Discover more from Missio Dei
"I Believe, Help My Unbelief!" The story of how I converted to Catholicism
I come from a Pentecostal background. Church of God, specifically. I come from a revival for weeks on end, every night until 10:30 pm or later if the Spirit’s moving background. I come from a slain in the Spirit background. I come from a potluck that fills 3 long tables for homecoming dinner background. I come from a pray until you speak in tongues or “are you even really praying?” background. I come from an emotionally charged spiritual background.
How did I come to find Catholicism, here, in the buckle of the Bible Belt? Honestly, it’s both a long story and a short story. The long story is just my testimony in general and how the Lord has had His hand on me, guiding me to this path long before I would ever realize it. Back when I was sitting in the pew in the local Church of God, hearing pastors speak about how Catholics believed deception…even then, I was somehow always headed here. It is remarkable how our God can see the parts and the whole and everything makes perfect sense to Him, and He meets us in our moments of doubt and confusion. I have had many of those moments, to be sure. And yet, He still works. I have found “I believe, help my unbelief” to be one of my most quoted scriptures while praying.
I guess one of biggest parts of my conversion story has to do with my husband, Nick. When I met Nick, he had broken away from the institutional church completely and was part of the organic house church movement. He gave me a copy of a book called Pagan Christianity?, which I consumed, and it wasn’t long that I was on my way out as well. I was already frustrated with things I was dealing with in the Protestant church I was a part of, but I didn’t want to just find another church. I wanted the Church. I wanted to get back to church and the way they did it in Acts. I wanted to see life shared and miracles happen. After Nick and I were married, we moved to Florida for a year to be part of the house church of which he had been a part of for several years. That was a year that caused me to grow in ways I never had before. Living in such a way that we were always at someone’s house or someone was at ours for a gathering, a dinner, or a prayer meeting. As someone who had gone through a period of life with debilitating social anxiety, having to constantly force myself to be a part of a group was exhausting, but transformative. I can honestly say that being in such an environment changed my life for the better, and I will never regret that time.
Eventually, we saw major issues within the group (which we later realized were connected to its rejection of any kind of established authority). A particular issue was that the group seemed to feel that it had to protect itself from other believers coming in who might shake the foundations if they were to have different thoughts. With the lack of authority present, anyone could come to a meeting and share, and so if the group didn’t know the person well enough, it had no way of knowing if what the new person would say could damage it. It came to where anyone interested in coming to a meeting had to meet with one of the members first and go through what seemed like an interview process to even come. We felt like we had this revelation on how church should be done, but we were all afraid to share it openly with the world because of what the world might do to its dynamics. Through the desire to preserve the group dynamic, it also came to be that it was frowned upon to pursue things with other members of the group without the whole group agreeing on it. Such problems would become part of what would eventually cause the group to dissolve over the next year. Not long after the confusion began, we felt led to move back to North Carolina, so our exit from the group was not messy and we still maintain connection with several of the precious families we lived in community with to this day, some of which were a part (and still are) of the conversation of our becoming Catholic.
North Carolina had a lot of bouncing around for us. We tried to do house church with our family and some close friends, but it didn’t last. The friendships remain, but again, the lack of authority and stability always ends in the groups fizzling out or coming to problems that cannot be solved. One thing that I noticed specifically was that people were able to easily not come due to being tired from work or the other random things of life because it felt so casual, and so many nights or Sundays, we just would end up having to skip and not have a church meeting.
We went through a strange period of time where we had connected with a pastor (I say this word loosely) who was running an online ministry based around prophetic words he had received. He and his family were isolated and had no physical church present around them, but had a decent online following. He said he had an “Elijah anointing”. Nick and I ended up doing weekly calls with him for “ministry training”. We were both so excited at first because we had such a fire within us to do the work of the Lord and to see people come to know Jesus in our city. Red flags started to go up with our involvement in this man, however. I had shared on a phone call with him and my husband about a dream that I had, and the man actually told us that should we have any more dreams we felt were of a prophetic nature, to only share them with each other and with him, no one else. Nick and I both felt uneasy after that phone call and we begin to wonder if this was a trap that we had fallen into. We both prayed intensely and agreed that it was time to cut ties with this man. My husband sent him a very polite message on how we felt the Lord was calling us to a different path than what he was on and that we blessed him and his family, but it was time for us to go our separate ways. The man sent my husband a very rough message basically saying that we were choosing not to listen to the “prophet of God” and we would be sifted like wheat and judged. I remember wanting to throw up from fear. I didn’t see what a spiritual hold this man had on us until we were able to get out of the fog. We realize now that what he was essentially doing was trying to isolate us and draw us into a cult-like setting (I cannot say for sure he was aware of this himself, but seeing from outside the picture now, the behavior was very prominent). I praise God that he allowed us to see the lies and to get out of the situation. I also am grateful that he allowed it to happen to begin with…which might sound strange, but now I am able to identify warning signs of cult-behavior in a way I never was able to before.
After we took time to heal from what happened with the pastor, we funnily enough ended up spending most of our Sundays at a local Presbyterian church. The Pentecostal girl in me thought it was hilarious because it was about as far from what I was used to as I could go at the time. I remember one thing that stuck out to me more than anything while we attended that church: we said the Apostle’s creed. I had never heard it before, but I fell in love with it there. Whenever it was put on the screen for all to read, the word “catholic” within “holy catholic church” always had an asterisk beside it, which then led you to read at the bottom the words “Catholic means UNIVERSAL”. I giggle at that now and see it as a little way the Lord was tapping at my heart.
Time went on and after my dad passed away, we knew we needed to move back home to be with my mother. We moved on March 16, 2020…the day everything shut down from the virus. We had moved down here with such high hopes of finding a church to attend to make connections and find community, and that was all dashed. We ended up forming a small house fellowship with 2 other families that went on for a little over a year. One couple was from California and had experience pastoring a church of thousands. I learned a lot from them, and I still cherish the time I spent with them.
But the question remains: How did I get to Catholicism? And that brings me back to Nick.
Nick had started attending a Lee University, a Church of God school, about an hour drive from where we live for his master’s degree in theology because God had led him to continue his studies with the Gospel that he had been digging in to for the past few years. Through wrestling with various traditions in church history, as well as taking a class on the church fathers, he eventually had to confront the question of the Catholic church, which he had never considered at all before this point.
One night, he came into our room and casually sits down on the bed beside me and said, “Stephanie…what if Catholicism is true?” I think I actually choked and said that there was absolutely no way and what was he thinking and reading?! I still joke that he could have told me he felt called to be messianic jewish, and I would have probably been way more accepting! Nick said, “No, I’m serious. What if this is true? What if this is the true Church?” And I sat there, feeling all the color drain out of my face. The only thing I ever knew Catholicism to be was a deception, so hearing my husband suggest we even entertain this was blowing my mind.
Then he said the words that changed everything: “Stephanie, can we say we are being honestly open to the Holy Spirit if we don’t at least put it on the table for examination?” I was almost furious that he would bring the Holy Spirit into the conversation. (It’s comical now: How could you bring the Holy Spirit into a conversation about our faith? Ha! That just goes to show how much I shut down in that moment!) I took a minute in silence and said, “…No. We can’t say we are being honest or obedient.” Nick invited me to join him with studying, questioning, and seeking to see if this was the Truth, and that is what we did. We came to find that it was, indeed, the Truth.
We had a friend, Nick’s best childhood friend, who had converted a couple years before this. They hadn’t spoken about Catholicism at all, but the night that we both really felt like this was the way we should go, he messaged her. She told him that she had a dream a while back that he had told her we converted, and she woke up and couldn’t believe that, so she shelved it. He told her this news, and she was floored! It was a nice hug from the Lord, encouraging us that we were on the right path. We ended up having several big conversations with her about all of our questions we had, and she is a very big part of our conversion story.
We were watching YouTube videos, the Catholicism video series from Bishop Robert Barron, listening to Pints with Aquinas, listening to debates, reading Scott Hahn, talking about things that the Church fathers said, and putting it all out there. We prayed constantly, “If we are going down the wrong path, show us Lord!” The last thing we wanted was to lead our family down a false path. During this time, we were still a part of the little house fellowship with those two other families, but we hadn’t been able to meet due to sickness in their circles. We didn’t see them for a good chunk of while we were in the early stages of discernment about the Catholic Church, which honestly was probably for the best. We were able to put all we had toward it in the beginning, without having much interruption. We attended our first mass, which was a Novus Ordo mass at the basilica we currently attend. We left our boys at home with my mom and took our daughter, who was only probably around 8 or so months old. I didn’t know what to think…it was all so foreign to what I had ever experienced in a church setting. The incense, the kneeling, the genuflecting before entering the pew and upon exiting, the veils a good portion of the ladies had on…it was overwhelming. I am grateful that our first mass was the Novus Ordo, just because it made it a little easier to understand what was going on. We sat near the back and followed along as best as we could. We would attend the Latin Mass the next mass. While it was admittedly confusing, it also had something very mystical about it. With both masses, you just knew that you were witnessing something eternal. I remember that I cried when I saw the host being consecrated, because even though I was still new in my belief that it was the literal body and blood of Jesus, seeing the host raised up and hearing the bells chime made the hair on my arms stand up. I knew that I was seeing the moment that Heaven and Earth were brought together. I knew that this was the Church that Jesus started. I knew that we were going to have to become Catholic. I wrote in my journal not long after this that I felt, at that point, to decide not to convert would be being unfaithful to the Holy Spirit because of how strongly we felt His leading to become Catholic.
Once we really knew this was it, that this was the way we were supposed to go, my husband scheduled a meeting time with the man who was more or less filling the pastor role in our little fellowship to tell him about our decision. He was shocked but blessed us and said we had to do what the Spirit was saying. We would end up meeting with that group for the first time in probably several weeks the following Wednesday night for our mid-week bible study, and at the end of it, we told the other family of our change in path. It went fairly poorly and was super awkward. Unfortunately, the pastor eventually went back on what he said in the beginning to us and said he was wrong to encourage us and implied that we had gone down the wrong path. It was all pretty discouraging, but we persisted, while still being open to the possibility that we were being led astray and wanted to be corrected. I told my husband that I was frustrated with how people were responding like we had not given this any thought at all…if only they could see the prayer, tears, and study that had gone on for so long. But they couldn’t. The only thing they could see was their friends being deceived. We said we wanted to still maintain a relationship with them all and were open to questions and wanted to have an open dialogue about what was going on, but that never happened. We tried to set up dinners and play dates just so we could see them all and not leave it on that sour note, but they wouldn’t do any of it. It seemed like they were intentionally trying not to spend time with us (again, I cannot say this for sure, but this is how it definitely felt). My kids would ask us when they would get to play with their kids again (and still do), and we just had to explain to them that that probably wasn’t an option anymore, though we were sad it was shaping up that way.
We had other friends that we knew from the Florida fellowship, who my husband especially was extremely close to, essentially give him the cold shoulder and tell him that he had a spirit around him that was deceiving him into following Catholicism. It was truly heartbreaking. I had one of my closest friends post a video that shared how those who were Catholics weren’t actually Christians to her Facebook account not long after we converted and was also confronted me about how she believes it wasn’t biblical that Christians outside of the Catholic church were not allowed to partake of communion with them. Since I converted, she and I went from talking every day to barely talking at all…and that was really hard for me, especially considering I didn’t have many friends here since moving back to Alabama. We also had a meeting with a family we were very close to and some more friends from that Florida circle, and there was a point where I had to leave the room and go cry because I felt like we would lose them, too, and it all felt so overwhelming in that moment. I remember getting down on my knees and weeping and telling the Lord that even if we had to lose every friend we had, if this was the path, I would walk it with faith and trust that He would bring new relationships into our life. I obviously didn’t want to lose our friends, but I knew that I couldn’t let that hold me back from following God’s will. Thankfully, we did not lose those friends and they still remain active in the conversation about our conversion to Catholicism. They are still a huge part of our lives, and it is so beautiful to see how the Lord has worked through this season in our friendship.
I pray all this is an encouragement to those who are considering converting or have converted and are afraid of losing relationships…there will be some that you absolutely will lose, and it will hurt. It might be a friend, or it might be a family member who you are close to who cannot accept your decision to follow the Lord to the Church, but there will likely be at least one person who you will not have the same relationship with as you did before you converted, reverted, or found Jesus for the first time. I have come to realize that there really are seasons for some relationships. The Lord allows them for specific points in our life and then as we grow and change, those relationships are also changed…and sometimes, we have to know when it is time to move on from them. It doesn’t stop the fact that it hurts, but we need to always know that the Lord has gone before us on this road and He is meeting us in every moment as we walk onward.
We went through our parish’s RCIA program, which I loved. I couldn’t wait to get to it every Sunday to be in a room full of people on the same path as we were- it was exciting! Through the whole process, I discovered that I was struggling with two things more than the rest of Catholicism, and they are probably the two things that most Protestants struggle with the most, so I wasn’t alone. Those issues were Mother Mary and Confession. I was terrified of giving too much attention to Mary and making her an idol and was mad about needing to confess my sins to a man and felt like all I needed was the personal connection that I had with God to be forgiven. It took a lot of struggle and a lot of tears to get past these. Mother Mary and I have come a long way. I have seen my relationship with her as if I was a child who thought they lost their mother, who then became reunited with them later in life and now has the chance to know her and love her. There have been trust issues on my side to get over, but she has met me with nothing but love through all of my struggles. I didn’t have to have to perfect relationship with Our Lady in order to convert. I was willing to work on our relationship, and I trust that the Lord would help me to get to know His Mother in the way that would glorify Him. She and I are growing closer everyday!
The issue with confession was my first major hurdle that I had to absolutely get over before we were to join the Church. It came the time for our first confession. My husband and I both were receiving a conditional baptisms at the Easter Vigil because neither of us were sure if we were baptized in the Trinitarian formula, and so our priest agreed that we could do a conditional baptism to cover our bases. That brought the problem for me of needing to have a confession that went all the way back to the time that I was baptized the first time, in 2007, just in the event that it were a valid baptism. I had to go through 15 years and have a very long examination of conscious. It was painful. It brought up a lot of stuff from a past relationship that was extremely damaging and I wept and told my husband that I couldn’t see how God wanted me to go back through all of this when I already had begged him for forgiveness already? It seemed so unfair. I went from feeling sad to feeling angry over it! My husband, both gently and firmly, suggested that I really needed to pray about this because my response was clearly indicating that I had deep seeded feelings that had indeed not been dealt with, and that it was absolutely fair that God was asking this of me.
I wept and was angry for a good day. I didn’t want to pray because in my Spirit, I knew that it was right of God to ask this of me and that I was in need of forgiveness and healing. The sins of those 15 years, though I had prayed for forgiveness already, still had left a mark on me. I had shoved them into the back of my mind and put up a type of dam to hold all of those emotions and memories and I could feel that dam cracking with every thought of going to confession. I reached out to our friend I mentioned earlier who had converted a couple years prior and told her what was going on. She met me with so much love and so much Godly wisdom. She helped me to see that God wasn’t asking me to revisit these sins because He was being unfair, but because He wanted me to be free of them. I wasn’t free, and He knew that before I even realized it. It wasn’t about keeping tabs on all the junk I had done, it was about helping me become clean, deep down. So I got my journal out and over the next few days leading up to first confession, I broke that dam in my mind and let all of the hurt and pain flood out onto the pages, knowing that soon I would read them to our priest…which terrified me.
The day came for confession and we had gotten Nick’s parents to watch our kids so we could go to our appointment. I asked to go first because I was already nauseous and my palms were sweating like crazy. The enemy had been trying to fill my head with every negative thought he could about what was about to take place…he was playing to my past of social anxiety heavily and I was trying to hold onto the thought that once I started, it would just flow and then it would be over with. I had no idea what to expect…would we be in the confessional box? We weren’t. We had a face-to-face confession with our priest. At first, that took me so off guard because I wanted to be behind a screen. I wanted to hide. The Lord knew that I needed to be in the room, face to face with our priest. Father helped me begin, and in my awkward and nervous voice, I started, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession…and these are my sins…”
As my tears fell to the pages of my journal, he sat and listened with gentleness. I wept through a good portion of the 8 pages I had written in my journal…the hard kind of cry that makes your body shake. I didn’t realize how much shame I had carried around for all these years, and how much that shame had darkened my soul. With each thing I confessed, I glanced over at Father, and his eyes were always filled with kindness, never disappointment or judgement, which what I always expected to see. The Lord was destroying my problems with confession in a powerful way. When I was finished, Father smiled and then gave me the time for the prayer of contrition, which I wept harder through still. After I was absolved, I felt a literal weight lift from my chest and I had a smile flood my face. Tears of shame turned into tears of joy. And I felt like a child, who could throw up her arms and run freely through an open field. The Lord took my heaps of ashes that I brought and exchanged them for a crown of beauty. Reconciliation. Not only had I been reconciled to the Lord, but to His Church! The rip in the my part in the tapestry of the Kingdom that sin had brought had been mended with this beautiful sacrament. The penance he gave me was also extra special. It was to say the Divine Mercy Chaplet. The thing that Father didn’t know was that the Divine Mercy Chaplet was the first prayer that I fell in love with when I began looking into the different prayers Catholics prayed. That being my very first penance made it feel even more solidified in my mind that this was right. I wrote in my journal immediately after, “The enemy will not shout in triumph over me!” I also wrote that being in a state of grace is like the Lord letting us get a whiff of the flowers from Heaven’s gardens. I had never felt so free as I did walking out of that room with Father.
I went to one last confession on Good Friday, and after it was over I made sure to write down my thoughts: “I have been a follower of Jesus since I was 17 (I am 33 now), and so I have celebrated Easter for some time. But this year it is so different as we wait. The weight of His sorrowful Passion has filled my brain in ways that it never has before. Dwelling on His last supper, His last laughs with His disciples, His last walk through the garden, His last hug from His mother...before His last breath. As I sat in the Church, waiting for the line to move around for my turn in the confessional and really trying to lean into the fact that this is the time that we remember when He was dying. He was giving up His Spirit. And I was about to go into confession...a gift that He has allowed through His sacrifice. There is no greater love than a man who lays down his life for his friends. He is my friend, and He died for me to be able to be free. Oh, precious Jesus! Thank You!” Baptism and confirmation were coming, and I was ready!
The day for Easter Vigil came. I found myself with the jitters similar to the ones that I had before Nick and I got married. I find that super appropriate. We were going to be dressed in white when we were baptized and confirmed, as a Bride ready to marry her husband. We had had the year to eagerly wait in anticipation for the day when we were able to be in full communion, and it was finally about to happen. The night felt like a dream overall. We started off with a fire outside and moved into our Basilica, where all the lights were off and the only light that was being given was from the candles that we all had, which we all lit from one another’s candle.
When the lights eventually came on, with bells ringing, and Jesus became illuminated with the bright lights all around...it took my breath away. I will say that the whole night wasn't extra dreamy because my daughter, Jubilee, decided to wail a good portion of the time. It was way past her bedtime and she was having none of it. My sweet husband took her out in the hall for me, because he could tell I was stressed. I'm used to missing Mass because of being in the nursery with her, but this night…I was feeling just a little selfish, you know? I wanted to be able to focus. He took her out so that I could do that for a time. And then I put her in a carrier, and she eventually fell asleep...until it was time for her baptism. Then, she let out the most robust screeches you've ever heard. Our priest chuckled when he saw her sleeping and said, "Here we go! Good morning, Jubilee!" It dissolved any of the tension I had and her crying (bless her) actually made it more special, because it was all very real. It wasn't some staged business.
I got to see my boys be baptized, and tears filled my eyes. Then my husband and I were baptized. Our whole family. It was a moment that will be etched in my memory forever. I pray that my boys hold that moment in their hearts and we always celebrate April 16th as our "birthdays" together.
After the kids were baptized and anointed with that heavenly smelling chrism oil, my precious in-laws took them back to our house and put them to bed. Nick and I then got to go up, called as our confirmation saints (mine is Saint Hildegard of Bingen), and receive the prayer for the strengthening in the Holy Spirit. The thing that was extra special, is that somehow, my husband and I ended up first in line for this, side by side at the front of the church.
I felt like that was significant for us. It felt like more than just coincidence, that he and I would be at the beginning of the two lines. It was unplanned, and didn’t really make sense on how we got there, when I think back to how many people were scrambling in line behind us.
I have mentioned before that my background is Pentecostal/Charismatic and I have already been baptized in the Holy Spirit (I will take a moment to mention how grateful I was to find out about the Charismatic Renewal and the resources made available from Dr. Ralph Martin and Renewal Ministries. They have helped me to find a balance with my background and where I fit into the Church). This felt like a new step in my journey with the Holy Spirit, and it was beautiful. I was overwhelmed with joy and peace, and I wanted to laugh and to cry at the same time. As I walked back to my pew, with the scent of the chrism oil dancing on my forehead, I felt like I was floating on a cloud and would never come down.
Another powerful part of the night was when we declared, loudly, that we agreed with the Catholic Church’s teachings. It felt like saying wedding vows. The weight of it all really began to sink in, and by the time it was the moment for us to go up and kneel at the altar to receive the Eucharist, I could barely keep from weeping. The beauty of the Lord and His sacrifice were hovering over me like a thick blanket. The giant crucifix in front of me, as I waited to take part in His Death, seemed to glow. I felt the Lord speak to my heart, “Greater love has no one than the love of someone who lays down their life for a friend. You are my friend. Take, eat.” I lost it. I saw our priest making his way closer to me. My husband was beside me, and seeing him receive was one of the most special moments of my married life to him. Then, it was my turn.
The Body and Blood of Christ. It was finally time. I opened my mouth, tears streaming down my face, and I received Him. His real and true presence. The blood of the Lamb was placed on the doorposts of the house I had to offer for the Holy Spirit to dwell. It tasted like a wafer with wine on it. So no ethereal taste. No strange sensation, but the immense awareness of His presence was undeniable. He is truly present in the Eucharist, and I am humbled that I am now able to receive that gift. This beautiful Sacrament.
This moment is now captured in this picture for me. You can see only a little of it, but know, that tears were cascading down my face and I was being forever changed. A picture houses more words than I could use to describe what was actually taking place. Thank You, Lord, for being present in Your church! You said You would be with us always, and You are.
We were at the Church until around 1:30 a.m. It truly is a night that I will never forget. It was the night that changed me forever, and I can only pray that I can use even a piece of my story to help remind someone that the Lord is always ready to lead us Home. It’s not been perfect since we converted. There has been some major spiritual warfare for us…but knowing what I know now, that I can also call on the Saints for prayer and our Blessed Mother…everything is different. I don’t feel alone in this war. The Lord never meant for us to fight these battles alone! I am so grateful for my conversion story. I know that it was a long post, but I felt like I had to get as much of it in here as I could. It was and is everything to me.
I will leave you all with this prayer I penned recently, “Lord, how do I bring the roots that grew me into this place that I am now in Your Church? Now that I have been welcomed home, Lord. I have brought my baggage from my other residences, where I thought I would hang my hat permanently, but You led me to my real home. You led me to Your true Church. Some of my load I have left along the way, happily waving goodbye from the window as I drove away. But I did bring parts with me. Roots that ran deep. When the seed of Your name was planted in my heart and I called for You to save me, something burst open and began to grow from that moment forward. I have roots, Lord. So I brought those. Now, how may I best serve You?”
That’s all we can ever do…ask Him, “How may we best serve You, Lord?” I pray we all move forward with this prayer on our hearts and lips.