How a Presbyterian preacher found the Catholic Church

If every Catholic understood the Mass as well as Dr. Scott Hahn, the liturgy might no longer feel, to some, like an obligation but like an invitation to share Jesus and his love for all.

In an hour-long presentation, “Believing is Seeing the Mystery,” Jan. 25 in Tulane University’s Dixon Hall, Hahn regaled the packed auditorium with his personal conversion as a Presbyterian minister and biblical scholar to spreading God’s word as a Catholic.

Hahn is the Father Michael Scanlon Chair of Biblical Theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, where he has taught since 1990.

“You don’t have to die to go to heaven,” Hahn said. “All you have to do as Catholics is go to Mass, and heaven is where we are. The angels and saints are who we’re with. Their song, their sacrifice, their prayers are all the same as ours,” capturing the truth of the mystery of faith.

Having studied theology and learned Greek and Latin in undergraduate and graduate-level coursework, Hahn, the author of 40-plus books and the St. Paul Center founder, thought he knew the Christian faith in the Bible. 

Then, he experienced his first Catholic Mass on Marquette University’s campus while enrolled in a Ph.D. program and teaching theology. The writings of the early Catholic fathers unfolded before him in the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

“My life journey has been a series of signs that I missed – and then found,” Hahn said.

Study brought truth

He described his journey from being agnostic at age 13, needing “a sign to prove that there really was a God”; then needing a sign to discover that God cared about him and was true; then “following the trail I found in sacred Scripture, I eventually discovered that the Catholic Church offers something that is almost too good to be true, but, if you follow the signs, you discover it’s true and real, and it’s what we call the Mass.”

Hahn said he had to dial down the intellectual pride that defined him through his knowledge of science, philosophy and logical proof and open his mind and heart to discover the mercy of God. 

“I knew what Apocalypse wasn’t, but didn’t know what it was,” he said.

Hahn studied at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, which he called the “Harvard of evangelical theology,” to become an ordained Presbyterian minister. Yearning to preach something original and true to his congregation, Hahn turned to second-, third- and fourth-century Catholic forefathers such as St. Augustine and a doctor of the church, St. Jerome. 

Parallels unmistakable

He couldn’t deny the parallels between the beginnings of the church in the Bible and what is continued today through readings at Catholic Mass: Moses needed to be saved from the pharaohs; Jesus needed to be saved by Joseph, fleeing to Egypt with his family. Like Moses, Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights, and, like Moses, who after fasting received the Law of the Covenant (the Ten Commandments) and gave it to the people of Israel, Jesus gave the law of the new covenant through the Sermon on the Mount. Moses appointed 12 elders to direct the people of God; Jesus selected 12 disciples.

  Hahn continued to follow the signs. While preaching as a Presbyterian minister about the holy Eucharist, Hahn was struck by St. Augustine’s words about the old being revealed and fulfilled in the new. Hahn’s preaching on John’s narrative in Chapter 6 of Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse on the Sea of Galilee – Jesus giving his flesh as the new manna – stymied him as it did the Jews before him. 

“For the bread of God is that which comes from heaven and gives life to the world (33). … I am the bread of life’ whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst (35). … Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (54). 

Hahn said St. Augustine teaches how critical it is to understand the context of what Jesus was saying to his disciples. He spoke about being the “bread of life” immediately after he had multiplied the five loaves and two fishes to feed the multitudes near the time of the Jewish Passover.

“Jesus, as the new Moses is giving a new law, a new Covenant, a new Exodus;  you can’t have an exodus before you have a Passover, and that’s just not true in the old, but also in the new.” He explained at the first Passover, three things were done – an unblemished male lamb was sacrificed; his blood was sprinkled on the altar; and his flesh was eaten. Jesus knew he would have to give his life (as the Lamb of God), shed his new blood for sins and make provisions for the Eucharist (the new Covenant), so he prepared his disciples for what they had to do in the Eucharist. The Eucharist and Calvary were one in the same. 

As his and his congregation’s understanding deepened of what was happening at what they called their “Lord’s Supper,” that celebration increased from quarterly to weekly and was renamed the “Eucharist.” 

This understanding of the Eucharist led him to the Catholic faith, and, in less than two years as a Presbyterian pastor, he resigned from his pastorate and seminary teaching. He began voraciously reading books, including those by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) that clarified, for him, that the signs of the liturgy are not just symbols. 

Marquette Mass opened eyes

That Mass at Marquette with the opening rite, the penitential rite and assurance of pardon was a perfect match for the first four or five elements of what was described in second-century worship. The lector read the Bible in the Liturgy of the Word, which impressed him, not knowing Catholics did that. 

When he heard the Catholic priest pronounce the words of consecration for the first time, holding up the host, “That’s when I felt like all my intellectual questions, all my doubts were sort of draining out of my head,” he said. “I am sitting in the back of Mass saying, ‘My Lord and my God, that’s not bread, that’s you.’”

He knew it was the fulfillment of the Passover, the proof that Jesus said to the apostles and now 2,000 years later.

“This book that I had studied, I had translated … I never knew what it was until those moments of grace where suddenly the signs are so visible,” Hahn said. “Was I in a basement chapel or suddenly whisked off to Jerusalem so that I could experience the same psalms, the same prayers, the same sacrifice that John describes in his visions that are shared by the angels and the saints and the martyrs up there?

“I was falling head over heels in love with the Lord, not only in the Scriptures, but now in the word made flesh. … The incarnation of the Lord is not just a past event. Suddenly, I began to realize that he was just as present in the Eucharist today as he was in Palestine.”

Hahn converted to Catholicism in 1986; his wife followed in 1990, and he has two sons studying for the priesthood. 

“Now, over 30 years later, it is new and exciting to me and will never get old,” he said.

Hahn told the audience not to fret over world happenings today.

“Jesus Christ is still the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings, and he governs history, our world, our state and even the New Orleans Saints,” he said, laughing. “We give the Lord our heart, our trust, because that’s what he gave us.”

The talk was sponsored by a grant awarded to the Tulane Catholic Center to expose Catholic college students to the Mass. Dominican Father Tom Schaefgen, director, saw the talk as a way “to unlock the beauty, mystery and power of the Mass for the next generation to encounter God in his splendor.”

Hahn will return to Louisiana March 30, from 9 a.m.-3 p.m., speaking on “Wisdom for Our Lenten Journey: The Holy Family and Your Family: An Event with Scott Hahn and Matthew Leonard,” at the Castine Center, 63350 Pelican Drive, Mandeville. To register, go to stpaulcenter.com and click events and scroll to talks.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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