Catholic Converts Tell Their Story of Eucharistic Reckoning
How Holy Communion figured prominently in the decisions of Bishop James Conley, evangelist Sonja Corbitt and apologist Scott Hahn to become Catholic.
Last month, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to craft a teaching document “On the Meaning of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” the draft of which they will discuss in November.
Before the vote, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, said during discussion that, speaking as a convert, “It was really the Catholic teaching on the Holy Eucharist, the Real Presence, that drew me into the Catholic Church.” Over the years, many high-profile converts have shared the same.
Bishop Conley and two other prominent Catholic converts — best-selling author and Scripture teacher Sonja Corbitt and theologian, author and apologist Scott Hahn — share how the Eucharist drew them to Catholicism.
From Great Books to Catholic Bishop
Bishop Conley was a college student when his immersion in the Integrated Humanities Program, a Great Books program at the University of Kansas, got him thinking about the serious questions of life, including the practice of religion. Raised as a nominal Presbyterian, he had considered himself agnostic when he entered college. Exposure to the transcendentals — truth, beauty and goodness — now led him in search of God.
“I started hopping around to different churches,” he told the Register, listing Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopalian. “Most churches I attended had some form of holy communion.”
He then took a class on the teachings of the Catholic Church taught by a priest using the Baltimore Catechism, which he liked for its simplicity and clarity. He was particularly taken by the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Eucharist. Among the churches he had visited, only Catholics believed in transubstantiation (Orthodox share similar belief), whereby through the words of consecration — the same spoken by Christ at the Last Supper — the Eucharistic species become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, although the appearance of bread and wine remain.
“That struck me,” Bishop Conley said, “that Christ is truly present, objectively.”
He was also moved that the Catholic Church faithfully follows Christ’s command to the apostles, “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19). “In other words,” Bishop Conley said, “continue this.”
Catholics’ reverence and respect for the Eucharist even outside the Mass was also unique. At other churches, he noticed leftover communion went into a cupboard. In Catholic churches, it was carefully placed in a precious ciborium, which then went into a beautiful tabernacle, where the red glow of a nearby lamp indicated the presence of Christ. Additionally, Catholics genuflect to the tabernacle.
He was further awestruck the first time he attended Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and witnessed the priest reverently remove the Eucharist from the tabernacle and expose it in a magnificent monstrance for the congregation to venerate.
“That’s when it dawned on me,” Bishop Conley said. “Wow, these Catholics really believe [it’s Christ]!”
At age 20, on Dec. 6, 1975, during his junior year of college, he entered the Church.
“The truth of the Real Presence of Jesus was instrumental to my eventual conversion to Catholicism,” Bishop Conley wrote in a column last month. “The words of Jesus in John’s Gospel, chapter 6, continued to intrigue me: ‘Amen, Amen I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.’ If I really believed these words to be true, then I had to become Catholic” (John 6:53-54).
From Baptist to Catholic ‘Evangelista’
Corbitt, a former Southern Baptist, began scrutinizing the Protestant Reformation after experiencing two devastating church splits at the small country parish she and her husband attended outside Nashville. Her exploration of the Church Fathers, the Scriptures and the Catechism soon convinced her the Catholic Church was “the pillar and foundation of truth.”
“I had what I call ‘the perfect storm’ that got me researching,” Corbitt told the Register with a laugh. “The Eucharist was the very first theological domino to fall for me.
“It was Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr: When I read the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ in their writings, I thought, ‘Okay, well if we can get something that monumental wrong, then what else have we gotten wrong?’”
Passionate about the Scriptures, Corbitt immediately went to John’s Gospel, Chapter 6, particularly “The Bread of Life Discourse” (6:22-59). Reading it in light of the teaching of the Church, her eyes, mind and heart were opened to meaning she had never grasped before.
“I realized very clearly and quickly that that cannot mean anything other than what the Catholic Church has taught from the very beginning. If you read it in the original Greek, and you see the terms used and read it in context, and in context of the Old Testament types [that foreshadow the New Testament Eucharist], there’s no other meaning for that Bread of Life Discourse than what the Church teaches. It just cannot be anything else. That was the very first thing I assented to before I became Catholic.”
As a Baptist, Corbitt had long desired and prayed for a way to be closer to Christ. She realized her discovery about the truth and mystery of the Eucharist was the answer to that prayer.
“I thought, ‘I have to have that!’” Corbitt said, adding that she was received into the Church at the Easter vigil in 2006. “It was the most beautiful moment of my entire spiritual life. I cried so hard. I was a total mess.”
Her becoming Catholic followed her study of the Song of Songs, the scriptural poem Jews understand to be an allegory of God’s love for Israel and Christians see as an allegory of Christ’s love for his bride, the Church.
“I felt God speaking directly to me, that it was God’s love letter not just to Israel or to the Church, but to me personally,” she recalled. “I knew that Eucharist was the fulfillment of that promise to me … so I could not wait! It became a super-marital moment for me.”
Corbitt, known as the “Bible Study Evangelista” for her wealth of uplifting multimedia Scripture lessons “that make spinach taste like cake” and which can be found at her eponymous website, BibleStudyEvangelista.com, described Catholic teaching on the Eucharist as “super-biblical.”
“It is the single most prepared doctrine of Christianity in the Old Testament,” she said, “except for possibly the covenant and God’s love for us.
“God foreshadowed it over and over and over again in numerous ways, through the manna, the Presence bread in the tabernacle, Ezekiel’s scroll, Melchizedek’s offering, the twice-daily offerings made on the altar in the Temple,” Corbitt said. “Through all of those shadows, or types, God prepared his people for the Eucharist in Christ. Jesus himself pulls it all together when he says: “I am the Bread of Life. … Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:35 and 54).
From Presbyterian Minister to Catholic Apologist
While in seminary, former Presbyterian minister Hahn, now a longtime theology professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville and co-founder and president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, an apostolate that teaches Catholics how to read Scripture, discovered the early Church Fathers. Their writings revealed how the New Testament is concealed in the Old Testament and how the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament.
“When I preached, I would show how Jesus is the new Moses or the new Solomon or the Passover Lamb. [My congregation] loved it every bit as much as I did,” he told the Register. “But the more I delved deeply into the patristic preaching and reading of Scripture, the more clearly it became Eucharistic.”
But Hahn’s church didn’t have the Eucharist. Rather, Presbyterian belief about their “Lord’s Supper” is that Christ is present, but the bread and wine are mere symbols. This led then-anti-Catholic Hahn to a Mass — as an observer, not as a participant — with his Bible open beside him.
“At that first Mass, I’m hearing the words of consecration … and I’m realizing, ‘This isn’t bread; this is his body! This isn’t wine; this is his blood!’” he recalled. “When they all began to chant, ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,’ that’s when the heavens were opened.”
An hour after the Mass had ended, Hahn was still sitting in his back pew in that basement chapel, wondering whether he had been at a weekday Mass or at the heavenly worship of the angels and saints at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb as described in Revelation 19:9.
“It seemed like a convergence, both A and B,” he said. “It was a basement chapel and the heavenly liturgy of John’s apocalypse.”
From the Church Fathers, Hahn had learned that, for Passover, which launched the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, the Jews not only sacrificed a lamb and sprinkled its blood on their doorposts as ransom, but they also had to eat the lamb.
“That was not an option,” Hahn said. “If that’s true for the old [covenant], it’s not less so, but more true for the new [covenant].
“Christ made those provisions and not only said, ‘My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink, whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him’ (John 6:55-56), but in the Upper Room, one year later, he really embodies that teaching by making the bread his Body and the wine his Blood. In reading all of this through the eyes of the Fathers, not only was I connecting the Old Testament and the New, but even more I was connecting the Passover and the Eucharist. The Eucharist as the Passover of the New Covenant is what illuminated the mystery of Good Friday.”
Hahn understood that Christ’s Last Supper with the apostles on Holy Thursday is what transformed Good Friday from simply another Roman execution into a sacrament.
“The Eucharist is where [Christ’s] sacrifice is initiated; Calvary is where the sacrifice is consummated,” he said. “On Easter Sunday [with Christ’s resurrection] that sacrifice becomes the sacrament, and when Christ ascends into heaven what he is offering in heaven is his glorified body. What we receive and what we offer on earth in the Mass is the glorified Body of Christ.”
On Easter Sunday, the disciples on the road to Emmaus who don’t recognize Christ until he blesses, breaks and gives them bread after he has set their hearts on fire for the Scriptures by showing how they point to him is Hahn’s own story.
“Studying Scripture had led me to Eucharistic faith. Going to my first Mass is what led me to Eucharistic devotion. It was like, ‘Wow — that’s you, Lord!’”
Not only does Christ’s resurrection cause transubstantiation, so that bread and wine become Christ’s resurrected Body and Blood, Hahn explained, but it sets into motion what will eventually be the resurrection of our bodies.
“When we receive Christ’s resurrected Body in Eucharist, the Risen Savior transforms our mortal flesh into his immortal flesh,” Hahn said. “I honestly believe that Catholics don’t recognize how amazing the grace is. … It is what St. John Paul II called ‘Eucharistic amazement.’ It is amazing how unamazed we are at what we profess.”
Hahn received Eucharist for the first time at the Easter vigil in 1986.
“I half expected bells and whistles, angel voices, a trumpet blast from heaven. What was really there is how the extraordinary is hidden in the ordinary. … I came back 100% convinced that the Lord Jesus, who I had served and studied and taught, was now united to me in a way he never had been before.”