By JOEY REISTROFFER
GREENVILLE — Gerry Matatics found his calling early in life: saving Catholics. This minister from the Presbyterian Church in America thought Catholics were pursuing a faulty faith, and he was determined to tell them their ways needed changing.
“You should be evangelizing people you think are wrong,” he said. The more he studied the Bible, however, the more he learned that Catholics had it exactly right. So on Easter in 1986, this staunch Presbyterian minister became a Catholic, and his calling changed.
He still wanted to evangelize people he thought were following the wrong path of Christianity. Only now, he wanted to bring those straying flocks into the Catholic fold. He has dedicated his life to defending that belief ever since.
Last month, Matatics came deep into Baptist country to give one lesson on faith at Furman University. The site was Townes Auditorium in Plyler Hall, and it was packed — standing-room only. Folks were even sitting in the aisles to hear what he had to say.
Matatics felt comfortable at Furman. The huge crowd did not intimidate him. In fact, it inspired him. Matatics has been a professor at several universities, including Westminster Theological Seminary, St. Joseph’s University and the Notre Dame Pontifical Catechetical Institute. Most recently, he has been a professor of Sacred Scripture and Apologetics at Our Lady of Guadalupe International Seminary of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter in Scranton, Pa.
So this was his crowd. People were packed in, yearning to learn a little more about their faith.
One adventurous soul even invited students and professors from Bob Jones University just down the road to sit in on the session.
Matatics did not mind. He enjoyed the give and take. In fact, his question and answer session went deep into the wee hours of the next morning. He did not want to leave anybody hanging on a shaky belief or faith.
One man struggling with his faith was a Protestant minister who was beginning to embrace Catholicism. “I don’t want to be the shepherd who scattered the flock,” the minister told Matatics.
Matatics put him at ease. “I believe that we should love people,” he said. “If we love people, we need to share the truth with them. If you no longer believe that the Eucharist is not just grape juice … then you can’t go on preaching something that is false.”
Matatics told the minister that there have been cases of entire congregations converting, and he urged him to take that path as the shepherd of his flock.
If the flock refuses to follow, Matatics urged the minister to pick up his cross and continue searching for the fullness of faith. “Let the dead bury the dead and follow me,” Matatics quoted Scripture. “You’ve got to make that step. I urge you to keep on climbing that hill toward the light.”
It was a critical moment, Matatics knew, because he had taken that same long, hard journey from Protestant to Catholic, and he had the support of his good friend Scott Hahn, the Catholic apologist who now teaches at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. “We used to have marathon sessions talking about the Bible,” Matatics said of Hahn.
Matatics described his struggle. He said he grew up in a loving family that did not practice the Christian faith. The first time he truly encountered Christianity, he was a freshman in high school. Then a television preacher on a pre-empted program shook up his world.
“The birth of Jesus Christ is the single most important event on the face of this planet,” the preacher said. “In finding Christ, you find everlasting life,” the preacher said.
“I realized I did not have Christ; therefore, I did not have God,” Matatics said.
That is when he developed a hunger for Christianity, Matatics told the Furman crowd. On his birthday, all he wanted to do was get a Bible and go up to his room and read it. Then he began to read other Bibles, 26 versions in all.
“I began to read in depth the original Protestant reformers,” Matatics said.
“Even at the very beginning of the Protestant reform, there were heated debates. They couldn’t agree on what Christianity was. But they all agreed on what it was not — Roman Catholics.”
More study and Scripture reading finally brought Matatics to the truth. He discovered that Martin Luther and John Calvin had erred.
Eternal life cannot be reached by faith alone, as Luther preached. It takes faith and works as well as the grace of God, Matatics said.
He also discovered that the Protestant reformers had erred on the Bible and its tradition. Catholics believe in interpreting the Bible on written and oral tradition. Protestants only take to faith the written word. Matatics said that leaves a huge gap in what had been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation.
“The word of God is oral, not just written. … The Bible teaches that sacred Scripture and sacred tradition must be held fast to,” Matatics said.
After much excruciating study, Matatics said he concluded that: “To be a Bible-teaching Christian, I had to become a Catholic.” Then he said: “I don’t think a Protestant can read the early leaders of the church and not be deeply troubled.”
Matatics said Protestants are good people, but they only have half the faith. Catholics have the fullness of Christ, he said. Then he urged everybody to read the Bible and “get to know your faith.”
During the question-and-answer session, one member in the crowd questioned the role of the Virgin Mary.
Matatics showed an incredible parallel between phrases used to describe Mary in the New Testament and those same phrases used to describe the arch of the covenant in the Old Testament. He concluded that Mary truly is “full of grace.”
Many nodded in agreement.
It was an incredible moment, and it showed that when Catholics read the Bible and truly study their faith, they too can defend it with confidence, knowing that Scripture never will let them down.
Matatics gave no test at the end of his lesson. He just hoped to open some eyes and shed a little light. The test will come on Judgment Day.