James Thompson

Prejudice forms a powerful barrier to God's grace. The prejudiced person is not open to logical arguments as emotions get in the way. These emotions may range from a mild distaste, to fear, and even to a kind of terror. Sometimes these persons seem to move forward a few steps but realizing what they have done, fear overtakes them and they retreat. God never gives up on them so they are marvelous examples of God's loving persistence.

On his sixth birthday in 1951, James Thompson received his own Bible, a gift from his devout grandmother. This grandmother exerted a powerful influence on James and from her he learned to reverence the Bible and to read it often.

The Thompson family lived outside Washington, D.C. and were strict Seventh Day Adventists. Two things that James remembers about the religion of his childhood are the long sermons, often on the proximate second coming of Christ with dire warnings to be prepared, and the hostility against the Catholic Church. Among the Adventists of his time, the Catholic Church was referred to as the "Whore of Babylon."

James was ten years old before he ever met a Catholic. He and his mother had must moved into a house in Tacoma Park when his mother remarked that the landlord and his family were Catholics. The first time James met Mr. Ferraro he could only mumble a greeting and hurry past, relieved that he had survived what he considered a fearful confrontation.

James remembers his whole childhood as permeated with the doctrine:

. . . that commands the believer to dwell in fearful expectancy of the Second Coming of Christ. We lived on the edge of things, senses sharpened, acutely aware of the impending catastrophe, but secure in the knowledge that when history reached its ineluctable conclusion--when the heavens unfolded and Christ descended to this earth--we would be swept up to glory.

When John Kennedy was running for President, James was sixteen and in the eleventh grade of an Adventist academy in Tacoma Park. His Bible teacher that term spent most of the semester attacking Kennedy and the Catholic Church. James recalled: "He piled atrocity upon atrocity as he exposed the depths of Roman Catholic evil; one would have thought that he alone battled to prevent America from bending the knee to Rome."

As early as the sixth grade, teachers at the Adventist school urged students to be baptized. They were considered to have reached the age of accountability and were pressured to make this decision. No longer under the influence of his grandmother, James put off his baptism for years. Finally, wanting to please his girl friend, he finally accepted baptism during his first semester in college.

At the Adventist college James took a course in Christian ethics. A fellow student voiced her irritation at sitting in the same Sabbath congregation with flagrant sinners. James explains his reaction:

As she prattled on about her offended sensibilities my rising discontent took a new turn: for the first time I saw clearly the arrogance of the Adventist conception of the Church--this huddling together of a handful of saints who cling to their list of niggling do's and don'ts while the rest of humanity gropes blindly toward perdition. Had Christ died only for my smug classmate and those she would deign to sit with on Saturday mornings? Although I possessed too little theology to refute her, I was certain of one thing: I was more comfortable in the company of sinners than in the embrace of self-proclaimed saints.

A shift had taken place in the way James looked at his religion. The significance of this shift became evident when James was offered a job at Andrews University, an Adventist institution. He admitted to Dr. Smott, his former mentor, that he no longer believed the teachings of the Adventist Church. He was not given the job.

Gradually James drifted away from any religion and called himself "an unchurched Christian." He obtained a teaching position at William and Mary, got married and his future looked bright. He expected his success and happiness to continue so felt no need of God. By the middle of his second year at William and Mary, however, he was struck with an inexplicable sadness which he kept hidden in his heart.

Then everything began to deteriorate. His wife who had no interest in his world of books and ideas, became bored and began drinking heavily. He resigned his job and in April, 1975, he divorced Carol. James spent the summer stumbling through a fog of drunkenness and confusion. He thought he had nothing to live for but clung to life, afraid to die. After drinking until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. when the bars closed, he would drive wildly through the countryside. When he arrived back home he swallowed a handful of Valium and fell into a drugged sleep.

A concerned friend loaned him a copy of Graham Greene's The Power andthe Glory. After reading the book, James wrote: "The book seized me with a violence that shook my determination to surrender to hopelessness; I read it hungrily and I read it again." He followed it with Graham Greene's other books and discerned in them a reflection of his own anguish. He commented:

. . . as I pondered the meaning of their lives I understood fully for the first time--understood in heart as well as mind--the meaning of that brutal execution on Calvary nearly two thousand years ago: Jesus Christ had died for even the most forlorn of sinners.

At this lowest point in his life, God nudged James and gave him the insight to recognize himself in Graham Greene's characters. James responded positively to God. He began reading books on Catholic doctrine and Catholic history and gradually became convinced that the Catholic Church was the greatest repository of Christian truth. Finally one morning he awoke and knew that the time had come to act.

James was under the impression that his relationship with Carol would present no problem as neither were Catholic at the tine of their marriage. Then he discovered that if he became a Catholic he could not remarry. When he was warned of this fact by the priest he declared that his mind was made up and nothing would change his resolve. Nothing was said at the time about the possibility of an annulment. In December, he was accepted into the Catholic Church and made his First Communion.

If James expected to find peace now, he was sadly mistaken. He found it very difficult to tell his family, and then he had to deal with their reaction. They considered his conversion a betrayal of the family and their religious beliefs. In his distress, James expected support and encouragement from the parish priest or the community. Their lack of assistance and comfort left him feeling unaccepted and alone. Gradually he began slipping away from the Church. Only a friend, Nancy, gave him the sympathy and comfort he needed. After a short time, they were married.

When he wanted to return to full communion with the Church he ran into a barrier. He was lectured and scolded by several priests for living in an adulterous union. Again, no one explained to him the possibility of applying for an annulment.

In order to find inner peace, he finally settled for living as a Catholic but not being able to receive the Eucharist. He commented on his situation:

Sometimes as I kneel during Communion and watch the people file forward to receive the Bread of Life, frustration wells and I think: Who among them is without sin? Why should they freely partake and not I? Then I remember the words I have recited only moments earlier: 'Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.' Yes, I am unworthy and for now the healing remains a mystery.

Finally, a friend asked James why he did not submit a formal petition for an annulment. James thought about the possibility and prayed to know what to do. His decision deserves some reflection. He said:

When Pope John Paul II assumed his pontificate he expressed dismay at the ease with which American Catholics had been obtaining annulments; rightly he denounced a practice that had become a scandal. I have no desire to win one of these painless annulments. If John Paul is to accomplish his appointed task--to bolster the faltering fortunes of Catholicism--then the toying with rules and the accommodating of individual wishes must surrender to the larger good of restoring the authority and moral witness of the Church.

He also could not forget all the joys, sufferings, reconciliations and memories of his first marriage with Carol. They were both hurt so much by the divorce that he could not add to Carol's pain.

From Fleeing the Whore of Babylon by James J. Thompson,Jr.





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