Interview on March 5, 2021, with Jon, who entered the Church in 2009 at age 23.
What is your faith background?
Jon: I was raised in an evangelical Christian home. Like most evangelical churches, what was really stressed was a personal relationship with Christ, knowing him primarily through reading the Gospels and through prayer. We were in non-denominational churches and we were part of this organization called Young Life. The purpose of Young Life is to bring kids who have no exposure to Christ to a personal relationship with Christ. My parents were very active in that and I was also very active in that from the time I was a young kid all the way through high school and college and constantly, outside of church, was also doing Young Life meetings and camping trips where young adults would talk about their personal relationship with Christ. They would share a story from the gospel and talk about how you can convert, how you can come to know Christ in a deeper way.
My goal as a high school student was to become a pastor. I wanted to be a youth pastor, and just basically do the same things that I’d been seeing all these young adults or older adults doing: preaching the gospel to kids. They always presented it in a very attractive, fun way. It was always surrounded by fun games and fun songs and then they would throw the gospel at you in a really welcoming, encouraging way. So, going into college, I wanted to be a pastor. I went to UC Davis and I studied religious studies.
What first attracted you to Catholicism?
Jon: Certain classes at the college were taught by believing Christians so I had a couple of classes on the New Testament or the Gospels that were pretty solid. But I had a lot of other classes that were taught by secular humanists who really didn’t believe anything about the truth of scripture, and just saw it as one of man’s many attempts to explain reality. That kind of exposure was new to me and I didn’t have the toolset as an evangelical to counter any of the arguments about historical criticism or evolution or whatever they were using to say that Christianity isn’t real, it’s not unique, it’s just one of many religions. I didn’t know what to do with that, really. So I was at this point where I still firmly believed, but I was being challenged in a way I had not, and I didn’t know how to answer it.
Then one summer at a Young Life camp I roomed with a Catholic, the one Catholic there, and I roomed with a Protestant who had left Thomas Aquinas College and was thinking about converting to the Church, Josh. He later became my sponsor as I came into the Church. We started talking and he thought about things and had read things and had been exposed to things that I had never been. I was very interested and open because he had a more logical approach. We started talking about philosophy, history, theology in ways that I had never talked about it before. It got me very intrigued. I sensed that there maybe were answers to the secular humanists that I had been hearing at school that I just didn’t know yet. And that there’s another way to think about truth itself, that it’s objective and knowable and that we can come to it in some meaningful way and it doesn’t have to just be experiential. We don’t have to say, “Well, science and education, et cetera, just can’t understand the depths of the gospel.” In my mind, I think they were separated. I started to see that they could be one, one could support the other.
After that I went to Mass and I was really struck by the silence, people kneeling. This wasn’t some super conservative Tridentine parish or anything like that. It was just your run of the mill parish in California. But even there, there was a difference from what I had seen in Christian worship. And I was struck by that.
I started exploring the Protestant faith more while I was continuing to go to Mass regularly. I started reading Martin Luther, John Calvin, getting more into some pretty substantial Christian preachers who were grounded in Luther and Calvin. I was becoming aware of a more intellectual Protestantism that I had not yet been a part of, all the while though going to Mass.
One of the proofs in my mind at that time that I was testing with Protestants in different sects was the teaching on birth control. I started to learn about the consistency of the Catholic Church’s stance on that compared to the other churches’ reasons why they had originally been against it and then how they had changed and how those things were not really related. They had theological reasons for why it was wrong, but then practical reasons for why it started to come into their churches. Seeing the Church’s position on that was a big influence on me and something I was constantly looking at and exploring.
I started reading some more Catholic books: Orthodoxy, by Chesterton, and some of the Scott Hahn books. I picked up this George Weigel book, Letters to a Young Catholic and there were some books in there that he recommended. One of them was Brideshead Revisited.
I was reading those things and becoming more and more convinced, going to Mass, and really, really pushing against people in my life, challenging them with new thoughts that I had never thought before to see what kind of answers they had and not really getting significant answers as to why Protestantism might be right or the Catholic Church might be wrong.
What pushed you over the edge?
Jon: I don’t know that it was one thing. I think it was a combination of things. I started reading some of the church fathers, as well, and hearing their thoughts on what Christian worship was like in the 300s, and then going to Mass and seeing the similarities between the two, and seeing how there’s some real carryover between the Catholic Church and the ancient church and not seeing that same kind of continuity in the Protestant church. Seeing the continuity in doctrine and in practice of liturgy and theology, and my experience at Mass, really appreciating the kneeling, the prayer or the quiet as a way to worship God, as opposed to my experience, which had largely been this emotional form of worship.
Did you explore the Anglican or Orthodox churches?
Jon: I looked into the Anglican church a little, but had a tough time with that just on its founding. I didn’t look much into the Orthodox church. While I was going through this, I was actually meeting this guy who was Catholic, who was converting to the Orthodox Church from Catholicism. He was the one that pointed me to the church fathers and got me reading those. At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to really understand what he was talking about.
Was there anyone in particular who helped you?
Jon: Yeah, Josh. As I would read, we would talk. Another thing that was pretty influential for me was Ayn Rand and her thoughts on truth and seeing objective truth versus subjective truth. That was a novel thought for me at the time. I’d not really thought about it or explored that and that propelled me to actually seek answers and to believe that there were answers to questions. In the background, Josh and I were always kicking these things over, talking about them.
Were there any elements of doctrine that you had particular trouble with?
Jon: Some of the Marian doctrines were challenging and what solved them all for me was just understanding the authority of the magisterium of the popes. Once I accepted those arguments, the other ones were easy to take and to accept. Later on, after my conversion, studying those, I just found truth in them. But at the time, it was just accepting the authority of the Church as the guide through all these things and seeing the authority of the Church as the thing that gives us the scriptures and not vice versa. That was Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy, his response to Calvin and Luther. A lot of his arguments were very compelling.
What does your family think about your conversion?
Jon: My dad left the Church when he was 19 or 20. The faith didn’t seem like it was passed on to him in the way that I understand came to understand the faith. He didn’t leave the same – in his mind – the same church that I was going into. They were very different in our own minds.
There were issues with it. A lot of it had to do with me. I’m a young man, very excited, very passionate about this and certain that there’s an absolute right answer, unable to see why others couldn’t see the same things I saw. So I pushed very hard and challenged them a lot. I think they saw that and thought, “Boy, there’s a lot of emotion in this.” There was concern for me: “Is Jon having a mental health crisis?” But outside of that, I don’t think they cared that much. I was still a Christian. I was going to church all the time. We had a very similar value structure in many ways. On a religious level, I don’t think there was much opposition. Again, that comes down to the way that our family held these truths, which was in a subjective manner. I don’t know to what extent the objective claims I was making would resonate or that they would be able to hear those. But on a subjective personal level, there was some strife as I was coming to understand the world and religion in a new way.
How can Catholics better evangelize?
Jon: The things that drew me to the church are sometimes the things that, in our attempt to reach out to the world, we try to hide or we’re ashamed of. Her authority, her continuity with the past, the mystery and the transcendence of the liturgy, the beauty of music, the goods of confession, the depth of philosophy and the theological understanding of God and the sacraments, all those things that I feel like there’s this attempt to just push off to the side and say, “Jesus really loves ya. He’s here. He really loves ya.” And to leave it at that. And while that’s true, there’s so much depth and richness and texture that the Church has and those are the things that drew me in. If those things are not emphasized or visible, I don’t know what Catholicism adds that the Protestants don’t already have.
Also, my friendship with Josh and my ability to hear everything that he was saying started with friendship first. The friendships and the relationships that we can have with people outside of the Church are very important because that can be a conduit or the means for people to hear these things that they might really latch onto and really love.
California Catholic Daily writer Mary Rose is interviewing young Catholic converts as part of our Inquiring Minds series. If you are a young convert to the Catholic Church and would like to share your story, please contact us.