A few nights ago, after putting my kids to bed, I went to the living room to watch one of my favorite television shows, The Journey Home, where men and women share their testimonies about how they unexpectedly, and sometimes reluctantly, found their way into the Catholic Church (I realize for many people, including my wife, it’s not must see TV, but I really enjoy conversion stories).
Anyway, as I’m fast forwarding through the show’s opening and get to the establishing two-shot of the host and guest on the set, I see that a friend of mine is the guest.
At the risk of sounding like Chris Mathews when describing Barack Obama, I got a thrill down my leg. (In a manly sort of way!)
I actually paused the show and went in to tell my wife. (Ok, you can hit me now)
Albert Holder was a member of my parish and part of our men's group. His kids went to the same Catholic school as ours, until moving with his family to Ann Arbor, Michigan in the summer of 2010.
In fact, two years ago, he took me to see, and actually introduced me to, one of my favorite authors, Dr. Scott Hahn (of Rome Sweet Home, The Lamb’s Supper and Hail Holy Queen fame), at Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church in Parkland.
Albert is a former Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints faithful, whose father was an ordained minister, missionary and church leader.
During the interview (see below), and before getting into his own conversion, Albert gave a brief explanation of the history of the Mormon faith, which was founded by Joseph Smith in the early 1800’s in New York, after claiming that Jesus Christ appeared to him and told him to restore the church He founded in the 1st century (which, according to Smith’s prophesy, had fallen into apostasy).
Without getting into all the details of the explanation that Albert shared to set up his own conversion, it is sufficient to say that after Smith’s death, there was a division among his followers; most of which, led by Brigham Young, headed west to Utah, and another smaller group, which included Smith’s family and 14-year-old son, who Smith had designated through a prophetic utterance as the next leader of the church, headed back east.
When the son was 26, he started what became known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which became a rival sect of the more established Mormon Church in Utah.
In fact, the new church proclaimed to be the true church founded by Smith, since they had claims to Smith’s bloodline and divinely inspired designation.
It is in this latter (no pun intended) smaller church that Albert was raised.
For much of his early life, his family was transient; moving every couple of years to follow the missionary work of Albert's father, who was sent to different parts of the world and U.S. to establish missions for the Reorganized Church.
Albert’s conversion begins with the conversion of his father.
In the early 1980’s, his father began to have reservations about the Mormon Gospel and started growing disenchanted with the leadership of the church.
Albert said his dad was an avid reader and, by that time, was reading C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and others. He began opening his mind to the possibility of a truth outside of his small church community.
Even so, after thirty years of ministry for a faith that he loved, believed to be true, and had committed his whole life to, it wasn’t easy.
As many ministers of other faiths do, he read his way into the Catholic Church and, after much internal turmoil and discernment for almost five years, enrolled in the RCIA program and entered the Church in 1989.
His mother, who was raised Catholic but had left the church to marry his father, returned with little reservation.
Nevertheless, his dad's conversion was scandalous to friends, family, and Reformed Church leaders, some of whom, Albert says, advised his mother to divorce and shun him, in hopes of reawakening him, because he obviously had been influenced by an evil spirit.
It was a devastating time for Albert as well. At 13, it was so traumatizing that he says when told that his father was becoming Catholic, he broke down and cried hysterically.
He was devoted to his faith and, although he loved his dad, felt a sense of betrayal.
It worsened when eventually, during the next several years, his siblings also converted, leaving him as the lone holdout in his family.
He was so frustrated and disappointed that he decided to take a relativist, and, unfortunately, contemporary approach to religion and God.
He says, “So, at this point, I make the decision that God is bigger than all religion. No one religion is right. All religions have something good. So, the best approach to this whole subject is not to be a member of any church and pick and choose from all the things that I read that I like. I would be enlightened and live happy. But, I wasn’t happy because, as we all know, happiness comes from giving your life to God.”
Through God’s grace and providence, he said, it took a medieval poetry class at Kansas University, which was taught by a professor working on a dissertation on one of the most well known Catholic converts in recent history, Cardinal John Henry Newman, to stir something within him and spark a desire to learn more about philosophy and theology.
He says, “That course was like a door to grace because it wasn’t apologetics. It wasn’t overtly trying to convince me of Catholicism. But, it was opening my mind again to the beauty and goodness of God.”
The professor suggested that if he was serious about studying philosophy, medieval thought and theology, he needed to transfer to a small liberal arts private college, where he would get a more balanced and unbiased education on the subject.
At his father’s suggestion, they visited Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, where renowned Catholic convert and author Dr. Scott Hahn heads the Theology Department.
Again, by God’s providence and grace, the only professor not on vacation, when Albert went to visit the campus, was Dr. Hahn, who Albert knew absolutely nothing about, although, his father, was already familiar with his writings.
They ended up going to visit Dr. Hahn at his home to discuss the possibility of Albert enrolling at the school and the meeting played a huge role in Albert’s eventual conversion because Hahn told him that if he attended Franciscan, he would not just do well, but he would "thrive" (which was key in helping him decide).
After several years studying philosophy and theology at the school, endless debates with his father, and countless questions swirling in his mind for years, it all came to a head at a Mass on the Feast of St. Francis in October 1992.
He says, “I was sitting in mass and say to myself, (it was) just one of those times where you realize God is here. It became so clear to me and (if) I could ask one question and get one answer. So, I was like, what do I need an answer to? And, so I looked up and saw the Blessed Sacrament being distributed and asked, Jesus is that really you? And it was in my heart; a real conviction that this was the Lord.”
Shortly thereafter, he enrolled in RCIA and not long afterwards converted.
At the end of the show, Albert said probably the most profound comment of the entire show.
He says, “One of the things that I remember very clearly is the realization that I don’t own the truth. We owned the truth in my other church and it was an ever shrinking amount of truth and it was an ever shrinking (number of ) members, who even thought like you did. And, while I understand that when I became Catholic, I was embracing the fullness of that truth; I was (only) embracing it. I was serving the truth cause the truth is incarnated in Jesus Christ. It’s not something I put in my back pocket to whip out and beat someone over the head but it’s ever challenging me in my own life to better conform to it.”
Could you tell he went to graduate school to continue his theological training in Rome?
As a matter of fact, while studying in Rome, he met his wife, Michele, who was also there studying and they got married.
It's funny because during our drive to and from Mary Help of Christians, Albert told me about his conversion and conversation with Dr. Hahn. Yet, it was fascinating to hear him tell me his story again on a nationally televised show.
Albert, his wife, and three children moved to Ann Arbor, after he took a job at a law firm that helps Catholic churches and organizations in fundraising and financial buoyancy.
The Holders are also very involved in Mary’s Meals, a charitable organization that helps feed (with food and education) needy families around the globe.
It's humbling to see how God uses ordinary people, who sometimes must travel extraordinary paths, to help build His Kingdom...