Saturday, March 29, 2014


Eyes that Fail to See, Ears that Fail to Hear 

Sometimes it isn’t enough: the heavenly liturgy, the beautiful stained-glass windows, the prayers, the gospel readings, the homilies, the candles and incense, the Eucharist... Sometimes no matter how lavish God is in the Catholic mass, it isn’t enough. Spiritual eyes and ears are dulled and the believer cannot see and hear. And so some Catholics leave and become Protestant. As a Catholic convert, my heart grieves at the stories I hear about how cradle Catholics “found Jesus” in Protestantism. It’s not that I don’t want them to have a vibrant relationship with Christ. It is that they often claim to have never heard the gospel at mass and they had to leave in order to be “born-again.” 

I wonder, did they not see the crucifix? Our precious Lord at the moment of His giving His life as an atonement for our sins? Did they not read the prayers or say the Nicene Creed? Did they not hear the words of the priest as he spoke, “This is my body, given for you?”

They heard it. It is impossible to go to mass and not hear it, for the gospel is everywhere said and seen. But their eyes were dulled by the familiarity. Like the never ending rhythm of sunrises and sunsets, repetition lulls us into an apathy that can lead to meaninglessness. That is why Christ warned us to remain awake, even more so as the time nears the end of the age.

This is true in all Christianity, not just Catholicism. It is commonplace for those raised within the Christian covenant to have an extraordinary spiritual experience when in another church. However, former Catholics who joined the Evangelical denomination where they were “born-again,” converted based upon a wrong premise.

Let me begin to defend this statement by defining the doctrinal difference between Catholics and Protestants when it comes to the phrase “born-again.”

What is Being Born-Again?

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, most Evangelicals have taught a person is born-again when, as an adult, he or she has a Holy Spirit-inspired moment and invites Christ to come into his life. The Evangelical looks to that private, internal spiritual experience to prove he has been saved.

For two thousand years, the historical and Biblical teaching has been that a person is joined with Christ in His Passion, death and resurrection at baptism. At baptism a believer is adopted into the New Covenant family of God. (See Matt. 28:19, Mark 16: 16, Act 2: 38; 22: 16, Rom. 6: 3-4, Col. 2: 12, Gal. 3: 27, 1 Peter 3: 21.)

Baptism is not an internal, personal nor subjective experience. It is an objective experience being both public and communal.

And this understanding of being born-again is where Catholics converts misunderstand their spiritual experience in a Protestant church.

The Protestant Church Experience

Protestants realize they are competing with the best entertainment the technological world has to offer. So, in their sincere desire to spread the gospel, they attract audiences by designing the church atmosphere to satisfy the preferences of attendees. Most Evangelical churches have an easy, casual, comfortable environment. Contemporary denominations want people to leave church with an excitement for Christ, so they carefully orchestrate the service to arouse an emotional experience incorporating stimulating contemporary music and passion-packed sermons usually ending with a poignant altar call. 

Contrary to this, mass is not about the preferences of the Catholic. For it is based on the Apostles’ instructions for worship. Its whole focus is on how God desires us to respond in thanksgiving to His freely given salvation. Neither the music, nor homily, nor how anyone sits or stands or speaks is supposed to have anything to do with human preference. Because it is so ancient, the Catholic mass is not casual, and is full of symbolism and rituals that will make no sense unless it has been explained. In a world addicted to entertainment and comfort, Catholics mass can take disciplined concentration.

Awakening in a Protestant Service

Today, Christians often visit other denomination’s Sunday services. Worshipping with believers in a different church can be compared to a vacation. Food tastes better, sunsets are more beautiful on vacation. Because it is different, we pay attention. The new experience can awaken our hearts and minds long desensitized by the familiar. A Catholic who visits an Evangelical service can be overjoyed by the overt emotion. Just as a Fundamentalist escaping the overstimulation of his church can be awed by the rites and reverence of a Catholic mass. The Holy Spirit can use these moments to jump-start our faith, no matter what church or denomination we attend.

Masses normally don’t include personal testimonies. So those baptized as babies can feel deprived when they visit Fundamentalist churches and hear dramatic conversion stories. They want an emotional spiritual experience to confirm the Holy Spirit and God’s grace in their lives. So they may fall to their knees and invite Jesus into their heart.

If a Catholic has a wonderful, illuminating spiritual moment, he may believe the Evangelical who tells him he was just born-again. Yet, Biblically we Catholics should know that these are joyous realizations of what Christ did for us at the Cross, not the moment Jesus came into our hearts, nor were we suddenly born-again. For Christ came into our hearts and we were born-again at baptism.  

Are These Experiences Exclusive to Protestantism? 

Former Catholics often believe that since they had such a pivotal, emotional spiritual experience outside of mass, that the Catholic mass is spiritually inadequate. They may equate their life-changing experience as God’s stamp of approval of the new denomination and that God desires them to convert to the church where their understanding of the love of Christ and the gospel deepened.

Yet, the Holy Spirit has always been active and never exclusive to any group. We have examples of these spiritual awakenings in scripture. A band of musician-prophets playing the harp, tambourine, flute and lyre led King Saul into a frenzy as the Lord possessed him and “turned [Saul] into a different person,” (I Sam.10: 5-7, 9-13).  Another Saul is also recorded to have had a dramatic religious experience on the way to Damascus. 

[S]uddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"  He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do. See Acts 9: 1-8.

Notice that in both of these situations, these men were already chosen by God and part of the old covenant circumcision. The experiences were revelations of a God they already knew. They were not born-again, but were brought illumination. We can also see in the Prodigal son that his “aha!” moment of realizing he needed to return home was as a son, and not to become one. The mystics of the church such as Catherine of Sienna were already born-again when they experienced ecstasies.

If you are baptized you are born-again and the Lord is seeking a deeper and more profound intimacy with you and will bring you to that moment in any way He can. But it is not always where the experience happens that has the most meaning, but when. For God often comes to us when we are the lowest. I have heard many people relate that God reached out to them and they “got saved” when they were high on cocaine or meth. God uses the worst and best moments, any moment we are open to listening to Him to reach out to us. We must be careful not to assume too much about what the experience was or where it was.

When we do have these incredible, life-changing illuminations of God’s love and truth, it is a mistake to consider the experience itself as a sign from God to leave the Catholic Church. A believer entered the eternal covenant, was indelibly sealed and born-again at baptism. The rest is icing on the covenantal cake.

I encourage former Catholics to ponder that the gospel was always in the mass. Perhaps you just did not have eyes to see it. God allowed you to experience a deeper understanding of truth where you were paying attention. And we are incredibly thankful for that. But it is not necessary to give up the Catholic Church because you gave your heart to Christ and had a transforming experience in a Protestant environment. 

Come back and experience afresh the fullness of the gospel in the bells and incense, the stained-glass windows, the ancient rites....and Christ in the Eucharist. For He has always had you in the palm of His Hand, since your were just a wee babe. That is the born-again gospel and that is unmerited grace.

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