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When Being Catholic Means Losing Everything You Love

TIM DRAKE

Clergy conversions to the Catholic faith are no picnic.

Clergy conversions to the Catholic faith are no picnic.

Marcus Grodi, president of the Coming Home Network and a former Presbyterian pastor, tells the story of a 59-year-old former Baptist pastor in Texas who converted to the Catholic faith.

"Unable to find any work that would use his skills, he now works as a greeter at a Wal-Mart. The Coming Home Network exists because things like this happen."

Such examples demonstrate the many obstacles that clergy converts must overcome. But while the journey is fraught with challenges, those who have made it offer hope: What is lost, they say, is nothing compared to what is gained.

After 18 years as a Presbyterian minister, Dr. Kenneth Howell's first hurdles were theological. "Following an in-depth study on the Eucharist," said Howell, "I realized that the early Church fathers unanimously held that it was the Body and Blood of Christ."

That realization, coupled with discoveries about the nature of the priesthood and Christian unity, led Howell to embrace Catholicism. However, because of practical difficulties, it would be another four years before he converted.

"Conversion," noted Grodi, "has a profound impact upon an individual's vocation, marriage, family, and friendships. For many, all they have ever done is serve as a minister. What will they do now? How will they use their talents and gifts? How will they provide for their family? Did their ordination mean anything?"

Grodi said that the lack of understanding among family and friends is a major hurdle. "The person on the journey is receiving important information that those around them cannot 'hear' because they are still deafened by their ignorance and prejudice," explained Grodi. "Because their spouse, their children, or their parishioners spend virtually no time studying the Catholic issues, they do not understand what the inquirer sees."

Naturally, for many, this gap leads to marital difficulties. "One of the greatest practical difficulties," agreed Howell, "was not being united with my wife in our walk of faith. After years of prayer and discussion, I felt I had a moral responsibility to enter the Church, but she could not bring herself to do so because she did not completely embrace it."

In addition to struggles with theology and personal relations, Howell also faced vocational challenges. "I had been teaching at a Presbyterian seminary for seven years. Each year we were required to sign a statement of faith in agreement with the confessional standards of the Presbyterian Church. Eventually, I was unable to do so and had to leave the seminary," said Howell.

What Howell planned as a two-year sabbatical turned into four years of uncertainty. "They were the most difficult years of my life," explained Howell. "We had three teenagers and I was trying to piece together an income. Yet, through it all, God provided beautifully."

HOW TO SERVE?

Some converts, such as Larry and Joetta Lewis, are finding innovative ways to serve. "I spent my entire life jumping through Protestant hoops," said Larry, who spent more than 30 years as a Protestant minister. "Your self-worth is wrapped up in what you do. I became a Protestant minister because I heard God's call in my life. Moving from one world into another, it can be difficult to figure out how you can be faithful to the call God placed on your heart and how you can fit within the Catholic Church."

Lewis' conversion also posed a challenge to his family relationships. "My father was an Assembly of God minister," explained Lewis. "My conversion was extremely difficult for my father. He said it was much like losing a son. My father's friends viewed him as a failure because his son was now a part of the 'Whore of Babylon.'"

Now, though, Lewis says that his father is one of his biggest supporters. "There have been tremendous struggles, but I've never once felt that our decision was wrong," he commented.

In order to make use of their ministry experience, Larry and his wife Joetta formed One Body, an apostolate calling Catholics to practice their faith more fully and share in the new evangelization.

"We're trying to bring non-practicing Catholics back home and share the Catholic faith with Protestants," said Joetta.

The couple is in the process of relocating their center of evangelization from Oklahoma to Florida. To date, they have produced video and audio materials and presented their story to more than 300,000 people throughout Europe and the United States.

CONTINUING CHALLENGES

According to Noah Lett, originally a Lutheran pastor in New York, the difficulties do not cease once one has become Catholic and found employment. "When you come into the Church as a convert," said Lett, "there are other obstacles.

"You carry with you your Protestant habits of mind. You don't have all the Catholic "street" knowledge and you oftentimes still speak with an accent."

Lett has also found that it is not uncommon for a pastor or an organization to look upon a convert as someone who might be willing to help transform the traditional Catholic Mass into something more Protestant. Said Lett, "That is taking the Church in a direction that I don't find much comfort in. Why would I want to return to the place where I came from? If I had wanted that I could have stayed where I was at."

That attitude is typical of clergy converts, Grodi says. "Ninety-nine percent of clergy converts are coming into the Church because they love it," he said. They aren't coming in to change the Church."

Lett warns that there is also the tendency to feel as if you are valued only for your "story," rather than being valued for what you can do. "As a clergy convert especially, you want to find ways that you can help, but you don't know how," he added.

Like many others, Lett has found help through the Coming Home Network in fact, his current position as a theological researcher with EWTN came about through his relationship with Grodi.

SUPPORT IN THE JOURNEY

Grodi founded the Ohio-based network in 1996. Today it has more than 8,000 members.

"Our goal is not evangelization," Grodi told the Register, "but to link converts to those considering the faith for the purposes of fellowship, encouragement, prayer, and support."

The network also provides resources, a job bank, and limited financial assistance to clergy converts who face financial problems because of their conversion.

The foundation of the Coming Home Network coincided with Dr. Howell's journey into the Church. Grodi and Howell had met three years prior at a conference, and Grodi tapped Howell to work for the Coming Home Network.

For the next two years, Howell answered inquirer's questions and helped others in their journey. But his real calling was to academia, and in 1998 he was offered a position as director of the Institute for Catholic Thought at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he has been since.

"I am deeply grateful for the support of the Coming Home Network," commented Howell. "It made me realize that I wasn't a lone ranger.

"It gave me the real sense of belonging to a movement. We feel supported by others that are on the journey."

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Tim Drake. "When Being Catholic Means Losing Everything You Love." National Catholic Register. (February 11-17, 2001).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.

THE AUTHOR

Tim Drake is features correspondent with the National Catholic Register

Copyright 2001 National Catholic Register

 

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