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Gainesville Family Finds Spiritual Home as Catholics

The word conversion technically means to "turn around" or transform. It is a kind of coming-about, much as a sail boat changes course to catch the wind in a different direction. The often turbulent process is always dramatic. Changing tacks entails leaving behind a community of faith, with its practices and traditions, in exchange for another. Sometimes friendships are also left behind. Before the course is steady, some Christians become caught in a cross wind, a spiritual "no-man?s land" between beliefs where they have left their former faith behind but cannot fully embrace Catholicism. Differences that are real or imagined about what Catholics really believe, especially in regard to Mary, the Eucharist and the papacy must be overcome. For many evangelicals, saints and statues are often regarded as mere superstition. Even when misunderstandings are clarified, the emotional hurdle of novenas, statues, rosaries and other Catholic attachments can prove difficult to overcome. As one recent convert commented, "A rabbit?s foot and a rosary were the same to me." For Greg and Kathy Witherow of Holy Trinity Parish in Gainesville, becoming Catholic was a process that began 13 years ago. When the Witherows and their seven sons attended a Saturday night vigil Mass for the first time last June, they told Father Francis J. Peffley, pastor, they "were Evangelicals who were ready to make the jump soon." Having made a thorough study of Catholic doctrine for years, the Witherows were certain of their decision. Although the Witherows were received into the Church only four months later on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, they describe the journey from evangelicalism into the Catholic Church as a "long one." A "cradle Protestant," Greg Witherow was raised in the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, an evangelical "Bible denomination." With an upbringing full of vacation Bible schools, youth group meetings, Bible studies, men?s breakfasts and other church activities involving the whole family, Greg?s "wade across the Tiber" began with searching out the scriptures. As his understanding of Old Testament types grew, so did his understanding of Catholic dogma. Although Kathy Witherow came from a Catholic home initially, her family left the Church in the wake of Vatican II. "I was devastated," Kathy said. "I loved going to Church, but was only able to go when I stayed with my grandmother." After being churchless for 10 years, Kathy was "born again" at college and became a member of an evangelical church. "God was always on my mind, even outside of any church. When I met a man who told me about Jesus, that my sins could be forgiven and I could be welcomed into heaven, I was eager to be a part." Kathy and Greg met at the University of Vermont, where they were both students and members of Navigators, a Christian group similar to Campus Crusade for Christ. After their marriage in 1985, the Witherows moved to Virginia and joined a local Presbyterian church, where they were members until recently. The Witherows became deeply involved in Bible studies and other Church activities. When their close friend and associate pastor Bill Bales left their Presbyterian church for the Catholic Church in 1989, Witherow said it was a "bomb shell." "This was a big deal. The community was very sad," Witherow said. "I was a young guy feeling my way around theology. I thought ?he knows something.?" As a result, Witherow said he became a student of God?s word, not just a reader of God?s word. Because Bales promised the church elders to maintain silence about his own conversion, he refused to answer Witherow?s probing questions. Instead, he referred Witherow to his colleague, Scott Hahn, a high profile Catholic speaker and author well-known for his conversion. For the next year, Witherow said he was "caught in a vice," torn between what he was discovering through prayer, reading, ongoing conversations with Hahn and his faith community. For Kathy, the struggle was equally intense. Deeply involved in the church and homeschooling community, Kathy was not ready to leave the stability, friendships and community she had through church. After a year of weekly meetings with church elders and regular dialogue with Hahn, Witherow abruptly called off the process. "It was out of control. There was too much pressure," he said. "I put all my questions on the shelf and said I?m not touching this again." Witherow?s questions remained on the shelf until 1998. Ironically, the trigger mechanism that led the Witherows down the path of questioning again was the issue of contraception, the same issue that caused Kathy?s family to leave the Church many years earlier. When a friend raised contraception as an issue in the context of sexual mores, Witherow explored the issue thoroughly. In addition to discovering the biblical basis for prohibitions against contraception, Witherow discovered that all of Christendom was united on the immorality of contraception until 1930. "Reading any Prostestant from Wesley to Luther to Calvin reveals that not only were they against it but they were in agreement that it was the equivalent of other sexual vices. It was sexual immorality," Witherow said. "I?ve always taken the voice of the church seriously. This caused me to stop and to think." By the time the Witherows thought through the issue, they knew they had a problem. "Searching the internet on the subject of contraception brought up Catholic Web sites and Planned Parenthood. The only church that wasn?t embracing sexual immorality in its teachings was not the church I was attending." While contraception was the trigger, the Witherows said it was not the sole or even primary reason for becoming Catholic. Over the next five years, Witherow said, he "left no stone unturned. "I explored every issue, looked under every nook and crannie. I read books, searched the internet, wrote articles. I kept it a secret from everyone except my wife," he said. "This was all I thought about." Caught in between Catholicism and Calvinism, Witherow said he was "miserable. I was definitely not a Catholic and was no longer Protestant either." While the Witherows continued to participate in their church community, being "spiritually homeless" began to take its toll. "I did not talk about it," Kathy said. "Mentioning the word Catholic was a time bomb. I prayed and asked God to steer Greg, but it was difficult. We were becoming different entities. Consciously, I was still reformed Protestant, and he was more and more Catholic. But, God really was working in our hearts simultaneously." While the reasons the Witherows decided to become Catholic are many, the Church?s understanding of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Baptism, and the belief that Christ established one Church to which he gave the power to make binding decisions were key. In April, the Witherows made the decision to enter the Catholic Church. They announced their decision first to their boys, Jeremiah, Elias, Peter, David, Levi, Seth and Joseph, and waited until the timing was right to make their move. Although the older children struggled with the decision at first, the Witherows said "they have come around." After formal study, they were received into the Church as a family and have become active members of Holy Trinity Parish. "In this day and age, they are a great witness, especially to the sacrament of matrimony and the blessing of children," Father Peffley said. "It is a privilege to have them as part of Holy Trinity. They are an inspiration to the parish and to me." "I?ve been spiritually homeless for years and now Kathy and I have a real joy that we?re finally home," Greg said.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2003