Though Mass attendance and retention rates are declining, movement in the Catholic Church is not solely in one direction. Thousands still enter the Church—about 100,000 in the US annually. Catholic World Report interviewed one who’s spent nearly 25 years working in this field. Marcus Grodi, a former Presbyterian pastor, founded the Coming Home Network in 1993 to support Protestant ministers journeying toward the Catholic Church. And as host of the EWTN television and radio show The Journey Home, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, he has interviewed converts to Catholicism for the past two decades.
CWR: What are the reasons people are becoming Catholic? Let’s start with Protestants.
Marcus Grodi: I have to begin by saying that if you asked all the guests of these past 20 years on The Journey Home program or the contributors to the monthly Coming Home Newsletter what was the primary reason that their hearts and minds were opened to the Catholic Church, unanimously they would eventually say, “It was grace.” Every convert knows friends and co-workers who are still Protestant, who have heard all or much of what we heard, have read everything we read, and yet they’re not interested. Most of my Protestant friends continue to believe that “no one in their right mind would even consider becoming Roman Catholic” (which says what they probably think of me!). So, why is it us and not them? And therein lies the mystery of grace.
That being said, there are generally two factors that grace uses to awaken people. One, people start seeing problems where they are. They start seeing things in their tradition or denomination with which they’ve grown uncomfortable—for example, the direction many Protestant denominations are going on moral issues. For many Anglicans, it was the ordination of women, or the ordination of homosexuals as priests and bishops. For me, it was the problem of sola Scriptura. These issues don’t make people Catholic, but they might be the stone in somebody’s shoe that gets them to be uncomfortable, to be open to the journey.
For others, it’s often because, for the first time in their lives, by grace, they’re awakened to something about the Catholic Church—from a talk they heard or a book they read or a television or radio broadcast, or hearing a conversion story. Sometimes they’ll be reading Scripture, and all of a sudden a verse jumps out at them, and they see it in a way they never saw it before. It challenges their Protestant presumptions and begins their journey to the Catholic Church. For me, it was the verse 1 Timothy 3:15, which says that the “pillar and bulwark of the truth is the Church”; well, I had always assumed it was the Bible. My novels How Firm a Foundation and Pillar and Bulwark explain exactly what I’m talking about: there are issues that awaken the need for the journey, and then the Holy Spirit uses truth about the Church to draw somebody toward the Church.
The more common issues are authority—the authority of Scripture versus the Church—moral issues, and sometimes theological issues, of course. For some people, it’s liturgy; they’re drawn to the beauty, or to the meaning of the Eucharist. Some people are drawn by art, by music, the great classics, chant, iconography. They’re drawn to these things, and so they’re drawn to the Church; the Lord uses these and many other things to open up hearts and minds to the fullness of the Catholic faith.
CWR: Is it an intellectual draw to the Catholic Church for many?
Grodi: I think truth is a very common reason that Protestants come in. There are other reasons, and so I wouldn’t say truth is the only issue.
When a Protestant becomes a Catholic, other Protestants will often say, “Well, he must not have known his faith very well.” Actually it’s the opposite. Generally, the reason a Protestant becomes a Catholic is because they’ve learned their faith far more than they did before. They’re drawn to truth; they know more about their faith, and that’s why they become Catholic. Often the reason Catholics leave the Catholic Church is because they don’t know their faith well at all, and therefore are drawn away for other reasons. They didn’t know the faith very well, or they wouldn’t have left the Church in the first place.
CWR: How have the pro-life movement and attacks on religious liberty built bridges with people of other faiths?
Grodi: I truly believe that the ecumenism of the last 55-plus years has opened the doors for our separated brethren to become more open to the Catholic Church. And one of the reasons is because they’ve become better friends with Catholics, and that’s often through pro-life activities. That was a big part of my wife’s journey. Marilyn was the director of a crisis pregnancy center, and the majority of the people she worked with were Catholics. She was impressed by the consistency and devotion and convictions of Catholics. Many of the conversion stories on The Journey Home were sparked by pro-life activities.
CWR: It seems an increasing number of Muslims are converting to Christianity and Catholicism. Can you generalize as to why?
Grodi: To be honest, I can only generalize here, because I’ve not been involved with very many Muslim converts. We’ve had a number of Muslims who were willing—at first—to be on The Journey Home, but then, out of fear, backed out. Consequently, I have not had a lot of interviews with Muslims. I would say, on the one hand, that all the same reasons that draw Protestants to the Catholic Church can be seen among Muslims and Jews, but it’s interesting to see that a high percentage of Muslim converts say their awakening to the Church came about through visions and dreams.
CWR: How about Jews?
Grodi: In our membership, we have a fair number of former Jews. An issue particularly important to the Jewish convert is the continuity of the Catholic Church with Judaism. The majority of the Jewish converts I’ve interviewed see themselves as “completed Jews,” “Christian Jews,” and continue to value their Jewish heritage. And often they’re a great witness to us to re-learn and appreciate our own Jewish heritage, which too often we take for granted.
CWR: Do they come for the same reasons as Protestants?
Grodi: It certainly can be different because many of them didn’t know anything about Jesus Christ. They may have had a completely negative attitude toward him, even to the point of not wanting to utter the word Jesus. So their journeys toward the Church can be particularly difficult. Whereas Protestants have to work to get over anti-Catholic, anti-Pope presumptions, for the Jews, it’s often an anti-Jesus issue.
CWR: How about reverts: what is leading them to re-consider the Catholic Church?
Grodi: I would say the reason a great majority of reverts left the Church was that they did not have a good grounding in the Catholic faith. They had been baptized, maybe catechized; they had passed through and performed all the usual activities of the Church, but, for whatever reason, they had not experienced an authentic conversion of heart…or mind. I’m generalizing, of course. Often they leave because they married outside the Church, or just lost their faith, or found Christ in another church.
Probably the most common reason they start turning around toward home is a hunger for the Eucharist. Whether they have no active faith at all or they’re leaders in Protestant churches, often they realize there’s something missing, and they can’t put their finger on it. And then God uses a great variety of sources to awaken them to what they’re missing. Usually it’s the Eucharist. Sometimes it’s Our Lady, sometimes the trustworthy authority of the Church.
CWR: And converts who previously had no faith, what brings them to the Church?
Grodi: It’s all of the above.
I remember one guest on The Journey Home who had been a life-long atheist. From an early age, he refused to believe that there was anything that was true in all times and all places. But grace opened his heart to realize that “2 + 2 = 4” is a truth no matter where you are, no matter what time you are living, and that means there is a truth that’s rock solid. That began his journey home to Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.
I recently had a couple of guests who were brought up in families where there was no religion at all. Which means not so much that they were atheists, but that God wasn’t even a category. So that’s even beyond atheism. It would be like us with a Hindu god—are we actively against a Hindu god? Well, no, it doesn’t even cross our minds. So that’s the way they were with Christ and the Catholic Church.
I know one person who had a vision of Mary calling her to her Son—but she could not explain this, because she had had no data in the past that could feed a vision about Mary or Jesus! This was totally an act of grace.
I would say, more often than not, it’s a relationship with a faithful Catholic that brings them to the Church. So that’s where the New Evangelization needs to begin: with our own conversions and relationships with those outside the Church.
CWR: What about numbers? Are more people leaving the Church than coming in, at least in America?
Grodi: It seems like it. If you look at the statistics, they aren’t impressive. I think the latest numbers are that 22 percent of Americans claim to be Catholic, and less than half of those are active in the sacraments. So we’ve got a lot of work to do.
What I’ve seen over the years doing this work is that there’s been a steady stream of people coming into the Church for the last 200 or more years. There are plenty of books and documents indicating that there’s been a constant stream of very informed, very intellectual, very committed men and women coming home to the Catholic Church. A thin stream, but it’s a constant stream, starting before Newman. I know some people will say there’s just as many leaving as coming in; that it’s just a wash. And I think the data should make us pause and ask why there aren’t more coming home to the Church. Fewer than 1 percent of the more than 500,000 Protestant ministers in America seem to show any interest in the Catholic Church; why so few?
I suppose one can enumerate many reasons, but in the Coming Home Network we recognize that we really have only one responsibility: to tell. To proclaim the truth of the Church, that’s our job. To spread the seeds and pray with people and be a faithful witness, and then believe that God and his grace will awaken hearts and minds to the fullness of the Church, to bring home those whom he desires, in the mystery of his grace.
CWR: Are there more Protestant ministers becoming Catholic now than in the past?
Grodi: There was a time when I would have answered unhesitatingly, “Yes,” because I thought there was this escalated increase in conversions in the last 50 years. There are a lot of collections of conversion stories out there that can give the impression of a tsunami of converts, but maybe because of the unique position I’ve had over the past 25 years, I’ve come to see this data differently. Some of it is encouraging, but there’s a bunch that’s disturbing to me. Why aren’t there more? What’s going on? The conclusion—which Popes John Paul, Benedict, and now Francis have been emphasizing—is that there’s a definite need for a New Evangelization. I’m so grateful that God has opened his doors so we in the Coming Home Network can be involved in the New Evangelization.
But even with all we’re doing, why are there more lay converts on the journey than there are clergy? Of the 10,000 who have come to us, only about 2,300 are non-Catholic clergy, and less than half of the latter have been received into the Church. Approximately 80 percent of the non-Catholic laity who have come to us convert, but of the clergy, only 50 percent—or less, closer to 40 percent. Why is it that more than half of the Protestant ministers who initially show any interest in the Church quit coming toward the Church? I know of hundreds of Protestant ministers who once indicated serious interest in converting, but now, many after 15-20 years, they indicate no interest and continue on in their ministerial careers.
Often it’s vocation. When we look at all the barriers that people who are drawn to the Church face as they go through the journey, the number one issue for clergy is vocation. “What about that calling I know I received from God? Which I know has been confirmed by grace many times over? And how am I going to support my family?”
Another factor is that in our American subconscious there’s a subtle anti-Catholic assumption; it comes from our British roots, our Puritan founders. A vast majority of non-Catholic Christians can’t imagine why anyone in their right mind would be Catholic. They’re also not aware that Protestant ministers ever convert to the Catholic Church. If they think it’s crazy to become Catholic, they’ve got to think it’s bizarre for a Protestant minister to resign and become Catholic. A minister who’s drawn to the Church has likely read John Henry Newman and the Catechism, so he has lots of data that his congregation does not have. So the minister’s concern is, “What about the people in the congregation? They would not understand if I became Catholic! They’d be scandalized!”
I think another problem is that over the centuries, we Catholics have alienated a multitude of people from the faith. There were certainly times in history when Catholic popes, bishops, and theologians defended what was true, but St. Paul warned us in Ephesians that whenever we defend truth we must do so in love [4:15]. There have been times when we Catholics weren’t very sensitive in how we defended truth, and we alienated thousands and thousands and thousands of people from the Gospel. And right now there are thousands and thousands of people in the world who, by grace, love Jesus Christ, but short of a miracle would never be open to the Catholic Church, would never listen to anything a Catholic pope, cardinal, bishop, or priest might say, let alone a Catholic television talk show host, because they’re convinced in their heart of hearts that the Catholic Church is the Anti-Christ, and that the pope is the Anti-Christ.
And these same non-Catholic Christians are generally suspicious of any of their denominational leaders who have the audacity to be in dialogue with Catholics! But generally the people they are most trusting of are their own ministers.
There are people all around us with these negative assumptions, and so how do we reach them? To me, that’s the big issue. This is perhaps part of the reason, in the mystery of God’s providence and the timing of his grace, that some Protestant ministers, who are or would seem to us to be significantly open to the Catholic Church, don’t end up coming home to Catholicism, or at least not in the time-frames we expect. They still have a God-given opportunity to share what they have learned with those who will listen only to their minister. God loves these people and “desires all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), so he has raised up men and women in their midst to bring them to Jesus Christ. C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham, Charles Spurgeon and John Wesley, and the list goes on of good, faithful non-Catholic Christians who have brought people to Jesus who otherwise would never have listened to the Catholic Church. And so we celebrate their love for Christ—they often put us to shame the way they love Christ—we celebrate their salvation, we celebrate the grace. But we also use the media, we use everything we can, to tell them in love the fullness of the Catholic faith, and we keep praying for God to awaken them to the fullness in his own best time and way.
The Coming Home Network is here to stand beside them, to answer questions, to share the stories of others who have made the journey, and to help them discern whether indeed God is calling them to come home. The majority of the bishops I know love the work we’re doing. Because we’re telling the stories of what the Holy Spirit is doing in the lives of men and women by drawing them home to the Church, but doing it in a way that speaks the truth in love, and that’s what the Coming Home Network is all about.
CWR: Converts of every background have brought fresh vigor to the Church. Your stories mean so much to lifelong Catholics like me and help us appreciate all we have in the Catholic Church and learn more about what we believe and why. I hope you tell people who are considering coming in: “We need you!” I am so grateful for what the converts to the faith are doing for the Mystical Body of Christ.
Grodi: I appreciate your saying that. We’re honored that by grace we’ve been allowed to do this, and that the Lord opened our hearts to the Church. God has been very generous to us in so many ways, and if we can be a witness as you just talked about, it’s in spite of us: it’s only by the mercy and grace of God.