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How Protestants Made Me A Better Catholic

April 9th, 2012by Sean Ater

My heritage is largely German, so it is no surprise that Protestantism looms large in my ancestry. On my father’s side, we have a strong Lutheran heritage. One of my grandfather’s prized heirlooms is a second copy of the Gutenberg Press Bible. One of my great-great grandfathers was a circuit-riding preacher in Southwest Ohio.

My father converted to Catholicism when he met a nice Catholic girl, my mom. Even today, I think my father would admit that his deep Protestant heritage tugs at his heart from time to time.

As I reflect on my own spiritual journey, Protestantism has been a catalyzing force in my life, especially in my formative years. I have fond memories of going to Christian contemporary rock concerts as a pre-teen. I attended an Evangelical high school in Dayton, Ohio, where I developed a real love for Sacred Scripture, for evangelization, and the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Being one of only a handful of Catholics in an intensely Evangelical high school was not without its challenges. My own fledgling Catholic faith was assaulted by a barrage of Catholic misconceptions. “You Catholics…worship Mary…pray to idols…believe you are saved by works alone…believe a priest can forgive your sins” and the list goes on. If it were not for a strong foundation in my faith given to me by parents and nurtured, at that time, by a wonderful parish youth ministry, I think I might have been swayed from Catholicism.

As it turns out, I have my experience in high school to thank for a strong desire to discover and understand my Catholic faith. This hunger to know the truth about Catholicism was born out of a kind of survival technique in high school, but it led me to enroll in a Catholic university and pursue an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies, a master’s degree in Pastoral Ministry, and to eventually find myself working for the Catholic Church.

I have a particularly poignant memory of a graduate level course I was taking with a Protestant professor that I had a lot of respect for. In the course of a lecture on Christian ethics he made one simple comment that helped solidify for me a deep dedication not only to Jesus Christ, but to the Church He founded.

“Modern people are so used to consuming everything that we don’t stop to think how it affects our approach to Sacred Scripture,” he said. “The result is that we read God’s Word and we form our own opinions about it. What we do not realize is that Sacred Scripture was never meant to be read in this way. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. Sacred Scripture was meant to form us.”

God used this simple, off the cuff comment to work on my heart. I began to ask myself, “Was I a typical modern person who approached Church teaching as a fickle consumer, choosing what I would believe and what I would follow on my own?” Had I made an honest attempt to let the teachings of Christ form me? Faced with this brutal question, “Who needs to change, the Church or me?” I had to answer: I MUST CHANGE!”

And so I made a simple yet profound commitment to submit to Christ in the teachings of the Church. Put simply, I decided to take God at His word. The result is that I can look back many years later and marvel at the many ways my thinking and acting have been transformed.

What about you? How would you answer the question, “Who needs to change, the Church or me?”

Sean Ater

Sean Ater is the Director of the Office of the New Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He is married with 3 children and a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Milford