We have become used to hearing about Catholics leaving the Church to join other denominationsbut a new trend has developed in recent decades. Men and women who have grown up in fundamentalist or evangelical churches have had the excitement of discovering the Catholic faith, often through a process of getting to know the Churchs history and teaching. In this first of five parts, Carl Olson recounts his childhood experience of faith in western Montana, his struggles as a teenager, and his fortification against Catholicism in Bible college.
My fears have been confirmedI am convinced that you are not saved and never were.
It was late afternoon on a beautiful spring day in 1997. I was sitting in my living room facing Richard, a retired fundamentalist pastor I had known for almost ten years. Just two weeks earlier, my wife Heather and I had entered the Roman Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil service held at St. Pauls Parish in Eugene, Oregon. Richard had driven two hours from Portland to talk to me about our decisionand, perhaps, to even talk us out of it.
His comment brought our conversation back to its original starting point. Six hours earlier he had started our talk by asking me, Are you saved?
Ive been reborn through baptism; I am working out my salvation, and I have the hope of my salvation before me, I replied, aware of how often this question was used on Catholics by anti-Catholics like Richard.
So you dont know if youre saved? he pressed further.
I dont presume that Im saved, but I do trust in the mercy and love of my Saviour, I answered.
Not surprisingly, this answer did not satisfy him, but only irked him. It was the start of a long afternoon and a conversation that touched on soteriology, Scripture, ecclesiology, the Sacraments, Marian beliefs, and eschatology. It was also a clear confirmation that I was definitely in the Catholic camp and that I had long left my own fundamentalist roots and beliefs behind.
I was born and raised in a small town in western Montana, and many of my first memories are of church and hearing Bible stories. The church my family attended had been formed in 1975 by my father and some other men when they decided to split off from the Missionary Alliance Church over the issue of eternal security of salvation. My childhood was uneventful and almost idyllic. From a very early age, I had a strong interest in reading and learning; I also possessed some artistic talent and was drawn to visual symbols and signs. Years later, after learning I was becoming Catholic, a former professor told me, "I'm not surprised, because your artwork was always full of a sacramental view of realityeven before you realized it."
I first met Richard when I was nineteen years old. I was home from art school for the summer, and he was visiting his son Joel, who was the pastor of our small Bible church. Richard had a combative and intense personality, but also a genuine love for people. A graduate of Biola University, he enjoyed arguing with non-Christianssomething I also liked to doso we got along rather well, despite our differences in age.
At that time, a year out of high school, I was approaching a crisis point in my Christian faith. While I defended the faith against non-Christians, including Catholics (whom I didnt consider to be true believers), I did not have the best spiritual life. I had been raised in a home, which emphasized the importance of strong morality, of complete trust in Christ, and a rigorous attachment to the Bible. Our church was suspicious of most other churches, especially the Catholic church, since it didn't adhere to the "true teaching of the Word."
Like many teenagers, I found it difficult to live a holy life, being much more interested in finding the right girl, lining up a good career, and being recognized for my artistic talents. Yet all the while, I remained convinced, at least intellectually, of the truth of Christianity. I read books by Evangelical apologists like Josh McDowell and Francis Schaeffer, plus writings by C. S. Lewis, building up a list of arguments to use on atheists and non-believers. I also familiarized myself with some books explaining the evils of Romanism and the falsehoods of the Catholic church. During my first year of college, these readings were helpful in leading my roommate away from Catholicism and into a Bible-believing church. It was quite satisfying to hear him telling his parents over the phone how he had come to know Jesus and no longer wanted to be Catholic.
A year later, fresh from a bad relationshipand increasingly convinced that my spiritual life was in near ruinsI entered Briercrest Bible College, an Evangelical school in Canada. My motives were far from pure, since I also wanted a chance to play on the basketball team. But, as I know well now, God sometimes uses even the poorest motives for good. Attending BBC was a critical turning point; as Ive said to some of my former classmates: If I hadnt gone to BBC, I might not be a Catholic today.
One reason was a greater exposure to Christianity as a whole. While much of the theology taught at BBC was based in pre-millennial dispensationalist theology, I was fortunate to take several Old Testament classes from a teacher who emphasized the centrality of covenant in the Scriptures. In my humanity courses, I was reading T. S. Eliot (my favorite poet since junior high), Flannery OConnor, and Graham Greene. It seemed that these writers had a good, even profound, grasp of concepts like sin, grace, and free will. My literature professor, who leaned strongly towards the Anglican church, encouraged us to attend either an Anglican or Catholic mass in order to experience the beauty of the liturgy. It was the first positive remark I had heard about the Catholic church in my life. In addition, my interest in apologetics grew, and I studied books about defending and explaining the faith. Little did I know it, but the first seeds of the Catholic faith had been planted, ready to start sending out roots into unexplored soil.
Copyright © 2000 Carl E. Olson.
Originally published in This Rock, June 1998, a publication of Catholic Answers. Visit their Web site at http://www.catholic.com.