The election of Pope Francis I has the world’s attention. It is fascinating to read the array of perspectives. Political pundits and cultural exegetes, with more or less knowledge of Catholicism, have expressed their opinions concerning the meaning and future prospects of this pope. But what about former Catholics, those of us who were raised Catholic and now identify with evangelical Protestantism? What are we saying? I can’t speak for others, but I’ll tell you what is on my mind.
My Upbringing in Catholicism
Hardly a week goes by in which I don’t receive an email from a Catholic reader of my blog expressing that he or she is praying for me to “come home” to the Catholic Church. On the whole, I find them to be incredibly genuine and therefore it is easy for me to give a sincere “thank you.” Over the last week, as I have participated in several interviews about the conclave and papal selection, my inbox has seen many such appeals. In what follows I would like to share with my Catholic friends the fundamental reason why I am an evangelical Protestant.
To start with, I should say that my experience growing up Catholic was exceedingly positive. Owing largely to the ministry of our parish priest, Monsignor Tom, I grew to love the Catholic tradition. I loved the grandeur of the sanctuary with its carved wood, arched windows, and stained glass. I loved the deep, resonate amalgam of voices confessing the Nicene Creed and the honesty and humility expressed in the kyrie: “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.” I loved simple things, like braiding cruciform-shaped palm leaves for Easter.
Oh, what I wouldn’t give for one more Knights of Columbus dinner, with trays of pasta fra diavolo, risotto parmigiano, and pignoli nut cookies prepared by my uncles. These were the occasions in which boys became men, learning how to eat for God’s glory.
I vividly recall our confirmation retreat at the nearby Cenacle. In the tranquil surrounding of a Marian grotto we learned stories of heroic saints like Perpetua and Felicity, martyrs who stared down lions in the name of Christ. Dominick, my best friend, suggested that I choose Saint Jude as my personal saint since Jude was the Saint of “lost causes.” Despite our juvenile banter, we were challenged to be courageous for God.
I enjoyed watching reruns of Archbishop Fulton Sheen with his long flowing cape and clever quips, marveled during Lent at the seemingly endless number of recipes we had for preparing tuna fish, and took great pleasure in walking to the altar with my family during Mass to present the gifts of wine and bread. This was my identity—a member of the Catholic Church—and I loved it.
But I had to leave.
Why an Evangelical Protestant?
Having written an entire volume on the reasons why I (and other Catholics) have decided to leave the Catholic Church for Protestant pastures—my book Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic—I will not retell my story here. Instead, I would like to put my finger on the fundamental reason why Rome is not my religious home. The leading edge of this reason is perhaps best expressed by John Bunyan in chapter three of his Pilgrim’s Progress. It is the climactic point when the faithful protagonist of his story, “Christian,” comes to the cross of Jesus and has his burden of guilt removed once and for all.
Christian ran till he came to a hill; upon it stood a cross, and a little below was a tomb. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up to the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the tomb, where it fell in, and I saw it no more. Then said Christian with a happy heart, “He hath given me rest by His sorrow, and life by His death.” Then he stood still awhile to look and wonder; for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked, therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the water down his cheeks.
In my humble opinion, the above vision is the centerpiece of evangelical Protestantism. Through the preaching of the gospel, God removes the burden of guilt and shame from our shoulders and sends it into the grave, where it disappears, never to be seen again. As far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sins from us. And moving toward the Celestial City from one’s initial encounter of the cross, Christian and all who share his name do so as children of God whose identities are permanently marked by this salvation. Precisely because we have died to self and now live anew in our resurrected Lord, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Such assurance is God’s gift to his children and serves as the driving force of our lives.
This lesson came into focus for me last month. A buddy invited me to his home to talk with his Catholic colleague who is struggling with religious guilt, feeling that he is never quite acceptable to the Father. This colleague described his experience in his Catholic parish as “salvation on probation,” a relationship with God that depended upon his ability to observe the precepts of the church (i.e., abstaining from meat on Lenten Fridays, holy days of obligation, auricular confession). Therefore, despite his best efforts, our friend bemoaned the fact that it was only a matter of time before he fell short of the church’s expectations and thus lost his eternal hope.
In response to our friend, I asked whether he had children. With great enthusiasm he proceeded to explain how much he enjoys his kids, attending all of their basketball games, going on vacations, and delighting in conversation about their future hopes and dreams. “Do they ever disappoint you,” I asked. “Of course; they are sinners like their mother,” he said with a smile. I then asked, “And when that happens, does it potentially terminate your relationship? Are they in jeopardy of losing their status as your children and being rejected from your family?” “You mean like a ‘mortal’ sin,” he responded? I could see he was starting to get my point. A long pause followed and finally our friend looked up with eyes full of tears and confessed, “I guess I’m secure as a child of God.”
My Current Relationship to Catholicism
I light of such evangelical Protestant commitments, is there any sense in which I appreciate Catholicism today? Let me answer the question like this. Most people who come from a Catholic background will probably identify with my sentiment, while those who weren’t raised Catholic probably won’t. It’s the kind of affection you have for that eccentric cousin whom you see once a year at Christmas. Despite your common upbringing, the two of you are now entirely different. He runs marathons, TiVo’s professional wrestling, enjoys dancing the polka, and somehow always manages to perform his Bob Dylan impersonation when the family is assembled. However, as first cousins, you have a deep, abiding affection for one another. Despite your differences, you share a common history that reaches back to your earliest memories, on the basis of which you possess a relationship that is deeper and richer than words can express. So it is for many of us who were raised Catholic. We disagree with much of Catholic faith, but these differences can’t erase the positive, Christ-honoring memories which we continue to cherish.
This is where my pursuit of Christ has led. I identify with the evangelical Protestant tradition because I believe that its approach to biblical authority and the gospel best reflects the will of God as revealed in Scripture. Insofar as the term “evangelical” describes such a person, despite its negative connotations and flaws, I hope to live accordingly, comporting myself and relating to others—including my Catholic family and friends—with the character of Christ. And I hope that what you read from this blog will serve you toward that end.