran Sacramental Confessionalism to Roman Catholicism
There are many and varied expressions of “protestantism.” Scattered among thousands of different denominations, protestant Christians can be as different from one another as they are different from Catholics. To answer the question “why Catholic,” I will have to give account of two “moments” of conversion: (1) from a conservative protestant sectarianism to a broad “Catholic” understanding of the Faith shared especially by “high church” Anglicans and Lutherans, (2) to Roman Catholicism as the true center and fullest expression of the Catholic Faith.
My first Christian community was not the Lutheran Church. Both my wife and I were first nurtured in the Faith in a fervent sectarian denomination in the Deep South that called itself simply “the churches of Christ.” In some ways this spiritual environment was typical of much American anti-Catholicism. However, one rather unusual practice made it distinctive: the celebration of the Lord's Supper every Sunday, albeit in a radically non-liturgical manner and as a mere symbol or pious reminder of Christ's saving death. I do not doubt that this practice planted a Catholic “seed.” Other seeds also were planted. The hearts of the people were larger than their theology. And I will never forget the mutual love in the congregations, the passion for studying scripture, the beautiful a cappella singing. Mine was a happy childhood, at church as well as at home. Following in the footsteps of my father and uncles, I began my studies toward the ministry upon entering college. I was later ordained in spite of growing theological tensions—even though I had wandered outside the usual bounds to study at Princeton Theological Seminary rather than at an approved church school.
It was partly to flee increasing conflict with the sectarianism of my church that I accepted an invitation to serve in England. I needed to find ecumenical “space” in which to explore. It was there that I began to be drawn toward a more sacramental and Catholic understanding of the Faith—through the Anglican liturgy, through associations with the Taize community in France, through my studies. Catholic writers influenced me deeply in my search. I went so far as to seek out a Catholic priest for guidance. But I could not get past certain troubling doctrines (the papacy, prayers to the saints, veneration of Mary). At the time it seemed to me that it was the Lutheran tradition, with its high sacramental understanding of the Holy Eucharist, with its loyalty to the historic creeds and its traditional liturgy that offered a way of being Catholic without being Roman Catholic. In 1986, returning to the U.S., I was received into the Lutheran ministry. I understood Lutheranism according to the best Lutheran theologians of the day, as a “confessing movement within the Western Catholic Church.”
My Catholic journey had reached its end, so I thought. In fact, it had only begun; the “pilgrimage” would continue for another twenty years. [To be continued next week]

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