Thursday, August 2, 2012

Answering the Prayer of Jesus, or Why I am a Catholic Christian

My first encounter with Catholicism that I can remember occurred in 1976 or 1977 when I was a first-year seminary student in Jackson, Mississippi. I lived with my wife and young daughter in downtown Jackson, just a few blocks from a Catholic church. One day I stopped at the church to go inside to pray. Over the door of this church were the words taken from John 10: “there will be one flock, and one shepherd.” This witness to our Lord's intention for the unity of His Church was written on my heart that day.

Over the years I came to be impressed with the expectation of unity found throughout the New Testament. The apostle Paul declares that there is “one body and one spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling. One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” We are admonished to “maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” Paul rebuked the Corinthians for their factionalism, when they were saying “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas.” I came to see that in protestantism we were in effect saying “I am of Calvin, I am of Luther, I am of Cranmer.” The works of the flesh (Galatians 5) include “dissension” and “party spirit.'” So there is much to condemn disunity. But I return again to the Gospel of John for the most convicting passage concerning the unity of the church. In John 17 is recorded the prayer of our Lord on the night before his crucifixion. As Jesus pours out his heart to the Father, he prays for his disciples, and for those who will believe in him because of their testimony, “that they all may be one...that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them....”

Surely it was and is our Lord's desire that there be only one Church.

Over the years I confessed the Christian faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. In that creed we declare, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” For years I was somewhat uncomfortable saying this, though I found justification in the usual protestant apologetic that the unity of the church is an invisible, spiritual unity. But I came to see that an invisible unity surely could not be the intention of our Lord in his prayer in John 17. The unity Christ prays for is a unity that can be seen, a unity that bears witness to the love of God. And in the 4th century as the Creed was being adopted, the fathers set this forth as a statement against the heresies and schisms of the day, and declaring that the true church had always been one church, and to be outside of that church was to be outside the ark of God's salvation.

And so seeking more conformity to the Nicene Creed, I did endeavor to live a more catholic faith and to pursue unity with other believers. I moved from Presbyterianism to what seemed a more catholic expression of the faith in the Reformed Episcopal Church. I found this Anglican style of Christianity in the writings of C. S. Lewis. The idea of “Mere Christianity,” was very appealing. I followed Lewis in desiring to emphasize the things all Christians, protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, have in common, while trying not to focus on those issues that divide. I embraced Lewis' analogy of the large house with many rooms. The guests in the house naturally find affinity with others of like mind and taste in the various rooms—the rooms corresponding to the various denominations. In those different rooms we find friendship, enjoy conversation, and have our meals perhaps. But the problem with this illustration is that the Church is not a mere social gathering, a clubhouse, or a dinner party at a grand English estate. The Church gathers to worship the one true God. It is the gathering at court of the people of the kingdom in the presence of the King. And while some things that divide Christians are indeed trivial, the matters that form denominations are usually not. These matters are not simply walls of a room, or the atmosphere or d├ęcor therein. It is rather questions about the nature of the King and His Kingdom; questions about the King's plans and purposes and the laws governing that kingdom. They are questions about how to live as a faithful subject of the King.

Democratic egalitarianism is a stumbling block to understanding the Kingdom of God. It is difficult for Americans to accept that the Kingdom of God is not a democracy. Kingdoms are governed from the top. Laws are established by the king, not voted on by the citizens. Kingdoms are not ruled by a consensus or an ever-changing majority opinion. I began to wonder then, “if our Lord desires for the Church to be one, how can this be possible?” I came to believe that if our Lord desired that unity, then surely our Lord would give us a method or mechanism for that unity to be attained. As a protestant, I said that our Lord gave us the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit to “guide us into all the truth.” I affirmed that the Scriptures contain the “deposit of faith” and that by studying them, with the guidance of the Spirit, we could know all truth necessary for salvation and the good order of the church. But then, if that is so, why is the church in such disarray? Why are there thousands of denominations? We could simply say, “because of human sin.” But isn't it more than that? Isn't the principle of sola scriptura itself the problem? A former evangelical, Christian Smith, argues that the protestant application of sola scriptura has resulted in The Bible Made Impossible, to quote the title of his recent book. It seems to me that sola scriptura in practice means that every Bible reader is his own interpreter, her own authority, his own pope.

So I came to a point where I could no longer believe that it was our Lord's intention, or the practice of the apostles or the early Church, to simply turn disciples loose with the Scriptures and the Spirit, without an authoritative tradition of interpretation to guide them in the Way.

In considering what would be necessary for the Church to have unity, I came to see our Lord's teaching about the Kingdom of God in a new light. I noticed again the several parables wherein a lord of the estate goes away for a time, leaving others in charge. And then I considered the story of Jesus and his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, told in Matthew 16. In the impressive surroundings of this new imperial city, Jesus affirms his own Lordship, over against the kingdoms of the world. When the disciple Simon Bar-Jona speaks the truth of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, our Lord reveals that Simon is Rock (Petros or Peter) and that on this Rock the church would be built. Simon is given the keys of the kingdom-- in other words, he is appointed as that steward left in charge of his master's possessions while the master goes on the long journey.

It is surely then no accident that throughout the gospels and through the first half of the book of Acts, the role of Simon Peter is so prominent. It seems clear that Peter has a role of preeminence among the apostles. Was Peter only a “first among equals?” It seems to me that one may well answer “yes and no.” There does seem to be an equality in calling as apostles; others, such as Paul, could act in apostolic ministry with authority similar to Peter's. But in other respects he seems to exercise a unique role, perhaps following the directives of our Lord in Luke 22 (strengthen your brethren) and John 21 (“feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep”), and shown in his actions in the inclusion of the Gentiles (using the keys to open the door to the Church) in Acts 10-15.

If then our Lord gave to Peter a unique role as his steward for the kingdom, surely this role would need to continue following Peter's death. Following the example of the replacement of Judas by Matthias, “let another his office take,” then it would be most reasonable that Peter's office would be filled by another. And of course this is what did happen, according to the writings of the early church fathers.

In seeing these things in the Scriptures and the early church fathers, it became more and more certain to me that our Lord did intend one visible Church, one organizational structure to further his Kingdom on the earth. And then I had to ask the question, if this is so, where is that Church now? The only reasonable conclusion for me seemed to be the Catholic Church with the bishop of Rome filling the office first given by our Lord to Simon Peter.

There is much more that happened along the way of my conversion. But perhaps this is enough to bear witness to those who may read it, and to at least raise the question in your mind: “what am I doing to answer the prayer of Jesus?” Could it be that whereas all Christian churches have truth, there may still be one church that is most fully true? Could it be that while many Christian churches have much to commend them, all these churches are in fact separated in schism from the one church established by our Lord? And could it be that while the Catholic church is certainly not perfect, it will never be perfect so long as the protestant schism remains? It is my plea that those who read this may prayerfully consider that their part in answering the prayer of Jesus may be simply to come home.


  1. I agree, Edward, and you've made a fine argument here. John 17 has meant much to me - ever since I watched a church disintegrate in Miami - and thought, could it literally be true that it will take our ONENESS for the world to believe? Unbelievers quite often cite our dissension as a primary reason for their unbelief. I like that title The Bible Made Impossible.
    The Catholic Church may never be perfect, this side of heaven, but I think that healing the protestant schism might indeed be part of a progress toward perfection. You've said this very well. Rejoices my heart!