Recently, Tod Worner, the Managing Editor of Evangelization & Culture, the Journal of the Word on Fire Institute, had the chance to have a conversation with Mark Galli. Mark has served as a Presbyterian pastor, respected journalist, and most recently, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, an international magazine founded by Billy Graham in 1956 that is widely considered to be a leading voice for evangelicalism. On September 13, 2020, Mark will be received into the Catholic Church.
After a decade of pastoral work, you moved into journalism. Not only have you been a prolific writer (nine books and innumerable essays), but you have also held editorships in several prominent Christian periodicals including, most recently, Christianity Today. What led you into a writing/editing career and how has it molded you and your faith?
I am an accidental journalist. That is, I never studied it in college nor did I have journalistic aspirations. I took up writing essays as an avocation when I was in pastoral ministry. After getting the hang of it, I wrote a lot for Leadership Journal, a magazine for pastors. At one point, the editor invited me to apply for a job as an associate editor. I thought I would take a break from pastoral ministry for a couple years and try it out. It turned out to be a very good fit given my gifts, and of course I stayed with it for the next thirty years.
I don’t know that journalism affected my faith in any way, except perhaps to reinforce some things I learned from Augustine and John Calvin—that even Christians can do and say some despicable things! And yet they can do some extraordinarily good things. Journalism was a way to look into both the dark corners and the bright lights of religion, especially evangelical religion.
Many evangelicals who discover the dark side of the movement become cynical. And many evangelicals who become Catholics look back and despise their evangelical past. I’ve never been tempted to do that. Evangelicals, like Christians from any movement, can do some pretty despicable things. But overall they’ve been a force for good in the world. They remind me of some of the more heroic Catholics I’m aware of in their ability to make tremendous sacrifices, serving in some of the most troubled places on the planet to share the Gospel. I’ve been proud to be part of that movement. In many ways, I became a Catholic not to reject my evangelical convictions but merely to ground myself more deeply in them. In some ways, I now consider myself today an evangelical Catholic.
Over the course of your life, you have lived, worked, and worshiped in the Protestant faith. You have grown, matured, and celebrated many relationships and experiences within this rich tradition. That said, it seems your faith has also been a journey with unexpected twists and turns. Could you tell us more about this journey and where it has been leading you?
Among the many key turning points, one occurred when I was editing an issue of a magazine called Christian History, and the subject of the issue was Francis of Assisi. Naturally, his life of heroic self-denial and absolute infatuation with Jesus deeply impressed me. At the same time, in the evenings, I was reading John Paul II’s encyclical The Splendor of Truth. I can’t remember why I decided to read it, other than my general interest in theological currents of the day.
As I read the encyclical, I became deeply impressed not only with the mind of John Paul II but with the Catholic sensibility that was woven into this philosophical treatise. And I remarked to myself that it was amazing that the same Church produced both a Francis and a John Paul II. That was probably the moment when my interest in things Catholic began to accelerate, although it would still take many years before I could say I was converted.
G.K. Chesterton once observed, “The Church is a house with a hundred gates; and no two men enter at exactly the same angle.” Could you say a little about how you began to discern this call?
Even though it’s clear in retrospect that this moment was key, I still wandered, looking for something that my evangelical faith could not supply. So I dabbled in Christian mysticism for a while, then Eastern Orthodoxy, and then a theology of radical grace as expressed in certain Lutheran writers and the theologian Karl Barth.
It’s interesting now to see how Catholicism in many ways was the fulfillment of each of these paths. Certainly the tradition of Catholic mysticism is most impressive, especially as seen in St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, among many others. And the importance of the Church tradition and being organically tied to the early Apostles—that’s not just in Eastern Orthodoxy but also Roman Catholicism. And despite the feelings of many Protestants that Roman Catholicism is a version of works righteousness, I discovered that Roman Catholics believe in a grace that is even more radical than the radical Lutherans profess. So these so-called detours were actually preparing me to enter into the fullness that is the Roman Catholic Church.
What aspects of Catholicism have offered you the greatest sense of truth and the deepest sense of peace?
It would be hard to say what is “the greatest,” but let me pick out one or two that are pretty great!
Catholics live with a paradox that I find extraordinary. On one hand there is this incredibly high call to live a life of holiness, to give one’s whole self—heart, soul, mind, and strength—to loving Christ and living for him. At the same time, there is a kind of calm acceptance of the fact that we are miserable sinners and that we may not even come close to living the life of holiness to which we aspire. The Catholic Church is the Church of both Graham Greene’s “whiskey priest” (in The Power and the Glory), who despite his many moral weaknesses is still used by God, and Father Damien, the saint who ministered to lepers at the cost of his life. The one message that comes through every time I go to confession is that we serve a merciful God, who has the highest expectations for us and whose mercy toward us is even higher still. It’s not holiness or mercy; it’s both/and.
One thing that has brought me a great deal of peace is the inherited tradition and wisdom of the Church known as the Magisterium. Many Protestants misunderstand this, believing that acceptance of the Church’s teaching is an abdication of the mind and one’s free will. What they fail to appreciate is that it is a blossoming of the mind and the energizing of the free will. The Church’s teaching helps us think more deeply and more clearly about what it means to be a Christian, as well as the nature of truth, beauty, and goodness. It doesn’t mean that Catholics can’t doubt or question; as many Catholic spiritual directors know, it is through the doubts and questions that our faith is formed more deeply. It doesn’t mean we can’t entertain conversations in which we can help Catholic theology develop, as Cardinal John Newman suggested Catholic teaching does develop. It just means to happily give oneself to live within this tradition, which as I said helps the mind to grow and the spirit to enjoy freedom as never before.
Are there any aspects of Catholic teaching, or the Catholic Church in general, that still give you pause or make you uncomfortable? If so, how do you view these in light of your coming into full communion with the Church?
Of course I’m still uncomfortable with some things in the Catholic Church; I’m still uncomfortable with some things Jesus said. (“Loving my enemy, Jesus? You’ve got to be kidding!”) One does not convert to Catholicism, or Jesus for that matter, and immediately enter into an intellectually pristine state. There’s a learning curve as I try to understand the depth, breadth, and beauty of all that Catholicism teaches. That’s the point of conforming oneself to the Church and its teaching—to allow the Church to shape my mind and soul. That’s what I’m really looking forward to in the years ahead.
Are there any books or people who have been instrumental in your process of conversion?
It’s a nice coincidence that I’m being interviewed by a ministry founded by Bishop Robert Barron. As things were becoming more and more clear, I listened to an audio version of his book Catholicism, not once but twice. During my second reading, as he concluded the book by alluding to Catholic intellectuals and social activists, to those who worked in the arts and those who built great cathedrals, those who enjoyed extraordinary mystical experiences and those who lived lives of intense holiness—well, I found myself sobbing. I was driving as I was listening, but had to pull off the road because I couldn’t see straight.
That was the point I had become converted in heart, and knew I had to figure out the logistics of getting confirmed.
What are some of the joys and difficulties you have found in this unfolding process? How have or how will family and friends, colleagues and readers receive this news and how will you explain it to them?
My family and evangelical friends tend to be either curious or affirming. No one has rebuked me or criticized me, at least to my face! What I have found difficult is explaining to them why I’m becoming Catholic. It’s not something I can condense into a soundbite. Besides, I’m not completely aware myself of what has been going on inside me. It is fundamentally a mystery.
That being said, I wanted to explore how I’ve arrived in the Roman Catholic Church after all these years. So how does a writer do that? Well, he writes a book, which I’m in the process of doing as we speak. And as any writer will tell you, in the process of writing, I’ve discovered a number of things that have led to my conversion. The book is still a work in progress.
In writing about his conversion, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus said, “My becoming a priest in the Roman Catholic Church will be the completion and right ordering of what was begun all those years ago. Nothing that is good is rejected, all is fulfilled.” Mark, what do you bring with you into the Catholic Church that first came to you from your rich Protestant upbringing?
Many things, of course, because Protestants have a great many of the fundamentals of the faith. From my evangelical background, I bring a deep love of Scripture, a Christocentric theology, and an evangelistic passion for those who have yet to encounter Christ and his Church.
What does the Catholic Church, in particular, have to offer the modern world?
Two things, which may seem paradoxical.
On the one hand there is steadfastness. In a world in turmoil and confusion, when people don’t know their left hand from the right, when they’re swimming in a sea of relativism and despair, the Catholic Church can be a solid rock upon which one can build a sure foundation for life.
At the same time, we make a mistake if we think of the Catholic Church as the ultimate expression of conservatism. It is anything but conservative at its core. Yes, of course, any institution with the size and longevity of the Roman Catholic Church will have a fair amount of conservatism in it, for both good and ill. But just when the Church seemed more set in her ways than ever—the epitome of conservatism in the modern world—along comes Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. It is a dramatic and in some ways radical restatement of the Church’s life and teaching for the coming century.
The modern world needs a strong rock upon which to build and an institution willing to reframe in fresh ways its theology and practice so that it can reach out to a world that needs Jesus Christ more than ever.
So, Mark, what happens next? Will you write about your experience? Are there any particular aspects of Catholicism or new professional avenues that you feel called to explore?
As I mentioned, I am writing a book that will explain to others—and to myself!—why I’ve become a Catholic. Hopefully, it will be helpful to those on the journey.
Although I’m officially retired, I suspect I’ll have opportunities to employ my journalistic and writing skills on behalf of Catholicism. I’ll be happy to do so.
Finally, given all that you have experienced and learned, what advice would you have for people struggling with their faith and discerning a call into the Catholic Church?
Listen to the struggle. Pay attention to it. When we’re most uncomfortable, that’s often when the Holy Spirit is doing his most fruitful work. Keep asking yourself why you have this question or that concern—the deeper why. We tend to think of many of our objections as intellectual first and foremost. Without denying the importance of the intellectual coherence of faith, it’s also good to recognize that many of our intellectual doubts/concerns/questions are existential in nature.
I was once having an evangelistic conversation with a friend, and I answered every one of his questions he had about the Christian faith. I must say, I was at my apologetic best that night, but all for naught. Because at the end of our conversation he said this: “Mark, what you said makes perfect sense. But I can’t become a Christian, because if I did I would have to start living as Jesus commands. And I’m not willing to do that.”
So, pay attention to your doubts and struggles, at the intellectual level but especially at the existential level. That’s where you’ll meet both the discomforting and merciful Spirit of God.
Congratulations, Mark! And welcome to the fullness of the faith. Know that while your conversion is deeply personal, your witness is far-reaching. We will keep you and yours in our prayers in the days ahead.
Be sure to read Bishop Barron’s free eBook “How Are We Saved?” to learn more about Catholic teaching on justification, sanctification, and sacraments: https://bishopbarronbooks.com/howarewesaved