From Ritual To Regeneration

By Greg James

One of the most gut-wrenching and painful things I have had to face in my life has been the confrontation between the doctrines and claims of my Catholic faith and the Word of God as found in the Holy Scriptures.

While far from perfect, I tried my best to be a good Catholic so that my name would be found in the “Book of Life” on the Judgment Day.  After almost 50 years of unyielding loyalty to the Catholic Church and Catholic teachings, the grace of God broke the stranglehold of sin in my life.

Born and raised in a Roman Catholic family, I have vivid memories of a childhood dominated by the mysteries and the rituals of “The Faith” as I received them from my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles.  I remember the crucifix that hung in each bedroom in our home, the holy water font on each doorpost, the statues of Jesus, Mary-and-Joseph, and the Sacred Heart in Grandma’s room.  I remember the Sunday Missal that each adult carried to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days.  I could not wait until I could have one for my own, so that I might be able to understand the solemn language that the priest spoke as he stood in front of the altar and prayed.  I thought it must be the special language spoken between God and the priest during the Mass.  Then there was the ever-present Rosary that both the ladies and the men carried at all times.

A Child of God

All of these things, and more, were reinforced by virtue of my Catholic school education, and they were indelibly etched into my character by repetition, memorization, and practice.  The stern Sisters of Notre Dame, robed in their foreboding black garb, appeared to me as the very agents of God Himself as they drilled us on the Baltimore Catechism and the proper behavior to display while in church or in the presence of a priest.  The infrequent classroom visits by the parish priest, or even the Monsignor, were special occasions for which the Sisters carefully prepared us—rehearsing catechism answers and formula prayers over and over so that we could impress “Father” with our religious skills.  I also learned that I was a “child of God”—because I was baptized a Catholic and was now special in His eyes compared to other kids who had not been baptized a Catholic.  I had no recollection of my baptism because it happened when I was about three weeks old, but I still have the pictures taken of my baptism in my family album.  Nevertheless, I learned on that day that I had been made a child of God and an heir of heaven and would now move on to greater things.

The first important event that I remember from those early days is my First Holy Communion.  For months in advance, the Sisters rehearsed the class on every detail attending the ritual pomp of the “big” day.  Over and over, we were marched up the center aisle of the church – two by two, boys on the right and girls on the left, short to tall from front to back—hands folded in pious respect and as silent as a breeze as we peeled off to our places in the church pews.  The “clicker” in Sister’s hand governed every move.  As a group, we repeated the answers to questions we were to be asked by the priest and prayers we were required to say as part of the ceremony.  What precision!

In the Dark

However, there were two aspects of this coming event that struck fear into my heart and some of my classmate’s hearts as well.  Before we made our First Communion, we had to go to our First Confession.  I remember the dread that accompanied me in the days leading up to the fateful moment when I pulled aside the curtain and entered the darkness of the confessional box.  Although we had been taught that the priest was there to forgive our sins and would not be scolding or angry, I could not imagine why I had to enter this dark, cramped place and recite the things I was taught to say to him.  I was not even sure that I had committed the sins that I had picked from the list we were given to help us make a “good” confession.  Fortunately, my training once again saved the day as I recited the formulas that were repeated during the prior months.  The dread stayed with me for many years—every time I approached the confessional box.  Even as an adult, I felt like a child as I knelt before the priest and recited my sins and the same prayers that I learned so long ago.  From the very first, I recall the relief I felt when I had finished confessing and the priest gave me absolution and penance.  In later years I could not help but wonder, if Jesus died for my sins, as I was taught, what good was it going to do saying five Our Father’s and five Hail Mary’s as my penance?

It was not until many years later that the truth of God’s Word in the Holy Scriptures finally sunk in.  I remember reading in the Bible, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”[1]

Jesus had already died in my place for “all” my sins.  There was nothing I could do—or had to do—that He had not done for me already.  Jesus paid the full price for all my sins.  God the Father sent Him to earth specifically for that purpose, and before He took His last breath as he hung dying on the Cross He said, “It is finished.”[2]

Body and Blood

Nevertheless, I managed to go through my First Confession, and First Communion day finally arrived.  All the boys were decked out in blue “communion” suits and the girls in their white “communion” dresses.  As Sister’s clicker moved us up the church aisle in perfect unison, our parents and family members looked on with big smiles and cameras flashing.  When the time came to kneel at the communion rail, all of the instruction I had received took over and my thoughts went to the great care I must take to kneel quietly as the priest approached, and stick out my tongue far enough that the communion wafer could be safely inserted into my mouth.  I then had to return to my seat and wait until the host melted, being careful that nothing else touched it.  I could not use my finger to scrape it off the roof of my mouth where it was stuck, nor, heaven forbid, try to chew it.  We were taught that the priest changed the wafer into the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus himself.  He had to be treated with the utmost respect and piety.  I was convinced that I actually carried Jesus inside my stomach.

A highlight of that day came after Mass when Sister presented us with our first Missal and Rosary.  Almost everyone in my family had a gift of a medal or cross on a chain; some gave cards with money.  However, the Missal held the deepest mysteries for me.  On one page was printed the “special” Latin language that the priest spoke, and on the facing page I could read the meaning in English!  Now, maybe I could learn to talk with God too—as the priest did.  It was, unfortunately, many years before I learned that God did not speak a special, mysterious language, but hears and answers every prayer that a believer utters, regardless of our language.  He even sends the Holy Spirit to every believer, to pray for us when our words fail us.

At any rate, the “big” day was over.  I expected to feel different, holier, and closer to God; but I did not.  As time passed, and we advanced, the Sisters explained more of what was expected of us if we were to remain a child of God.  Keeping the Ten Commandments of God, and the Six Commandments of the Church, was basic, as was receiving as many of the Sacraments as possible.  We were taken to Confession every two weeks and were told to receive communion every Sunday.  Sunday Mass was an absolute “must.”  If we missed Sunday Mass, except for a very good reason, like sickness, we committed a Mortal Sin.  Mortal Sin cut us off from God, and if we died without going to Confession, we would go straight to Hell.  Venial Sins were not as bad.  We had to tell them to the priest in confession, but they did not cause us to go straight to Hell if we died without Confession.

We were also required to go to Mass and communion before school on every First Friday during the school year and were encouraged to make the Five First Saturdays because the promise of a happy death was attached to everyone who completed all five in a row.  I remember doing them repeatedly; just to be certain I would be safe.

Soldier of Christ

In seventh grade, we began the preparation for receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation.  Once again, rehearsals, practice of prayers, and studies on the meaning of the Sacrament were repeated time after time to insure our clear understanding and perfect performance.  I still can recite the answer of the Baltimore Catechism as it asked the question:

Q. What is a Sacrament?
A. A Sacrament is a Sign, instituted by Christ to give Grace.

However, this time was to be far different from First Communion Day.  This time, at Confirmation, we were going to receive the Holy Spirit.  We would no longer be only children of God, but now we would become Soldiers of Christ.  This power of the Holy Spirit was to be conferred on us by the Bishop himself who we had never seen before, but who, we were told, was a very important priest with great powers.  He, or someone special appointed by him, was the only one who could perform this deed.  As he spoke the words of the sacrament, he anointed me with “holy” oil and gently slapped my face to show that I had now received the Holy Spirit; this was a serious matter.  What a shock it was when, later in life, I learned that the Holy Spirit is not “conferred” on us by a Bishop.  God’s word teaches us that Jesus and the Father sent the Holy Spirit when Jesus returned to Heaven after His resurrection.

From that day on there were many appeals to “give my life to Christ” by considering the possibility of becoming a priest.  The girls in class were encouraged to consider becoming a nun, a “bride of Christ.”  We were often told that this vocation was the highest and most important to which we could aspire.  My family reinforced the idea, as many Catholic families do; almost taking for granted that at least one child would enter the religious life.  A scholarship to Catholic High School followed graduation.  The Christian Brothers had a reputation for being demanding and strict.  The reputation was well deserved.  From the beginning, religion was the major subject of study with a requirement to study Latin and another foreign language.  English, math, and science also set us in good stead for the academic demands of college to follow.  There was, however, a constant drumbeat for religious vocations and many of my classmates left during junior and senior years or immediately after graduation to attend minor seminary.  Although I knew my parents would be happy if I made that decision, I was grateful that there was no pressure from home to do so.  I was not ready.  I knew that I was not “good” enough for such an exalted position.

Second Best

In my senior year, I met a beautiful redheaded Irish girl from our “sister” Catholic High School and it was as though I had known her all my life.  She, too, struggled with the decision to pursue a religious vocation as a nun and I almost lost her to the Sisters of Mercy.  Four years later she became my wife and to this day remains my precious and beautiful spouse.  We were married at Mass in her parish.  Her “favorite” priest, who presented us with the gift of a Papal Blessing, performed the Sacrament of Matrimony.  As part of the ceremony, my wife laid flowers at the feet of the statue of the Virgin Mary, appealing to Mary for her special grace to be a good wife and mother.  Three children, a house in the suburbs, a good job, and a wonderful wife at home to raise the children—it was a wonderful life!  Friends and neighbors saw us as the “perfect couple,” and we prided ourselves on our reputation.  Nevertheless, one particular couple returned home from a “Marriage Encounter” weekend, hosted by the Jesuits, and would not rest until we agreed to sign for a weekend ourselves.  They explained that it was designed to make good marriages even better!  So we went, not knowing what to expect, and wound up being asked to train as a “presenting team” couple for future weekends.  We would work side-by-side with a priest and two other couples sharing our own stories and especially our love for our Sacrament.  The appeal was irresistible to me.  The first morning of the weekend was spent examining our feelings with the appeal to see us as “good” since “God does not make junk.”  This appeal spoke to my view of myself that I “wasn’t good enough” and hooked me from the beginning.  Here was the perfect opportunity to have my marriage and to have “special” work to do for the Catholic Church.  For the very first time outside of the readings at Mass, I heard the presenting priest quote biblical “things.”  He paraphrased the words of Jesus to encourage us to join the team, “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you…”[3] and words about pouring “new wine into new wineskins, not old wineskins.”[4]  I did not fully understand, but who could resist being chosen by Jesus Himself?  Vatican Council II had raised the “vocation” of Catholic Sacramental Marriage to new heights.  Although still second best, I now considered myself to be a lot closer to being “good enough” because of our Sacrament.

As with the entirety of my Catholic training up to that point, I simply accepted what was presented without examining it closely.  Other friends who were part of the “team” drifted toward the rapidly growing Catholic Charismatic Movement.  They urged us to come to Charismatic Masses and prayer meetings where we would learn how to pray and worship with exuberance as well as learn all about the Bible.  It was here that I began to read and seriously study the Word of God.  For the most part, the Bible seemed to be clearly understandable.  I had been taught, however, that it was not permitted for me to try to understand the Bible by myself since the Church Magisterium alone had been given the authority to interpret Holy Scripture.  So, I thought it might be helpful to get closer to priests who must surely be able to understand and teach me the mysteries of the Bible.  I joined the Third Order of St. Francis and eventually became the founding Prefect of the New Pentecost Community of the Third Order on Long Island, NY.  The spiritual director, a Franciscan priest, and I were to work together to grow the community and direct its spiritual life and works.  During that time, I was shocked to learn that he had very little understanding and practically no interest in the Bible.  His worldview was formed and controlled by the Rule of St. Francis.  God’s Word was filtered through that rule.  That did not seem to me to be what Jesus had in mind when He said to Satan, “…  It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”[5]It seemed very strange to me that a priest would choose to live by a “Rule” rather than simply obey the words of Jesus

Searching the Scriptures

As I studied the New Testament, I struggled more and more with the discrepancies I found between what the Bible says and what I had learned from my Catechism.  I decided to stop reading the Bible because I thought I had misinterpreted what I read.  It was safer to concentrate on the catechism because everything in it was simple and easy to understand.  However, I continued to struggle with many Roman Catholic doctrines that so clearly denied the teachings I had found in Scripture—as well as others that were nowhere to be found in the Bible.  I could not stay away from the Bible for long.  I knew it was the very word of God—the word of eternal life.  I resumed my Bible studies.

It became eminently clear to me that the Catholic doctrine of salvation and the scriptural doctrine of salvation disagree significantly.  That is, without a doubt, the most important difference of all because our eternal destiny depends on our trust in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus as our Substitute.  We will be lost if we place our trust in anyone, or anything else, but Jesus.  No sacrament, no Mass, no pope, no lifetime of good works can save us…only the once for all sacrifice of Jesus at Calvary…“For by grace are ye saved through faith;, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”[6]

I knew I had to make a choice; I knew I could not reconcile my lifelong efforts to “save” myself with the clear Word of God. Christ saves us when we trust Him alone for our salvation.  I could not continue the “Roman Catholic” things I was doing and maintain my integrity.  Truly, this would be taking the Lord’s name in vain.

I resigned from the Third Order of St. Francis and left the Roman Catholic Church.  I found a good, solid, Bible believing, Bible teaching church where Jesus is exalted.  His grace has brought me unspeakable joy and gratitude.  Nevertheless, as you can well imagine, my decision to distance myself from Catholicism resulted in anger, grief, and resentment from many of my family members and friends.  This estrangement has been most hurtful.  It was an almost insurmountable obstacle to me as I struggled with making my decision.  However, Jesus Christ’s words, recorded in the Gospel of Mark, spoke volumes to me.  Jesus said, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.”[7]

It is not that I did something heroic; it is definitely not that I wanted to do something to “save” myself; that is simply impossible because it is only total trust in Jesus Christ that can save us.  My decision rests on the gift of faith and the grace of salvation freely given by the all-Holy God.  Now I know the true meaning of Jesus Christ’s words that I heard so long ago, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.[8] Indeed it is stated that, “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” [9] Thus I can now say from my heart, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.” [10] I believe that it is the honor and glory of Jesus Christ, and the truth of the Gospel that are at stake because, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.[11]

Greg James

It would be an encouragement to me to hear from you,

My email address

[1] Isaiah 53:5, 6

[2] John 19:30

[3] John 15:16

[4] Mark 2:22

[5] Luke 4:4

[6] Ephesians 2:8-10

[7] Mark 8:35

[8] John 15:16

[9] Ephesians 1:4

[10] Ephesians 1: 3

[11] Acts 4:12