Where the road begins

I have always thought that I had a pretty good understanding of Roman Catholicism, not just of its history and doctrine, but of how Catholic people ‘tick’. Growing up as a non-Catholic at a Roman Catholic high school, all my mates were Catholic, all my teachers were Catholic, and all my girlfriends were Catholic (of which, to be precise, there was one). I even flirted briefly with becoming Catholic myself.

But whenever I speak to Mark Gilbert about what it means to be Catholic, I realize that I have always been an outsider looking in, and that I’ve never really understood.

Mark would have been one of those Catholic mates at high school (if we had been at the same high school); one of the more devoted ones. He was altar boy material, and his family were strong supporters of the Church.

These days, Mark is an Anglican minister, and leads a ministry called ‘Certainty for Eternity’ which seeks to share the gospel with Roman Catholics. Which is quite a turnaround.

The really interesting thing is how this change happened for Mark. It didn’t start through a very clever Protestant persuading him of all the ways in which the Church of Rome hath erred. The key issues for him were not justification by faith alone, the authority of the Pope, the intercession of the saints, the existence of purgatory, the transubstantiation of the mass, or any of the other usual suspects.

It was really much more simple than that. Mark was challenged by some friends to read the Bible, and when he did he met Jesus. And the Jesus he met there was almost a stranger to him—a delightful stranger, mind you, but someone new to him. All the niggling things he was frustrated with about Catholicism resolved into sharp focus when he understood who Jesus really was, what he had done, and how that applied to his life.

Mark’s new book The Road Once Travelled has been shaped by his own experience and his subsequent efforts to share the gospel with Roman Catholics. Unlike many books that reach out to Catholics, The Road Once Travelled makes no effort whatsoever to address the doctrinal errors and inconsistencies of Rome. It starts no quarrel with the Pope, and doesn’t even mention the Virgin Mary.

Instead, Mark starts where he started, and where many Catholics now are—with a deep sense of belonging to their Church, and of it being part of their identity, and yet at the same time a growing sense of frustration and dis­illusionment with various aspects of Catholic life. He writes not about the doctrinal errors of the mass, but about the crushing boredom of a weekly service that doesn’t change and doesn’t connect or engage with the participants. He writes about the disillusionment many Catholics feel towards the leadership of the church, which is increasingly seen as either corrupt or out of touch. And he speaks with personal warmth about the residual guilt that he constantly felt, and which many Catholics continue to experience.

The answer Mark offers to Catholics is to meet the Jesus of the Bible—who is never boring, who is the leader they’ve been praying for, and who decisively deals with our sin and guilt, once and for all.

It’s a brilliant little book. It’s not argumentative. It doesn’t come across as a Protestant tract that seeks to persuade Catholics of Rome’s errors—because it is not that. It starts much further back, by helping Catholics take that first crucial step of getting to know the real Jesus in the pages of Scripture. As an easy and non-confrontational book to give to a Catholic friend, it’s ideal.

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