Me shortly before the big change

My Catechesis.

I was once described by a friendly but rather astute older English gentleman as a heavy metal hippy! In 1990 that was exactly what I was. I was a daily user of recreational drugs. I was into the party life but I was verging on addiction. I smoked cannabis on a daily basis at university and after work. I frequently drank to excess. I smoked about 10 to 20 cigarettes a day. I frequently listened to very sexualised and profane music. I prided myself on my ability to use swear words in almost every sentence. I did these things and encouraged my family to follow my example. I was an exhibitionist taking risks with my life on occasion. I was under-achieving in my academics.

 

Over the course of my teens, I had stuffed the feelings and forgotten the sexual abuse that had occurred when I was 14. I had a very malicious temperament as a reaction to an alcoholic father and the divorce that occurred as a result. My aunt reached out to me in London and I dabbled in The Catholic Charismatic movement. This led to my experiences in the Pentecostal movement. In actual fact, I was religiously lapsed, I was lonely and promiscuous to the point where I was having unprotected sex with multiple partners. I dressed in black, grew my hair long and wore sunglasses even when the sun was not out.

 

This description of my life in 1990 scratches the surface of the young man I once was. I was in a downward spiral. I was repeating the second year of my degree and failing as a result of my drug and alcohol abuse.

 

On a sunny day in December 1990, I was on campus. I was wearing my black motorbike jacket, black jeans, a Metallica T-shirt, basketball boots and mirror sunglasses. I saw a poster for ‘informal bible discussion’ and I imagined there might be some decent women there and as the time was very close I went straight to the room. An African man arrived shortly after I entered the classroom and after introducing himself we began the first of two topical Bible studies. The first study outlined the ‘textbook definition’ of the Bible itself. It answered the question ‘What is the Bible?’.

 

I did not question the method of study. Chinni studied with me in a very systematic way. He stuck to one topic. He made sure I read and understood each verse grammatically. Then he illustrated some of the concepts. Most interestingly he switched gear regularly to ask me personal questions applying the principles to my life. He gently called me to a decision. I had been in religious meetings on numerous occasions prior to this. I heard readings at Mass and heard homilies from priests. I had heard fervent preaching at Pentecostal churches but I had never in my 21 years had personal bible study where the Scriptures were applied to my life and I was called to decision. Notwithstanding my indoctrination into Catholicism which was ongoing from birth, this bible study was a spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical process that rocked me to the core. The later part of my bible studies were completed by an Englishman. I secretly hated the English but Alex was humble and extremely patient with me especially while studying out doctrine around the Holy Spirit. He had me at ‘Hello’! I believe that he preached the true gospel to me (Gal 1:6-9, 2 Corinthians 11:3-4).

 

Christians are by nature, converts. They have a pre-Christian life and new life in Christ. They are converted by studying the Catechism and the conversion process used by the International church of Christ (ICOC) was just this. It was a Catechism of several topical Bible studies covering the major themes necessary for someone to understand the gospel. It showed the biblical definitions of topics including ‘The Bible as God’s Word’, clearly and specifically answered the question, ‘What is a Christian?’, and then looked in detail at Sin, Repentance and Baptism, The Holy Spirit, The Cross of Jesus and The Church.

 

This process of study was used in the ICOC between 1979 and 2003 and continues to be used in the ICC since 2004 and hundreds of thousands of men and women have been converted in this way. It is a form of indoctrination that can take anywhere between several hours and a few months. I was therefore spiritually indoctrinated twice in my lifetime.

 

At the tender age of 9 years old I began my Catechetical instruction at the Roman Catholic primary school I had attended since I was 6 years old. To show just how immature I was at that age I only remember two things from my Catechismal months. My Catechismal instruction was received from my Headmaster. I drove past his house in April 2018 as I was writing this. My mother told me he was still living and in his 80s. When I consider this man’s piety at the time of his teaching I call to mind a lunchtime when one of the naughtiest 10 years olds in the school appearing suddenly at the window as he was thrown up against it during a rather vigorous beating he was receiving! When he exited the room after his discipline his ears and indeed his whole face was bright red from the slaps that he had had about the head. Colm gave us some short lectures on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It was the colourful illustration of the day of Pentecost that I created with crayons after Colm’s instruction that remains in my mind some 40 years later. The second memory I have is one of my Dominican aunts leaning me on her knee and tenderly explaining to me the subtleties of how the first commandment to love God was juxtapositioned with the fifth commandment to honour your parents. I paraphrase here because I don’t remember the exact words but she said, ‘God teaches that you have to love him above everyone but he understands that you love your mummy and daddy more than Him’. This was the sum of this late aunt’s teaching. She was a Dominican nun and had the letters O. P. after her name which stands for Order of Preachers. Indeed she was the secretary of the Order in South Africa!

Though my formal indoctrination started with Colm in 1978 the basis of my passive acceptance of this indoctrination was laid since birth. I went to Mass with my family every Sunday since I was a small child. Before I could have faith, talk, or comprehend the nature of sin I was baptised to become a ‘Christian’ after only days of being alive.

According to this practice and teaching, I became a Christian by someone else’s faith (since I could not have my own). I grew up knowing I was already a Christian. In my understanding growing up where I did, everyone in my community went to Mass on Sunday morning. Everyone was a Christian. I learned to sit quietly. I learned the responses required to be spoken by the congregation. I was taught to pray a number of set prayers by heart. I learned all this at school and at home. It was constant and relentless but to me, as a child, I saw it as totally normal. I had several statues and ‘Holy pictures’ in my home. I was given ‘Holy medals’ and pieces of ‘Holy cloth’ called Scapulas to wear. I was taught to believe these had special powers. My mother initiated the saying of the Rosary on a number of occasions in our home. This set of prayers emphasises devotion to Mary requesting Mary more than 50 times to pray for us. When I was about 7 years old I was bought a suit and took part in the Catholic Sacrament of Holy Communion. I did this together with my primary school class. I do not remember the instructions given in terms of theology and I am pretty certain we did not have our hands on a bible prior to the main event but I sincerely believed for a decade after that, that I was literally ingesting Jesus in the small white circular ‘host’.

Indoctrination can be a scary word. I was at the hospital bedside of my aunt during the writing of this article and a cousin from a very active Catholic family, asked me as part of a scenario he shared with me, to make a judgment on the eternal destination of an Atheist man who in spite of his beliefs had baptised his three children. We were in a hospital ward opposite an elderly dying woman who was attended by grieving relatives. I answered him as I had done my sister at my dear grandfather’s funeral some two decades previously. I said that, Jesus was the Judge. We also discussed evangelism and how difficult it was to find open people. He challenged me with a similarly pointed question when he asked who I thought the most vulnerable group in society were and he suggested that they might be the most open. First I answered that campus students were very open due to being in an environment where they have a mindset of being ready to learn new things. His eyebrows raised slightly and he reflected that our church ‘goes for students’. Then I politely added that perhaps the most open group in the world were small children. I explained that small children in any culture in the world are very vulnerable and open to being indoctrinated to believe lots of different potentially contradictory things to be true. I then gave the brief history of my indoctrination which I had as a Catholic child beginning with my baptism which had occurred before I could even think! With the shoe slightly on the other foot as it were, he then asked me if I thought indoctrination was wrong. I explained that I simply go into my testimony about being indoctrinated as a small child to try to show that indoctrination is quite normal in many different societies. I try to help people I’m talking with, to become more open to studying the Bible with me so that I might be able to indoctrinate them into what I think is the truth. At this juncture, my cousin did not ask me to study the Bible with him.

 

The truth I tried to bring to his attention is that indoctrination is neither good or bad, per se. In and of itself it is a neutral concept. Most parents indoctrinate their child out of love to protect them. Suggesting that indoctrination is sinister (as many people do) is short-sighted at best and dishonest at worst. If indoctrination is somehow sinister, then indoctrinating a child is certainly more sinister. It is much harder to get someone to decide to be open to being indoctrinated than for them to be indoctrinated when they are as vulnerable as a newborn child. Therefore the process of being indoctrinated deliberately, where someone chooses to do so, is in fact much less sinister than being indoctrinated as a child, in my opinion.

Me as a toddler.

In May 2018 as I was writing this the Republic of Ireland voted to legalise Abortion. It was a 66.4% victory for Irish abortionists. This demonstrates a new level of indoctrination in Ireland with a pluralist and liberal politics, opposed to Catholic teaching on Abortion, Gay Marriage and Divorce and much more Agnostic in its worldview. This new indoctrination is propagated in the secular Education system and by the government and the media. It too is taught to children and many 21st century Catholics have an eclectic mix of beliefs from the old and new teachings. My family also have a third strand of teaching from The Recovery Movement which embraces the person-centered ‘god as we understand him’. Clearly, there’s a whole lotta doctrine going on!

 

 

My monoculture.

For over 400 years Northern Ireland has had large geographical areas defined by segregation on the basis of religious background. My community was almost entirely Catholic. The nearest Protestant town was some 4 miles away in one direction and in the other direction the demographic was majority Catholic for some 100 miles crossing the border to the Irish Republic. My parents were living in my father’s ancestral home and did not attempt in the first 10 years of my life to move away (to my knowledge). They seemed comfortable in our undeniably polarised community. Both had lived abroad for years in Africa and America respectively but I had no knowledge of either of my parents having any friends or family who were not Catholic. We frequently travelled to London during the summer holidays and likewise we were not aware of the London Irish family having any non-Catholic friends. I did not come to know of my cousins who were Jehovah’s Witnesses until long after I was re-indoctrinated by the ICOC.

 

I attended a number of bigger Catholic meetings with my mother during the years we lived with my father. My mother took me to see Pope John Paul II in Dublin’s Croke Park in 1979. We stopped at a monastery in Drogheda on the way where another one of my aunts who was also a Dominican nun brought me to the great hall where the Pope would have a special meeting. She sat me on his chair which was reminiscent of a medieval throne and looking into my eyes, made some vague references to the possibility that I might feel some sense of a vocation (most Catholics will understand that this was an inquiry as to whether I had any intention to becoming a priest). I had absolutely no such intention! I also remember a meeting led by a faith healing priest. Obligatory attendance at Mass and other meetings led me to the discovery of a hidden propensity to notice fine details in architecture and I simultaneously became an avid people watcher. One interesting detail at the faith healer meeting was that a traveller woman sitting right beside the priest had a baby that was fussing constantly. My aunt noticed and was appalled that it had a nappy made of crumpled tin foil. Just one of the random spiritual nuggets I tended to pick up at church! I went to a prayer meeting another time in Portstewart convent and the tea and buns were simply to die for! For a country bumpkin whose daily diet was beans, tuna fish and potatoes this was heaven. I noticed that the nuns and their guests at this meeting were particularly posh. They were eating their treats with particular poise and dignity. I felt a strong inclination to imitate this intriguingly posh noshing. One of the guests noticed me slowly masticating a delicious French Fancy and commented to my mother how I was such a little gentleman! I went to another meeting in Benburb priory that was my first exposure to the Charismatic movement. There was rampant tongue speaking. I just remember the babbling sound. Nothing else. When I was 10 years old my mother separated from my father owing to his alcoholism and later the marriage was annulled. I moved with my mother to live in a council estate that had a small majority of Protestant tenants. Again, I was not aware of any Protestants in our home as family friends. I naturally gravitated to the children of the Catholic woman who befriended my mother. I went to Catholic discos and ‘dated’ Catholic women even though I lapsed fairly quickly in my early teens. I was only made aware of two choices for secondary schools. Both were Catholic. I actually attended two Catholic grammar schools changing between them twice and neither myself or my mother were aware of choices other than Catholic schools. At St Patrick’s college Armagh, we had benediction and exposition of the ‘blessed sacrament’ every Sunday night for over two years and mass was available every morning. Benediction was compulsory but I rarely attended Mass. Confession was also available and I did this once or twice as it was during mandatory evening study. The majority of my friends during my teen years were IRA sympathisers and some may have seen active service as members of ‘Na Fianna Eireann’!

This reinforced my identity as a political Catholic in spite of my lapsing as a religious one. Sometimes people ask me why I left the Catholic church. One answer I give is that I stopped going to mass regularly on Sunday due to drinking and chasing girls on Saturday nights. Even as an uncommitted Catholic I still saw myself as entirely Catholic. In essence, I don’t see now that I left the Catholic church when I joined the ICOC in 1990 but rather when I stopped practicing.

After my first change of secondary schools, I was sexually abused by a Catholic priest serving at my new school over a period of two years. My identity as a Catholic remained unscathed. I never saw my abuse as a reason to hate or leave the Catholic church. In 2015 I published my first book on Amazon detailing my abuse entitled ‘Alma Mater agus Mo Máthair‘ (my old school and my mother). As part of my personal investigation into my abuser I was able to gauge and sketch a panoramic profile of the response of the Catholic church to victims calling for the widespread provision of justice and healing. I had already been re-indoctrinated by the ICOC 25 years previously so I dealt with this subject in as fair and honest a way as my new faith allowed. As a result of my investigation during the writing of my book, I was able to communicate directly with Bishop Edward Daly (who confirmed me) and also Archbishop George Scicluna of Malta and several other members of the Catholic hierarchy. I tried to treat them with respect at all times and indeed it was one of these men named Eamon Devlin who was of great comfort to me and helped me in a number of different ways as I stated very clearly in my book. He ia a man of great depth and compassion.

Bishop Edward Daly (confirming me) also features in my book.

Pluralism or us.

I was more of a political Catholic than a religious one from about 1980 until 1990. I still retained some semblance of religiosity even then. In my second year of university in 1989 an attractive and promiscuous Hindu woman moved into my student house. We drank together and shared drugs and though there was a sexual attraction I would argue with her about her polytheism and be disgusted at her devotion and prayers to the elephant god in her room. We held out for years before a drunken one night stand when one lie triumphed over the other. It was like doing the splits, with one foot in Catholicism and the other in hedonism!

 

When I moved to London in 1988 one of my aunts who was on the Diocesan service team for Charismatic Renewal recruited me to join a small Catholic European Charismatic organisation known then as New Christian Communities (NCC). I was never a committed zealous member but I attended meetings on several occasions including conferences. Almost all of the members I met were Catholic. I was becoming more and more substance addicted during this time and seeking religious experiences.

 

Due to the process of studying the Bible in 1990 and going through the series of Bible studies prescribed by the ICOC I had a huge cathartic change occur in my life. I fasted and prayed for 3 days for strength to repent. I stopped drinking alcohol to get drunk. I totally stopped ingesting drugs like cannabis and cocaine. I stopped swearing and I made a commitment to be celibate until the point when I would be married to a woman in a monogamous exclusive relationship. I agreed that this woman would need to share my convictions and goals in order for me to be able to live the kind of life that I had chosen to live. I gave up a number of other activities due to adopting a biblical morality. I also adopted a number of new activities like prioritisation of attendance at several kinds of meetings every week and moved into a household of members of the church. I actively gave up friendships with all of those people I was partying with. I agreed to give a minimum of 10% of my gross income to support the leadership within the church so that they could continue to guide and counsel me for the rest of my life with all the different situations that would come up as a result of my faith. I began to share my faith with members of my family and also (for the most part) members of the public, on a daily basis as I would travel around the city of London. In the short term, there was quite a lot of anxiety among family members about the changes I’d made and some very stiff opposition from some of my relatives. By very nature of the fact that I had decided to be baptised as an adult in obedience to the teaching of the Bible, my religious Catholic relatives felt threatened and a number of them tried to debate me on the subject. I received letters from my father and his sister (one of the nuns).

My father reminded me that the Catholic Church was the ‘one true Church’ in his letters, to the latest of which, he also added, that my long-term illness and ‘illegitimate’ (non-catholic) marriage were all a direct result of my lack of membership in the true church of Christ, the Catholic Church.

 

I was told by my mother a decade after my baptism that she had in fact sought counsel from certain professionals and considered the possibility of getting me to sit down with people who might try to convince me to give up my new found faith. She did not disclose this to me until 10 years later. The very first conversation I had with a relative after starting my bible studies was with my aunt who had brought me to NCC. I remember excitedly explaining a point from one of my bible studies in the car near my house where I lived with my university friends. She was quite adamant that the Catholic church taught the same exact principle. That was a very early indication of how innocently following the Scriptures would lead to tribulations in my family life. I was very clear that I had never been taught these things by any Catholic.

I went through the painful divorce of my parents beginning aged 10 years old in 1979. As a result, I have had a desperate love and need for family and had a lasting bond with my siblings and a certain commitment to my extended family. In spite of my missionary work, I have been intimate with most of my family since my conversion. I am blessed than in spite of my experiences I have relationships with some of my family that are among my most treasured. 

 

There were rare occasions where I was able to have decent conversations with most of my relatives about my faith and give them opportunities to investigate for themselves the new catechism that I had embraced. One of my closest relatives took advantage of the opportunity that I’d offered and after a number of weeks of study actually got baptised themselves. They only remained in the church for short weeks and then quickly went back to their old lifestyle. I spent some time trying to talk to them about coming back in the one or two years that followed but it became very obvious that they didn’t want to talk about it anymore and so I respected that and left the subject alone. Given the great changes in my life and the potential for great changes in the lives of the people in my immediate family and the wider community, it is a little shocking that virtually no one else took advantage of the chance to find out what the message was that changed my life so drastically for the better.

 

I focussed on sharing my faith with the older members of my family in the early years after my conversion. After a house church service in my hometown one Easter in 1992, I had a very brief bible study in the kitchen with my elderly grandfather. A few weeks later in London, I asked him if he would like to do a more formal study and his response was a question. He asked me how many doctors of divinity we had in my church. I responded that I did not know but perhaps maybe one or two. His response was that there were hundreds in the Vatican and that he didn’t need to do any Bible studies. I respected this decision and did not bring it up with him again. My grandmother, his wife, agreed to do a Bible study and I brought her to meet one of the older women in my congregation. We were in the middle of the second scripture of the study which defined what a Christian is and my grandmother seemed to understand that the study was part of a conversion process perhaps for the first time since she’d agreed with me to do the study. She slapped her hand on the arm of the chair and repeated loudly once or twice “I’m a Catholic and I’ll die a Catholic”. My friend looked at me and closed her big black bible slowly. We just accepted that this was my Grandmother’s final decision. It is a biblical principle to accept rejection graciously (1 Peter 4:12). Both myself and my wife have made sure to offer personal Bible studies to all of our grandparents and the older members of our families who we have had good relationships with.

 

A dear aunt who had debated me right at the time of my conversion has consistently declined to study the bible with me for the last 28 years. Her reason is in her words is that by allowing someone from my church to teach her she would be causing us to think there was a possibility that we have something extra to add to her relationship with God.

 

One of my dearest and closest female relatives studied the Bible with my church twice in total over the last 28 years. Both processes were aborted. The first was only days after my converting. I thought that she was quite open at the time but after only 20 minutes or so in the sitting room of my Evangelist’s house studying with his lovely wife she left in tears. We never discussed the details. The second attempt was during her visit with me when I was a missionary abroad in 2008. At a certain point round about the third study she made it clear she ‘did not want to be indoctrinated’.

 

For nearly a decade since then the subject has only been discussed once, quite recently and she wants to be ‘left alone’. That is as clear as she has ever been. I assured her that I would respect her final decision without malice whilst making it clear that she did not yet, in fact, know the gospel that changed me so profoundly. Most of the other members of my family have not attempted to investigate ‘the big change’. I have been close with many of my family at different times but (just as with this person) it has not led to their interest in what changed me.

 

Instead, in some cases, certain individuals have made very out-of-character and mischievous suggestions. One mild evening around about 1993 I was visiting my father in Ireland and though it was late, there was a beautiful young woman (a friend of my sister) who claimed she was very good friends with my dad. At some point, probably around 9.30pm or 10pm, I decided to go to bed. It was partly due to the presence of the young woman so late at night. I made my apologies and opened the sitting room door to go upstairs. Pretty much out of the blue, my dad suggested that I take the woman for a walk around the road at the back of our house. Growing up, my dad never once spoke to me about sex or women. He also never joked about such matters. It was so out of character I sensed that he seemed to be trying to set me up with this young woman. My dad was so utterly opposed to my faith that I concluded that this was his attempt to get me to sin in order to undermine my new convictions. It had the opposite effect. I became even more suspicious of any other offers he made after that. He explicitly offered to will his house and land to me about a year later in 1994 and on multiple occasions, if I would return to the Catholic church and take Holy Communion. My new life and the many blessings of my faith were never worth the quarter million that he offered.

In a strange way, I think he understood and accepted that. It is indeed a great honour to have been counted worthy of such decisions.

Hebrews 10:34 You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.

Mark 10:29-31 “I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

My plan for my dad’s fields.

Politics and religion in Northern Ireland are complicated. In 1993 prior to being disinherited by my dad, I designed a Forest Gardening project based on some fields owned by my dad as part of the final year dissertation of my Biology degree. In order to assess the potential for a hydroelectric installation, I needed to survey the land. On a beautiful summer day, I set out for the fields with my theodolite and my younger sister. After only about an hour of work in the top field, a group of men appeared in the lane near the hedge at the corner and could be clearly seen sitting on the bonnet of their car cleaning their shotguns. They never actually fired their weapons and so it certainly seemed like they were not there to shoot anything but simply to be seen with their weapons. I could have read into this and thought that perhaps it was intimidation. Intimidation is a tactic very often used by paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. My sister was with me and so I ignored these men and continued with my work. A few hours later after I had sent my sister home, I was sitting on the gate of the lower field beside the laneway, praying and looking out over the countryside at the lights of the town some miles away. I was imagining the possibility of my project coming to fruition and praying for my family. The sound of a car engine grew closer and eventually became an engine rallying through back roads in my direction. I saw the lights coming through the trees on the edge of the field and as it came up to the gate where I was sitting, the car screeched to a halt into the gravel at the side of the road behind me and sat with spotlights on full beam revving the engine. I could see four shadows inside the car. I assumed that this was the punishment squad sent to intimidate me and perhaps give me a beating for having the audacity to be making plans on land that was in a townland of almost 100% Catholic farm owners who were also supporters of armed resistance. I had counted the cost when I studied the Bible and one of the questions that I was asked was if I would be prepared to die for what I believed in. This is something that every person who is converted in our churches is asked based on clear teachings of Jesus. I had made that decision based on the fact that my life was already dead. It was dead before I became a Christian and in a different sense dead after I was baptised in 1990. I stepped down off the gate and took a few steps towards the driver’s seat of the car and leaned over and said ‘Is everything ok?’ The driver spun the wheels in the gravel and drove off at speed up the road. Not wishing to submit myself voluntarily to any physical abuse from these unknown gentlemen, I myself sped off towards my father’s house. Whether or not these guns and revving engines were designed to intimidate me, my father himself made it clear shortly afterward that a non-Catholic could not inherit the land and subsequently cut me out of his will. My dad and the men in the car were all just as much victims of our Catholic and political indoctrination as I was. I have usually felt sympathy recalling these events. I just wish they would study the bible with me.

 

Another significant moment I have etched in my memory is arriving at a well-attended family party in London and immediately being greeted with a comment from the crowd ‘look at that sneaky b*****d’. This religious older man was both a staunch politicist and a Eucharistic minister. I greeted him in as cordial a way as I could muster. There were some sniggers from the cousins and as I was clearly hurt it was let slide. I didn’t make a big issue of it. In a certain way, it was a great privilege to be slandered so publicly.

 

1 Peter 4:16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

Matthew 5:11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me”.

 

Another series of events around politically motivated abuses (which I cannot describe here in detail) led me to take certain preventative security measures to protect my wife and I from sectarianism. Certain close family members were very angry that I took these measures. These events were not initially linked to my faith. Nonetheless, as a result of the degree of abuse, it was wise to protect ourselves from any tactics aimed at our ability to remain in our living situation at that time. It was felt by certain relatives that this decision on my part was fueled by my faith and the degree of disdain that I was made to feel was therefore clearly motivated by sectarian hatred.

 

The closest my dad ever came to studying the bible was around 1995. He confidently informed me one day (as he sipped a glass of brandy) that he had spoken to a Bishop who was going to come and study the bible with me. I quickly agreed but on the condition that my dad attended and did not interrupt. He was visibly saddened by my response. The meeting never transpired.

 

The gathering.

I met my beautiful wife in 2001 and somewhat as a result of the similarities in our family background and the ways in which our Irish Roman Catholic families reacted to our conversions we had a deep connection on the basis of our faith. One of my wife’s aunts confided in me at a recent funeral that there had been a lot of consternation at the time of Deirdre’s converting in 1992. She had already made the same admission to my wife in 2001. This pluralistic and somewhat philosophical aunt was a little quizzical about the fuss, with hindsight, some 26 years later. As a result of marrying my darling Deirdre, I met some rather staunch Catholics from her side of the family quite often.

 

One of Deirdre’s close family members is a devout Catholic. It is this person who I received probably some of the most negative reactions that I have received from Catholics since my baptism in 1990. On one occasion over a Christmas break in 1995 we visited this person’s family in their home and during our conversation we had in his front room while the children were sitting there listening, this person made it clear that they regarded our church to be a cult and that they would never attend. On another occasion, one of Deirdre’s relatives had a baptism for her child and we were invited but let the family know we were unable to attend as we had church event at that time. We did, however, attend the party afterward and when I arrived this same person refused to shake my outstretched hand in front of both of his children. I was so taken aback and hurt that I went over to two of the family members and raised it with them hoping that they would get involved to resolve this and to help guard against it from happening again. No one did get involved but when I exited the room and returned some minutes later the whole family gave myself and my wife a round of applause. I still to this day do not really understand how that happened. I did have to put my foot down with that person on one occasion when I heard him speaking disrespectfully to my wife. I took the phone off her and reminded him of the history that he had of abusing me in front of his children and others and told him that if he wanted to speak to us in future he would have to talk to me because I wouldn’t let him speak to my wife in that manner again. Since then his behaviour has changed much for the better but it is sad that it took me setting some very firm boundaries for this very religious man to behave himself well around others. I am happy that we are becoming closer now as a result. I do note that this man’s initial response to our faith was not as a result of studying the Bible with us to find out what we actually teach but was as a result of information he had clearly received from some other sources.

I do love this man in spite of having had to set boundaries and I still hope that someday he might take the opportunity to get correct information about us but given his behaviour it is highly unlikely. We continue to pray for him.

 

The first time I met my wife’s family in 2001 the conversation very quickly became about my conversion. One of them asked me if I had been young and vulnerable when the church converted me. I actually answered this relative in the positive in the sense that I said that I had been 21 years old and a university student and quite young. Her next immediate question was to ask me whether or not I would leave and go back to the Catholic Church. Needless to say, she reminded me very much of my father in this respect. I told her that I had become quite used to my new church and I thought that I would find it hard to go back to Catholicism. She detected the irony and told the other family members present that I was ‘cute as a fox’. We know each other much better now 16 years later.

 

My wife had much the same childhood indoctrination process as myself. Perhaps because of the fact that her parents were Irish immigrants, they were more zealous in their religious conviction. Deirdre was much more religiously Catholic than I was just prior to her converting. On one occasion in 1993, a close relative slapped her when they discovered that another family member had visited the church. On another occasion, this relative insisted that she was not allowed to leave their house to go to a church meeting. Immediately following her baptism in 1992 another close relative went to her university and was instrumental in having the church banned from her campus. It was this kind of opposition that emboldened other family members to be outspoken in their slander after we were married.

In spite of these quite extreme reactions to my wife’s faith, I have only ever witnessed her doing her utmost to be respectful to her parents, siblings and extended family members. I too have tried my best to respect her family as well as my own. In my case, I have also done my best since my marriage to set the same kind of boundaries with my in-laws that I set with my own family. We have attended weddings and funerals and taken part to the best of our ability whilst not going against our own faith. On occasion, we have had to refuse to take part in certain prayers that were against our beliefs. We have been respectful to Catholic clergy in spite of our own leadership being regarded as cult leaders. We have taken part in family events such as Christmas and birthdays and tried to keep in touch. Inevitably we have been busy with the mission of Jesus Christ and we have not been as active with our physical family as we are with our church and our families know that. Nonetheless,

I have also had wonderful opportunities to be with my own family. It was often the case that over the years when I have visited (especially at Christmas) that my siblings left my mother or father alone and went to clubs. These were some of the best nights I had with my parents as I had them to myself!

 

Ecclesia Sanctae

Having had one priest and two nuns on my father’s side who were Catholic clergy (two aunts and one uncle) has proven interesting. My father’s eldest brother was a Catholic priest and was also a parish priest in a town close to the house where I grew up. In fact, he also grew up in this house. I only remember him visiting once during the 10 years that I lived at the house. I was introduced to him. I went forward to kiss him as I did all my uncles and aunts and was pulled back and told ‘Father Peter doesn’t like kisses’. He died four years after my baptism when I was 25 years old. My father brought me to visit him in the nursing home before he died but asked me not to bring up the bible on my visit. Peter did not address me directly during our visit. We didn’t know one another. It is accepted by Catholic church members and indeed enshrined in certain documents of the Vatican that clergy will inevitably spend less time with their immediate physical family than they do with parishioners in the places where they serve. It is obvious this absence is very much accepted by most Catholics and is seen in some way as a privilege to bear this cross of absence when one has clergy in one’s immediate family. However on the occasions where I have been absent especially when specifically requested to visit or when I have decided to leave early or come late owing to my own commitment to my ministry, I have been frowned upon and comments have been made which have been quite negative and hurtful (sometimes in a public way among the wider family). It has rarely if ever been accepted by my family that I have placed my ministry above them. Juxtaposed with the Catholic attitude towards clergy, this is a conundrum. Of course, my Catholic family do not see my ministry as one and the same with the priesthood. In Catholicism, a priest is a special person within the church but in biblical teaching, all Christians are priests and are here on earth to minister to the whole world. This is not a general teaching of the Catholic church per se so it is easy to see why this prejudice exists. When I converted in 1990 I changed my worldview and perspective of my life so that in essence I decided to have a ‘full-time heart’. This basically imbibes the responsibility that Jesus taught where every follower has the responsibility to teach and convert others. Sadly, in many denominations, this whole teaching is replaced by a clergy-laity system. This is the main form of church government in the Catholic Church. Our Catechetical teaching on the priesthood is quite alien to most Catholics but that is something that I have sought to try to address over the last 28 years amongst my family and the people that I have met.

 

Some of the most stinging kinds of responses to my faith have come in the form of false accusations. One particularly insidious case of this was around 2005. 

I was sitting with my dad and one of his sisters (one of the nuns) and one of my siblings were visiting together with their wife and child. My Aunt asked me (quite out of the blue) why I had never thought to visit her in her convent. She said it was not very christian and blamed my commitment to my church. I was aware that this position was held by my dad and I avoided getting into an argument by saying as little as possible at the time. I left shortly afterward with my sibling’s family and when we were outside one of my extended family commented on my Aunt’s sharp tongue. Again I said as little as possible. Sometimes it is best to apply the principle demonstrated by Jesus in Mk 14:61a (‘But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.’). Other times (as with this article it is better to apply another directive;

 

1 Peter 3:15 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,

I wrote my Aunt a lengthy letter a day or so later and sent it to her by post. I mainly followed the principle of Romans 14:16. The general outline of the letter went as follows.

1. I’m sorry that we never knew each other or got to know each other during the first 10 years of my life when you were doing your missionary work.

2. I know that over the next 10 years I was estranged from you due to the problems that you had in your relationship with my mother around the split with my father.

3. The last 10 years we have not been close because I have been doing my own missionary work.

4. I am very open to a relationship with you now that you have initiated it.

One of my favourite fun parts of the mass, growing up as a child was the ‘Sign of Peace’ where we got to shake hands with the people in the seats all around us and say the words ‘peace be with you’. I grew up in my teenage years with the knowledge that this nun had refused to shake my mother’s hand at mass after she had split with my father on an occasion where they found themselves sitting in adjoining pews during that part of the mass. This gave me the distinct impression that I would not be welcome visiting her and initiating a relationship. In addition her sister (also a nun) had been present in our home the night that the separation papers came through and called a meeting of all the children asking each in turn from the youngest (5 years old) to the oldest (myself aged 10) whether or not we wanted our parents to split up. I was the only one of five siblings that said that I wanted my father to leave. I didn’t see that I could have a relationship with either one of these ladies owing to the stance they took in denying my father’s alcoholism. Once the challenge had been laid out to me though, I used the opportunity to try to build a relationship. I visited both aunts at their convents but sadly they never expressed any interest in studying the Bible. I have very rarely seen members of the clergy visiting with us either at church or in our home (except during my abuse investigation) but I am hopeful that this might change as we study the bible with more and more Catholics.

This quote is from ‘Norms for implementing the decree: on the up-to-date renewal of religious life” (Paul VI, Ecclesia Sanctae, 6 August, 1966) Section 28

I picked up a cheap copy of the Documents of the Vatican Council of ’65/’66 in a secondhand bookshop in Belfast where I was living as a missionary in 1993. My own’ Novice Master’ had gently advised me in 1990 against returning home only days after my baptism and I had fully accepted the idea. When I communicated this by letter to my mother, however, she was profoundly affected and not at all willing to accept my admission to the priesthood of believers something which (had I become a Catholic priest) could have been a source of great pride. It was the year 2000 before she shared amongst my friends one evening that she had ‘let me go with her blessing’ which was a source of considerable relief given the decade that had gone before. She still mentions that first decision I made not to return home at Christmas that first year. There was so much temptation for me in my environment and I was a novice. I have always received understanding nods from recovering alcoholics describing that first decision.

 

R. S. V. P.

It is perhaps because my wife had experienced such responses from family members that she was able to negotiate a relationship with my father that was always on good terms. I had introduced two of my previous girlfriends to him, one of whom was a Catholic prior to her conversion. Her family had not been quite so expressive in their opposition. During her one and only conversation with my father, she made the mistake of objecting to his invitation to go to Mass at the local chapel and receive Holy Communion. She replied ‘I am not a Catholic’. His anger flared up and he poked his finger sharply into her ribs and called her something unrepeatable. I had foreseen something like this happening and as she was in tears I asked her to leave and joined her some minutes later.

 

These few short ramblings only highlight the main body of response that we have had from our Catholic families. Responses from family members have been varied – among my family and families of other former Catholics in my church. On the one hand, they have experienced overt physical and verbal persecution. On the other hand, silent ignoring of the active ingredient of this change within our lives. Probably the most disheartening response is pluralistic acceptance with the over-weaning assumption that it bestows absolution from ignorance of the process that led to the changes. These changes have been for the better over the last three decades for my wife and I. My marriage has lasted 16 years and we are more in love now than ever. We were not blessed with any children but we have borne many spiritual children throughout our time as Christians. So few of our family members have any insight into this lifestyle as they have not come to investigate. In many ways ‘the church’ is perceived more as a competitive organisation than a happy family. This is a source of some sadness for me and my friends. That is the cross that we bear. In our international church, we have converts from every world religion. In recent years we have converted a Buddhist monk whose family received death threats in Nepal. We have seen evangelism made illegal in Russia where our brave brothers and sisters continue to share their faith. It is one of our greatest comforts that there are numerous Irish Catholics converted as members of our international church family. It is perhaps one of my greatest joys to have members of my church who were formerly Northern Ireland Protestants. One of them is one of my closest friends.

I have been a member of six Restoration Movement congregations in Ireland since 1990. I visited other churches of Christ and more than a few other denominations up and down the country. I lived around the corner from Martyr’s Memorial and had the pleasure of hearing the late Ian Paisley preach two sermons on the Sunday immediately after the resignation of the SDLP leader Seamus Mallon in July 1999. The title of the sermons was ‘Don’t believe the lie’ and centered on Seamus Mallon! I only rarely met converted Catholics in my visits to these denominations. It was a great victory of the ICOC congregations in Belfast that they converted almost equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants. The baptismal waters washed away not only our religiosity but any politics that would divide us. For disciples of Jesus it makes no difference if Trump or Obama send the troops, Ireland legalises Abortion or Sadam had chemical weapons. The world is the world and the only way to change people is on the inside. Politics has a place in our society but not in our hearts.

I wrote the lyrics to this song around 1997

I don’t think I would ever have been able to have the friendships I treasure with people from so many different backgrounds if I had not left the Catholic church and then joined the church I am in right now. As I share this with my family and friends I am not doing so to hurt them or to make them angry. I am simply hoping that seeing the panoramic view from this perspective might cause them to have a change of mind and make a proper, thorough, detailed investigation of what it is that so profoundly affected me and my friends’ lives after we changed. This would obviously be, by attempting to learn our Catechism in systematic topical Bible studies. It is perhaps a great irony that on paper at least the official teaching of the Catholic church prescribes Bible study in a number of key places.

I’m also hoping to embolden them if they are fearful of the reaction that might come as a result of taking an interest in the teachings that I and my friends wish to share. The church family is entirely capable of compensating for the pain that might be experienced if they are rejected in this same way. Of course, I am also hoping in writing this to encourage my ex-Catholic brothers and sisters especially those of Irish background in all our churches around the world. These are most likely common experiences that we have had together as we walk this journey with Jesus. We are one. We are family to the end.

 

 

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