By Russ Rentler
Born and raised Catholic, Russ left the Church as a teenager and became a devout evangelical Christian for many years. His journey of faith has taken many dramatic twists and turns culminating in his joyful reception back to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
About 35 years ago as a young teen, I strayed from my Catholic faith and began to look into the occult and the rock and roll culture for answers and peace in my life. My parents brought me to Church faithfully but didn't allow their faith to help them with their personal problems. They had a troubled marriage and alcohol abuse was a chronic unspoken demon in their lives. As a teenager my Catholicism meant little to me, though I do remember praying the rosary at night to help me sleep when I was troubled by something.
One night, I went to Bible study hosted by a friend of mine whose parents were ex-Catholics. There was tremendous joy and peace in the folks we met and I knew they had something I needed and wanted. That night I asked Jesus to forgive me and come into my life. I recited a prayer known as the Sinner's Prayer. God heard my prayers and I was set free from many vices in just one night. I had a very emotional experience and remember it as "better than any high that was out there." I was "born again" and my life took an abrupt and markedly different course. My parents reacted very negatively since they had no idea of the secret life I was living and my Mom kept saying "Why do you need to be born again? You are good kids."
The group of Christians who discipled me were from a very anti-Catholic fundamentalist sect. (J.T. Chick and similar folks) I soon was told that Catholics worship Mary, pray to dead people, believe that they only need to "be good" to get to heaven and "just look at their crucifix!" "They think Jesus is still on the cross and didn't rise from the dead!" I had no real objections to this since I had no idea what Catholics really believed. I had never read the Catholic Catechism other than in CCD class and had never been interested in pursuing my faith until the night of my "born again" experience.
I became very active in evangelical fellowships in high school and college particularly the more charismatic ones. These were groups of young people who truly loved God more than anything in their lives. These were times of warm fellowship and deep friendships some of which have remained up to the present. I still went to the local Catholic Church when I was home to obey my parents but I just tuned out the entire Mass, sat in the pew and stopped receiving the Eucharist. At this time I met a Catholic religious brother who was really encouraging about my conversion but I never saw him again after he taught a few CCD classes to us in high school and we lost touch. I figured he was one of the few remaining Christians in the Catholic Church. Actually in all those years, I never met a devout Catholic who could give me a reasoned defense of his faith based on Scripture and good historical arguments.
I had now been reading the Bible exclusively for the past three years and receiving my teachings from a radio Bible teacher who has since gone off into major heresy. He has wrongly predicted the day and the hour when the Lord would return multiple times. It was from this anti-Catholic radio bible preacher that I learned my initial theology . I spent hours every night reading the Scriptures and listening to "Open Forum," a call-in radio show hosted by this self-proclaimed Bible authority. But in all my 17 years, I never once read the Catechism of the Catholic Church or any devotional Catholic literature or considered reading the history behind Christianity. So, here I am with my "radio bible theology degree" and three years of "born again" experience thinking I knew it all. As far as I was concerned, this was all I had to know about Christian history: Jesus came to earth, started a church which immediately went south and the Holy Spirit went on sabbatical for 1500 years . So for 1500 years, the "Real" Christian Church went into hiding while the "false" Catholic Church flourished and spread. The only problem with this was that if I really believed that the early church apostasized, then the Gates of Hell did indeed prevail against it and Jesus didn't know what He was talking about. Unless of course you believe that the "invisible church" existed in the background, kind of like a program that keeps running undetected on your computer. The only problem with this theory is that the Church was meant to be a visible physical entity, set on a hill where it would be a light to the world, not hidden in the shadows waiting for a German Augustinian monk 1500 years later to unlock the truth of salvation to the world. The other problem that didn't bother me at the time was that there was no historical record of a "hidden remnant church." To be sure, there are records of short-lived heretical sects, cults and heterodox preachers, but no proof that any of them had any connection to the historical church that Christ started.
During my college years I was involved in a Christian fellowship group that was attended by students from many denominations. One of the members of the group was a student I noticed was also in my New Testament Greek class. I also noted him to go to Mass so I knew he was Catholic. Over the ensuing two years he came to be a good friend and we had fellowship together despite the fact that he was a devout Catholic. He loved the Lord with the same fervor as an evangelical Christian and to this point I had not met a Catholic like him. I was still under the assumption that you couldn't possibly "know the Lord" if you were Catholic. After college, he went to Harvard Divinity School to study theology.
After college I went to medical school believing God wanted me to be a doctor and I married my high school sweetheart after my first year of medical school. After medical school we moved to a large city and joined another well-known independent charismatic church. At this time my wife of three years was diagnosed with an extremely rare in-operable lung cancer. She was told there was no cure but she may possibly remain without symptoms for a time before dying but no one ever survived. We were bolstered by a loving group of folks who shared with us that "God can heal if you only have enough faith." We embraced this theology whole-heartedly and pursued her healing for the next 8 years. We attended healing meetings, exorcisms, fasting and prayer and I began fasting Tuesday evenings to Thursday mornings for several years to obtain her healing from God. We sought out nationally known charismatic preachers with healing ministries and had several exorcisms performed on our house and ourselves.
Despite the diagnosis of cancer hanging over us "in faith" we decided to start a family and were blessed with two boys over the next four years. We coped with life by never talking about the possibility of her dying. We lived as if she would be healed. The problem with this was that it took an enormous amount of energy to muster this "faith talk" all the time and it was taking its toll on our marriage. Rather than confronting problems in our relationship, we would put them aside and continue to press for the healing. Seeking her healing became the focus of our lives and as a result, we were in denial about all the other problems that occur in any marriage, cancer notwithstanding. For me, it felt like a constant "sword of Damocles" hanging over my head for 8 of the 11 years we were married, but I could not tell my wife my true feelings. This was one of the most intensely lonely and difficult periods in my life. I took solace in knowing that Christ would never leave me or forsake us despite the fact that we were truly walking in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I could not share Scriptures with my wife or others about the valley of the shadow of death because it would be "doubting the healing."I started to secretly take comfort in the Scriptures that said "Not my will but thine" and God gave me His reassurance that He would be with us, whether my wife lived or died. I could not share this with her and instead would read aloud to her the Scriptures that said "By His stripes we are healed." We would both lay awake night after night with her in agony and me holding back tears as I watched her die. I just wanted to hold her and say "I love you and hate to see you go through this but we will be okay because He will carry us through this." I longed to just be able to tell her how I felt about our life together but I couldn't because she would have interpreted that as "losing faith." Instead of having precious end of life discussions about our children, our families, our Lord and His love, we listened to faith preacher tapes over and over again throughout the night. This bad theology we embraced ended up hurting us terribly and denied us the ability to be honest with ourselves, our children and our God. We were reading books and tracts about healing that were from an off-shoot of the charismatic movement called the Faith and Prosperity Preachers. Centered in Tulsa, Oklahoma, these teachers taught that Jesus heals everyone and if you don't get healed it must be your lack of faith. I realize now this actually was a twisted form of Christian Science and had its roots in one of the heresies dealt with by the early church. (Gnosticism)
About 4 weeks before she died, she was becoming severely ill and short of breath. We heard of a missionary with a healing ministry that was flying in from Africa who had been known to raise people from the dead. Despite the worse ice and snow storm of that horrible winter of 93-94, I drove with her and my pastor and a friend in a van to Richmond Virginia to see if she could be healed through the ministry of this faith healer . We risked our lives to drive my wife over 250 miles on the eve of one of the worst storms of the season because we believed God would heal her. We saw many tractor trailers jack-knifed and cars that had skidded off the road on the way down. It turned out that the healer couldn't come in due to the weather and we sadly drove all the way back taking almost two days for a six hour trip.
Shortly after this trip, my wife did pass away leaving me with a 4 and 7 year old who did not even realize she was sick since we never told them. I was devastated realizing that our faith did not give her the peace that was promised. Not because God didn't make it available, but we chose to misinterpret the Scriptures. I knew, even as she was dying, that this theology was wrong and it denied the ability for us to even have an honest conversation about her dying. If there was ever a reason to not believe in private interpretation of Scripture, this was it. The Word of God wrongly applied and twisted out of context can be a cruel taskmaster.
No one could give me an answer for why she died if she had such faith and many people from our church were devastated. Two days after my wife died, I received a phone call and a familiar voice that I hadn't heard for years was on the line. My Catholic friend from college, now an ordained Catholic priest heard that my wife died and tracked me down. I will never forget when I asked him why she had to suffer so much, and he said that "Jesus gives us the privilege of sharing his suffering." Father E. told me that Jesus stretched his arms out on the cross and said to my wife, "Sue, you come up with me and share my suffering." He then quoted St. Paul when he talked about completing in his body the suffering of Christ for the sake of the church, the body of Christ. (Colossians 1:23) I couldn't argue since it was Scripture and it was the only thing that gave me comfort in those difficult months after she died. I had never heard a Protestant talk about that verse and somehow missed it in all my years of personal Bible study. My theology didn't allow for this kind of suffering but this Scripture given to me by a Catholic priest made more sense than anything I had heard or experienced in the past 12 years. Since Christ our Redeemer had suffered should we too not be willing to take His yoke upon us and experience suffering for the sake of His body? The Catholics call this "redemptive suffering."
Trying to raise two small children alone as well as being in solo practice of medicine was very difficult, to say the least. God provided for me and my boys through support from my family and my church. Jesus showed His kindness and mercy to me through His people in a way that I can never forget. About a year and a half later, I remarried. My new wife had been attending the same church I was attending and had been friends with my late wife and knew our boys from Sunday school. She proved to be a wonderful mother and wife. Most couples argue about sex, money and children but we argued about religion and expressions of spirituality. I was moving away from charismatic theology and outward emotional manifestations ("holy" laughter, being "slain in the spirit") but she was pursuing "full- tilt" these doctrines and expressions of faith that I was shrinking back from. This was the mid -1990's when the "Toronto Blessing" was sweeping through the charismatic churches in the US and our church was having frequent renewal meetings. People would be asked if they wanted "more of God" and would fall to the floor laughing or crying as evidence of having received God's blessing. People in the church must have concluded that I didn't want "more of God" because I never fell to the floor when I was prayed for. My wife attended all of these meetings and I chose not to participate since my perception was that people based the evidence of God's blessing on you as an emotional outpouring. I had not experienced God in an emotional sense for twenty years or more since my initial born again experience as a teenager and had never been very "emotive" in my worship. This strained our marriage, as well-meaning folks in the church would question my wife as to my spiritual well-being. I knew from personal experience that God was with me regardless of how I felt and I felt this was a gift of faith He had given me long ago. Unfortunately at the time, the prevailing teaching in our church was that if God didn't engage our emotions, then something was wrong with us spiritually. My wife was starting to wonder about my spirituality and suspected I didn't "want more of God" due to my failure to embrace this renewal.
The stresses of becoming a new mother and wife were difficult for her and the practice of "worship and praise" was no longer providing her peace. In the past, we were taught that we should just "forget about your cares and worship the Lord" as the answer to your problems. Instead, my wife started reading about suffering from Mother Teresa, Teresa Liseux, St. John of the Cross and other Catholic mystics. She was finding much solace in Catholic teaching and she was slowly being drawn away from our evangelical/charismatic faith. For the first time in her life, she started to understand the value of pain and suffering in the world and in the context of her own life. Catholic teachings brought her much comfort in these difficult times of our early marriage.
As much as I was happy that she was leaving the emotionalism of the charismatic church, I was troubled that it took Catholicism to give her true peace. This was at the peak of the priest sex-abuse scandals and I wanted nothing to do with the Church. I thought that Christ "could not possibly be the head of a church with sex abusers and pedophiles." These were the days when the daily headlines of all the papers were tallying the millions of dollars being spent on settlements and lawsuits in Boston and elsewhere. Realizing now that neither my wife nor I embraced our former theology we decided to leave the charismatic church we had been in for almost 10 years and joined a conservative United Methodist church. I loved the more formal nature of it and didn't miss the spontaneous prophecies and emotionalism that was so much a part of our past experience. At times our old church had a carnival-like atmosphere and the degree of enthusiasm of the congregation during "praise and worship" time was the litmus test for whether or not God showed up. I enjoyed the preaching style of the pastor and the much more subdued worship services.
While we both attended this church on Sundays, my wife attended her first Catholic Mass in 25 years at a weekday Mass. (She too had left the Catholic Church when she was 8 years old.) When the priest held up the consecrated Host and said "this is Jesus", she wept at the realization that this is the One she had been seeking all these years! My wife started to attend Mass on her own (she did not yet receive the Eucharist) and wanted to join the Catholic Church but I felt that it would be too confusing for our children. I couldn't argue however that it was slowly changing our marriage for the better as we both embraced trials in our life as a tool for good and not something to avoid and deny. I still was very reticent about Catholicism based on my past experiences and did not even consider joining the church. I asked her for the sake of unity in our marriage to stop pursuing Catholicism and she agreed to stop going to Mass.
The Methodist church we were attending bought an entire theatre of tickets to see the first screening of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." In the middle of the movie as tears streamed down my face, I knew I had to come home to the Catholic Church as I saw so graphically displayed His love for me. If He could do this for me, I could overcome my pride and reticence about the Catholic Church and return in obedience to Him. To this day I don't know why or how I came to this conclusion. As far as I know there were no subliminal messages in the movie saying: "Become a Papist" or "You must Cross the Tiber."
My wife continued to long for Mass and I agreed to let her go to Mass as long as she would come with me to the Methodist church on Sunday morning with our boys. She would often watch EWTN (a Catholic Network) and the "Journey Home Program." After seeing some of the conversion stories my interest was piqued. I was astonished to find there was so many former protestants with stories like mine converting to Catholicsm. I asked my wife to get me those Catholic conversion stories of Marcus Grodi, Scott Hahn and others that I had asked her to get rid of 4 years before. She had attempted to show me a Scott Hahn video a few years before this but I found it too dry and Catholic! This time it was as if the veil had been lifted from my eyes and I couldn't put these books down. I read Karl Keating's book "Catholicism and Fundamentalism" and Steve Ray's "Crossing the Tiber." When I read for the first time that it was the Catholic Church that decided on which books and letters should be in the the Bible, that did it for me! I was now very angry that I had been mis-informed for so long by anti-Catholic Protestants and I started to feel remorse for walking away from the Church without ever learning any of its true teachings. I was embarrassed that as a relatively bright person with the ability to obtain a medical degree, I had never considered reading history and instead based my understanding of Church history from a 16-year-old "Bible Scholar" thirty years earlier. How could I be "so smart" and yet be so close-minded about something so important as my faith?
We started counseling with a local parish priest who led us back to the Catholic Church. At my first confession in over 35 years, tears started to fall as I heard those sweet words of absolution as if they were spoken from Christ himself. We then made our marriage vows before the Church and together we received Christ in the Eucharist. Jesus was saying to me "You have found what you have always been looking for and I am right here with you." As I knelt and prayed after receiving Him, I knew that I could never be closer to Him in this life than I was right then. The frustration of all those years of searching for Him and trying to find him outside of His Church was over. I had finally come home.
Despite my lack of emotionalism, I have cried more tears of joy in the past 7 years than in most of my years of charismatic church life! I often choke up telling others about Christ in the Eucharist and often become teary-eyed thinking about how kind He is to have brought us back to His Church. My wife and I have experienced a spiritual oneness in our marriage that can only be described as supernatural. Before, we were always on opposite pages regarding spiritual issues and now not only are we on the same page; we can't stop turning the pages together! I often chastise myself for leaving the Church as a young person but I am thankful for those years away because they prepared me to appreciate the Church and the Sacraments all the more.
My heart aches for my ex-Catholic brothers and sisters who like me had left the truth of the Catholic Church without ever understanding it .I believe if they could only see the tremendous gift of His Real Presence in His Church, they would fall on their face before Him in the Eucharist. Their insatiable hunger for the presence of Christ could finally be completely satisfied in receiving him in the Eucharist in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Russ is a doctor of internal medicine and geriatrics in the Lehigh Valley of eastern Pennsylvania. He is also an acoustic musician and singer song-writer performing original songs about family and faith. To learn more about Russ and his journey back to Catholicism please visit his website "Crossed the Tiber"
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