Tuesday, April 30, 2013

No big post this week....

Other than the prayer/poem of the week, I am afraid I will have to disappoint you all and refrain from writing a long blog post today. We are in the thick of the last two weeks of classes. I have a May Crowning to plan for tomorrow and more grading than is humanly possible. Say a prayer for my sanity! It is possible that I will put up a post sometime before the end of the week.

I salute all of your guardian angels and ask them to show you my special love.

In the meanwhile...

Prayer/Poem of the Week- Prayer to Mary at Night, in the spirit of St. Louis de Montfort

Holy Mary, as I examine my interior practice of the consecration I made to you, I see that there is an undeniable correspondence between those times in which I put aside your sovereignty and those in which I was most exposed to the ravages of sin. Was I not, at those times, also attempting to attain salvation by climbing the arduous path of self-perfection, rather than by seeking the easy way of submission to your Son through You? You know that I was. On the other hand, when I have surrendered everything to you, I have not only been aided by the grace of God to avoid sin, but have even seen my temptations transformed into so many steps upward to union with Christ my Lord. Hear then, O Mother of my soul, Queen of my heart, hear this plea that I, though an unworthy servant, may constantly renew in heart and mind my consecration to you. May love of self and attachment to sin never disrupt the childlike confidence which I place in you this day, knowing that you will present your beloved ones, as you did at the Wedding Feast in Cana, to Christ your Son, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.
Behold, Mary, I am thine and all that I have is thine! (3x)
Then ask your favorite saints to pray for you as well.

God Alone

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Prayer/Poem of the Week- Splendid Star (Stella Splendens)

This coming Saturday, April 27, is in some places the feast of Our Lady of Montserrat, which is a shrine in Spain. It has been an ancient place of pilgrimage for many centuries. Among the various manuscripts which have come down to us in relation to the pilgrimage through the centuries, one of the most fascinating is a book called the Llibre Vermell, a collection of songs, chants, and even dances which were sung during the ascent to the mountain-top shrine.

Probably the most famous of these texts is the dance, "Stella Splendens". My church choir has performed it several times over the years and it has always been one of my favorites to hear and sing.

In any case, I decided a year or so ago that I wanted to be able to sing it with the children I teach at St. John Bosco Academy. The thing is, although I knew that they would like the tune well enough, I wanted them to enjoy it in the same way as I enjoyed it, as an exuberant tune matched with an equally exuberant set of lyrics. My students study Latin, of course, but they aren't quite good enough at it to be able to express themselves with it in rhythmic music.

So, I made a rough paraphrase of the lyrics, condensing them into three verses, which they could sing.

Splendid Star of Montserrat,
Shining like summer's golden ray,
Full of miracles and light,
Hear us, thy people, as we pray.

Verse 1:
We join the joyful chorus
Which passes on this way,
To look and see the wonders
Which crown the Queen of May.
Join us all be rich or poor,
Children, or those of higher state;
Come with us and then return,
Freed from your sins and full of grace.

Verse 2:
The rulers of the nations,
Though proud in pow'r and name,
Will here at Mary's altar
Kneel down and bow for shame.
Crying out they strike their hearts,
Sighing they will confess their sin.
Then with voices full of joy,
Rising, they go, made free again.

Verse 3:
All people now entreat her,
The Queen of every race,
That on this holy mountain,
We all might see her face.
Let us now with song and dance
Climb to the heights and see her shrine,
Begging her, our Mother blest,
Favor with Christ, her Child Divine.

Here's the tune:

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Earth Day: The Green Pope

This Monday is Earth Day. Despite the fact that it is not, as far as I can tell, a very favored holiday in my community, Earth Day brings back fond memories for me. At Hope College, Earth Day was the first day of the year that you could really count on to be Spring, and we used to enjoy it by sitting out on the lawn, enjoying fair-trade coffee brought by Lemonjello's, the local hipster coffee shop, and listening to outdoor performances from local bands.

In any case, as a traditionalist Catholic I have always been fascinated by the relationship between the traditionalist movement as a movement committed to "conserving" the liturgy and the movement to "conserve" natural resources and beauty. These movements seem to me to be perfectly harmonious with one another, since both have their source in the same essential virtue: gratitude. A traditionalist looks at the liturgy that he has received, realizes that what he has received is so beautiful and so multi-layered in meaning and possible applications, and responds with gratitude. He does not seek to manipulate it to his own purposes. To use Heideggerian language, he does not treat the liturgy as a "standing reserve" which needs to be "enframed" into modern applicability (vid. Question Concerning Technology). Rather he treats it rather like the environmentalist treats the earth, as something in essence mysterious.

It seems to me like no coincidence that Pope Benedict XVI, the same pope who gave wider permission for the traditional liturgy, was also one of the most outspoken religious leaders in environmental issues. In his various works, he points out that it is the failure of humanity to depend on God for its subsistence that makes us instrumentalize, and thus destroy, the earth and its resources (Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, ch. 9--I think). I apologize that I don't have the book with me at the moment to give the exact quote.

Likewise, in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict spends several pages explaining a rather developed theology of ecological action on the part of Catholics. He treats it as an example of "inter-generational justice", whereby  Catholics owe to their children a beautiful and bountiful natural world such as they have received. He also points out, however, that a love for the environment helps to develop just between persons. In one of his more moving quotes from the encyclical he says,

"Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society. Nature, especially in our time is so integrated into the dynamics of society and culture that by now it hardly constitutes an independent variable."
At the same time he ties it to traditional Catholic morality. I don't imagine many Greens would agree with him when he says,

"If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation, and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology....The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development."
So much for Benedict as being out of touch with the modern world. The truth is, as he points out, that modernity, with its lust for consumption and the manipulation of the human person, is out of touch with the world itself.

How does this come back to liturgy? In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Benedict situates man's worship of God within the traditional Platonic concepts of reditus and exitus. The exitus of creation, that is, God's "going out", is completed by the reditus of man's worship, the worship of God by a free being. I think it is not too far a leap, even though Benedict never quite comes out and says it, to acknowledge that the liturgy, conceived of as the public worship of God, is therefore the end and purpose of Creation, it is the locus in which man achieves his ultimate purpose, and therefore Creation achieves its ultimate purpose.

Now, if this is the case, it seems to me that liturgy and creation become analogous concepts. Just as we behave towards the earth, as a matter of justice, because the earth is God's natural revelation of himself towards man, we ought to behave towards the liturgy and towards the Holy Scriptures, as God's supernatural revelation of himself through Tradition and Holy Writ. Is the reverse also true? I'm not sure I can exactly put my reasoning into words, but it would seem to me that if we accept that God slowly and mysteriously unfolds to us the full knowledge of himself in supernatural revelation, we ought to expect that he does so in the natural world as well, and that if knowledge of Him is our ultimate goal, we must respect the mysterious nature of this unfolding and not seek merely to exploit it to our own purposes. In other words, we must seek to uncover the beauty of the liturgy and the beauty of the earth, not merely to make it more useful to our purposes, which our fallen nature corrupts. We must seek to understand its essence, not "enframe" it.

Well, this is just my initial foray into this line of thought. Perhaps others who have spent more time researching these topics would be able to find even better references and respond to some of my intuitions on the subject.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Reflections of a New Catholic Teacher

It happens fairly often, I think, that converts to the Catholic faith, such as myself, who tend to be fairly well-educated people who have thought deeply about religion, get recruited as teachers in Catholic schools or PRE programs. It makes sense, to a certain extent, because they have undergone formal instruction in the fundamental truths of the faith and they are usually excited about it and ready to share it with others. However, as I tell my friends, if someone is a young and eager convert, they should NOT under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES undertake the catechesis of youth who are primarily from Catholic families.

The reason for this is because cradle Catholic children are, in my opinion, the most scandalous creatures in existence. Even if they have received impeccable religious education, the convert finds himself confronted with a group of creatures who, having been cleansed, as we believe, from original sin and nourished with the spiritual food of the Blessed Sacrament, nonetheless tend either to behave in exactly the same manner as children from the non-catholic communities he has left behind or, as has been my experience, to behave even worse than their non-catholic counterparts. At best the well-catechized children can recite their prayers, know a few theological definitions, can explain the trinity, have the Ten Commandments memorized, etc., but have absolutely NO clue the reasons for this or that particular belief, nor feel particularly effected, from long habit, by receiving or not receiving the sacraments, except perhaps Confession.

Now, while I do not have any illusions about the fact that my Sunday School experience as a Baptist was excellent in comparison to most, I also know that we, in general, had a sufficient knowledge of the Biblical texts that supported this or that doctrine to be able to make a pretty devastating reply to any would-be papists we might meet--and that by the eighth grade! It helps, of course, that fundamentalism reduces the Christian message to such an easily consumable product, but nonetheless, we were far ahead of our Catholic friends in being able to account for much of what we believed.

So, that is why I tell new Catholics to stay away from Catholic children. It often tries the faith of the new convert, who finds all of his new beliefs, for which he has suffered and with which he has struggled, trivialized or ignored by little urchins pockmarked with original sin. Luckily, before I started, I had spent plenty of time with Catholic families and, in general, had some hold onto reality before jumping into the classroom. Still, I will be the first to admit that I was disheartened by Catholic high school boys who, while they could rattle off a rosary like nobody's business, never seemed to let it sink in to their personal morality or relationship with their teachers, and who, despite their ability to serve at Mass like angels, had never gone to the trouble of actually studying their missal to see what it said.

That being said, I don't think that we can lay the guilt entirely on the shoulders of the children, nor on those of their parents who have tried so hard to bring their children up in the Catholic religion. I think that one of the biggest problems comes in the general methodology used to instruct children in the Catholic faith, which comes in one of two varieties: (1) the 'traditional' approach of giving students a certain set of catechism questions to study and then expecting them to parrot back the answers to you with rapid-fire accuracy and (2) the 'modern' approach of trying to teach little bits and pieces of the Catholic faith while removing all the traditional doctrinal content and replacing it with so many variations of "Jesus loves you!" Both of these methods, in my opinion, have the same failing: they underestimate the capacity of children for profound religious sentiments. This is because, I think, in the former case, the instructor is afraid that he cannot assess, content-wise, the religious sentiments of children, and in the latter case, because the instructor himself has no truly profound religious sentiments.

I don't pretend to have all the answers. When I was working with a group of college-aged Catholics, all of whom were brought up in the faith, I often discussed the question with them, trying to get them to analyze their experiences and bring out their deep misgivings about the Catholic faith in a group-discussion format. I noticed that there were a few things that seemed to come up over and over again.

First, most of them seemed to have never had an experience of "discovering" the Catholic faith. For them it was always a given. The process, then of maturing, which is really a process of testing and stretching things that are "given" then becomes a process of rebelling against their "given" faith. Although many of them never actually reject the beliefs themselves, they become callous to them and marginalize them to Church and family life, although oftentimes Church life is so marginalized that it eventually gets snuffed out too.

My suggestion? Generally I would say that we need to spend more time at the beginning of catechesis making students familiar with the stories and poetry of our faith. Focus on the lives of Christ and Mary, the history of salvation, the meaning and texts of the liturgy, the musical tradition of Gregorian Chant, rather than on dogma. In other words, give them all the stuff of the faith and let them play with it, never making it simplistic or watered down, long before you didactically hand down to them the official formulas of the Catholic faith. I have had great experiences in my Religion class having the students look up the important texts from the Bible and discussing them with an eye to the Catholic interpretation; generally they can remember the stories long after they forget the answers to their catechism questions.

I think that another aspect of this is setting. It simply does not take a whole academic school year to cover Baltimore no. 1 or the Penny Catechism. The whole thing, cover to cover, can be taught content-wise in a few weeks over the summer, if students spend the time on it. And perhaps this would be the better way to ensure that children see the faith as something that is holy and exceptional, if rather than being incorporated into the ordinary course of school work or Sunday school programs, they instead went to summer camps where, mixed with games, solemn liturgies, and outdoor activities away from home, they intensively studied the key texts of our Catholic faith. I envision something like what Vacation Bible School used to be when I was a small child in a Baptist congregation, but whose function has gradually been turned over to residential Church Camps.

Of course, many cradle Catholics love to carry on and on about the way their devout parents browbeat them into believing or doing this and that, and many of them tie all their notions of prayer or religious study to some fond, or perhaps traumatic, memory of their parents or home life. This is a complicated issue. On the one hand, it is good to associate one's family with one's religious life, and clearly it is the intention of the Church for one to make the family home a center of prayer and religious virtues. On the other, no person, even a mother or father, can have faith for someone else. Each person must have that desert experience of conversion and temptation; every person must work out their salvation with fear and trembling. My fear is always that parents try, in their good intentions, to preserve their children from that fear and that trembling and, thereby, deny their children the experience of testing and doubt that is needed to refine a person's faith.

Lately, I have been thinking that a certain secularism is healthy in the Catholic family home. Sure, prayer has its place, but rather than compelling children to participate in so many Catholic devotions and so forth in the home, simply taking time to pray to God before meals, before trips, or on important occasions, such as birthdays and funerals and so forth, seems to me to be more in keeping with the individual character of faith. It is true that Catholicism holds that faith is essentially shared with others, but it is with others as brothers and sisters in Christ, not as natural or biological parents.

On the other hand, religious experience, in order to be shared by the children equally with the parents, needs to have a certain "otherness" to it. That is why I think it would be best for religious education programs, particularly those that have to do with sacramental preparation, to be more intensive and to take place at times other than those which are usually taken up with school and family duties. Rather, on ordinary Sundays, I think it would be better for the parish religious ed. programs to be focused on making Catholic children literate in basic apologetics,Sacred Scripture, church history, and liturgy.

I do think that it is important to give children the opportunity to develop their own relationship with God. Some of the most devout people I know were cradle Catholics whose families were always very keen to take the family to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, which requires everyone to just spend time in silence together with God. I like this idea lot: simply giving children an opportunity to be quiet with God and to say such prayers as interest them. It could even take place at home in the evening as a sort of "daily sabbath".

Prayer, it seems to me, is the most common element missing from the religious formation of young Catholic children. Not that many programs do not strive to have the children say prayers, but as Lesson 28 of Baltimore no. 3 tells us, merely reciting formulas "such as a machine might do" does not really amount to praying. True, we must always stick to the concrete, and formulas are often helpful for beginners, but too often, for lack of creativity, we often find ourselves merely reciting 'vain repetitions' as if saying more prayers meant that God heard us more, which is fundamentally untrue. It is likewise untrue for children.

One of the things I think I would like to see is a religious education program that taught the segments of the Catechism backwards, starting with the Lord's Prayer and prayer, both mental and vocal, public and private, as the foundation, then proceeding to the study of the Ten Commandments,  the Sacraments, and the Creed. It seems to me that this might be more effective in inculcating the need to constantly tend to one's relationship with God, even outside of school and the family.

I apologize if any of this seems overly judgmental or harsh about the nature of Catholic families. I have to confess my general ignorance about such things. I am only writing as someone who sees the effects of various family situations, and the general indifference of many children to spiritual matters. I am writing mostly to those who undertake the religious education of young children; parents have to work out their own solutions.

Prayer/Poem of the Week - A Prayer for my Community of Faith

So, every week I am hoping to write two posts. One will be a prayer or poem that either I have written or someone else has written, but which is especially meaningful to me. The other will be an opinion piece.

If the prayer is unattributed, it means that it's original. And no, I don't care one bit if you steal, re-post, or reproduce it.  I have had it written in my personal "Book of Hours" for a while now. The reference at the beginning is to an opinion of mine and many Church fathers that Mary did not have the same degree of pain in childbirth, since she was free of original sin. I find it to be helpful in my prayers and meditations, but it is not the established dogma of the Church...yet. You can feel free to agree or disagree.

O Mary, because you were free of original sin you were spared the usual pain of childbirth, but what terrible pain, what ultimate suffering you experienced at the birth of the Church on the Cross! No one can comprehend your pain, no one can conceive your depth of anguish, as you watched Your Son beaten, whipped, and then nailed to the wood of the Cross!

O Mary, Sorrowful Mother, look down on my little part of the Church, this community entrusted to the care of Your priest. How often do we everyday torture the Body of your Son with complaints and murmuring! How often have I spoken when I should have been silent; how often do I speak harshly when I ought to console. And so I ask you, intercede for me with your Son, that we may yet bring forth the Gospel of Christ into the world, even as I am an unworthy vessel to do so. Amen.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Ten Commandments as Taught by Modern America

1. I am the Lord thy God, whom thou hast imprinted on thy money; thou shalt not have any other gods before me...except money.

2. Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord thy God in earnest.

3. Remember the Lord's day, to do thy mowing, lawn work, and other household chores.

4. Blame thy father and mother for all thy ills; for thus thou shalt gain sympathy from others and shew thyself independent.

5. Thou shalt not behold animals being killed for thy food.

6. Thou shalt divorce when thou desirest.

7. Thou shalt cheat the government and thy creditors.

8. Thou shalt not tell the truth bluntly, as if truth existed.

9. Thou shalt not wear clothes that allow thee to go unnoticed.

10. Thou shalt strive to have all that thy neighbor hath.

Friday, April 12, 2013

"Problems" based on the Baltimore Catechism, no. 3- Are you smarter than a fifth-grader?

So, these are some "Problems" that I gave my fifth-graders to work out, based on Lesson 28 of Baltimore Catechism no. 3. No, I don't use Baltimore no. 3 for fifth grade. We are just doing this one lesson from it to reinforce their Baltimore no. 1 lesson on prayer. What do y'all think? Could you pass fifth grade Religion?

 1.Sister Joan says that we can receive grace every day, even if we cannot receive the sacraments every day. How is this true?

 2. Jimmy says that he only says vocal prayers because he doesn’t know how to practice mental prayer. Explain to him a simple way to practice mental prayer.

 3. Calvin Luther, who is not a Catholic, asks you what the most important Catholic prayers are. What do you tell him?

 4. Susan says that she always gets distracted during prayers at school. What are some things that she can do to avoid distractions?

 5. Brother John thinks that he is the holiest monk at Clear Creek because he can say his Breviary the fastest. Explain why he is or is not correct.

 6. You and another boy are doing chores out on the farm. How can you pray even while doing your chores?

7. Sister Perpetua says that we pray to God for rain, because otherwise He will forget that the convent’s garden needs water. What mistake has she made?

8. Tom prayed a novena to get a new water gun for his birthday. When his birthday came, he did not receive a water gun. What is one possible explanation for why God chose not to grant his prayer?

Conversion Story 7.0, continued

Here follows the rest of my lecture....

In the Fall of 2004, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the liberal Lutheran denomination that I had joined only six months prior, was engaged in a heated and momentous struggle between various factions of the denomination. The essence of the debate was whether, first of all, homosexual relations were in fact sinful and, however one decided that question, whether or not homosexuals in a stable sexual relationship with a person of the same gender would be admitted to ordination. Previously, only homosexuals who remained single were permitted to become Lutheran ministers. Around that time, I believe it was in November, the Lutheran Church was having a general assembly of church delegates to decide this very issue.

It has been a few years, so some of the particulars of how this debate was carried out have become a bit fuzzy. I remember that the big controversy going into the assembly was that the faction in favor of ordaining gay individuals simply didn't have the votes to pass any binding decision changing the rules for ordination. I also remember that, prior to the assembly, a list of "discussion questions" was being circulated around the various local churches by the ELCA leadership, encouraging "ongoing dialogue" on this issue. I love politics, so I knew what was up. The plan was to keep the resolution in play even if the assembly voted down the changes, so that eventual passage was virtually assured.

On this issue, I took the standard ELCA middle-of-the-road stance. It was probable, I thought, that the Scriptures condemned extra-marital sexual relationships, even between persons of the same gender, and there was no provision for marriages between people of the same gender. However, my opinion was that, on a personal level, there was no way for a church to judge the guilt of any particular person; rather, as I thought then, each person had to act according to the dictates of their own conscience. As for ordination, it seemed to me that Scripture offered only two acceptable lifestyles for an ordained person: celibacy or marriage to one wife. Neither of these allowed for those who are in homosexual unions. (N.B., I didn't go into this much detail during the original lecture.--Clayton). My views on this have somewhat changed and matured since becoming Catholic and having the benefit of the Catholic tradition of moral theology.

However, whether or not the assembly of church delegates voted for or against ordaining gay individuals was not really the primary source of concern for me. As I followed the coverage of the meetings, I was disheartened to see that the various sides of the debate primarily used political or social arguments to advance their cause, shoving scripture and church teaching aside as almost irrelevant to the question. It also struck me that, however we decided at this point, the position of the church had already shifted from its original doctrine on sexual relationships. We were the church that invented the phrase "Sola Scriptura", but if that was the case, and if the Bible were a sufficient 'rule book' for the Church, why in God's name could we not decide what to believe and what was right and wrong? Did God intend for the Church to decide orthodoxy by a majority vote? Certainly the Scriptures do not point that way.

At that point, my connection to the Lutheran church was severed. I had started attending the ELCA because I wanted to believe what I wanted to believe. I had gained a conscience and became a Lutheran because I wanted to believe in something. Now I left the Lutheran Church because I realized that that something could not be a path to a close, authentic walk with God. And so, on a cold November afternoon, with about a foot of snow on the ground, I left my computer screen, right after reading the latest on the ELCA general assembly, and walked to St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church to meet with the Catholic priest. I had no idea what conversion would entail, but at this point, I simply knew that only the Catholic Church even claimed to have stable doctrine and a way of determining truth from fiction and I was determined to see it through.

(The rest of the lecture gave some technical details about the process of conversion and explained a bit about the Conclave procedure. I omit it here, because it doesn't really pertain to the story of my journey into the Catholic faith.)

It has now been seven and a half years since that day. Every day of my life, I have some new reason to thank God for my Catholic faith. Every day I find something new and wonderful about Catholicism that helps me to grow closer to God. I ask all of your prayers for final perseverance and for all those who have just made the journey into the Catholic faith last Easter. It has truly been, and continues to be, the greatest journey of my life.

I would be happy to answer any questions that you have at this point.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Conversion Story 7.0- A Convert's Journey Across the Tiber

This last Easter I celebrated the seventh year since I chose to leave the Lutheran Church and become a Roman Catholic. (I always  celebrate it on Easter, because I can never precisely remember the calendar date that I converted, and I do not see why the solar year should get preference over the lunar year anyways.) Since that time, many people have asked me for my conversion story, and, for about as many people as ask, I have given about as many versions of the story, and all of them are true. I tell the story sometimes from the perspective of Divine Providence (as far as I can divine it), relating the various ways that God pointed me in the direction of the Church from my youngest days, almost foretelling my future conversion. Sometimes I tell the story from the point of view of my developing interior life of prayer which, with fits and starts, always led me closer to the spiritual tradition of the Catholic Church, if not always without the admixture of error and misunderstanding on my part.  I also tell the story from the point of view of my developing doctrinal sensibilities as rooted in Sacred Scripture, which, while not the initial steps on the road to Catholicism, ultimately proved to be the decisive ones.  There are so many versions of the same story because, by the time I decided to convert to Catholicism I had a thousand reasons to be Catholic and only one not to be: my own sense of pride.

Recently, I was asked to give a talk to a lovely group of Catholics from Lyon College about my journey. Realizing that discussing the more providential and spiritual aspects of my conversion might seem overly introspective for such a group, I decided to give my lecture more on the concrete ideas that led me to convert. I am reproducing the lecture here, with some embellishment, as best as I can remember it while consulting my notes, recognizing that my treatment of the topics covered is neither exhaustive nor even adequate for a serious scholarly discussion. My lecture was not intended to be either. This is a simple history of MY theological reflections when I was aged 17-19; some of my thinking is more nuanced now than it was, and some of it is less so. Please be charitable. 

Crossing the Tiber: A Convert's Journey

Today, as I watched the coverage of the Conclave, there were very strong feelings that motivated the shaping of my talk today. Eight short years ago, though they seem like a lifetime when you are a freshman in college, I was watching the same scene unfold on national television after the death of John Paul II. At that point, I had already decided to convert to the Catholic faith but, because of the RCIA schedule at the local parish, I was not permitted to start my instruction until the next Fall. 

At the time, I  was struck by the solemnity and grandeur of the moment, a moment which was being carefully watched by all the national media, whether religious or not. The thing that kept running through my mind the whole time was, "Baptists (the faith I was raised with) have nothing like this. Lutherans (the faith that I had chosen for myself not six months earlier) have nothing like this." What a striking thing that the head of this one Church should get so much attention. Sure, the election of the President of the Southern Baptist Convention gets a blurb in the local papers, but nothing like this, and Lutherans are almost invisible. 

One day later, and I, the mainline Lutheran boy trying to be Catholic, watched with absolute joy as the announcement was made the Joseph Ratzinger would be Pope Benedict XVI. I liked this guy. His book, "Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith" was one of the first Catholic religious works that I had really devoured on my own. It had given me the first theologically sound explanation of the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church that I had ever thought reasonable, and I already knew that he was a friend of more traditional liturgy, which I was already involved in. Pope Benedict was my first pope, and I was very happy about that. 

Let me give you a little of my background. 

I was born right here in Batesville, AR; I grew up about forty-five minutes north of here in the thriving metropolis of Ash Flat. My mother was a devout Baptist. My father had been raised Church of Christ and was a devout...golfer. At first there was a compromise between Baptist and Church of Christ, where I would to the Baptist Church one week and the Church of Christ the next week, but at seven I decided to give my life to God (a time when Baptists say that they are "saved") and become a member of Spring River Baptist Church. I was baptized a week later. Although to Catholics it may seem rather old for Baptism and rather young for a life-changing conversion, in the Baptist Church I was considered VERY young, almost too young, for baptism. I know, however, what I did and what I felt, and ever since I have been thoroughly convinced that those Catholics who either (1) deny that children can have profound spiritual experiences or (2) deny that children have the intellects both to earn merit and commit mortal sin have no idea of children's capacity. 

In the Baptist Church, my mama was my Sunday School teacher for most of my adolescent life. She was a very capable teacher and I credit her with both my knowledge of and love for the Scriptures. She very faithfully taught me what I would consider the key features of the Baptist version of Christianity, the main points of which are as follows: 
(1) The Bible is the written Word of God and the only rule of faith for Christians. 
(2) There are two ordinances- baptism and the Lord's Supper- and both of them are merely symbols of our relationship with God.
(3)"Once saved, always saved"- meaning that once one repents of their sin, believes in the Lord Jesus and in his death and resurrection, confessing it in a public manner, and commits their life to Him as their Lord and Savior, all their sins-past, present, and future-are wiped away. At that moment one is assured of heaven, even if they should fall for a time. 
(4)Every local church is independent of the other local churches and should be run in a democratic manner. 
(5) Worship is generally non-liturgical and unscripted, unlike Catholic, Lutheran, or Episcopalian services. 

I was Baptist for a long time, so a lot of things happened to me that influenced my thinking, of course, but one of the most profound experiences that I would ever have happened when I was eleven years old and attending Church Camp over the summer. In the evening we would gather to listen to a long, impassioned sermon by the main preacher of the camp, where we would be exhorted to either give our lives to God for the first time or rededicate our lives to him if we were not living as we ought to be. I remember being struck to the core during one of those sermons, which were mostly about the stinging fires of Hell. I realized, while listening to the descriptions of heaven and hell, just how powerful and majestic God truly was and how wonderful the story of salvation was to me. At the end of the sermon, when there was generally some time left open for people to respond to the sermon, I remember walking up and praying, kneeling on the ground and just wanting to be as close to God as I could. When one of the assistant preachers came to talk with me, all I said was, if I recall correctly, "I want to rededicate my life to God and I want to be a preacher." Like I said, those who say that young children cannot have profound religious experiences have no friend in me. 

Now, I was a pretty good student, and because I had every intention, from then on, of becoming a Baptist preacher, particularly a "hellfire and brimstone" preacher like the one I had heard at Church Camp, I tried to learn as much as I could about my faith. I generally read the Bible everyday, sometimes even toting it around with me at school. By the time I was sixteen, however, reading the Bible had lead me into a few doubts regarding the fundamentals of my Baptist faith. 
(1) If the Bible was the only certain way to know God's will, or at least the only rule of faith, why isn't there a list of inspired books actually included in the Bible? How do we know that these are the only Scriptures, and if there is some other way of determining what ought to be included, isn't that at least one rule of faith that is not included in the Bible?
(2) Baptism seems pretty important in the New Testament, to the point that St. Paul says, "Even so, Baptism now saves you...." (Epistle to the Romans) and both Mark and Luke lay it down as a condition for the reception of the Holy Spirit. And why did St. Paul also say to the Corinthians "The cup that we share, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ?" And, in another place, "He who eats and drinks unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of Christ"? How could someone be guilty of profaning something that wasn't there?
(3) If the whole point of Jesus' teaching was to get us saved, why didn't he get to the point faster instead of spending so much time telling us how to live? Essentially, it seemed to me, from most preachers' description of "meat and potatoes" preaching (telling people how to get saved and why) that Jesus was not a "meat and potatoes" preacher. 
(4) If every church is supposed to be democratic and independent, what, for goodness sake, were the apostles, especially St. Paul, doing bossing all the local churches around and telling them to get in line? I can only imagine what would have happened if someone called an "apostle" from the Convention were to try any of that business with Spring River Baptist! Something was missing from the Baptist churches' organization.
(5)If liturgical worship should be considered "vain repetitions", as the King James version of the Bible says, then why did Old Testament prayers contain so many repetitions and scripted prayers. Was Jesus really speaking badly of Jewish prayers, in which he participated so many times? What about the psalm where the phrase, "his mercy endureth forever" is repeated at each verse? How is that, or any other hymn with a refrain, different in substance from a litany?

Around this time, after struggling with these questions for a while, I realized that, while I still wanted to be a preacher, I could no longer in good conscience become a Baptist preacher. 

So, at ages sixteen and seventeen, around the time I became mobile with my first car, I set out on a sort of spiritual journey. I felt sort of...adrift. I used that car to go basically EVERYWHERE to Church. People started recognizing me as the boy who went to a different Church almost every Sunday. I went to Methodist churches, Pentecostal churches, Lutheran churches, other Baptist Churches, and, yes, even a Catholic church. I was looking for that one church that would perfectly fit the list of beliefs that I had drawn up for myself. 

Finally, not finding any church that could match all my beliefs, I gave up and decided to join the one church I had visited that seemed like it would just leave me alone and let me believe what I wanted to believe. It was a Lutheran Church ELCA, the very liberal branch of Lutheranism. It was here that I first became acquainted with liturgical worship and slowly, although I hated it at first, I came to really enjoy it. The pastor, who was a woman (another big no-no in the Baptist Church), had been my piano teacher when I was a little boy. The congregation consisted of fairly well-to-do and well-educated yankees who tried to make me feel "welkom". I loved it and became a member after a couple months of attending services there regularly. 

The funny thing is that the more I drifted in my religious opinions the more I turned to God in regular prayer. From the Lutheran tradition, rooted as it is in a catholic heritage, I slowly tried to bring in more and more liturgical and Catholic elements into my daily prayer life, just to add more content and significance to it. I must have creeped my poor Baptist mother out, chanting away upstairs, lighting candles, and burning incense until a thin haze would escape from my room every time I opened the door. A less trusting mother would have thought I was engaging in different recreations entirely.

Let's fast-forward a bit. A few months after joining my local Lutheran church, I headed off to Hope College, a Calvinist school in Holland, Michigan. While there, I spent some time going to Lutheran churches, but I was still a wanderer at heart and found my way into all sorts of Churches on Sunday morning. I went to a couple Reformed churches, which seemed to me like the most mind-numbingly dull service ever conceived by the human mind (all the length of a Baptist service but with none of the passion); I went to college chapel three times a week and on Sunday evening like most Hope College freshmen of any religious inclination. (For those who think that the number of times I went to chapel seems incredible, I would add that every chapel service, which was entirely voluntary, was generally standing-room only in a Church that could easily hold a thousand students. True, there were 2,800 students at Hope, but for a weekday service most preachers would consider that a pretty good turnout, and on the weekends many students went to local churches or went back home.) I also went to the Catholic Church nearby on several occasions, and I was now pretty comfortable with the way the Mass worked and was able to fully participate in it (except for receiving communion, of course). 

As I said, I was still a wanderer, looking for just the right church to fit my needs. However, by this time, I began to realize just how prideful the process had become for me. Should I really be looking for the Church that matches my beliefs, or should I, instead, try to find the Church which has the most authority to tell ME what I ought to believe? If I could answer that question, then whatever might be my own opinions on this or that doctrinal matter, I ought to be prepared to submit to whomever the search might turn up as the most authoritative church. 

The question, then, was this: "Did the Lutheran church have authority from Christ to tell me what I ought to believe? Did they even claim to have this authority, as the early apostles did?"