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Evangelical Catholics

Converts to Catholicism are bringing a new zeal to the faith. But just how are they being received?
by Dwight Longenecker | Source:
Rome Sweet Home is the funny title of an amazing autobiography. Setting aside the awful pun, Rome Sweet Home is the story of how a rabid anti-Catholic American Presbyterian pastor and his wife eventually found their spiritual home in the Catholic church.

Scott Hahn was educated at the conservative, evangelical Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachussets. While there he and his friends signed up to a full-blooded anti-Catholic form of Protestantism.

But in his attempt to disprove the Catholic faith Scott studied a bit too much. When he read Catholic Apologetic works he found he couldn´t really answer them. When he read the Apostolic Fathers the problem got worse. He was astounded to find that from the earliest times the Church was clearly Catholic.

Like Newman he found there was no trace in the early church of what he would recognize as the distinguishing marks of Evangelical Protestantism.

So at great personal cost, Scott ´came home to Rome´. Before long a lot of his former classmates were coming too. Gerry Matatics, Marcus Grodi, and many others came from their positions as evangelical pastors, Bible teachers, professors and seminarians.

They came into the Catholic church with great experience and gifts, and in the United States they are having a surprising impact. They have brought a new dimension into the Catholic Church: Catholic orthodoxy combined with evangelical zeal.

American evangelicals have a lot of ´get up and go´ and in true American evangelical style these converts got up and went to the Catholic church.

Once there they have not hesitated to accomplish great things. Scott Hahn now has an international Bible teaching ministry. Through his tapes, books and lectures he reaches thousands--helping Catholics understand the Bible better and helping Evangelicals understand Catholics better.

Another convert, Jeff Cavins, works with Hahn to promote an internet Bible study service for individuals and parishes. Patrick Madrid publishes a modern, relevant magazine of Catholic Apologetics and Evangelism called Envoy. Tim Ryland edits This Rock magazine--a glossy, expertly-designed journal of Catholic apologetics.

In a country where Protestant groups are virulently anti-Catholic these publications help defend and explain the Catholic position.

To provide support for the new wave of converts, Marcus Grodi has established the Coming Home Network-- an organization, which like the St. Barnabas Society in this country [England], offers pastoral and financial help to others on the Path to Rome.

The Coming Home Network helps converts who have sacrificed their livelihood to find jobs. It organizes retreats, publishes a quarterly journal of apologetics and puts enquirers in contact with other converts who have already made the difficult journey from evangelicalism to the fullness of the Catholic faith.

This wave of evangelical converts in the USA have been welcomed into the church with some bewilderment. Liberal Catholics are inclined to distrust them because they consider the converts fundamentalist.

At the same time traditionalist Catholics are suspicious of the former evangelicals´ innate Protestantism. They fit most happily with the charismatic Catholics, but they too are wary because the evangelical converts aren´t especially keen on the Protestant-type worship which charismatic Catholics like.

Marcus Grodi explains why: ´When I was a Protestant minister I spent all my time coming up with new forms of worship which would satisfy my "customers." I don´t want that anymore. Now that I´m a Catholic I don´t want a Catholic form of Protestantism, I want the tried and true rites and forms of Catholic worship.´

This makes the new convert sound like a Catholic fogey or even a Tridentine Mass groupie. But they don´t fit into that pigeon-hole either. It´s true, that the convert from Evangelicalism doesn´t want the groovy worship of Father Folkmass and Sister Sandals, but neither does he want smells, bells and Gregorian chant all the time.

He never knew the pre-Vatican II church so he doesn´t hearken after some Catholic golden age of the 1950s. Neither has he ever been a poncey Anglo-Catholic who pines for the smoke and lace he has given up in becoming a Catholic. The convert from evangelicalism simply wants the timeless Mass expressed in a reverent, yet modern idiom. He also wants the orthodox, apostolic faith taught in a modern, relevant and dynamic style. In other words, he just wants to be Catholic.

The evangelical Catholic converts in the United States are undoubtedly having a large impact; but is it just a blip or could it be the wave of the future? Signs in this country indicate that the same may be about to happen here.

At the St. Barnabas Society we are noticing an increase in convert clergy from Protestant and Evangelical backgrounds. People are crossing the Tiber from the Salvation Army, Anglican Evangelicalism, Church of Scotland and Methodism.

Signs of a new evangelical Catholicism in France also exist in the new religious communities. The Community of the Beatitudes is a religious order founded by a former Protestant pastor. It combines traditional Catholic teaching and worship with evangelical preaching, teaching and social outreach.

The Taizé community has for years now been building a new form of Christian community which embraces the strengths of both Evangelicalism and Catholicism. Youth 2000, Iona Community and the World Youth Day exhibit similar cross overs in style and content.

The reasons for the emergence of this new harmony within Christianity are manifold. On the one hand, wider experiences in education, travel and ecumenism have broken down many of the cultural, ethnic and geographical boundaries between the denominations.

A few generations ago the Polish, Italian and Irish immigrants in England and the USA kept their ethnic and Catholic identities distinct. But now they are increasingly subsumed into their adopted countries and their religion is no longer completely bound with their ethnic identity. In the same way the traditional Protestantism of the English, Germans and Scots is not so bound up with their national identities.

Theological and liturgical post-modernism has allowed people to pick and choose what they believe and how they worship. While subjective relativism is the negative side, the positive aspect of this phenomenon is that people on both sides of the Evangelical-Catholic divide are now less frightened of other forms of worship and are happy to experiment and be open to beliefs and worship practices which would have horrified their parents and grandparents.

So in this country Catholics are keen proponents of the evangelical Alpha course while the trendy evangelical Christianity magazine has articles on Benedictine retreats, Ignatian spirituality and Catholic apologetics. Catholics have embraced Protestant hymns and evangelical jargon while the evangelical Premier radio station has commissioned a series of programmes which explain the Catholic faith according to the Bible.

Meanwhile in the United States, Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists are discovering Advent and Lent, liturgy, candles and stations of the cross. As they are led into Catholicism by the outward forms they are discovering the intrinsic unity of the Catholic faith, or as a Baptist pastor put it when he discovered that the Ash Wednesday ashes were made from burning the Palm Sunday crosses--´Whoa! this Catholic stuff all seems to be connected!´

There are certainly superficial reasons for the new links between Evangelicalism and Catholicism, but former Anglican bishop of London Fr.Graham Leonard--who was himself brought up in an Evangelical home--analysed a deeper foundation for the new alliance in Christendom.

The real divide within the church is no longer between Protestant and Catholic, but ´...between those on the one hand who believe that the Christian Gospel is revealed by God; is to be heard and received, and that its purpose is to enable men and women to obey God in love and through them for creation itself to be redeemed.

On the other hand are those who believe that it can and should be modified and adapted to the cultural and intellectual attitudes and demands of successive generations and indeed originates in them.´ In other words, Evangelicals and Catholics will increasingly converge because they are the only ones who believe in a revealed religion rather than a relative religion.

Ian Ker points out how the most famous former Evangelical--Cardinal Newman, also recognised the ´reality´ of both the Evangelical and Catholic positions. In contrast he thought that Liberalism had abandoned the historic faith, and Anglo-Catholicism was ´unreal´.

The Holy Father has hinted at a new age of Christendom which is about to dawn, and other Christian leaders have suggested that the age of reform is coming to a close. The Evangelical Catholics are a sign of a new kind of church which may emerge from the painful age of reform we have gone through in the last five hundred years.

A new kind of unified Christendom may be sprouting in parallel to the plodding efforts of professional ecumenists. This unified church will be deeply rooted in the past while grappling with the complex problems of the future. It will be Evangelical and fully Catholic at the same time. And if Evangelical can be a synonym for ´Apostolic´ then it will be a church which is truly One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic.

Reprinted with permission from Dwight Longenecker. All rights reserved. Dwight Longenecker is a District Organiser for the St Barnabas Society. His book of conversion stories called ´Path to Rome´ is published on 18 November by Gracewing.

He was brought up in an Evangelical home in the USA, and studied Speech and English at the fundamentalist Bob Jones University before coming to England to prepare for the Anglican ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

He served for ten years in the Anglican ministry as a curate, a chaplain at Cambridge and a country parson. In 1995 he and his family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church.

He now works for the St. Barnabas Society giving assistance to fellow convert clergy.

He also works as a freelance writer and broadcaster. He has written and presented for ITV´s Sunday Live programme, has broadcast on the BBC and local radio.

He writes worship materials for the Redemptorists and has contributed to a large number of religious magazines and papers in the UK, Ireland and the USA, writing on film and theology, Catholic apologetics, Biblical commentary and Catholic culture.

His first book, The Path to Rome was published last Autumn and his second book-Listen My Son, a commentary of the Rule of St Benedict-- was published in February 2000.

Dwight lives with his wife Alison and four children in Chippenham, Wiltshire, England.

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