As a Protestant
I was a Protestant in my beliefs. I was proud of my Christianity. I listened to Protestant preachers and pastors of my line of thinking daily. I read Protestant books. I went to church every Sunday, and if I couldn't make it to church then I would make up for it by listening to Protestant pastors speak about scripture, salvation, and faith. I read my bible. I had a consistent Protestant prayer life. I associated with Protestant brethren and discussed our shared beliefs with vigor and passion frequently.
I remember the altar call where I dedicated/rededicated my life to Christ. I was the first out of my seat. I remember getting re-baptized at Myrtle Beach on a cloudy October Sunday. I was the first to be submerged.
I was an adamant and faithful follower of the Prosperity Gospel. It's an infant Protestant belief system in the grand history of Christianity, only being arguably a century old at best, and sixty years old at least. But it took my spirit by storm. It was infused into my mentality and my soul. It made me feel, for lack of a better term, powerful. The abilities that preachers like Kenneth Hagan and Kenneth Copeland spoke of relating to prayers, the power of the spoken word over our circumstances, and the mentalities towards success and overcoming obstacles that they fostered in their congregations resonated with me on a deep level.
I also fostered a hatred for Catholicism and the followers of the Church of Rome with intense ferociousness. I labeled those who adhered to the teachings of the Catholic Faith as "negative influences" and I declared them anathema, and seldom associated with old friends, and family, etc. Those around me had similar negative views of Catholics and would even argue that Catholics weren't Christian. I never was in communion with that particular view point though. I recognized Catholics as believing in Christ, but I hated them all the same out of bitterness and spite.
First Round As a Catholic
I was baptized with the indelible mark of Church at St. Monica's Catholic Church in Dallas, TX. You might say there couldn't be a way for me to not be a practicing Catholic, seeing as my name is Austin, a french derivative of Augustine, and being baptized in a church named after his mother.
St. Augustine was the son of St. Monica, who prayed for her son's conversion for 17 straight years, and eventually Augustine became Catholic, and ultimately the great Saint of Hippo that we know of today. To add to this, my mother's own Confirmation saint is St. Monica. God's design is impeccable. I do not want to compare myself to that of the great St. Augustine by any means, but the connections are heartwarming to reflect on nowadays.
I received First Communion and First Reconciliation as a child. Although, it was to my paternal grandmother's Baptist church that I attended more so than my maternal grandparents' Catholic Church. The majority of exposure to Christianity I received as a child was Baptist Christianity, that is until I moved up to North Carolina to live with my mom.
It wasn't until 7th grade that my step-dad and mom started taking my siblings and me to a Catholic Church near where we were then living in North Carolina. I remember the first homily I heard by Msgr. John Williams, previous pastor of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Raleigh. We were sitting near the back, and it was the first homily I ever remember connecting to and feeling the Spirit. It resonated with me how Monsignor brought the Gospel to his congregation with a thoughtful reflection; and taught them with a southern love and charisma, yet also coupled with authority. He was speaking from the heart on what would be vastly considered an uncomfortable topic for most early Sunday conversations: pornography and Catholic sexual ethics. I had been struggling with pornography at that point since the age of 9 years old and it felt like God was starting to open the door to the closet that I was hiding this slaving sin in. Needless to say I was attentive and eager to hear all that he had to say.
I also remember the vast number of altar servers who joyfully served the Mass under Msgr. Williams and Deacon Steve. Their reverence and orderly mannerisms inspired me, so I sought to become one, and by 8th grade I was serving frequently.
I developed a blind passion for Catholicism. I was Confirmed my freshman year of High School but I wouldn't have known how to explain to you any doctrines or beliefs adequately. I only knew how I felt and what I felt was that there was truth to the Church. Though this lack of foundation within reason and only having a one legged balancing act on how the Church made me feel would later be what caused my stumble.
High School (where I met my wife) was a turbulent time for me. On the one hand, my family was becoming more and more traditionally Catholic by going to Latin Mass, etc. and on the other hand I was struggling mentally and caving to my internal struggles emotionally.
My parents divorced when I was two years old. The household split, the substance addictions present in each household, the emotional and physical abuse stemming from those, the legal and familial drama associated with the split households, and the feeling that there was little to no foundation affected me deeply, as it does with most kids of divorced parents. From going back and forth frequently, to the change of schools each year from moves on both sides, it felt unstable to say the least. By the age of 7 I had been molested twice, and leading into the early stages of puberty, these occurrences, coupled with my other experiences, left me with conflictions and confusions and pains. I became a introvert, full of self doubt, self deprecation, and a need for approval and attention. I kept this dark part of my childhood a secret until I was an adult, but the affects became exponential in my teenage years, along with affects from everything else.
High school was a period of depression, anxiety, and much immaturity, but what teenager's experience isn't filled with the latter? Yet, it was also a time where seeds of immense gifts were planted. Primarily in meeting my wife (though we didn't associate back then), meeting my closest friends that I still keep close today, and reading a book called the Lamb's Supper by Scott Hahn. His commentary and experience in coming to the Eucharist, and converting from being a Reformed Christian influenced me more than I realized; for it was this book which haunted me years later as a Protestant. Apart from Hahn aiding me in understanding things more profoundly about the Mass I ultimately found myself still drifting from the desire to serve at the Mass. I felt less vigor for the Faith. I found myself acting reverent for the sake of others' perceptions, though inwardly there was still confusion and a slothfulness in despair. Then came graduation.
The Spiritual Tide Turns
With the changes in life ahead, I was determined to make something of myself to compensate for my interior struggles. I had plans to go to Roanoke College in Virginia to study philosophy and history, but through a turn of events this fell through. I was working, planning on a music career, and trying to secure classes at a community college in order to hopefully be able to reapply to Roanoke the following year. This also fell through. With escalating tensions between my parents and myself over my future, college, goals, jobs, and the like, I decided to try to forge my own path.
I had no car and no license, so I started walking, literally with a backpack out my parents front door, with no particular plan in mind. God's providence showed through that evening. My wife, who at the time was only a friend, texted me shortly thereafter asking me what I was up to. I told her I had left my house and that I had no plan. At the time she didn't know what led her to drive an hour to come pick me up, but she did.
My wife had left the Church sometime in the year previous and had become close friends with a young Protestant couple. This couple, only a few years older than us, would later become two of our closest friends for a time. When my wife picked me up, it was this couple that she introduced me to, it was into their home I was invited to stay, and it was their family that I was more or less adopted into. Every get together, every holiday, every event, I was with them. Their influence was palpable and ultimately almost unshakable.
After not going Mass and receiving the Sacraments for a few months, my connection to the Faith was faltering, and I could feel it. Then came the objections from those around me, questioning me on my beliefs, not out of malice, but out of curiosity of why I believed such things. Some of these objections and questions I didn't know how to answer, and others I forgot how to answer. When I would answer, I wasn't even able to convince myself, let alone those who had the questions. So I submitted. I gave up my Catholicism after a few months of no Catholic association, no sacraments, and a lot of questions. In part because I fell to unbelief, and in part because I began to follow this couple‘s every word due to my own wounds, insecurities, and deep desire for success (which I perceived them to have possessed). Over the years this relationship I had with them that was centered around the Prosperity Gospel ultimately slowly grew in toxicity and extensive manipulation.
Life Outside the Church
The altar call was the beginning to the answers, so I thought. This was what God wanted me to do, to be free from formalities and rules, and just be with Him in a free and breathable relationship. I interpreted the piercing of the veil in the temple as Christ showing that He wants no mediators, and no obstacles, so that He can be direct with us. My limited knowledge and misunderstandings of the Church started to run its course and run deep. To live this life I had to continually justify my Protestant lifestyle, and I did so the point of mental blindness.
It was at my first communion service at my new church, just a few months after turning my back on Rome, that Scott Hahn came back to haunt me. The southern pastor on the stage spoke about the words that Christ used at the Last Supper, speaking of the symbols and the beauty of symbols and coming together to eat, motioning towards the tables in front of the stage filled with cups of juice and baskets of bread. We all approached the front of the church to partake of it together, and I remember when my wife and I looked at one another. I knew what she was thinking and she knew what I was thinking. She said, "What do we do?" and someone from the family that we were with said, "Just look at the Cross and remember His sacrifice and be thankful."
I know that he wasn't speaking for the whole church with this direction to us, but something felt missing. What does this bread and wine as symbols have to do with His crucifixion? Why would Christ spend His last few hours just instituting a symbolic meal with no weight to it? Why would He do such a thing when time was of the essence? How does drinking this juice and eating this piece of bread show thanksgiving? Then I remembered Scott Hahn's book, and I was quiet the rest of the service.
It was the Eucharist, coming from that Greek word ευχαριστία meaning "thanksgiving", that I had to ignore and not think about for the first few years. I avoided certain passages in Scripture, especially John 6, because I didn't want to see the evidence. I was persistent in avoiding union with the Church. I was determined in hating Catholics. Those people who would tell me that I could go to hell if I rejected the Truths that the Church taught. Those people who would tell me to come back. Those people who I felt looked down on me and judged me from their high and proper horses. Oh how blind I was. I did whatever I could in order to feel secure in my new belief system. But I didn't feel like I could truly escape the tug on my heart.
I remember when I felt that I was "saved". Our pastor was sitting down with us and explaining away religious works as being fruitless. Looking back, he didn't explain to me the symbolic acts of the Lord's Supper or why Christ told us to do acts that were just symbols. He did, however, try to explain to us how many fall short of Christ's requests because they get caught up on the "laws of religion" rather than having true faith in Him, and that they had more faith in their works, rather than Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. He sounded convincing.
He would motion the passers by over to where we were sitting and ask them to give testament to their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and to profess how they knew they were saved. They all spoke with such conviction, and in like manner, in like fashion, and in like passion. This is what I wanted to hear. This was it. This was the affirmation for my detachment from Catholicism that I needed. I was ecstatic. Overjoyed. I felt free from Catholicism.
A few months later, funny enough, I left that church led by that pastor because their views didn't line up with what I wanted. The teachings of the Prosperity Gospel had reached my heart and set anchor by that time. So, I sought prosperity. I sought affirmation that I had power through Christ by my faith. I sought teachings that my words carried weight and authority over the evil spirits that prowled about the world seeking the ruin of souls. It gave me a false sense of control of my past and over my internal pains that I never faced or overcame. I sought out the Prosperity Gospel. I felt strong within it, something I hadn't felt before. I dove deep, listening to 6-7 sermons a day. Reading books. Giving my money away all in the name of sowing and reaping. Believing that God would see me giving and He would give me reward. I did acts of charity for the results I thought would ensue, rather than for love's sake.
I was a resounding gong.
Slowly but surely, I pushed family and friends away. I avoided all those who didn't agree with my views, and who didn't support my pursuits of prosperity and wealth. I listened to my ”mentors” with obedience. I felt that I had the Gospel in my heart, and I was not going to allow people, no matter who they were, to try to take that from me. I was arrogant and hard headed. Passionate and strong willed in what I had in my life. My Protestantism was my everything. But after a year and a half in something occurred with my old parish priest.
Msgr. Williams officiated the wedding for a family member of mine. He knew that my wife and I weren't in the Church anymore, but he didn't treat us different based upon this, and he made no mention of it. He was just joyful to see us. He simply asked if he could pray with us. I like to say that my Protestantism failed me for my own good in this instance. Despite hating Catholicism, I didn't want to refuse his offer. And so pray with us he did, as well as over us. My heart felt full seeing him again after several years. It would stick with me over the course of the remaining time I was a living as a Protestant
The years passed, my wife became pregnant with our son, and then a fear started creeping in. What was I to teach my son? What church around us had the kind of formation that I thought was suitable for my household? How will I form him and teach him the ways of my faith? What do I truly believe?
Following this new line of wondering I was having, I remember one day feeling a void between the Creator and myself. I knew I had sinned against Him in many ways, but I didn't know how to reconcile with Him. I sought out the pastors I knew of, trying to find anything within their books and sermons or videos that would guide me on how to confess or feel back in union with Him. My emotions were frantic. I would pray and pray, asking for forgiveness, but in the end feeling desperately anxious, not being able to tell if I had enough contrition that would warrant His grace and forgiveness to be bestowed on me. I couldn't tell if I was in union with Him. Then the fact that I had these anxieties made me fear that I had lost favor and lost my faith and that I was doomed. I cried in secret, now knowing what to do. I feared I didn't have the answers. But I had to keep going. So deeper I tried to dive.
I would fill any silence with sermons, and any time with reading. I would speak away these doubts and fears and so that I could look forward to my son being born. I did what I could to keep my Protestant flames burning red hot. I was still convinced this was the way, but that I was just being tested to see if I had what it took to be the leader of my house.
And then my son was born. I looked upon him for the first time and a joy that I could never explain in words came over me. I truly felt God's presence in the hospital room when he came into the world. I stayed up all that night and well into the next morning just watching him. I would stare at him and lose all control of my emotions. This was my son. I was overwhelmingly thankful. I then deeply contemplated God's love for me, and I thanked Him for all that He had given me, and thanked Him for all that He planned to give me. I felt that I had come to understand God better that day. How I looked at my son is how He looks at us yet infinite times more. I'll never forget it. Then came the road.
The Road That Led Me to Rome
My son was only a week old or so, and I was driving to work at my new job. I remember what road I was on, Hwy 96 heading towards US 1. I had just passed the Speedway gas station in downtown Youngsville and was enjoying my morning. I was listening to a talk by Kenneth Copeland, but I decided to turn it off with the remaining 3-5 minutes I had left in my commute. I decided to just sit in silence.
All of a sudden, with no relation to any sermons, no relation to any books, no relation to any thoughts I had had remotely recently, an overwhelming image of the Eucharist in a monstrance with blinding rays of bright light shining all around it, so bright as if the sun was behind it, appeared in my mind, along with the voice of my Catholic great-grandmother, who had passed two years prior, which said ”you’re going to miss the Eucharist”. It was all I could see.
I didn’t know how to react. I felt stunned and stuck in place. Then I broke down in tears in my car. Suddenly I felt exposed. I felt stripped of pride. The image was gone but the memory was to be forever. This was out of nowhere. All I knew from that point on was: I missed the Eucharist. And through the tears and gut wrenching sobs I yelled “I miss the Eucharist!”
I immediately texted my old high school friend, Brendan Schwartz, a devout Catholic. I asked him if he would like to get lunch at the nearby Waffle House. He agreed to it. I was nervous, but I felt I had to talk to him. We ordered our food, exchanged pleasantries, and then I quickly got to why I wanted to talk. I avoided speaking, for the time being, about what happened on the road that morning, but I had questions about the Faith. After an hour of talking, I asked to go to church with him that Sunday.
Coming Back Into the Fold
While everyone was praying before Mass had started, I looked up at the crucifix and said: "Lord, I submit myself to the Truth. I let down my pride and I pray that my eyes may be open so that I will see what You wish for me to see". Then came the Consecration.
I had to hide my tears. This was it. I was missing it. I wasn't in union with the Church and I was sitting here watching others receive Our Lord in the Eucharist and I had to go up with my arms crossed. It saddened me deeply. My wife feared that me going to Mass would become a consistent thing, but I couldn't let that stop me from chasing after what I knew I was meant to see and experience. I had to do this for my family.
After that meeting with Brendan and that Mass, I knew I had to figure something out. My soul was completely ready and longed for the Church, but my flesh was weak, and I became timid every so often towards the notion of diving head first. I also knew that as a married man I would have to lead my wife to the same realizations I had in order for our house to be in unison with our belief system, but I still didn’t know how to lead her to the right answers yet. So after a few months feeling knocked off my horse, and a few discussions about the Faith and our Protestantism, we decided to start asking questions for the sake of our son. So we met with a priest within the diocese and we laid out questions for him.
I was convinced even more so after our questions were answered, though my wife was not still. I dove us head first into the open arms of the Church. I slept on the couch until we were able to get our marriage validated, and I slowly but surely tried to be a leader in my household, leading us back to Rome. I felt joy and comfort in knowing that we had found the Truth, even if my wife didn't fully realize it yet.
I'll never forget my first confession after five years. There was no grandeur, there was no big "welcome home" sign outside the St. Catherine of Sienna parish in Wake Forest. It was just a typical Wednesday night. I walked in, and oddly enough there was no line (an unusual occurrence). So I walked into the confessional, asked the priest for forgiveness, telling him it had been 5 years since my last confession, and then I listed my sins. What a hefty list. Then, I heard those sweet words of absolution. Right then I knew I was in union with God and with the Church. I walked outside and I cried from joy, and I thanked God for His grace; for leading me out of the desert and inviting back into the fold; for forgiving me and loving me and calling my name that I might come out of the wilderness and back into His house. It was then that a Latin mass was beginning, and as soon as I was thankful for His forgiveness, I was expressing thankfulness for His gift of the Eucharist.
I received it onto my tongue, and I did not chew. I let it sit in my mouth as long as physically possible. My entire body was filled with a comforting fire and I cried tears of joy yet again that night. I was home.
Flash forward a little over year later, and I got to see Msgr. Williams once again. He was visiting his old parish, St. Joseph's, for he has been retired from parish work for a few years at this point. He led in the rosary and benediction, and it was at this moment when Msgr. lifted the monstrance and faced the people, I realized it was this monstrance which came into my mind a year and a half prior on the road.
After Mass, I approached him, now as a Catholic man, with a Catholic wife, and a beautiful son. He saw me amidst the crowd around him and he called out my name and he extended his arms. I came to him with a child's heart and embraced him, and he hugged me three times and he said: "my dear boy, I'm so proud of you".
Coming back to the Faith was not easy spiritually; not easy on our marriage and our conflicting personalities, with how we as individuals both come to conclusions and truths in different ways. It was not easy socially. And it was not easy emotionally. It changed our entire lives. But all thanks and praise and glory be to God forever for this grace He extended to me; that I, His unworthy servant, would be able to bring my family into His Church to receive His sacraments and blessings and graces. Thanks be to God for the incredible friends I've been able to reconnect with and learn from, and the new friends I've been able to make in the Faith.
Thanks be to God, for now my wife has a vigorous love of the Church, the sacraments, the saints, the Mass, Our Mother, and the pursuance of virtue. My wife is a shining light of Catholic motherhood and the vocation of marriage. It brings me joy witnessing my wife's faith and seeing the contrast between our marriage as Protestants and our marriage now in the light and guidance of Rome. Thanks be to God for my Catholic wife, who assists and helps me towards salvation.
I am deeply thankful for the Church which has helped me make sense of and heal of my pains and my sufferings; that has helped me in my vocation and my duties; the Church which has guided my family into joy, unity, virtue, and unimaginable grace; the Church that was built upon the Rock; the Catholic Church. Thanks be to the road that led me to Rome.