Three Very Different Roads that Led to Rome

Three Catholic apologists tell their stories of grace and conversion.

A little more than 90 years ago, G.K. Chesterton, one of the 20th century’s most famous converts, entered the Catholic Church.  Explaining “why I am a Catholic,” he wrote: “there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.”

A prolific writer, Chesterton used his considerable talents to author numerous works which won, and continue to win, many converts. The following are stories of three converts—the first of whom specifically credits Chesterton with being an influence on his conversion—who, since entering the Church, have devoted their lives to sharing the message that “Catholicism is true” with others.

David Fagerberg: Chesterton will teach you how to think

David Fagerberg has taught liturgical studies at the University of Notre Dame for the past decade. Born and reared in a Lutheran family in Minnesota, Fagerberg went to seminary and was ordained a minister for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Fagerberg’s reading of Chesterton led to his conversion to Catholicism in 1991.

In 1990, Fagerberg was involved in a graduate and doctoral program at Yale University when he spied a copy of Chesterton’s famous 1908 Christian apologetics book Orthodoxy (written before Chesterton became Catholic). Over the next year, Fagerberg became an avid reader of Chesterton’s works, citing his work in many of his scholastic papers. Fagerberg said, “I like to say I wrote myself into Catholicism.”

Persuasive to Fagerberg were arguments Chesterton made in such works as his 1926 book The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic:

If Protestantism is a positive thing, there is no doubt whatever that it is dead. In so far as it really was a set of special spiritual beliefs it is no longer believed. The genuine Protestant creed is now hardly held by anybody – least of all by the Protestants. So completely have they lost faith in it, that they have mostly forgotten what it was. If almost any modern man be asked whether we save our souls solely through our theology, or whether doing good will help us on the road to God, he would answer without hesitation that good works are probably more pleasing to God than theology.

Chesterton is favorite of Fagerberg’s, he said, because “there are few people who can put a succinct truth in such a graspable form…I find he turns your perspective cockeyed and allows you to look at things in a new light.”

For those new to Chesterton, Fagerberg recommends they begin by reading his 1923 biography of St. Francis, and then, as they familiarize themselves with Chesterton, work their way up to Orthodoxy.

Fagerberg has taught an elective class on Chesterton several times, and typically draws about 60 students per class. When they begin the class, many students are familiar with the name of Chesterton, but few have actually read his works. “At the outset, I tell them that Chesterton will teach them how to think,” Fagerberg said. “He many not make you more liberal or conservative, Protestant or Catholic, but he will make you think. Many believe doctrine limits your thought, but it actually heals it. Chesterton opens up new perspectives for us.”

As part of the course, Fagerberg asks his students to take a current event and look at it with Chesterton’s eyes. For students, it is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the course, as they analyze issues relating to politics, economics, and the general culture. Fagerberg gave the example of divorce, and the paradox Chesterton might see: “Many believe we ought to preserve the right to divorce. However, a TV audience will applaud if they’re introduced to a Hollywood couple that has been married for 40 years. How can you be in favor of the one, but also the other?”

Matthew Arnold: New Age agnostic to Catholic apologist

Matthew Arnold is a convert, and one of the nation’s most talented Catholic apologists. Through his apostolate Pro Multis Media he promotes the teaching of the Faith through public speaking and communications media. Yet he was once an agnostic who dabbled in the New Age movement.  

Arnold, age 52, grew up in a nominally Christian family in Southern California. But, he joked, “About the most Bible reading I heard was by Linus on the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.”

After graduating high school, Arnold worked as a musician, playing bass in a Top-40s band. He developed an interest in performing magic tricks, and graduated from the Chavez School of Magic. He worked as a magician in Hollywood, performing at restaurants, children’s shows, and private parties. He combined his talents as a musician, magician, and comedian to do warm-up acts before live audiences gathered to watch the filming of television sitcoms.

Some fundamentalist friends had turned him off to Christianity, but, Arnold recalled, “I still had a ‘God-shaped’ hole inside of me that I tried to fill up with the rock n’ roll party lifestyle.”

Having no religious formation, Arnold became involved in the New Age, including astrology and tarot cards.  Through a friend he was introduced to “channeling,” which would ultimately lead him out of the New Age altogether.

A young woman he knew claimed to be channeling (that is, serving as the voice for) a group of spirits who said they wanted to speak to Arnold. He agreed, and the spirits mostly offered him advice on his career. They were usually re-assuring, but at times the channeler could be verbally abusive. She could also be difficult to wake up from her trance.

To this day, Arnold is uncertain whether the experience was legitimate or an elaborate hoax. He reflected, “The whole thing was rather bizarre, but I had no formation or standard by which to judge. So, I was ready to believe it.”

Arnold experienced some physical manifestations that suggested the spirits’ authenticity. For example, one time he was knocked off his feet by an unknown force. Another time, he was sleeping and awoke to experience the feeling that someone was sitting on his chest. He was alone, but he thought he saw a face looking at him. He said the Lord’s Prayer, turned on all the lights in the house, and waited for morning. He also found a Bible and began reading it.

His New Age friend called Arnold the next day and informed him that the spirits had sent him an invitation the previous evening to return to their channeling group. He responded, “Tell them I got the message, and no, I don’t want to come back.”

Arnold met and married his wife, Betty, who had also been involved in the entertainment industry in Hollywood. She was Catholic, and Arnold, a voracious reader, undertook a careful study of her Faith. He credits the prayers of his wife and the intercession of the Blessed Mother for his conversion, as well as the instruction of a local priest.

In 1996, during the Easter Vigil, Arnold entered the Church. He was still working in Hollywood, making good money, and enjoying a successful career. However, fired up with the zeal of a convert, he decided that because of widespread immorality in Hollywood, he had to quit.

His final night, he was doing the warm-up show for a taping of the hit sitcom Friends. The episode featured Courteney Cox and guest star Tom Selleck, playing girlfriend and boyfriend, in bed together. Arnold’s job was to get the studio audience revved up for the taping, but, he recalled, “I was being a cheerleader for mortal sin.”

He quit, and never looked back.

Arnold began working in Catholic apologetics, using his media talents to create and produce Catholic audio tapes and DVDs, and soon was hosting Catholic radio and television programs. In 2006, he formed Pro Multis Media. Recent projects have included producing an abridged audio version of The Soul of the Apostolate for Lighthouse Catholic Media and recording the official audio version of Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth for Ignatius Press.  

Arnold has a special devotion to, and has placed his apostolate under the protection of, Our Lady of Good Success, an apparition which occurred in Ecuador in 1594. Although the appearance occurred centuries ago, he believes Our Lady’s message relevant for today. “What struck me was that the Blessed Mother said the problems in the Church would reach a critical point after the mid-point of the 20th century,” Arnold said. “It was then that we had the upheaval of the 1960s—the sexual revolution, immoral fashions, vocations crisis, and decline of marriage.”

Jesse Romero: I realized I was made for Heaven

A dozen years ago, an injury forced Jesse Romero to retire early from his job as a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy. He decided to begin a career as a full-time lay Catholic evangelist. Like Matthew Arnold, Romero speaks publicly and through a variety of communications media to promote the timeless teachings of the Church.  

Romero is bilingual, and can communicate with ease to both English and Spanish-speaking audiences. He also preaches the Faith with vigor; “I don’t merely teach the Bible, I preach the Bible,” he says. “And, I do it with a passionate power.”

Although the Faith permeates his life today, Romero was once a self-described “secular humanist” who had little interest in religion.

Romero, 49, was born in San Fernando, a suburb of Los Angeles. A first-generation Mexican-American, he grew up in the most violent and crime-ridden community in the region. Romero remembers as a teen seeing police-tape strung up at homicide scenes throughout his neighborhood. A fatalistic humor developed in his family, he says. “We’d sit at home and wonder who was going to get killed over the weekend,” he recalls. “It’s what we knew. We thought it was normal.”

Much of the violence in Latino communities in the United States, Romero believes, is due to a lack of identity among Mexican-American youth. Family in Mexico looked down on him as a “half-breed” and not truly Mexican, while in America he was considered a “wetback” and not really American. This lack of identity can draw Mexican-American youth to “Brown Power” movements such as MEChA, which Romero describes as anti-white and racist.

His conversion to Catholicism opened up new possibilities. “The first-generation Mexican-American wonders ‘Who am I?’ When I found out that I was a child of God, with God as my father and Jesus as my brother, the scales fell from my eyes. I was liberated. I realized I was made for heaven,” Romero said.

Although his family was culturally Catholic and he went to Catholic schools, Romero and his brothers were never interested in growing in their Faith; he says their only interest was in martial arts, which became his “pseudo-religion.”

Martial arts did keep the Romero boys out of trouble. “God used the martial arts to take my brothers and me out of the barrio during our wild teen years,” Romero explained. “It taught us respect, discipline, and mind control. While other kids in the neighborhood were doing drugs, drinking beer, listening to music, and being promiscuous with women, we’d be preparing for our next karate tournament.”

Romero did attend Mass to keep the family happy, but he saw the Catholic faith merely as a “women’s religion.”

In his 20s, Romero underwent a conversion. His parents attended a Cursillo weekend to revitalize their struggling marriage. The weekend had a profound influence on them. His dad, who had been an alcoholic and absentee father, stopped drinking and started reading the Bible. His parents joined the Legion of Mary and a charismatic prayer group. Friends would come over to pray.

Romero remembered, “It showed me that someone not practicing the Faith could turn on a dime. My parents have been living a vibrant Catholic Faith for over 30 years now.”

At age 21, Romero joined the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Putting criminals in jail appealed to him, and his martial arts skills seemed well-suited to law enforcement.

Five years later, a fellow officer and Evangelical Christian, Paul Clay, asked Romero about his relationship with Christ. He encouraged him to study the Bible. Romero did, and his attitude toward the Catholic Faith changed: “I remember looking at a picture of the Sacred Heart, crying, and telling Jesus, ‘I want to know you like Paul Clay,’” he said (Clay would later become Catholic through Romero’s influence).

Romero gave up drinking and swearing. To the surprise and delight of his wife, he started praying.

His pastor suggested he attend a Catholic Answers seminar led by apologist Karl Keating. In 30 hours of seminars, he learned more than he had in all his years in Catholic schools, Romero said. He told his wife, “I’m home. Jesus started the Catholic Church and we’re going to the Catholic Church for the rest of our lives.”

When he wasn’t on duty, Romero began volunteering at his parish, Santa Rosa Catholic Church in San Fernando, teaching Bible studies and Confirmation classes. As a police officer, martial arts expert, and athlete, he was well respected in the community.

“I loved it. People told me that when I taught from the Bible, I preached with conviction,” he noted. “To God be the glory, but I brought energy to the parish.”

Terry Barber of St. Joseph Communications learned of Romero’s story and asked to make an audio recording of it for national distribution. Today, Romero records a weekly SIRIUS Satellite Radio program with Barber, Reasons for Faith.

“Jesse has been an amazing partner on Catholic radio, because of his knowledge and love of the Catholic faith,” Barber said.

St. Joseph Communications distributed 10,000 cassette tapes of Romero’s story, and invitations for him to speak to Catholic groups soon came in from all over the country.  

A hip injury at age 37 ended his career with law enforcement. In an exit interview, Romero said, “I want to be a preacher.”

Today, Romero hosts a radio apologetics program, leads Bible studies, offers individual counseling and spiritual direction, and does a weekly podcast. He also keynotes at Catholic conferences. Twice monthly he offers a Bible study in Hollywood for those in the entertainment industry.  

Romero’s pet project at the moment is the establishment of a new School of Evangelization to train others to share the Catholic Faith as he does. He wants to open it under the auspices of the Archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose Gomez. “I want to create an army of soldiers for Christ to go out and be missionaries,” Romero said.

“I’m writing my eulogy right now,” he said. “When I’m gone, I want my kids and friends to say, ‘That guy loved Jesus and his Church.’”

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About Jim Graves 230 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.