It caused more than just a stir when I told the congregation of the Evangelical megachurch that I served as pastor since I founded it 30 years ago that my wife and I intended to become Catholics. It caused a real uproar in my country of Sweden, which remains overwhelmingly Protestant. The period from that day, March 9, until May 21, when we were received into the Catholic Church, was marked by contention and debate. I have binders full of articles, comments and reactions that appeared in the traditional media and on the internet.
Our conviction that we needed to become Catholics grew slowly, over a number of years, but the actual decision to take this step came rather late. Our question was: how should we communicate it? It could really not be done over a longer period of time, step by step. That would have caused great speculation and confusion, nationally and internationally in our great network of churches. Over the last couple of years our friends and co-workers realised that we were more and more attracted to Catholic theology, morals, liturgy and culture. Few of them, though, perceived that we would actually make the step and convert. In the months and weeks before we announced our decision we involved the board of the church and some other colleagues to be prepared to help us in the process of communicating this news to the congregation.
As I now look back, I cannot see any other way that this could have been done. The pastors at Word of Life did an excellent job, helping the members to start processing what had happened and its different consequences. They also had to try to answer a number of questions about the Catholic faith. Yet there were many emotions: criticism, as well as sorrow and feelings of loss and rejection. How could I as a pastor leave my flock? Did I not betray them and my own calling? Didn’t I consider them Christians anymore? Was everything I taught before wrong now? Some wondered how I, who seem to have been standing strong for so many years, could fall for such an outright deception and lie. Accusations were hurled from left and right and emotions ran high. Some still do.
Still, there were many in the congregation who actually understood. They were thankful that a new pastor had been in place for more than a year. These members respected our decision and understood that it was based on what we perceived as a call from God. We were not deceived, but led by God in this matter, even though they didn’t understand why and how. We received many encouraging letters from both Protestants and Catholics.
We also encountered an interesting, and somewhat postmodern approach from some. They where ready to accept that God could call us to the Catholic Church, but they could not accept the doctrines of the Church. One preacher expressed it this way: “OK, you became a Catholic, but for sure you don’t believe what they believe, do you?” They spoke as if I really had a choice or could be selective in my choosing. When I answered that I do believe all that the Catholic Church believes and teaches, it seemed very odd to many of my Protestant friends. It was hard for them to understand that to be Catholic actually means to believe as a Catholic, even for me.
For us, truth was the very thing that mattered. We have always believed in the Word of God and that there is an absolute truth, revealed by God. Now, more and more, we had come to see that there is a concrete historic Church founded by Christ, and a treasure, a deposit of both objective and living faith. This attracted and drew us into the Catholic Church. If we believed that the fullness of truth is embedded in and upheld by the Catholic Church, then we did not have any choice but to fully unite with this Church.
When the time finally came to be received into the Church we felt more than ready, anxious to leave no-man’s-land. It felt like finally becoming who we really were. At last the longing for the participation in the sacramental grace came to an end.
We have tried to explain to our friends that we are not rejecting that which God gave us in our Evangelical and Charismatic environment but, as the saying goes, “Evangelical is not enough.” It is not wrong in its love of Scripture and upholding of the basic truths of the Gospel and its fervent evangelising. All this is necessary, but it is not enough. The Charismatic life, with its emphasis of the power and the leading of the Holy Spirit is necessary, and it is an amazing gift. But it cannot be lived out in its fullness in a schismatic and overly individualistic environment. Understanding this opened us to the realisation of the necessity of the Church in its fullness, with its rich sacramental life.
So we do not reject our background and the rich ministerial experiences we have had over the many years as founders and leaders of Word of Life. We are forever thankful to the Lord, for all He has done. But we are immensely happy and grateful that we now understand that we really need the Catholic Church in our continued life and service to the Lord.
So now, as we begin this walk there is so much to explore. Now that all our former duties, obligations and positions are gone, we can, at least for now, live at a pace that allows a more reflective life. We have been used to constantly upholding the ministry, our church. Now the Church lifts us up. The sacraments have become a tangible reality in our lives and they sustain us in a concrete way. Something – grace, I am sure – is here in a way that it was not before. A fresh breeze is blowing through our lives. We look forward to exploring and fully identifying with all that we now are a part of. It is very exciting to live fully for Jesus Christ – in the Catholic Church.
Ulf Ekman is the former pastor of the Word of Life church in Uppsala, Sweden
This article was first published in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (8/8/14)