Couple Confronts Challenges on Journey to Communion
BY KEVIN BIRNBAUM
When Tom and Jessica Brown were married in 2001, they never could have imagined that one day they would convert to Catholicism. They both grew up in staunch Calvinist homes.
Tom, a lieutenant in the Navy, is the son of a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church; Jessica’s parents are “very faithful Christians,” she said, and she “went to a Presbyterian college and studied doctrine, and was pretty entrenched in the whole thing.”
When, in the summer of 2004, a formerly fallen-away Catholic colleague started talking to Tom about his newly revitalized faith, Tom was wary of getting involved — for his friend’s sake.
“He tried to engage me in conversations about Christianity and the Catholic faith, and at first I didn’t want to at all, because I thought, ‘This is wonderful — Dan has gone from basically not practicing as a Christian to this place now where he’s got something very meaningful to him about his life as a Christian,’ and I was concerned that if I started showing him all the places in the Bible which disprove the Catholic Church, I would somehow rock the boat there and maybe turn him away from the faith.”
A lot of study marked the path to Catholicism for former Calvinists Tom and Jessica Brown
‘Comes down to authority’
Tom and Dan eventually did start talking about faith — every day, over lunch — and exchanging e-mails throughout the day. Tom soon realized that the debate between Catholicism and Protestantism boiled down to the issue of authority.
“At some point fairly early on, I said to him, ‘Dan, if this really all comes down to authority, and if you’re right on authority — the magisterium versus my Westminster Confession or the Bible alone — if you’re right on authority, then all these other debates don’t matter, because if you’re right on authority then you’re going to be right on the assumption of Mary or anything like that.”
Through their conversations, Tom began to see problems with the Protestant doctrine of “sola scriptura.”
“The Protestant has to say, ‘Well, we have this one ultimate doctrine that says any truth claim about the Christian faith has to come from Scripture,’ but that’s a truth claim that’s not in Scripture. And once I hit that brick wall, it was a game-changer for me.”
‘It was pretty devastating’
As Tom began to be swayed toward Catholicism by his study of issues like apostolic succession and the canon of Scripture, Jessica got worried.
“When Tom started coming home with questions about Catholicism, it was pretty devastating to me that he would be that easily swayed,” she said. “Like most Protestants, I had the attitude that I could out-argue a Catholic in about two minutes — that’s all it took. Just open a Bible, and it would be that easy. But I very soon learned it was not that easy, and it was very challenging to me.”
Their Presbyterian pastors had no satisfactory answers for the questions Tom was asking, so Jessica started doing her own research, hoping to find arguments to keep Tom Protestant.
“I had no intention of following him” toward Catholicism, she said, or of letting their young children be influenced by Catholicism. The growing theological rift was starting to strain their marriage.
As Jessica studied, though, “I pretty much had to come to all the same conclusions that Tom did,” she said.
But conversion isn’t solely an intellectual exercise.
“I had such a negative view of Catholics because most Catholics I knew really didn’t have a clue what they believed,” Jessica said. She was afraid of leaving a warm, vibrant, faithful Protestant church for a Catholic parish where, she assumed, no one would care about or even know each other.
Besides, both Tom and Jessica dreaded how their families might react.
“My reasons for wanting to stay Protestant were largely emotional,” Jessica said. “It’s what my family was, what my parents are, and it’s not a nice thing to want to say to them, ‘What you gave to me is not what I want to have anymore.’”
‘Such a wonderful thing’
Nevertheless, both Tom and Jessica decided to join RCIA at Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish when they moved to Bremerton from Maryland last summer. To their delight, they found a warm and welcoming community of new friends there.
“Star of the Sea is such an alive parish,” Jessica said. The idea of ever becoming Catholic “started out as such a negative thing … but it became such a wonderful thing,” she added.
For the past year, Tom has been writing on a Website, Called to Communion, with 10 other Calvinist converts to Catholicism. The site has already played a part in several other people’s conversion to Catholicism, Tom said.
When Tom and Jessica are confirmed at the Easter Vigil, Tom’s old Navy buddy Dan will be on hand as his sponsor. And Tom can rest assured that their debates didn’t shake Dan’s Catholic faith — he’s now known as Brother Daniel Vitz of the Institute of the Incarnate Word.
To their delight, they found a warm and welcoming community of new friends.