Norman McCrummen, scholar and former pastor, stands in the study of his west Mobile home on Feb, 26, 2013, flanked by books he has read and collected over the years. (Carol McPhailfirstname.lastname@example.org)
In June 2011, the last time we talked to the Norman H. McCrummen III, he was retiring from Spring Hill Presbyterian Church (USA) in Mobile, at that time the largest congregation among 28 in the Presbytery of South Alabama. Today, McCrummen is a layman. What’s more, to the shock of many in the community, he is also a Catholic.
Three months after his retirement as pastor, McCrummen was accepted into full communion with the Catholic Church. He sat down with us recently to talk about his faith today and what compelled him to leave Protestantism – to “swim the Tiber,” as he puts it.
How did a former Presbyterian minister become Catholic?
The short answer is just the amazing grace of God, unfathomable, indefinable, unconditional grace of God. That grace came to me gradually and started in my childhood. God gave me godly parents, Christ-centered parents, so I grew up in a (Baptist) home in which the scriptures were taken very seriously and faith was at the center of our family life.
Even in my boyish study of medieval history, I encountered the Catholic Church over and over and over – and realized again even as a boy that without the presence of the church, there really would not have been the civilization that was.
I never dreamed in my childhood youth and most of my adulthood that I would ever be a part of this ancient church. That just never crossed my mind, but the grace kept coming, and the grace came through the study of scripture, and … through the study of history.
In my young adulthood, I became really serious about the study of church history. That proved amazingly fascinating. But no, I was not thinking about – as a friend of mine always says, “Norman, you swam the Tiber. I didn’t know you had the strength to do it.”
I never thought about swimming the Tiber in those years at all.
Where were you in your life when you first thought Catholicism might be it for you?
I have to say that I thought about it for a number of years, but I kept it very much as a distant thought. I continued to study particularly the Catechism. That is a work of theology I would recommend to any person. It’s really the core, core tenets which we find in the Apostle’s Creed and in the Nicene Creed, and the explanation is so deeply thoroughly and beautifully written.
I was studying the Catechism for a number of years as a matter of interest, and it became a matter of admiration. But the Tiber was such a wide river with such strong currents, given my Protestant background and given the fact that I was a Presbyterian pastor, I just couldn’t see how I could make this swim.
It was after my retirement in June 2011 that things moved very quickly. When I resigned in May 2011 … I did not think: “I’m resigning and retiring in order to become Catholic.”
I knew that where my theology was headed and what my beliefs were and how certain obstacles that had been there were no longer obstacles. But I did not know that I would be asked by God to make this change. It still sort of makes me gulp that, again, I would be asked by God to do this.
In this season of my life, there are challenges which anyone has as one grows older. With me, it’s the care of my 91-year-old mother and my wife, and that is no small challenge.
But the consolations that have come to me by being Catholic are so many – daily Mass, receiving the Eucharist, Adoration, prayer that’s become at the very center of my life. I was a man of deep prayer, but … it’s a different experience now. It brings such consolation and peace and direction, and in this season of my life, God knew what I would need most.
What about your prayer life now is so full?
It’s constant, and I can remember teaching and preaching about letting prayer be a constant way of life, and I think I understood that intellectually, but it really became a way of life after I became Catholic, and I pray very, very simply. I pray throughout the day. I pray when I’m talking to people. I pray when I’m writing. I pray when I’m typing and it’s very simple: “I love you; I love you; I love you; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I love you; Jesus, I love you.”
I pray the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I will pray that many, many, many times a day. I pray very simply for God’s grace to be with my family – my mother, my wife, our daughter, my sister. I just pray throughout the day for my family. I pray for the sick; I pray for my friends; I pray for the broken children of our community – children from dreadful circumstances.
That’s richer in the Catholic tradition?
I’m not saying you don’t find it in Protestant churches and other faiths. You do. I have found in the Catholic faith, prayer is so encouraged and practiced and taught and experienced to a degree that was not my experience as a Protestant. But I have known many Protestants, particularly older people, who were great people of prayer. I’m not forgetting that.
In your interview on EWTN (below), you talked about the Holy Eucharist.
That was the chief draw. A friend put it like this: “Norman, you were asked to get into a boat, and Jesus was at the helm, and the Holy Spirit was the wind and the sails, and the wind took you to the harbor that he wanted for you. But now, why did you get out of the boat?”
What got me out of the boat was the Blessed Sacrament, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That is the absolute center of Catholic faith is the real presence. It goes back to the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, and in the daily Mass, we encounter the living Jesus.
As opposed to?
It being a symbol, a memorial supper, or as even a very sacred symbol. In the Catholic and Orthodox tradition, it is the real presence.
What do you call what happened? Would you call it a conversion?
This is the way the church says it: A Protestant is already in communion with the holy Catholic Church. We say it in our creed. It’s that when a Protestant becomes a Catholic, that Protestant becomes in full communion with the Catholic Church.
If you have been baptized, you are not re-baptized as a Catholic, because your baptism is recognized as being absolutely valid. So it is a matter of becoming in full communion, whereas one was in partial communion, with the church that goes all the way back to Pentecost.
What else attracted you about Catholicism?
The magisterium (teaching authority) of the church is very important to Catholicism and to one’s Catholic faith. The absolute essentials of the faith are non-negotiable. They cannot be voted on. They cannot be altered to accommodate changing culture.
Technically – and I’m not saying this happens in all Protestant churches – in a Protestant church, anything can be up for a vote, and that happened in my denomination. But in the Catholic faith, there are those essential teachings that are non-negotiable, and I have a great respect for that. In secular culture, truth is whatever you decide it is.
The other thing that I was drawn very strongly by is the study of scripture. Instead of creating a school of theology on two or three verses, the Catholic church has taken the entirety of scripture and have put them together in this beautiful mosaic, which is to say that nothing has been left out that proved to be inconvenient, that that the totality of the scripture has been put together in order for us to have the fullness of scriptural truth. That really attracted me.
I read with new eyes and came to understand at a deeper level the 25th chapter of Matthew, “when you did it unto the least of these you did it unto me,” also the Sermon on the Mount, the Catholic emphasis, and the letter of James, which Martin Luther wanted to remove from the Bible. That was a tremendous awareness, huge awareness, for me.
When you’re talking about James, you’re talking about faith and works?
You really can’t separate the two, because faith is dead without works. Works is a manifestation of faith. If you have faith, you’re going to have works, and those works will be manifest in many ways, as Jesus said in the 25th chapter of Matthew and as clearly conveyed by Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount.
So yes, grace is absolutely essential to salvation. There is no question that that grace comes to us; faith is essential in the receiving of it, but part of our sanctification -- becoming holy -- is through our works of charity offered in gratitude for the grace that has come.
There’s one other thing that Catholics don’t back away from, and that’s mystery. There’s so much rationality, which is a good thing, in Protestantism. But it can and has led in many instances to a suspicion about mystery rather than looking mystery squarely in the eyes and going into that cloud of mystery in faith.
What did you read that guided you?
The book that’s had the most influence on me is Thomas a Kempis’ “The Imitation of Christ,” second to the Bible, and also the writings of the early church fathers. Then, when you move on through the centuries, Thomas Aquinas, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. Her writings have been so, so powerful.
I’m reading for the second time the diary of St. Faustina … of Poland, and encountering in her writings this very, very deep understanding of the mercy of Jesus.
I went to Assisi for the first time this past July, and it was extremely moving. The writings and teachings and the life of St. Francis of Assisi have influenced me profoundly.
What was going on during this time when you were ready to leave Spring Hill -- when there were changes made by the Presbytery of South Alabama (and other presbyteries) in the Book of Order?
Those changes were made by the denomination regarding ordination standards, conduct of ordained people. All that was voted out.
There were two things. I did not feel that that battle was for me to fight, that I was at a point in life when – and I say this to you as it happened – that God told me to take care of my family and that this battle that was going to go on in the denomination was not to be mine. I resigned three days after this came to me.
What changes were made?
What the Book of Order stated was that ordained people who are married would be faithful in marriage, and that people outside of marriage would be chaste in singleness, and if there’s failure, there would be repentance.
When that was removed, what that said to the world was that Biblical authority is to be taken very lightly, because the Bible couldn’t be clearer about conduct for married and unmarried people.
This didn’t happen overnight in the denomination, and the whole of liberal Protestantism is facing a crisis in that it has accommodated cultural norms to the point of breaking with Biblical authority, and one of the great attractions to the Catholic Church is that the teachings of the church are not changing.
In a church of 1 billion members, you’re going to have some spectacular failures, but the church doesn’t change its teachings to accommodate bad behavior. In liberal Protestantism, what has happened is that there has been such an embrace of secular culture that there has been this massive watering down of the authority of scripture. And that’s a tragedy.
What happened after you retired?
Through the summer, things moved very quickly, and God was opening one door after another, and in September, I was received into the Catholic Church.
I look back and yes there were plenty of people who didn’t understand my decision and didn’t appreciate it. Strangers were angry with me and would send me mail and books and all that, telling me how great a mistake I had made. It was not an easy thing to bear, because I lost friends over it. But I would do it a million times over because of the consolations and the caress of God’s spirit that came.
Some of the people have come back and apologized who were particularly rough.
Are you proud of the work you did at Spring Hill?
I am very grateful that God gave me 12 years there. I did see tremendous spiritual growth, which is to say I got to witness the work of the Holy Spirit, and the issue was never Spring Hill Presbyterian Church, made up of wonderful people. The issue was the denomination.
I have great affection and always will for Spring Hill Presbyterian Church. I will always have tremendous gratitude to the church and to God for allowing me to be the pastor. It was not the church.
Looking back, do you believe it was God’s will that you were there?
Yes, indeed. I was not ready to make the change. God was teaching me through those 12 years. God was taking me deeper in my faith and in my understanding of his will and his word.
You were someone who was known in the community. Was it difficult to show up at Mass one day?
Fr. Bry Shields happened to already be a very dear friend. What did happen is that we were on vacation when he was going to be installed as pastor at St. Ignatius (Catholic Church). We were on Amelia Island, off the coast of north Jacksonville. So there we were with very dear friends, and I said to Nancy, “We’ve got to go back to Mobile for Bry’s installation.”
All I can tell you is that I had to do it. There was something inside me saying, “You’ve got to be there.”
And I went to his installation, and I was just so moved and so overcome with many, many emotions. I had to go, and then kept going, and started going to Men of St. Joseph’s on Tuesday mornings, a Catholic Bible study.
A friend of mine (from an ecumenical group) invited me to go to Adoration, which I had never gone. It’s … focusing on the consecrated host and just adoring Jesus and praying. It can be contemplative prayer or prayer through the scriptures.
I walked out of the chapel at St. Ignatius knowing that I was going to be Catholic. That was in August of 2011.
How would you describe that experience?
An encounter with a holiness and beauty and love in its just purest form. I couldn’t walk away from it. When I left the chapel, I knew what God was asking me to do.
Has your family had a similar search?
My wife is now Catholic, and my mother who grew up in a Lutheran/Baptist family, thoroughly enjoys going to St. Ignatius when she can. I’ve been strongly supported by my Protestant family.
Do you still consider yourself a minister?
Technically, yes, in that all Christians are. Every Christian is given some kind of ministry by God.
Tell me about your ministry now.
The Naman Initiative is a huge part of my life now. Named for Circuit Judge Edmond Naman, it is an organization recently formed to address the needs of hopeless children and teenagers in the community. It’s really gaining traction.
It’s going to have a coordinator so that when a person is in need, that coordinator can send that person to one of many helping organizations. There’s going to be a Naman Resource Center, in which people can come for tutoring, to learn different skills, to have a mentor relationship with someone.
The broad purpose is truly the restoration of lives, young lives and families, because what Judge Naman sees in court is not just a young person in trouble, but a family in crisis.
Source : http://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/2013/03/retired_presbyterian_pastor_no.html