A Baptist Living In Catholic Land

On the plane returning to New Orleans from Atlanta, I found myself seated beside a Catholic priest making an overnight trip to my city to speak at a local church. We fell into a conversation about our respective ministries in a brief attempt to understand each other better. At one point the priest said, “What’s it like being a Baptist in New Orleans?”

While I was formulating an answer, the lady in front of us–we had no idea she was listening–turned around and said loudly, “I’ll tell you what it’s like. It’s like being a Catholic in Atlanta!” A dozen passengers around us, also tuning in, erupted in laughter.

Outnumbered is the point. Maybe overwhelmed sometimes. And, if we’re not careful, overlooked.

After the death of Pope John Paul II, local writers and commentators waxed eloquent on the man and his leadership of Christians worldwide. A local citizen had to write the editor of the Times-Picayune to make the point that, while we respect this man for a hundred reasons and we share the grief of our Catholic friends, in no way was he the leader of all Christians. Catholics may have looked upon him as the “vicar of Christ,” a term meaning the substitute or personal representative of the Lord, but for millions of believing non-Catholics, the One coming closest to filling that role is the Holy Spirit Himself, based on John 14:16-18.

In a city like New Orleans, Baptists and other Protestants often find themselves sharing religious platforms with Catholics. Like the infant baptism service I was invited to recently.

Brent and Anne had adopted Carter when he was a newborn, and now that the process was completed, they were ready to ask the priest to baptize him. Brent’s family is Baptist, so the grandparents asked if they could invite me, their pastor for over a dozen years, to attend and offer up a prayer. That’s how I came to be in attendance at Our Lady of Divine Perception on a recent Saturday morning.

“Now, Father,” I the 65-year-old said to the priest half my age, “I’ll just stand back out of your way over here. When you’re finished, I’ll step up and offer my prayer.” “Nonsense,” said Father John. “Come on back with me.”

In the robing room, he donned the vestments he would be wearing and looked at my outfit–sportcoat, tie, slacks–and said, “Is that what you wear?” Then he said, “I’d love for you to help me with this,” meaning the baptism.

So, I’m standing there impressed by the graciousness of this priest while wondering whether I should tell him I’m not real comfortable taking a leading part in an infant baptism–church historians can fill libraries with books on this controversy–in spite of my love for this family and my desire to bless them in every way I know how. So I said nothing.

In the ceremony–the dozen or so of us had the huge sanctuary all to ourselves–Father John read and prayed and then handed me the book. “Read this,” he said. I read the Lord’s Prayer, what Catholics call the “Our Father,” which ends abruptly without the ending Protestants use, “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, Amen.”

“Keep reading,” he said. So I did. Now, I’ve learned the hard way–I’ll tell you another time–to read a few words ahead of what my mouth is speaking. That’s when I spotted the obvious Catholic doctrine looming just ahead, with references to Mary the Mother of God and pleas for various saints to pray for us. Non-Catholic believers honor Mary as we do other godly leaders of the past, but we draw the line before praying to them or asking them to pray for us. “You had better read this,” I whispered.

When he used his thumb to draw the sign of the cross on the forehead of the child, the priest turned to me and said, “Now you do it.” I did. It felt right.

Long story short, at the conclusion of the ceremony, Father John said to me in front of the family, “Tell us how you do baptism in the Baptist church.” I explained that we baptize believers only–although they may be adults or as young as six or seven– and do so by immersion only. “That’s like confirmation for us,” he said, “when children have the opportunity to reaffirm their own faith.”

I explained, “And our baptistry is about the size of this corner of the church and half filled with water.” They laughed when I told how some nine-year-olds recently tried to swim out after their baptism.

I have no doubt that the Catholics and the non-Catholic believers in that room that day agree on a host of things about the Lord Jesus Christ. And that we disagree on a great many others. But on that particular day, we each brought our faith to church in order to love a child.

My ear-nose-throat doctor is a devout Catholic and as fine a man as you will ever meet. On the morning of December 14, 2004, as I lay on the table in the operating room, waiting for the anesthecist to put me under, my doctor came near. “I want you to know I pray intensely for the Lord to guide me during surgery,” he said. I was comforted, but not surprised. I found out later he attends his church every morning at 6:00 a.m., seeking the Lord’s power and help for his daily ministry.

Then he said, “I want to ask your permission to do something that would mean a lot to me.” What could this be, I wondered. “I’d like to put this on your wrist during surgery,” as he showed me a little cloth bracelet.

“It’s a scapular, and what we call a sacramental. Not a sacrament in itself, but something to lead you to the sacraments.” He went on, “It was sewn by the nuns in the convent at Coinbra, Portugal, not far from Fatima where the children saw the vision of the Blessed Mother many years ago.” Even Baptists know that story. We’re not quite sure what to do with it, but we’ve seen the movie. “Sister Lucia–the last surviving one of those children–is up in years now and it is said that she puts one stitch in every scapular that goes out of the convent.”

This was an element in my doctor’s faith, his way of bringing God near as he would soon be doing the delicate work of surgically removing cancerous membranes from under my tongue. I appreciate his humility more than I can say and applaud his desire to be an instrument in the hands of the Lord. I was–and am–honored at having R. Daniel Jacob as my doctor.

Not long after, I saw in the local paper that Sister Lucia had died. And now John Paul II.

You don’t have to look very far in most of our Protestant churches in the New Orleans area to find members who are virulently anti-Catholic. That is, they are anti-Catholic-doctrine and anti-Catholic-church, although they’re not against Catholic people. Invariably, when you dig a little deeper, you find that these are all former Catholics who are angry over some failing of the Roman Catholic church–to themselves, their family, or to society. Some see it as their God-called duty to take a stand against Catholicism and point out its errors at every opportunity.

Not having walked in their shoes, I do not argue with them. On occasion, however, I have had the opportunity to point out Acts 19 where Paul and his friends are set upon by an Ephesian mob intent on putting them to death for turning people to Jesus and away from Diana, the local goddess. The city clerk managed to calm the crowd and began reasoning with them. “These men you have brought here,” he said, indicating the Christians, “are not temple robbers and they are not charged with blaspheming our goddess.” He went on from there, but notice that testimonial. During his two-year-plus ministry in that city, where a massive temple was devoted to Diana and image-making was the major industry, apparently not once had anyone heard Paul or the other Christians denigrating and running down the goddess or her image. The temptation must have been great, but they did not succumb to it.

We who believe the New Testament was given as our guide and authority in faith and practice will do well to conduct ourselves by the same high principles as our first missionaries.

Let us pray for our friends who call themselves Roman Catholics. In fact, we might pray the same thing we often pray for one another: that we may keep our eyes on the Lord Jesus Christ, that we may love His word and obey it, while seeking to honor Him in all that we do every day of our lives.

Eventually, when we stand before the Lord at judgement, He will not ask what label we wore on earth, but about the content of our faith and the conduct of our lives. And perhaps He will remind us that the mark of a believer–from Heaven’s viewpoint, the only one that really matters–has always been love for one another. (John 13:35)

5 thoughts on “A Baptist Living In Catholic Land

  1. I also participated in a Catholic service – my niece’s wedding. I was confident my participation would not compromise my convictions so I took part. The priest was not as accomodating as Dr. McKeever’s. All I did was read a portion of John’s Gospel. I am a Baptist Pastor who was formerly a Catholic. I got over my anger years ago. It has been replaced with deep concern. While we share some points of orthodoxy there is much that I cannot agree with. Dr. McKeever mentioned some of those points in the article. This I do know, not all Catholics are lost just as all Baptists are not saved. Winning the lost is a command to be carried out in compassion and ferver in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Lost wear all types of religious and non religious labels. Compromise? Absolutely not! Compassion? Absolutely Yes!

  2. As a former Catholic, now Baptist, I appreciate this article. When I go home and sometimes go to the Catholic church with my parents, it’s hard for me to decide how much of the service to actually participate in. I do pretty much what Dr. McKeever did, I participate in the parts that I, as a Baptist, believe in. My oldest child was baptised as an infant in the Catholic belief, but later, when he was 11, he accepted Christ into his heart and was baptized by immersion. Though, I don’t agree with everything that the Catholic faith says, I do agree with Buddy Sheriff’s comment, not all Catholics are lost, just as all Baptists are not saved. And it’s not up to us as Baptists to decide who is going to heaven.

  3. My sister-in-law is a devout Catholic (she was born and reared in Columbia, South America). She is one of the lovliest people you could ever hope to meet. Her beauty emanates from the inside. We all love her dearly. She has accomplished what none of us have been able to do, gotten my brother to attend church. He has never joined the Catholic church, but he does attend mass with his wife. My prayer is that they both will accept Christ as their personal savior.

  4. In the sixties a Dutch priest friend in central Java visited my office occasionally to borrow Radio and TV Commission films for his students to use in their English classes. He had given up his Dutch citizenship in order to stay in Indonesia – a choice I would not have considered in order to remain a Baptist missionary there. As we all anticipated a Communist takeover at that time, he commmented, “Well, it looks like we may have to go back into a concentration camp, but the Lord never said our lives would be easy,” referring to his experience during the Japanese occupation of those islands during WWII. The attempted coup failed, but my conviction is that his commitment never wavered.

    No, I do not agree with all Catholic teachings, any more than I do with all Southern Baptist teachings these days. But my work load got much lighter when I reread my job description and found out deciding who is saved and who is lost is not included.

  5. Way back in December of 1978 while a Baptist seminary student in Louisville, my wife worked with a woman at Xerox who was Roman Catholic. She invited us to attend a Christmas mass, which was the first and only mass that I have ever attended. I was very curious, interested, fascinated, and sometimes confused by what I saw and heard. At one point everyone pulled the kneeling benches out and knelt down on them and I quietly inquired of our friend, “What are they doing now?” She whispered back, “They’re praying.”

Comments are closed.