Reinvigorating Devotion

“What Do the Saints Have that I’m Still Searching for?” The Testimony of Gary Thomas

Love for the Eucharist is something that cannot be taught. To truly believe in Jesus’ power as the Bread of Life, we need more than a class or a book. We need the gift of faith, oftentimes bolstered by experience. No book can teach us the depth of meaning hidden in this intimate access to the Lord of the Universe. However, through the movement of the Spirit, the words and lives of saints who loved the Eucharist can ignite in us a desire to discover in our own lives what they found. “What is it that these great saints, everyday Catholics with courageous love, had that I’m still searching for?” This was the question that prompted Assembly of God pastor and Evangelical artist Gary Thomas to investigate the Catholic Church and its Eucharistic practice.

Enlivened by Art

Gary Thomas had been baptized as a Christian when he was in middle school, gravitating toward the Evangelical tradition and hoping one day to become a pastor. His home, academically and spiritually, was always enlivened by the visual arts. He learned to draw, paint, make prints and woodcuts, all of which he still enjoys today. It was through these art mediums and his eye for the visually pleasing that he eventually came to appreciate the timeless beauty of Catholic art.

charcoal drawing

In his own words, Catholic art struck him as “mystical.” By this he meant that Catholic art existed for the sake of Christ, to draw us to him in rich beauty that is part of a living tradition rooted in salvation history. It was art, finally, that drew him from observation to study and led him eventually to dive into the writings of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and other mystical writers.

“I remember reading Merton and Nouwen’s works and thinking, ‘These guys get me!’” Gary had been surprised to find in these authors companions who seemed to understand him. He later learned that both Merton and Nouwen resonate with many Evangelical Christians.

prodigal son painting

He was particularly moved by the book Return of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen's book-length, personal meditation on Rembrandt's masterpiece The Return of the Prodigal Son. “To have all those elements of art and life come together so beautifully was another step for me in moving toward Catholicism. I felt I wasn’t alone.”

Discovering Catholicism

Gary continued to build his career teaching Christian drawing, printmaking, and art history at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois for 18 years. While he was living his dream as an artist, he felt the tug of his vocational call to ministry growing stronger. So in between teaching classes, Gary took many courses himself and was shocked at just how much Catholic history and tradition was woven into his Masters in Christian Theology program. “All my life I’d been raised to think there was something wrong with Catholics, and I caught myself thinking, ‘How can this be?’”

mosaic of Jesus

His curiosity piqued, Gary continued to investigate the Catholic faith while he was pastoring and serving as a hospital chaplain at St. Mary’s Hospital in Kankakee, Illinois. He met several Catholic priests and befriended a Catholic sister who became his spiritual director. Through them he was introduced to the powerful charism of Ignatian spirituality—most notably, the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.

After his move to Chicago, he focused his studies at Loyola University within the Ignatian spiritual tradition and began to integrate what he was learning into his pastoral role at an Assembly of God ecclesial community. He had been moved so deeply by what he had discovered in Catholic spirituality that he had to share it!

Encountering the Eucharist

All of these experiences led him to embrace the most powerful invitation of all: attending Catholic Mass. Gary attended Mass several times and began to believe in his heart that the bread and wine distributed in Holy Communion were undoubtedly the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ—indeed the whole Christ—given to his children out of love for them. This revelation set his heart on fire that one day he entered the Communion procession and received the Eucharist for the first time.

priest distributing communion

“I know now that since I wasn’t Catholic at the time, I wasn’t supposed to do that, but at that moment I have to say that it was a very moving experience for me. In the Evangelical ecclesial community, you see, Communion has always been an extra thing. To have it be front and center, as the Catechism notes “The celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed toward the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through communion” (CCC no. 1382) was another thing altogether. This reality attracts me still.”

Gary was deeply moved by this meeting with Jesus in the Eucharist, though at the time was hoping for a new pastoral role at a church in Chicago and relocated to the area. As Gary describes this crucial moment in his conversion he remarks with amazement, “just as the door closed on this opportunity, a sign inviting people to investigate OCIA (formerly RCIA—Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, now OCIA—Order of Christian Initiation for Adults) appeared…literally.” Gary’s daily walk took him by a massive banner outside of St. Thomas of Canterbury parish that invited all the passersby to OCIA. During this same time, while at the Catholic Worker house, Gary met someone who connected him to a Franciscan priest, and he received another invitation to join the OCIA program.

After all of these beautiful encounters with a Eucharistic people, the time was right for Gary to begin OCIA in winter of 2022. He will be fully received into the Catholic Church in 2024.

“It’s beautiful how it all fits together. It feels mystical.”

Full Communion

“For us Evangelicals,” Gary reflects, “the Bible is the be-all, end-all, the connection between the Scriptures and the service. In the Mass, Christ is present in the Word, and in the minister, and in the people assembled, but most especially in the Eucharistic species. It’s beautiful how it all fits together. It feels mystical.”

Gary eagerly awaits the day he can receive Jesus in the Eucharist, fully united to the Catholic community and his Lord. “[Abstaining from receiving the Eucharist] has created in me a deeper desire as I move forward,” Gary says, “but I know that next year at the Easter Vigil, when I can receive Jesus in Holy Communion, it will be a very special time.”

As Gary nurtures his Eucharistic faith with support on his journey, let us be reminded to pray for him and all of those soon to receive the Sacraments of Initiation, especially the Eucharist, as well as those who are continuing their journey through the Order of Christian Initiation for Adults.