Rev. Msgr. Stuart Swetland, director of The Cardinal Newman Society’s program to enhance Catholic identity in faithful Catholic colleges, shared his journey from Lutheranism to Catholicism recently as part of a series of conversion stories presented by the Institute for Catholic Culture.
Msgr. Swetland is the vice president for Catholic identity and holds the Archbishop Flynn Chair of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. He also serves as the Executive Secretary for the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and as director of the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education, a division of The Cardinal Newman Society.
He said that there is a moral obligation for all people of faith to share the reasons why they believe what they believe. He cited Scripture:
“Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15)
Msgr. Swetland grew up in a pious, Christian family in Pennsylvania. His family attended the services at the Lutheran Church every Sunday, usually on Wednesday night, and sometimes on Sunday night in addition.
He described his parents as “strong believers who witnessed to their faith by the way they lived their lives.”
During Msgr. Swetland’s time in college at the United States Naval Academy, his faith suffered. He had tried attending Sunday service at a Lutheran church near the Academy, but he was not welcomed into the community because it was a “peace church” and he was wearing his military uniform. This Lutheran church was unlike his church back home, which had celebrated his appointment at the Academy.
Msgr. Swetland used this example from his own life to offer advice to others: watch those who are going off to college carefully, because it is a “precious time” in which many important life choices are made.
Although he had mostly stopped attending church on Sundays, a physics professor at the Academy helped him “keep faith alive” by showing him how faith and reason work together; Msgr. Swetland was “convinced, but not converted.”
“It was really hard to see the order, even the order that came out of chaos, that was in the physical world, both on the macroscopic level and the most fundamental level, and not believe that there was some intelligence behind it. I could never get myself to believe that it was sheer chance.”
When Msgr. Swetland won a Rhodes Scholarship during his senior year to study at Oxford, he was able to take time out from his career and “spend time thinking about his faith.” Msgr. Swetland studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. He said that “Even bad philosophy led [him] towards the truth” because it made him question “what did [he] believe about what [he] believed, and why did [he] believe it?”
Another one of the things that kept Msgr. Swetland connected to God were the old spiritual hymns that he learned as a child. As he walked around the beautiful gardens at Oxford, hymns like “How Great Thou Art” would play in his mind.
Msgr. Swetland stated how important it is to have “good theology in our hymns,” because catechesis takes place through music. He said that a hymn which is sung in the Catholic Church and does not truly represent the teachings of the Church is “corroding young people who hear it and think it’s a catchy tune, and do not realize that it’s heretical.”
During Msgr. Swetland’s time at Oxford, he frequently got together with a small group of friends who were studying various subjects. The group would share a meal together, read a literature passage, and have a discussion.
Four of Msgr. Swetland’s friends were “believing Catholics ”who knew their faith and lived their faith. Msgr. Swetland said they never“ pushed the faith on him,” but steered him in the direction he needed to go.
At the same time, Msgr. Swetland was re-reading Scripture.When he researched those people who were listed in Scripture as seeing the Risen Christ, he discovered that almost all of them died a martyr’s death. Msgr. Swetland said that these early Christians “provide[d] a powerful witness to the fact that they had a life transforming experience that they were willing to risk everything for.”
This awoke the seed of faith in Msgr. Swetland that his parents had first planted. He reminded others that when you plant the seed of faith in others “who knows when and who knows how, but it may germinate again, even if they wander.”
Another aspect of Christianity that Msgr. Swetland observed in Scripture was the sacramental life, which is lived out in the Catholic Church.
Msgr. Swetland took three years to come into the Catholic Church, describing himself as a “hard nut to crack.” He said that he still doesn’t “fully understand all of the teachings of the Church,” but that he believes that the Church is who she says she is – “the Church founded by Jesus Christ, inspired with the Holy Spirit, that she is the mystical body of Jesus Christ expended through space and time, carrying on His mission through space and time.”
Msgr. Swetland said, “The most joy-filled moment of my life was the day I was received into the Catholic Church; the day I received the Eucharist.”
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