I grew up Catholic. My parents had me baptised in a Roman Catholic Church when I was a baby. The priest tried to baptise me as “John” because Joel wasn’t Christian enough. I attended a Catholic primary school, where I also served as an altar boy at the church attached to the school. Putting on a robe, carrying a candle, and helping the priest do communion was preferable to sitting through the service. Even back in those days I was easily bored.
By the time I was 15 I was preparing myself to walk away from the Roman Catholic Church. My experience of the church didn’t match with my experience of the world. I began to feel that Jesus was a fictional story and that the church existed as a quaint little throwback that stood in the way of me discovering the truth behind the universe. I started to explore new age beliefs. Until one day, when I was 17, a friend introduced me to the Jesus of the Bible. Not long after this, I welcomed Jesus as my saviour and joined a Protestant church.
I share my story with you because the book I’m reviewing is on a subject that is close to me. The Road Once Travelled by Mark Gilbert (with Cecily Paterson) is written for people within the Roman Catholic Church who are feeling disillusioned. The aim is to address their concerns and point to the real Jesus of the Bible as the answer to their problems. This is the kind of book that is theoretically aimed right at 17-year-old Joel. So in reviewing The Road Once Travelled, both 31-year-old Joel and 17-year-old Joel will weigh in with their views.
Gilbert identifies two main issues for disillusioned Catholics. The first issue is a sense of guilt that comes from the institutional frame-work of confessional booths and penance. Because of this system, there is no assurance that sin is ever dealt with. The second issue is disappointment with the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. Because of abuses in the church, there is a lack of confidence in the leadership. This manifests in a frustration that the system holds the Bible back from people. Gilbert points people to the death and resurrection of Jesus as the answer to guilt and personal Bible reading as the way to overcome barriers and discover this Jesus.
This book is written with a lot of love and patience. Rather than attacking the Roman Catholic reader, Gilbert takes the reader by the hand and walks with them. The reader is “reintroduced” to Jesus, pointing to Biblical stories they may already be familiar with and then showing how these stories give us assurance of forgiveness for sins. Most importantly, this assurance doesn’t come from a fallible, human leader. It comes from the reliable, approachable Word of God.
There is a clear presentation of the gospel in this book. However, both 31-year-old Joel and 17-year-old Joel had some problems with this book.
31-year-old Joel is a Christian pastor. And the issue I have is “what next?” The reader of this book has been encouraged to read their Bible. That’s great. But what do they do after that? Because the book finishes here. This is not a book you should give to someone and then walk away. The Road Once Travelled is a book you give to someone as an invitation to join your Bible study group. Then followed up by an invitation to visit your Bible believing and preaching church. Thoughtful consideration should be given to who you give this book to and how you use this book. It’s not a book that stands self-sufficient.
Similarly, this book needs to be properly introduced to the person you’re giving it to. There is nothing on the book cover or in the introduction that suggests that this book is written by someone who has walked away from the Roman Catholic Church. This fact is only revealed as an aside on page 31. There is a danger that a Catholic reader may feel lied to or deceived if this is not made clear.
The problems that my perceived 17-year-old self had with this book are of a different nature. The problems that I experienced as a young Catholic were not addressed in this book. I wanted to know if God actually existed. I wanted to know how the church could enable me to understand the nature of reality. I felt that the church got in the way of this pursuit. Therefore this book would have missed the mark with me. I would not have engaged with this book.
I don’t bring this up because I think I represented the average Catholic youth. I really doubt I do. I bring this up because I’m beginning to think that we, as Protestant observers have made some assumptions about our Roman Catholic friends that over-simplify who they are. Not all Catholics are the same. Not all Catholics experience the church in the same way. Not all Catholics are struggling with the same issues. There is a danger with this book that Roman Catholic people are all bundled into the same small box, regardless of if they fit into it. We think we know how to talk to them, which buttons to push to get an evangelistic in-road. And we preach to this hypothetical Catholic instead of actually listening to people and getting to know them. This is especially true of younger Catholics. 15 years ago, I feel like my Catholic friends would not have responded to this book. When I spoke to my 25-year-old brother, who is a practicing Catholic, about this book, he did not find these issues relevant to his experience. There are also Catholics from all kinds of cultural backgrounds where their faith is closely tied to their national identity. Challenging their faith also challenges who they are as a person and as a member of a cultural family. It’s time to stop reading books about reaching Catholics and actually talk to some Catholics and find out what they’re really struggling with. And then reach them with the gospel.
Would I recommend The Road Once Travelled to anyone? Yes, I would. I think this book would be helpful for Catholics from an Anglo background, especially if they’re a bit older. Someone raising their own family. Someone who grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, but has stopped regularly attending or is only Catholic when it comes time to fill in the census. Someone you are in a relationship with and you want to use this book as part of your ongoing efforts to reach them with the truth of God’s Word. Because this book is not a blanket work for all Catholics. Prayerfully consider who you will give this book to. And follow them up! And most of all, encourage them to follow Gilbert’s lead and discover the real Jesus through the reading of the Bible.
Available from Matthias Media