A Triumph and a Tragedy
by Jimmy Akin
I broke off a piece of the popsicle in my hand and placed it carefully in the mouth of my dying wife. Renee lay on her back, restless in the hospital bed, suffering from an advanced case of colon cancer which we had discovered a little more than a month before. She ate several more pieces of popsicle as I broke them off for her, then said she could eat no more, so I let her rest.
When our parish priest arrived he and I went into a conference room down the hall to talk. The news about my wife’s condition was not good. Renee’s caretakers had outlined three things which could kill her in the short term: one of them instantly, one in a week or so, and one in a few weeks. The doctor said she still had a chance of responding to the chemotherapy and might conceivably live for a few months, possibly even six or more, but that a year would be miraculous. In light of the urgent state of Renee’s condition, we talked about accelerating my entrance into the Catholic Church. It didn’t look like there was much time.
I was born in 1965 in Corpus Christi, Texas, and grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas. My mom and dad took me to a local Church of Christ until I was five or six, but then quit going. After that I was raised outside any church. This did not mean I was uninterested in religion — I was. When I was thirteen or fourteen, I started reading the Bible, but only those parts I thought dealt with the “end times.” As a result of what I read in the Bible, I got scared, seeing terrifying visions of God’s wrath and judgment without having them balanced by the message of his wondrous grace and mercy. This helped drive me into the next phase of my religious development: the New Age movement. The reason I moved in that direction was that New Age philosophy holds that there is no hell. New Agers believe we reincarnate through many lives until we become perfect. This made the New Age aty stable thing in my personal religion at this time was an intense dislike of Christians, whom I had learned to detest in high school. The mere sight of a person with Christian mannerisms aggravated me. It was not until some time later that I found a preacher who acted enough like a non-Christian for me to be able to listen to him.
He was a hum-dinger. Dr. Gene Scott was a late night TV preacher and end-times guru based in Southern California. I discovered him on my television late one evening after work and was entranced. He looked less like a typical, three-piece suit, Southern Baptist preacher than anyone I had ever seen. He talked about God, but wore leather jackets and cowboy hats. He had long white hair and a beard, smoked cigars, and felt no compunction about cursing on the air. He wasn’t anything like a typical televangelist. After listening to him for about six months, I called up and joined his church — the first one of which I had ever been a member.
My fascination with Gene Scott lasted for some time, but when his organization fell on hard times and his program was taken almost completely off the air in my area, I decided to find some other religious affiliation. Eventually I settled on the conservative denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). After becoming a Gene Scott devotee, I voraciously read books on theology. My greatest desire was to enter full-time Christian ministry, either as a pastor or as a seminary professor, but something intervened: my marriage.
I met my future wife, Renee Humphrey, at a party shortly after I became a Christian. Although she was a Catholic who held many New Age beliefs, I dated her anyway. If we had met a year later, I would have been a much stronger Evangelical and would not have done so. She caught me early enough, though, so I went ahead.
Renee was a small woman with dark hair and dark eyes. She too was a voracious reader, but her passion was for history and literature instead of the theology and philosophy I craved. Although she was self-educated in these areas, she knew more about history than many people with college degrees in that discipline. Sometimes it was difficult to watch movies with her. She would point at the screen and say, “That style of dress was not introduced until thirty years after this story is set.”
Renee also had a melancholy side, in large part due to suffering from poor health. Since high school she had been plagued by health problems. When they first appeared she received what she viewed as incompetent medical care, with the result that she developed a strong phobia about doctors and needles, a phobia which regularly prevented her from seeking proper treatment. Her principal medical problem was ulcerative colitis, a condition which caused perpetual irritation of her colon. This condition weakened the muscles supporting her spine, causing her vertebrae to pinch her nerves, sending sharp, shooting pains down her legs. Even when she was not having leg pains, she always walked with a limp. When her nerves would flare up, she often could not walk at all. One of the first things we bought after we were married was an aluminum walker, the kind used by the elderly, which Renee needed at the age of 23.
Before we could be married, there were a couple of issues I had to get settled with Renee: her New Age beliefs and her Catholicism. Because she was such an avid reader, I gave her a Christian book on reincarnation, and it convinced her the doctrine was false. “Great!” I thought. “One problem down and one to go.”
I was pleased at having convinced her not to be a New Ager; now all I had to do was to convince her to not be a Catholic. This was something I knew I had to do. There was no way I could allow myself to marry a Roman Catholic while I was planning on being a Protestant pastor or seminary professor. Even if I could have found someone willing to ordain me in spite of the fact that I had a Catholic wife, I felt I couldn’t in good conscience accept the ordination. I recognized that New Testament ministers were required to have religious solidarity with their families. For example, Titus 1:6 says the children of elders must be raised in the Christian faith.
Because of the success I had obtained by loaning Renee the book criticizing reincarnation, I decided to try this strategy again and loaned her a book which tried to put the Vatican in a bad light. After reading it she quit identifying herself as a Catholic and began to speak of herself as an Anglican. Although I hadn’t achieved her complete alienation from Catholicism, this was okay with me. I wanted her in the same denomination I was in, but I could settle for her being an Anglican, at least for the time being. I assumed her stint in Anglicanism would be just an intermediate stage before she entered mainstream Evangelicalism. I was wrong.
During Renee’s Anglican period, she and I were married, and shortly after our wedding Renee reverted to Catholicism. Now that we were married and the pressure of losing me was off, she could become Catholic again. This threw a formidable monkey-wrench in my plans. I had to abandon my hope of a career as a minister, the only thing I wanted to do with my life, and I had to abandon my self-image as a teacher of God’s Word. This put stress on our otherwise happy marriage.
Things went from bad to worse when Renee discovered something I already knew, but never mentioned: Our marriage was not valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church. As a result, Renee was barred from the sacraments. This revelation caused her a great deal of pain and put still more tension between us. She was unwilling to leave me, and I was unwilling to be remarried in the Catholic Church. The situation was complicated by the fact that Renee had no driver’s license, and I refused to take her to Mass. This meant she could almost never attend.
But things began to change.
Since becoming a Christian I had read theology intensively, but I started making discoveries in the Bible which troubled me. For example, the shocking “Catholicity” of certain verses leaped out at me. I was bothered by Christ’s statements about the apostles having the power to bind and loose (Matt. 16:18 and 18:18) and about their having the power to forgive sins (John 20:21-23). I didn’t know what to make of these passages, so I simply put them aside, planning to deal with them later.
Eventually, when the time came to deal with them, I had to conclude that Jesus had meant exactly what he had said: His ministers really do have the power to forgive and retain sins. I had to admit to myself that the Catholics were right about the sacrament of confession, and Presbyterianism was simply out of synch with Scripture on this point.
One of the things that helped me to arrive at this conclusion was a paper written by Leon Holmes. Leon used to attend the Protestant church where I worshipped, but some time before I started attending there he and his family had moved away. Eventually they became Catholic and settled in Little Rock. Leon wrote a paper on Mary and sent it to friends in Fayetteville; I was one of the people who read it. Even though at the time I thought I could refute most of what he said, there was one passage in the paper that made me squirm.
Leon wrote, “Most of the Catholic distinctives that are criticized by our Evangelical brothers are rooted in taking Scripture at face value.” This claim shocked my Protestant sensibilities. “What does he mean? Catholics take the Bible at face value on the points where Protestants criticize them?” I asked, flabbergasted at the thought. “How can he possible say that? Everyone knows it’s Protestants, not Catholics, who are taking the Bible at face value!”
Leon backed up his shocking statement by citing the following verses: “Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’ ” (John 6:53); “This is my body . . . ” (Luke 22:19); “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5); “[D]on’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3); “baptism . . . now saves you . . . ” (1 Peter 3:21); “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:23); “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church . . . ” (Matt. 16:18).
I thought I could deal with most of these verses, but I had no idea how to refute the Catholic interpretation of 1 Peter 3:21 and John 20:23. Most startling was the very suggestion that Catholic theology rested on the literal interpretation of the Bible. This thought stayed with me and kept bugging me. Eventually it played a significant role in my conversion to the Catholic Church.
I also began to have problems with the two fundamental doctrines of Protestantism: sola fide, the claim that we are saved by faith alone, and sola scriptura, the claim that Christians are to use only the Bible in matters of doctrine and practice.
The first began to be problematic for me because I started noticing certain passages in Scripture which contradicted the doctrine. In Romans 2:7, for example, the Apostle Paul tells his readers that God will give the reward of eternal life to those who “seek after glory, honor, and immortality by perseverance in good works.” In Galatians 6:6-10, Paul tells his readers that those who “sow to the Spirit” by “doing good to all” will from the Spirit reap a harvest of eternal life. It was especially noteworthy that I was finding these verses in Romans and Galatians, the very epistles on which Protestants claim to base the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
These verses don’t mean we earn our salvation by good works, a doctrine many Protestants mistakenly attribute to the Catholic Church, but they do mean that the simple “faith alone” formula is not an accurate description of what the Bible teaches about salvation. These and other passages reveal that, as a result of God’s grace, we are capable of doing acts of love which please God and which he freely chooses to reward. One of the rewards, in fact the primary reward, is the gift of eternal life (cf. Romans 2:6-7).
There was still the matter of how to explain passages such as Romans 3:28, where Paul says that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law, but this did not trouble me much since I had recognized from my earliest days of Bible reading that Paul was talking about the Mosaic Law in Romans and Galatians, which is why he spent so much time hammering home the fact that it is not necessary to be circumcised to be saved — circumcision being one of the key rituals of the Mosaic Law. What Paul is saying is absolutely true: We are justified by faith apart from works of the Mosaic Law.
This would be more obvious to English-speaking Bible readers if translators used the Hebrew word for law, Torah, which is also the name of the first five books of the Bible which contain the law of Moses. Paul said, “We hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Torah” (Rom. 3:28). We can prove this by looking at the very next verse: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also” (Rom. 3:29).
If Paul did not mean “works of the Torah,” then this question and its answer would be meaningless. By the phrase “works of the Law” Paul refers to something Jews have but Gentiles don’t: the Mosaic Law. He makes this point in the next verse: “Since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised [Jews] on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised [Gentiles] through their faith” (Rom. 3:30). So the “works of the Law” Paul talks about in verse 28 are those works which characterize Jews, not Gentiles, the chief work being circumcision (cf. 3:29-30).
This means that the Jewish laws of circumcision, ritual purity, kosher dietary prescriptions, and the Jewish festal calendar are, now that we are under the New Covenant in Christ, entirely irrelevant to our salvation. Keeping the ceremonial Law of Moses is not necessary for Christians. What is important is keeping “the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2) which is summarized as “faith working through love” (also translated as “faith made effective through love” [Gal. 5:6]).
One passage that highlighted the sacramental manner in which God gives us his grace was 1 Peter 3:20-21, where we’re told that “God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also; not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
The meaning of Peter’s statement, “Baptism now saves you,” is clear from the context of the passage. He’s referring to the sacrament of water baptism, because he says eight people were saved through water. Baptism does not save us by removing dirt from our bodies. The merely physical effects of pouring water in baptism are unimportant. What counts is the action of the Holy Spirit though baptism, for in it we “pledge . . . a good conscience toward God,” (that is, we make a baptismal pledge of repentance) and are saved “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
I began to discover this sacramental principle throughout the Bible. In both the Old and the New Testament there are incidents where God uses physical means to convey grace. One striking example is the case of the woman with a hemorrhage:
“When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, ‘If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.’ Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ ‘You see the people crowding against you,’ his disciples answered, ‘and yet you can ask, “Who touched me?”‘ But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering'” (Mark 5:27-34, NIV).
This passage contains all the elements of the sacramental principle: the woman’s faith, the physical means (touching Jesus’ clothes), and the supernatural power that went out from Jesus. When the woman came up to him and, with faith, touched his garment, the power of God was sent forth, and she was healed. This is how the sacraments work; God uses physical signs (water, oil, bread, wine, the laying on of hands) as vehicles for his grace, which we receive in faith.
Thomas Aquinas pointed out that, since we are not simply spiritual beings, but physical creatures also, it is fitting for God to give us his spiritual gift of grace through physical means. I later discovered that even Martin Luther recognized this. In his Short Catechism he stated that baptism “works the forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation to all who believe.” Sadly, he ignored the Biblical evidence for five of the seven sacraments (retaining only baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and most Protestants lost even Luther’s view of the sacraments as means of grace, departing from the Biblical teaching that “baptism now saves you.”
God sometimes gives saving grace apart from baptism (cf. Acts 10:44-48), but he ordained baptism to be the normative means through which we first come to him and become members of his Church. Peter told the crowd on the day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Paul was told at his baptism, “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).
The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura also began to trouble me as I wondered how it is that we can know for certain which books belong in the Bible. Certain books of the New Testament, such as the synoptic gospels, we can show to be reliable historical accounts of Jesus’ life, but there were a number of New Testament books (e.g., Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation) whose authorship and canonical status were debated in the early Church. Eventually the Church decided in their favor and included them in the canon of inspired books, but I saw that I, a person two thousand years removed from their writing, had no possibility of proving these works were genuinely apostolic. I simply had to take the Catholic Church’s word on it.
This meant that for one very foundational doctrine — the doctrine of what Scripture is — I had to trust the Church since there was no way to show from within Scripture itself exactly what the books of the Bible should be. But I realized that by looking to the Church as an authentic and reliable witness to the canon, I was violating the principle of sola scriptura. The “Bible only” theory turned out to be self-refuting, since it cannot tell us which books belong in it and which don’t!
What was more, my studies in Church history showed that the canon of the Bible was not finally settled until about three hundred years after the last apostle died. If I was going to claim that the Church had done its job and picked exactly the right books for the Bible, this meant that the Church had made an infallible decision three hundred years after the apostolic age, a realization which made it believable that the Church could make even later infallible decisions, and that the Church could make such decisions even today.
A year or two after reading Leon’s paper on Mary, I read a book by a Catholic author who gave a long quote from Matthew 16 in his section on the pope. In this passage Christ says, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.” Up to this time I had always thought the rock on which the church was built is the revelation that Jesus is the Christ, and I could argue this position well. As my eyes scanned the passage, I noticed for the first time a structural feature in the text which required that Peter be the rock.
In Matthew 16:17-19 Jesus makes three statements to Peter: (a) “Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jonah,” (b) “You are Peter,” and (c) “I will give you the keys to the kingdom.” The first statement is clearly a blessing, something which builds Peter up and magnifies him. Christ declares him blessed because he received a special revelation from God.
The third statement is also a blessing: Christ declares that he will give Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. This is clearly a beatitude, something that magnifies and builds Peter up. And if Christ’s first and third statements to Peter are blessings, the middle statement in its immediate context must also be a blessing.
This was a problem, because in order to defend the view that Peter is not the rock on which the Church is built, I had to appeal to a minor difference in the Greek text between the word used for Peter (Petros) and the word used for rock (petra).
According to standard anti-Catholic interpretation, Petros means “a small stone” while petra means “a large mass of rock,” and the statement “You are Peter [Petros],” should be interpreted as something that stresses Peter’s insignificance.
Evangelicals picture Christ as having meant, “You are a small stone, Peter, but I will build my Church on this great mass of rock which is the revelation of my identity.”
One problem with this interpretation, a problem that many Protestant Bible scholars will admit,* is that while Petros and petra did have these meanings in some ancient Greek poetry, the distinction was gone by the first century, when Matthew’s Gospel was written. At that time the two words meant the same thing: a rock.
[*: For example, D.A. Carson admits this in his commentary on Matthew in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank Gaebelein, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984 ed.), vol. 8, 367-368.]
Another problem is that when he addressed Peter, Jesus was not speaking Greek, but Aramaic, a cousin language of Hebrew. In Aramaic there is no difference between the two words which in Greek are rendered as Petros and petra. They are both kepha; that’s why Paul often refers to Peter as Cephas* (cf. 1 Cor. 15:5, Gal. 2:9). What Christ actually said was, “You are Kepha and on this kepha I will build my Church.”
[*: Cephas is the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic Kephas (sometimes rendered Kepha or Kepa). The Gospels contain a number of Hebrew and Aramaic words and phrases which were transliterated into Greek for the benefit of non-Jewish readers. See, for example, John’s usage of the Hebrew and Aramaic terms messiah and Kephas in John 1:41-42. This passage sheds light on the apparent difference in meaning of Petros and petra in Matthew 16:18. John 1:41 says Simon Bar-Jonah’s new name would be Kephas (a massive rock) “which is translated Peter” (Petros).]
But even if the words Petros and petra did have different meanings, the Protestant reading of two different “rocks” would not fit the context. The second statement to Peter would be something which minimized or diminished him, pointing out his insignificance, with the result that Jesus would be saying, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! You are an insignificant little pebble. Here are the keys to the kingdom of heaven!” Such an incongruous sequence of statements would have been not merely odd, but inexplicable. (Many Protestant commentators recognize this and do their best to deny the obvious sense of this passage, however implausible their explanations may be.)
I also noticed that the Lord’s three statements to Peter had two parts, and the second parts explain the first. The reason Peter was “blessed” was because “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (v.17). The meaning of the name change, “You are Rock,” is explained by the promise, “On this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (v. 18). The purpose of the keys is explained by Jesus’ commission, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v.19). A careful reading of these three statements, paying attention to their immediate context and interrelatedness, clearly shows that Peter was the rock about which Jesus spoke.
These and other considerations showed me that the standard anti-Catholic interpretations of this text could not stand up to careful biblical scrutiny. They were forced to wrench the middle statement to Peter out of its context.
I reversed my interpretation, conclude that Peter was indeed the rock on which Jesus built his Church. This is, I believe, what an unbiased reader looking at the grammar and literary structure of the text would conclude.
If Peter in fact was the rock Jesus was talking about, that meant he was the head apostle (The Greek text reveals that Peter alone was singled out for this praise, and he alone was given the special authority symbolized by the keys of the kingdom of heaven, though other disciples shared in a more general sense Peter’s authority of binding and loosing [cf. Matt. 18:18] ). If he was the head apostle, then once Christ had ascended into heaven, Peter would have been the earthly head of the Church, subordinate to Christ’s heavenly headship.
And if Peter was the earthly head of the Church, he fit the most basic definition of the office of the pope. As a result, I had to conclude that the Catholics were right in saying that Peter was the first pope. Whether Christ intended there to be any other popes was a question I still had to settle, but already I had seen enough to know that I would have to re-investigate Catholic theology.
If Catholics could be right on this issue, they could be right on other issues as well. It unsettled me to know they were right on the sacrament of confession.
I knew I had a lot of theological re-investigation to do, so over the next year I began reading Catholic doctrine intensively. During this time I softened my stance on Catholicism. I began taking my wife to Mass and also became willing to be married in the Church. On December 1, 1991, she and I were married by Fr. Mark Wood, the priest of the parish Renee attended. The service was extremely simple (we had two witnesses, my wife’s sister and nephew), and it took only five minutes. The shortest wedding I have ever been to was my own, but it was still very meaningful to both of us.
As far as Renee knew, my view of Catholicism had softened but I still remained opposed to the Church on theological grounds. I decided to keep hidden from her the fact I was actually thinking about converting. After all we had been through, I could not cruelly get her hopes up and then disappoint her if I discovered some fatal flaw in Catholic teaching. In January 1992 I let Renee in on the secret I had been keeping and told her I might be joining the Catholic Church. This made her happy, though, ironically, I seemed more excited about it than she did.
As Lent approached, I began to make plans to enter the Church at Easter Vigil. This did not work out, but in the process of getting ready I notified my Protestant friends of the direction in which I was heading. They took the news pretty well; after all, some of the groundwork had been laid when Leon’s family and a number of other people from my church had become Catholics.
One thing I was concerned about was that since my wife was a Catholic people might think I was converting to please her. This was not the case. On a human level, if my interaction with her over Catholicism would have done anything, it would have made me resent the Church. Catholic apologist Scott Hahn once told me he was surprised I did not give up theology altogether after I suffered the disappointment of giving up my career because of Renee’s Catholicism. Fortunately my Protestant friends knew me well enough to know this was not a conversion for the sake of my marriage.
Then something happened that would change my life forever. In late June 1992, shortly after her twenty-seventh birthday, Renee became ill. At first we thought it was a flare-up of her ulcerative colitis, since the symptoms were the same: loss of appetite, periodic intestinal pain, and general weakness. Whatever it was, it also triggered a reflex in her body which brought on severe muscular back pain and headaches.
Almost from the time the intestinal pain began Renee was bedridden, unable to eat and too weak to move. When the back and head pains started, all she could do was lie still and moan. I remember days when I would lie on the bed beside her, as she cried from the pain while I whispered words to help her vent her frustration and distress at what was happening to her.
We had trouble getting doctors to treat her for the pain. Her chiropractor helped some, as did a massage therapist. Then one day when Renee was having a massage for the back pain, her therapist discovered a large lump at the base of her neck, just above her left collarbone. We had never seen this lump before and figured that it must have come up very quickly.
The next day we took Renee to the first in a series of doctors who performed x-rays, CAT scans, ultrasounds, biopsies, and a colonoscopy. They didn’t find just one lump in her body; there were dozens everywhere — in her lymph nodes, her lungs, her liver, and in her colon. One tumor in her colon was the size of a baseball. It turned out that she had an advanced case of malignant colon cancer, which would certainly kill her.
The surgeon who broke this news to us did not have much of a bedside manner. Because Renee was now unable to walk, I had rented a wheel chair and wheeled her into the surgeon’s office, where she had sat slumped, unable to sit up straight due to exhaustion. When the doctor finally arrived, he spent only a few minutes with us. Renee was forced to sit upright as the doctor checked the dressing on her shoulder where a biopsy on her neck mass had been done. Weakened from lack of food and sleep, Renee cried as the doctor peeled back the adhesive tape on the dressing. I remember her long, brown hair, normally her most beautiful feature, matting on her skin from the tears. While examining the wound, the doctor curtly informed us, “I am afraid we have a malignant process going on here.”
After this brief and graceless encounter with the surgeon, Renee again slumped forward in her chair, trying to regain her composure and absorb the shock of his terse sentence. In a daze I wheeled her across the courtyard to the first of several meetings with her cancer specialist. Although we had to wait interminably for him to arrive, we were relieved to find he had a much more sensitive way of dealing with his patients. Before he entered the room to see Renee, I stepped outside and privately told him it would be better not to discuss possible time frames regarding how long she might live. She was not ready for that subject yet. The doctor said that would be no problem since he as yet had little idea how long she might be expected to live. One particular memory of that conversation was my mention of Pope John Paul II’s successful operation to remove an orange-sized benign tumor in his intestines which had been discovered that very week. Renee was not as lucky as the pope.
We put her in the hospital for a week of chemotherapy, then took her home for a couple of days before having to return her to the hospital. This was necessary because a device they had used to give her the chemotherapy had caused a blood clot to form in one of her arms. Once Renee was back in the hospital, the nurses became concerned she might get pneumonia from being unable to sit up. Pneumonia would be particularly dangerous because the chemotherapy from the previous week was killing off her white blood cells, which she would need to fight the disease.
It was hard not knowing how long Renee had to live. According to her doctor, she could have gone instantly from a blood clot, or in a week from pneumonia, or in a few weeks or months from the cancer. I realized that things were moving too quickly, and so I called my parish and left a message for the priest, who came to our hospital room that night. He and I talked about Renee’s condition and about my coming into the Church.
A week or so earlier I had told him I was virtually ready to join. I had been more or less ready intellectually for some time, but when we discovered Renee had terminal colon cancer, I began to feel that God was telling me I had delayed long enough and that it was time to make a commitment. The fact that my wife was dying did not determine that I would join the Catholic Church, but it did help answer the question of when I would join: soon. I very much wanted to give her the present of the two of us being united in one Church and one faith before she died.
It was a Friday night when he and I talked, and we planned on my entering the Church the next Sunday. But Saturday morning Renee’s condition had grown critical, and I was told she could stop breathing at any moment. A doctor had already been summoned, and he was expected to put Renee in the intensive care unit.
I called Fr. Wood and told him we had to move our schedule up. I needed to come into the Church now. It could not wait until the next day. He said he would be right there. But before he arrived, the doctor came and informed me that he had examined Renee’s chest x-ray, and that the pneumonia the nurses feared was not the problem. Her breathing problems were caused by numerous, small tumors in her lungs.
While her long-term prognosis was no better, she was not in the kind of immediate danger we thought. The doctor estimated she probably still had a few weeks left to live. This was very heartening news. I had worried she would die immediately or within the next few days. At least this way, she and I had a little more time to prepare ourselves for the parting we knew would come.
Shortly afterward, Renee received her first morphine shot. Then our priest arrived. In private, he gave me the sacrament of confession. Then, in Renee’s hospital room, using the emergency, shortened form of the rites, he brought me into the Church. He gave me conditional baptism, and then confirmed me. After giving Renee the anointing of the sick, he gave us the Eucharist, which he had brought from the tabernacle in our parish. My wife and I communicated together for the first and last time, sharing pieces from the same host. Although Renee was able to receive communion the next day, I was not present for that. This was the only time the two of us would share the Lord Jesus in this way.
Because of the morphine injection Renee had received immediately before Fr. Wood arrived, she was very sleepy during my reception into the Church. But she knew what was going on and tried to participate as best she could, such as when she managed to eat a small fragment of the host when we received communion. When my reception into the Catholic Church was completed, I hugged her and told her I was inside the Church. There was a beautiful, peaceful smile on her face — a smile which lasted a long time.
One night Renee paid me what is probably the greatest compliment I will ever receive in this life. I was in the hospital waiting area when Renee’s mother came and told me that Renee was demanding to see me. I went to her room and discovered she had awakened and, though groggy, wanted me to arrange for her to get another morphine shot. This was something her mother or anyone could have done for her. All it required was pushing the call button for the nurse to come. But even in her semi-conscious state, Renee relied on me to get it for her. Many in her situation might have retreated into a childlike state, clinging to their mothers for help, but Renee had clung to me. Though groggy and in pain, the thought stood out in her mind: “James is here. James will take care of me. He will see that I get what I need.” As I realized this my heart ached anew with the pain of losing her.
After she had been on morphine for a few days, I began to worry that Renee was sleeping too much. She was only waking up long enough to ask for another morphine shot and then would go right back to sleep. I feared she would sleep away the rest of her life and I would not have a chance to talk seriously with her before she died. I prayed desperately to God that I could have just twenty minutes of lucid time with her to tell her some things before she died.
God gave me those twenty minutes, and between two morphine naps I was able to have the conversation with Renee that I needed. I told her softly how much I loved her and how much everyone else did as well. I said that, once she was on the other side, she would be able to look into my mind and see how much I loved her. I began to cry. At her behest I put my head down on the bed beside her, and she put her arm clumsily around the back of my head, to comfort me as best she could. Afterwards I felt much better, and sensed that Renee and I were as prepared for her departure as we could be.
The next morning I spoke to Scott Hahn on the phone about 10:30 a.m. The two of us had become phone friends during my conversion process. He was going to pray in front of the Holy Eucharist at 11:00, so I asked him to pray that Renee would respond spiritually to the things I was telling her, that she would die quickly, and that the doctors would be unable to resuscitate her. Scott went to pray in front of the Eucharist at 11:00, and Renee died at about 11:10. As I later realized, Scott was in front of Jesus praying for exactly the things that happened at exactly the time they happened — a divine coincidence which has been of enormous comfort to me. At the end Renee looked me straight in the eyes. I told her that everything would be okay, to trust God, and that I loved her. Then I kissed her on the lips. With that, Renee and I parted.
I believe that God brought us together to give each other gifts. I gave her the gift of freedom from the New Age movement, and in the end I helped give her the gift of eternal life. Renee helped give me the gift of Catholicism because as a result of my marriage to her I studied Catholic theology harder than I otherwise would have. Even though I was studying it so I could try to pull her out of the Church, it was that very study which led me to recognize that the Catholic faith is the faith of the Bible.
Renee is still giving me gifts. One of the things I did in my conversation with her the day before she died was give her a list of things to pray for when she was on the other side. Now that she has gone to be with Christ, even if she is not yet fully united with him, she can pray for me in a more powerful way than she ever could have while on earth.
I am comforted that Renee is praying for me, an intercessor I can still talk to in times of need, who is even now asking God to show me how I can best serve him in his Holy, Catholic Church during the remainder of my life.
Copyright (c) 1994 by Jimmy Akin
This story originally appeared in Surprised by Truth, Patrick Madrid, ed., (San Diego: Basilica Press, 1994). The story is copyright (c) 1994 by Jimmy Akin. All Rights Reserved.