Sometimes I think the greatest thing that ever happened to me spiritually was getting kicked out of Franciscan University of Steubenville.
That was the opening line of my conversion story Son of a Preacher Man in Patrick Madrid’s classic book, Surprised by Truth 2. The story was written several years ago, so what follows will reiterate the early years and bring the story up to date. More great things have happened to me spiritually since then – although none of them appeared to be blessings at the time!
A Preacher’s kid from Canada
I grew up in a small town near Toronto, Canada, the son of a Presbyterian minister. My parents are wonderful people – and in my opinion, they’re living saints. While studying theology at a Baptist seminary in the 1960’s, my dad heard so much anti-Catholic rhetoric that he decided to take a Knights of Columbus correspondence course to hear the other side of the story. Partly as a result of that course, he ended up leaving the Baptists to enroll in a Presbyterian seminary. This was one of his first steps toward an appreciation of Catholicism.
After my dad graduated from seminary, my parents became missionaries in Nigeria. Malaria forced them to return to Canada prematurely, but their experience in Nigeria changed their lives forever. The Catholic missionaries they were exposed to had a powerful, yet practical faith. When civil war broke out, the Catholic religious stayed while others fled the country. Their fearlessness in doing Christ’s work had a profound impact on my parents.
The experience in Nigeria had another formative effect on my dad in particular. After witnessing a disorganized approach to trade in Nigeria (just buying a stamp could take 45 minutes), he wondered whether the Lord was calling him to further education in business. After hitting the 99.9th percentile on the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) and then topping his MBA class at the University of Western Ontario, he was the recipient of a full scholarship to the Ph.D. program at M.I.T. Despite humble beginnings, he earned his doctorate there in International Business. From that point forward, the unusual fusion of faith and business would characterize his career – and eventually be passed along to me!
After a stint in academia, my dad accepted a position as the full-time minister of a Presbyterian church. In addition to attending this church, I was exposed to countless Protestant denominations: United Church, Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist, Evangelical, Quaker – you name it. As I grew in my faith, I discovered that the one common belief within Protestantism was that Christ died on the cross to wash away our sins. Pretty much everything else was negotiable.
Occasionally, I would encounter the Catholic Church. Of course, I didn’t understand much about Catholicism, and it seemed very complicated and foreign. Like many of my Protestant friends, I thought that no single denomination had a monopoly on truth, and that Catholicism was simply another denomination. I sincerely believed it was okay that no church had the whole truth, and that we would all be enlightened and unified when the general resurrection occurred.
I knew a lot of people who also held this point of view. They would shop for the denomination that was right for them, the one that best suited them theologically and in the way it worshipped.
You can see the problem. Rather than seeking Christian truth – especially if it meant they had to abandon their personal beliefs – many were content simply to find the group of people who taught doctrines with which they were comfortable. They wanted to worship with others whose perception of God and His demands on them were similar to their own.
I say this not out of any antagonism toward Protestants. These people were my friends, and they were sincere. But they had fallen into subjectivism: they were searching for a Church that held their beliefs instead of seeking a Church whose beliefs they ought to hold. That’s backward. Our call is not to conform the Christian faith to ourselves, but to conform ourselves to the Faith. After all, who needs to change: we or God?
I enter Franciscan University – twice!
In spite of my denominational confusion, I had an idyllic childhood, watching my parents live out their vocations to love and serve the Lord in full-time ministry. Since I had started school early as a child and later skipped a grade, I graduated from high school when I was sixteen. Full of exuberance and self-confidence, I believed I was ready for college.
At that time, my dad read a now-defunct Catholic magazine called New Covenant (published, significantly, by Our Sunday Visitor). The magazine ran an article about Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. After reading about this unique school, my dad thought the dynamic Christian environment might help me through my rebellious years.
At sixteen, I enrolled in the university. Although I was there to study psychology, I double-majored in beer and billiards. Three semesters later, my enthusiastic dedication to these pursuits got me academically dismissed – kicked out of the university. I returned to Canada humiliated.
The Lord soon provided me with a job at Sony of Canada, where I matured, improved my work ethic, and discovered that I enjoyed the world of business. After four years with Sony, I wanted to be on track to the top of the company. That required a degree, so I returned to school – this time to study business.
By the grace of God, Franciscan University allowed me to re-enter.
A closet Catholic!?!
The second time around at Franciscan, I worked hard. However, I finally had to take the Catholic theology courses I had avoided during my first three semesters. So I would call up my father, and say “Hey, you wouldn’t believe what I heard in class today. What do you think about this?” My dad, with characteristic patience and wisdom, would explain the Catholic and Protestant perspectives, and then explain why the Catholic viewpoint makes a lot of sense. Over time, this approach led me to accept as reasonable many Catholic teachings; they weren’t as bizarre or unfounded as I had once believed.
One topic had a significant impact on me. In my ethics course, we studied the Catholic teaching on birth control. As a Presbyterian, of course, I saw nothing wrong with artificial contraception. However, as I considered the Catholic teaching on it, I came to see that anti-contraception arguments were simple and compelling, and I began to understand why the “modern miracle” of contraception has such sinister effects on society.
Artificial birth control breaks the natural connection between marital love and the conception of children. Contraception makes it easier for extramarital relationships to happen and even thrive. Contraceptive sex is self-indulgent – hardly an authentic expression of love and total self-donation to another person. This realization led me to see that artificial contraception enables women to be demeaned, even unwittingly, by being treated by men as mere objects, used selfishly for gratification, and so I eventually rejected the conventional Protestant acceptance of contraception.
The issue of contraception raised a bigger doctrinal question for me. Until recently (the 1930s), all the older Protestant Churches taught that birth control was wrong. Nineteen hundred years after Christ’s life on earth, did Protestants wake up to the truth that contraception was fine, or had they caved in to societal pressure? The Catholic Church had consistency in the development of doctrine over its two thousand year history. I wondered why, if God doesn’t change, Presbyterian teaching could – and how could it change by a simple majority vote?
During my final semester, as my mind reeled from my steadily forming doubts about my Christian identity, my father changed hats and came to Franciscan to teach as a visiting professor of business. I had thought my dad would reaffirm me in my crumbling Presbyterian faith and help me sort out the theological questions that beset me. He didn’t.
I soon realized that my dad was a closet Catholic.
The toughest way to be Christian
His own appreciation and understanding of the Catholic Faith was growing as I struggled with theology in the classroom. During this time, I also fell in love with a beautiful American girl named Kathi. She too had a Protestant background, and we were similarly bewildered at the Catholic teaching in our classes. It was like learning a new language or culture. Nonetheless, we married in her small hometown’s Wesleyan church and subsequently moved to Cleveland, where I took a position in an accounting firm. My parents moved back to Canada for the sake of my sisters.
In Cleveland, Kathi and I struggled to find the right denomination for us. We were spiritual nomads, shopping for a place to call home. We tried a Full Gospel church, wildly open to the Spirit but without sufficient doctrinal grounding. We visited a Catholic church, but the people seemed cold and distant, and it was so large that it was rather frightening. We then tried a Christian and Missionary Alliance church, which I liked, since it had Presbyterian roots and was relatively mainstream. The people were friendly, too, so we stayed there for our first year in Cleveland.
Yet I continued to struggle internally with many theological questions, looking as I was for a “biblically based” church. Why were there so many different denominations, all claiming to be grounded in Scripture and with teachings opposed to one another?
In college, I had majored in accounting because a friend had told me that it’s the toughest of the business majors, and I wanted to take up that challenge. But then occurred to me that Catholicism is the toughest of the Christian religions. As a Protestant, I could shop around until I found a church with people whose beliefs mirrored my own. As a Catholic, even if I didn’t live up to that ideal, the ideal was still held out as the goal. But it seemed easier for me to change churches than to change myself.
Around this time, my dad had an opportunity to visit the Vatican for a week. He had created a computerized Bible study program called the Findit Bible. The software had been selling well in Europe, and my father’s distributor had arranged for him to have an audience with Pope John Paul II to present him with an Olivetti computer loaded with several of my father’s Bibles. His meeting with the pope and his new friendship with Archbishop (later Cardinal) John Foley led him to write an article on Christian unity for thePresbyterian Record, the magazine of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. On the cover of that issue was a full-page photo of my dad shaking hands with the pope.
When the issue came out, all hell broke loose. For almost twenty years, my father had been the clerk of the General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) – an extremely visible role. Responses to the article poured in, many praising his efforts towards church unity. Others bordered on being hate mail. One letter was simple, yet beautifully compelling: “Why doesn’t Dr. Lowry just become Catholic?”
After the ruckus had died down, my dad and I made a trip back to Steubenville together. As we drove there, we listened to a tape by Scott Hahn, who was coming to teach at the university the following year. We were enthralled by the moving and dramatic story told by this articulate, former Presbyterian minister who became Catholic after struggling with so many of the same issues that troubled us. I was surprised to learn that the birth control issue was also his starting point for serious investigation into the Catholic Faith. It was an inspiring testimony, and the Holy Spirit used it to give me a clear sense of direction for the first time in years.
“I want to become Catholic”
At the end of the tape, my father turned to me and said, “You know, I can’t argue with anything this guy is saying.” I went home after the trip and announced to Kathi, “I want to become Catholic.” Just like that. She was shocked.
As we spoke, all my reasons and feelings came pouring out. I wanted to love and serve the Lord in all that I did, and I finally felt I had found my way home. The Catholic Church offered a depth and beauty unparalleled in the Protestant world. So many of the questions I had grappled with were deftly resolved by Catholic teaching. How could so many denominations be based on the Bible, yet have such vastly different interpretations? How could the prerequisites for salvation be viewed so differently by so many people? How could matters of faith and morals be decided simply by majority vote? The teachings of the Catholic Church were intellectually compelling, her doctrine was scripturally sound, and I was finally convinced that one Church actually did have the whole truth: the Catholic Church.
Although Kathi was hesitant at first, she agreed to go through RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) with me. She knew she was under no obligation to convert, and I think she attended in an effort to save me from what she perceived as a dead Church.
Praying the Rosary brings spiritual conversion
Still searching for answers, I called Scott Hahn. We agreed to meet at Mass at Franciscan University the following weekend. After Mass, as we talked about searching for the “right denomination,” Scott’s face lit up. He reached into his suit pocket, fished out a beautiful Irish rosary, and handed it to me. “I wondered why I put this in my pocket this morning,” he chortled.
Sheepishly, I stammered something about not having the slightest idea what to do with his gift. Before I knew it, Scott was writing out a list of books I should read! It struck me at the time that it was rather like a physician writing a prescription. Well, the medicine worked! I read those books and prayed the rosary regularly as Kathi and I went through RCIA.
Back at the Catholic church we had originally found so huge and uncaring, we began to meet deeply spiritual people who loved the Lord. We continued to study and grow in our faith, even as we had our second son and, only a few months later, discovered we were expecting another child. We stayed in touch with the Hahns, and Scott’s wife, Kimberly, gave tremendous encouragement to Kathi in both spiritual and practical matters. Kathi’s apprehensions were evaporating rapidly and she began to share my enthusiasm for the Faith.
I continued praying the rosary. I prayed for things that seemed nearly impossible, but to my shock and amazement, I often received them. My interior life changed rapidly, too. Although my intellectual conversion had taken many years, the rosary brought about my spiritual conversion in a matter of weeks.
I desired the sacraments, having a particular hunger for the Eucharist. I remember going to Mass during the RCIA process and having to leave before Communion, dragging along Kathi and our infant children. I longed to have a place at the eucharistic table.
Kathi and I receive the sacraments
At Easter in 1992, Kathi and I were received into the Catholic Church. My parents attended and looked on with what I can only now describe as envy. The night was vivifying: I was baptized, and we both received the sacraments of Confirmation and First Communion. Kathi and I were thrilled to discover our marriage was now a sacrament.
This first step in a lifelong journey of faith was a true celebration of God’s love. In becoming Christian when I was young, I felt that I had chosen God. In becoming Catholic, I felt that God had chosen me.
I still tell my Protestant friends that my becoming Catholic isn’t an abandonment of my Christian faith; it’s the fulfillment of it. As Catholics, we’re given the spiritual tools to live a sacramental life.
As a Presbyterian, I didn’t even understand what the word “sacrament” meant (outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification) nor what they were (the seven sacraments are Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance or Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Marriage). Yet as a Catholic, I recognize the sacraments as the primary, practical means by which we seek to draw closer to God.
In particular, frequent reception of the Eucharist has been of enormous value. It provides spiritual strength for the journey, a way of tapping into the Divine Life and opening my soul wide for transformation. Reconciliation is not only a means for obtaining forgiveness of sin, it’s also truly a sacrament of healing – both spiritual and emotional. Marriage, that great preparation for the mission of building up the Church, is often an underestimated sacrament. Despite the challenges that are part of every marriage, it is a means of tremendous grace.
My parents also become Catholics
My parents continued to move in the direction of the Church. My dad in particular wanted to convert, but believed that since his commitment to my mom preceded this desire, that he should wait for her. They decided to go through an RCIA program together.
Since Dad’s role in the PCC was so highly visible, he also wanted to avoid scandal and hurt among people he cared for. He continued to preach in a Presbyterian church on Sundays, although on one of my visits to Canada, I discovered a little secret: he was also attending daily Mass (without receiving the Eucharist) Monday through Saturday!
In the fall of 1992, my parents returned to Steubenville. The following February, they came into full communion with the Catholic Church. I was deeply moved when I was able to serve as my dad’s sponsor in a beautiful ceremony led by Fr. Michael Scanlan, president of the university. My dad later accepted a permanent teaching position in the business department at Franciscan.
My parents were utterly thrilled to enter the Church, and several months later, my dad was also able to bring his departure from the PCC to an unexpectedly positive conclusion. The General Assembly invited him back to provide a farewell address, and to thank him for his many years of dedicated service. Although he got a couple smiling comments about “being in a Catholic way,” the event was suffused with a spirit of mutual respect and gratitude. He counts it as a blessed ending to that chapter of his journey.
In the time since we became Catholic in 1992, Kathi and I have been blessed beyond description, and have experienced abundant joys – and challenges. For example, one of the practical consequences of our desire to submit our fertility to God was His blessing, in the form of more children. We now have eight. The birth of our seventh child in particular provided us with some hard-won lessons.
When Kathi was about five months pregnant, she began to experience problems and went to visit her obstetrician, Dr. Michael Parker. As a physician who had made the courageous decision to become “NFP (natural family planning) only” in his practice, we trusted Dr. Parker implicitly. Yet when he called me at the office, I knew something was up.
It turned out that Kathi had excess amniotic fluid building up around the baby, and what followed was a mind-numbing, rapid succession of complicated medical tests and procedures. The diagnosis turned out to be a frightening congenital condition – polysplenia syndrome. The survival rate past adolescence, we learned, was only 10%.
We spent the next couple months in mourning for our baby boy who hadn’t even been born yet. We didn’t know if he would survive his birth, but assuming he did, a surgery was needed right away to correct some internal, structural anomalies. During the time leading up to his birth, we prayed fervently, and Kathi regularly sent out email updates to family and friends. Her emails frequently found their way to prayer chains; in particular, our close family friend Fr. Ray Ryland (former Episcopalian minister and chaplain of the Coming Home Network International) led the prayer efforts.
Through what we believe was the prayer of hundreds, if not thousands of people, our son David survived his birth and I had the profound honor of baptizing him prior to his surgery. Subsequent testing determined that he did not have congenital heart disease, the cause for such a high mortality rate, so despite some ongoing challenges, his prognosis is good.
David’s birth had some unexpected graces attached. Through the process, Kathi determined that we would not stop at child number seven. “I’m not going out like this!” she would say. Our beautiful youngest daughter Hannah is evidence of Kathi’s courageous openness to life, despite the hardship of her pregnancy with David.
Surprisingly, our family was also brought closer together through David. As we all came to recognize the fragility of his life, it had the effect of helping us to grow in appreciation for one another.
Faith at work
The experience also caused us to reevaluate our priorities from a family perspective. My work in a CPA firm had demanded long hours for many years. After much prayer and emotional discussions, we decided it was time to make a change. The day I informed my good friend and mentor at the firm, he handed me the number of a recruiter. “Give this guy a call,” he said.
Within 24 hours, I had an interview that turned into a role with a dynamic company as Vice President of Finance. 5 minutes into the interview, I was convinced that I wanted to work for them – as soon as I heard that the local executive team had recently been discussing how to tithe their bonuses. What an amazing gift! However, there were hardships there too, as we were buying companies and growing rapidly. Within my first year at the company, some disputes among the shareholders arose, and the company was put up for sale.
I had hoped my work life was stabilizing, but instead it went into overdrive. The process of selling the company took much longer than anyone had anticipated, and it once again demanded tremendous sacrifice. Then finally, we were sold – to a good company that unfortunately already had a fully staffed finance department. I was put on the list to be terminated.
Through what again I can only describe as the grace of God, after several months helping out with the transition to new ownership, I was given another opportunity. One of the founders of the original company asked if I would consider a new challenge. In the end, I was promoted to Senior Vice President in an operations role, and eventually had responsibility over the Ohio operations of the company. What a tremendous blessing.
Since that time, I have been given many more opportunities, including becoming a member of Legatus’ Columbus chapter, and a director on the Board of Our Sunday Visitor, the Catholic publisher whose magazine had initially brought me to Franciscan University!
In addition, Our Sunday Visitor just published my first book, a labor of love entitled Faith at Work: Finding Purpose Beyond the Paycheck. The book encourages everyone with a job to continue down the path of conversion by fully integrating faith and work. I’m convinced this helps people to become happier, better team players, and better able to handle workplace relationships and challenges.
On top of all this, the Lord provided another opportunity – to leave the corporate world and serve full-time as chief operating officer of the Coming Home Network International. It’s a privilege serving the organization, Marcus, and the staff.
Although life continues to provide many difficulties, I have been blessed beyond description. I am deeply thankful for the many challenges God has provided – as with getting kicked out of Franciscan University many years ago, they have all turned into spiritual blessings!
More than anything, I am grateful for the many people who have enriched my life, especially my family, and my relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church, the rich and mysterious Faith to which He brought me home.
Kevin Lowry is an enthusiastic Catholic, husband, father, and serves as Chief Operating Officer of the Coming Home Network International. His first book, Faith at Work: Finding Purpose Beyond the Paycheck was just released by Our Sunday Visitor. Kevin’s website and blog can be found at http://gratefulconvert.com/ Kevin will be a guest on The Journey Home program April 2, 2012.