An Interview with a Convert from Protestantism
Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of an interview with Laura Patten Sanchez, a convert from Protestantism. Mrs. Sanchez graduated with a B.A. from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI before receiving her M.A. in Biblical Studies from the University of Chicago. She is the mother of four young boys and the business manager for Chews Life, which produces Rosaries and other devotional items for mothers and small children. (To preserve the interview’s character, the oral style has been maintained throughout.)
Angelus Press: Can you explain for our readers the road you took in converting from Protestantism to Catholicism?
Mrs. Sanchez: Well, first I’ll clarify that my “first conversion” (I’m not sure what else to call it) was actually from Evangelical Protestantism to the Eastern Orthodox Church, not to the Catholic Church. This conversion from Protestantism to Apostolic and liturgical Christianity was a much bigger movement for me than was eventually “swimming the Tiber” from “Constantinople,” and ending up in Rome; this latter was more of a mini-conversion.
Angelus Press: Please elaborate more on the type of Protestantism you grew up with.
Mrs. Sanchez: I grew up in a fundamentalist Protestant group known as the Plymouth Brethren, which both my parents had grown up in, though my mom in a more “liberal” group—she wore pants growing up, and there was a TV and a Christmas tree in the home. My dad’s family, in contrast, didn’t even celebrate Christmas. When I was about 10, my immediate family and much of my extended family left that group due to a sexual abuse scandal, among other disagreements they had with individuals and with the group as a whole. After searching for a “home church,” my parents settled on a conservative nondenominational megachurch in our city. In high school and throughout college, I switched from that church to a “church plant” that opened nearby. It was led by a young pastor who was a gifted teacher—very engaging and energetic and probably an early part of the “hipster” trend.
After graduating from high school, I attended Calvin College from 1999 to 2003, which is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), but I never took any interest in the CRC’s more liturgical tradition, beyond thinking that the more liturgically-focused Reformed churches in my area were “kind of cool.” I did, however, attend a retreat for my college’s women’s group at an Episcopalian monastery. That was my first introduction to anything liturgical in Christian worship.
In college, I very much embraced a liberal Christianity, including flirting with the idea of “process theology,” which (un)makes God into a temporal rather than an eternal being. This was how I dealt with questions of theodicy after living in Costa Rica for a semester in college. It was there that I encountered up close the legacy of the Spanish colonialism (admittedly leftist-slanted but not entirely untrue), history lessons on western intervention in Central America, and the literal faces of real suffering and hardship in the world—third-world style, not first-world problems. Funny enough, while I lived in Costa Rica, I was so taken aback by the Pentecostal-style assembly that my host family attended, that I chose instead to attend the local Catholic parish for worship on Sundays!
Angelus Press: I assume this wasn’t a Catholic parish with a traditional liturgy.
Mrs. Sanchez: It is very funny to me thinking back to that period in my life. At the time, the single guitar in that parish was so much less jarring than the band at my host family’s assembly that I felt peaceful with that guitar. Today, however, I would be aggravated by a guitar in the Mass! Even funnier to me, is that it was in a religion class called “Doctrine of God,” through the help of an ordained female Presbyterian minister, that I was able to reconcile the question of evil with an immutable, eternal, omnipotent and all-loving and merciful God. She herself was helped on by the works of Catholic theologians.And this was at a Reformed college, mind you. God works in mysterious ways, and now looking back, I see this all as having a part in me coming to the Catholic Faith.
Angelus Press: How different or similar are various Protestant groups?
Mrs. Sanchez: I’ve heard Catholics dismissively say about Protestantism, “They’re all the same, aren’t they?” No, they are not! Protestant groups are very different, and Catholics would do well to recognize this. For example, I grew up steeped in the Bible, but I knew absolutely nothing about Reformation history, and, as an Evangelical in a praise-and-worship assembly, the most foreign thing to me about Catholicism was its rituals and liturgy (and the Virgin Mary...always Mary). An acquaintance who grew up in a Presbyterian church grew up with a much larger knowledge base than just the Bible, such as catechisms, and is quite familiar with the rhythms of Mass because it is so similar to services at her church. Different Protestants will have vastly different experiences of their faith, and different questions about the Catholic Church based on these.
There is an astounding amount of diversity in Protestant beliefs, and so I think that similarities can only be spoken of generally. As far as my experience tells me, the similarities are: a distaste for dogma, especially any that reaches into the most intimate parts of our lives (the Catholic teaching on contraception being the foremost example); a dislike or distrust of what they perceive as “top-down management” by the Pope; and, as I already hinted, a nearly complete skepticism when it comes to veneration of Our Blessed Mother. I have thought to myself before that a refusal to love Mary as Jesus did probably keeps more Protestants from uniting themselves to Catholicism than anything else does.
Angelus Press: What was satisfying about your experience growing up Protestant? What was unsatisfactory?
Mrs. Sanchez: Generally speaking, Protestants, at least the Evangelicals and the Reformed Protestants I spent my teen years and 20s with, take seriously the Great Commission, and they take it seriously as individuals. I knew many, many missionary families growing up, but coming across a missionary family in the Catholic Church is rare, in my experience. Being a missionary can be a vocation in various Protestant churches in ways that I don’t see in Catholicism right now.
And I do miss the “small group” culture. A “small group” is typically a study and fellowship group, in which the same people consistently meet and share life. As a Protestant, I took part in a Torah study, in which several people met weekly to study our way through the first books of the Bible. Because Protestants lack a real history (the Protestants I knew essentially thought that “the True Church” was underground for the 1,500 years between the Apostles and Martin Luther), there is a movement, I think fairly recent, to explore, and even appropriate, the Jewish roots of the Christian faith.
At any rate, I was in a Torah study, to be fed with the Scriptures, and I was part of a small group of women who met together biweekly for a couple years. I do miss the very intentional focus on relationships in Protestantism. Catholic parishes can seem unwelcoming to non-Catholic visitors, because there is little evident outreach, and it can be a real struggle to “get connected.” Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox parish through which I first entered the church was made up almost exclusively of converts from Protestantism, and that was an incredibly friendly place, small enough where people noticed visitors, and they were determined to make these visitors their friends! Indeed, one married couple who was among the first my then-boyfriend, later husband and I met at this parish became our first three children’s godparents. I think this friendliness and outreach was due to the fact that our friends were themselves converts, and this was the culture they had experienced growing up.
As far as what was unsatisfactory: this was something I never thought of until I started attending inquirers’ classes at the local Orthodox parish, when I suddenly realized that there was an entire Christian intellectual and spiritual history that I’d never known about. Surprise, surprise!, the rituals and vestments and incense in the liturgy weren’t “traditions of men” (an anti-Catholic phrase of my childhood), but were the direct liturgical descendants of Jewish worship. Baptism wasn’t a symbolic, me-centered chance for a preteen to tell about “being saved”—it is a sacrament that efficaciously heals the soul from Original Sin! Women couldn’t be priests not because men didn’t like them, but because the Church does not add to or subtract from the deposit of Faith handed down by Christ through the Apostles. And, perhaps most revelatory for me, as silly as it may sound, was the fact that the Church had been alive for those 1,500 years before the Reformation. The people in it were flawed, certainly, but the Church has been faithful all that time, loving people, changing the world, toiling at the harvest, studying, and proclaiming the Truth that Jesus Himself gave us. I myself experienced an intellectual conversion to liturgical, Apostolic Christianity before I experienced a “heart” conversion, as it was only the Church that could fill the intellectual void inherent in Protestantism.
Angelus Press: Did you notice anything in Eastern Orthodoxy that made look toward making the “next step” to Catholicism?
Mrs. Sanchez: A major issue in Protestantism that is obviously problematic is the lack of a settled Magisterium, and this is true in the Eastern Orthodox Church as well, though to a lesser degree and in a different way. There is no standard one can ultimately appeal to outside of making the individual claim of being “moved by the Spirit.” Protestants can never be sure that their denomination or stand-alone “Bible church” won’t be the next one to condone homosexual relationships or allow women to be pastors. Even in the Orthodox Church, such fundamental questions as contraception and artificial reproductive technology are often left up to one’s own conscience. Moreover, there is a great deal of misinformation about Catholicism floating around among the Orthodox, especially among ex-Protestant converts who carry a lot of their anti-Catholic baggage with them into Orthodoxy.
I should note that when I speak about the importance of the Magisterium, this isn’t to say that I “check my brain at the door” as a Catholic; instead, I want to affirm and be thankful for the continuous line of teaching, with a traceable intellectual and spiritual history, and for the Catholic Church remaining an infallible wellspring of teaching on faith and morals.
Angelus Press: What tells you that the Catholic Church is right and not wrong?
Mrs. Sanchez: Well, much of what I just laid out is what has convinced me of the truth of the Catholic Church. It really was an intellectual conversion for me—that lineage of thought and its inherent reason aren’t things that can be faked and made up. And I submit to the words of Jesus when He named Peter as the Rock, and said that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church.
When I went from Eastern Orthodoxy to Catholicism, I told my husband that, “This is it, I won’t do any more faith changes or conversions. I will be Catholic until I die!” And there is one thing in the Catholic Church that I have faith will always keep me here, even if I am tempted to stray: that one thing is the Real Presence in the Eucharist. This is something that we share with the Orthodox, as the sacrament of the Eucharist is valid in the Eastern churches. Intellectually and morally, though, I could never return to Orthodoxy for the reasons I noted above. As thankful as I am for Orthodoxy leading me out of Protestantism and to the Catholic Church, it often felt like a ship without a pilot where the private opinion of individual priests and bishops served as a de facto Magisterium.
Protestant denominations, though, don’t even try to claim the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist. They may claim better fellowship with other believers, better Biblical knowledge, or any number of other things, but they do not even pretend to claim the Real Presence of Jesus in their liturgies or worship. Whatever else might happen, this is the thing that I know deep in my soul will keep me in the Catholic faith. The claim that this is the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, and that partaking of this sacrament is a means of salvation, and the reverence given the tabernacle for containing this great Mystery is something that I could never turn my back on, Heaven help me.