TUCSON, Ariz. — The phrase “Swimming the Tiber” has been used to describe Protestants coming into the Catholic Church. But a group of Pentecostals in Arizona are coming “home to Rome” through Constantinople, leaving their Assembly of God church for the Byzantine Catholic Church.
Joshua Mangels, a pastor at a Tucson Assembly of God church, felt in his heart a growing desire to join the Catholic Church, which culminated with his resignation of his position at the church in September and entering the catechumenate a month later at a local Byzantine Catholic parish. Along with him and his family came several in his flock, all taking the plunge together into the Church.
Mangels’ first experience with Catholicism was as a teenager in South Seattle. He was in a crisis of faith at the time, he said, “running with the neighborhood kids,” and while playing basketball, an elderly Catholic woman named Karen asked him to help her with a Bible study she was running at the community center.
“It renewed my faith in God, and instead of running in the neighborhood, I went back to church and felt the call to reach souls and evangelize,” Mangels recalled.
He entered ministry, eventually taking a position in Tucson as a pastor at an Assembly of God church. Although he loved ministry, he said, he began to get “frustrated with the changing winds of doctrine and the fads and pressures of church marketing.”
On his way home from a conference of pastors that left him feeling disappointed, he began listening to a Catholic apostolate a friend had pointed out to him. The preaching was on mortal sins, Mangels said, and although he didn’t know the speaker was Catholic, he was impressed.
“It was like a drink of fresh water,” he said, as he listened to the teaching of the Church Fathers and Church history that he had never before encountered.
“I listened to this for two and a half hours as I drove home, and when I got back, my wife asked me how the conference was, and I said, ‘It was terrible, but you have to listen to this.’”
Conversion of the Heart and Mind
That began their journey of looking into the Catholic Church. Mangels began looking into other Assembly of God pastors who had entered the Church and explored early Christian teaching. He ordered a set of the writings of the Church Fathers, too.
“When I read the Church Fathers, that’s when the sacraments began to open up to me, and I began to see how central the Eucharist was to the early Church,” he said. He realized that “if the Eucharist was commanded by Christ, I want to receive the Lord.”
He and his wife, Teresa, would stay up for hours in the evening, reading about Catholicism and talking about what they had learned.
“Early on, my wife and I would make these handshake agreements not to read any more Catholic literature or watch any more apostolate preaching, as the loss of my job and housing was imminent if we continued,” Mangels recalled. “Once we even put all our books in the back of the garage and agreed ‘no Catholic talk’ for two weeks.
“But we ended up staying up night after night discussing the Fathers, sacraments, the early Church and everything else.”
In July, he began teaching his congregation on Wednesday nights about the early Church, going over St. Polycarp, St. Justin Martyr, the Didache and other parts of early Christianity. For several young adults in the congregation, these lessons catalyzed their own discernment of joining the Catholic Church.
Rebecca McCloskey, a former member at Mangels’ Assembly of God congregation, told the Register that she had earlier begun investigating Catholicism and that the Wednesday night classes furthered this desire in her heart. She remembered her surprise in listening to him preach and how much it lined up with what she was learning about the Catholic faith.
“I was thinking,” she said, “Doesn’t my pastor know what he’s teaching?”
Lisa Gray, another member of the congregation, who was pursuing becoming a credentialed pastor herself, remembers how, after Mangels mentioned there were 40,000 Protestant denominations, she thought, “If there’s 40,000 denominations, are we part of the problem or part of the solution?”
“I loved pastoring; I loved preaching. I was preaching camp meetings and revivals: I was having the time of my life, but I was Catholic in my heart,” Mangels said. And the pressure began to build to make a life-changing decision.
In September, he told his congregation that he would be resigning as pastor and entering the catechumenate of the Catholic Church with his family.
Looking to the East
While the Mangels family had decided to become Catholic, they had not decided where to start. The organizer of a pro-life rally they went to suggested they speak to Father Bob Rankin, the pastor of St. Melany’s Byzantine Catholic Church.
They met for breakfast, Father Rankin said.
“He was trying to wrap his mind around becoming Catholic, and the first priest he meets doesn’t belong to the Roman rite,” the priest told the Register. “I used sugar packets on the table to explain dogmatic theology and ecclesiology.”
Father Rankin explained that, despite the superficial differences between a Pentecostal style of worship and Divine Liturgy, “they came to the right church for the type of spirituality they had.”
“They come from that Pentecostal background, so they have that experience of conversion and giving their lives to Christ. They wanted a liturgy that was demonstrative, and in the Eastern liturgy, it’s zesty, adorational: You’re meant to experience God; you’re meant to break into tears.”
McCloskey agreed, saying that Divine Liturgy “feels like heaven on earth.”
Teresa Mangels also had a similar experience. She told the Register that she is overwhelmed that Christ “would give us his real Body and Blood — every liturgy I’m in tears, and these little children will come up and ask me if I’m okay. I’m just so happy.”
Father Rankin said that his new catechumens bring an admirable zeal to his church. While he does get fired up during the homily, he wasn’t used to hearing his parishioners say “Amen” during his preaching. He also appreciates how devoted the catechumens are to stewardship.
“The first thing they kept asking is: ‘When do we get our envelopes?’” Father Rankin said. “I’ve had people here 20 years who haven’t asked that.”
Easter Triumph, Easter Joy
Bishop Gerald Dino, emeritus bishop of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Phoenix, told the Register that he was “thrilled to be given the honor” of receiving the catechumens into the Church at St. Melany, and in that way “fulfill the word of Jesus to make disciples of all nations.”
The Mangelses and the other members of their former congregation are looking forward to their new experience of Easter joy. McCloskey said that in comparison to previous celebrations of Easter, “We’ll really be reliving the Crucifixion and Resurrection. It’ll be completely different from anything I’ve experienced before.”
“I cannot express my anticipation of receiving the Eucharist,” Josh said. “I am looking forward to the Pascha season and a season of rejoicing, as Lent has been especially solemn.”
Teresa said this Easter will be one they will “never forget.”
“This will be one of the best years of our lives, because of all the things [Jesus has] brought us through up to this point,” she said.
“Now, we’re really entering into his passion, and it’s just beautiful and amazing: I’ve waited my whole life to partake of the Lord’s Body, which I didn’t even know.”
Register correspondent Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Rochester, New York.