From Lukewarm Catholic to Evangelical Catholic
“For me to live is Christ” - Philippians 1:21
Robert Frost once wrote:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I…took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."
I have been Catholic all my life, but it was really just part of my Latino cultural tradition. In my heart, I did not love God. How could I? I hardly knew him. I lived the first twenty-five years of my life in a secular coma. Faith, religion, God, death, judgment, heaven, and hell never really entered my mind. Ephesians 5:14 describes what I experienced: “…Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light."
Essentially, there are four types of Catholics: cultural (or cradle) Catholics; traditional Catholics; cafeteria Catholics; and evangelical Catholics. Let’s look at the characteristics of each of these.
Cultural Catholics – If you are a cradle (or cultural) Catholic, your parents baptized you as an infant, you go to Mass every Sunday, and you probably go to Catholic School or at least take religious instruction. It’s an external type of Catholicism, though; you don’t really know how to explain or defend the faith.
Traditional Catholics – My parents are a good example of traditional Catholics. Born in Mexico and raised with very little education, Catholicism was in their DNA. They live out the devotions of the Church; they are pious, prayerful, and humble. They have a deep-rooted faith, but it’s very personal—so personal that they are reticent to share their faith, in part because they have never been taught how to articulate it.
Cafeteria Catholics – These Catholics pick and choose what they want to believe. They might be angry with the Church because it’s not progressive enough for them. They question the Church’s authority and want things to change.
Evangelical Catholics – These are Catholics who have fallen in love with Jesus. They know their faith, live in a state of grace, love the Bible, honor Our Lady, are faithful to the magisterium of the Church, and actively share and defend their faith.
I was raised in a traditional Catholic family. I attended Catholic schools, and we went to Mass every Sunday as a family. We also prayed the rosary at least once a week as a family. As far as I can remember my parents were active in the Church. My father had a conversion experience through a Cursillo retreat, after which he traded the life of a functional alcoholic for the life of a sober man of God. My mother was born with the gift of deep abiding faith. I saw many nights when my mother would be praying trains of rosaries and litanies for my father who was at the local bar drinking and gambling until the late morning hours.
In my formative years, I was clearly sheltered in a Catholic culture, and as a kid I thought the whole world was Catholic. I basically lived in a Catholic barrio; everything in our family life and neighborhood revolved around our local Catholic parish.
From Cultural Catholic to Secular Humanist
In my teen years, I became addicted to both the martial arts and the Chicano civil rights movement that permeated the barrios in the 1970s. These two influences overshadowed virtually all the Catholic Christian beliefs that had been instilled in me. The crisis of faith I experienced is but a microcosm of what happens in the life of the typical Southern California Latino youth. Like so many of them, I became a pragmatic atheist in my teens; I had Catholic sensibilities and sentiments, but I had a secular humanist mindset.
When secular humanism grabbed a hold of me, I became infected by the slick-talking, politically correct experts of this world. I had descended from “cultural Catholicism” to “cafeteria Catholicism.” Being in this condition is like stumbling along in the dark, not even aware that it is dark. I lived in this comatose spiritual condition for many years, although I still attended Mass (more out of trying to keep harmony with my parents than conviction). I never even questioned the Catholic Faith as I was growing up because I was indifferent and apathetic towards religion.
From the age of thirteen to eighteen, I became enslaved to the martial arts. There is no doubt that the martial arts harnessed my energy in the right direction, and it probably kept me from a life of juvenile delinquency. I idolized the martial arts superstars, with Bruce Lee at the top of my list. I was awarded my black belt at the age of eighteen in Tang Soo Do Korean karate. Then I became a second-generation Chuck Norris black belt. While I attended junior college, I worked at a supermarket and I began teaching karate. At this stage in my life, I thought about God only on occasions, particularly at funerals and weddings. The things of God just didn’t factor into secular humanist mind. More than anything else, I was guided by my concupiscence: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. My god was an unholy trinity called Me, Myself, and I.
At the age of twenty-one, I joined the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. That same year I got married to my wife, Anita. My parents were happy—they had always admonished me to marry a Catholic from my own Latino culture. My wife was a cultural Catholic, devoted to her faith but just as unformed as I was.
Being a deputy sheriff at the age of twenty-one, with all the authority vested in me by the state of California, made me somewhat arrogant, prideful, and self-righteous. While I was going through the Academy, I was well respected among the other cadets for my physical fitness and my martial arts background. I hung out with all the other “jocks” (physically fit cadets), and we would haze the less physically fit, more “nerdy” cadets. There was one cadet who I liked to harass because I saw him as a “softie”—he was uncoordinated and not very physically fit. I believed that “might makes right” and “only the strong survive,” in addition to being full of a lot of “Chicano power.” I was driven to train myself mentally and physically to have a fighting spirit and to become a deadly weapon.
Upon graduation from the Academy, this cadet whom I considered a “softie” gave me a wrapped gift. He wished me well, said that he had enjoyed our friendship, and concluded by saying, “God bless you.” I was stunned. Here was a guy who had every reason in the world to dislike me, yet he gave me a gift and imparted a blessing to me. This type of overt Christian behavior had an effect on my secular mind; I couldn’t wrap my mind around a random act of kindness in public. It was a moment of grace for me.
I went home, opened the gift, and lo and behold, it was a Catholic Living Bible. I said to myself, “What kind of person would do something like this after being treated so badly?” I put the Holy Bible on the coffee table and promised myself that I would read it daily, because I was genuinely curious to read all it had to say; I knew there was something unique about the Bible. Well, just as in the parable of the sower where the seed falls among thorns, I was like the one who hears the Word but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the Word and it bears no fruit. I relegated my Bible to the coffee table for the next couple of years. It sat there lifeless, pages stuck together, spine intact, still in the cellophane wrapper. My version of “Bible-thumping” was on Fridays when I would dust the furniture and dust off my Bible.
My job was really changing me for the worst; I was young and impressionable, working in the L.A. County Jail, the largest jail in the world and full of violence. As I walked into that jail every day, even I could feel the strong presence of evil. At this point in my young life, I did not have a strong moral conscience. I witnessed many deputies who coped with the stress of the job by turning to alcohol, gambling, and sexual immorality. Law enforcement has the highest rate of divorce and depression compared to other occupations. My priorities were my career, karate, and another newly discovered passion, competitive amateur boxing.
A Different Path
In the midst of this aggressive, violent, competitive, secular world, full of testosterone, the Lord sent me a breath of fresh air. I met a deputy sheriff named Paul Clay. He definitely marched to a different drumbeat. He had a genuine love for people and there was a sense of peace about him that I couldn’t understand. He was also full of joy, which bugged me; I used to tell Paul that once he put on his sheriff’s uniform, he needed to get rid of that happy-go-lucky attitude. He would just chuckle. I am sure he pitied my secular way of thinking.
Working side by side in the county jail, we developed a very deep friendship. We would work out every day together—we would go running or lift weights—and all the while he would talk to me about Jesus Christ. He quoted the Bible with such familiarity that I was mesmerized by the wisdom that flowed from his words. His behavior, his vocabulary, and his family life were also consistent with his love for God.
Paul would ask me questions about my Catholic Faith, but I had no answers. He would ask me if I had accepted the Lord. Where would I spend eternity if I died tonight? Was I saved? Was I born again? Did I have an assurance of my salvation? These questions seemed a little strange to me. I didn’t remember such questions from my Baltimore Catechism days. However, these questions were scratching me where I itched, both intellectually and spiritually.
I started taking a spiritual inventory of my life. I came to the honest conclusion that I knew about Jesus, I had heard stories about him, but I didn’t know Jesus as the Lord of my life. I had never appropriated the faith of my childhood; I had never made a personal, sincere declaration of faith in Jesus Christ of my own volition. I had prayed a lot of words during Holy Mass but I did so without any love; it was just to fulfill an obligation. I came to the startling conclusion that I was spiritually bankrupt. I was a perfectionist in everything I endeavored to do, whether it was sports, school, or career. I always wanted to be at the top of my game, and I suddenly realized that I was not prepared for the last four things at the end of my earthly existence: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. My moral conscience spoke loudly to me: “Knowing Jesus is a matter of life and death,” and in this area I was failing miserably. The words of Sacred Scripture came into my heart like a bolt of lightning: “For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Paul gave me Christian tract that said if you are not moving forward spiritually, you are probably moving backward. The world had taught me that he who dies with the most toys wins, but this tract said that he who dies with forgiveness of sins wins. This now totally made sense to me. All the sacramental graces I had received throughout the course of my life were stirring within my soul.
Paul and I had been engaging in spiritual dialogue for a couple of months, and he had given me many non-Catholic Christian books, tapes, and tracts. One evening after work as we walked to our cars in the employee parking lot, Paul asked me, “Had you ever made a personal commitment to Jesus?” He told me that I could not be saved through the faith of my parents or a priest; I had to take my own step of faith and invite the Lord into my heart and life personally. I answered him honestly that I hadn’t made that personal commitment, and he responded by telling me that’s what was missing in my life. The he told me something I will never forget: “Most people will miss heaven by about twelve inches.” When I asked him what he meant, he said the distance between the head and the heart is about twelve inches, and true faith must travel from the head to the heart. That hit me like a ton of bricks. Paul had a lot of credibility with me, because I saw love in his heart for everyone.
From Head to Heart
I drove home after that conversation with Paul realizing that I had a fair amount of head knowledge about Jesus but my heart was empty. I began crying as I drove down the interstate. I realized that I had endeared my heart to worldly things that really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of life. My addictions and enslavements to creature comforts would not matter when I crossed the threshold of eternity.
When I arrived home, I knelt down in my living room and I looked at a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that was given to me by my parents. I felt the unspeakably warm presence of Jesus in such a powerful way that night. I remember my parents telling me that wherever the Sacred Heart of Jesus is honored, he will bless that household. I pulled out a tract that Paul had given me about “the four spiritual laws,” and I sincerely prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer” on the back of the card. That day Jesus Christ became real to me.
This mystical encounter was a pivotal conversion point in my life. In an instant, the current of my life was altered, and I believed in Jesus with such force and tenacity, with such an uprising of my whole being, with a conviction so powerful, with such a certainty that leaves no sort of doubt. Since then, all the hazards of a constantly changing world have not been able to dilute my remembrance of this profound revelation. This conversion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ occurred in 1988. My conversion was not simply some emotional encounter, either. There was a rush of reason, and the assurance that Jesus was the Son of God who rose from the dead flooded my soul. That night I felt as if I had reached back 2,000 years, grabbed hold of the Cross, and let the Blood of Jesus wash me clean.
The Holy Bible immediately became like a love letter to me from God; it became like a window out of this prison-like world through which I could look at eternity and be refreshed. I began listening to all the tapes and reading all the books and pamphlets Paul had given me. I read large sections of the Bible daily; the person of Jesus Christ came right out of the printed pages of Scripture and became a reality. I especially started immersing myself in the Gospels night after night. I listened to all the radio preachers Paul recommended, especially the Bible Answer Man radio program. I began attending Protestant events, concerts, and services on my own because I wanted to find out the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ. I promised the Lord that I would follow him wherever he led me.
I found out that Paul was a fallen-away Catholic who identified himself as a non-denominational (fundamentalist) Christian. He seemed very sure of himself when he shared his faith with me, and I took it all in like a sponge. Not being anchored well to the Catholic Faith, I saturated myself in the world of evangelical fundamentalism. Every waking moment found me listening to a different radio preacher and following along in my Bible. I heard significant amounts of anti-Catholic propaganda, and I began to believe it since I had never heard a Catholic answer to refute these charges. After a good solid year of this indoctrination, I was convinced that the Catholic religion was “unbiblical” and leading people into error.
I gave my testimony at a small fundamentalist church that Paul attended. My wife knew all that was going on in my life spiritually, and she saw that my Catholicism was hanging by a thread. Some Protestant preachers said that the Catholic Church was a cult, while others taught that it was Christian but had some errors. Through Protestant fundamentalism I learned about the Holy Trinity, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the blood atonement, and the inerrancy of Scripture. I shared what I was learning with my parents one day, and they were surprised that I thought this was novel. My parents told me those six fundamental truths are historic Catholic truths. That conversation opened my mind towards the possibility that some Catholics might be “Christian” and may be “saved.”
Catholic vs. Protestant
My wife recognized that I was undergoing a spiritual odyssey. She was conflicted, happy, and worried all at the same time. My wife was content being a cultural Catholic. She knew I was “church shopping” and visiting other Protestant church services. She sat down with me one day and told me that she liked the positive changes that she saw in me, but she wasn’t sure she was going to like the ending. My wife had no interest in leaving the Catholic Church. I quickly pointed out to her with my newly acquired biblical repertoire, “Honey, the Bible says, ‘Wives submit yourself to your husbands.’” The arrogant manner with which I said this quickly ended that conversation. (Of course, I didn’t read the entire passage that also says, “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loves the Church.”)
We talked the next day when both of us were calm, and my wife affirmed the good qualities that she saw in me which were virtuous. However, she added that if I left the Catholic Church, this would disrupt our marriage because she wasn’t going to leave the Catholic Church. I then let the cat out of the bag by telling her I believed that the Catholic Church taught error based on all the reading I had done, the tapes I had listened to, and the radio preachers who were teaching me “biblical” truth.
My wife challenged me; she threw down the gauntlet. She said, “Before you run off to some other church—or worse yet, start your own—why don’t you study Catholicism from Catholic sources? You have had your nose studiously in non-Catholic Christian literature for the past year and a half. If you can prove to yourself that Catholicism is wrong from Catholic sources, then I will respect you if you still want to leave. But, first, give it a chance.”
Being a deputy sheriff, I saw great validity to her argument. After all, I knew that hearsay testimony is inadmissible in a court of law, and all my anti-Catholic biases were hearsay; I had never investigated Catholicism from Catholic sources. Bishop Fulton Sheen once said:
There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church—which is, of course, quite a different thing.
I accepted my wife’s challenge, especially since I saw the prospect of her leaving the Catholic Church with me if I proved that Catholicism was wrong. I told her very confidently, “Honey, this is going to be easy because there are no Catholic answers to my objections.” I went on to assure my wife that Catholicism is an aberration of the true Gospel.
My wife told my parents that I was shopping around at non-Catholic churches. My parents affirmed that they were proud that I had experienced a conversion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and they told me they understood my feelings and emotions (unbeknownst to me they had become involved in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal). My parents had always been authentically devout Catholics, but now they were reading Sacred Scripture daily and were heavily involved in Catholic evangelization. My parents invited my wife and me to attend the “Encuentro Latino,” a massive Hispanic Catholic Charismatic conference, where they said I would meet other Catholics who love the Scriptures, had a relationship with Jesus Christ, believed in evangelization, and were faithful to the Catholic Church.
The Los Angeles Sports Arena was packed: more than 20,000 Catholics praising the Lord in song and sharing powerful Christ-centered conversion testimonies. We witnessed Catholic clergy and laypeople giving dynamic, Bible-based evangelistic preaching, and we attended Eucharistic Adoration and reverent sacred liturgies. At one point, one of the priests had all of us get on our knees while the Eucharistic Lord was exposed in the monstrance, and he led us in a prayer to dedicate or rededicate our lives to Jesus Christ. This was a powerful moment of grace for me; there was a thick cloud of holiness that descended over the crowd. There were people claiming to be healed of all kinds of illnesses and delivered from demonic contamination.
I definitely felt at home at this conference, even though I still had doctrinal questions about Catholicism. I was overcome by the emotional experience of being in the presence of God; I felt his presence like never before. I decided to put all my doctrinal questions on hold for a while as I enjoyed this “honeymoon” experience with the Lord. My wife also experienced a great spiritual awakening that weekend, and we both became involved with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.
We began attending conferences, workshops, Life in the Spirit seminars, healing Masses, praise gatherings, prayer meetings and evangelization retreats. We were totally committed as a Catholic couple. We went to a Marriage Encounter, and the Lord blessed us with our first child. We named him Paul, after my favorite apostle and my friend who had introduced me to the lordship of Jesus Christ.
After a while, the honeymoon phase of my conversion was over, and now I wanted answers to some of my questions about Catholicism. I wanted to know what I believed and why I believed it, and I wanted to be sure Catholicism could be reconciled with the Holy Bible. Fundamentalist Christianity had left me with a residue of anti-Catholicism. At this point, I had a Catholic heart but a Protestant mind, theology, and vocabulary. I met with my parents’ parish priest, and he acknowledged that I had a lot of good questions. He offered to send me to a Catholic Answers conference entitled “Go Forth and Teach,” (March 2-4, 1990) which would be held at the Long Beach Marriot. He told me that Catholic Answers was a lay apostolate founded by Catholic apologists who were experts at answering Protestant objections and misunderstandings.
I attended this conference with two other parishioners, and we were encouraged to ask the presenters all the tough questions we had and thoroughly pick their brains. This seminar was three days long, but it seemed like twenty minutes. The cadre of speakers included Karl Keating, Patrick Madrid, Mark Brumley, Scott Hahn, Thomas Howard, Deal Hudson, and Fr. Mitch Pacwa. For me, the weekend was like a spiritual boot camp—thirty hours of high-powered evangelization and high-octane apologetics. All my Protestant objections came crumbling down like a house of cards. All of my objections, questions, doubts, and insecurities received compelling, cogent, biblical, and historical Catholic answers. The Catholic faith came to life for me—right from the pages of my NIV Protestant Bible!
I thought to myself, Why wasn’t I taught this before? Why didn’t I know this? Why wasn’t I given good Catholic apologetics in all of my years of Catholic school? I thought about the thousands of Catholics who have left the true Church of Christ for denominational Christianity (like my friend Paul), who never knew what they left. They were never catechized, nor were they ever given good, biblical, Catholic answers to their questions. Watered-down Catholicism doesn’t attract anyone, but unadulterated Catholicism is like a divine magnet; it is addictive.
The conference that weekend injected me with spiritual steroids. It overhauled my Catholic faith and education big time. I was literally “Surprised by Truth” (the title of one of the many books I purchased there). I felt truly “born again” after this apologetics conference—no more confusion, no more searching. I went home, burst through the front door, and embraced my wife, Anita. I cried and repented for trying to take her out of the Catholic Church. I repented for having slandered and spoken falsely about the true Church of Jesus Christ. We wept in each other’s arms. We truly became a Catholic Christian couple that day; we were both flooded with God’s grace in each other’s arms. As a couple, we were fully submitted to the lordship of Jesus Christ; we honored Our Lady, were obedient to the Church, loved the Scriptures, and were committed to evangelism. I made a vow to my wife and to the Lord that I would serve the Catholic Church for the rest of my life with the same fighting spirit that catapulted me to the status of U.S.A. national kickboxing champion and three-time World Police Olympic middleweight boxing champion.
Ever since that day back in 1990, I’ve lived my life with a sense of urgency to evangelize. As St John Paul II says, “It is not enough to discover Christ—you must bring him to others." To reach people with the lifesaving message of the gospel means that we have to walk it, talk it, preach it, pray it, rap it, teach it, tell it, write it, type it, live it, give it, wear it, share it, shout it, sing it, scream it, proclaim it—we must live for Jesus. Evangelism is not something we do; it is who we are.
The Fellowship of the Unashamed
I’m part of the Fellowship of the Unashamed. The die has been cast. I have stepped over the line. The decision has been made. I’m a disciple of Christ, and I won’t look back, let up, slow down, back away, or be still.
My past is redeemed. My present makes sense. My future is secure. I’m finished with low living, sight walking, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tamed visions, mundane talking, cheap living, and dwarfed goals.
I no longer need preeminence, lavish wealth, position, promotions, plaudits, or popularity. I don’t have to be right, or first, or tops, or recognized, or praised, or rewarded. I live by faith, lean on His presence, walk by patience, live by prayer, and labor by the Holy Spirit’s power.
My face is set. My gait is fast. My goal is Heaven. My road may be narrow, my way rough, my companions few, but my Guide is reliable and my mission is clear.
I will not be bought, compromised, detoured, lured away, turned back, deluded, or delayed.
I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice or hesitate in the presence of the adversary. I will not negotiate at the table of the enemy, ponder at the pool of popularity, or meander in the maze of mediocrity.
I won’t give up, shut up, or let up until I have stayed up, stored up, prayed up, paid up, and preached up for the cause of Christ.
I am a disciple of Jesus. I must give until I drop, preach until all know, and work until He comes. And when He does come for His own, He’ll have no problems recognizing me. I am part of the Fellowship of the Unashamed.