In my evangelical years, I frankly never came across a Christian who crossed over the faith median and became Catholic. I met many, however, who had gone the other way—Catholics who became evangelicals. Nearly all churches were peppered with them. I thought the flow was going only in one direction. It is common knowledge now that converts to Catholicism are escalating in numbers across the world, many from the clergy ranks of Protestant churches. Stories and books of their paradigm shifts are readily available.
Every journey for Protestants into the Catholic Church is unique. Each comes to the door with a distinctive backpack. Some people initially kick at the door in criticism and argument. Others may knock tentatively to find out what is really behind it. Some make as if to pass by unconcerned but are drawn through the door in spite of themselves.
Yet there is some similarity of progression for most converts that lies just under the surface. Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), a famous late in life convert to Catholicism, wrote brilliantly about what he viewed as three phases of conversion. This seems fairly typical of many converts; I can identify as well. The exception would be those who are truly adversarial and resistant, who would be happy to bring the Church down.
Chesterton writes: “The convert commonly passes through three stages or states of mind. The first stage is when he imagines himself to be entirely detached . . . [like] the young philosopher who feels that he ought to be fair to the Church of Rome. He wishes to do it justice; but chiefly because he sees that it suffers injustice . . . I [Chesterton] had no more idea of becoming a Catholic than of becoming a cannibal. I imagined that I was merely pointing out that justice should be done even to cannibals . . . .
“The second stage is that in which the convert begins to be conscious not only of the falsehood but the truth . . . . It consists in discovering what a very large number of lively and interesting ideas there are in the Catholic philosophy . . . .This process, which may be called ‘discovering the Catholic Church,” is perhaps the most pleasant and straightforward part of the business . . . .It is like discovering a new continent full of strange flowers and fantastic animals, which is at once wild and hospitable . . . .It is these numberless glimpses of great ideas that have been hidden from the convert by the prejudices of his provincial culture, that constitute the adventurous and varied second stage of the conversion. It is, broadly speaking, the stage in which the man is unconsciously trying to be converted . . . .
“The third stage is perhaps . . . the most terrible. It is that in which the man is trying not to be converted . . . . He is filled with a sort of fear . . . . He discovers a strange and alarming fact . . . a truth that Newman and every other convert has probably found in one form or another. It is impossible to be just [fair or unbiased] to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it . . . .
“All steps except the last step, he has taken eagerly on his own account, out of interest in the truth . . . . I for one was never less troubled by doubts than in the last phase, when I was troubled by fears. Before that final delay I had been detached and ready to regard all sorts of doctrines with an open mind . . . . I had no doubts or difficulties just before this point. I had only fears; fears of something that had the finality and simplicity of suicide . . . . It may be that I shall never again have such absolute assurance that the thing is true as I had when I made my last effort to deny it . . . .
“At the last moment of all, the convert often feels as if . . . he is looking through a little crack or crooked hole that seems to grow smaller as he stares at it; but it is an opening that looks towards the Altar. Only, when he has entered the Church, does he find that the Church is much larger inside than it is outside . . . .
“There is generally an interval of intense nervousness . . . . To a certain extent it is a fear which attaches to all sharp and irrevocable decisions; it is suggested in all the old jokes about the shakiness of the bridegroom at the wedding . . . . He wonders whether the whole business is an extraordinarily intelligent and ingenious confidence trick . . . . There is in the last second of time or hair's breadth of space, before the iron leaps to the magnet, an abyss full of all the unfathomable forces of the universe . . . . That anything described as so bad should turn out to be so good is itself a rather arresting process having a savor of something sensational and strange . . . .” (The Catholic Church and Conversion, New York: Macmillan, 1926, 57-66)
The Church which Jesus clearly established as recorded in the Bible, being the destined and prepared home of all mankind, isn't simply a human construct for me to decide for or against by my human reason alone. It is not up to any puny man to come to a conclusion about her claims—such as we might about a new scientific theory. Chesterton’s observations totally resonated with me. He described my journey! The minute I stopped being unjust to the Church, she began drawing me with the supernatural powers of the Holy Spirit.
I take a glance in the rear view mirror. In my case, I first set out to dig for the truth about the Church in order to undermine the decision of a fellow Protestant friend who turned Catholic. A shameful motive I admit, although underlying that, I sincerely wanted to rescue my friend from what I perceived as theological error. In the process, I tried at first to be fair to the Church by investigating her claims firsthand. That was also a matter of pride; I wanted to prove my own ability and reasoning powers. Gradually, after diligent research and prayer, weighing every Catholic doctrine against Scripture with the hope that I would find it defective, I did a turnabout. I started to defend her claims. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I crossed over my personal median. After that, the supernatural magnet of the Holy Spirit began to draw me through the door in spite of myself.
The rest, as they say, is history.
(The above is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of Leona Choy’s book-in-progress JOURNEY TO THE