From Atheist to Catholic: the miraculous journey of a soul

“The Conversion of a soul is a greater work of grace than the raising of the physical dead to physical life”
(Paraphrase of St. Thomas Aquinas)

by Sandra Elam

For 30 years, I was an atheist. I thought Christians were fanatical extremists. My soul was so dark, I couldn’t understand why some people objected to abortion and euthanasia. I had never heard of the Culture of Death, although I was drowning in it. I have only one childhood memory of attending church. When I was a child of seven, my sister Linda and I held my mother’s hand and walked into an Episcopal Church in  Mississippi. I don’t remember what the church looked like or anything about the service, because I was too busy admiring my shiny, black shoes. Soon afterward, I overheard my mother and father arguing about God. My father said, “I forbid you to take the kids to church anymore.” My mother said, “They need to learn about God.” “There is no God,” he said. Mother said, “Yes, there is a God.” “There is no God,” my father shouted, “And if you take the kids to church, I will teach them to be atheists.” From that moment on, there was no talk of God in our home. We did not go to church. We never prayed. Christmas was about Santa, not Jesus. I barely knew the story of the Christ child. The only time I ever looked at a children’s Bible was in the waiting room of my doctor’s office. As a child, I sometimes prayed to “Dear God or Jesus or whoever you are.” But soon I stopped this practice, no longer believing a Creator existed.

The closed door of my soul

For thirty years, I did not attend church, except for a short time as a teenager, when I sang in a Presbyterian choir. Singing about the “good news” of Christ’s birth, the words were hollow and meaningless to me. Church was boring and the rituals empty. When my high-school friend Kathy, an Irish Catholic, railed about the evils of abortion, I was clueless. I truly believed a person did not become human until the moment of birth. I remember saying, “It wouldn’t have mattered if I had been aborted, because my soul would have jumped into another body.” A vague belief in reincarnation hovered at the edges of my darkened mind. Because I love history, I majored in ancient Greek, Roman, and medieval history in college. One day, I asked my Jewish professor of Roman history, “Did Jesus really live or was He a myth?” He answered, “Yes, Jesus really lived; there’s no doubt about it. Why don’t you read the Gospel of Matthew?” I did, but the Word of God fell on the closed door of my soul. Another Jewish professor instructed me well in medieval history, otherwise known as the history of the Catholic Church. The historical significance of the Catholic Church as the original Christian church impressed me deeply. I once remarked, “Well, if I ever were to become a Christian, I probably would become Catholic.” After graduating, my dabbling into the history of Christianity ceased. I became antagonistic to Christianity, refusing to let my Catholic husband hang a crucifix on our wall. I felt disdain for those who believed in God. I grew up to be a bitter, angry woman, always quick to judge others.

The door opens a crack

My journey towards Christianity took two years, beginning in November 1995. It started, oddly enough, when I heard Charles Sykes, author of Dumbing Down Our Kids, explain why many kids can’t read or spell. He recommended reading Why Johnny Can’t Read by Rudolph Flesch. Until reading this book, it never entered my mind that some people guess at new words and don’t know how to sound them out. Now I learned that most American public schools stopped teaching phonics (the 44 sounds in the English language and the 70 common ways to spell those sounds) back in the 1920’s and that millions of kids have been taught to memorize whole words rather than sound them out. Determined that my children would be good readers, I began teaching phonics to Rebecca, then five, and Kevin, then three. Sure enough, within six weeks, they were reading. Now I was convinced of one truth—that phonics knowledge is essential to reading—and slowly, my mind opened to the possibility that there might be other “truths” out there. I met many Christians in the education reform movement. Most of their words of faith fell on deaf ears. But a few words slipped through my defenses, especially those of Bob Sweet, founder of The National Right to Read Foundation, a pro-phonics organization. First through his actions and later with words, Bob planted the seeds of faith in me. The first big step in my Christian walk came when my husband Tom and I enrolled our children in a phonics-based school in September 1996. The only phonics-based school we could afford was a Protestant Christian school. We were both worried our kids might become “religious fanatics,” so I carefully studied the Christian curriculum used at the school and was relieved to discover the textbooks were factual and rigorous. The decision to enroll Rebecca and Kevin in a Christian school was significant, because as they learned about the Bible, so did I. My sister Pamela, a Christian for seven years, gave them an illustrated Beginner’s Bible, which I read cover to cover. I’m embarrassed to say most of the stories were new to me. My sister also gave me the classic Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, which was the book that convinced me that God exists. For many months in 1997, I felt pulled towards church but I resisted. My husband and children were already attending Catholic Church each Sunday, but I stayed home. I liked sleeping late on Sunday mornings. And I did not like church, so I thought. On Sunday, October 6th, 1997, I stopped vacillating. At the time, our children attended a Protestant Christian school, so I decided to try the evangelical Protestant church attached to the school. For the first time in my life, I felt something spiritual and uplifting while in church. The pastor’s powerful sermons and music inspired me.

The door flung wide

I started reading the Bible as a historical document. As a student of ancient and medieval history, I felt the story presented in the four Gospels was compelling. What a revelation for me to read the Gospel of John, especially when Jesus says to Doubting Thomas: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me. If you had known me, you would know my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him” (John 14:6). As soon as I read these words, I wrote them down and memorized them. Now I saw the Bible is not just a historical document, but also the word of God. After reading the rest of the Gospel of John, I said to myself, “Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” But thirty years of atheism were hard to shake off. I was beginning to know God through the study of the Bible, but I did not love him and I certainly did not serve him. I was clinging to a ledge, afraid to let go. I wanted to surrender to God and His will, but I didn’t know how. I needed faith; I had heard the word, but I had never experienced it. One night, after hours of Bible study with my sister Pamela, I lay in the dark and prayed for the first time in thirty years, “Lord, send me faith. I want to believe in you.” I opened the door and God poured faith into my yearning heart. As Jesus promises us, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Faith was God’s merciful gift to me. Without faith, how could I believe in things not seen? For about six months, I attended the Protestant church attached to my children’s school. One Sunday, as I sat in Bible study class, my teacher began disparaging the use of commentaries, claiming the Holy Spirit reveals the true meaning of each Bible passage to each individual. I said, “Each person says the Holy Spirit tells him what a particular passage means, yet each interpretation is different. Who is right? They can’t all be right, since the Holy Spirit is God and God cannot contradict himself. Certainly in 2000 years of Christianity, others have already correctly interpreted the Bible. Why don’t we look at what St. Augustine has to say?” My teacher responded, “St. Augustine is a little too Catholic for me.” These words revealed the anti-Catholic, anti-historical bias pervading his thinking. He thought he could discover some truth about the Christian faith that others had not already discovered centuries ago. I knew I was no match for the magnificent theologians—St. Augustine and so many others—who had spent 2000 years refining the Christian faith.

On this rock

A Catholic friend, Janet, loaned me the book, Surprised by Truth, edited by Patrick Madrid, which describes the conversion stories of many who asked the same question as I: Who has the authority to interpret the Bible? The answer came in the words of Jesus as He gives His disciple Simon a new name: “And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock, I will build my church, and the powers of Death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18 – 16:19). The new name Jesus chose for Simon means “Rock.” The word “Rock” is “Cephas” in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. When the New Testament was written, “Cephas” was translated into Greek as “Petros,” which was later translated into English as “Peter.” So what Jesus said to Simon is, “I tell you that you are Rock and on this rock, I will build my church….” Jesus here is speaking about one church, not many churches. In ancient times, a king handed keys to his prime minister to show he was giving authority to that minister over all others. When Jesus handed the keys to Peter, He gave authority to Peter, the first Bishop of Rome, over all other Christians. When Jesus gave Peter the power to “bind and loose,” He gave Peter the authority to make binding decisions. Only one church has existed since Jesus spoke those prophetic words to Peter in the Gospel of Matthew: the Catholic (which means “universal”) Christian Church, with the Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope, at its head. All other Christian denominations are splinters of the original Catholic Church, or are splinters of splinters. None of these denominations recognize the Bishop of Rome as its head. Once I realized Jesus made Peter (and his successors) the earthly head of His Church, I said to my husband, “I may have to become Catholic.” I immersed myself in Catholic apologetics and theology. I listened to Scott Hahn’s tape series, Our Father’s Plan; listened to Father John Corapi’s catechism series, The Teaching of Jesus Christ; and read Karl Keating’s book, Catholicism and Fundamentalism. On Easter day 1998, we attended Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. During the processional, tears came to my eyes as I watched the priest swing the censer, for I remembered our prayers are like incense wafting up to Heaven. As we sang the glorious hymn Jesus Christ is Risen Today, love for God filled my heart until it hurt. For the first time, I understood what was happening during Mass. The Mass is not just a Protestant service with priests; the Mass is the hour during which Jesus Christ becomes present on the holy altar—body, blood, soul, and divinity—under the appearance of bread and wine.

I was blind, but now I see

Each morning I opened my eyes, saying to myself, “This is the day that the Lord has made, let me rejoice and be glad in it.” Through study, I was beginning to know God; through the Mass, I was beginning to love God. Now I wanted to serve God by keeping His commandments. As the scales fell from St. Paul’s eyes, so the scales fell from my eyes. I saw how corrupt my life was in the light of the 10 Commandments. I began a massive purge of music, videos, TV shows, and books that glorified stealing, lying, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, masturbation, secular humanism, and atheism. I enjoyed throwing away offensive items, especially music by the rock singer Madonna, whose song Like a Virgin is one of the most offensive ever recorded. In the seemingly innocuous Disney video Aladdin, I noticed the hero is an unrepentant thief who lies; the heroine Jasmine is a rebellious teenager who disobeys her father and runs away. In the subversive Disney video Hercules, the heroine Megara works for Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, lying and tricking Hercules repeatedly. Why had I ever exposed my dear children to these twisted messages? The immorality of most TV shows hit me like a sledgehammer. I stopped watching Seinfeld not long after viewing the notorious episode that revolved around which character could go longest without masturbating. I noticed other TV shows slyly using humor to desensitize viewers to the immorality of homosexuality. Nature shows I used to enjoy now assaulted me with blatant humanist messages: humans evolved from sea slime without the need for a Creator; humans have no right to intrude into the pristine world of animals. I set my TV to Mother Angelica’s EWTN Global Catholic Network in 1998 and generally stopped watching secular TV. Any book I would not want a nine-year-old to read had to go. That included most modern romances, science fiction, and detective novels. But surprisingly, it also included a well-known set of history books by historian Will Durant. A friend had warned me Will Durant was an atheist; this became obvious when I read the chapter on the life of Jesus Christ in his book Caesar and Christ. Yet even an atheist like Will Durant observed that no event has had a greater effect on millions of people than the life of Jesus Christ. I vowed not to read history written by atheists. I saw history as His story for the first time.

Faith precedes understanding

After purging my possessions, I turned to the much harder job of purging my attitudes and habits. My sister Pamela loaned me a pro-life video showing babies in the womb—alive, kicking, and sucking their thumbs. When the tattered remains of an aborted baby flashed across the screen, I knew abortion was murder. But I still wondered why women who are raped or who are victims of incest must bear children conceived in those circumstances. But God spoke through the Catholic Church and taught me that no child may be aborted, whether conceived by force or not. After I accepted that life begins at conception, it followed that each soul belongs to only one body; hence, there can be no reincarnation. The moral teaching I found hardest to accept was the prohibition against contraception. I read the Bible passage describing the sin of Onan, who spilled his seed on the ground rather than risk impregnating Tamar. God punished Onan with death. I was surprised to discover that before 1930, all Christian denominations universally understood this passage to condemn all forms of contraception, from withdrawal to barrier methods such as condoms. In 1930, at the Lambeth conference in England, the Anglican church was the first denomination to allow contraception within marriage. In the decades to follow, every other mainstream denomination followed suit—all except the Catholic Church. I found myself wondering why the Catholic Church alone stood firm against birth control. What could be wrong with it? Then my husband Tom loaned me the Feminism and Femininity tape series by Catholic writer and professor Alice von Hildebrand. For the first time, I heard a powerful argument against birth control and discovered Pope Paul VI had prophesied in Humanae Vitae that birth control would lead to widespread sexual immorality, the acceptance of abortion, and the decay of the family. Realizing what could happen if we accepted this teaching, I said to my husband, “I don’t want twelve children.” I was completely closed to life—I didn’t want even one more child (two were enough, I thought). I was afraid and didn’t understand why birth control was wrong, yet I wanted to submit to God’s will. Faith precedes understanding, as the saying goes. At age 37, I stopped using birth control in July 1998. Grateful that God did not convert me in my 20’s, I calculated that six was the maximum number of children I might end up with (assuming the “worst-case scenario” of having a baby every other year until I was too old). The months passed, however, and I did not become pregnant. As my youngest child began school, I began to yearn for another baby or two or three. I felt the irony of the situation, since God was not giving me what I now wanted.

God is not a she

Excited about becoming a Catholic Christian, I enrolled in catechism classes at our parish in 1998. The first day of class, I got a shock when the Religious Education director said we can refer to God as she and the Church as he. “But,” I said, “Jesus told us to pray to our Father, so we should refer to God as he. Since Jesus is a man and the Church is the bride of Christ, the Church should be referred to as she.” The Religious Education director reprimanded me for being intolerant. I soon discovered many in the Catholic Church, including catechists and priests, don’t know the core teachings or they don’t believe them. I was desperate for traditional Catholic teaching, but I didn’t know where to turn. In June 1998, Dick, a member of St. Catherine’s Parish in Virginia, invited my family to a Latin Mass. As the priest chanted the prayers, I felt connected in a powerful way to the ancient Catholic Church, to the Mass of twenty centuries. After attending services at St. Catherine’s for a month, we asked for and received permission to switch to that parish. I continued instruction at St. Catherine’s under the guidance of Father X and Father Y, priests who teach the truth of Roman Catholicism. After two years of studying early Church history and the Bible, I was convinced that the Roman Catholic Church contains the full truth of Christianity and that Jesus Christ gave authority to Peter as the first Bishop of Rome. On the vigil of Easter, April 3, 1999, I was joyously received into the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.

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6 thoughts on “From Atheist to Catholic: the miraculous journey of a soul”

  1. Interesting reading and I gather from her writings she would be the same age as I am. However when I went to school in a public school as a child we learned scripture. I remember it well, it was when I was introduced to religion. Later on I went to a Catholic school and as much as I didn’t like how strict it was, I do remember the religious teaching. Growing up my family never practised our religion but I have always believed in God all my life because of my schooling. Believing in God was and is as natural as breathing.
    Practising the faith for me, came in adulthood.

    So I ask the question that just because her family weren’t religious she could have learned about it at school as I did. Why didn’t she? She never mentioned it?

    Anyway I suppose everyone’s journey to the faith is different

    1. Hello Georgina,
      I am the author Sandra Elam. I was taught the Lord’s Prayer (the Protestant version of the Our Father) at my public elementary school in Mississippi during the 1960’s. But by the time we moved to Maryland in 1970, prayer was no longer taught at my school. We didn’t learn any scripture in my schools growing up. So that’s why I was completely ignorant.

  2. There are few things I find more inspirational than testimonies of converts to the Catholic Faith – visible manifestations of the miraculous grace of God. There is no earthly, logical reason for most conversion stories. God’s Grace is miraculous by definition and it is most powerful, imminent and intimate when seen in the transformation of a lost soul destined for hell to a redeemed soul destined for eternal unity with their Father and all the Saints.

    The paths to Truth are as diverse as the nature that surrounds us. Nature is glorious in its eclectic cacophonous diversity. It is most beautiful when considered from afar, but also beautiful, in its own way, when considered at the micro level. The grand scan is one thing. But … consider that little flower – struggling to survive in the cleft of that rocky cliff. Amazing! God is good!

    So too, with conversions to the one, true Faith. The Church is beautiful when considered from the Macro scale, it’s eternal reality between heaven and earth. But … look at the little flower that makes up this tiny little corner of Christendom. It is also stunningly beautiful, miraculous even, when looking at that little flower’s story of the journey from death to life.

    God is VERY good!

  3. In a way for you it was a sort of a blessing in disguise that your father banned the going to church and the learning about God.
    In your personal adult journey from atheism to becoming a Catholic you have developed a faith that is probably far richer than the faith of many Catholics who were raised as Catholics.
    It sounds like you have a lot to give to help enrich the weak faith of many Catholics and also to help many convert to Catholicism.
    Your mother obeyed your father’s wishes but what’s the bet that she probably quietly prayed that her children would somehow by themselves come to know God. And miraculously you eventually did come to know and to love God. Thank you for sharing your personal story with us.

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