Courage to Be Catholic?

Several years and another lifetime ago (back when I was single and drawing a steady paycheck), I used to attend the Christian Booksellers Association Convention each summer. At the first convention I attended, shortly after I joined Servant, I was particularly nervous about one meeting — breakfast with Elisabeth Elliot and her husband Lars. Elisabeth is a veteran missionary and radio personality, a revered spiritual icon in evangelical circles. (My mother nearly fainted when she found out I had met Elisabeth. "Oh, dear … you didn't tell her where you go to church now, did you Heidi?")

In point of fact, I had mentioned it — but only after she peppered me with questions until I couldn't evade them any longer. I wasn't ashamed of being Catholic, but I was a bit nervous about the possibility that Elisabeth might lecture me (like so many others had) about turning my back on the "faith of my fathers." In the eyes of this great faith warrior, I did not want to look like a slacker. And so, I decided not to bring up the subject. Anyway, I told myself, it's not like someone as famous as Elisabeth Elliot would care two bits about my little story.

I was wrong. We had just settled down over our pancakes when Elisabeth opened the conversation with, "So … you haven't always been Catholic, have you dear?"

That mouthful of pancake was thoroughly masticated before I responded, cautiously. "Why do you ask?"

"You mentioned that you used to work for Bethany House, and they are certainly not a Catholic publisher."

Still I hesitated… A little impatient, she continued. "Do you know my brother, Thomas Howard? He entered the Catholic Church some years ago. I only wish I had his courage."

I nearly choked. This comment from a woman who had courage enough to set up housekeeping for herself and her daughter among Aucas of Ecuador, the very Indian tribe who had martyred her husband and their associates in cold blood. Not only was this august personage not going to scold me, she admired the decision I had made to enter the Church, as her dear brother had! After she had sung the praises of the Catholic Church for several minutes, I worked up the nerve to ask Elisabeth why she did not follow in her brother's footsteps.

"Cowardice, I suppose. My listeners and readers simply would not understand."

 That, I understood. I understand it even better now, in light of the recent hubbub surrounding the reversion of Dr. Francis Beckwith, former president of the Evangelical Theological Association. Despite the fact that it meant losing the respect and fellowship of his colleagues, not to mention his livelihood, Dr. Beckwith's courageous position was unequivocal: unless there is a serious theological reason not to, the default position of every believer must be to belong to the historical Church founded by Christ.

Why? In his book The Night is Far Spent, a collection of essays by Thomas Howard newly published by Ignatius Press, Dr. Howard offers five reasons for this "fallback position," which he outlines as the five "marks" of the church: her antiquity, authority, unity, liturgy, and sacraments. He writes:

What is at stake here is the rock-bottom question as to what worship is, and how you do it…. [W]orship is the thing we were created for — to know God, and knowing him, to bless him and adore him forever….

To worship God is to ascribe worth to him. It is an activity distinct from teaching, and from fellowship, and from witnessing, and from sharing. It is an act, not an experience. … Our task in worship is to offer the oblation of ourselves and our adoration at the Sapphire Throne.

Obviously this is a daunting and an august task. Fortunately we are not left to our own resources, nor to the whim of the moment, nor even to our own experience. The faithful have been worshipping God since the beginning, and there is help for us. All of us, even those of us who come from the so-called free churches … are accustomed to borrowing secondhand, canned words to assist in worship. I am speaking of hymns. When we sing "Amazing Grace" or "O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," we are borrowing John Newton's or Charles Wesley's words. And we discover that, far from cramping or restricting our worship, these secondhand words bring us up to a level quite unattainable by our own spontaneous efforts. They take us away from ourselves (p.254-255).

These reflections on worship contrast strangely with the protestations of many of those who leave the Church for what they perceive to be greener (certainly noisier) pastures. "I feel closer to God there …," they say, or "the people are so much friendlier, and they have more to offer in the way of children's programs." Thinking they can choose a church the same way we can choose a new school or a new home, they rely on subjective factors of preference and comfort, rather than the single most important consideration of all: Which is the most authentic expression of the Body of Christ as He originally envisioned it? Not, "Which is most entertaining?" but "Which leads me with surest steps along the pathway to holiness?" Not, "Which makes me feel good?" but "Which is most effective in treating my spiritual ills?" Not "Which has the best music," but "Which draws me closest to the sacramental presence of the Living Christ?"

Can you enter heaven without professing membership in the Catholic Church? Yes, the Church has always taught that there is hope for those outside her "visible boundaries" — a hope that is based on the treasury of truth and faith that has been preserved by the Church for two thousand years. In the same way, a group of tourists who fall off a cruise ship hope that the lifeboat that has been tossed down will save them. The lifeboat (part of the equipment of the larger ship) may indeed save them; but how much better if they had never fallen overboard!

Holy Spirit, pour out your restorative presence among your people.
Unite us once more, we humbly pray,
with all our brothers and sisters in the faith,
for the glory of God and the benefit of all.

For the sake of His sorrowful Passion,
have mercy on us and on the whole world!

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  • Guest

    I once heard that we are all born Catholic, some just choose to not accept the fact. 

    "Do not try to please everybody. Try to please God , the angels, and the saints. These are your public. If you are afraid of other people's opinion, you should not have become Christian." St John Vianney

  • Guest

    Thank you, Heidi. A large part of my income comes from an Evangelical radio station. I will have to remember that.

  • Guest

    "What is at stake here is the rock-bottom question as to what worship is, and how you do it…. [W]orship is the thing we were created for — to know God, and knowing him, to bless him and adore him forever…."

    We go to Mass to give thanks, period. Everything else is peripheral. The various denominations do some wonderful praising, honoring, asking, blessing and even thanking but alas, none of it is worship as worship is proscribed by the Scriptures and Apostolic Tradition.

    "by this mystery of bread and wine….."

    Do I understand it? not really.


  • Guest

    Amen and Amen.  I struggled with worship for years as a Southern Baptist pastor.  I finally resigned and became Anglican, where I discovered true worship via the Eucharist.  After several more years, I'm finally completing my journey home to the Catholic Church.  I miss the Eucharist as I await my full acceptance into the Church, but it will be worth it.

  • Guest

    Amen to that, goral! It's all about entering into the mystery. Todah!

    Welcome home, alanshope! Please know you will be in my family's prayers.

  • Guest

    Alanshope, you will be in my prayers as well.  I made a similar journey to the Catholic Church on Easter, 1998.  It was a long, bumpy road, but I'll always be eternally grateful for God's grace and mercy to show me that path.

  • Guest


    I don't mean to be disrespectful, but if this is true, it is very powerful information for bringing Evangelical women into the Church!  I am a recent convert and have a close friend who's sister has converted and is a HUGE E.Eliot devotee.  Is this really what she said?

  • Guest

    Of course it's true! (Making up stories about public figures is a real no-no … Journalism 101.)

    Actually, it's not such a huge surprise if you're familiar with her writings. Elisabeth reads and thinks deeply, and often you can see threads of thought borrowed from the writings of great Catholic thinkers. She also has a very Catholic understanding of the purifying effect of suffering in the life of a believer.

    Her biography on Amy Carmichael ("A Chance to Die") has been one of the most influential books of my life … When I became Catholic, I took the name "Amy" for that reason. Her "Passion and Purity" is a must-read for every unmarried person.

    She is not writing as much now — I believe she has been ill. May God give her the grace she needs to make her final journey home!

    God bless you. 

    Heidi Hess Saxton Editor, "Canticle" Magazine Blogroll

  • Guest


    Thank you for responding so quickly and graciously.

    I have never met Elisabeth in person, except to shake her hand :-), but I have read and listened to a ton of her works, including the books you mention, and I'm also not surprised that she THINKS like a Catholic.  I guess what surprised me is that she admitted that to you, in light of the fact that it could affect so many followers.  But she did, and that's great!

    I was speaking with my Evangelical friend about suffering in Catholic terms, and she said, "That sounds like EE!"  So your article will certainly influence her, too.

    I did meet Elisabeth's brother Dave Howard, Sr., shortly before my husband and I converted.  He is still Evangelical, but seemed open to Catholics as well.

    Yes, may God grant his grace to other Evangelical leaders to bring unity to the Church!

    Laura Pugliese

  • Guest

    To "Bambushka", who will probably not see this, may I disagree?  Unfortunately, we are not "all born Catholic".  Some of us are from such deeply entrenched Protestant families that it's a wonder we weren't "martyrs of desire" before our conversion was complete.  Nevertheless, by the grace of God………

    And, Heidi, thank you for relating how "catholic" Elisabeth Eliot is in her understanding of suffering.  Over the years, I've been able to discuss my faith with some of those family members who would rather have seen me dead than Catholic.  The one thing I can't get them to see–much less accept–is the concept of redemptive suffering.  Thanks to you (and Elisabeth), I'll keep trying.

  • Guest

    Colossians 1:24  "In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the church." Let them chew on THAT for a while.

    I think God sends us those difficult family relationship trials to soften and humble us … spiritual pride can be one of the more insidious (and common) faults of "Bible Christians" (I know because I was one for thirty years!) To become Catholic is to become a child again, recognizing that there are some things (e.g. "mysteries") greater than my puny intellect can contain. And so, like all children we take up the cry, "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us …"

    I almost forgot two of Elisabeth's most important books on suffering and understanding God's will:

    *  These Strange Ashes (she writes it during the year she and Jim were apart from each other before they were married). The last page alone is worth the price of the book.

    * Path Through Suffering

    Heidi Hess Saxton Editor, "Canticle" Magazine Blogroll

  • Guest

    Thanks for the encouragement, Heidi.  Actually, I had to laugh: Col. 1:24 is where I start, and I don't get much of a word in after that.  😉  Yes, I was also a "Bible"-thumper: raised (myself) Protestant, converted at 15, left at 23 and was a Fundamentalist (!) for 20 years, and re-verted in my early 40s (been back 22 years and not going anywhere!), so I know that "I've got all the answers" thing.  I still fight that.  Thanks for the head's up on the books: I'll look for them this week!

  • Guest

    I love reading the comments of former non-Catholics. They are so encouraging and refreshing. It's what caused me to rexamine my faith a dozen years ago. The Church is so much richer because of you. The fullness of the faith just keeps getting fuller. PTL


  • Guest

    One final comment. I received a comment on my personal blog, suggesting that perhaps Elisabeth was just being kind, and that it is difficult to imagine someone who would "Cross the Amazon" who would not also "Cross the Tiber."

    Here is my response: I agree … Elisabeth is one of the most courageous women I know, which is what made the comment surprising (and why it made such a profound impression on me that I can still recall our conversation ten years after the fact). For the record, I don't think her lack of courage has anything to do with her remaining in the evangelical camp (at least, not the fear of what other people might think). It has everything to do with what GOD would think … And fear of the Lord is a good thing.

    It's important to remember that in the evangelical tradition, there are many (including Elisabeth) whose faith runs deep (dare I say, deeper than that of many Catholics), and whose confidence in God is breathtaking. To many of them, "adding" anything (which is what they perceive Catholics do in the sacraments and the Magisterium) is in some ways worse than not believing at all.

    I think Elisabeth sensed my discomfort, and allowed herself to express her admiration for what she appreciates about the Church and got a bit carried away in the course of conversation.  I have no doubt she admires the Church (and that her brother's decision influences her greatly). I also do consider it unlikely that she will convert, for a variety of reasons. Of course, God alone knows. We can only pray. (Though frankly we need friends on both sides of the Tiber.)

    The Church has always taught that there is hope for those outside the boundaries of the "visible Church," and Elisabeth is a great example. No doubt God will one day reward her for her faithfulness to Him all these years. Heidi


    Heidi Hess Saxton Editor, "Canticle" Magazine Blogroll

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