How Not to Become a Catholic

This is the first installment of how a former Protestant leader crossed the Tiber.  

James Tonkowich

James Tonkowich

A little over a year ago my status changed. Having been a Presbyterian minister for over twenty years, I became a Catholic layman.  How that happened is a long story.

In a nutshell, though, reading a Catholic author here, meeting with a priest or two there, befriending groups of faithful Catholics, and attending lectures, meetings, and (occasionally) Mass all added up. At the same time, my questions about the viability of Protestantism in a post-modern environment became more pointed and my answers more frightening. The Protestant mainline, oldline, sideline is in theological, moral, and cultural freefall as it approaches becoming little more than a sideshow. And the evangelicals, I believe, are not all that far behind.

This, of course, didn’t occur to me overnight. My journey to the Catholic Church happened over the course of about twelve years—eight asking increasingly uncomfortable questions and four praying very hard and asking more uncomfortable questions.

Again, it’s a long story. On the other hand, how to keep the same thing from happening to you is a shorter story.

After all, for Protestants and for ministers in particular becoming a Catholic is a hassle. A now-Catholic friend told me that his evangelical missionary in-laws would have been happier had he and his wife become hyper-liberal Episcopalians than faithful, orthodox Catholics. Friends with worried faces either ask difficult questions or—even worse—ask and say nothing at all.

Had I left my Presbyterian denomination to join the Free Will Baptists or a dispensational Bible church or to an Anglo-Catholic parish (smells and bells, but not Roman smells and bells), things would have been simple. There would have been a sentence or two in the Presbytery minutes to the effect that I had “peaceably withdrawn” to thus and such church because my theological convictions were no longer in keeping with the Westminster Confession.

No one, however, is permitted to peaceably withdraw to the Catholic Church. Old anti-Catholic habits die hard and so rigmarole, kerfuffle, and consternation were the order of the day. On the other hand, I guess I did demote the denomination from “church” to “ecclesial community,” the ministers from “fathers and brothers” to “separated brethren,” and Protestantism in general from “many expressions of the Body of Christ” to “a bunch of sects in imperfect communion with the Body of Christ.”

Once all was said and done though, my friends are still my friends something for which I’m genuinely and profoundly grateful.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. The Catholic Church is all it’s cracked up to be in those Scott Hahn books, Opus Dei discussion groups, and descriptions by friends who converted before I did. It is, as I told my wife one day, “the real deal” and I am amazed at God’s kindness to me that I get to be a Catholic.

On the other hand, if you’re a Protestant and especially if you’re a Protestant minister listing Romeward, there are rules you can follow that may help keep you from following in my soggy footsteps across the Tiber.

Let me make clear that they’re not hard and fast rules. Breaking them all with impunity will not guarantee a switch to Rome. I know many people such as the Protestant half of Evangelicals and Catholics Together who know more about the Church than I do and yet are firmly rooted in the faith of the Reformation.

After studying enough Catholicism to coauthor the book Is the Reformation Over?, historian Mark Noll in a recent issue of First Things calls himself “someone whose respect for Catholicism has grown steadily over the last four decades, and yet whose intention to live out his days as a Protestant also has grown stronger over those same decades.” Fair enough.

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  • Joe DeVet

    Welcome home!  Love the article.  I’m a sucker for conversion stories, particularly the one most important in my life, that of my own dear wife of 45 years, who became a Catholic, more in spite of me than because of me, 3 years before we married.

    Just had the privilege of being present when Msgr Jeffrey Steenson was installed as the first Ordinary of the US Anglican Ordinariate.  Another remarkable conversion, and a great initiative by Benedict XVI to establish this initiative.

    A hearty and warm “welcome home!”

  • Welcome home, I’m a convert too, I grew up evangelical and have been catholic now for 10 years.  About any criticisms of the Church or its many members, the only solid answer I have is that when someone walks into your family room and starts insulting everybody,  we don’t need to answer as a matter of intellectual discourse, for such slights.  Instead what we need to do is gently turn aside the anger, malice and hatred by an example of Christlike love.  It was this gentleness in a Catholic priest I know, and spent many hours talking to, that convinced me of the superiority of this approach.   Love conquers the heart.  The mind meekly follows the heart, in all souls where the heart is not already lost in sin.    It is this, the very heart of the matter, that Atheism and secularism wishes to ignore or consider human folly.

    I am a Christian because of the love of Christ, which conquers all, even death. 

    I am a Catholic Christian, because the Catholic church is right about the Christian faith, and by the grace of God, that fact has been made clear to me.

    Not only by argument and by intellect, but over all by love, and self-sacrifice of faithful Catholic christians, and a few Catholic priests, who have been very kind and giving of their time to me, to answer questions, and help me see the forest, and the trees, when I was only lost in the woods.


  • eyeclinic

    You GET it!  Always nice to have a new member of the family.

  • julie b

    Love it! You bring many gifts to the Church – one of them apparent in your wonderful and witty writing. God bless!

  • MsMesuggah

    Awesome writing ! The Holy Spirit was certainly guiding you in your desire to know the real “Truth”, which is Jesus Christ Himself. As a “lapsed” Catholic of 37 years who was given the beautiful gift of Baptism in the RCC  2 weeks after my birth (“cradle Catholic”) as well as the gifts of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist before foolishly leaving, I finally found my way “home” 6 years ago. It had been a very lonely experience for my heart & soul while my mind was acting like a “runaway child ” far from home all of those years ! But I  finally saw the “Light of Christ” waiting for me at the door and came home again… and I am no longer alone ! I received the Holy Spirit through the Sacrament of Confirmation 3 years ago. I am now a  RCC adult who cherishes my parents who were called to bestow on me when I was an infant, to become a part of the Body of Christ  Someone once said, “East or West, home is best !”.

    Welcome to the Body of Christ !

  • Welcome home to Rome.I love the Faith and converted in EV07 (Easter Vigil) it is not an easy road at all! We Catholics seem to be the ones who are touted as slow to ever change, a big Amen! I too, love Scot Hahn,Steve Ray and Marcus Grodi just a few of the pilgrims who crossed before me.I love Mother Mary and she is truly our spiritual lady of graces, My Mother! I am learning to love the Pope and its Monarchy, the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic church, which God has chosen to ensure the succession from the line of Peter,the Rock on which his church is built is sustained! I am truly blessed to be a Catholic,not by family origin,but by His calling and by my personal choice! I was called to the church through friends, and after many weeks at the chapel transformed by the blessed sacrament in adoration,and by worship and priase before the blessed sacrament chose to enter into the fullness of faith. I pray for all those in RCIA.(Rite of Catholic Initiationfor Adults)Totus Tuus! Amen!

  • RayC


  • Fkmfaris

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE the Faith of my Fathers!  I’m a revert.  It is a great time to be alive!  I think this is the time the Saints envied that they would not be alive to live their faith!  Such heroics will be needed in the days ahead.  Let us face them with the joy and love of our most Heavenly Holy Papa!  Praise God!

  • Nick

    Welcome Home!!  As a Catholic “Revert” who was deeply involved in Evangelical Christianity for about 13 years, I know the journey you are describing very well!
    God bless you!

  • Forbo

         Yes, brother. Our weapon is love. It’s not being “right”. It is not converting thru truth, rational argument, knowledge of history or other certainly valid means. This has been the hardest for me, a cradle Catholic to learn, especially in my own family, which is very splintered just like our society. Apparently, all the information available today is too confusing for many. But love always wins out tho it takes time. How do you slap some sense into people with love? I don’t know but I’m gonna keeptrying

  • Annagrasso

    Welcome home!!!.  It only goes to show that when one truly loves the truth, and truth IS GOD, THE HOLY TRINITY, one will find it sooner or later, no matter from what religious belief one comes.  San Alfonso M. de Liguori would say that “God must be sought, and the more one seeks Him, the more one finds HIM.
    Again Welcome home, and may our dear Lord bless you and yours wlaways.
    Anna Grasso

  • Annagrasso

    Welcome home!!!. It only goes to show that when one truly loves the truth, and truth IS GOD, THE HOLY TRINITY, one will find it sooner or later, no matter from what religious belief one comes. San Alfonso M. de Liguori would say that “God must be sought, and the more one seeks Him, the more one finds HIM.

    Welcome home, and may our dear Lord bless you and yours wlaways.

    Anna Grasso

    Anna Grasso

  • Publius Gravitas

    What a wonderful article. I cannot wait for the next installment.

  • Mother Church and her children welcome you home! Can’t wait for the next installment!

  • James TC

    Seems to me for every one Christian becoming a Catholic there are ten going the opposite way. Either way the numbers may not matter. Rather, if there is one more who is a light and love to those around.

  • James Stagg

    What a marvelous article!  I found myself laughing out loud!  Please consider working in the RCIA process; your humor and insight are much needed.

    Thank you!  And did I say, “WELCOME HOME!”

  • Kim

    This was awesome! Thank you for sharing it! May God continue to bless you with His grace on your journey in life!!  

  • MaryK

    James T: 
    I fully comprehend your statement:  “No one … is permitted to peaceably withdraw to the Catholic Church.”  My journey to the CC was anything but peaceful.  I was a lifelong Protestant (at 30), fully indoctrinated, fully believing, fully committed!  And then, smack dab in the middle of everyday life I had the opportunity to argue theology with a Jesuit!  It didn’t take long, (see my story in the January2012 issue of ComingHomeNetwork newsletter.)

    I also say, with you, “I am amazed at God’s kindness to me that I get to be a Catholic.”

  • Luketearo

    From Kiribati: 

    Welcome home!
    “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.”  [Jn 6:44]
    Our Heavenly Father personally drew a man or woman to faith, otherwise no-one he or she would ever be able to come to Christ on their own.
    God Bless you and your familyLuke TearoTarawa  


    Yes, we Catholics, must be open to engaging in conversation and study with our non Catholic brethren and must daily ask  the same  Holy Spirit who guided the prophets, the Apostles, early thologians, like Origen,  the saints, like Leonidas, the Popes and our Bishops to guide us in the ways we should walk through His gift of Counsel—  John 14-25-26. says is beautifully.
    We must be open to God’s grace.!   let us pray!


    Let us pray for their true understanding of God’s word.m. that they will become “doers of the word.”.

    James 4:6


    Numbers 6:24 -26 seems to apply here.  this is my prayer for you.


    Two blessings for you, Joe.
    Numbers 6:24-26

  • Hugo Arizmendi

    I did not miss, it is outstanding.

  • grandmama16

    I am so glad I found this web site. We have a pastor who is a conservative, orthodox and fellow convert. No Fr. warm fuzzies for him but strong informative and sometimes a bit disturbing homilies.. 

  • “The main reason Catholicism is hated in the modern world, and it is hated, is the suspicion that Catholicism might well be true.”Is that supposed to qualify as reasoning?  Any evidence for that view?

  • Artii

     Think about it this way.When i am wrong I fight harder than admit i am wrong. don’t you?

  • chaco

    I sometimes get tired from trying to take in too much at a time. That’s when I like to contemplate the initial seed from which everything came about. [Much like Jesus saying; “All understanding comes from 2 laws; Love God & Love neighbor.” ]  For me, this seed is St. Don Bosco’s vision of the embattled ship being chained to 2 pillars, one with The Eucharist on top and a smaller one with Our Lady on top of it (this being related to “Heaven’s Peace Plan” / Fatima 1917). And the seed that brought about the Eucharist was the LONGING – “YES” from a Mother’s Heart (Annunciation). Similarily, I believe “the Seed” that changed “My God – My God, Why have you forsaken me ? ! ” into a peaceful  “Father, forgive them…”  was the longing from a Mother’s Heart that eased the pain of feeling abandoned. When I simplify by going back to this “Seed”, everything seems to work out. [Like the Beatle song “Let it Be…. there will be an answer…”] 

  • bearing

    I get the impression that it is an opinion, which the author is entitled to have.  As for me, I think it is *a* reason, but not the main reason.

  • Edjohnshaw

    They were no Roman Catholic churches and Protestant churches in the bible. Denominations are man made inventions. The simple question is are you a born again Christian and do you love Christ above all the things of this world. Looking at Roman Catholics they love statues, Mary, Rosary, the Pope, no contraception, no divorce, lots of children. The poorest countries are Roman Catholic and are also the most corrupt by far. The list goes on..

  • MaryK

    I understand where you are coming from in your post, for i once held the same views.  Why did i hold those views?  Because that is what i was taught by my spiritual leaders in my youth – not because i was really interested in truth then.  I often prayed for truth, pleading with God to lead me to truth, and of course i believed that all the things i heard were truth then – so i adopted them in my limited knowledge. 

    Then something happened – something astonishing – something disturbing!  I was confronted by Truth in a way i never expected.  The truth is that most Catholics do love Jesus above all else – in fact we crowd our churches every week – and many of us every day come forward and receive Jesus in the Eucharist, we take Him into our bodies, and He feeds our souls. We adore Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, in our daily prayers and spiritual reading.

    Statues are reminders of people who have gone before us in the faith, the Crucifix reminds us of our Lord’s suffering that took away our sins. the Rosary is a way of meditating on the passion of our Lord; the Pope is the successor of Peter; “no contraception” is not for the purpose of having “lots of children” as you suspect, nor does the Church condemn those who are divorced.  Our beliefs are all supported by Scripture, the teaching of the Apostles and their successors for nearly 2000 years.

    I came home to the Catholic Church 40 years ago and i have never looked back, for I’ve received more than i could have ever imagined before.  I challenge you to discover for yourself what Catholics really believe, instead of the myths you have been taught.

  • I like your points.  So many Catholics know so little of their faith and so many non-Catholics really know what Catholics truly believe.  If you put that together, you can see why the Catholic Church has the problems it has.  I went to a small Presbyterian College and my goal in the 4 years I was there was to help clear up the misunderstandings so many Protestant Christians have about the Catholic faith.  I think you hit the target to what the New Evangelization is all about.  Catechizing Catholics to know what they believe so they can go out and tell the world the real truth of Catholicism! 

  • Dear Mary… that’s the problem most people have. They allow themselves merely “to be taught” untruths without doing what the noble-minded Beroeans of apostle Paul’s time did. Upon hearing what Paul and Silas were teaching, they did not just receive the word with the greatest eagerness of mind, but they ALSO CAREFULLY EXAMINED THE SCRIPTURES DAILY. Why? To see whether the things they were hearing were true (Acts 17:11). What was the result? Many of them became believers, vs 12. 

    When Jesus faced temptation from the devil, he used God’s Word to defeat satan’s temptations (Matthew 4:4-11). True followers of Christ follow Jesus’ example as documented in the Bible, not any man’s (1 Peter 2:21; Matthew 15:7-9). You claim that the crucifix reminds you of Christ but that’s not how he told his disciples to remember him (Luke 22:19, 20).

    You also claim that statues remind you of those who have gone before you in faith, but the Bible in Exodus 20:1-5 states that no true worshipper of God was to make an image of anything in heaven or on earth to use in any form of worship. If the pope was the successor of Peter as you claim, LIKE Peter, he would NOT teach the traditions of the church as doctrines because as Jesus said, they INVALIDATE God’s Word ( Matthew 15:3).

    That’s why Jesus asked, “why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do the things I say?” The Bible is like a compass for true Christians and without it, it’s easy to find oneself LOST and following after blind guides (Matthew 15:14), leading to disaster.

  • I love the fact that like the Catholic encyclopedia which admits that most of the Catholic teachings are not based on God’s Word, you also admit that your conversion is NOT through truth despite the fact that Jesus taught his followers to do so when he said that “God’s Word is truth,” and that “those worshipping God MUST worship him with spirit and TRUTH,” he also said that his followers “would know the TRUTH and the TRUTH would set them free,” and that “everyone on the side of the TRUTH listens to my (Jesus’) voice” (John 17:17,18; John 4:23,24; John 8:32; John 18:37).

    Most importantly, ONLY JESUS is the MEDIATOR between God and man (1Timothy 2:5). 2 John 1:6 says that “love means walking according to the commandments of God” so no doubt when you share those commandments with others, that’s how you might “slap some sense into people with love.” On the other hand when you spread the commands of men to people who are searching for God’s truth, that is not love at all but just the opposite. 

    I was once in spiritual darkness too as a Catholic but I REJOICE everyday that through God’s mercy and grace, I found the TRUTH which has set me free from spiritual bondage. Start by reasoning from the scriptures like apostle Paul did as Acts 17:2 shows. Jesus did the same even as a young boy, and that’s what his true followers today do without trying to change Christianity.

  • arthurkraftii

    First as a Catholic catechist we owe you an apology for the poor job in catechizing you as a youth. There are millions of Catholics that have been abandoned  after grade school and became targets for dishonest attacks on their faith.
    As your partial use of scripture quotes show you have not been shown the way to honestly read all of the pertinent passage. Lets start with the first J17:17,18, you also need to read J.17: 19 referring to Consecrating the apostles to the truth. 1 tim. 2,5 finish with 6, and 7 proof of Authority given to him,(but you probably have issues with authority?) by Christ.
    I would like to keep this short so please read Mt 18 15-20 all of it. 
    I would guess that you are Non-denominational or Eclu, just curious:
    Also you might find “The Catholic Verses” by Dave Armstrong.

  • MaryK

    Peace II:  There are a number of statements in yours that i could counter, but I won’t – not because i don’t have an answer, but even if i did, it would fall on ears that filter what they hear.  But i will mention only two of the things you commented on. 

    First, my answer was to EdJohnShaw, where he said,”Roman Catholics they love statues, Mary, Rosary, the Pope, no contraception, no divorce, lots of children.” i didn’t take each of these in depth, this is not the forum to write a book, but i answered simply.  You took issue with one sentence in my reply to him on that point.  Second, the “Scriptures” that Paul and Silas taught were the Old Testament, probably the prophets.  There were no New Testament scriptures then so people were taught by word of mouth by the apostles who received the Word from Jesus.

    Before i converted to the Catholic Faith, i held most of the same beliefs you talk about, but especially i believed all the sinister things about Catholics that the protestant mind can think of.  I prayed for truth, and God answered my prayer in His way.

    I was told a story once, and i’ll be brief in recounting it to you.  “There was once a man and woman strolling down the sidewalk of a city, looking into windows to see what was going on.  They came to one window and saw many people inside doing weird things, like standing up, sitting down, kneeling, making the sign of the cross on their foreheads.  The man and woman talked to one another about the strange goings on inside, and came up with so many ideas, like – maybe they are devil worshippers; maybe they are planning some terrible catastrophe; maybe it’s a cult.”  So, after listing many, many things they hurried on without ever going in to find out for themselves what was happening. All they did was tell others their conclusions, and they told others. . .  – for 500 years.

    If you want to know what Catholics REALLY believe, go inside and sit awhile.  I will thank God for the rest of my life that i did, and i continuously pray for understanding, peace and unity in the family of God.

  • arthurkraftii

    to Mary and Peace 11 just a quick add on Catholics do exactly what you say they never attack another religion, they simply’ ask that the whole scripture be read correctly. Here are a couple of points that you can find in the writings of Luther in his first works (available free on Amazon)  and Calvin (also free on Amazon) All authority is His (Luther’s) and then the person’s reading the bible so what ever they think it means. and Calvin who thinks your trip to Heaven or Hell is predetermined before you are born and nothing you can do changes it.( why go to this church?)

  • Marychasteen

    Beautifully said…

  • “…why should the “converts” have all the fun?” What a hoot- I’ve been telling my convert friends for years that “converts have all the fun.”

  • Jcan929

     They offered what? ? ? Their opinion grounded in what ? ? ? By whose authority? ? ?

  • MaryK

    The Mass readings yesterday [May 13] from the Gospel of John, Ch15, tells us about loving one another – that those who live in God’s love remain in him, and he promised,  “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.”

    Those of us who are converts to the Catholic Faith have gone through a wonderful period of learning the truth of Catholic teaching, and have left all to follow Jesus in his Church, and we are truly full of joy.  We are renewed every day in love for God and for our Lord Jesus Christ.

    I am sorry that our faith offends you, but our only wish is that you would discover for yourself the teachings we hold dear, so it would be unnecessary to engage in endless arguments that have no purpose.  We respect your faith, and hope you come to respect ours.

    May God bless you with joy! 

  • Jcan929

    What were the questions and what written substance was used to prove the answer(s) to the question? ? ?

  • Jcan929

    Joy I have . . .I missed where I said “your faith offends me”. You saying that is an attack to hide the fact that you don’t have concrete evidence for your teachings so “attack and divert the attention away from your lack of knowledge of the scriptures and its teachings…………………….

  • MaryK

    Jcan929:  I am at a loss to explain how you could have read all the installments of  Mr Tonkowich’s column and still said Catholics have no “concrete evidence for teachings”, but I will leave it at that. This argument reminds me of the words of Jesus when he accused the pharisees of “straining at a knat while swallowing a camel”. I love the song, “Open my eyes, Lord, I want to see Jesus …”  And I am sure that both you and I know that the Son of God, Jesus, gave his life to redeem us.  Let’s agree on that and pray for one another.

    May God’s peace be with you.

  • ConnieLSteffens

    The Catechism:

    Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who
    is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good
    requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For
    this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right
    to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to
    their responsibility. 

    The King James Bible:

    Luke 3:14  And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.

    The New American Standard Bible:

    Luke 3:14 Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”

    Matthew 5:39 “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.

    Matthew 5:44 “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
    It’s free.

  • No church bells and/or amplified sound systems!!   RESPECT THE QUIET!!

  • MaryK

    To: Car253
    Without the “amplified sound systems” I, and many like me, would not be able to hear much of anything during Mass.  However, during  Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, each participant prays quietly, listening for our Lord speaking in the silence of our hearts.  Silence is greatest when called for, but if only a few make absolute silence during Mass a hard and fast rule, no bells, no amplification of sound – then only those with keen hearing would be able to understand the readings, the homily, the words of the Eucharistic prayers.  Children, even babies, would be excluded in order to secure total silence.  Some parishes have Contemplative Masses, where silence is beautiful – i have experienced them occasionally – they are truly great.  Family Mass is a different story.

    However, i was surprised at your post – it doesn’t seem to follow the subject line of this column.  Was there some special message you wanted to get across?